Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Simon Leser reviews The Other Synaesthesia

Susan Bernstein. The Other Synaesthesia. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2023. 146 pp.

Review by Simon Leser

14 March 2024

Perhaps the first thing to note when comparing some of the more well-known literary examples of colored hearing, Vladimir Nabokov’s in Speak, Memory and Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Voyelles,” say, is that by and large no writer associates the same colors and letters. The yellow e’s and i’s evoked by the former, if not his “ivory-backed” o, clash with Rimbaud’s vapor-white e, lip-red i, and bluish o.[1] The only instances of convergence—u, in the poet’s viridian and Nabokov’s “brassy with an olive sheen,” or “French a,” black for both—form only incomplete connections, unable to point to a clear pattern or much, even, in the way of an underlying logic.[2] Which is to say that the picture of synaesthesia that emerges from these kinds of comparisons is, far from presenting a totalizing whole, one of articulated differences. If the two writers are interested in suggesting experiences that tend toward the unification of the senses, their comparison brings out another synaesthesia—a connection of senses and of arts that resists this very tendency.

This is Susan Bernstein’s The Other Synaesthesia, a literary and philosophical synaesthesia that rejects its physiological or neurological varieties, as well as the romanticizing trope by which the figure became associated with transcendence and idealized unity. Rather, this variety preserves multiplicities: even in shared perception, color and sound remain distinct—the experience would not be identifiable as synaesthesia otherwise. As Bernstein points out with the help of another notable synaesthete, Wassily Kandinsky, the logic parallels that of the arts among themselves, each speaking “a language which is peculiarly their own,” despite a common “spiritual” goal (p. 13).

Across the book’s six chapters, Bernstein traces this relationship in a variety of guises—community, correspondence, translation, material and concept—and forms a number of connections between writers and philosophers. But it is with rhythm that the monograph orients itself and, in some ways, culminates; rhythm, and associated terms such as pulse and resonance, is proposed as the articulating force of synaesthesia. Here, the dominant presence is Jean-Luc Nancy, who not only informs the book’s discussion of synaesthesia as a community désœuvrée of the senses but looms large over its musical paradigm: privileged within a model of synaesthesia which emerges only in reiteration, in repetition, as a plurality touching but not fused, and as such characteristic of the ability of the arts to interact with one another.

Fitting, then, that this work revisits many of the sources featured in Bernstein’s first book, Virtuosity of the Nineteenth Century (1988). Characters may have moved around to form new combinations—if not to offer different points of emphasis—but the cast is largely the same. Charles Baudelaire is no longer the virtuosic translator of music, in a tripartite relationship with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, but is now associated with Martin Heidegger so that the latter’s may be reclaimed as a philosophy of correspondence. Elsewhere, Liszt shares a chapter with Georges Sand and Wagner with Friedrich Nietszche; besides Nancy’s, names like Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Theodor Adorno are again recurring presences. What Virtuosity did to deconstruct the musical metaphor, Bernstein’s new book does to synaesthesia, with an eye on contemporary eco-poetics and media studies. So much so that The Other Synaesthesia is, in the context of Bernstein’s oeuvre, its own best example: a return to itself in a new configuration, the very figure of rhythm.

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York, 1989), p. 34.

[2] Ibid., pp 35, 34.