On Summer Reading and Synesthesia

“Monday Musings” for Monday July 22, 2013

Volume III, No. 27/130

School of Athens

The School of Athens by Raphael

A Few Thoughts On Summer Reading and Cultivating Synesthesia

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Words are powerful. Language is powerful. We not only communicate with words and languages, but they, the individual words, tell us about us, about our nature, and even about our future. Consider the word, the individual word, the first word of the great works, such as Iliad, Odyssey, the collected work of Mowlana Mohammad Balkhi Rumi, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, etc.

Homer’s Iliad starts with the word “Anger.”  This very important word becomes the theme which is carried out throughout the entire epic. The story of intrigue, covetousness, deceit, anger and violence runs through all the 24 books of Iliad. Agamemnon stole and seduced Achillies’ concubine, and Paris abducted Helen, daughter of the great God Zeus and wife of the greek Menelaos, ending in Achillies killing Hector and finally, Achillies himself getting killed by Paris.

The book of Odyssey starts with the word “nostos,” homecoming or return (etymology of the word nostalgia.)  The word sets the tone, and becomes the theme of Homer’s Odyssey. Saint Augustine’s almost sacred 13 books of Confessions start with “Inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.” (Our heart is restless, until it rests in you.) These powerful books as well as the rest of the five million three hundred thousand words Augustine wrote are a must read. Enjoying the most enigmatic book of all time, the christian Bible, I have learned to pay special attention to the words that open and close the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament.  Also, I have learned to pay special attention when numbers are used: resurrection after three days (Lazarus was revived after four days), 40 days of wandering in wilderness,12 disciples, (after his suicide, Judas was replaced immediately by Matthias),12 tribes,153 “fishes” (bad grammar!) in Gospel of John, etc. I think it would be a good idea to take the children and grandchildren to your own library or the public library, check out some of these books and make a game of finding the first word in each of these book, and see if they develop into a theme around which the book, the epic, or the work is written. That would be a fun game.

In this space, we have spoken of Rumi and how as a child I used to look forward to a newspaper that carried a column elaborating Rumi’s poetry. Well, several faithful readers wrote to tell us that they are anxious to read more about Rumi, and will wait by their mail box for the fresh “MM” coming down the pike.  They want to read Rumi and satiate their longing for mysticism and transcendence of this most honored and honorable 13th century (1207-1273) Persian poet, Mowlana Jalal-ad-Din Mohammad Balki Masnavi Mowlavi Rumi’s first word in his massive collected work is “listen.” Yes, the word “listen.” Listening is the essence of love. Listening is so important that another Persian great poet and philosopher, Mosleh-e-Din Saadi (1210-1290) said  “We are given two ears and one tongue, so that we may listen twice as much as we may say…”

SYNESTHESIA

We have spoken of synesthesia, a wonderful phenomenon where being exposed to one set of stimuli, like reading or listening to a lecture, ushers in other stimuli or sets of stimuli and sensations, such as music or envisioning paintings. Several readers have written and wondered if this is a genetic, inherited and inborn attribute, naturally occurring, or could it be acquired. The answer is probably yes to both. Raising children in a rich environment of words, music, poetry, dance, discourse, reading and even arguing and intellectual disagreement will inculcate a sense of awareness and appreciation in children of the expanse and abundance of life, its possibilities, and what it can offer. To that extent you can teach a child to use their God- given multiple senses as fully as possible.  However, to some synesthesia comes naturally.

I was reading or shall I say re-reading (for the umpteenth time) Plato’s Symposium, this is a recording of the dialogue between his teacher, Socrates, and in this instance, a young man named Phaedrus, a student or interlocutor of the Master, Socrates. Reading this conversation brought fresh insight and better understanding of the nature of love. As a result, it brought an exciting and different experience. As I read and re-read the speech, the conversation and the poem, learning about “soul love-agape” and not “body love-eros,” I saw the perfect symmetry, verbal counterpoint of a fugue subject, balancing sophist vs. philosopher, humanist vs. the divine; temporalist vs. eternal, rhetoric vs. dialectic, opinion vs. knowledge, appearance vs. reality, body vs. soul, esse–being vs. videri—seeming, profligacy vs. progress, parsimony vs. economy, solipsism vs. introspection; secularism vs. eschatology, licentiousness vs. liberty, idolatry vs. idealism, convenience vs. commitment, etc….,  and suddenly I saw Socrates as a conductor coming to the podium and all these speech components playing together and producing the rich and sumptuous music of Bach’s  Brandenburg Concerti… Oh, what a feast of verbal and musical complexity of counterpoint and beauty. What a perfect fugue subject!

I believe every child ought to be exposed to the work of Plato. Perhaps you might wish to include the collected work of Plato, all of his work, 1810 pages, as a part of your child’s birthday or Christmas gift. Also, with the present ought to go the gift of commitment that you will read the book to your child and encourage verbal dialogue and intellectual engagement with your child.

 Love of the Lord

If all oceans, rivers and falls turn in to ink…

And the trees and forests of the world into paper…

And, if I could commission the talents of all poets, artists, philosophers, sages and writers…

It would still be impossible to begin to tell of my love for you, oh, Lord God.

Hafiz Shirazi, aka, Lesan-ol-gheib.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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