Cinematic Transcendence From a Synaesthetic Perspective

(A Review of Michael Snow's Wavelength & David Rimmer's Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper)

Kenneth Hemmerick

Originally published in Lonergan Review Number 6 - Canada's Film Century: Traditions, Transitions, Transcendence

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Synaesthesia can present itself in many forms. Chromaesthesia, or coloured hearing, is the most common. People who experience chromaesthesia report seeing colours when listening to music or hearing sounds. Another manifestation of chromaesthesia includes seeing coloured letters and words. Some synaesthetes report coloured olfaction and name-colour associations.

Cytowic reports the wide variety of synaesthetic experience. Polymodal letters and numbers; number form, simple synaesthesia, coloured auras, musical and word or letter tastes and smells, colourless number forms, visual smell, audioalgesic touch, shaped pain, coloured music keys and geometric hearing are other forms of synaesthesia.16 Cytowic has recorded the cerebral blood flow of a synaesthete during his experiencing of intense synaesthesia, revealing an abnormal pattern of brain activity.17

He argues that synaesthesia is in the left hemisphere, is not "cortical" in conventional sense, and involves temporal lobe-limbic structures.18 Studies of blood flow among synaesthetes are being continued and are concerned with the examination of coloured speech synaesthesia using Positron Emission Tomography.19 These studies, and others, point to direct physiological evidence of synaesthetic experience.20

However, there exist intersensory correspondences that fall under the rubric of synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a term that refers to the transposition of sensory images or sensory attributes from one modality to another, as where the mellow tones of a lover's voice flow in a kaleidoscope of colour, or where the sundry flavours of dinner come alive in melody. Probably the most common form - certainly the most thoroughly studied - is visual hearing, where sounds take on the accoutrements of sight.21

Synaesthesia becomes quite apparent to us through language. When cross-modalities appear in language, they typically take the form of similes or metaphors. The cross-sensory or synaesthetic expression provides one of the simplest kinds of metaphoric language, in which one mode of sensory or perceptual experience transfers to another.22

We commonly speak of loud colours and bitter cold. Kipling wrote of an orient where "the dawn comes up like thunder." The historical roots of such metaphors are old. Chapter 20 of Exodus informs that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive from Jehovah the Ten Commandments, the Israelites waited below: "And all the people saw thundering, and lightening, and the voice of the shofar, and the mountains smoking." Although many of the English translations give perceived in lieu of saw, the Hebrew verb "Rahah" refers specifically, metaphorically, synaesthetically to sight.23

Metaphor derives from two Greek words: meta, which means "over and above," and pherein, which means to "bear across." A metaphor allows a leap across a chasm from one thought to the next.24

In the same way, synaesthetic experience is revealed in metaphoric description and interpretation, and is a common cross-modal activity. Synaesthetic percepts tend to follow conventional trends ofconnative meaning. In coloured hearing, for example, both synaesthetes and normals matched low pitches with large dark photisms; high pitches with light, small photisms and louder sounds with brighter, larger photisms. The difference is that synaesthetes actually report seeing an external photism; whereas normals imagine that these "go together" appropriately. Synaesthesia carries special interest because there is evidence that it represents something much more general, perhaps even universal, than an idiosyncrasy peculiar to a small number of people. Rather than being "abnormal," synaesthetic perception may rest on a universal undercurrent of cross-modal experience.25

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© 2006 Kenneth Hemmerick