I see colors when I read.
There’s a scientific name for this sort of thing, but it’s kind of an awful-sounding mouthful, so instead, just take my word for it — I see colors when I read.
Instead of externally visualizing anything, it’s more like I just inherently know them. Each letter has its own hue, and every word usually adopts that of its first letter. The whole thing is deeply associative (red) and I rarely pause (orange) to think about it all that much. Sure, it’s pleasing when poster text is printed in the “right” colors, or when someone’s initials are different letters but nonetheless match. It’s usually not intrusive or in the forefront of my mind, except for as of late, when I’ve been reading this one book that’s got me thinking about it a whole lot more.
My first encounter with David Foster Wallace was in an introductory rhetoric class on figuration and interpretation. Trying to read most of the course’s assigned theoretical texts as a freshman could be reasonably likened to staring hard at a brick wall. But the professor taught them well, with sparkling clarity and effusive enthusiasm.
Before we got to reading Wallace, an author whom she deemed an end-of-the-semester treat, we read up on the Derridean theory of deconstruction, which is that words simply do not conduct meaning. Rather, it is the context, intention and “iteration” of language that conveys understanding between people — not the actual language itself.
This was the first but certainly not the last time that the idea of the arbitrary relationship between sign and signifier came up in my studies. Now, I don’t claim to know much about literary deconstructionism or post-modernism — it was a time when the world was broken and upside down, and some writers tried to mirror that in their work. “Nothing means anything,” Thomas Pynchon whispers as he writes a paragraph about dolphins in the middle of a nighttime scene in San Francisco. And this sort of literature was initially really frustrating for me as a reader who’s accustomed to nice conventional things like plots and regular characters.
So, my first introduction to Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” was a sixty-page chunk photocopied from the middle of the novel and sandwiched in the Rhetoric 20 reader between other unapproachable-looking texts. It felt so unsatisfying, as I strained my eyes looking to parse meaning in the meaningless chapter, searching desperately to assign signs to signifiers. What the hell did I just read that wasn’t just sixty entire pages about nothing at all happening in a drug rehabilitation center?“He’s my favorite,” some classmates gushed. “The man was a genius.” I felt so out of the loop. What did they know, or see, in that text that I didn’t?
Over a year later, I returned to the novel. I had now read Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” and was feeling good about things not needing to make sense.
This time around, I have found myself struck by the sheer experience of reading Wallace’s words. My mental reception of the text is so vivid, so vibrant. From a literary standpoint, the novel’s fragmented narrative development is fascinating, witty and mysteriously compelling. Wallace teases and plays with his words like a cat batting around a mouse before chomping it down. His inventions and applications of language twist and devolve and resurrect and reshape meaning on every page.
And for me personally, with the way I read, it’s like peering into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of words. Gem-colored letters tumble about dizzyingly, a spectacle that rarely makes too much sense.
I love mind-bending texts because they encourage the dissection and examination of everyday acts and beliefs. We constantly maneuver a world of preconceived understandings that don’t necessarily make sense — green means go, after all.
Noticing these random relationships expands one’s frame of mind, and also the capacity for empathy towards others on the outside of such norms. It makes us ask: Who sets social precedents? How do we accept them, and how do we break them? Who, among us, may see things a little differently?
My brain assigns colors to letters, but I know that my color-coded alphabet doesn’t really mean anything or even exist outside of myself. It’s just another form of a random signifier placed upon a sign, without any real reason why. And I think that’s a pretty pertinent perspective for reading a novel that’s about nothing but words. Wallace’s language, so far detached from linear thought, transcends the need to explain itself. It’s simply open to being perceived, for all its highs and lows, its complexities and shorthands, in whatever way it can.
“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.
Contact Sarah Goldwasser at [email protected].