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4. The perception of colours, sounds and fragrances: synaesthesia in translation


a) The text as a sense organ

Ancient cultures were iconological: they believed in the power of images, as a clear sign. The collective imagination was an emanation of the Anima Mundi. The sacred was innate in the memory of what was seen with the mind’s eye. "Videmus in speculum, per aenigmate", stated Saint Paul, as an ending. One of the reasons we are unable to decipher the Etruscan language is due to its functioning by iconological metaphors: every expression refers to a sign, like in certain places of the Viking Edda, where dawn is called "the closed door of sleep".

Western literature begins with an action of metaliterature: that shield of Aeneas, decorated with scenes of the Trojan War, alludes to a ‘culture’ existing only insofar as it can be fixed by signs. On the other hand, in the classical world the primary requisite of a poet was mnemonics: an esoteric discipline whose path covers the works of Demosthenes, Quintilian, Cicero, Apuleius, up to Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella. Begun as an art of recalling, mnemotechny gradually became the ability to build an ‘interior stage’ for the intuitions of the mind. Associating every idea with a cherished place in the memory creates a synapsis between intellect and feeling, with overwhelming creative powers. One lives in a parallel world: the synaesthetic map of one’s own soul.

In fact, operating in this ‘hidden polyphony’ is the principle of synaesthesia: the gathering of all the sensory perceptions in just one induces in the definition of reality a phenomenon of ‘lack of centre’, well-known to ancient culture. The archetype of the Minotaur expresses the fascination of madness which always threatens the poet’s boldness. Likewise, in Faust, Goethe brings about the protagonist’s passing from the agitated and Gothic world of the first part to the comforting irony of the second through a descent to the world of the Mothers: primigenial divinities so frightening that not even Mephistopheles dared to follow his protege in that adventure beyond the very bounds of evil.