I just realized that I had a couple of drafts that I did not finish earlier this year. This is from April:
As I was sitting in Heathrow airport, I looked up to see all of the people in front of me focused intently, and some with mouths agape, in a common direction to my left. I glanced over to be struck by the image of a six foot tall rabbit, with a bright yellow costume and little green hat, skipping and shuffling his way past us down the terminal. This could have been an instance of extreme laughter except I didn’t keep looking at the rabbit; instead looked at the others around me. It was interesting that, although a few people returned to their previous actions after the rabbit had gone twenty more feet, most kept staring until the rabbit was completely out of sight.
I found this intense visual stimulus intriguing for a couple of reasons: One, I was speaking with Keith Allen in York last Friday and we were talking a lot about perception in relation to a kind of visual culture in Shakespeare’s works. Two, I found my own and others’ reaction to this sight as interesting insight and, three, I had two other similarly unusual sensual experiences while in the Europe this past week.
In the terminal where I was sitting there appeared to be and sounded like people of many cultures and languages present yet when the rabbit appeared everyone was quiet. The rabbit itself was not making noise besides its feet shuffling on the floor but silence reigned anyway. It appeared that the sheer impact of the sight caught all of the other senses off-guard and so became ethereal, characterized by the preference of one sense over the others. The sight of this Easter bunny also appeared to transcended language barriers and differences in culture as it became a subject of the visual experience, rather than an object beheld by it, by everyone present. Afterwards, I reflected upon the fact that I had lost awareness of the food I was eating by not actively smelling it during the rabbit’s appearance.
Interestingly enough, I had a very similar experience at restaurants called Wagamama, in London, and La Jacobean, in Paris. At both restaurants I had truly amazing food; food so unusually good that it required all of my attention. The food in question was coconut ice-cream with passion fruit glaze and then handmade ravioli, respectively. Each time my eyes closed as I focused intently on the taste of the food. But even as I did so, I became aware of so much more than taste, including its texture, ingredients, and the smallest differences in consistency. And this sensation was repeated with each bite! The process in which I had devoted all of my sensory apparatuses was very much like the experience with the Easter bunny: one sense overwhelms and dominates all of the others.
I feel like this experience is both normal and abnormal in day-to-day life which is why it might get overlooked. But what exactly is it about being an “ethereal” experience that consumes all other senses?
I would like to map this analogy onto the aesthetic quality of literature, like Shakespeare’s works. Personally, I know that my copy of the Riverside Shakespeare draws me a lot times to Shakespeare. Its value to me as an object adds to its value to me as a copy of Shakespeare’s works. However, its aesthetic features, such as marginalia, notes specific to the edition, or even the composition of its pages do not dominate my mind while reading. Much to the contrary, it is the text I am reading that consumes my attention while all other aspects are merely in the background. When I looked at the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works at UW-Madison, I was focused on all of the gilt and glamor of the edition but I feel like it would read the same as any other copy. In this, the value of an object is not contributing to its captivating qualities.
The social value of a text is similar in its scope. For example, my captivated reading of Shakespeare is not reciprocated by my family although mirrored by many others. At the same time, I am not interested in what they are raptly reading either despite it being on the NY Time’s best-seller list. Yet above all of this, there are common books that we all like to read. How should we understand the forces at work that transcend language, cultural and sensory barriers when closely related people cannot share this experience with the same literature? Is a work of literature unique then, like the aforementioned Easter bunny, or is it merely a facet of a larger literary rabbit?
To this end, Alexander Pope wrote that “to judge therefore of Shakefpear by Ariftotle’s rules, is like trying a man by the Laws of one Country, who acted under thofe of another” (Pope vi).  Pope argues against evaluating the structure of Shakespeare’s works by an Aristotelian rule so that we do not judge the aesthetic quality of Shakespeare’s works incorrectly. Pope views Shakespeare’s works as requiring a different understanding than say, Fletcher or Marston’s works. This would imply an individualist approach to the “ethereal” experience in literature but then conflicts with the apparent universality present in non-literary examples.
If the physical object of the text is not a factor and commonalities in taste differ drastically, can the “ethereal” experience of reading be analyzed universally?
1. Pope, Mr. Alexander. The Works of Shakespear in Six Volumes: Collated and Corrected by the Former Editions. London: printed for Jacob Tonson in the Strand, 1725.