I’ve long been fascinated with the Zeitgeist, particularly how greater artistic and political movements affect and are affected by schools of writers. I am interested to see the literary community’s reaction (although that word might be too direct, acute) to the unreality subscribed to by so many Americans; a deluge of delusions, levied only by free press and vigilant truth-seeking, seeps through the cracks of the Oval Office on a daily basis. I’m picturing Steve Bannon at the base of the Hoover Dam, the hilt of his pickaxe brandished with a capital B, and the barrier that bridles those bigoted, nationalistic, hegemonic impulses—those that we hold, at arm’s length and with head turned, to be self-evident in the depths of American consciousness—begins to crack.
In my high school’s survey of American Literature (aka White Male Literature from the United States) we read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller, Pound, and Eliot; and, in a loose pairing with our American History course we learned about World War I, stream-of-consciousness, abstract art, recapitulation, prohibition, the decadence of the 1920’s…all of the historical and theoretical phenomena that shaped their work. It was during my freshman year of college that I took my first steps on that well-tread path to the Beat Generation. Yes, I do have a dog-eared copy of On The Road, and no, I do not idolize the Beats or pretentiously listen to jazz while sipping pour-over coffee and planning a road trip funded by some distant great aunt’s estate. But, I recommend the novel to anyone worried about what to do with their life (i.e. a freshman not sure what to major in, or a senior not sure where or how to get a ‘real’ job) for lines like these: “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop.” Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has a similar passage, the one about the fig tree—but, here, I’ll digress from my inner tempest…those inimical cyclonal forces of Senioritis and pre-post-graduation malaise…in order to return to my ‘real’ subject: the fin de siècle and the French Symbolists (Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Baudelaire.)
While I have owned a collection of Rimbaud’s poetry since my Beat-Generation days, I had not actually worked through any of it until a few weeks ago. I was writing an essay on Wallace Stevens’ use of synesthesia. Some of you might be familiar with the term on a psychopathological level, but the French Symbolist poets assigned literary and theoretical valences to the term almost as soon as it had been coined by psychoanalysts. In medicine the term describes the phenomenon of experiencing a sensation in one part or system of the body produced by stimulus to a different part or system of the body. For example, someone listening to Brahms might see colors; an auditory stimulus eliciting a visual response. However, in literature, synesthesia applies mostly to metaphors and descriptive language. The French Symbolists used the term to describe the affective sensation of descriptions that cross-reference and entangle the natural order of the senses. I turn to scholar Lauren Silvers from the University of Chicago, who frames an explanation of synesthesia from the psychoanalyst Théodore Flournoy: “Flournoy understood that synesthesia was not just the result of psychophysiological ‘association’ induced by certain classes of stimuli (such as numbers and words); rather, more fundamentally, the experience of synesthesia pointed to the physiological holism of the body: ‘First of all, from the physiological point of view, each of us is a model republic in which all parts are interconnected, and in which ‘everything touches everything else.’”
Consider some of these great sentences:
From A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway:
“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”
This is a beautiful sentence, although self-contradictory. If the pebbles and boulders are submerged in the river, then how can they be dry and white in the sun? The visual stimulus of the pebbles and boulders in the river evoke a sense of dryness in the tactile senses.
From As I Lay Dying, Faulkner:
“My mother is a fish.”
Clearly his mother is not a fish, but the phrase not only clues us in on the logic operating inside Vardaman’s head, it also conjures the smell of a decaying body.
And because I am vain, I will leave on a quote of mine that I found while researching for this article:
“Like the conch shell echoing the rush of blood within the ear, the senses submerge the immensity of the ocean.”
The crossing of senses requires abstraction to understand, and contrary to the beliefs of Romantic poets abstractions can offer complex representations of truth beyond the capabilities of the natural world.
Silvers quotes Guy de Maupassant from his recollection of experiencing synesthesia in the works of Baudelaire: “I asked myself how a modernist poet, from the symbolist school, would have rendered the confused nervous vibration that had just seized me, and that which seemed to me—to be frank—untranslatable.” I believe that all of us who write strive to achieve the affect that Maupassant describes.
I also believe that it is time that we as a literary community re-claim the unreality that has infected our political discourse. A faction of the current conservative has applied the principles of synesthesia in their creation of the mythic “Great America”—you’d be hard pressed to get an exact answer as to when and what the “Great America” was. History is always alive, always under revision; history is a narrative that shapes the present while reconfiguring itself to forge the future. This narrative of a lost “Great America” has captivated millions of Americans, and understanding their attraction to this myth is essential in the effort to combat its more destructive connotations. Consider the Alt Right’s misinformation, conspiratorial beliefs, and dismissal of measurable facts; these falsehoods only deepen the affective response of their constituents…much like how synesthesia can affect a reader. They’re telling a story, and we have to tell a better one. We have to reveal that their ideology was borne from a misstatement (possibly a joke) made by high school English teachers everywhere: that there is no “capital T” Truth. We have to demonstrate the power of subjectivity through storytelling, and re-assert the authority of objectivity. When there is video evidence that proves President Trump is lying, you can’t weasel out of it with an excuse about ‘what he really meant.’ When statistics, gathered in a reasonable manner, show something to be true, then one should not spread contrary information. The distortion of objectivity in politics results in “Alternative Facts,” but the distortion created by representations of subjectivity in literature has a different effect. Because literature relies on distortion, and often it is the shading of a subject’s lens that can reveal human-truths mired in ideology, political predilection, and bigotry. Human-truths are the things that we know through feeling: ideas of morality and social justice, and how shitty President Trump’s tailor is. “Capital T” truths are things like statistics on climate change, statistics on crime and immigration, the number of murders committed by refugees. Those are things that we cannot, and should not alter, because they undermine the credibility of the collective story we are telling. This story belongs to all of us, and we must fight for it. It is the story of America.
Written by Caleb S.