‘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  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  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
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
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.