Friday, May 06, 2011

Synaesthetes and trouble - there seems to be a connection

I had not been familiar with the American painter Joan Mitchell till recently, but apparently she was quite a colourful character - in all senses of the word. Mitchell had some of the more common colour-related types of synaesthesia, she used colour in a striking way in her work and she had a colourful life, with much hard-drinking, arguing and defiance of gender stereotypes. "She was a piece of work!" according to the art critic Irving Sandler, and it has been claimed that conflict was Mitchell's favourite form of entertainment. Patricia Albers has written a biography of the prickly painter titled "Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life" which will, no doubt, be a most interesting read.

If I ever manage to find the time and iron out my current technical issues with blogging I expect I will add Mitchell to my list of famous synaesthetes. One thing that I've noticed with the people in this list or who will be added to this list is that a number of them have created controversy or controversial works. Lady Gaga has recently spoken about her coloured-song synaesthesia and her sense of alienation as a teen. Her outlandish theatrical stunts during her concerts and bizarre and scanty outfits appear to be designed to shock and awe. Another coloured-music synaesthete, Syd Barrett, wrote Pink Floyd's first hit single, Arnold Layne, which was once banned from airplay by Radio London. The song is about a transvestite who stole women's clothes and undergarments from washing lines, possibly an autobiographical theme.

On a more intellectual plane, a number of creative synaesthete novelists have created banned or controversial works. Writer Vladimir Nabokov was a synaesthete who married a synaesthete and had a synaesthete son. He wrote about his synaesthesia and also created a number of synaesthete characters in his novels, which unfortunately mostly aren't stocked in the public library system in the state where I live. Nabokov's most famous novel Lolita was told from the point of view of a paedophile, inevitably making it controversial. The novel was banned in France for two years in the 1950s.

In 2009 the English author Julie Myerson found herself at the centre of a controversy about the ethics of writing about one's own children following the publication of the partly-autobiographical novel The Lost Child. Among the many other books by Myerson is one in which she described her dislike of sport as a high school student.

The Australian novelist Eleanor Dark was probably best known for her historical novels, but an early novella of hers published in 1934, Prelude to Christopher, won an ALS Gold Medal and was one of the first Australian novels to have a modernist style. This novel tackled touchy subjects such as eugenics, sexual morality and pacifism. In 2008 a relative of Dark's, Helen O'Reilly, who did a thesis on Dark's novels argued in a literary magazine that Dark was a synaesthete. In her University of New South Wales thesis she compared Dark with Nabokov.

So, it appears that there is possibly a connection between being a synaesthete and creating controversy. Synaesthesia is thought to be a neurological condition that promotes creativity, so perhaps this should not be surprising. So if you think I'm trouble or you don't like some of the things that I write, please bear in mind - my synaesthesia made me do it!

A Fiercely Gifted Artist.
Karen Wilkin
Wall Street Journal
May 7th 2011

Painter Joan Mitchell Finally Gets Her Due.
ANN LEVIN For The Associated Press
May 2, 2011

Albers, Patricia (2011) Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

56 famous synaesthetes or possible synesthetes: a list with references

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