Read On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry Online

Authors: William H. Gass

Tags: #General, #Literary Criticism, #Art, #Philosophy, #Semiotics & Theory, #Blue, #Aesthetics, #Color, #Color Theory, #Sex in Literature

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry

BOOK: On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry
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ON BEING BLUE

A P H I L O S O P H I C A L I N Q U I R Y

ON BEING BLUE

WILLIAM GASS

DAVID R. G O D I N E - B O S T O N

I

BLUE pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that's dismal—low-down gloomy music. Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasing absentness of Heaven
(ins Blaue hinein,
the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that's empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for instance, or, when the sky's turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese . . . the pedantic, indecent and censorious . . . watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it's stood for fidelity. Blue laws took their hue from the paper they were printed on. Blue noses were named for a potato. E. Haldeman-Julius' little library, where I first read Ellen Key's
Evolution of Love,
vainly hoping for a cock stand, had such covers. In the same series, which sold for a dime in those days, were the love letters of that Portuguese nun, Mar-iana Alcoforado, an overwrought and burdensome lady, certainly, whose existence I callously forgot until I read of her again in Rilke.

The first of these pocket pamphlets was, inevitably, the
Rubdi-ydt.
It had the right sentiments. It was the right length. It came in pretty quatrains. And like a pair of polished shoes, it had just the right world-weariness and erotic sheen. No. 19, the nearest I got to The J ug and Bough, was entitled,
Nietzsche: Who He Was and
What He Stood For,
by M. A. Mugge, Ph.D. All those capitals were formerly for God. There was another, I remember, that reproduced the wartime speeches of Woodrow Wilson in a type which sometimes sagged toward the bottom of the page as though weakened by the weight of the words above. The blue of these books is pale by now, the paper brittle as communion bread, while my association of Wilde and Darrow with the color, once so intense, has faded too. My cock did not stand for Nietzsche either, nor did Mrs. Annie Besant's essay on the future of marriage cause a stir. One had to go to Liveright for that—to other colors: Black and Gold—where you could be w a r m e d by Stendhal, Huneker, and Jules Romain, by Balzac and R e m y de Gourmont, and where the decadence of Pierre Louys was genu-ine and not a bit of blueness dripped on scarcely curdled cheese.

John Middleton M u r r y edited
The Blue Review
for the three distinguished issues of its life, and something called
The Blue Calen-dar
predicted the weather f r o m 1895 to 1898 without ever being right. Only a nickel, also blue, out of the same dry attic box,
The Bibelot,
a Lilliputian periodical with a Gothically lettered cover which fairly cried out ART, rose into my unhealthy hands.

It came down f r o m Maine instead of in f r o m Kansas, and re-printed pieces that had previously vanished in the pages of
The
Dark Blue,
a vague Pre-Raphaelite monthly with a title as frus-tratingly incomplete as a broken musical phrase. These rhap-sodies°went into print and out of sight the way trout, I ' m sure, still disappear among the iridescences of my childhood Ohio's cold, bottomless Blue Hole, suddenly to emerge again in the clear, swift streams and shallow ponds it feeds as if nothing magical had happened to them. Each of the magazine's meager issues featured a single, slightly sacred, faintly wicked, and always delicately perfumed work by William Morris or Francis T h o m p -

son, Andrew Lang or others. T h e set I saw concluded quietly with Swinburne's tribute to the painter Simeon Solomon (even then in bluish oblivion). N o w this fading poet's forgotten essay furnishes us with our first example, before we are quite ready for any: the description of two figures in a painting . . . the prose of a shade of blue I leave to you.

One girl, white-robed and radiant as white water-flowers, has half let fall the rose that droops in her hand, dropping leaf by leaf like tears; both have the languor and the fruitful air of flowers in a sultry-place; their leaning limbs and fervent faces are full of the goddess; their lips and eyes allure and await the invisible attendant Loves.

The clear pearl-white cheeks and tender mouths have still about them the subtle purity of sleep; the whole drawing has upon it the heavy incumbent light of summer but half awake. Nothing of more simple and brilliant beauty has been done of late years.

Lang, plainly fond of the color, edited
The Blue Poetry Book.

From her window Katherine Mansfield sees a garden full of wall-flowers and blue enamel saucepans, and sets the observation down in a letter to Frieda Lawrence she'll never mail. Stephen Crane wrote and posted
The Blue Hotel,
Malcolm Cowley
Blue
Juniata,
and Conrad Aiken
Blue Voyage.
Like rainwater and white chickens, KM exclaims:

Very beautiful, O God! is a blue tea-pot with two white cups attending; a red apple among oranges addeth fire to flame—in the white book-cases the books fly up and down in scales of colour, with pink and lilac notes recurring, until nothing remains but them, sounding over and over.

Then there is the cold Canadian climate and the color of deep ice.

The gill of a fish. Lush grass. The whale. Jay. Ribbon. Fin.

