Saturday is White

Monday, 30 April 2012

Black Grey Beat

Sometimes I get commissioned to write pieces for magazines and journals that never see the light of day - or perhaps I should say, the light of print. I usually manage to publish these articles elsewhere when a particular print publication gets sidelined, however I didnt feel like doing that with this particular article. Rather than sending it off to various other magazines, I just feel like sharing it here and now. This piece is about Synaesthesia, and ever since I blogged about this topic, I’ve received many emails asking me to elaborate on it. So I feel that by posting this article on my blog, I’m perhaps answering some of the questions I’ve received from readers. Some of the things I talk about in this article have been discussed on my blog before, so I do apologise for any repetition of themes and subject-matter. However, I didn’t want to edit this down, and I hope you enjoy reading it as a whole.

My first real memory of viewing the world differently from those around me came when I was little. My mother told me we were going somewhere special on Saturday, and I replied by calling Saturday “white”. Puzzled, my mother knew she had to probe further and asked me what I meant by that. What she found was an extra layer of perception. I simply “saw” the days as colours. Each day had a specific colour in my mind, and it would appear involuntarily, following me around like a shadow-perception.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learnt to name this phenomenon: Synaesthesia. It is like a reverse form of colour blindness, and it infiltrates my life in more ways than simply colouring the days of the week. What it has taught me, perhaps unconsciously, is how fragile our sense of perception is. This fragility is something that I respect and value, and it is most strikingly evident to me throughout my writing process.

Writing is another aspect of my personality that came naturally. Of course, it involves a lot of hard work, and I don’t view the creative process of writing romantically as some divine inspiration from above. It involves a decided engagement with the here and now; with the physical body interacting with the abstract mind, feelings and instincts. But the natural inclination to write is something that has always been within me, and often, I’m unable to separate it from my experiences of Synaesthesia. Whenever I pause to examine why or how I write something, it’s with an increasing awareness of the moments of failed articulation when words are both desired but not enough. These moments reveal how individual perception cannot always be expressed with the process of pen to paper, or fingers typing on a laptop. It’s those liminal moments, those gaps between perception and articulation, that most interest me about the creative process.



The first few notes of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 hit me like a black hammer. This hammer is dull and thick, it places black in my head like an artist splaying colour on a canvas in huge, messy dollops of paint. The first few notes of Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie are lighter. Translucently yellow, they dance like torch lights flickering on and off beneath my eyes. The first few notes of Bach’s Air are a blaze of intense red. For a melody based on cool air, I am ironically engulfed by throbbing, heat-filled scarlet.

These are all involuntary associations my brain makes when it hears these pieces of music. I cannot control them, but rather, they control me. Learning to understand them has also meant learning to let go of absolute control over my own mind. But what I attempt to control instead are the words and images I create from these associations. So Chopin becomes a black hammer, Debussy becomes a dancing light, Bach becomes a raging fire. As much as these images are clichés, they are also truthful representations of things I am essentially unable to fully express to another human being. To truly understand their impact on me, you’d have to crawl inside my head and inhabit my body. But this is impossible. So instead, what my writing tries to do is provide lines of connection between myself and others.

I wonder how much of this is involved in all writing and reading. How much of the poetry and narrative we are instinctively drawn to resonate with some involuntary action that we’re unable to name, yet wish to turn into conscious artistic form? This is a thought process I apply to poems that impact me immediately and directly, rather than simply intellectually.

Jennifer Grotz’s “Poppies” is one such poem. When Grotz compares sadness to “black pepper and blood”, I’m jolted by a reminder of listening to Chopin. Her black pepper mingled with the metal opaqueness of blood is another version of my thick, paint-dripped black hammer raging at an invisible melancholy. When she talks of raindrops “burning” and “smouldering” onto the grass, I think of my instinctive association of Bach’s Air with fiery red, linking two oppositional meanings together to create something new. And when she seeks to provide a picture for a general sadness through an image of moths flitting like “scissors left in this world”, Debussy’s drowned Cathedral with its evocation of yellowish dancing lights is brought to mind. I realise then, we are speaking the same language. I also realise that my own unique perception of the world is a form of empathy with others. Perhaps we don’t have to be the same, or view the world from the same perspective, to appreciate our common ground as human beings. And then, the distance I feel between myself and others is suddenly merged by the process of writing in momentary glimpses of a subjective language.

