How Do You Know if You Have Synesthesia?

Is the alphabet colored? Do voices smell? Can you see time or numbers? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may not be crazy. Rather, you may have synesthesia. Synesthesia is when two different senses merge, and it can be a gift which enriches your perceptions of the world.

Music being linked to texture or color is a common form of synesthesia. So “Arrested Phrase from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Red Major” is a synesthetic work of art. It is a picture of sound: rising blocks of chords, the blue tone of the brass, and a repeated curving woodwind motif. Roy De Maistre, who painted it, combined the study of music with the study of Cubism. The result is beautiful.

Cubism itself resulted from metaphorical synesthesia, a merging of two different cultures. It combined new European ideas about visual perception with the conventions of West African art.

In a Cubist painting, it can be difficult to locate, say, the violin and grapes in “Violin and Grapes”. Cubism is not realistic, in the sense that a photograph is realistic because it records exactly how light hits film. But that’s because the Cubists understood that, for people, seeing is more than light hitting the retina.

Looking at a photo of a violin, I see it differently to someone who’s never come across that instrument before. As well as what is in front of me, I am aware of characteristic parts of the violin which are hidden, because I know they are there. A violinist would see even more than me. Visual perception involves recognizing remembered shapes, and imagining other views.

Along with this interpretation of seeing, Cubists were inspired by imperialism’s booty, looted masks of African tribal gods. These deities will never again be worshiped, the missionaries did their good work so well, but their faces still seem sinister. Skulls are preternaturally lengthened. Eyes are slits, mouths gape. Facial features are defined by the sharp edges where two planes meet, and proportions are distorted. These conventions were eagerly assimilated by the Cubists.

Combining these ideas, and so merging two cultures, Picasso when he painted the violin of “Violin and Grapes” showed it broken up and distorted like a West African mask. He depicted the scroll as though seen from the side; the four strings, two sound holes and the curving line of the body from above; and the bridge as though looking along the instrument.

These are the characteristic shapes of a violin, yet showing all these views in one photograph is impossible. In some important sense what he painted is actually closer to our perceptions than a flat photograph. It was left to Roy de Maistre to portray the instrument’s golden sound and complete the view.

It is a pleasant symmetry that the Cubist philosophy of fusing different views grew out of a synesthetic fusion of different cultures. The colonialism in Africa which allowed robbery of the sacred masks was, however, quite the opposite of synesthesia. One culture, one way of viewing the world, was obliterated by another. The Western missionaries and mercantilists who swept into the “dark continent” destroyed the societies they encountered. This theme, albeit with local variations, was played out in the islands of the Pacific, and in Australia.

Today, many non-Aboriginal Australians refuse to acknowledge this history, and are too mean-spirited to try and make amends. It’s too difficult to accept that our history is complicated and ambiguous, especially when the alternative is the reassuring straightforward tale of progress and national triumph.

Simple things give comfort: we prefer the one way of seeing, the flat photograph rather than Cubism’s complexity of multiple views. Wanting just one simple culture, we spurn the synesthesia which has made Australia a successful multicultural nation. Instead of welcoming different ways of looking at the world, we get tunnel vision, fundamentalism.

You don’t have to look far to find fundamentalism. The economic gurus of our age have blind faith in the benevolence of the all-seeing market. Trying to co-opt the prestige of mathematics, their models and statistics are frequently dubious, yet are blithely relied upon for directing our society.

And here on our campus there are plenty of fundamentalists in the traditional sense of the word. These smug individuals have declared that I am “damned for all eternity” for accepting evolution and doubting God. For them, a critical, intellectually rigorous approach to the Bible is a “trick of the devil”.

Knowledge is always the enemy of fundamentalism, for knowledge is gained by doubting. Assumptions must be questioned and evidence must be criticized, or nothing can be achieved. Fundamentalism is the process of suppressing doubt, and ignoring evidence. It is the vice of those who seek certainty in a world which is incredibly complex. It is a balm for the mind, because it eliminates the arduous and dangerous task of thinking. It is frightening.

Fundamentalism is the opposite of synesthesia. The first gives us one flat view. The second offers a special plurality. The advantages of the first are in simplicity and certainty, however destructive. What of the second?

Synesthesia brings a world of the senses which is uniquely enriched. Metaphorical synesthesia, such as that which resulted in Cubism, expands and transfigures our culture, offering novel and wonderful ways of seeing. If we turn our backs on this richness, by choosing fundamentalism, we choose blindness – self-imposed.

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