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


c) The origins of synaesthesia

The Greeks called the sea the "colour of wine"; a contemporary writer, Sergio Astrologo, published a novel called Con occhi color del tempo. We are before two opposite uses of synaesthesia. In the former case a rhetoric system that could be defined as "ritual litotes" prevails. In a rite, time does not matter; it is the result that counts - the result of a propitiatory procedure. The sea was benign. The sailors have returned home safe and sound. The event is celebrated by drinking wine. Thus the sea is the "colour of wine". The time factor is cancelled by the release from a vow: the acceptance of the greeting by the gods. On the other hand, the "colour of time" alluded to by Astrologo is that of the eyes of the protagonist. It is the colour of his expectations of happiness, his eternally deferred hope. Astrologo wants to say that the colour of eternity is the same as nothingness. It is the white of the iris. In this case, it concerns a rhetoric system of "systematic analogy", whose characteristic is entirely the opposite. Time is infinite. The outcome does not exist. The collective dimension of the cult is lost, and in its place is the alienation of the individual.

Another differentiation concerns the physical aspect of the characters. At the beginning of Pickwick Papers, in outlining the happily corpulent appearance of the eponymous protagonist, and as though for excessive credulity, Dickens anticipates - almost in a narrative icon - all the ups and downs his character must face in the novel. It concerns a way of connoting synaesthetically dear to English pragmatism: the events are an effect of the protagonist’s nature. For the English, destiny is the somatic rhizome. In Thomas Mann’s Der Erwahlte, at a certain point, to expiate an unknowing incest the protagonist Gregory VII withdraws to a cliff, mortifying himself through fasting. Many years later, when the cardinals, following an angel, looked for him to name him Pope, they found a primordial little creature so small and frail they almost trod on him. Hence the Not effect, the skaldic destiny where everyone is shaped by events, like clay wetted by a shaman to obtain protection from it. For the Germans, destiny is the current of time.

At the bottom, there are two opposite "ritual litotes". In pre-Socratic Greek culture, the archetype of the river is tied to the uniqueness of the moment: "You cannot bath twice in the same river" stated Heraclitus. The organization of the Greek nation into polis (city-states) made the rivers impassable boundaries inside of which the entire cultural life of the individual took place. The Greek word ‘reo’ (to flow) has passed into the German root ‘rein’, which means purity.
In the Roman world, the boundaries of the domus were guarded by statuettes of ancestors, depicted with different expressions ('facies') that reflected the host’s attitude towards the outside world; thus also revealing it to others. The contrast between Dickens and Thomas Mann passes through this opposition of sign.