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Deep Prussian Blue and Stars of Mauve

In reading further about synesthesia, which Steffie Tomson did such a great job explaining, I was taken with the lyrical—and sometimes just plain odd!—ways some famous synesthetes described their gift before we had scientific evidence for it or before it was widely known.

They often had to defend what Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita”, called a “freakish gift.” “The confessions of a synesthete,” Nabokov said, “must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings.”

Olivier Messiaen and his very musical scarf!

“This is not imagination,” French composer Olivier Messiaen insisted, speaking of the way his music came to him in what he called “colored dreams,” “nor is it a psychic phenomenon. It is an inward reality.”

Messiaen wrote about his synesthesia in his “Technique of My Musical Language.” “I am affected by a kind of synopsia,” he said, “found more in my mind than in my body, which allows me, when I hear music, and equally when I read it, to see inwardly, in the mind’s eye, colors which move with the music, and I sense these colors in an extremely vivid manner… For me certain complexes of sound and certain sonorities are linked to complexes of color, and I use them in full knowledge of this.”

In his multi-volume “Treatise of Rhythm, Colour, and Birdsong,” Messiaen wrote descriptions of the colors of certain chords. He described simple gold and brown chords and others that resembled purple rocks speckled with little gray cubes. He saw cobalt blue ones and deep Prussian blue ones tinged with a bit of violet, gold, red, ruby, and “stars of mauve.” With his music, he said, “I paint colors for those who see none.”

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Sherry Austin

    Sherry Austin was nine years old when she admitted, during a class discussion, that evolution was possible. After school a bunch of bullies arrived on bikes at her house to beat her up if she didn’t recant. She didn’t. Forty years later, she had published three books of fiction and was traveling regionally giving a talk for the North Carolina Humanities Council on literary nonfiction about science when a neurodegenerative illness put a stop to that. These days, along with (and sometimes in spite of!) her comic alter-ego Trixie Goforth, she works what’s left of her brain to share her wonder about the natural world revealed to us by science. She values the work of scientists more than she can say. And you can find out more about Sherry at her website.