08 July 2007

Charles Williams & Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia: A Key to Charles Williams & The Meaning of Life

This is the abstract for a paper I hope to write someday. Do you have any ideas of a conference or periodical that might be interested in a paper like this? I'm limited to the NorthEastern US for the moment, or else I'd submit to that CW conference in England!

ABSTRACT: Synaesthesia, according to the OED, is “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense of part of the body.” Derived from the Greek for blended feeling, it is used as an analogy: a figure of speech in which the data of one sense is interpreted in terms of another. This is how Charles Williams wrote, and perhaps how his often befuddled readers can better comprehend the meanings and patterns in his apparent obscurity. In his fiction, Williams always connected natural/phenomenal events with supernatural/ archnatural/ noumenal realities in a direct, startling, and physical way. Thus, the Platonic Archetypes manifest themselves as visible animals; the power of the Tarots creates tangible dirt; intellectual corruption has a hideous odor like decay.
This is mode of operation is not foreign to the Christian church. The sacraments are synaesthetic: physical water, bread, and wine correspond to intangible events and realities. Christ Himself made the ultimate synaesthetic statement: “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). How can coming assuage hunger and believing quench thirst? Only synaesthetically.
The incarnation itself was a synaesthetic figure of speech—“The Word became flesh.” Perhaps all material existence is analogous to the higher plain of reality in which we will have our sins literally washed away, ingest Christ, and co-inhabit one another. Williams called this co-inherence. His labyrinthine prose is an attempt to hold the interrelations of every perception with every sense: sacramentally, synthetically, synaesthetically.

Now here's just a funny poem of mine that's related to today's topic, for your reading enjoyment

Sonnet LXXVI

The grass begins to green, but still the trees
stand dull and hueless. One bright blue jay flings
extraordinary sky-and-white, like sea-
foam curling wave tips, past my car and sings
a silent tune of color contrasts, sharp
as sunlight, smooth as oceans, sudden as
this fleck of sparrow-flutter on the tar
consuming crumbs: a brown and brave ménage.
“Move, birdies! Move!” I cry; the quick flock moves
in time, and Spring’s still free to seed the earth
with sparrow blossoms and bold blue jay blooms,
with fields of waving teal and seas of dirt:
brown on brown and blue on brown have wings;
I can hear them fly and I can see them sing.

~ Admonit


Rosie Perera said...

The Bible has some wonderfully synaesthetic references: "Taste and see that the Lord is good." (Ps 34:8) "For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing." (2 Cor 2:15) Ezekiel's (Ezek 3:3) and John's (Rev 10:9-10) experiences of eating the scrolls symbolizing the prophetic word of God and them tasting as sweet as honey, but in John's case turning his stomach sour. I can't think of any others off the top of my head, but I bet there are more.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Rosie! That's great.

Rosie Perera said...

Here are some more: "The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: 'Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though [a] every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.'" (Gen 8:21, representative of many burnt offering passages in the OT) "Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, 'Now, I have put my words in your mouth.'" (Jer 1:9) "How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Ps 119:103) "Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste." (Song 2:3) "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" (Matt 5:13, and other similar passages in the gospels) "People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed." (Matt 14:35b-36, and other similar passages, like the woman who touched the edge of his garment and was healed, and the blind men who were healed when Jesus touched their eyes) "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?" (1 Cor 12:17) "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." (Col 4:6) "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good." (1 Pet 2:2-3) There's the story (in Mark 14, Luke 7, and John 12) of the prostitute pouring perfume on the Lord. And the women anointing his body with perfumes and spices. And the larger context of that 2 Cor quote I mentioned above: "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:14-16)

Indeed all of the senses are involved, metaphorically if not literally, in relating to God, and he uses his senses too, in relating to us. The healing of the senses is used as a major symbol and foreshadowing of the coming restoration of all things. "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped." (Isa 35:5) And the lack of senses is key in the portrayal of idols: "They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel..." (Ps 115:5-7; if only "taste" were used instead of "speak" there, this would have been the most complete inventory of all five senses in Scripture).

Iambic Admonit said...

There's a new biography of CW in the making! Very desperately needed, as the only extant biography is really very poor. Hooray!