How do cherries taste to you? Many would say sweet. Some will detect a pinch of sourness. Cesare Pavese, a famous Italian writer, would have said that cherries taste like sky (‘le ciliegie dal sapore di cielo’). Or at least this is what Natalie Ginzburg, a friend of Pavese and a writer herself, remembered of him while writing her delightful autobiographic work, Lessico Familiare.
I instantly fell in love with this association. To describe the taste of cherries, Pavese thought (maybe unconsciously) that using a taste related adjective would not be sufficient enough. Therefore, he chose something that can be seen, but not tasted, like the sky, and that almost conveys a sort of deeper taste. In poetry this rhetorical device that blends human senses is called synesthesia, but it is not at all uncommon in everyday language. Think of the expression ‘a warm colour’ for example.
Why did this specific synesthesia make such an impression on me? Simply because when I read it the first time I could not help but think that Pavese was completely right. My cherries tasted like sky as well! For how weird this may sound, I think I experienced the deeper taste that I mentioned above and I felt like one feels in front of a poem when one discovers its power. The power of putting a piece of truth into words. An intuition. And the feeling of this realisation is so beautiful that one is left to wonder.
It is obvious here that no one has ever tasted cherries with sky flavour because no one has ever ate the sky. Imagine, however, to pick cherries when they are ripe on the tree. Imagine yourself as a child, eating those cherries on a bright spring day. Would you find it so unthinkable that a brain may develop an unconscious link between two senses: what you taste and what you see? Perhaps it might even help to know that in Italian the word cherry (ciliegie) and sky (cielo) share similar sounds. All of the sudden, cherries were not simply sweet, sour or tannic for me. The expression thereby revealed a deeper meaning that goes beyond the actual experience of eating these fruits. It unconsciously disclosed to me a small truth, an epiphany.
It is the power of words and of art that I find extremely fascinating. I do understand that perhaps this specific expression – cherries taste like sky – might not mean anything to you. According to a psychological theory known as ideasthesia, art is what ‘makes us both strongly think and strongly experience’ and since every person is unique (with unique experiences and background) any reaction to art is strictly personal (Wikipedia). However, all of you might find it interesting to know that synesthesia is also a mental condition.
There are people, indeed, who experience an involuntary link between different senses. For example, people see actual colours when they hear or see numbers or letters, and even get a taste in their mouth when they see a person: the condition is referred to as synesthesia. People affected by this condition are usually not aware of it. Those who have been diagnosed positive to the condition, often consider it a superpower. Although the causes of synesthesia are still unknown, neurological tests have shown that people with synesthesia activate more sensory areas at the same time, revealing stronger links between different parts of their brain than people without the condition.
In order to be diagnosed with synesthesia the links between letters, colours, numbers, taste and so forth must be highly consistent. In other words, if you are asking yourself whether you have synesthesia, ask yourself whether the letter A, have the same colour every time you encounter it. You might experience synesthetic links when you are under the influence of LSD or other hallucinogens drugs, but this does not make you a synesthetic person since you will get different sensory blending for every trip. (Scientific American and other sources)
If you are intrigued by this condition, you might enjoy the documentary ‘Derek Tastes of Earwax‘. What interests me the most of this condition is how synesthesia might have a greater influence on our lives than we think. (For example, I was not aware of the existence of this condition until a few years ago).
Since the sensory blending is usually established during childhood, some experts, supported by other evidence, are led to believe that children in general are more prone to synesthetic experiences and that, although in minor form, these experiences might exhibit themselves among a greater amount of adults too. Finally – coming back to the cherries that taste like sky – it has been stated that “synesthesia is eight times more common among artists, poets and novelists than the general population” (Derek Tastes Like Earwax). After all, creative people are known for their communicative, evocative and suggestive power that breaks pattern and challenges the boundaries of our imagination.
Russian painter and father of Abstract Art, Wassily Kandinsky, had synesthesia, for example. Also Tori Amos, Vladimir Nabokov, Vincent Van Gogh and Stevie Wonder, just to give you a few names, are known or suspected to be synesthetic people. Now, was Cesare Pavese a synesthetic person? Probably not. Was his artistic mind more used to free his senses in directions that allow us readers to set a path to free ours? I believe so, just like I believe that cherries taste like sky.
(Featured Image – Philip Guston. Cherries. 1976. Oil on Canvas.)