Not just darkness


by Daniela Floriduz *

The congenitally blind and colors: an incompatible dichotomy?

Let us begin with a fact, so obvious and self-evident that it is almost a tautology: a person who was born blind cannot have a physical perception of color. If we stick to a merely physiological and biological description, we can say that the perception of color is nothing but the ability of the eye-brain system to read a specific wavelength, later defined and classified by verbal and linguistic codes that are common knowledge to every "normally sighted" speaker. Color, therefore, is no inborn idea belonging to our DNA-transmitted genetic code; philosopher John Locke, the father of classical British empiricism, wrote in 1689 "For I imagine any one will easily grant that it would be impertinent to suppose the ideas of colours innate in a creature to whom God hath given sight, and a power to receive them by the eyes from external objects: and no less unreasonable would it be to attribute several truths to the impressions of nature, and innate characters, when we may observe in ourselves faculties fit to attain as easy and certain knowledge of them as if they were originally imprinted on the mind."

To further support these statements, I can also cite my own experience, particularly in relation to dreams. Last summer, I worked together with a researcher from the University of Bologna, recording my dreams for her each morning, as soon as I woke up, analyzing them through a questionnaire she had given me. The experiment went on for fourteen days. Amongst the onyric reminiscences grabbed from my nocturnal memories there were no chromatic elements. I am blind from birth because of a phoetal retinal malformation, and therefore I never had a visual perception of color. Yet, in one of these dreams, I remember finger-painting a cardboard piece: I could smell the sickly, sharp tang of the paint; feel its texture on my fingertips, the porosity of the colored paste on the cardboard. The dream gave me feelings of freedom, linked with childhood experiences: a group of prattling children surrounded me, the cardboard lay on the floor, and the whole circumstance was one of unrestrained play.

Of course, I cannot remember what colors I was using, perhaps because, not knowing them in real life, I cannot translate, even on an onyric level, the contents of this experience I am lacking.

Based on these considerations, it could be assumed that an exploration of the relationship between the genetically blind and colors is pointless academia. It could be said that the congenitally blind talk about colors in a merely metaphorical way, thus falling into that linguistic verbalism that typhlologists stigmatize as unactual, and misleading enough to generate a sort of cognitive autism in the vision-impaired persons. It could be argued that, even supposing to attach a truth value to this transmuted and metaphorical "experience" of color by the congenitally blind, it would add nothing to the perception of the normally sighted, to whom the meaning of color, despite being, in Locke's words, secondary (that is, the result of a modification of our senses by exposition to a given object), would maintain its universal and "objective" character, as based on experience.

In the short span of this essay, I will try to throw a different light on these apparently self-evident and unassailable statements, using personal readings and especially consideration generated by my own experience.  

* Daniela Floriduz was born in 1972 in Pordenone, where she attended primary and high school. In 1996 she graduated in Philosophy at Trieste University, where she later obtained her Ph.D. in 2003.
She currently teaches History and Philosophy at high school Liceo Scientifico "Ettore Majorana" in Pordenone. She is vice-president of the local section of the Italian Union of Blind and Visually Impaired (UICI), and holds a seat in the National UICI Committee for teachers' rights.

Blue suits you: color as social and linguistic fact

Let us put this straight: even the congenitally blind have to deal with color since childhood. Since kindergarten age, scholastic integration brings vision-impaired child together with normally sighted children who love and use colors to draw, to describe the world and themselves, to make figures of speech and word games. Children live in a very colorful world.

Lest color become yet another mental and linguistic barrier hindering the communication with normally sighted schoolmates, children born blind must quickly familiarize with this huge unknown. Growing up, they will meet colors by reading books, learning to choose clothes, using such metaphors as "I'm red with shame", or "green with jealousy".

A special device called "color test" can be found at typhlotechnic centers: it has a small camera and a synthetic voice. When put before a piece of cloth or other colored surface, the device will vocalize the name of the color. This allows children, for instance, to know the color of the shirt to wear in the morning. This kind of device, in spite of its huge practical value, does not (nor tries to) affect the relationship of the congenitally blind with colors. To mechanically recognize the hue of a cloth, to know that the setting sun is red, to tell by heart the whole spectrum of primary colors, can become an exercise in futility, yet another task the vision-impaired person will have to shoulder, in order to adapt to a largely obscure and unknown reality.

