Getting in touch with our confused feelings

A report in the Monitor's pages of a young musician who associates musical intervals with specific flavors on her tongue was a fascinating example of what scientists call synesthesia - a response in one sensory mode to a stimulus in another. Associating musical tones with colors is a common type of synesthesia, but the musician my esteemed colleague wrote about identifies a perfect fourth with mown grass, for instance, and a minor sixth with cream. (See "A musician who tastes each chord - literally," March 24 Monitor, page 17.)

Hey, whatever it takes to keep you on pitch. (I would have expected cream to be a major sixth myself.)

Synesthesia is perhaps one of the further-out branches of a topic I've been investigating over the past few years: the vocabulary of sensory impression.

A shared experience is a validated experience, whether it's, "Do you see that red-winged blackbird over there?" or "Did you feel the chill in the room after she made that comment about his ex-wife?"

Hence the value of being able to describe one's experiences as fully as possible. After all, if I can't be sure that my "red" is the same as your "red," what hope do we have that "our democracy," for instance, can possibly be "their democracy"?

I'm not always sure whether it's synesthesia or just confusion that governs some people's description of sensory perception. During last year's presidential campaign, I heard a great sound bite from a fortunate resident of one of those "battleground" communities, where office-seekers actually come to court voters: "We're tactile," a man told a radio reporter. "We like to see our candidates."

What he presumably meant by "see" was "see in person," which gives an opportunity to "press the flesh," as they say. And that, of course, is legitimately described as "tactile."

Speaking of tactility, I'm struck by how often I hear or read of people speaking of something having this or that kind of "feel" where I would expect it to have a "look" (a movie, for instance) or a "sound" instead.

A film reviewer in the Midwest blasts a recent Hollywood release: "The movie has the feel of a mass of indifferent footage that was salvaged by heavy editing and dialogue dubbing."

And The Guardian had this to say about Australian novelist Thomas Keneally's latest: "Whether intentionally or not, 'The Tyrant's Novel' has the feel of a book written in a hurry."

Hmm. Is "feel" the right sense to invoke to discuss a novel? Perhaps - in that a novelist can create a whole world the reader more or less moves into until the book is finished.

In the world of Harry Potter fandom, meanwhile, there's a bit of buzz about the soundtrack for the next "Harry" film that manages to fuse - or confuse - sound, sight, and touch. A number of John Williams's original themes will be in the soundtrack, including "Hedwig's Theme" with a "darker feel."

The Akron Beacon Journal recently ran a story on the stage set for a dinner-theater production of "Beauty and the Beast." The article described how the musical is meant for adults. It quoted the artistic director as saying, "It's definitely a darker feel than the movie.'' Here we go again, I thought.

But it turns out he really meant it. The show was designed to spill out into the audience. "[Director] Cercone wants the show to be a sensory experience. 'You can touch, you can smell, you can taste if you wanted to.' "

It sounds as if he is in touch with his feelings, after all.

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