After all these essays talking about writing, I wanted to delve into something a little bit different, but a little bit the same. No talking about writing as craft, or the underlying psychological underpinnings regarding our relationship to narrative or the drives that lead us to put pen to paper. Instead, I wanted to talk about something very cool that writers do from time to time in order to achieve a certain aim. I realize the word “cool” is not often ascribed to writers or anything they do, which is why I’m so excited about this topic I’m about to enter. Contrary to popular belief, writers do a number of things that are just so fucking cool you have to stand back and do the Ted Theodore Logan “Whoa.” Not all of these things writers do are in their work, but the particular one I’m going to talk about definitely is. This particular thing that writers do has been done for a long time, sometimes better than others, by writers as distinguished as William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace. This essay is all about synesthesia.
- The production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.
- The poetic description of a sense impression in terms of another sense, as in “a loud perfume.”
The great Jimi Hendrix apparently didn’t only hear music when he played it. He also saw it. And what he saw was color. It was as if his senses were awakened to new heights and perhaps even allowed Hendrix to elevate his playing to a level unseen before, something that may have been partly due to Hendrix’s sixth sense–the ability to see what he heard. This ability can be harnessed and used much easier by those who write, simply by assigning something usually associated with one sense to a different sense. I know that this probably sounds like a stupid idea out of context. But just for a moment consider what something like that might do to the reader (besides confuse him). The point of poetic language and literary writing is to reinvent language, to find a way to make it new while at the same time succeed in communicating something to someone about something. Sounds just vague enough for this thing to work, doesn’t it? Well, you’re not wrong. Synesthesia is a wonderful opportunity to make this happen in the course of a story.
In his story “Forever Overhead,” David Foster Wallace actually uses synesthesia numerous times. The story is essentially a coming of age story where the main character grows to a new realization of things in the space of about fifteen minutes. This new awareness that the character gains as the story progresses is a perfect opportunity to use synesthesia, because the poetic language that confuses senses reflects the new, complex way that the character in the story is beginning to see the world. Sensations are now colors, objects that are seen are instead sensed by smell.
Synesthesia, in addition to being a great tool to show a character’s changing perceptions can also be a great tool for mapping a character’s descent. This is what William Faulkner uses it for in The Sound and the Fury. In the book, Quentin Compson narrates the second chapter and goes slowly insane over the course of his narrative. Faulkner uses synesthesia to reflect the breakdown of Quentin’s mind–though Quentin confuses time and engenders run-on sentences and thoughts and paragraphs, Faulkner uses the poetic language of synesthesia to bring the fever pitch of his thoughts to new heights. At one point, Quentin thinks “I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk” and then goes on to describe his closeness to the river and says that soon his “murmuring bones” will be at the bottom of the river. Here we are given a different way to chart the change in a character’s mindset. The beauty in this method is incredible to me. A combination of character development, plot, poetic language, and description (and probably other elements of craft) are all bound up in that very small passage that Quentin narrates. This is why Faulkner is a master and this is why synesthesia is such a great tool in the writer’s toolbox.
Synesthesia is of course an extremely potent craft-device for the writer and as such, it shouldn’t be called upon with the frequency of straightforward narration or description or any of the other staples of prose. Nevertheless, at the right time with the right set of circumstances, the use of synesthesia has the ability (when done well) to lift your prose and the reader to new heights and new revelations that had not been available because, until then, you had not allowed your imagination to roam as free as possible and in doing so at that point, you free your prose, allowing it to evolve and become poetry.