Indeed, while to the normally sighted the world is a friendly mix of reassuring known and challenging unknown, the vision-impaired must navigate through a boundary of murky, hazy indistinctness before they can interact with even the most familiar objects.

Color instead can and must be slowly assimilated by vision-impaired persons, to become part of their daily life. Even a glance at an ID card reveals chromatic data, such as eye and hair color, needed to qualify a person as opposed to others. Bearing these data in mind, the person must learn to choose clothes and accessories that best match their physical traits. The statistical occurrence of judgments expressed by the normally sighted can be a useful tool in this respect, acting as part of a process of learning by imitation. I have always been told: "blue suits you", and I always felt a need to attach a psychological, rather than descriptive, meaning to this statement. Undoubtedly, our identity is partly shaped through recognition and trend, but it also is, even in its most outward traits, a thoroughly personal experience.

This is why blue is much more than an abstraction to me: when I wear blue, I feel I exude a sense of well-being and harmony. This would not be the case if I wore, for instance, yellow.

It could be argued that to speak of colors without having experienced them makes for unwarranted use of language. Still, words do not just have the function of communicating and describing reality. Words remove, for instance, the need to repeat a direct experience of objects, as when speaking of events that are long past and not repeatable, or too far removed in space to be directly experienced. Many speak about America without ever having been there, or about medieval knights without ever having met one. Language tells even those things that we will never be able to verify, but science admits as hypotheses, such as the Big Bang. According to philosopher Wittgenstein, blind persons can easily talk about what they cannot see, without being charged with delusion, superstition or dreaming. Wittgenstein writes: "A blind man can say that he is blind, while people around him can see. 'Yes, but then won't he, by the words "blind" and "seeing", mean something else than what the normally sighted mean?' Now, what is the ground for asking such a question? Well, even ignoring how a leopard looks, one could say and understand 'This place is dangerous, here be leopards'." (Pp.129-130)

Language, therefore, allows us all, blind and normally sighted, to know what we cannot touch, and becomes an extraordinary and surprising substitute for the actual experience, far from being abstract and meaningless. Vision remains the priority channel for color perception, but color, far from being banned from the world of the visually impaired, can also take new value from the way the blind speak about it, all without losing the basic connotations shared by the normally sighted. 

Different colors for different folks: variety is the spice of life!

How hard can it be to define colors? Human beings, not content with finding names to qualify different hues, also felt the need to talk about "warm" and "cool" colors, light or dark,  neutral or bright shades, "loud" combinations… how do we navigate the myriad of hues that paint the world? Just think of green: sea green, bottle green, emerald green, olive green, acid green. Often, chromatically illiterate as I am, as I listen to normally sighted people talking colors, I happen to think: "come now, do find an agreement!"

Yet, I know an agreement is just not possible. Some cultures, especially in the East, link white with mourning; other just don't recognize certain hues, like the Japanese making little or no distinction between blue and green. And there are normally sighted people who feel perfectly at ease with their inability to match colors, and make it their own style. The case could fit in the age-old aesthetical querelle about the existence of a standard of universal beauty.

The latest studies in psychology of perception show (as could be expected but can be safely repeated), that behind every pair of eyes there is a brain not only reading, but also construing, selecting, filtering, building, evaluating, enjoying or loathing. In other words, a thinking brain. Paola Bressan, in her book "The color of the moon", writes: "The phrase 'world-building' may sound like a poetic license, but is no such thing.

When you look around, you feel you are watching things, not building them: things are out there, and look the way they look, with or without you watching them. Still, this feeling just comes from your building proficiency and speed. Surely, you don't feel you are standing on a floating ball either, rotating 1700 kilometers per hour (at the Equator), and yet this is how things go." (p.119)

Therefore, color belongs in that web of meanings that make our world, meanings that we must in turn not only read, but also construe.  

What color is the feel of cold?

