veemignon: (alicewonderland)
[personal profile] veemignon
The word "perception" came from Latin, originally meaning, "receiving, collection." A collection of senses make up our memories. Sight is usually the strongest, but smell and hearing and sometimes even tactile experiences are lodged in our memories. They play out when one is walking down a street, passing a hot-dog vendor while a childhood memory about grilling flits by one's mind. Or one sees the waves rolling in at the beach and an image is sparked in the mind, that of running across the beach with parents. But these memories are perceived solely through our senses. Filtered through our visions.

Perhaps you never went to the beach with your parents as a small child, but somehow, that image is lodged into your head. Who's to say that you're telling a lie? If what you perceive is the truth, than everything you've ever lived is a lie, because no one else can perceive the truth as you have.

This is what Umberto Eco's Baudolino focuses on. Baudolino is seen as a liar. He was adopted by an emperor, trained in Paris, and created a city simply with words. Niketas doesn't believe him. What Niketas writes down is perceived as history. But history isn't through one pair of eyes, it's through a collection of memories. And I think, by becoming the storyteller that he is, Baudolino has become a collection of people rather than himself. His body houses history; whether it's true or not is up to the reader.

Baudolino is episodic in its telling. Our storyteller recounts one adventure, then another, and then another. As a race, we humans tend to think of our lives as being episodes, as big productions: my first love, my first loss, when I was sad, when I was happy, when I lost my courage. Frederick adopts Baudolino from his father. Frederick marries a young woman named Beatrice and Baudolino falls in love with her. Baudolino decides to study in France as it distracts him from feeling guilty about loving his father's wife. This book is structured as a storyteller would recount these events, all while having another storyteller (one that is revered by his society and thus, appointed to "history" writer) write that down with a perpetual questioning look.

In the beginning of the book, Baudolino states, "You see, Master Niketas, I know that you are a writer of stories, just as Bishop Otto of Freising was. But when I knew Bishop Otto, I was only a small boy and I had no story, I wanted to know only the stories of others. Now I might have a story of my own, though I've lost everything I had written down about my past and, what's more, when I try to recall it, my thoughts become all confused. It's not that I don't remember the facts, but I'm not able to give them a meaning." I wouldn't say that Baudolino is a liar, otherwise we are all liars for perceiving reality as we have. He is more a storyteller. Earlier in the story, Niketas notices that Baudolino is pulling people out of a house. I am reminded of a short story by Angela Carter, in which she omits a person from a fictionalized retelling of Lizzie Borden's story. They both intentionally take people out of that story to fit in with their accounts.

Baudolino grows close to Fredrick's father, and his adoptive father eventually gives him these words: " . . . you must also lie and invent tales, otherwise your History would become monotonous. But you must act with restraint. The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things." I believe that it's in us to become storytellers. In truth, there is no individualism in nature. We are nothing compared to the grand scheme of nature, and it's seen constantly in Baudolino that every town he visits is destroyed in some fashion. Nature is always following him, creeping closer and closer until it takes his body. As humans, we want to feel that we are individuals, and so a flair for the dramatic arises when we recount our past experiences. As if we want the whole world to understand what we've experienced.

In France, Baudolino makes friends with other students, including The Poet, who never wrote a poem, and Abdul, a man of Hibernian blood who introduces their group to the "green honey." It's quite obvious that the green honey is some sort of drug, it provides Baudolino's group with visions that they believe are real. Abdul, on one of these visions in his past, saw a princess who has become his dream girl. He is not sure if she exists, but he insists that he will find her. Much like Baudolino's Beatrice, she is most likely an embodiment of Kali, in that she will provide Abdul with life, but also death. It is his life's journey to find her, but the only time that he will find her is in death. And with Baudolino, if he tries to have Beatrice instantly, this is a death for him as he will be cut off from his father figure. But while searching for other ways to distract his mind, he's actually living a full life.

The point of having the green honey is that if Baudolino and his friends take this drug and see visions, how could you say that they're lying? If they truly saw what they saw, even while on drugs, how could one say that they didn't see it? And, I will say quite skillfully, Eco has tied this into a religious setting, in which stories from The Bible are called into question. Why do we take The Bible's words for truth when these people didn't understand what they were seeing, they might have been hallucinating, they might not have known anything about the land surrounding them; The Bible is merely a book of collected perceptions. Granted, these stories have great mythological depth, like ancient Greek myths, but why take this for truth if one is to say that other people who have hallucinations are not "really" seeing things as they are?

Baudolino's love for Beatrice harkens back to another storyteller. I thought of Dante Allighieri while reading this, a man who was know for his tricky ways. Dante's dream woman was Beatrice, who would greet him at Paradise and lead him to a great understanding of the world. While I've come to appreciate Baudolino's character, I understand that what Eco is presenting is an archetype. This is the trickster archetype, and he does this by presenting familiar names such as Beatrice. In fact, Dante's trip through hell and paradise is very episodic. And are we not all trying to make epic poems out of our lives? On the cyclical nature of myths, Boron argues, "If there were so many worlds there would have been so many first humans, so many Adams and so many Eves, who would have committed original sin infinite times. And therefore there would be so many Earthly Paradises from which they were driven. Can you think that something sublime, like the Earthly Paradise, could exist in so many copies, as there exist so many cities with a river and a hill like that of Saint Genevieve?" But these stories have existed in multiple copies, as they harken to a universal truth about the human experience.

The focus, in this story, is perception. A collection of stories and people, a collection of feelings and scents, that suffuse our universe and create the world that we know.


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February 2013

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