I was first drawn to the novel Lolita, at the age of sixteen or seventeen, not f or its literary merit, nor even for its salacious reputation. Quite simply, I had read somewhere that its author was, like me, a grapheme-color synesthete: someone who perceives letters and numbers as being inherently colored. I had possessed this trait for as long as I could remember (as a child, my favorite color was yellow, because the first letter of my name was); only recently, however, had I learned that it was something out of the ordinary.
Five years later, I am yet to find a writer whose words appeal to my senses as intensely and as accurately as Vladimir Nabokov’s. His attention to detail, particularly chromatic, is paired with a fluency that allows him to cross the boundaries between the senses as the mood takes him. Synesthesia is often associated with visual thinking, and a heightened memory for sensory perceptions: qualities that are undeniably of use during the writing process.
The experience of synesthesia was frequently idealized by French Symbolist poets such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Rimbaud himself considered the aim of the poet to be “to arrive at the unknown by a disordering of all the senses”, something that may be achieved, in part, through synesthetic devices. In his epic prose poem, A Season in Hell, Rimbaud explicitly evokes the experience of grapheme-color synesthesia:
I invented colours for the vowels! —A black, E white, I red,
O blue, U green.
(In my case, it would be: A green, E bluish-gray, I white, O orange, U a sort of washed-out pink.)
Whether or not one is actually a synesthete, I believe that most writers are, on some level, concerned with the overlap between the senses; the endless associations that can be made between colors, shapes, smells, feelings, and so on. Likewise, writers – and poets, in particular – tend to be extremely sensitive to the beauty or ugliness of different words, and the ways in which these words can be combined and laid out on paper. I am therefore inclined to think of my synesthesia as an extension of the typical writer’s overinvestment in words: an extension th at involves the perception of colors, and hence turns writing into a more painterly process than it might otherwise be.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of “Vaucluse” in the summer 2011 issue of Contrary.
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Laura, this is such an interesting post! I’d never heard of this condition before, and had no idea Nobokov was a grapheme-color synesthete. I am reminded of something I remember a professor saying once in a class on Modernism. She said that William Faulkner has wanted to print certain sections of The Sound and the Fury using different colored inks to delineate shifts in time and perspective, but was unable to do so because of prohibitive printing costs. It seems to me that the internet could provide a great opportunity for that sort of printing, and I wonder if you might, at some point, be able to publish online using the same colors for letters that you see?
Beautiful post, Laura! And such a beautiful, rich story. Thank you.
I have synesthesia! And I am a writer!
I just recently noticed that I give colors to letters. But I remember ever since forever that time is in space around me. I can’t comprehend how other people see time. It is September, so I am on September on this circle. And I look to my right and I see March and May. I look behind me to the right and I see July, I look to the front of me to my right and January is floating there… But letters have color and so does music and occasionally smells. Like Bleach smells dingy yellow. But the word Bleach is Blue.
I am so thankful you shared this. It’s exactly what I need! I’m writing a thesis on synesthesia, but hey, I’m not a synesthete! It gets pretty hard at times 🙂 Since I wanted to talk about Nabokov, could you please tell me something more about your experience when reading his work? Thank you thank you THANK YOU.
That sounds like an interesting thesis. I suppose one of the things that I like best about Nabokov is the way that, when he describes something (be it a bar of soap, a fragrance, laughter), he usually does so in terms of colour (e.g., “mulberry soap”, “brown fragrance”, “golden giggle”). I also find that, in many scenes, there seems to be a deliberate repetition of colours. There is a part near the beginning of ‘Lolita’, when Humbert meets a Parisian prostitute, where everything is infused with gray: “gray spring afternoon”, “pearl-gray” dress, “melodious silver precision”, “luminous gray eyes”, “dingy gauze”, “grubby fingernails”, “dust-brimming courtyard”, etc. All of these details have a way of echoing one another that really sticks in my mind, and that I find both striking and harmonious.
The impression that I get from the famous opening lines of ‘Lolita’ is one of overwhelming lightness: partly from the alliteration, and partly from the repetition of yellow letters (‘L’ and ‘S’). In ‘Ada or Ardor’, especially the first part, I feel like there is a lot of green, with the names of the main characters being green-and-dark, and most of the story happening in green surroundings. I’ve read that Nabokov himself saw the name ‘Ada’ as yellow-black-yellow though (instead of green-brown-green, which is how I see it), so I probably notice different correspondences than he did, and privilege certain details over others.
I can’t really say how much my experience of reading someone like Nabokov differs from that of non-synesthetes. People are always talking about his writing as a vivid, sensory experience, and with good reason. It’s possible that, as a synesthete, I may simply be more drawn towards writing with a strong sensory component – as opposed to stuff that focuses on abstract ideas or emotions.
I hope this is of some help.