Asher Lev is a Jew child in Brooklyn, and perhaps, in the intentions of his creator, Chaim Potok, a loose portrait of painter Marc Chagall. The world, as seen through Asher Lev's eyes, becomes a pictorial representation: in his hands, things and people shift to plastic shapes and diversity of colors. But his orthodox Jew background, hostile to depictions and images, will greatly hinder Asher's calling, especially when he will try to paint crucifixions. All the same, Asher Lev explores the synesthetic value of color, to apply it to his painting. "I sat at the table, looking at the milk in the glass. Ice is white, I thought. White like milk. No, not like milk. There's blue within. And gray. […] 'What color is the feel of cold?' I asked. Mrs. Rackover stopped drying the cup she held, and stared at me. 'What?' she asked. 'The feel of cold,' I heard myself say, 'it's the feel of darkness.' […] Ice is blue, gray and white, I thought. Then I thought, no, it isn't blue, gray, and white. I don't know what color it is. It bothers me not knowing. I felt troubled and annoyed. What color is ice? I squirmed on my chair. […] In my room, I lay on the bed, closed my eyes, and thought of the man from Russia. I could see his face clearly, his roving eyes, his beak of a nose, his faded features. That face had lived eleven years in a land of ice and darkness. I couldn't imagine what it was like, to live in ice and darkness. I covered my eyes with my hands. There was his face, perfectly defined; not exactly his face, but rather the way I felt about his face. I drew his face within my head. I went to my desk, and on a new piece of paper, I drew how I felt about his face. I drew the kaskett. I used no colors. The faced stared at me from the paper. I went back to the bed, laying with closed eyes. Now within me there were ice and darkness. I could feel the cold darkness seep into me. I could feel our darkness. It seemed to me that we were brothers, he and I, that we both knew lands of ice and darkness. His was in the past; mine in the present. His was outside him; mine was within me. Yes, we were brothers, he and I, and in that moment I felt closer to him than anyone else in the world." (pp. 35 ff.)

Asher Lev needs to close his eyes to picture to himself what he cannot imagine, and to tap into reality's inner and most secret core. But Asher Lev is also a master in the practice of synesthesia. The phenomenon has long ceased being regarded as a condition, pathology or the exclusive sphere of artists and poets. In truth, literature and music offer well known and stunning instances of synesthesia: Rimbaud, in his poem Vowels, matches to each vowel a color, not just because of sound, but also following the evocative reminiscences belonging to both the color and the vowel itself. Baudelaire, in his poem Correspondences, states the intrinsic affinity linking colors, scents and sounds. Russian composer Skrjiabin, in his Prometheus, links sounds with colors, based on scientific premises like the physical structure of the light spectrum. Skrjiabin matches C with red, G with red or orange, E with blue or purple.

Previously, in 1739, the Jesuit Father Catel had tried to make music accessible to deaf persons by devising an ocular harpsichord, that combined colors using lamps and tinted glass to suggest musical combinations.

Synesthesia is far more widespread than most people think: for instance, where would a Dario Argento movie be, without its terrifying soundtrack? A rose's scent enhances its color, and even a top model with a squeaky voice would lose some of her appeal.

Of course, each sense is self-sufficient in its own operational field: you cannot, for instance, literally see sounds with your eyes. Still, as Marco Mazzeo states in his well-researched essay on synesthesia, "stimulation of a sense shall automatically trigger a perception in another mode, without any direct stimulus." (p.266). Our perception is not monosensorial: access to the world, as Max Scheler claimed, is many-sided: "On the one hand, our senses differ from each other because each questions the world around us in its own way, giving us access to facets of experience that overlap without quite coinciding." (Scheler, p.303). Indeed, the normally sighted cannot assume to experience the blind's world by just closing their eyes. Nonetheless, recognition of synesthetic perception, beside challenging the age-old pre-eminence of sight in Western culture, could attach to vision itself a greater depth and awareness, offering a "new outlook" on the meaning of "seeing".  

Your hands tell you how things are

At five, my niece Francesca, when showing me her wonderful, colorful drawings, believed that I could feel their colors by touching them. She had strikingly explained this belief of hers: "your hands tell you how things are." They say children are of a kin with poets: surely, they use synesthesia as a way of exploring reality through hyperboles, metaphors and symbols. In fact, color is by its nature intangible, so that, even if the thin coating of pastel wax on paper, or the paint strokes on a canvas can be touched, different hues cannot be told apart by touching them. A synesthetic approach to color can be achieved through smell, taste and hearing. Mazzeo writes: "Phenomenology of taste is more similar to that of smell than hearing; hearing possibly shares more with sight than touch (for instance, distant perception), and so on." (p.292)

