A Synesthesia Of Sorts

For a long time now, perhaps as long as I can remember, letters and numbers have had colors and personalities and aesthetic grades. Here are the ways in which they do, for me:

  1. I see colors in vowels. The letter ‘a’ is yellow; ‘e’ is red; ‘i’ is white; ‘o’ is black; ‘u’ is grey. Because of these colors associated with vowels, when I see a printed word, I see a word that is colored somehow. That word ‘somehow’ is red and black for instance; it has acquired a particular color for me. My name has shades too; my first name is ‘lighter’ because of the presence of the ‘a’ and ‘i’ in it; my last name is made darker by the presence of an ‘o.’ Words in which there are very few vowels in proportion to their length look a little colorless to me as a result. ‘Sky,’ for instance, is entirely colorless. Blocks of text in which a particular vowel predominates acquire a shading based on the color of that particular vowel.
  2. I see ‘personalities’ in numbers (not all). ‘2’ is timid and obsequious; ‘3’ is a little smug and self-satisfied as does ‘6’; ‘4’ looks ‘closed off,’ not ‘open’ to conversation; ‘5’ looks a little like a plump person. 1, 9, 8, and 7 do not produce such connotations. Neither does zero.
  3. I see some numbers as pretty and some as ugly. ’74’ is a beautiful number; ’57’ is ugly as is ’77’. These examples show that it is not the number ‘7’ that makes the difference here but the particular combination with other numbers. Moreover, my perception of beauty in these numbers has nothing to do with their arithmetical or number theoretic properties. This perception of numbers as beautiful continues for a while but fizzles out somewhere below 1000; after that the ‘appearance’ of the numbers is of little interest or importance to me, though some older perceptions persist and affect my take on even larger numbers. For instance, because I find ’77’ ugly, I find any number ending in those two digits ugly. So acute is the perception of some numbers beauty or ugliness, that I can barely stand to see them; I find ‘111’ ugly and don’t even like seeing it in print. Some other beautiful numbers below 100 are: 54, 86, 84, 76–these are all even numbers; some odd numbers I find ‘beautiful’ are: 71, 63. I have noticed that I find more even numbers beautiful than I do the odd ones, suggesting to me that odd numbers seem ‘incomplete’ or not ’rounded off’ to me. My daughter’s birthday falls on the 23rd of a month; I remember being vaguely disappointed at that birth date; a 24 or a 26 would have ‘looked much better’; ‘even’ a 25 would have better.
  4. Lastly, I see the numbers ranging from 0-100 in a kind of spatial grid and not arranged along a number line. The grid looks like a stack of ten rows and ten columns; the first row runs from 0 to 10, the second row from 11-20, and so on till the tenth row which runs from 91-100. If I’m watching a game of any kind in which the score–whether team or individual–advances from 0 onwards to 100, and possibly beyond, I see it advancing along this grid. I suspect that my lifelong history as fan of a sport obsessed with statistics–cricket–has had something to do with the enhancement of this vision.

Wikipedia defines synesthesia as:

Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia; from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, “together”, and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, “sensation“) is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[1][2][3][4] People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme-color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.[5][6] In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).[7][8]Synesthetic associations can occur in any combination and any number of senses or cognitive pathways.[9]

Based on these definitions, I am inclined to think I’m a synesthete of a sort. I welcome comments from folks who report similar perceptual experiences.

Learning From Injuries

An injury is always a learning experience. Most straightforwardly, if you are an active type, you acquire the dreadful knowledge of the precipitous drop in mood that follows one. There is also the terrible castigation, the self-flagellation that is the inevitable accompaniment to such disasters: there is always, in retrospect, some decision that was fatal, some fork that should not have been taken, there is always some moment you wish you could have back to dispose of all over again, that fatal instant before you hurt yourself. And even if you aren’t an active type, you very quickly encounter the most basic, and of course, valuable, lesson of all:  privation makes more precious the ordinary, the mundane, the weekday. Experience pain, and pain-free existence appears miraculous, salubrious, the most pleasurable state of being of all; you look back upon your pain-free times as halcyon days, hopefully to be revisited in the near future. You realize how terrible the suffering of those must be who live in a state of chronic pain; as you sense your mental fabric unravel, you wonder how they keep theirs together.

You learn about the essential automaticity of the body; on the occasion of an injury, there is little for ‘us,’ for ‘me’ to do, but sit back, and let the body do what it does best i.e., figuring out, how, given the resources available to it, it can get back to locomotion and physical activity as soon as possible. I pulled my calf this past Sunday; a limp appeared out of nowhere, unbidden and unprompted, and attached itself to my gait; my body had calculated the precise amount of pressure my left leg could bear and had made the appropriate adjustments elsewhere in my biomechanical frame; mess with that boundary even fractionally, and a sharp, agonizing pain in my calf muscle applied an immediate correction; there was no messing with my own personal taskmaster, the one that knew best how to accommodate any undisciplined silliness on my part. The body has a pace all its own, a method to its madness; there is accumulated wisdom here, acquired slowly and painfully through an evolutionary history. We now have occasion again to pay witness to it in action.

Lastly, you acquire knowledge about a new kind of euphoria, one that appears as hints of recovery make an appearance. As a spasmed muscle first begins to release, as pain provides the first indicators of a slow recession, we sense deliverance; we grasp at straws; we are grateful. We know we are merely destined to return to a state which we had been willing to scorn previously as merely ‘normal,’ but that destination now appears as the most desired of all. Sobbing with relief, we reassure ourselves we will be appropriately grateful for our daily blessings from now on; we will not take for granted what has been revealed to be a rare and precious treasure. We do this even as we know that we will not; that we will all too quickly return to the blasé acceptance of our fortunes. Till the next misfortune.

George Steiner On The ‘Unvoiced Soliloquy’ And Collaborative Creativity

In Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 84-85), in making note of the ‘anxiety of influence,’ and the valorization of solitary creativity, George Steiner writes:

I want to point to the elected presences which makers construe within themselves or within their works, to the “fellow-travellers,” teachers, critics, dialectical partners, to those other voices within their own which can give to even the most complexly solitary and innovative of creative acts a shared, collective fabric. Elsewhere,¹ I have tried to draw attention to what remains a terra incognita in linguistics, in poetics, in epistemology….It is that of inward speech, of the discourse we conduct incessantly with ourselves. This unvoiced soliloquy in fact contains the bulk of speech-acts; it far exceeds in volume language used for outward communication. It also, I suspect, is under formative or inhibiting pressures of historical-social circumstance, of the state of public vocabularies and grammars, though it may add to them elements of a private argot. It could well be that, in Western cultures until recently, soliloquy has been the unheard eloquence, vituperation, poetry of countless women. Our true familiars are the “selves” or fantom-auditors and respondents to whom we address the lexical-grammatical-semantic currents of silent speech. Our consciousness, even when our inward audition and notice are fitful, is a monologue of the many whose creative powers, whose capacity to generate terror or solace, illusion or inhibition, are as yet scarcely analysed.

In a post here on ‘Imagined Interlocutors‘ I had made note of the incessant conversations I have with myself–with real and imagined figures; inner conversation allows for argumentation with those absent, temporarily or permanently. I could not do without these conversations. Indeed, I often frame material I will write later, here or elsewhere, by means of a ‘conversation in the head’–mostly while walking. Talking to myself is thus an integral part of my ‘thinking’ and writing; even here, at this most elementary level, creativity and creation are not solitary endeavors but active collaborations–perhaps unsurprising for a being whose consciousness is not a unitary entity. Consider that a creative work is formed over time; its creator, an always-in-flux entity changes too. It is a commonplace for authors and poets and artists to find out that a piece long in the making is simply not viable anymore; they have changed, their work must in response. The harshest critics of our works always lurk within us. Fail muster with them, and you cannot proceed.

Steiner’s suggestion that soliloquy is often the voice of the otherwise silenced is provocative. Sometimes talking to oneself is the only recourse when conversation with a larger world is denied. The woman confined to the private sphere, the prisoner in solitary confinement, the survivor in the wilderness; in all of these circumstances, we find that we cannot stop talking–whether directed inwards, or at walls, or at animals and trees and ocean waves. It’s the best way we know of keeping sane, even if at the risk of being judged insane by others.

Note#1: Steiner cites his On Difficulty here.

On Seeking Out The Unpleasant For The Subsequent Relief

This past Saturday afternoon, after I had completed my abortive attempt to scale Mt. Washington, I returned–exhausted, bedraggled, and freezing–to my motel room in North Conway, NH. It was about 3:30 PM; I had stopped off on the way to pick up a cup of coffee (and had my car get stuck in the parking lot snow for a while; some good samaritans pushed it out for me.)

Once inside my room, I began peeling off my various layers of clothing, all inflicted with varying degrees of wetness from sweat and melting snow: a pair of soft-shell climbing pants, a pair of hiking pants, a ‘base layer’ of long-johns for the bottom, and then, up top, a heavy fleece jacket, a mid-weight jacket, a lighter jacket, a wool sweater, another lighter jacket, then a matching ‘base layer’ for the top. Off came the two pairs of gloves, one light, one heavy, and then, two pairs of ‘smart wool’ socks. I had planned to shower once I was indoors, but all I did was slip into a pair of shorts and get into bed. And there I lay for several hours, reading Nicholas Howe‘s Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, (a superb read, which I finished that night itself) and occasionally checking the news on CNN and MSNBC; later, for dinner, I ordered in some pizza. My fingers and toes cramped repeatedly; four fingers and two toes still burned and tingled and ached, showing signs of incipient frost-nip/bite (a diagnosis grimly confirmed now by blisters on two fingers); my throat was parched and I drank water by the liter.

It felt awesome.

And I couldn’t wait to subject myself to the same grim business I had subjected myself to earlier in the day: the rising at 530AM, the ‘gearing up,’ the exhausting plodding through deep snow, the freezing cold on my face and fingers and toes, the biting wind, the clumsy climbing and slipping, the constant reminders of my lack of co-ordination, the persistent doubt and fear about the venture I was undertaking. And I was willing to do this again because I knew that at the end of those trials and tribulations would lie the pleasurable recovery, the basking in the glow of aching muscles and a slowly warming body. I had ‘failed’ to reach the summit; I had been beaten back down by a combination of bad weather and my own weaknesses. A stronger, fitter, more skilled climber might have made it to the top; I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from ‘enjoying’ that late afternoon and evening of recovery.

Very often, we voluntarily subject ourselves to the painful and the uncomfortable not just because we can, because we want to find out whether we can endure those states of being, but also because we know that the relief station at the terminus of the unpleasant is especially salubrious. The ordinary pleasure becomes extraordinary within those precincts; we enjoy a form of sensory and perceptual enhancement there quite unlike any other. We have altered our state of consciousness radically; pain is understood differently now. It signals not trauma now, but something else altogether.

The prospect of such relief might be compelling enough to make us want to subject ourselves to the trials required beforehand; that pleasure is sweet enough is to draw us on, upwards and onwards through zones of persistent discomfort. And to make us want to go back again for seconds.

Honey And Me And Quining Qualia

I grew up loathing honey. I preferred jams: plum, orange. apple, ‘mixed fruit,’ gauva, mango, marmalade. Toasted bread with thick white cream and jam; never honey. Honey was just a little ‘sickly-sweet;’ its taste was a ‘little off.’ It crossed some permissible boundary of ‘sweetness’ and became cloying; it sent shudders through me. I couldn’t wait to get a drink of water, washing out the offending affect. My taste was inexplicable; I could not make sense of it when I made my reluctance to consume honey known. I stood by, a mere onlooker, as others around me sang paeans to its glory.

But then, just as mysteriously, shortly after I moved to the US, I began adoring honey. The ‘taste of honey’ was now a glorious treat, the right attribute of a nectar of sorts. I liked honey with crackers and cheese, on toasted bagels, in iced tea, lemonade–all of it. Sugar seemed a crude sweetener, its ‘taste’ not ‘complex’ enough; honey gave off the right airs of sophistication. Had I, in ‘growing up,’ finally found, in this new maturity, the right apparatus to process honey’s ‘taste’? Or was the honey just ‘better’?

Time rolled by; I found myself growing distant from honey again. Its ‘taste’ lost its standing on the pedestal I had erected for it, and now mingled with the masses. I grew suspicious of sugar and sweeteners and things that gave you insulin spikes; like many men north of the forties, I possessed a new-found rectitude at the dinner table, the salad bar, the diner counter. Honey’s ‘taste’ acquired connotations and allusions; honey entered the precinct marked ‘treats,’ its contents to be pilfered with care. The contrast with all else I ate grew, marking every encounter with honey with a distinctive shock of sorts. The ‘taste of honey’ ain’t what it used to be, no sir.

A curious business then, this ‘taste’ of honey.  Talking about ‘the taste of honey’:

presumes that we can isolate [it] from everything else that is going on….What counts as the way [honey tasted to me] can be distinguished , one supposes, from what is a mere accompaniment, contributory cause, or byproduct of this ‘central’ way. One dimly imagines taking [my tasting experiences] and stripping them down gradually to the essentials, leaving their common residuum, the way [honey tasted to me] at various times….The mistake is not in supposing that we can in practice ever or always perform this act of purification with certainty, but the more fundamental mistake of supposing that there is such a residual property to take seriously [Daniel Dennett, ‘Quining Qualia‘, in Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, Oxford University Press, (1988)].

