Dissecting the Lower Sensorium: Understanding Smell, Taste, and Touch in Renaissance Literature (NEMLA March 15-18, 2012)
Dissecting the Lower Sensorium: Understanding Smell, Taste, and Touch in Renaissance Literature
This NeMLA seminar (March 15-18, 2012 in Rochester, NY) will examine Renaissance drama and poetry via the history of the lower sensorium—the senses of smell, taste, and touch. Though the lower senses were often relegated to a secondary position in medical and philosophical texts, they defined every moment of a subject’s daily movements through his or her world. From the taste of the bread and beer that comprised most meals to the overwhelming range of smells that filled every crevice of the early modern city, men and women understood and maneuvered their bodies, encounters, desires, and labor through the three senses comprising the lower sensorium.
As occurred in the Renaissance, these grounding faculties are too often overlooked in contemporary scholarship. Yet, one could argue that no reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear can be considered complete without a thorough conversation about the lower sensorium, as smell (Lear’s stench “of mortality” on his hand), taste (Albany attempts to restore order by claiming, “All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deserving”), and touch (Gloucester learn to “see [the world] feelingly”). Here—as in any number of texts from the period—understanding the influence and language of taste, smell, and touch refocus the text’s meaning.
Participants will explore aspects of knowledge and sensation and consider the various ways they inform Renaissance drama, poetry, and thought. Papers are encouraged to cover a variety of genres from the period, including religious texts, iconography, cookbooks, and courtesy books. Does understanding how Renaissance subjects experienced the lower sensorium push us to read canonical texts differently? Areas of investigation could include the influence of fashionable aesthetic movements; variations in perception; a range of moral, bodily, and geographic cartographies; cultural issues integral to the arts of gesture; the influence of smell and touch on memory and emotion; and the influence of these senses on literature and thought generally.
Participants will pre-circulate works focused on better understanding how various works of poetry, drama, altered mythologies, and medical texts gave meaning to (and often redefined) bodily senses foundational to the subject’s experience of his or her world.