Synesthesia in literature  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which one or more sensory modalities become linked. However, for over a century, the term synesthesia has also been used to refer to artistic and poetic devices which attempt to express a linkage between the senses. To better understand the influence of synesthesia in popular culture and the way it is viewed by non-synesthetes, it is informative to examine books in which one of the main characters is portrayed as experiencing synesthesia. In addition to these fictional portrayals, the way in which synesthesia is presented in non-fiction books to non-specialist audiences is instructive. Author and synesthete, Patricia Lynne Duffy has described four ways in which synesthete characters have been used in modern fiction.

Please note that not all of the depictions of synesthesia in the fictional works are accurrate. Some are highly inaccurate and reflect more about the author's interpration of synesthesia than about the phenomenon itself. The scientific works are intended to be accurate depictions of synesthetic experiences. However, as research advances some of the specific details in those accounts may be superseded or corrected by subsequent studies.


Literary Depictions

In addition to its role in art, synesthesia has often been used as a plot device or as a way of developing a particular character's internal states. Synesthetes have appeared in novels including Vladimir Nabokov's The Gift and Invitation to a Beheading.

With the increased research into synesthesia from the 1990’s into the twenty-first century, more novels have appeared with synesthete-characters. Since 2001, more than 15 novels featuring synesthete-characters have been published. According to author Patricia Lynne Duffy in her presentations on "Images of Synesthetes in Fiction", portrayals of these characters and their synesthesia generally fall into four categories: (1) synesthesia as Romantic ideal; (2) synesthesia as pathology; (3) synesthesia as Romantic pathology; (4) synesthesia as health and balance for some individuals (Duffy, 2006, 2007).

Below is an explanation of each of Duffy's four proposed categories along with an example of a novel in that category:

Synesthesia as Romantic ideal

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, The Gift, the main character Fyodor is a gifted young poet who experiences synesthesia. Fyodor’s synesthetic experience of language is compared to that of nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud (as expressed in the latter’s poem, Voyelles about the perception of colored vowel sounds). The following quote from the novel shows that Fyodor perceives a sublime beauty in letters and sounds, which he shares with others through poetic description: "If I had some paints handy, I would mix burnt sienna and sepia for you as to match the color of a 'ch' sound..and you would appreciate my radiant 's' if I could pour into your cupped hands some of those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child." In writing about synesthesia, Nabokov was likely drawing on his own synesthetic experiences, which he details in his autobiography, Speak, Memory.

Synesthesia as pathology

Certain types of synesthetic experience can also be induced by brain injuries. Duffy notes that a character's synesthesia is sometimes shown as a pathological condition related to brain injury. For example, in the novel, The Whole World Over by Julia Glass, the character Saga experiences words as having color after she has an accident that causes a head trauma. In the quote, Duffy illustrates how the perceived colors are a distraction for the character: "The word would fill her mind for a few minutes with a single color: not an unpleasant sensation but still an intrusion... Patriarch: Brown, she thought, a temple of a word, a shiny red brown, like the surface of a chestnut."

Synesthesia as Romantic pathology

This category of synesthesia combines the previous two: the character’s synesthesia is portrayed as pathology — but a "glorious" pathology, allowing him/her to perceive more sublime levels of reality. In Holly Payne’s novel, The Sound of Blue, the character, Milan, a composer, perceives music as having beautiful color, but his synesthetic experience indicates an oncoming epileptic seizure: "Without color, he heard nothing. He filled notebooks with the sound of yellow and red. Purple. Green... Like Liszt and Stravinsky, Kandinsky and Rimbaud, Milan shared the multisensory perception of synesthetes, and unfortunately the seizures that about 4 per cent of them endured... Milan’s epilepsy resulted from his multisensory experiences."

