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I picked up a copy of Diane Ackerman’s book, A Natural History of the Senses, the other day; I’m currently mired in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (just now nearing the end of volume 6, The Fugitive) so it will have to wait a bit but a short chapter at the back of the book, Synesthesia, caught my eye and as we have touched on the subject a few times (here & here) I’ve decided to scan the chapter and present it here.

The first section, Fantasia, deals with synesthesia as we have seen it in the above links while the second section, Courting the Muse, includes much interesting information on the habits of writers in rousing themselves to a writing state of mind – not always synesthetic but fascinating none-the-less. The other chapters are Smell, Touch, Taste, Hearing and Vision (another subject we’ve touched on here, and, from a design perspective, here) and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

Continue reading for more insight into synesthesia.

A Natural History of the Senses

Diane Ackerman

Vintage Books (Random House), 1991

paperback, 331 pp



A creamy blur of succulent blue sound smells like week-old strawberries dropped onto a tin sieve as mother approaches in a halo of color, chatter, and a perfume like thick golden butterscotch. Newborns ride on intermingling waves of sight, sound, touch, taste, and, especially, smell. As Daphne and Charles Maurer remind us in The World of the Newborn:

His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors as coming through his nose alone. He hears odors, and sees odors, and feels them too. His world is a mêlée of pungent aromas – and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn’s world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery.

In time, the newborn learns to sort and tame all its sensory impressions, some of which have names, many of which will remain nameless to the end of its days. Things that elude our verbal grasp are hard to pin down and almost impossible to remember. A cozy blur in the nursery vanishes into the rigorous categories of common sense. But for some people, that sensory blending never quits, and they taste baked beans whenever they hear the word “Francis,” as one woman reported, or see yellow on touching a matte surface, or smell the passage of time. The stimulation of one sense stimulates another: synesthesia is the technical name, from the Greek syn (together) + aisthanesthai (to perceive). A thick garment of perception is woven thread by overlapping thread. A similar word is synthesis, in which the garment of thought is woven together idea by idea, and which originally referred to the light muslin clothing worn by the ancient Romans.

Daily life is a constant onslaught on one’s perceptions, and everyone experiences some intermingling of the senses. According to Gestalt psychologists, when people are asked to relate a list of nonsense words to shapes and colors they identify certain sounds with certain shapes in ways that fall into clear patterns. What’s more surprising is that this is true whether they are from the United States, England, the Mahali peninsula, or Lake Tanganyika. People with intense synesthesia tend to respond in predictable ways, too. A survey of two thousand synesthetes from various cultures revealed many similarities in the colors they assigned to sounds. People often associate low sounds with dark colors and high sounds with bright colors, for instance. A certain amount of synesthesia is built into our senses. If one wished to create instant synesthesia, a dose of mescaline or hashish would do nicely by exaggerating the neural connections between the senses. Those who experience intense synesthesia naturally on a regular basis are rare – only about one in every five hundred thousand people – and neurologist Richard Cytowic traces the phenomenon to the limbic system, the most primitive part of the brain, calling synesthetes “living cognitive fossils,” because they may be people whose limbic system is not entirely governed by the much more sophisticated (and more recently evolved) cortex. As he says, “synesthesia … may be a memory of how early mammals saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched.”

While synesthesia drives some people to distraction, it drives distractions away from others. While it is a small plague to the person who doesn’t want all that sensory overload, it invigorates those who are indelibly creative. Some of the most famous synesthetes have been artists. Composers Aleksandr Scriabin and Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov both freely associated colors with music when they wrote. To Rimski-Korsakov, C major was white; to Scriabin it was red. To Rimski-Korsakov, A major was rosy, to Scriabin it was green. More surprising is how closely their music-color synesthesias matched. Both associated E major with blue (for Rimski-Korsakov, it was sapphire blue, for Scriabin blue-white), A-flat major with purple (for Rimski-Korsakov it was grayish-violet, for Scriabin purple-violet), D major with yellow, etc.

