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Bright Colors Falsely Seen

Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge

Kevin T. Dann
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Bright Colors Falsely Seen
    Book Description:

    In a conversation with his physician, a nineteenth-century resident of Paris who lived near the railroad described sensations of brilliant color generated by the sounds of trains passing in the night. This patient-a synaesthete-experienced "color hearing" for letters, words, and most sounds. Synaesthesia, a phenomenon now known to science for over a century, is a rare form of perception in which one sense may respond to stimuli received by other senses. This fascinating book provides the first historical treatment of synaesthesia and a closely related mode of perception called eideticism. Kevin Dann discusses divergent views of synaesthesia and eideticism over the last hundred years and explores the controversies over the significance of these unusual modes of perception.

    Celebrated at the turn of the century as a uniquely creative form of consciousness, synaesthesia became embroiled in a debate between Romantics who championed it as a desirable harbinger of a new, more spiritual age, and positivists who denounced it as primitive and irrational. The author debunks Romantic notions of the transcendental nature of synaesthesia and shows that although novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a true synaesthete and eidetic, other individuals the Romantics considered synaesthetes were not. Drawing on studies of autism and hallucinogenic drugs, Dann offers new perspectives on synaesthesia and eideticism and how they relate to the evolution of human consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14625-7
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    In 1922, Edgar Curtis, the three-and-a-half-year-old son of Professor O. E Curtis of Cornell University, heard the report of guns from a nearby rifle range and asked his mother, “What is that big black noise?” A few days later, as he was being put to bed on the sleeping porch, Edgar heard a high, shrill chirp and asked, “What is that little white noise?” When his mother told him it was a cricket, he protested, while imitating a typical cricket call: “Not the brown one, but the little white noise,” and then imitated this shriller, higher, unfamiliar insect sound. Listening...

  5. Chapter 1 From un Truc to Occult Truth: The Fascination with Synaesthesia in Fin de Siècle France
    (pp. 17-45)

    For seventy years, after the first full description was published in 1812, synaesthesia was unknown in Europe outside the medical community, where it was considered to be a rare pathology of the visual system. Western culture’s wider acquaintance with synaesthesia began in 1883 in a colorful flash of Symbolist light, with Arthur Rimbaud’s distillation into sonnet form of French medical literature on subjective visions, and by century’s end the visual phantasmagoria of synaesthesia had become something of an intellectual fad. The phenomenon was thus ushered into popular awareness in an atmosphere of magic and mystery. As one bizarre flower in...

  6. Chapter 2 A Transcendental Language of Color: Synaesthesia and the Astral World
    (pp. 46-64)

    During the two decades following the publication of Rimbaud’s sonnet, both psychologists and the general public viewed synaesthesia from two opposing perspectives: synaesthetes were voyants—exceptional, gifted individuals, able to see (and sometimes feel, taste, smell, or hear) that which nonsynaesthetes did not; and synaesthetes were degenerates or hysterics, given to arbitrary hallucinations about color, sound, smell, and taste. The same tension existed in evaluating any “visionaries,” whether painters, poets, or Spiritualists, who claimed to see that which others did not. But by the turn of the century, with the widespread acceptance of the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural...

  7. Chapter 3 The Meaning of Synaesthesia Is Meaning
    (pp. 65-93)

    The artistic interest in idiopathic synaesthesia as a possible model for a transcendental language migrated through the arts at the turn of the century, moving from poetry and theater to painting and then to music. In each of these arts, cross-sensory analogies were assumed to exist between color and musical tone, and through them, artists hoped to express the “inner necessity”—objective spiritual truth—spoken of by Kandinsky. For many of these artists, a satisfying synthesis of colored light and sound, or in some cases, moving color alone, was seen as a substitute for the “higher consciousness” possessed by the...

  8. Chapter 4 Sensory Unity Before the Fall: Synaesthesia, Eideticism, and the Loss of Eden
    (pp. 94-119)

    Wheeler and Cutsforth’s research suggested that synaesthesia, by facilitating the apprehension of meaning, was of great utility in early cognitive processes because it could actually accelerate childhood learning, and that its subsequent disappearance as the new, more abstract linkages of language were formed was a normal process. By showing via the technique of introspection that nonsynaesthetes had an analogous “invisible” locus of meaning in certain kinaesthetic processes, they demystified synaesthetic imagery. Although they did not make it explicit themselves, their work implied that in most individuals, synaesthesia was usually superseded during childhood by kinaesthesis as the “mechanism” of meaning production....

  9. Chapter 5 The Gift: Vladimir Nabokov’s Eidetic Technique
    (pp. 120-164)

    Perhaps the most famous synaesthete and eidetic of the modern era was Vladimir Nabokov, who in the course of a literary career spanning half a century left an elaborate record of his case of alphabetic chromaesthesia and eideticism. In Nabokov’s own ingenious exploitation of his perceptual idiosyncracies and in the critical and popular response to his work can be seen much of the same enthusiasm for syncretic modes of perception documented in the previous chapter. Nabokov’s subjective synaesthetic and eidetic visions have repeatedly been read as intimations of the sacred. Many of his readers believe that his “gift” was a...

  10. Chapter 6 Conclusion: The Redemption of Thinking
    (pp. 165-186)

    French Symbolists’ mythologization of synaesthesia as a form of transcendental perception had spread in a groundswell of enthusiasm for an imminent revolution in consciousness; in the 1960s, promoters of a revolution in consciousness seized on synaesthesia once again. Old myths were retrieved and new ones added; in North America in particular, synaesthesia was rediscovered as an impending advance in human evolution. Though there had been a thirty-year hiatus in scientific research on synaesthesia and eideticism and nonscientific interest had largely abated, when the word “synaesthesia” began to appear again on the lips of a new generation of Romantics, a desire...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 187-200)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-216)
  13. Index
    (pp. 217-225)