Synesthesia as health and balance for some individuals

Duffy argues that in this category of novel, the ability to perceive synesthetically represents health and balance for the particular character. When such characters experience emotional trauma, they lose the ability to perceive synesthetically. After the trauma is resolved, the character regains synesthetic perception, which represents health and wholeness for that individual. Examples of such characters are found in Jane Yardley’s novel, Painting Ruby Tuesday and in Wendy Mass’s children’s novel, A Mango-Shaped Space. In the latter novel, the 13-year-old character, Mia loses her synesthesia after her beloved cat dies, but regains it after she works through the trauma. As her therapist tells her, "Your colors will return, Mia, I promise. And you’ll feel three-dimensional again."

Synesthesia in Adult Fiction

Below is a short list of books in which one of the main characters is portrayed as experiencing synesthesia.

  • Aylett, Steve (2005). Lint. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
  • Baudelaire, Charles. "Correspondances" in Les Fleurs du mal.
  • Berry, M. (2005). Blind Crescent. Toronto: Penguin.
  • Bester, Alfred (1956). The Stars My Destination. New York: Vintage
  • Chevalier, T. (1999). Girl with a Pearl Earring. Dutton Adult.
  • Ford, Jeffrey (2005). Nebula Awards Showcase 2005. New York: Penguin.
  • Herbert, Frank. The Dune saga. Synesthesia is experienced by the Atreides family, notably Paul and Leto II.
  • Huysmans, J.-K. (1884; English translation by Robert Baldick, 1959). À rebours [Against Nature]. London: Penguin Books.
  • Kernan, B. M. (2002). The Synesthete. Lincoln, NE: Writer's Showcase.
  • Koontz, Dean. (1996). Intensity. New York: Bantam Dell Publishing Group
  • Moore, J. (2004). The Memory Artists. Toronto: Penguin.
  • Morall, C. (2004). Astonishing Splashes of Colour. Harper Collins.
  • Nabokov, V. (1991/1938). The Gift. New York: Vintage.
  • Nabokov, V. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
  • Neal, J. M. (2007). Specific Gravity. Dunn Avenue Press.
  • Payne, H. (2005). The Sound of Blue. New York: Penguin Group.
  • Parker, T. J. (2006). The Fallen. New York: William Morrow.
  • Rimbaud, Arthur. "Les Voyelles".
  • Salzman, M. Lying Awake.
  • Shelley, Mary. (1818). "Frankenstein." London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones.
  • Vaz, K. (1994). Saudade. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Vian, B. (2003). Foam of the Daze. Tam-Tam Books. (former translation: Mood Indigo.)
  • Yardley, J. (2003). Painting Ruby Tuesday. London: Doubleday.

Synesthesia in Teenage/children’s Fiction

  • Mass, W. (2003). A Mango-Shaped Space. London: Little Brown and Co.
  • Morgan, N. (2003). Mondays are Red. New York: Delacorte.

Synesthesia in Graphic Novels & Comic Books

  • Di Filippo, P., and Ordway, J. (2006). Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct. La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics.
  • Moore, A., Ha, G., and Cannon, Z. (2000). Top 10: Book 1. La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics.
  • Moore, A., Ha, G. and Cannon, Z. (2002). Top 10: Book 2. La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics.

Non-fiction general audience books

  • Ackerman, D. (1994). chapter on "Synesthesia" in A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Vintage.
  • Baron-Cohen, S. and Harrison, J. (1997). Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-19764-8.
  • Cytowic, R. (2003). The Man Who Tasted Shapes. New York: Tarcher/Putman. ISBN 0-262-53255-7.
  • Dann, K. (1998). Bright Colors Falsely Seen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-300-06619-8.
  • Duffy, P. L. (2001). Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color their Worlds. New York: Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 0-7167-4088-5.
  • Harrison, J. (2001). Synaesthesia: the strangest thing, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-263245-0.
  • Luria, A.R. (1968). The Mind of a Mnemonist. New York: Basic Books.
  • Lvovich, N. (1997). Chapter 2, "Confessions of a Synesthete" in The Multilingual Self. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Sacks, O. (1995). "The Case of the Colorblind Painter" in An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Vintage.

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