Synaesthesia: a definition
Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g., hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality (e.g. vision). Likewise, perception of a form (e.g. a letter) may induce an unusual perception in the same modality (e.g. a color).
Synaesthesia is a kind of sensory interplay. It isn’t the same as consciously setting out to find equivalences between things attributed to separate senses, realms, or artistic media. And it isn’t the same as using metaphors or similes to describe things. For a small percentage of the population (between 2-5%), the parts of the brain that usually detect and experience our five senses as discrete things, connect with each other neurologically, so that when one sense (or perceptual mode) is engaged, it triggers a response in another part of the brain that relates to another sense (or perceptual mode). The result? A kind of sensory co-existence of two (or sometimes more) sensory or perceptual experiences at once. One sensory experience triggers a simultaneous co-experience, usually between seemingly unrelated things.
The other day I launched a new series about synaesthesia and smell. This is the second post in the series. If you’d like to read the first, which includes a brief profile of perfumer Frédéric Malle’s smell-colour synaesthesia, click here.
As this is a blog about olfactory matters, my focus in this series will be mostly on smell and synaesthesia. As it’s a very hot Sunday afternoon, and I’m feeling lazy and tired, I’ve been researching smell and synaesthesia on the Internet. I came across these two magnificent poems, one by Rimbaud and one by Baudelaire. Both demonstrate the phenomenon of synaesthesia so beautifully that I wanted to share them with you.
The first poem, by Arthur Rimbaud, is more about the type of synaesthesia I have, grapheme-colour synaesthesia, than smell, though there are a couple of odour-related references within. It also describes letters and colours as they relate to objects, nature, emotion, and all manner of other associations, both synaesthetic and more logical. In any case, it makes for wonderful reading:
“Voyelles” (Vowels) by Arthur Rimbaud (1883)
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels
One day I will tell of your latent birth:
A, black hairy corset of shining flies
Which buzz around cruel stench,
Gulfs of darkness; E, whiteness of vapors and tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, quivering of flowers;
I, purples, spit blood, laughter of beautiful lips
In anger or penitent drunkenness;
U, cycles, divine vibrations of green seas,
Peace of pastures scattered with animals, peace of the wrinkles
Which alchemy prints on heavy studious brows;
O, supreme Clarion full of strange stridor,
Silences crossed by words and angels:
—O, the Omega, violet beams from His Eyes!
The following extract from a poem by Baudelaire conjures up several synaesthetic associations between smell, colour, and sound, leading me to believe Baudelaire experienced synaesthesia between all three modes of perception.
“Correspondances” (Correspondences), extract, by Charles Baudelaire (1857)
…Perfumes, colors, and sounds respond to one another.There are perfumes fresh like the flesh of children,
Sweet like oboes, green like fields of grass,
—And others, corrupted, rich, and triumphal,Possessing the expansion of infinite things,
Like amber, musk, benjamin [benzoin] and incense,
That sing the transports of the spirit and the senses.(Translation by James C. Morrison)