Friday, February 2, 2007
[Unpublished, Feb 2, 2007]
You know the sequence in “Fantasia,” that accompanies a symphony with colors, lights, and shapes that “embody” the music? That’s called synesthesia — mixing two senses, so that a violin passage “sounds like” a series of yellow dashes on a black background.
Some people have more of an instinctive capacity for synesthesia than others, and the most common way for it to manifest is to associate colors with letters and numbers. I have this kind of synesthesia. I thought everybody did—I thought it was obvious that A is red, B is blue, C is yellow, and so on. I didn’t really realize that other people don’t have the same associations until I read Rimbaud’s poem, “The Vowels,” in a college French class. The other students thought it was trippy; I thought it was annoying. To deliberately mix up the colors and say that A is black, for example — that’s a pretty cheap basis for a poem.
(It turns out that synesthetes *don’t* agree on most of the colors; the exception is that O is usually white and I is usually black.)
A few years ago I sat down with an interior decorator’s box of paint chips and selected the color closest to the “right” color for each letter of the alphabet. I made a few notes on the back of each sample about the personality of each letter (they don’t just have colors, they have personalities. H, for example, is shy. He doesn’t like to lead words, and tries to hide behind the letter coming after him.)
My daughter-in-law Jocelyn Mathewes used those paint chips to produce a series of cards, one for each letter, depicting the “right” color. On the back of each card there’s a description of the letter’s personality. Here’s the original work as it was first completed:
She is preparing to do a new printing and I said I’d ask here if anyone would like a set. This time she’s printing the cards alone, and a full set of 26 is $90. I imagine these being used like the delightful card deck of photographs, the “House of Cards” (1952) by Charles and Ray Eames — a fun & appealing item to keep in the living room or family room, for guests and family to play and decorate with, rearrange and display. (We’ve had the House of Cards in the living room for a dozen years, and never get tired of them.) If you’re interested in buying a “Synesthesia” card set, drop her a line at email@example.com
A couple of years ago I participated in a study of people with synesthesia. The author, Carol Crane, found that people with synesthesia (most likely to be a female with light-colored eyes—mine are blue) have extremely high language development. She cites the theory of other researchers that “synesthesia is the basis of all language development.” Language is itself a form of synesthesia, because we are linking a sound we make with our mouths to an object in the physical world. And metaphor would be a further development of synesthesia, where two things are held together in the mind and their connection can be sensed. I get that — my linking of A and red, for example, is not that I see the letter A turn red when I read it; it’s that A, a bold, confident letter, is associated with the same characteristics as red—they “click” together, like “you” and “sunshine” do when you sing, “You are my sunshine.”
Crane writes, “If synesthesia is the end point on a contiuum of characteristics shared by all humans, and if the devleopment of langauge is the result of synesthetic processes, and if language is hyper-developed in synesthetes, then are synesthetes the hint of an evolutionary process?” In other words, is a synesthete like me an example of the continuing evolution of the human race? What a hoot!
My son David says that would be neat, because it would make me like the X-Men. I could be called “Synesthor.” :-)