Last blog post, I wrote about Vladimir Nabokov, who was one of the most famous synesthetes ever to live. In his autobiography, he writes with great detail about the experience of his synesthesia, which took the form of words and letters having colors.
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 ofo 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’sand 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.
I’ve thought about this passage many times, and what it means for Nabokov’s writing. It means that when he was writing lines like “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul” he was painting those words. I’m not a very visually minded person, and some of the colors (like “ivory backed hand mirror”) don’t lend themselves to direct representation, but I went through and took an approximation of each letter and wrote the whole thing down as Nabokov must have seen it. This is what I do for shits and giggles on a Saturday night when I’m on vacation. Anyway, here it is: