“The artist must bow to the monster of his own imagination”-Richard Wright
According to the OED, my favorite writer’s resource, the word “monstrous” refers to not only a large, ugly, and imaginary creature, but to something which is extraordinary and/or unnatural. I’ve often felt my mirror-touch synaesthesia fits that second description; it’s outside of the ordinary to feel other people’s bodies as if they were one’s own, but it also seems unnatural to walk through this world vulnerable to so much idiosyncratic pain. It’s difficult enough in this life to bear one’s own sensations, but to also feel what one witnesses can be a little sliver of Hell, monstrous in both terms.
Like all synaesthesia, my mirror-touch has the defining features of the phenomenon itself: my experiences are conscious perceptual or percept-like in expression, induced by an attribute not typically associated with that conscious experience, and occurring automatically. And, similar to other mirror-touch synaesthetes, I experience various manifestations of mirror-sensory perception. I feel touch on my own body when I see other people receive touch or contact. I move like the bodies I see. I feel pain when I envision another person’s injuries.
Sometimes, I like to call these three forms of mirrored perception the “unholy trinity”. They are soon to be unleashed in a most wondrous way; my sweetheart bought tickets to the San Francisco Ballet’s production of Frankenstein. This is my birthday gift, and we will celebrate at the War Memorial Opera House, a name that launches a nettlesome wave of synaesthetic sensation, via the lurid red of the word “war” and the vivid images from Vietnam that saturated my early childhood.
Ballet has its own home in my heart, in part because I’ve studied on and off throughout the years, but also due to its accessibility as a synaesthetic trigger. When I see other people dance, I feel my own muscles fire in response. This mirror-proprioception is a frequent feature of mirror-sensory synesthesia. At fifty, I’m still the squirmy kid, it’s in me in a way that can’t be extracted, just as I can’t see the word ballet in any other color than scarlet. I’m fortunate to not only feel other people’s movement, but to also experience their vestibular responses. When I watch dancers spin, I get a giddy reaction fostered by the dizzying precision of their pirouettes.
What’s also in me is the inextricable electricity of synaesthesia-for-pain. When I see other people’s injuries, I feel as if I’ve been shocked with a cattle prod. And so Frankenstein presents a special case, an opportunity for abundant mirror-sensory stimulation. The online images of the costumes and props are enough to launch salvos of synaesthetic pain. But the exquisite movements of the dancer’s bodies frozen in still photographs makes me feel as if I am floating. And the physical contact of the company as they move through Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic is sure to enrapture me with its grace and dynamism.
I’m full of both delight and trepidation for my upcoming visit with the monster. Frankenstein is still a few weeks away, but I’ll be certain to post an edit when I meet the creature…