Papa Legba is sometimes an old man, sometimes a young man, almost always with a top hat and cane. He has one foot in your habitual ways (the “real world”), and one foot in fresh possibility; the border he crosses is the liminal space in which you are offered or forced to accept an alteration in your perspective in order to survive—a wormhole. No voodoo ceremony can begin without him: he is the one who allows the worlds of loa and humans to meet. This connection between worlds is frequently represented by a special tree, its roots reaching deep into the underworld, its trunk and branches thrusting into our reality and through to the heavens. He is syncretized with St. Peter, who holds the keys to the gates of heaven, waiting for our arrival. Papa Legba’s key plants into the ground via his cane, to connect with those spirits underneath: for example, those we have lost, ancestors. The key grows into a support for him, and also a snake (dweller of the worlds below). His scarf, a bird, covers any calls to the over-world spirits, those in the heavens, that we aspire to, that we desire to live through us. The bird-soul transcends the old. Papa Legba changes from old to new, from human to not, from alive to dead and back again. And he’s looking at you.
What is this key? Papa Legba is the language loa, he translates your cry of pain into a question, your inability to express your needs and desires into a new universe, where those needs and desires are so natural, they are easily communicated. Languages and stories (and symbols) are used in society to tie everyone together into a community, to a consensual reality, to the same (overall) patterns of understanding. As long as we’re using the shared image-meanings, then we follow the same story of humanity. If we want a different story, what then? What can Legba do? He can give us a key—that is, access to other symbols, or other ways to see your own. He can give new meaning to what is already there before you, unlocking its other possible meanings, translating it, thereby changing the world.
Everyone has personal symbols. Even if we aren’t aware of them, they rear up in our dreams and they modify our behavior (sometimes in ways that directly clash with societal mores); they are there, underneath, as a part of who we are. We all begin as synaesthetes, in fact, combining our understanding of the world across pairings from various senses. Alexandra Horowitz talks about this in her book On Looking, Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes :
“What the infant sees, for instance, is something quite fuzzier and more dazzling than what the normal adult sees: babies are very nearsighted and they lack the clouded filters that take bright light down a notch. Even more critically, the world is not yet organized into discrete objects for these new eyes: It is all light and dark, shadow and brightness. To the newborn infant, there is no ‘crib,’ no ‘mama’ and ‘daddy,’ no floor no wall no window no sky. Much of this can be seen, but none can yet be made sense of.
Information taken in by the eyes might be processed in any part of the brain—it could be the visual cortex, leading to an inchoate ‘seeing’; but it could also be the motor cortex, leading to a leg kicking; or the auditory cortex, in which case a nearby teddy bear may be experienced as a bang, or a ringing, or a whisper. There is good reason to believe that this kind of synesthesia is the normal experience for infants. Synesthesia—literally ‘joining of sensations’— is a somewhat rare and highly improbable form of perception in adults[….]
While tasting sounds or smelling letters is viewed as aberrant (if conducive to creativity) among adults, those eminently creative infants may sense the world with crossed wires all the time. Heinz Werner, a German psychologist of the early twentieth century, called this the ‘sensorium commune’: a primordial way of experiencing the world, pre-knowledge and pre-categorization. Researchers have found remnants of this perceptual organization in adults: on being shown drawings of curly lines, adults tend to characterize the lines as ‘happy’; descending lines, ‘sad’; sharp lines, ‘angry.’ To feel a tone, as though one were inside a vibrating bell, is to see glimpses of your vestigial sensorium commune.
But mostly, we ignore that feeling; we do not label lines as being happy or vexed or gloomy. One theory of synesthesia holds that the synapses connecting neurons identifying shapes and those leading to the experience of taste get snipped sometime in the first few years of life. This may be the simple result of our lack of attention to the connection.”
Lack of attention. That’s precisely it. The important objects, experiences, and details—that is, the ones clearly marked by our parents, extended family, teachers, priests, politicians, etc as important—are granted our attention and they develop. But the other connections, the other details, are still there in your brain. They still exist as a part of you. And in some other universe, you are living according to those connections. If you can find them, from here, you can go there.
If synesthesia is conducive, as Horowitz suggests, to creativity, why not seek out such connections? In fact, isn’t that exactly the Art of Memory, the Ars Memoria ? Recall that the process is to break an idea down into images, sounds, smells—some kind of symbols—which help you to hold together the disparate parts of the idea. A woodchuck holding a crumbling, tart apple tart, enters the cafe and tries to find a friend . His crumbling tart, the couch where Freud sits, the woman in the red dress all come together in a way particular to you, meaningful to you, and this process of knitting together the symbols not only helps your recall of the information, but guides you to realize, accidentally, other previously unseen connections between things, which leads directly to creativity and invention. This is, I believe, the magic that the practitioners of Ars Memoria were suspected of: by shifting around seemingly symbolic objects in their minds—Varo’s pot of green paint, her stencil for cutting out vests—, they affected the outside world.
In his book, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla , Mark Seifer describes a moment of such odd connections in which Tesla went from nearly killing himself (through physical and mental exhaustion) in an effort to solve a problem to its sudden, clearly laid-out solution, via a gorgeous sunset and a Goethe poem. He was struggling to design a way to harness AC power without any ‘cumbersome’ intermediaries, and the struggle took every minute of his time, and he drove himself so hard that he suffered a nervous collapse, which took on the aspect of a severe attention to detail:
“I could hear the ticking of a watch…three rooms [away]. A fly alighting on a table…would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance…fairly shook my whole body…I had to support my bed on rubber cushions to get any rest at all…The sun’s rays, when periodically intercepted, would cause blows of such force on my brain that they would stun me…In the dark I had the sense of a bat and could detect the presence of an object…by a peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead.” A respected doctor “pronounced [his] malady unique and incurable.” Desperately clinging to life, Tesla was not expected to recover.”
His friend Szigeti took him out to the park to try to get him moving around. They went at sunset, and suddenly, the beauty of the scenery caused Tesla to burst into spontaneous recitation:
‘See how the setting sun, with ruddy glow,
The green-embosomed hamlet fires.
He sinks and fades, the day is lived and gone.
He hastens forth new scenes of life to waken.
O for a wing to lift and bear me on,
And on to where his last rays beckon.’
(From Goethe’s Faust)
“As I uttered these inspiring words,” Tesla declared, “the truth was (suddenly) revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers…Pygmalion seeing his statue come to life could not have been more deeply moved.”
The association between sunset, Faust, and successfully harnessing AC power is still lost on me, but the world has been changed as a result of his connection of those things: power floods our homes, lights our nights, keeps the stereo on and the clothes clean and me instantly connected to friends across the world. All of these things were once unimaginable. Impossible.
Yet, here we are.