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Professor's courses at Lonergan combat an increasingly sterile world

Constance Classen defends the senses

by Alison Ramsey

The thick swaddle of information and technology surrounding us has stupefied our senses, contends cultural historian Constance Classen.

"We've become focused on sight because it is associated with reason and science, which play a dominant role in modern society," Classen said in an interview, "and because the modern media of communication -- television and computers -- emphasize the visual." In two courses she will teach next year, "I try to bring out more on the senses that have been neglected."

finalClassen 1 Classen received her MA in religion at Concordia and her PhD in religion at McGill. She has written books on the senses, including Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures. Her latest publication, The Color of Angels, Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination, is the text for a pair of courses she will give at Lonergan College next term.

"The mystics were very interested in colours," she said, explaining the book title. "Different angels were imagined to have different colours, and these colours had symbolic meanings. There was a symbolism behind sight and colours that we have lost today."

Lonergan College usually places its emphasis on a different thinker every year, such as Galileo or Leonardo da Vinci, but next year, the theme will be the senses. Concordia will host an international conference on the topic in spring 2000.

Classen's courses, called "The Colour of Angels: Spirituality and the Senses, and Painted Feasts and Perfumed Concerts: Art and the Senses," are open to all students interested in the sensory symbolism of Western culture.

"Whatever background students are coming from, the sciences or the arts, this provides them with another context to place what they learn in their other courses. So often, what you learn by your other senses is not brought out," she said.

"There is a lot of reading you can do that makes you aware of these deficiencies. One watches television, or goes to the cinema, and a purely audio-visual world is presented. You don't realize you are being conditioned to accept a world in which you have no taste, no touch and no smell."

Attending the course will make students realize how they can lead fuller sensory lives, Classen said.

She reaches across to Europe for historical viewpoints, and returns to North America for the modern. Perfume concerts and colour-coded meals were an attempt by 20th-century artists to involve the senses, she said.

From antiquity, women were associated with smell, taste and touch. Men were associated with the "supposedly higher, nobler senses" of sight and hearing.

"Women were supposed to spend their time cooking and taking care of children, activities associated with those senses, and men were defined as visionaries and overseers," she said. "This was a powerful social symbolism, which helped to define male and female roles in all kinds of ways."

It was logical, people assumed, for the lower sex to be linked to the supposedly inferior senses.

It's starting to change, Classen said, but even feminists disagree as to how it should. Some say that women should enter the male domain, such as by adopting a direct gaze, while others say that women should try to raise the devalued senses to a level of equal importance.

When speaking of the sensory past, she relates how sanctity really did have an odour -- usually a floral or spicy fragrance, as compared to hell's stench of putrefaction.

"There was an elaborate mythology of odour in pre-modern Europe that linked heaven and hell and earth in this wonderful sacred network of scent. The scents of sin and odour of sanctity wafted up and down and sometimes they would engage in battles, with the scent of an angel fighting the scent of a devil.

"The tree of life is supposed to give off the essence of life, and the essence of life is contained in its fragrance.

"In some ways, the advertising world has taken over from religion in providing us with sensory symbolism. If you ask people today, 'What are your most memorable smells?,' they will think of things like the smell of crayons or bubble-gum."

Classen will consider modern issues such as cyberspace, where she feels that "sight will continue to dominate, followed by hearing, and the other senses become less and less engaged."

She is out to counteract an increasingly sterile sensory world. "In a way, I'm trying to bring out alternatives to combat the tide, and to make people aware it doesn't necessarily have to be this way. There is a wealth of sensory symbolism around the world even today."

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.