BMCR 2003.09.46

Vertauschte Sinne. Untersuchungen zur Synästhesie in der römischen Dichtung. BzA 178

, Vertauschte Sinne : Untersuchungen zur Synästhesie in der römischen Dichtung. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 178. München/Leipzig: Saur, 2003. 240 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598777272. EUR 82.00.

‘Synaesthesia or CROSSED PERCEPTION, condition in which perception in one sensory mode arouses imagery from another mode’. So Britannica, 15th edn. The most generally familiar form of it is ‘coloured hearing’; though few possessors of this faculty can have approached the astonishing range and nuanced character of the colours and textures evoked in the mind of Vladimir Nabokov by the sounds of letters: e.g. ‘polished ebony’ by French a; ‘brassy with an olive sheen’ by h; and so on right through the alphabet ( Speak, Memory [1967] 34-6). There are well-attested cases of musicians ‘hearing’ colours, though, curiously, musical notes had no such effect on Nabokov. More commonly, numbers, the days of the week, or the months are perceived as coloured: see e.g. Bryher [Winifred Ellerman], The heart to Artemis. A writer’s memoirs [1963] 103. In his 2003 Reith Lectures, broadcast by the BBC, Professor V.S. Ramachandran suggested that as many as one in two hundred people may have this faculty in some degree. He explained it as the result of ‘crossing’ in the brain, and intriguingly went on to argue that the neuroscientific investigation of the phenomenon can contribute to our understanding of literary metaphor, indeed of the evolution of language and abstract thought. In the context of Christoph Catrein’s groundbreaking book this is a striking thought.

So far as Latin poetry is concerned, this is hitherto uncharted territory. Ancient critics by and large took little heed of the phenomenon; such discussion as there was centred on Greek. It is amusing to see how the scholiasts tied themselves in knots in their efforts to explain the famous crux at Septem 103 κτύπον δέδορκα· πάταγος οὐχ ἑνὸς δορός (16-17). Modern classical scholars have been slow to show interest. The lead given by C.A. Lobeck in his PHMATIKON sive verborum Graecorum et nominum verbalium technologia (1846) was not followed up by Hellenists until W.B. Stanford’s Greek metaphor: studies in theory and practice (1936); and even after that little of note appeared apart from C.P. Segal’s ‘Synaesthesia in Sophocles’ ( ICS 2 [1977] 88-96), which in turn appears to have attracted surprisingly little attention from students of Greek tragedy. Michael Silk’s discussions of metaphor in his book Interaction in poetic imagery with special reference to early Greek poetry (1974) and his OCD article ‘Metaphor and simile’ impinge only tangentially on the phenomenon, without actually naming it. Most discussion has been by scholars in modern vernacular literatures. In transferring the debate to Latin poetry Catrein has opened up a rich new vein of critical enquiry.

His book is concerned only with synaesthesia as metaphor. After the preliminary historical chapter summarized above, ch. 2 ‘Synästhesien als Metaphern’ examines two definitions that he considers useful as critical tools. The first is that of synaesthesia as ‘bold’ ( kühn) metaphor. As classified by Harald Weinreich, whose treatment forms the basis for this and the following section, metaphors rank as ‘bold’ not when (as most of us would probably assume) they are what might be loosely termed far-fetched, but when they are contradictory. Thus, as Catrein applies this definition, at OT 371 τυφλὸς τά τ’ ὦτα τόν τε νοῦν τά τ’ ὄμματ’ εἶ, Tiresias’ blindness of hearing is a bolder metaphor than his mental blindness: ‘Der νοῦς hat mit Sinneswahrnehmung nichts zu tun, die Ohren aber sind ein Sinnesorgan, nur eben das falsche’ (30). This idea Catrein sees as helpful when appraising the significance of the metaphorical invasion of one sense by another. So, a ‘bitter experience’ does not count as especially bold, whereas a ‘bitter colour’ does (32). A second definition of synaesthesia, also adopted from Weinreich, is ‘cognitive’ metaphor. An image belongs in a conceptual context ( Bildfeld); metaphor is the transference of an image from one such context to another, ‘understanding and expressing one kind of thing in terms of another’ (G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors we live by [1980], cit. 34). So in ‘coloured hearing’ an image crosses from the domain of sound to that of vision. The chapter ends with some methodological caveats which underline the difficulties attending any attempt at precise classification (35-42). Catrein differentiates two possible approaches, the ‘diachronic’ and the ‘synchronic’. Is a metaphor deemed to count as such because it appears to depart from what is subjectively perceived as ‘normal’ usage, or should its credentials, so to say, be evaluated historically on the basis of what can be shown to have been ‘normal’ at the relevant time? The latter can be difficult or sometimes impossible to establish securely, but Catrein argues that more often than not there is enough evidence, in the shape of suitable prose texts, to make the historical approach a practicable tool in helping to determine metaphorical status (37-8). He grants that such categorizations can never be hard and fast, going on to point out that a ‘dead’ or ‘lexicalized’ metaphor can always be resurrected and given a fresh lease of life by a poet alive to its potentiality (38-9). I was interested to find enallage, zeugma and syllepsis drawn into the discussion (40-2). Enallage is indeed a kind of transference, formally considered, but as Catrein’s somewhat cursory treatment implicitly acknowledges, it seems to have little to do with synaesthesia. Syllepsis, however, can perhaps be seen as a special case or variant of it which exploits both semantic ambiguity and sense-transgressional metaphor.1

