by Kleitia Vaso

I first read about the condition of synesthesia in an interview or a writing piece by Nabokov. As I’ve always admired the writer’s impressive mind, on full, shameless display in all of his books but, especially in his last novel, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, I was not surprised to see that he had this exotic-sounding neurological condition which mostly artists seem or claim to have.

Literally, the word synesthesia means the “union of the senses” and it denotes the response of one sense, i.e. smell by the stimulation of another, seemingly unrelated sense, i.e. sight. In Nabokov’s case letters are visualized as having specific colors; I can’t remember exactly what these colors are but let us assume that I is black, K is golden, and A seems to definitely be white or pink. I, unfortunately, cannot claim to effortlessly see letters in their own distinct colors but, if I exert myself, I think I can make it.

Although many other artists claim to have it, supposedly to ultimately distance themselves from the less-gifted majority, I have no doubt that Nabokov really did. His books are full of games and puzzles he seems to create for his own amusement, too bored with a world that perhaps cannot match his intellect. Yet, he needs us too; in order to show, like a peacock, the full range of his God-given and refined gifts. And, because, his overly-sensitive mind feels the vibration of colors and sounds, we, his poor mortal readers, can sense it as well.

Although I’ve always thought of him as an overly intellectual writer, playing mind games and challenging us to solve his beautiful puzzles, I later realized that actually, he is a sensual writer. While reading his books, the word aquamarine made me smell the sea, ardor conjured up engulfing flames, petal, a light pink breeze, and so on. Perhaps, Nabokov’s beautiful, musical, nice-smelling letters, words, sentences made me realize my own overtly sensual nature, my own susceptibility to the beauty of words, the transporting effect of smells, the edible quality of colors.

In this way, by reading him, I became aware of the capacities of my own mind which, if stretched, exercised, even tortured (but not too much) at times, could be able to receive the beauty and richness of life. Not just I, but everyone else has a similar- dormant or active-ability to more fully experience the world; the trick is to “open the doors of perception,” a phrase originally used by William Blake, the prophetic Romantic poet, later borrowed by Aldous Huxley and, finally, immortalized by The Doors, who appropriated a part of the phrase for their name. Unfortunately, I must confess that I really understood the genius of the phrase later than I would like to admit.

The intense sensory joy, experienced once those doors are open, cannot be replaced by paler versions of it and its lack, at certain moments, makes one see and feel everything as gray. In these bleak moments, in which the desire and capacity to detect and experience beauty has temporarily disappeared, the shortest physical distance seems as tiring an endeavor as Odyssey’s journey and if we were allowed to act as we felt, it would be easier to crawl on hands and knees.

Yet, I consider the revelation of this sensory “disorder” and its promise of a richer mind, a gift. Whether we attempt to develop it depends on our specific goals and desires as sometimes life’s practical aims get in the way of such pursuits. I feel that we all have the capacity but, perhaps, the development of it falls under the category of luxury, not necessity.

What I know is that on a recent visit to the National Gallery of Arts, while seeing an exhibition with a collection of Sigmar Polke’s works entitled Music from an Unknown Source, which satisfied me with its beautiful colors and clever titles, simultaneously catering to both mind and senses, I was happy. Perhaps, happy is too generic a word but I can safely claim that I felt content looking at the vividly colored works, especially the predominantly blue and gold ones which seemed like they released a heavy and sweet scent, perhaps because the gold subconsciously reminded me of amber-colored perfume bottles. Then, I walked in front of a bright yellow and green painting, entitled“such a delicious taste of spring,” and although the green object painted in the yellow background might have been a cauliflower, its ambiguous shape could very well have represented anything. I felt the freshness of the yellow and green and I thought that yes, even spring has a taste, and thanks to Polke’s ability to sense, grasp, and convey it to us, I could certainly smell spring and, almost, taste it.

by Kleitia Vaso