Category Archives: synaesthesia

Myth, Self, Art, Synaesthesia, Metaphor

– second in a series –

“In general it can be said that myth, as experienced by archaic societies…is always related to a “creation,” it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working was established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts; …that by knowing the myth one knows the “origin” of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will; this is not an “external”, “abstract” knowledge but a knowledge that one “experiences” ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification; …that in one way or another one “lives” the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted.”
Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, pp. 18-19.

“I know a lot about objects, how they get to be what and where they are.”
Michael Snow, Letter from Michael Snow to P. Adams Sitney, Film Culture No. 46, Autumn 1967.

The mythic way of knowing articulated by Eliade is not “knowing” the way we know a recipe for a cake, or the number of miles to the moon. It is a knowing that exists in time, and exists while it is part of the knower’s experience. It requires someone to know it.

Synaesthesia, or the triggering of one sense by another, has many similarities to Eliade’s mythic experience. Through it the person experiences one stimulus as another; a flash of color as a sound, or an odor as a tactile sensation. And similarly, this connection between two disparate elements requires a person to experience it, or it does not exist. Recent research into synaesthesia posit anatomical structures that may provide for it:

“In a fascinating theory Maurer & Maurer (1988) suggested that normal infants are typically synaesthetic, with subsequent neural and synaptic pruning leading to more segregated senses in most of us (see also Maurer & Mondlach, 2005). Those few who are synaesthetic as adults are, then, those whose cross-modal connections do not wither in the same way. This theory provides a developmental mechanism and behavioral correlate for the hyperconnectivity proposed in a number of the theories discussed by Hochel & Milán (2008).”
Alex O. Holcombe, Eric L. Altschuler, & Harriet J. Over, A Developmental Theory of Synaesthesia, With Long Historical Roots. Cognitive Neuropsychology, accepted 8 Aug 2008.

Like the mythic experience of knowing, the vanishing point of synaesthesia is within the person who experiences it. It does not present itself as an objective fact, independent of the person. It empowers the person with a sensory knowledge that is personal and meaningful, and that is self-evident. Having a synaesthetic experience provides a personal history that enriches a person’s relationship with the world, a relationship that supports one’s trusting one’s senses to provide meaning about the world through its own act of creation.

This world of inner meaning is one that children know well, and it is a world that is rarely nurtured by our educational and parental institutions and practices. Even our art and music education often avoid developing these experiences, focusing instead on the more measurable skills that lead to professions.

The relations provided by the synaesthetic experience are isomorphic with metaphor. Synaesthesia provides a mode of knowing that and how two disparate phenomena share an essence. Metaphor places one language object in the syntactical space of another, leaving the individual to make sense of the unexpected displacement. Often this making sense invokes internal sounds and images, memories and imaginings, meanings and humor.

With art making, the artist engages a medium and becomes more sensitive to it, more aware of its subtleties, What is it that the artist moves toward in art making? The artist navigates, through a medium, toward the mythic state of creation, in order to experience that creation, to cause it to be, and to sense it becoming. It is not an objective truth that the artist finds. The art work is not the final object. The artist is no more a factory than Warhol was.

It is the focus on consumable product that has anaesthetized the American culture from valuing or even knowing these related experiences: the creative moment in art work, the ritual re-enactment of myth, the sensory meaning of synaesthesia. It is as though these states don’t exist, as if they are meaningless.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art practice.