Yet, if I give the same poem to someone else, they will hear different echoes within it. Why “pepper” and why “scissors”? Why indeed. The same words the bind me together with another author’s writing, can alienate another. The bonds that writers try to create are not always successful, and often, my own words collapse in the face of my failure to speak to a reader in their own language. But it’s a worthy failure, and I’ll tell you why.



There are many times when the frustration of being unable to fully explain my feelings, thoughts, images and associations, beckons me with the simplicity of silence. It is much easier to say nothing. The fear of being judged, misunderstood, perceived as a fraud or untalented is enough to silence you forever. It’s the silence of ego. But there are larger things that silence us too: horror, grandeur, shame, love, hate. These are the “grand narratives” of personal and collective lives.

I used to interview Holocaust survivors. In moments when they could no longer speak, or translate their horrors into words, they grabbed my hand, pressing their fingers into my palm. This was a common gesture, I learnt to get used to it. It’s a form of intimacy and a way of trying to express what they felt by taking me into the private space of their bodies.

These interviews left me unsatisfied with language. How could it possibly articulate what these people have been through? How can figures and names and places and historical dates possibly explain the sensation of watching loved ones being killed, or the smell of rotting flesh? In other words, how can words ever be truthful to all the different sensory processes of memory? In the same way that I can’t explain why Saturday is “white”, there is no language for the intimacy of their fingers pressing into my palm, trembling with all the life they have seen lost.

So silence is easier, but, not better. There was a significant process of validation that occurred for these Holocaust survivors when they reached within the store of their memories to pull out fragmented images. My job was to help them turn these fragments into narrative; their job was to remember. We worked together and built something on the common ground of failed language. It was not in the final product of the narrative itself, but in the process of unlocking incoherent memories, that meaning was found. In the end, it didn’t matter what kind of narrative I created around their memories, what mattered was that they had the courage to try to express them.

I remember this bravery whenever I hide in the corner with silence. It seems like a monumental cowardice for me to be comforted by the silence of my own ego when they have lost so much and are still willing to work through the justifiable silence of horror. Because it is better to say something broken, than to say nothing at all. Even if my black hammer and Grotz’s slicing scissors of moths don’t make sense to some, at least they are attempts at negotiating language to express something. And just as importantly, they point to an individuality that is often ignored.



If you stand around a rock that casts a shadow, you will inevitably view it from a different perspective to someone standing only a few steps away from you. That shadow will move as you do, and then, it will disappear altogether as the sun moves. No one would call you insane for viewing a different shadow to someone else. But somehow we are still confronted on a daily basis with the need for a blanket objectivity in the way we deal with other people.

This is a fear that has often paralysed me, and so for many years I’ve kept my extra layer of sensory perception to myself. How do you even begin to explain to someone who insists that the sky will always be blue and the grass will always be green that colours are malleable in our brains, that words are not straightforward, that our minds are subjective and that seeking to see the world through an objective lens is ultimately an illusion?

When my words are edited by others, I’m confronted by this fear. Why did you use that word here? This sentence doesn’t make sense. You have to make this more accessible. I don’t understand what you’ve said here. Rework this paragraph. Cut out those words. Explain. I get all that, I really do. There is a need to edit personal language to make it intelligible to someone else. But that “someone else” is not a uniform being representing an objective ideal, and I always fear that my words will become insincere, even strange, if I gloss over them too much with an “objective” editing pen.

