NB: A few errors and misprints somehow crept into this text during posting. I have done a hasty revision, and I think corrected most of them.
Subject: [NABOKV-L] Dmitri Nabokov on synaesthesia etc.
I would like to offer a few considerations, mainly about VN's synaesthesia. They more often reflect personal exchanges and experience than the copious private and public literature that has already accumulated on the subject, much of which I have not read. I shall, however, refer, in more or less random order, to some of the interesting thoughts that have been expressed on NAB-L.
Synaesthesia has been attributed to or claimed by various poets, musicians, and others, from the composer Scriabin, who even constructed a machine designed to emit the colors associated with particular musical notes ("tastiera per luce"), to Rimbaud, whose sonnet "Voyelles" is considered by many to be an authentic illustration of the colored-hearing phenomenon. Many of the candidates are doubtless not the genuine article. On a disappointing British TV program in which I participated, one of the cases presented was that of an American lady who claimed she had an orgasm whenever she listened to a certain boy band (I found my experience with an American PBS radio show more fruitful). For my part, I thought I would be asked to speak in England of my own synaesthetic adventures, but instead was handed a prepared script whose delivery did not require the services of a synaesthete or a Nabokov. If it had, I could have expanded on the fact that when VN spoke of "colored hearing," he often meant, as he himself said, "colored vision," i.e., the color evoked by the written shape of a letter. The matter of analogous phonemes differently sounded in various languages suggests, in fact, that it is a sound's appearance that elicits a color. My English "A", for instance, along with my French and Italian "A"s, may vary in sound and tint, but not in fundamental color, nor do they differ radically from my Russian "A" and from its embryo: a window display in a rainy Berlin vitrine of glass recepticles containing crimson neon, which I saw at the age of three and christened "alochki." That is not the beginning of the story either, for I had already learned from a tale my mother had read to me that "alyi" was a poetic adjective, meaning just that shade of red. In my case things got still more complicated. Skipping a generation from my maternal grandmother to me, coloration extended to musical notes. My "la", or "A" (the note)is also red, but with a life of its own,independent of its name in this or that language. By the same token, the "ut", as middle C is sometimes called, is only a slightly sandier shade of yellow than the letter "C". Curioser yet, the same melody and harmony changes color, or rather shade, for me, with a change of key. Schubert's famous lied "Der Doppelgänger" is less convoluted and menacing in the key of e minor than in the sinister sonorities of e-flat minor. And here I mean the sound of the music, not the artificial lightening or darkening of tone, ultimately achieved by physical adjustment, that a singing teacher may request of his pupil. It extends, in fact, beyond what I sing to what I hear in a symphonic composition, when the same piece is performed by an orchestra tuned to an A slightly higher or lower than the frequency dictated by physics (even though, originally, it had been the brighter tone of a higher pitch that was being sought, not a less gloomy mood).
I would like to touch briefly on the broader context of my personal experience with color, which I ought to have discussed with my father, but never properly did. Independently of music and of language, a particular thought as a self-contained entity is often associated with a specific color, or sometimes with a number. For example, the concept of "mother" -- my specific mother -- is a gentle blue. Some other person and a situation associated with him can, in my mind, be bathed regularly in some other color.
Then there is the matter of technicolor dreams, and dreams in general, which Father transcribed on occasion (in particular during an entire month in 1964) in order to explore the relationships beween waking and oneiric consciousness and the reflections in both of reality.
Lest I forget, Tatiana Ponamereva writes that, among the exhibits currently honoring my father at the VN Museum, there is a reproduction of the letter-color relationships. I don't know if its author has seen Jean Holabird'a version.
Finally, to answer several questions:
1. My father's color associations, like my mother's and mine, were absolutely individual.
2. When we did a test to determine if the paternal and maternal mix generated a recognizable result in the son, there was only one, very approximate instance, probably a matter of chance.
3. When Father tested me at two widely spaced ages, the colors were the same.
4. Of course vowels, rather than consonants, predominantly appear in color.
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