Either writers have been especially graced with synesthesia, or they’ve been keener to describe it. Dr. Johnson once said that scarlet “represented nothing so much as the clangour of a trumpet.” Baudelaire took pride in his sensory Esperanto, and his sonnet on the correspondences between perfumes, colors, and sounds greatly influenced the synesthesia-loving Symbolist movement. Symbol comes from the Greek word symballein, “to throw together,” and, as The Columbia Dictionary of Modem European Literature explains, the Symbolists believed that “all arts are parallel translations of one fundamental mystery. Senses correspond to each other; a sound can be translated through a perfume and a perfume through a vision. … Haunted by these horizontal correspondances” and using suggestion rather than straightforward communication, they sought “the One hidden in Nature behind the Many.” Rimbaud, who assigned colors to each of the vowel sounds and once described A as a “black hairy corset of loud flies,” claimed that the only way an artist can arrive at life’s truths is by experiencing “every form of love, of suffering, of madness,” to be prepared for by “a long immense planned disordering of all the senses.” The Symbolists, who were avid drug takers, delighted in the way hallucinogens intensified all their senses simultaneously. They would have loved (for a short time) taking LSD while watching Walt Disney’s Fantasia, in which pure color dramatizes, melts into, and spurts from classical music. Few artists have written about synesthesia with the all-out precision and charm of Vladimir Nabokov, who, in Speak, Memory, analyzes what he calls his “colored hearing”:

Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet … has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation) …. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygu. The first author to discuss audition colorée was, as far as I know, an albino physician in 1812, in Erlangen.

The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leaking and drafts by more solid walls than mine are. To my mother, though, this all seemed quite normal. The matter came up, one day in my seventh year, as I was using a heap of old alphabet blocks to build a tower. I casually remarked to her that their colors were all wrong. We discovered then that some of her letters had the same tint as mine and that, besides, she was optically affected by musical notes. These evoked no chromatisms in me whatsoever.

Synesthesia can be hereditary, so it’s not surprising that Nabokov’s mother experienced it, nor that it expressed itself slightly differently in her son. However, it’s odd to think of Nabokov, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Huysmans, Baudelaire, Joyce, Dylan Thomas and other notorious synesthetes as being more primitive than most people, but that may indeed be true. Great artists feel at home in the luminous spill of sensation, to which they add their own complex sensory Niagara. It would certainly have amused Nabokov to imagine himself closer than others to his mammalian ancestors, which he would no doubt have depicted in a fictional hall of mirrors with suave, prankish, Nabokovian finesse.

Courting the Muse

What a strange lot writers are, we questers after the perfect word, the glorious phrase that will somehow make the exquisite avalanche of consciousness sayable. We who live in mental barrios, where any roustabout idea may turn to honest labor, if only it gets the right incentive – a bit of drink, a light flogging, a delicate seduction. I was going to say that our heads are our offices or charnel houses, as if creativity lived in a small walk-up flat in Soho. We know the mind doesn’t dwell in the brain alone, so the where of it is as much a mystery as the how. Katherine Mansfield once said that it took “terrific hard gardening” to produce inspiration, but I think she meant something more willful than Picasso’s walks in the forests of Fontainebleau, where he got an overwhelming “indigestion of greenness,” which he felt driven to empty onto a canvas. Or maybe that’s exactly what she meant, the hard gardening of knowing where and when and for how long and precisely in what way to walk, and then the will to go out and walk it as often as possible, even when one is tired or isn’t in the mood, or has only just walked it to no avail. Artists are notorious for stampeding their senses into duty, and they’ve sometimes used remarkable tricks of synesthesia.

Dame Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin for a while before she began her day’s writing. When I mentioned this macabre bit of gossip to a poet friend, he said acidly: “If only someone had thought to shut it.” Picture Dame Edith, rehearsing the posture of the grave as a prelude to the sideshows on paper she liked to stage. The straight and narrow was never her style. Only her much-ridiculed nose was rigid, though she managed to keep it entertainingly out of joint for most of her life. What was it exactly about that dim, contained solitude that spurred her creativity? Was it the idea of the coffin or the feel, smell, foul air of it that made creativity possible?

Edith’s horizontal closet trick may sound like a prank unless you look at how other writers have gone about courting their muses. The poet Schiller used to keep rotten apples under the lid of his desk and inhale their pungent bouquet when he needed to find the right word. Then he would close the drawer, although the fragrance remained in his head. Researchers at Yale University discovered that the smell of spiced apples has a powerful elevating effect on people and can even stave off panic attacks. Schiller may have sensed this all along. Something in the sweet, rancid mustiness of those apples jolted his brain into activity while steadying his nerves. Amy Lowell, like George Sand, enjoyed smoking cigars while writing, and in 1915 went so far as to buy 10,000 of her favorite Manila stogies to make sure she could keep her creative fires kindled. It was Lowell who said she used to “drop” ideas into her subconscious “much as one drops a letter into the mailbox. Six months later, the words of the poem began to come into my head …. The words seem to be pronounced in my head, but with nobody speaking them.” Then they took shape in a cloud of smoke. Both Dr. Samuel Johnson and the poet W. H. Auden drank colossal amounts of tea – Johnson was reported to have frequently drunk twenty-five cups at one sitting. Johnson did die of a stroke, but it’s not clear if this was related to his marathon tea drinking. Victor Hugo, Benjamin Franklin, and many others felt that they did their best work if they wrote in the nude. D. H. Lawrence once even confessed that he liked to climb naked up mulberry trees – a fetish of long limbs and rough bark that stimulated his thoughts.

