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  • Sensuous Linguistics:On Saussure's Synesthesia
  • Liesl Yamaguchi (bio)

In 1983, the swiss scholar mireille cifali happened upon a radio lecture by Édouard Claparède, a Genevan psychologist whose correspondence with Sigmund Freud had occasioned her archival visit. Claparède's lecture, broadcast February 5, 1936, concerned a book he had assisted in researching over forty years earlier: Théodore Flournoy's Des phénomènes de synopsie (1893). The book catalogued and analyzed reports of "extraordinary sensations" submitted by individuals who had experienced "representations essentially relating to the domain of sight, prompted (at least apparently) by sensations or ideas outside of the ordinary laws of perception and association."1 The book, in other words, recounted the experiences of people who saw things that, according to "the ordinary laws of perception and association," were not there.

Apparently compelled to defend these reports' reliability in his broadcast, Claparède noted the "detailed responses from experts of scrupulous conscience, whose good faith could hardly be called into question (such as Ferdinand de Saussure). C.f. Flournoy, p. 51."2 Intrigued at the surprising reference to the founding figure of structural linguistics, Cifali contacted Flournoy's grandson Olivier, who located the late author's copy. Olivier found that the name "Ferdinand de Saussure" had indeed been jotted into the margin beside a long quotation that the printed text, for its part, attributed only to "an eminent linguist, Mr. X" (PS 50).3

Saussure's was not the only name thus jotted in. Flournoy's copy revealed the identities of several subjects who had elected to remain anonymous, for reasons not difficult to discern. As Marco Mazzeo, one of the text's most acute commentators, usefully summarizes: "between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, synesthesia was a controversial affair … provoking serious accusations between philosophers, scientists, and art theorists. Those unconvinced of the reality of the phenomenon would attack their adversaries without the slightest hesitation, reproaching them—in the best case—for being too impressionable, and accusing them of charlatanism in the worst."4 Given Saussure's well-documented reluctance to publish even his most developed work—whether on general linguistics or the anagrams of [End Page 23] antiquity—it is scarcely surprising that he should have refrained from attaching his name to passing observations on so contentious a topic.

The quotation itself, nearly three pages in length, offers an exquisitely detailed description of "the color of vowels." A, it recounts, is "whitish, verging on yellow," like "a paper (yellowed by time) stretched in a frame"; I is like mercury, "silver or quicksilver"; ou evokes the same sensation as "a beautiful, gray velvet, or a very soft, gray drape, very faded in tone" (PS 50–52). Although the sensuous materiality of these descriptions contrasts rather sharply with the abstract, even algebraic minimalism characteristic of Saussure's published prose, the authorship of the quotation, once revealed, could hardly be disputed. As Flournoy's longtime colleague at the University of Geneva, Saussure was certainly a plausible candidate for the "eminent linguist" elsewhere identified in the text as "male, aged thirty-five."5 And even the most suspicious scholar would be obliged to concede that the quotation itself is marked by distinctively Saussurean terminology (substance, valeur).

I say "would be" rather than "was" because the text on vowel colors has not garnered much scholarly attention. Somewhat surprisingly, it has never been republished in the "Documents" section of the Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, where various fragments of Saussureana regularly appear, and the pages of that journal in the two decades following its discovery betray no trace of its existence.6 This scholarly silence could be attributed to the limited circulation of the newly founded journal of Freudian studies in which Cifali's discovery was published. But it more likely reflects a certain exhaustion on the part of Saussurean scholars with anything that might have appeared to undermine the authority of the Cours de linguistique générale. Given the rumors of madness to which Saussure's anagram studies had recently given rise, it is not difficult to imagine why Saussureans of the 1980s might have been reluctant to take on the vowel...


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