Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Synaesthesia In Literature

Synaesthesia is a tricky thing to pin down. While brain imaging techniques have established that synaesthesia is real, and neuroscientists have acknowledged language’s debt to synaesthesia (and in so doing have gone some way towards reducing the music-hall novelty perception of it), little work has been done to acknowledge synaesthesia's position in the literary world. To achieve that we have to rely on the dangerously unreliable: the work of the literary synaesthetes. These include writers who proclaimed themselves to be synaesthetes (some of whom, quite obviously, were not): Nabokov’s autobiographical writing described his family’s synaesthesia* while Rimbaud described synaesthetic experience through his poem Voyelles, although he later admitted to having made up the various responses that he catalogued; and writers who have been proclaimed synaesthetic following close reading of their texts, as has happened with Woolf. While these texts provide a rich resource, we have to remember that we are dealing with fiction writers here which makes them somewhat unreliable as reporters of the precise, as-it-happened truth.

* Nabokov, Vladimir. 1967. Speak, Memory. Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

8 comments:

Paul Lamb said...

I have the condition. I've always known what color any given letter is, for example. And I can see the shapes that musical notes make. It's odd, though, that I can't think of a single instance when I've used this kind of conceptualizing in my writing.

Peter Drobinski said...

Jane, I was interested in what you said in your original article about synaesthesia, where you alluded to a connection between the associations that synaesthetes recognise and the natural use of metaphor in literature. For a synaesthete, Monday is (in my case) blue. It's not 'like' blue, in the way of a simile, it really IS blue, as definite as a metaphor.

I'm wondering, as it's so embedded in the psyche of a synaesthete, whether a synaesthetic writer makes use of it without thinking, bypassing the sort of conscious consideration that Paul (above) referred to?

Paul Lamb said...

Except that Monday is red, of course.

allanmayer said...

I am very interested in this subject as one of the characters in my novel is an aesthete. As I do not experience the world in this way I have tried through a combination of study and imagination to be as authentic as possible. One thing I do wonder is this: do you see your synaesthesia as a blessing, a curse, or as something that has always just been there? Is it distracting or irritating, or a fuller way of experiencing reality?

Paul Lamb said...

Honestly, it's just always been there. I don't see it as a bonus at all. In fact, it was something of a surprise to me to learn that not everyone shares this understanding. I could ask someone what color they think the letter P is (blue, of course) and be startled by their response that it had no color. What was I talking about?

Jane Smith said...

I'm not aware of my synaesthesia colouring my words while I'm writing, although sometimes when I read my fiction back I'll notice something that's an obviously synaesthetic response: I suspect other people think I just write wacky descriptions.

I don't feel that my synaesthesia is a blessing or a curse: it just "is", like sounds or smells.

One thing I noticed, when having my visual disturbances, was that the sparkly floaters I saw (as a result of the problems with the vitreous humour in my eyes) were in a completely different plane to the synaesthetic responses that I get. They were similar, in that I felt I was seeing things that were not before me in a concrete manner: but they were simultaneously far less substantial and more intrusive on my vision.

Interestingly (well, to me, anyway), the doctors I saw about my vision problems felt that I have a significant quirk to the area of my brain that processes both vision and sound. I get tinnitus in response to stress; I see flashing lights now, too, when I'm tense, and they think that both those symptoms are possibly related to migraine; the fact that I link those two senses through my coloured hearing had them running around with joy, talking about me as if I were really odd. Which of course, I'm not.

Kay Sexton said...

I'm a synaesthete and while I'm not particularly aware of it influencing my writing, I did have huge problems as a teenager when my descriptions of things caused people to assume I was on drugs! I was also told off by my English teacher for describing Macbeth as having a toffee-coloured personality (he does, it's clear from his diction, to me at least) and because I 'taste' certain pieces of music, I hated music lessons because discords make me feel sick.

But because it's an entirely solipsistic response, my Mondays are white for example, I think any synaesthete is likely to be blithely unaware of another's synaesthesia if contained in fiction.

Historymaking 101 said...

I'm no synaesthete, but for years I have been using it as a tool to enhance my written description, especially in poetry. I was introduced to the technique as a writing exercise in a workshop. I find it disturbing that my fellow participants and I could be posthumously classed synaesthetes.

Stuart B.