What about my own attitude to colors? As a child, I played all the time with felt tip pens, colored pencils, wax pastels and finger paint. I loved to smell the pigments, especially those of magic and permanent markers, and to touch the stains that colored pencils and felt tip pens left on the paper. I had normally sighted schoolmates: L. 517/77 on scholastic integration was quite new when I started primary school. I believe that my special teacher regarded color not only as a means of integration with the normally sighted, but also as a specific tool to develop my manual ability. She made me color a dotted shape, and I had to fill the whole surface carefully and uniformly. This is a very effective exercise to learn how to spread a substance, coat a surface, explore small spaces, and be aware of margins.

It was only in high school, though, that I consciously developed my notion of colors, after some Art classes on the distinction between primary and secondary colors. I realized that I would never be able to study and understand the lecture, unless I managed to match the colors with something more familiar to my experience. Of course, the match should not be random, but rooted in my background of readings, heard things, and still unnamed, unconscious feelings. Since then, the structure of those matches has changed very little, and contributed to make colors into a conceptual, plastic and icastic reality within my mind, as well as a daily presence, in turn stimulating and challenging. For instance, I match my clothes in neutral combinations, for fear of some odd mishmash, and I feel uneasy going out without at least some very light make-up.

Here are the personal matches I have worked: 

  1. BLACK: it sticks to the fingers, rough like coal. It smears, like coffee spilt over you. But it is stylish too: it makes you look thinner, charming. It sounds like Nick Cave's music
  2. WHITE: soft snow, just like a fluffy wool blanket. Warm in winter, and hushing noise. Or else, cream, milk, the Milky Way, flooding light. I could never wear white: I would be afraid of smearing the light; it would feel like wearing crystal: a perfection too easy to spoil. It sounds like Debussy, white and black keys between the fifth and seventh octave on the piano
  3. RED: a baroque, flouncy, ornate, and most elegant color. It has the luscious flavor and texture of Rossana candy. But it is also the sickly color of blood, the sour taste of revolutions and barricades. Like Locke's blind scholar, I too link it with a trumpet's scarlet sound
  4. YELLOW: endless expanses (so long to drive across) of sunflowers, ripe wheat, and tulips. Also the color of illness, more so than pallor. And this is why I don't like yellow, I don't like to talk about it, and I link it with some deafening sound
  5. GREEN: the scent of mint and grass, a fresh color, with a feel of rebirth and blossoming life to it. "Things are greening up", we say: a symbol of new beginnings. And, since it is doomed to fade, a color for longing, too. To me it sounds like Vivaldi's Spring
  6. BLUE: I like pale blue better. Dark blue I find a little gloomy. It may sound like Bach's Toccata and Fugue, magnificent and solemn, but it lacks pale blue's crystal lightness. It tastes like blueberry tea: strong, lasting and not always pleasant
  7. BROWN: scent of pitch, of chestnuts, of tree trunks in a thick wood. It makes me think of autumn, a season that so suits me, seeking warmth, closeness, safety. Of the brown color I like the practicality, the down-to-earth pragmatism: making life good by enjoying what the present day offers, even when it seems unfriendly. It sounds like a Mountain Infantry choir.
  8. GRAY: the color of cigarette ash. It seems hard to catch, somewhere between white and black, yet it is, and stays, there. It speaks of faraway landscapes: "gray sky up/ yellow leaves down." I cannot say it cheers me up: it reminds me of certain dull, boring days, gray days indeed, when you long for a gone past, or hope for better times
  9. PINK: gentleness itself. I used to know a girl called Rosa, so vibrant, and lively: that pink-colored name suited her perfectly. I cannot help associating the pink color with roses, and their scent. A combination of pink and black, seemingly so bold, sounds highly sophisticated to me. And of course, it sounds like La vie en rose
  10. PURPLE: I never thought it an unlucky color, as show people will say. I link it with the scent of violets, that will make a room feel larger. And yet, it does not cheer me up: it makes me think of someone clutching hard to life, and knowing they will have to let go. I know that chrysanthemums are the flowers of death, and yet to me there are violets and the purple color on the border between life and death. I link purple with its namesake instrument, the viola
  11. ORANGE: since it is done by mixing yellow and red, I say that never was a union happier! Red took away yellow's watery look, and yellow mellowed red's stubbornness. Orange is rough like orange peel, spongy like a mushroom. I like it, it feels amiable and pleasant. To me, it goes together with the voice of the oboe

