If you can hear the color red, taste the bitter cold, touch a rainbow or smell your favorite song, you're experiencing sense mixing, otherwise known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which a single perception triggers multiple sensations. People with this condition, for instance, might not only see or hear letters of the alphabet, but smell them, too. In literature, synesthesia is used to expand figurative language and engage readers in a deeper sensory experience.
"Vowels" by Arthur Rimbaud
Speaking of the alphabet, no one has mixed the sights and sounds of letters quite like French poet Arthur Rimbaud. In “Vowels,” he gives each letter a color: “Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O -- vowels, / Some day I will open your silent pregnancies.” He later explores the color of each vowel in wild, often striking, abstractions: “A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies / Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties.” In similar fashion, “red I” becomes, “bloody spittle, laughter dribbling from a face / In wild denial or in anger, vermilions.”
"Modern Love: I" by George Meredith
Synesthesia abounds in George Meredith’s tragic poem “Modern Love: I,” which describes a failing marriage. The wife of the poem begins sobbing: “She lay / Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away / With muffled pulses.” The darkness becomes a tangible thing beyond sight, embodying the wife’s stifled heartbeat. Later, the same character’s heart drinks “the pale drug of silence.” Here, the heart turns into an organ of thirst and taste. As a “pale drug,” silence transcends auditory experience to become not only digestible, but something visibly pale.
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sense mixing appears not only in poetry. Novelists have also employed synesthesia to great effect. In the classic American novel “The Great Gatsby,” one of the title character’s Long Island parties is described as having “yellow cocktail music.” According to synesthesia researcher and author Patricia Lynne Duffy, this simple pairing of a sight word, “yellow,” with a sound word, “music,” evokes the rich, golden ambiance of the party and allows readers to both hear and see the tone of the music.
"The Sound of Blue" by Holly Payne
In Holly Payne’s 2005 novel “The Sound of Blue,” a Serbian composer named Milan actually suffers from synesthesia. He experiences music as having color, leading to heightened aesthetic experiences but also to epileptic seizures. In describing the character and his experiences, Payne uses literary synesthesia to evoke the luminous colors of Milan’s compositions: “He filled notebooks with the sound of yellow and red. Purple. Green. Pink.” Within the music’s shades of blue, however, Milan feels most secure and safe from seizures.
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