Wednesday 14 April 2010


She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.
   - The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

Synaethesia is either a mental condition whereby colours are perceived as smells, smells as sounds, sounds as tastes etc, or it is a rhetorical device whereby one sense is described in terms of another. If colours are harmonious, or a voice is silky, that is synaesthesia (or some other spelling).

It is a common enough device, except that there seem to be rules, or norms governing which senses can be coupled. Sight and sound are interchangeable. Quite aside from John Lennon's request to George Martin that the orchestration of Strawberry Fields should be "orange", colours can be loud or discordant while melodies can be bright and rumblings dark. Tone is even an ambiguous word that can be applied to either sense, and I thoroughly recommend Ernest Bloch's Sketches in Sepia. (I omit colours that are purely symbolic: blues music is no more blue than blue movies are).

Touch can be applied to sound - a gravelly voice - and to the warm colours of a painting. But rarely is the favour returned, indeed I can't think of a single example.

Taste gives you a couple of terms of approbation - delicious and tasty - and of deprecation - bland or disgusting. But again it receives no thanks from its fellow senses.

And smell. Smell sits apart on his own, blowing his nose. Odious, before you ask, means hateful and has nothing to do with odour. Rank and pungent have, over the centuries, been sent as emissaries to the other senses, but that is all and it is possible to forget that words were ever native to a nostril. And smells are never described as being like anything else at all.

And that is why the Raymond Chandler line is so striking. Though the sense is quite discernible, the expression of it pulls you up short. The phrase is memorable in a way that it would never have been were it "she sounded the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight."

Synaesthesias of smell are jarring and effective. It is probably an easy shortcut to a memorable line. However, caution, dear reader, should be observed. You may not want your line to be remembered. Many critics have been wrong, some amazingly so, but few will be remembered verbatim as Eduard Hanslick was when he wrote of Tchaikovsky's First Violin Concerto that it showed there could be "music that stinks to the ear."

I shall leave you with an extract from A Rebours, in which our hero has constructed an organ that when the stops are touched gives out drinks. The idea was stolen and perhaps improved upon by Boris Vian in the wonderful L'Ecume des Jours.

Moreover, each liquor corresponded, according to his thinking, to the sound of some instrument. Dry curacoa, for example, to the clarinet whose tone is sourish and velvety; kummel to the oboe whose sonorous notes snuffle; mint and anisette to the flute, at once sugary and peppery, puling and sweet; while, to complete the orchestra, kirschwasser has the furious ring of the trumpet; gin and whiskey burn the palate with their strident crashings of trombones and cornets; brandy storms with the deafening hubbub of tubas; while the thunder-claps of the cymbals and the furiously beaten drum roll in the mouth by means of the rakis de Chio.

The whole can be read here. I may be wrong in all these observations and expect a cataract of counter-examples.

That's how she smelled

P.S. If you're reading this and you've got my copy of A Rebours, give it back before I track you down and hang you. Mrs Malaprop, same goes for you and my copy Ecume Des Jours, they don't publish that translation anymore.


  1. Wonderful post, Dogberry.

    Where do you stand on the colors of vowels? Science has demonstrated a link, but there is an ongoing argument about the exact correspondences. I'm very concerned by this issue.

    One researcher says A= black, I= red, U= green.

    However, another says U was more of a greenish blue...

    Which one shoudl I listen to, Dogberry?

  2. I have never even seen your copy of A Rebours. I think the froth book is somewhere in my files.

    This is a very interesting post. You should read the best perfume reviewers, though; they find many poetic ways to describe smell, including references to touch and sight and smell and sound... check out "Perfumes: The Guide", or blogs like boisdejasmin or nowsmellthis.

  3. A is very definitely yellow.

    When I was little (or at least when my younger brother was) we had a wall chart up in our room with letters and an illustration so A was apple, B Bucephalus, C Cicatrice etc. The letters were in bright colours and I think most letter-hue relationships probably come down to the wall chart manufacturers.

    Mrs M, I never accused you of having A Rebours, if I thought you had BOTH books I would be down Covent Garden way with my set of recreational scalpels and a beatific grin.

    P.S. Almost forgot the [only] good line from that horrible urination on Conrad's memory popularly known as Apocalypse Now: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning... smells like victory. Some day this war's going to be over"

  4. I recently heard a neurologist say that most children experience synaesthesia (associated with numbers, particularly) but that this tends to disappear around the age of 7.

    I'm enthralled by the things you have to say and the way you say them. Reading this post put me in heaven.

  5. I did some (very loose) research a few years a go and discovered that many people felt certain days of the week were certain colours. It's all very odd (and this from someone who looks the way the Taj Mahal smells the next morning)

  6. Tuesdays are yellow, I have always felt - other days of the week I am not so sure about. Brokenbiro - was there any consistency or was it entirely personal?

