Synaesthesia – the power of words


The opening page of Douglas MacDiarmid’s biography ‘Colours of a Life’ reveals that he has always seen things in colour – even the days of the week. It turns out there is a name for this state of being: synaesthesia…a neurological trait or condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses. Someone with synaesthesia may hear colour or see sound, or vice versa, and some even taste sound. Such a delicious word transported Douglas straight back to his love of language and the origins of words. Just the distraction needed as his 96th birthday month November 2018 slipped into December, with Paris reeling from yet another week of violent public protests over government measures to increase fees and taxes to address carbon emissions and climate change.

“Indeed, yes, nothing like good, pure old Greek in all its sheer beauty to serve the needs of today,” he observed. “When something new has to be named, quick, Greek to the rescue. The word for ‘white’ is ‘aspro’, so a little white pill. Latin has a different contribution, being the pure basis of Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese. English is a hotch-potch of predominating Germanic origins enriched by these European tongues, plus words culled from a widespread empire. The result is its unparalleled richness.  However I think we’ll always need  to dive back in to our classic past for inspired refreshment. It’s all there, for ever. Talking of diving, take the Greek word for ‘sea’ :  ‘Thalassa’ (accent on the ‘tha’). Can’t you just hear that big wave followed by the rattling of little stones & shells! But for intellectual intuition, penetration & grasp, it remains a mystery how, without our scientific technology was a Greek philosopher able to declare a good 5 centuries BC, that everything flows and is in movement.  (Panta réi). When now, a civilisation owing so much to the ancient world as France does, loses sight of these roots, all collapses into the stupid, destructive, civil warfare raging here right now.”

This accompanying painting has nothing to do with synaesthesia, but it does capture the mood of the moment in France. In Douglas’ hands you can almost smell the frustration and danger of the mob…as potent as it was when painted in 1982 during an earlier period of angry French demonstrations. After the actions, we are left with the words to bring reason to an ugly situation, or at least smooth things over until the next tipping point.

TIME XII: Contemporary Manipulated Anger 1982
TIME XII: Contemporary Manipulated Anger 1982
       Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018) here or purchase it in person from all good bookstores across New Zealand.                        Published by Mary Egan Publishing (July 2018)
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