By Dmitri Nabokov
On a rain-soaked evening in 1937 or 1938, on a Paris sidewalk, I was tugging at my mother’s hand to peer through a shop window at something that held a special fascination: a display whose details I do not remember but which was illuminated in a rich, flashing red. Like many small children I would invent names for objects that particularly attracted me. There is an old Russian word for the color “red”, which I had probably heard in some fable that had been read to me. The word contains the two Russian letters most difficult to render in English, so I shall not confuse the reader, and limit myself to the essence: the word’s phonemes became, in my mind, indelibly associated with that particular tint of red – a rich, luminous carmine — and the adjective generated a noun in my infant vocabulary, “alochki [ah-loch-ki]”, denoting just that kind of miniature colored extravaganza. Red is also linked, in my mind, with the musical note “la”, and had become so before I learned that, in English musical notation, this note is called “A”. The color remains associated with the grapheme in other linguistic contexts as well, and in the sundry shadings that vary with nuances of pronunciation from language to language. In music the association is not simply with the written name of the note, but with its sound as well. And this goes somewhat further, into territory that requires a musical ear. The key in which a particular composition is written, played, or sung gives the piece an overall coloring. E.g.: Schubert’s “Doppelgänger”, when performed in e-flat minor has a deep yellowish shade, while, if it is done in e minor the hue approaches white. I have begun with samples from music because that is a domain to which I have devoted much of my life. Coloration, however, extends in my case to numbers, to the ensemble of an occurrence, to an individual, or to a train of thought. It can go further. I am not a religious person in the sense that I do not endorse a liturgy or pray in formulae. None the less, for a number of years, when there was something I devoutly wished – say, the well-being of a loved one – my yearning tended to be integral with the sense of a profound cavity, with a dark-violet “4” in its depths. The more distinct that image, the more likely I considered the fulfillment of my wish. And, in a more general sense, the more intently I have wished that that loved one should recover, or that something – say, an opera performance or a sporting event – would go well for me, the thought process has taken place against a background of a particular hue, generally in the redviolet part of the spectrum.
In this brief overview, as the reader will have noticed, I concentrate on personal and familial experience rather repeating the second-hand information of varying reliability that can be found in a literature that ranges from rigidly scientific texts to the yellow press. I shall continue in the same vein, except for an occasional digression. One example of the latter, amid the increasing mentions of synesthesia in today’s press, concerns an item recently reported in Seed magazine in an article entitled “The Most Beautiful Painting You’ve Ever Heard”, and is about the experiences of an artist named Marcia Smilack, whose rare form of neurological mixing involves all of her senses – “The sound of one female voice looks like a thin bending sheet of metal, and the sight of a certain fishing shack gives her a brief taste of Neapolitan ice cream – but her artistic leanings are shared by many other synesthetes. Scientists estimate that synesthesia is about seven times more common in poets, novelists, and artists than in the rest of the population, (Some of the most famous examples include artists David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky and writer Vladimir Nabokov.)” A different, fictional, instance that might be called dream synesthesia, or else poetic synesthesia, comes from a distant part of the chronological spectrum. It is an episode from Aleksandr Pushkin’s verse drama Boris Godunov. I categorize the case as fictional because the plot of Pushkin’s work differs radically from more authentic fact as it appears in the account of the historian Karamzin, on which Pushkin loosely based his work. Boris did not, in reality, murder young Dmitri the Pretender so as to mount the throne, while in the drama, and in Mussorgsky’s
opera, his hands and his conscience are incarnadine with the child’s blood. The Orthodox Patriarch is brought before Boris to relate an ancient shepherd’s incriminating tale that will precipitate the Tsar’s fatal crisis. He is so old and ill, recounts the old man, that his dreams no longer communicate the visible and he can only dream sounds. An extraordinary characteristic of synesthesia, recently described by Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist and specialist in the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal, takes us literally in the opposite direction: from the grave to the cradle. Among the striking scientific trivia discovered by this polymath is the important fact that babies begin life with synesthesia. Normally, the cerebral crosstalk gets sorted out as the individual develops, while subjects who remain under the influence of five-sense synesthesia either learn to discipline the exceptional combination and benefit by the total recall that it accords, or are driven to distraction by the incessant input of superfluous information encumbering the brain.
My father has on occasion written of chromosthesia in the more limited realm, familiar to
him, of what he called colored hearing or colored vision, as elicited by letters of the alphabet. An early recollection of his concerns a set of building blocks he received as a gift from his mother – the kind that has a letter of the alphabet on every facet. “But the colors are all wrong!” he immediately complained after unwrapping the gift, because they did not
correspond to the colors associated in his mind with the depicted letters. To digress: in the
first part of his childhood my father was a mathematical prodigy, who could perform complex operations with fantastically long strings of numbers. Could there be an analogy here with A.R Luria’s description of S. Sheresevsky’s “ability to remember limitless amounts” on the part of certain synesthetes? The young Nabokov fell ill, and when the fever broke he had lost all semblance of this talent. It is interesting to conjecture whether this aberration was in any way associated with synesthesia. Or whether Nabokov’s very serious passion for lepidopterology, and the wealth of color that entomology in general contained was in some way reciprocal with his synesthesia. What I do know is that psycho-neural phenomena intrigued him, be it Technicolor dreams, déjà vu, or colored hearing. He would have welcomed the advent of synesthesia in the scientific community, and the serious research that was spearheaded by Richard Cytowic and taken up by his colleagues over the past two decades and more. Curiously, I had received and begun reading Dr. Cytowic’s The Man Who Tasted Shapes shortly before we both appeared on a BBC Documentary titled “Orange Sherbet Kisses.” Having been interviewed previously on various subjects, I had expected to be asked to talk freely about my personal synesthetic experiences. Instead I was handed a script, containing little that was new, to memorize – something that anyone, synesthete or not, could easily have done. What a pity that a program that might have been truly informative for the lay spectator could not toe a finer line, rather than deteriorating into a reality show that culminated with a twangy American lady and the rock group whose very sight was her infallible route to orgasm.