  7. Sunday evenings are charcoal grey and scratchy - like an arran-wool jumper.

    Saturdays are various shades of pink - almost red as the day goes on - and coconut flavour. (Not coconut ice, but more chilli coconut with coriander.)

    I thought Tuesdays were blue and Wednesdays were yellow? But they may both verge on green (no pun intended).

    Thursdays are brown. And not a nice brown either.

    Mrs Malaprop - Didn't Perfumes the Guide settle on the most beautiful scent of all being Guerlain's Mitsouko? I used to think it smelled of powdery old ladies, but have become quite smitten with it of late.

  8. Sorry - poor manners - this is indeed a wonderful post. I urge the Young Scholars to read Inky Fool regularly.

    Actually, if they'd just READ I'd be delighted ...

  9. Pray continue, Dogberry!

    BTW - did you find a word that means ugly-beautiful?

  10. No I didn't, but I'm sure it exists. The French have jolie laide, but then again the French have a lot of things. I know the word you mean and I'm sure that it exists, but I can't place my finger on it and am worried that I may merely be half-remembering a concept in a book on aesthetics. Alternatively it's a Greek compound eu- or kalos- something.

  11. Greek aesthetics was all I could find when I searched for it, too. All those different concepts of beauty such as a young girl trying to look older - ooh, topical! Padded bikinis for seven year olds - not being considered beautiful. Horaios - being of ones hour. But nothing that meant ugly-beautiful. And nothing in Italian either. (And everything the French have, they want.)

    Here's another challenge. Say someone was to tell an -ist joke to someone whom he knew didn't hold -ist views (in a sort of hyper aware knowing way) what is it called? It has something to do with anachronisms, but it's not that ...

    Could you start a problem page on your blog?

  12. Moptop - Mitsouko is indeed their favourite perfume and I am ashamed to admit that it is too sophisticated for me.

  13. Dogberry,

    Your condescending reference to Apocalypse Now is rather more prétentieux than your level of precision allows for. May I merely suggest you look up the quote and correct the tense and the words where appropriate.

    As for napalm it makes me shudder. Not for the usual reasons. I made the mistake of my life when I helped a young entrepreneur from the farmlands outside LA gain traction in the Californian import/export community very early in my career. He later went on to assist Dow Chemicals in their production of Napalm B. I wish I had left him behind in the desert, but such is la vie du bienfaiteur.


  14. Mrs Malaprop ~

    I'm on my last dregs of Mitsouko (which DOES make me smell like a powdery old lady) and have moved onto Jo Malone's Ginger and Nutmeg which makes me smell like a sponge pudding.

    I'm not sure which is preferable ...

  15. Cut & pasted from the BBC website: "Marmite... pickled onions... ink" - Analysis of the first TV leaders' debate by James Wannerton, who experiences words as tastes. Mr Wannerton has a neurological condition known as lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, which is when a person experiences words as tastes and textures. He said Gordon Brown's name tasted of Marmite, Nick Clegg's tasted of pickled onion and David Cameron's tasted of ink. More details (the Guardian)

  16. Dog, great post. I've become a regular reader and link to your lingua-meditations and obsessions on my own blog now and then. Science is beginning to pay attention to synaesthesia (the condition) while maintaining an oblviousness to its relationship with language. And can we really divorce language from behavior/ conception ? Some Homeric scholars tell us the Greeks had no word for 'blue' as we think of blue today, but rather an indication of measurement of depth or saturation...sort've like the word 'tint' would be used today. And 'green' to the Greeks (it's proposed) meant a condition (of freshness or newness) rather than a 'color' as we think of color today. All this from the records of a blind poet. I think I have always had a touch of synaesthesia, but then I have a touch of many things. I begin to wonder what the arts and the sciences -- and gawd, language itself, would be like today if humans hadn't developed such (relatively) keen eyeballs. Vision is like the Terminator III of the senses. Well, we'd have likely have gone belly up long ago without sharp vision, but it's an interesting question about (collective)perception and language. Who was it said, 'nobody's ever proven that the mind exists in the brain ...'

  17. I believe that most oriental languages don't differentiate between green and blue. Your Greek point might explain why the sea in Homer is always wine-dark.
    I think that a dog's primary sense is smell, which would change the world completely.

  18. One more quote that I came across in Wittgenstein's Remarks on Psychology "I mean it laughs, and now it practices the thing in various ways (as if you were to point out that vowels have colours). Another child neither perceives these colours nor understands what is meant by that change of aspect"

  19. One of the Antipodeans, the one that likes cricket and Shakespeare and men with lovely manners and dressing gowns, she30 June 2010 at 17:04

    Ash Wednesday.