* * *

Among the derivations of the word, I especially like
blavus,
from medieval Latin, and the earlier, more classical,
flavus,
for the discolorations of a bruise, so that it sometimes meant yellow, with perhaps a hint of green beneath the skin like naughty underclothes. Once, one blushed blue, though to blush like a blue dog, as the cliche went then, was not to blush at all. Covenanters, against royal red, flaunted it. They were true blue, they said.

And Boswell tells us, out of his blue life, that Benjamin Stilling-fleet wore blue wool undress hose to Elizabeth Montague's literary tea-at-homes. Perhaps to Elizabeth Carter's too. And even Hannah More's.

BLUE.—Few words enter more largely into the composition of slang, and colloquialisms bordering on slang, than does the word BLUE. Expressive alike of the utmost contempt, as of all that men hold dear-est and love best, its manifold combinations, in ever varying shades of meaning, greet the philologist at every turn. A very Proteus, it defies all attempts to trace the why and wherefore of many of the turns of expression of which it forms a part. . . .

(Farmer and Henley:
Slang and Its Analogues)
So
a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects. The mind does that. A single word, a single thought, a single thing, as Plato taught. We cover our concepts, like fish, with clouds of net. Cops and bobbies wear blue. We catch them and connect. Imagined origins reduce the sounds of clash and contradiction, as when one cries out blue murder in the street. There's the blue for baby boy, the blue of blue sky laws, blue for jeans, blue for hogs. The coal fish, a salmon, the glut-herring, a kind of trout, are said to have blue-backs and are named so in Yorkshire, Maryland, Virginia, Maine. From earliest times it's been the badge of servitude: among the Gauls, to humiliate harlots in houses of correction, as the color of a tradesman's apron, for liveries and uniforms of all kinds, the varlet's costume.

Blue: bright, with certain affinities for
bael
(fire, pyre), with certain affinities for bald (
ballede
), with certain affinities for bold.

Odd. Well, a bald brant is a blue goose. And these slippery bluegreen sources ease, like sleeves of grease, each separate use into a single—we think—fair and squarely ordered thought machine.

Never mind degrees, deep differences, contrasting sizes. The same blue sock fits every leg. Never mind the noses of those Nova Scotian potatoes, blue noses are the consequence of sexual freeze, or they are noses buried far too long in bawdy books, or rubbed too often harshly up and down on wool-blue thighs. Not alone is love the desire and pursuit of the whole. It is one of the passions of the mind. Furthermore, if among a perfect melange of meanings there is one which has a more immediate appeal, as among the contents of a pocket one item is a peppermint, it will assume a center like the sun and require all others take their docile turn to go around.

This thought is itself a center. I shall not return to it.

Blue postures, attitudes, blue thoughts, blue gestures . . . is it the form or content that turns blue when these are? . . . blue words and pictures: a young girl posed before the door of her family's trailer, embarrassed breasts and frightened triangle, vacant stare . . . I wonder what her father sold the snapshots for?

I remember best the weed which grew between the steps. But they say that sexuality can be dangerously Dionysian. Nowhere do we need order more than at any orgy. What is form, in any case, but a bumbershoot held up against the absence of all cloud?

Stringy hair, head out of plumb, smile like a scratch across her face . . . my friends brought her image with them from their camping trip, and I remember best the weed which grew between the steps. My sensations were as amateur as her photo. A red apple among oranges. Very beautiful. O God.

Remember how the desperate Molloy proceeds: I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones I distrutibed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pockct of my greatcoat, and putting it in mv mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat bv a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had fin-ished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones.... But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.

Beckett is a very blue man, and this is a very blue passage.

Several brilliant pages are devoted to the problem. The penulti-mate solution requires that fifteen stones be kept in one pocket at a time, and moved together—all the stones, that is, which are not being sucked. There is, however, an unwelcome side effect: that of having the body weighted down, on one side, with stones.

. . . I felt the weight of the stones dragging me now to one side, now to the other. So it was something more than a principle I abandoned, when I abandoned the equal distribution, it was a bodily need. But to suck the stones in the way I have described, not hap-hazard, but with method, was also I think a bodily need. Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads. Such things happen. But deep down I didn't give a tinker's curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand or the left, backwards and forwards. And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same.

De Sade in a harem of quints could not have faced the issue of love's little nourishments more squarely, or that of the faceless fuck, or equal treatment (stones, wives, Jews, portions of anat-omy, don't forget, turn and turn about), and how could one better describe our need for some security in this damn disagree-able/dull dark difficult/disorderly life? And then the resolution, when it comes—is it not a triumph of both will and reason?

And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed.

As we shall see, and be ashamed because we aren't ashamed to say it, like that unpocketed peppermint which has, from fingering, become unwrapped, we always plate our sexual subjects first. It is the original reason why we read . . . the only reason why we write.

BOOK: On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry
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