Book of Senses: Building Blocks of Sensory Reading of Persian Literature

To date, sensory studies have been dominated by anthropological discourses and to a lesser degree, historiographical ones. In the past few decades other disciplines in the humanities have attempted to carve out a space to function within the realm of sensory studies, especially with regards to structuring a sensory approach to non-material artistic production. However, the necessary building blocks remain incomplete. This problematic is demonstrated very clearly in literary studies. One of the main reasons for this lacuna is that there are too few case studies from which multilayered answers could potentially emerge in order to address the fundamental question of ‘how the five traditional senses are represented in the works of fiction, poetry, and theatre’. This issue is further complicated when theoretical notions such as reader response, literary realities, and more importantly, the characteristics of specific literary traditions are taken into account. With all of this in mind, the papers in this panel use examples from both classical and modern(ist) Persian literature in order to begin contributing to the emergence of these answers, i.e., building blocks, and to the formation of new directional studies relating to sensory readings of Persian literature. The first paper defines main theoretical concepts of sensory readings and provides an example of their application through a close reading of Parviz Dava’i’s short stories. The second presentation will continue this approach by examining the activation process of various senses in Nezami Ganjavi’s love stories in his romantic epics and how this process leads to a variety of “the senses of love”. The third paper explores the works of a number of war (1980-1988 Iran-Iraq) poets and demonstrates the altercations between sensory perceptions and ideological ones. The last paper, relying on the same thematic approach, uses the concept of “Poetics of Synesthesia” to analyze the interactions of visual (classical) poetry and its various graphical layouts, and their contribution to the creation of alternative meanings in Persian poetry. Within the context of the above-mentioned general goal, the emphasis of all of these papers will also be placed on defining the ways in which dominant discourses have attempted to identify different entities—individuals, social classes, environments, and so on—with particular iterations of various senses. They will also demonstrate how challenging these imposed identities could introduce new sites of resistance, and consequently new models for literature appreciation based on sensory readings.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Mehdi Kkhorrami
New York University


Michael Beard
University of North Dakota


Room 33
Thu, 2016-08-04 08:45 - 10:15


by Mehdi Khorrami / New York University

Conducting research on the topic of sensory readings in literature, especially Persian literature, and verbalizing the results of such projects is a fairly new phenomenon. This means that we do not possess a set of collectively concurred assumptions about the context of such projects and at this early stage, therefore, there is a need to develop models through which such readings could be constructed. The model discussed in this presentation is informed by an ensemble of theoretical concepts such as “landscape”, “touchscape”, “smellscape”, “soundscape” and “tastescape”, developed by anthropologists of sensory studies. The model is further defined by the application of these concepts in a close reading and examination of a few short stories by Parviz Davai. I argue that in order to relate to these stories one should rely on sensory perceptions, and one should consider the invoked senses in the stories as their main protagonists. This presentation demonstrates how these protagonists succeed, with surprising facility, to accomplish the traditional literary tasks such as defining characters, creating a narrative and moving it forward, developing gradually climatic points, achieving a plausible dénouement, and so forth. From a theoretical point of view this model rejects “the imaginary divide between thinking and feeling” and leans on David Howes’ famous statement that “[such] a focus on perceptual life is not a matter of losing our mind but of coming to our senses”.

by Asghar Seyed-Ghorab / Leiden University

Persian romantic poets employ various strategies to depict the sharpening of the senses when they fall in love. In this paper, I will concentrate on the lovers in Nezami Ganjavi's (d. c. 1209) romances, investigating how the poet deals with sensory organs such as sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. The lovers’ perception of the world usually changes when they fall in love, which has far-reaching consequences for their relationship with the beloved and other protagonists in the story. In the loving context, the poet contrives sensory metaphors, imagery and similes to depict the emotions and perceptions of the lovers.

by Franklin Lewis / University of Chicago

Classical Persian poetry, like Arabic poetry, was practiced in a highly literate environment, in which visual elements of poems on the page could play an important role in the experience of the poem, from graphical techniques demonstrating the poet’s virtuosity, such as regular alternation of dotted with undotted letters (raqtā’) or word (khayfā’), not dissimilar to the effect of Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a novel entirely lacking the letter “e”), or the inscribing, engraving or embossing of verses on palace walls and the calligraphing of album pages, in which a few lines are visually deployed to enhance architectural features, to turn a verse of poetry into a pictogram or material-culture artifact, or to heighten contemplation of the ethical meaning of a particular verse. At the same time, the composition and performance of poetry was held to be as much an oral as a scribal one, with poets expected to declaim at court and to produce impromptu verse, and with singers and musicians expected to perform poems. This paper considers the intersection of graphical layout and elements of what we might call visual poetry, or even concrete poetry, as an element of the creation of meaning in Persian poetry. Likewise, we consider the depiction in painting of poets and poetic acts, and the performance of poetry as a declamatory or musical artform. It also further looks at the question of deliberate synesthesia and bodies of poetry (such as the fifteenth-century corpus of Boshāq Shaykh-e Atʻema and Nezām Qāri Shaykh-e Albesa) that focus on depicting the culinary or textile world in the forms and thematics of poetry. What kind of emotions or intentions inform and dominate the poetics of synesthesia in Persian: Humor? Virtuosity? Didacticism? The Sublime? And are the assumptions revealed in the language of such poetry commensurate with the visual iconography of poetry and poets? What meaning is invested in the visual depiction of poetry and its performance?

by Fatemeh Shams Esmaeili / University of Oxford

To date, Persian war literature and its relationship with the state ideology of warfare have been mostly examined from a historical viewpoint. As opposed to this historical approach, the present article aims to develop a sensory reading of post-revolutionary war poetry, with specific reference to a number of war poems by Simin Behbahini, the prominent contemporary poet (1927 – 2014) . In light of anthropological sensory studies, this paper focuses on the ways in which the poet’s sensual war lexicon gives way to a process by which an ideologically charged war between Iran and its neighboring country Iraq is transformed into a human tragedy rather than the sacred cause described by the official ideology of warfare and its official literary advocates.

Based on the poems in question, the paper argues that the use of sensory dynamics in Behbahani’s work serves to undermine substantial features and messages of the official war ideology and introduces a critical approach to the war, one which is deeply rooted in the human sensory encounter with conflict. In other words, the paper sheds light on the fact that in Behbahani’s work, to be killed, disabled, homeless or even ideologically disenchanted with the political power is to live out a specific kind of sensory existence. By highlighting the sensory blocks hidden in these poems, the paper hopes to provide the ground for creating a fine-grained sensually informed, literary method to study war literature in a way that helps us to map the cultural, social and ideological transformations as they take form over the course of military conflict.