Colette used to begin her day’s writing by first picking fleas from her cat, and it’s not hard to imagine how the methodical stroking and probing into fur might have focused such a voluptuary’s mind. After all, this was a woman who could never travel light, but insisted on taking a hamper of such essentials as chocolate, cheese, meats, flowers, and a baguette whenever she made even brief sorties. Hart Crane craved boisterous parties, in the middle of which he would disappear, rush to a typewriter, put on a record of a Cuban rumba, then Ravel’s Boléro, then a torch song, after which he would return, “his face brick-red, his eyes burning, his already iron-gray hair straight up from his skull. He would be chewing a five-cent cigar which he had forgotten to light. In his hands would be two or three sheets of typewritten manuscript. … ‘Read that,’ he would say, ‘isn’t that the greatest poem ever written!’ ” This is Malcolm Cowley’s account, and Cowley goes on to offer even more examples of how Crane reminded him of “another friend, a famous killer of woodchucks,” when the writer “tried to charm his inspiration out of its hiding place by drinking and laughing and playing the phonograph.”

Stendhal read two or three pages of the French civil code every morning before working on The Charterhouse of Parma – “in order” he said, “to acquire the correct tone.” Willa Cather read the Bible. Alexandre Dumas père wrote his nonfiction on rose-colored paper, his fiction on blue, and his poetry on yellow. He was nothing if not orderly, and to cure his insomnia and regularize his habits he went so far as to eat an apple at seven each morning under the Arc de Triomphe. Kipling demanded the blackest ink he could find and fantasized about keeping “an ink-boy to grind me Indian ink,” as if the sheer weight of the blackness would make his words as indelible as his memories.

Alfred de Musset, George Sand’s lover, confided that it piqued him when she went directly from lovemaking to her writing desk, as she often did. But surely that was not so direct as Voltaire who used his lover’s naked back as a writing desk. Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and Truman Capote all used to lie down when they wrote, with Capote going so far as to declare himself “a completely horizontal writer.” Writing students often hear that Hemmingway wrote standing up, but not that he obsessively sharpened pencils first, and, in any case, he wasn’t standing up out of some sense of himself as the sentinel of tough, ramrod prose, but because he had hurt his back in a plane crash. Poe supposedly wrote with his cat sitting on his shoulder. Thomas Wolfe, Virginia Woolf, and Lewis Carroll were all standers; and Robert Hendrickson reports in The Literary Life and Other Curiosities that Aldous Huxley “often wrote with his nose.” In The Art of Seeing, Huxley says that “a little nose writing will result in a perceptible temporary improvement of defective vision.”

Many non pedestrian writers have gotten their inspiration from walking. Especially poets – there’s a sonneteer in our chests; we walk around to the beat of iambs. Wordsworth, of course, and John Clare, who used to go out looking for the horizon and one day in insanity thought he found it, and A. E. Housman, who, when asked to define poetry, had the good sense to say: “I could no more define poetry than a terrier can a rat, but I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. … If I were obliged … to name the class of things to which it belongs, I should call it a secretion.” After drinking a pint of beer at lunch, he would go out for a two or three-mile walk and then gently secrete.

I guess the goal of all these measures is concentration, that petrified mirage, and few people have written about it as well as Stephen Spender did in his essay “The Making of a Poem”:

There is always a slight tendency of the body to sabotage the attention of the mind by providing some distraction. If this need for distraction can be directed into one channel – such as the odor of rotten apples or the taste of tobacco or tea – then other distractions outside oneself are put out of the competition. Another possible explanation is that the concentrated effort of writing poetry is a spiritual activity which makes one completely forget, for the time being, that one has a body. It is a disturbance of the balance of the body and mind and for this reason one needs a kind of anchor of sensation with the physical world.

This explains, in part, why Benjamin Franklin, Edmond Rostand, and others wrote while soaking in a bathtub. In fact, Franklin brought the first bathtub to the United States in the 1780s and he loved a good, long, thoughtful submersion. In water and ideas, I mean. Ancient Romans found it therapeutic to bathe in asses’ milk or even in crushed strawberries. I have a pine plank that I lay across the sides of the tub so that I can stay in a bubble bath for hours and write. In the bath, water displaces much of your weight, and you feel light, your blood pressure drops. When the water temperature and the body temperature converge, my mind lifts free and travels by itself. One summer, lolling in baths, I wrote an entire verse play, which mainly consisted of dramatic monologues spoken by the seventeenth-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz; her lover, an Italian courtier; and various players in her tumultuous life. I wanted to slide off the centuries as if from a hill of shale. Baths were perfect.

