Vladimir Nabokov on Synesthesia

15 Jun

Tonight’s production of “Huetopia,” a work-in-progreass by the Stenographers, is an exploration of synesthesia.  One of their inspirations is Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita. Here, in an excerpt from his autobiography Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes the experience of being a synesthete: 

“…I present a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensations seem to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but the French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and hucklberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and dipthongs do not have special colors unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation).

I hasten to complete this list before I am interrupted. In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by “brassy with an olive sheen.” In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with “Rose Quartz” in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow is in my private language  the hardly pronouncable: kzspygv. The first author to discuss audition coloreé was, as far as I know, an albino physician in 1812, in Erlangen.

The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are. To my mother, though, this all seemed quite normal. The matter came up, one day in my seventh year, as I was using a head of old alphabet blcks to build a tower. I casually remarked to her that the colors were all wrong. We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine, and that, besides, she was optically affected by musical notes. These evoked no chromatisms in me whatsoever. Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more ore less irritating sounds. Under certain circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concern piano and wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in large ones.”

First published in 1951, revised edition 1967. 

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