15 Apr 2018


More than halfway through Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s lengthy masterpiece In the Eye of the Sun, the protagonist Asya is suffering from unslaked lust for the best friend of her absent husband, Saif. Trying to quell her desire by curling up with a hot-water bottle and a copy of Anna Karenina, Asya recalls an aunt’s bereavement when her husband had died of cancer some seven years earlier. Asya’s father, the aunt’s elder brother, had instructed his daughter to sit with her aunt and ensure she was in unceasing physical contact with the hysterical woman. Suppressing the temptation to steal away for a tryst with Saif — then merely her boyfriend — Asya did as she was told, rubbing, stroking and patting her aunt’s body as the latter sobbed and keened with grief.

Her father later explains that this human touch had been important, since “it was only through touch that we really knew things ... it was only by other people’s touching us that we knew we were here at all.” If this idea of knowing things through touch seems oxymoronic, that is probably because of a longstanding and widespread belief that touch is anti-intellectual and therefore inferior to sight. Yet both the novels I examine here — Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun and Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album — invest heavily in the notion that tactility is connected to knowledge, and that others’ touch facilitates a better understanding of ontology.

Even within the single category of the haptic, there are several kinds of touch. Soueif helps readers understand this through a list that Asya draws up in an attempt to improve the quality of her life. Her primary two headings are “Work” (a brief section focused on finishing the thesis she is struggling to write) and “Love.” For the latter, she thinks of various subdivisions: “Family”, “Friends”, “Children” and “Married love” (she crosses this out on the grounds that it is too “coy”), “Sex” (again she rejects this as “that’s ... not only it”, eventually settling on) “Romance.”

This last category of married love, sex or romance is the most obvious arena where touching is expected. The fact that Asya has been “repulsed, turned away so many times” by Saif is at the root of their marital problems. There was passion at the start of their relationship, in 1967 when Asya was 17. Her young age makes her parents hold out for a long engagement while she completes her education. Circumventing the elders’ curfews and close eye on her chastity, Asya manages to spend largely blissful Sunday afternoons with Saif at his family home. They listen to Bob Dylan together in Saif’s room, and Asya experiences his caresses as “starbursts.” This moment of synaesthesia — where touch is experienced optically as radiating light — is an example of what Mark M. Smith in his book Sensory History criticises as a “visualist idiom” that dominates much thinking about the senses.

The Westernised Saif seems to subscribe to a post-Enlightenment, colonial order of the senses in which sight is at the top and touch — a proximity sense — is low down, if not at the nadir. His rationalism pervades the couple’s daily life together, typified by Saif’s refusal to dance or go waterskiing with Asya. His preference is to act as a detached and ironical observer. He likewise encourages Asya to exercise restraint in her speech and gestures, internalising her emotions rather than expressing them too intemperately. She works hard to live up to Saif’s feminine ideal, dressing in the beige tones that he likes and attempting to curb her storytelling instincts by summing things up “in a nutshell.” Small wonder that, like the 19th century Russian novels Asya admires, this novel culminates in Asya’s adultery. Despite violent repercussions, through her extramarital affair in Britain Asya gains entry to a new realm of somatic knowledge.

Kureishi’s The Black Album similarly revolves around an adulterous relationship between protagonist Shahid and his lecturer Deedee. Early on in the novel, Shahid goes to a rave nightclub in Brighton. One of its most appealing aspects is that under the influence of drugs and euphoric music, revellers lose all inhibitions around touch, so that “[t]hey hugged and kissed and stroked one another with an Elysian innocence.” It is here that Shahid learns of Deedee as an inspiring teacher. Back in London he goes to her under-resourced multicultural university and secures a place on her cultural studies course. Deedee accords pop culture icons such as Madonna and the leather jacket equal status to literary classics. Soon they go to a rave together and once again the young people lie almost motionless, apart from some aimless fondling, “as if they’d been massacred.” High on ecstasy, Shahid falls into the pile of bodies and is soon kissing a random girl. Deedee is unhappily married to a fellow academic and she reacts with jealousy. She and her much younger student ignite an intense relationship based on shared tastes in literature, music and fashion.

Deedee, like Asya’s lover, opens Shahid up to a new and dangerous kind of adulterous knowledge that teaches him more than the unorthodox book-learning of his university course. While this point is important, it should not be overstated. The limitations of a sensual worldview are indicated as, for example, through the use of the indiscriminate verb “massacred” to describe the ravers. Conversely, the rationalist, largely visual practice of reading is often celebrated. As we have seen, Asya interprets Anna Karenina as a cautionary tale about adultery when trying to suppress her desire. Similarly, Shahid ardently believes that literature — including Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus — has the power to educate about “the profoundest dilemmas of living.”

Touch is the most amorphous and intricate of the five senses. Whereas the eyes, ears, nose and mouth are in specific places, the skin covers the whole body. This makes touch hard to differentiate from other sensory perceptions, perhaps one reason why it is often overlooked in literary studies. Yet the haptic impacts every aspect of life — not least the tactile experience of touching a book and turning its pages. Rather than subscribing to the idea of a sensory hierarchy, both Soueif and Kureishi show that the senses are interlinked and messily overspill any boundaries that are constructed to separate them.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 15th, 2018