James Joyce
Celia Munisteri

There are several passages in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that make a compelling argument in favor of the possibility that Joyce had synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a physiological term defined as “a sensation produced at a point other than or remote from the point of stimulation, as of a color from hearing a certain sound. The word itself is a combination of the Greek words syn (together) and aesthesis (to perceive).”(1) Essentially, synesthesia is an intermingling of the senses.

Dr. Richard Cytowic, the author of "The Man Who Tasted Shapes" and "Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses", elaborates upon this definition, stating that "Synesthesia is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. In addition to being involuntary, this additional perception is regarded by the synesthete as real, often outside the body, instead of imagined in the mind's eye. It also has some other interesting features that clearly separate it from artistic fancy or purple prose. Its reality and vividness are what make synesthesia so interesting in its violation of conventional perception. Synesthesia is also fascinating because logically it should not be a product of the human brain, where the evolutionary trend has been for increasing separation of function anatomically."(2)

While theories abound as to the cause of synesthesia, the fact remains that one in two-thousand people have it, and many say that it enhances their experience of daily life. In some cases, having synesthesia influences the synesthete's vocation. Kandinsky, Nabokov, Liszt, and Baudelaire are some of the more famous synesthetes, and Georgia O’Keefe was inspired by Kandinsky’s descriptions of his experience.

A perceptual state called colored hearing is the most common aspect of synesthesia. This is the type of synesthesia that seems to apply to Joyce. His work exhibits a clear association of color with words and, in one case, even a single vowel.

Although allusions to color occur frequently in Joyce’s Portrait, this fact alone doesn't indicate that he had synesthesia. It is clear that, at a minimum, he is quite sensitive to color and has many associations with it. For example, he writes that Stephen, as a child in Portrait, associates the color white with a feeling of cold and damp (Levin, page 251). This could be merely a color association based on experience as opposed to a genetic perceptual attribute, but it is an early indicator of his focus on color. Joyce emphasizes color more as the story progresses, as demonstrated in the significance of color in the life of his character, Stephen. Stephen focuses on the green earth and maroon clouds (Levin, page 256) and the chocolate colored train with cream facings, accompanied by guards in blue and silver. The silver whistles and keys that "made a quick music" (Levin, page 260) and the dark purple that the word "grapes" conjured in his mind (Levin, page 291) both hint at interlaced sensory experience.

However, a true cross wiring of senses becomes evident farther into the story as Stephen moves through adolescence. It builds slowly, when Joyce starts assigning colors to moods and he writes a phrase still in use: "He put us all into a blue funk" (Levin, page 380). Further, while imagining what it would be like to be the Reverend Stephen Dedalus, S. J., Joyce writes, "His name in that new life leaped into characters before his eyes and to it there followed a mental sensation of an undefined face or color of a face." Since synesthesia is usually confined to a consistent mix of two senses, and the most common manifestation is colored words, it appears that Joyce is revealing his unique cognitive attribute through his fiction.

Soon, Joyce moves toward a more decisively synesthetic expression through Stephen’s character. While musing about his decision to reject the life of a cleric, Stephen reflects upon a favorite phrase, "A day of dappled seaborne clouds". This lovely phrase is followed by the most persuasively synesthetic passage in the book:

"The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue, sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?" (Levin, page 428)

Taken part by part, a review of this passage adds most convincing support for Joyce’s synesthesia. In fact, the allusion to the colors of words is a direct description of synesthesia. The fact that Joyce has Stephen consider whether the color of the words is what harmonized into a chord could indicate that this is how he actually thinks. The fact that Portrait is considered autobiographical further underscores the possibility that Joyce is expressing his own perceptions.

At a minimum, Joyce was intimately familiar with someone who was synesthetic if he did not in fact have synesthesia himself. After Joyce has Stephen reject the colors as the source of harmony, he causes his character to consider whether it is the music of the words more than their associations of color. This emphasizes the point that either Joyce himself perceived that words have assigned colors, or that he wanted to write this ability into Stephen’s character.

In another (albeit brief) indication of Joyce's possible synesthesia, Stephen refers to a "black vowel". "Her passage through the darkening air or the verse with its black vowels and its opening sound, rich and lutelike?" (Levin, page 503). His description is typical of the synesthete who sees numbers and letters in certain colors. For the synesthete, the same colors are consistently assigned to each letter or number throughout the synesthete's life.

Joyce writes of other mixtures of senses: “and he tasted in the language of memory ambered wines, dyng fallings of sweet airs" (Levin, page 503). Although this line obviously indicates the interconnections between the senses, it is inconsistent with the colored words theory and so this particular line is probably a literary device without the more distinctive synesthetic implications of the passage about colored words.

Given Joyce’s mastery of language and creative abilities, it is possible that Joyce intentionally leads the reader to believe he is involuntarily mixing sensory perception while in fact he is deliberately constructing a literary design. However, this artistic contrivance seems unlikely since he would have to not only know of the sensory attribute but also be able to write familiarly about it. He seems to have either experienced synesthesia personally or perhaps learned of it through someone he knew well. Today, neuroscientists study and write about synesthesia; during the era in which Joyce lived, most people with synesthesia were either quiet about their perceptual differences, or assumed that everyone else experienced the world in the same way.

A compelling and noteworthy aspect of Portrait’s beauty lies in its intermingling of language and color. This attribute alone doesn't prove that Joyce had synesthesia. However, the textual implications in favor of Joyce having had synesthesia make for an undeniable and fascinating possibility. Given the synesthetic possibilities in the text of Portrait of a Young Man, the reader is tempted to re-read Joyce's other works with an eye for additional signs of synesthesia. Ultimately, whether Joyce’s mix of sensory perception reflects his personal experience or is simply an aspect of his writing style, can’t be known today. What is certain is that the end result makes for a stimulating and resonant reading experience.

Now that I think of it, it seems to resonate in a deep shade of blue.


Cytowic, Richard E., Synesthesia - A Union of the Senses, MIT Press, June 2002

Cytowic, Richard E., The Man Who Tasted Shapes, MIT Press, April 1998

Levin, Harry, editor. The Portable James Joyce, 1947

McGrath, Moriah McSharry, Tangled Wires: Conceptualizing Neurological and Cultural Explanations of Synesthesia 1998

accessed 9/27/03

accessed 9/27/03