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 didn’t 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.