Dry November: Day 15

November 15, 2018

Halfway there. It’s been a good few weeks and productive, though what to do next with my life is not yet clear. But one day at a time. Today I’ll be writing on The Clock, Bergman’s Dreams, and General Magic.

Lately I‘ve been wondering whether writing isn’t always, to some extent, synesthetic. I don’t mean seeing numbers as colours or dates as spatial distance (though these phenomena are fascinating). I mean that writing seeks to represent one sense with another, with which it ought, by rights, to be incompatible. If I watch a film or performance, which has occupied the majority of my recent writing, there is a sense in which words, which are sounds reduced into visual symbols, should not be able to capture any of the experience. And yet there is something that words can capture.

On the other hand, perhaps I fixate on the narrative elements of what I am seeing. If that’s the case, then the synesthesia might happen earlier. I see a film, from the sights and sounds I form a narrative in my mind, and the writing I do later refers to this narrative rather than anything actually seen or heard. So the jump from visual to verbal had already happened at the time of the experience, and everything subsequent is verbal.

That could be partially true, but often the notes I take later call imagery to mind. I am not merely re-working the words from notes into other words. Those notes are pointers to memories which are often visual or auditory. They are also usually impressionistic. These jumps too—making a note, recalling from notes—feel synesthetic.

The process seems to me to be: See a film, which is light and sound. The mind processes those experiences in real-time, with almost no conscious control, into concepts and snapshots, that the memory imperfectly stores. Making a note means labelling this snapshot with symbols, as a reminder. Re-reading notes helps to call back the instant at which one took the note. This snapshot can be further reflected upon, or combined with other snapshots, to create a narrative structure, which one can then render back into words. Or perhaps these were already rendered into words by thinking itself, and writing is an act of translation.

The question remains whether this narrative retains any of its original visual or auditory content. I’m aware that Wittgenstein wrote about colour. I believe this was partially about the inability of language to say anything about colour in the absence of experience. I suspect language is too distant to contain the stimulus itself; maybe it can only summarise the writer’s response to the stimulus.

The artifice of cinema is partly what provokes the question. Lived experience also comes in mostly through sound and vision, but because it has a stronger illusion of having “really” happened, our irrepressible narrative-making mechanism does not seem so strange. It’s probable that seeing a film is the same thing our mind is always doing with lived experience, which is abstracting concepts from sensory input, then narratives from these concepts.

This has nothing to do with drinking, except possibly that abstention changes the nature of one’s thoughts. For the worse, one might argue, if my thoughts here are any indication.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.