There is no answer to this dilemma, other than a constant process of negotiation and dialogue between readers and writers, yourself and the world. I once went to Writers’ Festival where a well-known author was asked by a reader if her personal interpretation of a novel is “correct”. The author told the reader that such an interpretation would never have occurred to her, but this didn’t make it wrong. It was right for the reader, and hence, it was correct. You cannot hope to be completely understood in some mystical union of objective minds. All you can hope for when putting pen to paper is that somewhere out there, someone will be moved by your words. And maybe that someone will read about your scissor moths and pepper blood and draw their own connections. It is only in these small, personal moments of connection that we meet together, and value our individuality. It’s those moments that propel me forward through the silence, fear and my second skin of incomprehensible perceptions. I cannot tell you why Saturday is white, but I can tell you what I have turned this association into. Perhaps there is value in that for someone else, other than myself. I can only hope, and continue to write.

Image source:  Black Grey Beat (1964) by Gene Davis.


sheila said...

I loved reading this, Hila, and I think, 'aren't you lucky' about it. what a wonderful thing to have this extra sense of the world. thank you for sharing it, so interesting. I'm sure this ability has lent you to poetry in life much more easily. Your description of the survivors grasping your hand made me cry. Of course, there couldn't be words. It's like an attempt to have one understand something we could never understand, not having been there. Sometimes, there are no words and no explanations, only feelings you can't describe adequately. So your brain tries to do it with colour theory. Or someone grasps your hand.

Anaïs said...

Me too I've always associated certain words with colours - and even the letters in itsself, and numbers too. For example, the word 'east' in Dutch (my maternal language) is 'oost', which I perceive as green because green is the colour I associate with the letter 'o'. 'East' on the other had is a light greyish blue, because it has the 'e' sound in it. So it's less an association of colour with meaning rather than colour with form or structure.

I've never really questioned it, until a few years ago I read about synesthesia and I realised not everyone sees the world like this ...

It's interesting how you mirror this to writing and interpretation, it's something I've been pondering myself lately.

Laura said...

I really loved reading this. A sister of a friend has synesthesia but for her it's more a form of organisation; she attributes certain things she learns or notices to a particular colour and 'space' in her brain - for her it makes learning much easier!
I was always interested in synesthesia, especially after the suggestion that Kandinsky was a possible synesthete, and so his 'abstract' paintings may not have been abstract to him at all. I think your natural association of colours and senses and feelings are a brilliant gift - you can make your own interpretations of something that some people just might not understand. I find that I 'read' images and poetry fairly well, in that I know when I feel a word 'fits' even if it's not completely sensical, and it belongs there. Studying English has reiterated to me that your own interpretation isn't wrong or right, it is just your own. Even if it is not what the author might have intended, when you read something you transform it into meaning for yourself. I think that makes it all the more special.

Sophia said...

I really enjoy your way of writing and this article is a piece I'm gonna read more than once to fully understand its meaning.

Stephanie said...

Reading this was absolutely amazing. I have never heard of synesthesia, but when I was reading this I was blown away at how similarly my mind processes words, sights and smells. I've been looking up info on synesthesia for the last half hour now. It's incredible.

Rambling Tart said...

Hila, the way you see the world is absolutely fascinating to me! I don't see things in colors, I see them in feelings. I sense situations, emotions, people, things they think are hidden. I didn't realize I did this until I started voicing things and realized I was strange in this regard. I love that you are learning to be at peace with a mind beyond your control. I love the book Awareness, learning to be an observer of our thoughts and feelings. I'm intrigued by the author questioned about if her view of a novel was true. It reminded me of a quote I read by Anne Lamott the other day: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories." Her review IS truth, albeit her truth. You've given me so many things to think about today. :-)

megan said...

I loved reading this, Hila. Thank you for sharing it!

rooth said...

This is really cool and pretty much right on how I "feel" about things too. Thanks for always sharing Hila

Amelia said...

This was a very interesting read. I have to say I have never thought of associating words with colors however as a child I used to document the blueness of the sky. (it varies in blueness to me).

I read a few years ago Underground, it's a collection of interviews with the survivors of the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo and I have never cried so much reading a book. I have always admired how powerful words are, even when they seem ill fit and few.

Diana Sudyka said...

I have really enjoyed both of your posts on this topic and how it manifests itself in your everyday experiences, and that of a writer.

