I was certain synaesthesia meant the simultaneous convergence of at least two senses, perhaps a paradox, sensual satori. Like one of Oliver Sacks’ patients, you hear music and simultaneously see colors dancing before you, Northern Lights for one.
Being a packrat of dictionaries, I flushed out my OED (1982 edition), my Kidd’s Latin dictionary (whoops, etymology is Greek!), my Webster’s New World, the 12th edition of Taber’s Encyclopedic Medical Dictionary, and last but not least, my 1914 edition of The Century Dictionary: the OED and Webster’s said nothing—nada—and the latter two simply define the word as stimulus from one sense that produces an effect in another. To me those private Northern Lights are the music (though not an absolute contradiction of my definition, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, I want the word to mean what I mean, dammit!).
Synaesthesia is the opposite of anesthesia; and so I think of it as enabling one to be profoundly alive to the senses, rather than lost to them.
Which calls to mind Laurie Saurborn Young’s “Appearance of the Deer Woman: Diptychs,” a piece that combines photograph and a slow utterance of words, a dirge for the narrator’s grandmother. Every word has heft; but the photographs are odd, out of focus or taken a detail-negating distance away. Not decorative.
Let me backtrack a moment: illustration or word/image (wimage?). Recall the illustrations in old, old children’s stories: E.H. Shepherd’s, of Wind in the Willows; Howard Pyle’s, of Book of Pirates; the scary ones by I-am-not-sure-who in an old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Here, boundary is key: illustrations exist in a separate, parallel universe from the word, framed, sometimes situated pages away from what they illustrate. Photography’s boundaries are even more pronounced; for we long believed that photographs were sacred—irrefutable replicas of “the truth,” admissible in a court of law, inviolable. How dare you paw over the truth? Well, this supposed truth ignores the vulnerability of light, cast on a light sensitive surface, to manipulation, to use as a visual artist uses image, as slanted as the writer’s word.
Young’s “Deer Woman” photos clearly quote older visual art: side by side paintings, like a notebook, most in medieval incarnation, events sequenced left to right—e.g., van der Weyden’s “Diptych of Jeanne of France,” Hieronymus Bosch’s “Paradise and Hell.” These do not “illustrate” so much as narrate.
The utterance of words, the mutter of photographs. Plain spoken, Young’s language does not grandstand; neither garish, nor slick with no substance, it is photographic. The photos are Kirilian, eerie: is that the head of a deer, or just a blur from a wobbly camera? Closest to illustration, is that a shot of something/someone crouched down? Is it, as the text states, a hybrid impossibility, deer and woman, folding in on itself?
Simple test: what would this evocative text about a deer-slaying, tough but loved grandmother passing into spirit—what would it communicate without the photographs? I think you will see, as poet Kenneth Patchen once put it, when discussing his picture poems, that the images do “extend” this quiet and most magical work when words fail, at a time when the person you have loved is there, but most assuredly not there at all.
Laurie Saurborn Young’s “Appearance of the Deer Woman: Diptychs“