Didactic allegations

Let us go back to Asher Lev:

"A Sunday afternoon, I brought my pencil and sketch book in the lounge, and drew my mother sitting on the couch. I sketched the sagging curve of her shoulders and back, the flat breast, the bony twigs of the arms crossed in her lap, the head bent on the shoulder, and the sunlight right in her eyes. She did not look like the sun bothered her. It was as though there was nothing behind her eyes to bother. I could not portray her face. Her right cheek sank abruptly from her tall cheekbone, making a hollow.

I could not get the pencil shading right. I tried it once. Nothing. I rubbed it out. I tried again, and again I rubbed it out, but the drawing was blotched, and the lines thinned in places. I put it aside, and, on a fresh piece of paper, I sketched again the silhouette of my mother's body, and the outline of her arms. I left the face blank for a moment, and then I added the eyes, nose and mouth. I did not want to use the pencil again. The drawing looked unfinished. It bothered me to leave it unfinished. I closed my eyes, and watched the drawing within me, I went along the outlines again, and it was unfinished. I opened my eyes. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ashtray. It was filled with stubs of the cigarettes my mother had smoked. I looked at the dark, squashed stubs. I noiselessly went for the ashtray, took it to my chair, put it on the floor. Then, holding the sketch book with the drawing in my lap, and with the utmost care, I rubbed a cigarette's burned end on my mother's face. The ash left an ugly smear. I rubbed at the stain with my small finger. It spread easily, leaving a gray coating. I used the ash from another cigarette. The gray coating became thicker. I worked on. I used the ash on the portion of the shoulder that was not under the light and on the folds of the dressing gown. The outlines of her body started to come alive." (p.81)

Asher Lev does not just reproduce reality: he changes it, brings it to life, forcing it to match the pattern set up by his inner self. Nowadays, children do not trust enough their potential to creatively shape reality, and this low level of self-esteem brings them to read objects little better than by snap-shots. A synesthetic color code, by triggering possible links between sensations of different orders, would allow them to seek for hidden meaning beyond face value: the code could teach children to watch, instead of just looking. This tool would help children to describe the world around them in personal, special, and meaningful ways, bringing to light each child's subjective traits and inspiring explorations of original language. I could go as far as to say that it would even encourage mutual tolerance, since there would be no longer a reason to claim that any one perception of red matches reality more than others. I am told that, in acting schools, students practice an exercise called "the color of the voice": they modulate their voice's tonality to express different colors. Exercises like this promote a mutual enhancement of the senses, and help to overcome that pre-eminence of sight that nowadays often becomes a lack of reality, replaced by a virtual world, whose insubstantiality is erroneously taken to be safe from pain.

As for the visually impaired, the synesthetic color code makes for a fascinating and meaningful integration tool. It brings together two worlds still kept apart by preconceptions and prejudice that are sometimes undeclared, often unconscious, always hard to beat. The code helps to understand how the non-physical, cultural nature of colors can be shared, because it comes of a common ground of emotions, feelings, and experiences.

The code encourages the visually impaired, who must deal with colors in daily life, to feel free to speak about them even if they cannot perceive them, to get to know them, to make friends with them, to incorporate them into familiar spheres of perception. The synesthetic color code should be taught to blind preschoolers, so that it can merge with their cognitive background, and later shape itself, by absorbing through the years further elements, and affinity criteria born of personal exploration.

This way, both the blind and normally sighted can open their eyes on a whole palette of colors: and it will be with the eye of their mind that they can see and observe infinity.


BRESSAN P., Il colore della luna. Come vediamo e perché, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 2007. 

LOCKE J., Essay on Human Understanding, (It.Trans., Laterza, Roma-Bari, 1951). 

MAZZEO M., Storia naturale della sinestesia, Quodlibet, Macerata, 2005. 

POTOK C., My name is Asher Lev, (It.Trans. Garzanti, Milano, 1991). 

SCHELER M., La posizione dell'uomo nel cosmo ed altri saggi, Armando, Roma, 1987. 

WITTGENSTEIN L., Zettel, Einaudi, Torino, 1986.