The Romantics, of course, were fond of opium, and Coleridge freely admitted to indulging in two grains of it before working. The list of writers triggered to inspirational highs by alcohol would occupy a small, damp book. T. S. Eliot’s tonic was viral – he preferred writing when he had a head cold. The rustling of his head, as if full of petticoats, shattered the usual logical links between things and allowed his mind to roam.

Many writers I know become fixated on a single piece of music when they are writing a book, and play the same piece of music perhaps a thousand times in the course of a year. While he was writing the novel The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, Paul West listened nonstop to sonatinas by Ferruccio Busoni. He had no idea why. John Ashbery first takes a walk, then brews himself a cup of French blend Indar tea, and listens to something post-Romantic (“the chamber music of Franz Schmidt has been beneficial” he told me). Some writers become obsessed with cheap and tawdy country-and-western songs, others with one special prelude or tone poem. I think the music they choose creates a mental frame around the essence of the book. Every time the music plays, it re-creates the emotional terrain the writer knows the book to live in. Acting as a mnemonic of sorts, it guides a fetishistic listener to the identical state of alert calm, which a brain-wave scan would probably show.

When I asked a few friends about their writing habits, I thought for sure they’d fictionalize something offbeat – standing in a ditch and whistling Blake’s “Jerusalem,” perhaps, or playing the call to colors at Santa Anita while stroking the freckled bell of a foxglove. But most swore they had none – no habits, no superstitions, no special routines. I phoned William Gass and pressed him a little.

“You have no unusual work habits?” I asked, in as level a tone as I could muster. We had been colleagues for three years at Washington University, and I knew his quiet professorial patina concealed a truly exotic mental grain.

“No, sorry to be so boring,” he sighed. I could hear him settling comfortably on the steps in the pantry. And, as his mind is like an overflowing pantry, that seemed only right.

“How does your day begin?”

“Oh, I go out and photograph for a couple of hours,” he said.

“What do you photograph?”

“The rusty, derelict, overlooked, downtrodden parts of the city. Filth and decay mainly,” he said in a nothing-much-to-it tone of voice, as casually dismissive as the wave of a hand.

“You do this every day, photograph filth and decay?”

“Most days.”

“And then you write?” “Yes.”

“And you don’t think this is unusual?”

“Not for me.”

A quiet, distinguished scientist friend, who has published two charming books of essays about the world and how it works, told me that his secret inspiration was “violent sex.” I didn’t inquire further, but noted that he looked thin. The poets May Swenson and Howard Nemerov both told me that they like to sit for a short spell each day and copy down whatever pours through their heads from “the Great Dictator,” as Nemerov labels it, then plow through to see what gems may lie hidden in the rock. Amy Clampitt, another poet, told me she searches for a window to perch behind, whether it be in the city or on a train or by the seaside. Something about the petri dish effect of the glass clarifies her thoughts. The novelist Mary Lee Settle tumbles out of bed and heads straight for her typewriter, before the dream state disappears. Alphonso Lingis – whose unusual books, Excesses and Libido, consider the realms of human sensuality and kinkiness – travels the world sampling its exotic erotica. Often he primes the pump by writing letters to friends. I possess some extraordinary letters, half poetry, half anthropology, he sent me from a Thai jail (where he took time out from picking vermin to write), a convent in Ecuador, Africa (where he was scuba-diving along the coast with filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl), and Bali (where he was taking part in fertility rituals).

Such feats of self-rousing are awkward to explain to one’s parents, who would like to believe that their child does something reasonably normal, and associates with reasonably normal folk, not people who sniff rotten apples and write in the nude. Best not to tell them how the painter J. M. W. Turner liked to be lashed to the mast of a ship and taken sailing during a real hell-for-leather storm so that he could be right in the middle of the tumult. There are many roads to Rome, as the old maxim has it, and some of them are sinewy and full of fungus and rocks, while others are paved and dull. I think I’ll tell my parents that I stare at bouquets of roses before I work. Or, better, that I stare at them until butterflies appear. The truth is that, besides opening and closing mental drawers (which I picture in my mind), writing in the bath, beginning each summer day by choosing and arranging flowers for a Zen like hour or so, listening obsessively to music (Alessandro Marcello’s oboe concerto in D minor, its adagio, is what’s nourishing my senses at the moment), I go speed walking for an hour every single day. Half of the oxygen in the state of New York has passed through my lungs at one time or another. I don’t know whether this helps or not. My muse is male, has the radiant silvery complexion of the moon, and never speaks to me directly.