A Synesthetic Adventure

by on Thursday, 29 October 2009 Comments
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
which buzz around cruel smells,
Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
in anger or in the raptures of penitence;
U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
the peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;
O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
silences crossed by [Worlds and by Angels]:
–O the Omega! the violet ray of [His] Eyes!
Arthur Rimbaud, 1871

In his poem ’Vowels’, Rimbaud creates metaphors which associate letters to colours and colours to images, shapes, and feelings. This kind of association is called synesthesia which is originally a neurologically based phenomenon where several senses are associated. For example, as in this poem, letters or numbers can be perceived as coloured whilst words can evoke taste or gustative sensations. Synesthesia is also very common in music: we can talk about the colour of the voice or the tint of a melody. To the extent that the expression ’blues’ became a music style. Some people even say that souls are coloured. A friend once told me that he used to see coloured auras around certain persons, he said that though he knew these colours were psychological, he saw them as real as strokes from a paintbrush. Later on, he shut down this ’gift’, he confided to me, because the colours were getting darker and darker.

Indeed every colour carries a symbolic meaning. Some of these connotations seem rooted in the culture and become incarcerated in certain mindsets. For western societies, black is obviously the colour for death and evil. More generally, green has become the near universal sign of permission and authorisation thanks to traffic lights. Yellow is associated with sex in the Chinese world (porn movies can also be called ‘yellow movies’), while for the Colombians it brings good luck if they wear yellow underwear on new years eve because yellow is similar to the colour of gold. I also knew a Japanese who had a strange synesthesia, he couldn’t wear yellow underwear, as it reminded him of the rutting season.

Colours...at the same time so universal and so subjective. Scientists say that our eyes do not even see the same colours; vocabulary for example shows the discrepancy between the different perceptions of tints: one says this colour is bluish whilst the other affirms that it is greenish. In fact none of them are right or wrong; in French ’teal’ is almost equally called bleu canard (Blue Duck) or vert canard (Green Duck).

So the point is to precisely explore our different perceptions of colours and the way they influence or change our appreciation of our environment. I have lived in France for more than twenty years and now I have been living in Taiwan for more than four years. When I close my eyes, I see the mole grey of the Parisian macadam and I can almost smell the ozone scent of the evaporating rain. When I open them, I see the green hills that surround the basin of Taipei, my first vision of the city when I arrived from the airport and I can smell the perfume of the night jasmine which permeates through the waft of the cockroaches feces scattered in the brown and dark alleys of the night market.

However I invite you not to close your eyes but to open them wide to the photographs on Taiwan presented here and maybe create your own synesthetic adventure.

(Picture: Athena’s This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )
Cerise Phiv (張俐紫)

Former Managing Editor of eRenlai.com


Tweets @cerisefive

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