The two chapters that make up the bulk of the book, ch. 3 ‘Synästhetishe Bildfelder in der römischen Dichtung’ (43-164), and ch. 4 ‘Zur Funktion taktiler Synästhesien bei Lukrez’ (165-99), offer what might be described as a catalogue raisonné of synaesthetic expressions in the Latin poets, chiefly Lucretius, Virgil and Ovid. These are classified according as a sense-domain figures as transmitter or receiver. Thus, to give two examples out of the hundreds displayed, under the rubric ‘Tastsinn als Bildspender’ we find expressions such as Aen. 12.483 quotiens oculos coniecit in hostem (103), in which eyesight is treated as a concrete thing that can be projected and felt (‘Gesehenes wird “gefühlt” oder “ertastet”‘, 101); and under ‘Gesichtssinn als Bildempfänger’ the famous description of the theatre awnings at DRN 4.78-83 (181). These chapters illustrate and discuss the many ways in which the poets, according to their individual sensibilities and literary strategies, responded to and developed the synaesthetic possibilities offered by the resources of poetic Latinity. They provide a rich resource for future commentators and, I would guess, much pabulum for seminars. By the same token they resist summarizing. In the rest of this review I concentrate on what Catrein has to say about Lucretius’ use of synaesthesia, which seems to me especially thought-provoking.

It was Hugh Sykes Davies who first directed serious critical attention to Lucretius’ use of metaphor as ‘unique in European literature’.2 It was indeed for the purpose in hand an essential argumentative tool. The section in Catrein’s book on ‘Gesichtssinn als Bildspender’ (46-81) demonstrates how from very early on uideo extended its semantic range to embrace other modes of perception, a familiar phenomenon in other languages: English ‘don’t you see?’ equates exactly with Latin nonne uides? What had already by Lucretius’ time become standard usage he exploited to its limits: ‘Lukrez führt, so kann man zusammenfassen, das Verb videre an die Grenzen seiner semantischen Belastbarkeit’ (58). Even more striking and significant for the argumentative strategy of the DRN is what he did with touch. It was a fundamental tenet that the senses cannot lie and do not contradict each other (4.478-96, cit. 165). That for a committed Epicurean would appear to rule synaesthesia as an argumentative tactic out of court. In fact Lucretius employed it without scruple wherever it might serve to reinforce his message. So in the wonderful description of dawn at 2.44-8 the point that these phenomena are material in origin and operation is paradoxically underlined by the interplay of synaesthetic metaphor (170-1). Catrein’s analysis brilliantly demonstrates the originality and ingenuity with which Lucretius invests familiar metaphors with new life so as to bring out their underlying materiality (187). He allows that his use of metaphor cannot in every case be shown to subserve the Epicurean message but adds engagingly ‘Dennoch fühlt sich der Interpret bei Lukrez zu Deutungen berechtigt, für die er sich bei anderen Dichtern den Vorwurf der Überinterpretation einhandelte’ (197). Well, as Mr Weller junior remarked in another connexion, it’s an amiable weakness, to which I am prone myself with Ovid. Catrein emphasizes that the DRN is addressed, not to the converted but to the potential convert, personified in Memmius: ‘wie jeder gute Lehrer entfaltet Lukrez nicht einfach nur den neuen Stoff vor seinem Schüler, sondern geht auf ihn zu und holt ihn in seiner Welt ab; zu dieser Welt gehört aber auch nichtepikureischer Sprachgebrauch’ (198). (Whether Memmius himself was equipped by nature or upbringing to respond is something we can only speculate about.) One lasting legacy of Lucretius’ engagement with synaesthesia, Catrein suggests, is the frequency in later poetry, especially Virgil’s, of synaesthetic metaphor involving touch (‘Tastsinn als Bildspender’, 100-62). He leaves his readers with the thought that what for Lucretius had been essentially a didactic ploy became, through his inspired use of it, common poetic currency: ‘dies wäre ein schwaches, aber nicht uninteressantes Element epikureischen “Nachleben”‘ (199).

Catrein is a careful writer, scrupulous to alert the reader to the complexities of the subject (13) and at great pains to clarify or qualify his argument where necessary. There are serviceable bibliographies and indexes of Latin words and passages discussed. His book demands and deserves attentive reading and is one which no serious student of Latin poetry should neglect.


1. Catrein touches on the problem of distinguishing syllepsis from zeugma (41 n.134). The failure of ancient grammarians to distinguish the two is, it seems to me, no reason why their modern successors should tamely follow suit: they are two different things. All the examples of zeugma cited by Catrein at pp. 156-7 I should call syllepsis. See G. Tissol, The face of Nature (1997) 219-20.

2. ‘Notes on Lucretius’, The Criterion 11 (1931-2) 25-42 at 31-2 = C.J. Classen, ed., Probleme der Lukrezforschung (1986) 273-90 at 279-80.