April 8, 2012

Review - The Deepest Sense (Constance Classen)

From the softest caress to the harshest blow, touch lies at the heart of our experience of the world. Now, for the first time, this deepest of senses is the subject of an extensive historical exploration. The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch fleshes out our understanding of the past with explorations of lived experiences of embodiment from the Middle Ages to modernity. This intimate and sensuous approach to history makes it possible to foreground the tactile foundations of Western culture--the ways in which feelings shaped society.
Constance Classen explores a variety of tactile realms including the feel of the medieval city; the tactile appeal of relics; the social histories of pain, pleasure, and affection; the bonds of touch between humans and animals; the strenuous excitement of sports such as wrestling and jousting; and the sensuous attractions of consumer culture. She delves into a range of vital issues, from the uses--and prohibitions--of touch in social interaction to the disciplining of the body by the modern state, from the changing feel of the urban landscape to the technologization of touch in modernity.
Through poignant descriptions of the healing power of a medieval king's hand or the grueling conditions of a nineteenth-century prison, we find that history, far from being a dry and lifeless subject, touches us to the quick.

Review
The human need for tactile experience is as old as humanity. We all long to lay our hands on things, new and old, to literally grasp them - to touch the walls of an old castle or graze the fabric of a dress that caught our attention.
In her book The Deepest Sense Constance Classens introduces the reader to history from a tactile perspective. If there is one complaint I have about this book then how the subtitle "A Cultural History of Touch" might be taking it a bit too far as the actual focus is on the meaning of touch in our Western culture, with an emphasis on the Middle Ages leading up to the Modern Age and its cultural shift towards the superficial sense of vision. Apart from that - what a delightful read!
One expression I rarely use in relation to non fiction is "captivating" which is precisely what this book is. Pulling the reader right into times long gone this is a mesmerizing and many-layered account of what Milton described as the deepest sense. From touching of relics to laying on hands to heal, from stroking a pet to touching a piece of art, the importance of touch is shown in its communal and individual context touching (!) spheres of our lives in which we often don't even consciously fathom the importance of the tactile sense. Quite a different, yet intriguing angle for a history lesson!
In short: Touching history, literally. Highly recommendable!

5/5 stars

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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