Perhaps the most significant domain in which synesthesia may have affected Vladimir
Nabokov was that of metaphor. When he describes an object, be it a chance item or an
important prop, the chances are that his description will have not only a touch of originality but also a color. Without burdening this essay with fascinating but space-consuming lists of examples, let me cite only a few instances. For example, why, in the short play “The Grand-Dad,” does the gallows – in a scene set during the French Revolution – need to be blue? Both of my parents were synesthetes. It was interesting to determine if any of my colorations reflected a melding of the parental colors, but this was not the case except for a very muddy variant of “f”. It has been shown that a synesthete’s color associations tend to remain constant throughout his life. In our case, it was possible to determine this to a substantial degree. My father tested me when I was eight, and again when I was in my thirties. Those letters of the alphabet that were colored had retained their original hue. The same can be said for the constancy of coloration, or simply of aura, associated with a particular event or recollection.
Occasionally, unexpected manifestations of color occur in Vladimir Nabokov’s writing, beginning at a relatively early age, but I have found it difficult to establish consistent color pathways in his case. I have just translated from Russian into English and Italian a very early story of his, which may in fact have been his first (at present I am awaiting the result of a color scan from the Library of Congress that may shed some light on a date that is practically illegible in the manuscript). The story’s heroine, named Natasha, during a ramble through a deserted lakeside café with a suitor, imagines that a wind orchestra is playing “orange” music on the abandoned bandstand, and that music is colored “orange—clear as day in the manuscript, with no room for error. The head of the suitor himself is described as light blue, with a frequency that increases as the timid man’s love becomes more evident. Synesthetic phenomena recur throughout Nabokov’s work, and are assigned to characters in two of his major English-language works, Lolita and Ada. This characteristic of my father’s work has made me sensitive to its occurrence in the work of other writers as well. One can cite the great Russian poet Tyutchev, whom my father both translated and recorded. For example, Tyutchev’s poem Vchera v mechtakh obvorozhennykh… (Last Night, Amidst Charmed Reverie…), reference is made to a “scarlet, vibrant exclamation” (italics mine).
Many kinds and instances of presumed synesthesia, some convincing, some less so, have been described in the literature, and ascribed to noted poets, artists, and musicians, as well as sundry unremarkable individuals. Having familiarized myself with the types and categories of the phenomenon described by Richard Cytowic and others, I tend to conserve the conviction that my synesthesia is in some ways unique, or previously undescribed in the documentation that I have seen.
First of all, if it were true that aging causes deterioration of “brain cells that function as chatty go-betweens,”one might conclude that synesthesia, too, decreases with age. In my case, contemplated from the perspective of my 72 years, this appears not to be the case. Furthermore, the considerable thought I have given to the implications and applications of
synesthesia have yielded some interesting creative fruit. The problems inherent in the
transformation of original, beautiful written language into its visual equivalent has long been a conundrum for the cineast, and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle when approaching the filming of a Nabokov work, as well as that of others, such as Joyce, where language and imagery also play a crucial part when he is not being too wordy. That is why neither the two Lolitas, while fine films in their own right, nor the other movies based on my father’s works were as satisfying as they might have been. I am currently faced with the possibility of making a film of the novel Ada, perhaps the most complex and variegated of Nabokov’s books. Rather than prune its text of its abundant poetic descriptions and reduce its rich language to the skeletal platitudes of the usual TV series, or accept the axiom that visual depiction of beautiful prose is impossible, my conception – which may in fact lead to a series– is a succession of images as perceived by Van, Ada, and the other characters, each with his own colors and variations of shape, each a distorting lens through which the delicately, deliberately disjointed components of the author’s construct unite and realign themselves into a congruent whole. The palette is infinite, and originality is limited only by the imagination of the creator. One character may see another tinged with the aura corresponding to a particular emotion, or perhaps encircled by spikes suggesting antipathy, or perhaps tinted with an otherwordly blue, as we, through Natasha’s eyes, tend to see Wolfe. As for the intensity of an orgasm, it may give birth not only to geometric aberrations in the mind, but, for example, to a seemingly unending tunnel of pleasure through which one races in a crescendo of sensation toward the ultimate release. And a new kind of cinema, perhaps, thanks to an enlightened perception of synesthesia.
Montreux, November 2006
Copyright c 2006