There is no such thing as Jane Eyre, or the Mona Lisa, or Citizen Kane. Or a bottle of Château Lafite or Pinot Grigio.
At least, there is no precise such thing.
What exists is your, my, and everybody else’s perception of all of these – a perception that will be subtly or possibly significantly different every time you experience – or possibly even think of – any of these.
I was set on this path of thought when rereading Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Sand. In this short story, the narrator buys an old book that is forever changing, adding new pages. For anyone familiar with the extraordinary Argentine author, who famously created imaginary books, countries, and libraries galore, the conceit is typical. Reading his essays and short stories, one is never certain where reality ends and dreams and imagination begin.
If this seems arcane, all one has to do is to pause for a moment and to close one’s eyes and recall that it is not the two little spheres in our heads that perceive everything around us, any more than it is our nose and tongue that taste what we eat and drink. These are merely the means of getting the information to the brain where the data will be processed. Even wearing a blindfold, one can still conjure up images with remarkable accuracy. And inmates on a basic prison diet can ‘taste’ dishes they enjoyed years before.
But the accuracy, with or without the use of our physical senses, will never be perfect because the brain is like an AI bot that is entirely reliant on the material on which it has been programmed. So while a whiff of Guerlain Shalimar scent may remind one person of their grandmother in her wheelchair, it will set another thinking of the beautiful young woman to whom they lost their virginity. Someone walking up to an abstract or surrealist painting for the first time will not ‘see’ things in it that an art student has been trained to look for.
As a Thai or Vietnamese market trader might say when offering alternative items, for the two individuals, the perfume and the canvas are ‘same, same but different.’
Your mental picture of Jane Eyre is almost certainly not like mine – and not like the one you would have painted when you first read the book as a teenager, or the one you will see after watching the next movie or TV adaptation. Listening to Mozart’s Requiem while driving a car is not the same as hearing it in a cathedral or a concert hall.
As I reread it now, the last sentence seems banal to me. Maybe that is how it strikes you. But perhaps my choosing to write it will make more sense in the context of the rest of this piece. On the other hand, perhaps it simply won’t work quite as well for you as well as it will for another reader.
Politicians and marketers understand these phenomena perfectly. They use ‘dog whistle’ words and phrases they know will have a particular effect on the people they want to target while passing straight over the heads of almost everyone else. Trump supporters clearly don’t hear the same things in his speeches as the people who fear his return to the White House.
Perhaps most dramatically of all, on October 30, 1938, a young man called Orson Welles broadcast a dramatisation of the War of the Worlds that some highly intelligent listeners thought was live news. Were these terrified people consciously or unconsciously more aware of the conflict clouds that were already gathering over Europe? Of course, this would not logically explain their irrational belief in a Martian invasion, but the fact remains that large numbers of educated Americans reacted very differently to precisely the same piece of work.
Which, perhaps belatedly, brings me back to wine, every bottle of which, arguably, more than almost anything else, exists in unnumerable, subtly or not so subtly, varying forms.
First, of course, there is the baggage it may carry. Why are you drinking Château Machin? Who introduced you to it? Was it a favourite of your father’s? Did he let you decant and then taste it as a child? Or did you discover it in that little bistro in an out-of-the-way corner of Paris you were never able to find again? And was there an annoying American couple at the next table whom you’d completely forgotten until just this moment? Or a piece of jazz music playing in the background, that you can’t quite name.
And then, there’s the here-and-now. Are you aware of how much – or how little – it cost?
Who are you drinking it with? The cousin you haven’t seen for years whose stories of life in Azerbaijan are entirely distracting you from everything on the table? Or a friend who shares your passion for wine but has more money than you – enough to drink far better fare, far more often? Or someone for whom wine of any kind is a novelty? And what’s your mood? How was your day? Have you just had a tax rebate? Or a tax demand?
Wine people are curiously ambivalent about the chimeric nature of the liquid in the bottle. On the one hand, we give it very precise scores and medals; on the other, we talk about the importance of the ‘story’ behind it, of visiting the vineyard and meeting the producer, of the food with which it is partnered and the glass in which it is served. Do none of these factors – and their impact on the person drinking a wine – affect its 89-ness or 94-ness? If only for you. And if they do, what is the real value of that score?
So where does all this get us? Hopefully, to a place where we are all just a little more tolerant of other people’s choice of wine, even when it does not accord with our own. To stop oneself from saying, as one person did on social media this morning, that ‘Pinot Grigio is disgusting’. Or, as others have, that Bourbon barrel-aged wine or cidery natural wine is an aberration. Or that paying $300 for a bottle of wine is insane.
None of us can truly live inside the head of even those to whom we are closest, let alone people we have never met. Instead of bothering about the rightness or wrongness of anything they may like or dislike, perhaps we should pay more attention to how and why our own perceptions, reactions and appreciation of everything we experience can change from day to day and moment to moment. Who knows, at least on occasion, doing so might even help to heighten our own sensations.
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash