Visiting the mysterious, and staying awhile
Once upon a time, in a tropical land, many young people ingested a rather large amount of Psilocybemushrooms. We were between jungle and reef, at an edge between worlds. The coarse sand was strewn both with leaves from the forest, and shells from the sea. There was no place else that we needed to be that day.
I was young myself, although not quite so young as most of the others, and I advised them to draw blue.
Draw blue, I said, as I lay back in a hammock and watched them try to do so, in the coarse sand, with sticks. You might imagine—as I think I did—that the best approaches would be to draw something inherently, enduringly, blue. The sky. A blue jay. A morpho butterfly. Blueberries. As it turned out, this was not the best approach.
The best renderings were entirely abstract. I have no memory of what those best renderings were. If I took pictures at all, which I doubt that I did, those pictures are on film somewhere, in a box of slides, waiting to be sorted. It was that long ago. But I do remember that some abstractions managed to feel like blue in a way that representative drawings in the sand did not.
How do you evoke a color without a color? Do particular colors have symbolic meaning that can be transmitted without language?
Synesthesia is the interweaving of senses that we consider distinct. We presume that hard borders surround each of the senses for reasons of biology. And once we have declared a thing biological, well, it is easy, if not correct, to assume that propriety attaches to the thing, too. It can seem a little untoward to let sensory experiences slide together, the boundaries blurring. And yet slide they sometimes do.
When we shock our system with intense sensory experience, we feel possibilities more acutely, at least for a bit. Take a sauna or a cold plunge. Walk out into a melting bright day from inside a spare, dim house. Leave the sturm und drang of wild surf to enter a thick walled cave, the only sound the occasional drip of water from the ceiling. Be in awe.
Take yourself out of yourself sometimes, in any way that you can. Go somewhere new. Face a different direction. Read or watch something you have previously rejected. Observe a squirrel. Talk to a stranger.
This week I was sitting at the bar of one of my very favorite restaurants, waiting for my table. I already had a delicious drink in front of me, and was focused elsewhere when one of the two women to my left said, with some joy, “this tastes blue.”
I looked up, at her drink. It was an intense, pale blue, like the waters of the Bahamas.
I don’t know what it tasted like. My drink wasn’t blue. Her drink did look like it tasted blue. But what does that mean? Didn’t it just look like it looked blue, and therefore the expectation is that, in every other way that one might sense blueness, this drink would satisfy those expectations as well?
But I wonder what a blind test would have revealed. Would blue have emerged as a dominant taste, absent the visual input? If you can draw blue without using blue, does that suggest that blueness exists outside of the visual? If physics assures us that blue is what light of a wavelength between 450 and 495 nanometers looks like, then how can blue exist in one’s head, a place without light?
Does blue have a feel? Is it soft, or cold, or corrugated? Does it have a sound? Is it the sound of the sky? Or the ocean? Or—confusingly—might it be the sound of a toucan, a clarinet, a steam train?
Stay in the synesthesia when it comes upon you. Welcome the fuzzy boundaries. Embrace the mystery.
My drink was brown, and tasted of whiskey and bitters, of cacao and citrus. Maybe I know that because I tasted those flavors. But I definitely know that because I read the description on the menu before I ordered it. What, then, is the nature of sensory knowledge, in a world where we are told in advance what to expect? How much more interesting, at least sometimes, to let experience come before expectation.
Have you ever considered writing creatively, in the sense of fiction or poetry? I feel like your nonfiction prose is bursting at the seams, rippling under the skin with portent. It would be interesting to see what your mind would come up with if you gave it free reign.
I have never really tasted colors although the taste of cinnamon will always be associated with the color red to me because of the packaging. Think Dentyne gum and red heart candies. A friend of mine shared my taste for IPA's and swore that he could taste lime in a green-bottled brand. I could not but as I get older, I think my sense of taste is getting less acute. I think that I like my food spicier than I did when I was younger.