If such thoughts are correct, then there was no ‘taste of honey’–always indexed by ‘to me’–there were only various experiences: ‘tasting-honey-during-my-childhood-years;’ ‘tasting-honey-after-I-migrated;’ ‘tasting-honey-as-a-forty-something’–the ‘taste of honey’–the way honey seems to me–is not something that can be drawn apart from these. There’s no articulable qualitative experience, independent of the surrounding ‘context.’

We’ve known this for other supposed qualia too, of course. That shortness of breath, that pounding in your chest, that fire in your legs, those reminders of your determination and outward bound spirit that herald the glory to come as you ascend a steep switchback with a cool wind raking your brow and the aroma of pine trees wafts by, if transplanted to a hospital ward with the sick visible, the smell of disinfectant in your nostrils, becomes ‘unbearable agony.’ There is no separable ‘pain’ here; just a different assemblage of my ‘world-sensation’, experienced differently thanks to its arrangement and presentation and internal relationships. We don’t experience the world as a bunch of separate parcels of sensation and phenomenal experience; the world comes to us a package with each component receiving its ‘meaning’ by its placement within the ‘field,’ by its relationships within it. What we notice, taste, see, smell, hear is a function of the arrangement of this field, and of course, our histories and anticipations (our ‘interests‘) which have performed this arrangement.

Straight Trippin’: Sartre, Mescaline, Nausea, Crabs

In a previous post, I had wondered whether Jean-Paul Sartre‘s description of Roquentin’s ‘vision in the park’ in Nausea was an indication of psychedelic experiences in Sartre’s past: Continue reading

‘Nausea’ And Psychedelia: Was Antoine Roquentin Tripping?

My re-reading of Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre‘s existentialist classic, for this semester’s independent study on existentialism has now prompted me to blog on it two days in a row.

Today, I find myself returning to a question which I had first considered a couple of decades ago during my first reading of Nausea: Was Antoine Roquentin tripping? Alternatively, did Sartre ever do psychedelics and incorporate some of those visions and experiences into his writing of Nausea?

This question should seem eminently reasonable to anyone who has either experienced psychedelics himself or read about the visions and experiences of those who have ingested psychedelics. For it is all here in Roquentin’s reports: the sheer, stark, apparently unmediated access to reality and being and existence, the sheer particularity and uniqueness of things, and yet at the same time, the dawning realization that reality and appearance are woven together, that–to use Dewey‘s words, “thought is intrinsic to experience,” that consciousness is constructive and constitutive. Like those who set out on psychedelic trips, Roquentin is overpowered and awed by his noticing, as if for the first time, his and the world’s being and existence.

This psychedelic aspect of Roquentin’s visions is most manifest in his famous “vision” in the park, the most philosophically rich section of Nausea. (I do not think it is a coincidence that Sartre uses “vision” here to describe Roquentin’s experiences here.) Here the “individuality” of things melts away, leaving them “naked.” Objects begin to exist so “strongly” that their very existence is almost painful to experience–just as in psychedelic visions, trippers report the almost painfully sharp clarity they now suddenly possess of the world around them. The black roots of the chestnut tree present themselves to Roquentin in all their sensuality, an overwhelming and overpowering one.

Like those who trip, Roquentin comes to realize the world is simultaneously absurd and yet potentially filling to the brim with meaning. Like them, he realizes the interplay of word and world, even as he realizes “the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions.” The tripper comes to realize his sight is not innocent, providing unmediated access to reality; instead, it itself is conditioned by a particular state of consciousness so that “sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas.” He realizes that he cannot stop thinking, that “my thought is me; that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think…and I can’t stop myself from thinking.” Those who have tripped are very often amenable to the idea that through meditative experiences, through flirtations with the no-thought experience that might be possible therein, they will experience the no-self the Buddha spoke about.

Huxley spoke of the psychedelic vision providing access to Heaven and Hell. Roquentin speaks of the “horrible ecstasy” he experiences in the park; it is frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. It leaves him “breathless” and makes him realize that up until that moment, he had not “understood the meaning of ‘existence.'” (Unlike trippers, of course, Roquentin does not feel the urge to have the entire mass of humanity share the experience with him.)

The thoughts I offer here, and the parallels I note, are merely suggestive, but I find them intriguing enough to make them explicit. A much closer read of Nausea accompanied by a comparison with classics of psychedelic literature–like Huxley’s The Doors of Perception–should be very rewarding. More on that anon.