A good friend of mine told me some months ago that she had synaethesia, and I said "Synae...what?" I had never heard of it before! So between you and her, I now have been educated!

Even though I don' t think I technically have it, as a visual artist I can definitely wrap my brain around the concept. It seems natural and makes perfect sense that some of us would experience the world with this extra layer of perception.

Sally said...

The part of this piece that resonates with me most is the difficulty of breaking through silence. I've been struggling with posting lately because everything I write — which I'm happy with at first — suddenly seems so pointless, and I fear others will find it a trivial issue to consider. I'm still learning how to be brave about my opinions instead of keeping them to myself. Thanks for the nudge.

vegetablej said...


It sounds as if your gift really enriches your life; I'm especially intrigued about how you see music. Though I don't necessarily see colours with music, I know that if I close my eyes when listening, I'll see a dance of colour and changing patterns and maybe some images too. But it's a conscious technique and not involuntary. The closest thing to an involuntary response I have is that I always cry whenever I hear something that I call " beautiful truth" which most often is in the written or spoken word. I experience it as a kind of pain and it usually happens as an intense reaction to beauty-insight-expression. Music sometimes has this too. In some way it is a recognition that someone has broken through the barriers to expression and made a truth enter the world.

Whatever we are given in the way of perceptions, if we can share it well or badly, it will be of value to someone else struggling to understand and trying to muster the courage to wrestle with expression. I think that's of great value and I thank you for _your_ beautiful truth.


Denise | Chez Danisse said...

Your awareness and observations in this piece are so thought provoking. I think of all of the differences between people, the differences that are apparent and all that we don't see or understand. And how feeling different often equates to uncomfortable. Such an interesting topic.

Jamie said...

I really, really enjoyed reading this: such an interesting topic, so wonderfully phrased and explained. I suppose that the way one would react to synaesthesia is an entirely individual matter and I admire those who find constructive uses for, rather than side-lining or succumbing to it. The closest feeling that I can claim to share with synaesthesia is my vague knack for spotting certain shapes in others, but that's just lazy cloud-gazing.

I also found the image of your interviews very moving. Top blogging, as ever.

(As I write this I'm staring at a lava lamp. No, nothing.)

Felix Curds said...

hey there, hila! i found this really interesting and kinda telling of how your writing works- why it's so rich and appeals to the senses. i often associate things with taste and find it hard to express this to other people, coming off either weird or rude (i told my best friend's girlfriend she tasted like fried icecream)... your side of the coin is a bit cooler than mine;)

Hila said...

Sheila: If I could find the words for those feelings, I'd consider myself very lucky :)

Anais: I never really questioned it either, until I realised it wasn't something that other people had.

Laura: yes, I agree, there really isn't a 'right' or 'wrong' with these things. I feel so many people waste time and energy on accuracy and 'rightness' when it comes to books, rather than allowing themselves to interpret them in their own particular way.

Sophia: Thank you.

Stephanie: it is incredible what our minds can do!

Rambling tart: I'm such a control freak with some things, I think having synaesthesia is slowly teaching me to let go of that.

Megan and Rooth: my pleasure, thank you for reading it.

Amelia: me too, sometimes I'm amazed that people who have suffered trauma are willing to invest so much in words - because writing is a of leap of faith in your readers when you decide to send it out into the world.

Diana: yeah, my mum is an artist, but she doesn't have it. I think though she understands it better than other people I've tried to explain it to, because colour and texture is such a big part of her life. It's so difficult to explain though!

Sally: oh you're most welcome. I feel like that a lot.

vegetablej: thank you for this comment! Synaesthesia is such an instinctive thing, and considering I spend so much of my time in deliberate analytical thought, it sort of helps put things in perspective for me.

Denise: yes, it's so strange that we're uncomfortable with difference, considering how subjective most things are.

Jamie: ha, keep gazing at the lava lamp :) Thanks Jamie, top commenting, as always!

Felix curds: I wonder what I taste like then? :) I think your side of the coin is pretty darn cool too.