Talk sense with synesthesia

The presenting of ideas, characters, or places in a manner in which it appeals to more than one of the five senses — sound, sight, smell, taste and touch — is known as synesthesia — Roopa Banerjee

‘Her voice was as smooth as pudding.’
‘The scent of smoke burned my skin.’

In the first sentence, the writer is mixing the feeling of touch and sight. In the second, smell and touch. The presentation of ideas, characters, or locations in a manner that appeals to more than one of the five senses — sound, sight, smell, taste and touch — is known as synesthesia. Most often synesthesia describes and associates one body sense in terms of another in the form of a simile. The five sensations are expressed as being interlinked or having a connection between them.

Synesthesia originates from the eponymous neurological condition, wherein some people experience a link between their senses, where one sense stimulates another — for example, they may feel they hear a colour, smell a shape, or taste a texture.

Sentences expressing synesthesia challenge readers to think out of the box and reinterpret their senses. Literature has few examples of this literary device but when used, it makes forceful impact. In the children’s fantasy novel ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’, author Norton Juster, also a synesthete, writes.

“What are they playing?” asked Tock, looking up inquisitively at Alec.
“The sunset, of course. They play it every evening about this time.”
“They do?” said Milo quizzically.
“Naturally,” answered Alec; “and they also play morning, noon and night, when, of course, it’s morning, noon and night. Why, there wouldn’t be any colour in the world unless they played it.”

In this excerpt, the author uses synesthesia to express a correlation between music and colours. Alec says that the daily sunset is is actually created by instruments that play colours instead of musical notes. He asks Milo to “watch” the concert, rather than listen to it, because the instruments will create the sunset colours.

Legendary Italian poet Dante also uses this literary device effectively in his epic ‘Divine Comedy’.

“E’en such made me that beast withouten peace, Which, coming on against me by degrees Talk sense with Synesthesia Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent.”

Dante refers to the sun as being silent when we usually associate the sun with our senses of touch (heat) and sight (brightness). By stating that the sun is silent, Dante is describing a dark, cold, and colourless place that never sees the sun.

Many advertisements take advantage of synesthesia to create memorable phrases. For instance, the tagline of Pepsi ‘You’ve never seen a taste like this,’ or Coca Cola’s ‘Life tastes good,’ and Skittles’ ‘Taste the Rainbow.’

Some famous synesthetes in history experienced a mix of sensory perceptions. Duke Ellington, the iconic jazz composer and Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter, experienced chromesthesia, a type of synesthesia where musical notes evoke colours.

Contrary to popular belief, our daily lives are peppered with synesthesia phrases. For example how often have we heard people say: ‘I smell trouble’, ‘You could cut the tension in the air with a knife’, ‘Actions speak louder than words’ or ‘She spoke in honeyed tones’.

Exercise

Name the authors and their literary works from which these synesthesia examples have been excerpted:

1. “Back to the region where the sun is silent.”
2. “Tasting of Flora and the country green”
3. “From what I’ve tasted of desire”
4. “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.”
5. “Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music.”

Answers

1. Dante in The Divine Comedy (1472)
2. John Keats in Ode to a Nightingale (1819)
3. Robert Frost in Fire and Ice (1920)
4. William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605)
5. Oscar Wilde in Salomé (1891)

Also read: Interesting music learning options

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