Love Letter Day 29
I’ve started reading Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, by Vladimir Nabokov, upon the recommendation of my friend Sarah who by the way has a great Cold War design blog up at her substack you should check out. I’d asked her for some recommended reading about synesthesia. I’m only three chapters in but he gets right into describing what he calls his “colored hearing” in Chapter 2 and I found this passage provocative.
The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are. To my mother, though, this all seemed quite normal. The matter came up, one day in my seventh year, as I was using a heap of old alphabet blocks to build a tower. I casually remarked to her that their colors were all wrong. We discovered then that some of her letters had the same tint as mine and that, besides, she was optically affected by musical notes. These evoked no chromatisms in me whatsoever. Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds. Under certain emotional circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones. Despite the number of operas I was exposed to every winter (I must have attended Ruslan and Pikovaya Dama at least a dozen times in the course of half as many years), my weak responsiveness to music was completely overrun by the visual torment of not being able to read over Pimen’s shoulder or of trying in vain to imagine the hawkmoths in the dim bloom of Juliet’s garden.
I am struck of course by the admission that he basically hates music. But then I’m piqued by Nabokov’s conflation of musical notes with their sonic outcomes. I would argue that the two dead ends should trace back to different pathologies. This leads me to the interpretation that what Nabokov really can’t get over is the work that goes into making music; the signifiers can’t be reconciled with the signified.
I shared this interpretation of this paragraph with my friend Christina as we perused the Grounds for Sculpture where we discussed in equal measure the beauty and the banality of different pieces of sculpture. It came down to a question of what qualifies as art (are 3D facsimiles of Impressionist paintings art?), but as administrators of craft, we certainly knew what it meant to be prepossessed with the details of the work.
I couldn’t imagine feeling nothing from a musical note and then refusing to find the music it signifies, agreeable. Or couldn’t I. I know exactly what it means when it comes to writing love letters into thin air. A signifier that can’t be reconciled.
I have written love letters for so long in an attempt to understand the effects of them, that the interpolation, the interpretation of love would probably shock me. The work was so important that the art might have lost its meaning. But if I can describe the way you taste from the mere sound of your voice, who will tell me when it is art?