In art, one thinks of Picasso’s “Blue Period,” of Yves Klein’s monochromes, maybe even of Der Blaue Reiter, the short-lived early 20th-century movement composed of German and Russian artists, including Kandinsky. Just a few years earlier, a group of Russian Symbolists named themselves “Blue Rose,” hearkening back to a symbol made prominent by the 19th-century German Romantic Novalis.
Indeed, the color has myriad symbolic associations spanning the whole of human history, associations from cultural, political, religious contexts, and more. In her most recent book, Blue Mythologies, Carol Mavor provides her own “reflections” on blue, as her subtitle reads, employing as a guide no discernible chronology but for the admirable compass of her own affective and intellectual sensibilities.
In retrospect, Mavor’s last book, Black and Blue, seems like the warm-up to Blue Mythologies. In that book, just as beautifully produced as this year’s, physically speaking, Mavor offered a testimony to the bruising and wounding power of art through four case studies (four “tender buttons,” as she calls them): Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Marker’s La Jetée and Sans soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour (both Duras’s novel and Resnais’s film). Together, these works comprise a quartet of blue patches that wield the power to inflict upon their readers and viewers the interstitial, liminal mark of a bruise — that is, a wounding tenderness perceivable even after healing has taken hold. Black and Blue is an unabashedly first person, nonprescriptive account from one such reader-viewer, one that seeks to combine “catastrophe with frivolity” in its quest to reveal something of the link between private and public affect by staging a struggle between them.
Though Black and Blue is ostensibly about four works, it referenced a great many others. Mavor, the author of Reading Boyishly, which consists of analyses of Barthes, J.M. Barrie, Jacques Henri Lartigue, D.W. Winnicott, and Proust, as well as two books on Victorian photography, one on the “performance of sexuality and loss,” the other, on Lady Clementina Hawarden, is never at a loss for connections — between figures, between works, between ages. For every Dead White Man she references, Mavor is just as quick to mention Betye Saar, James Van Der Zee, Carrie Mae Weems, or Kara Walker. Each of the chapters Mavor devotes to the book’s titular subjects, however, is less an extended analysis than is an occasion to use each work as a prism through which conceptual light refracts, illuminating other works, no matter how apparently disconnected.
Blue Mythologies unfolds in a similar fashion, though in a more focused, less tentative way than Black and Blue, which, while enchanting in its own right, suffered from the occasional moment of excessive languor. Mavor has developed a style that marries the erudition of scholarly writing with the intimacy of a diary. Reading it, at times, feels like a voyeuristic experience, and can sometimes make one uncomfortable enough to want to laugh at its quirks. In his essay on North by Northwest, Stanley Cavell once wrote of philosophy that its “all but unappeasable yearning for itself is bound to feel comic to those who have not felt it.” These are words worth remembering reading Mavor’s book, which exhibits its own curious self yearning, and deserves as much seriousness as its writer evidently put into it.
In 22 chapters, illustrated throughout by lavish reproductions of everything from 14th century frescoes to 21st century contemporary daguerreotypes, Mavor is at her somersaulting best, moving effortlessly between disciplines and interpretive paradigms, never settling on one, but sitting comfortably in between. Her aim in the book, as she professes at its outset, is to capture the paradoxical nature of both “blue” as well as “mythology”; the former, in that it comfortably houses opposites, the latter, in that its truths seem to be, by their nature, duplicitous.
As she herself puts it, Mavor seeks to “unravel” the “conflicting temperaments of the blues.” How has it come to be that blue can connote the pure and the obscene, the eternal and the finite, the serene and the morose? Some may well dismiss these questions as misguided; it is hardly surprising that blue should be capable of connoting such contradictory things, the ungenerous reader may say, because connotations of this sort are simply arbitrary and subjective. Mavor is no doubt aware of such a hypothetical skeptic, since it is precisely by pitching her curiosity about the restless symbolic resonances of her titular hue at an unapologetically subjective level that she succeeds in inspiring a similar curiosity in her readers.
The implicit question gets under our skin. It seems that there should be nothing surprising about the fact that we invest an object with seemingly contradictory or otherwise inconsistent meanings, yet the breadth of associations Mavor is able to bring to bear upon her subject makes such a shrugging attitude near impossible. The success of her book is to coax us into having a less complacent attitude to our own contradictory investments, even when it comes to something as apparently innocuous as a color. Not being complacent, however, does not necessarily mean uncritically valorizing. On the contrary, it can also mean being suspicious or wary of the role such things come to play in our lives and our perception of them.
In an essay on Nietzsche, political philosopher Raymond Geuss writes, “to offer a genealogy is to provide a historical dissolution of self-evident identities” and later in the same work, that genealogy is to be understood as “a summons to develop an empirically informed kind of theoretical imagination under the conditions of perceived danger.” Perhaps one could argue that Mavor’s work does not count as genealogical since she does not, in her elegant portraits of artists and writers, try to explain what forces and motivations brought about the use of blue in that way at that time by those persons. Nonetheless we may still ask ourselves, with Geuss’s words in mind, what the “conditions of perceived danger” could possibly be in the study Mavor has offered us. Though its ambition is to dissolve or disambiguate certain fraught identities, its tone seems nothing but loving.
It might help to look at an exemplary section of Mavor’s book, numbered 19 and dedicated to Venice. Mavor begins with a reflection inspired by a photograph that depicts a detail of a Fortuny gown, one of his “Delphos” gowns. Mavor tell us that Fortuny began creating these gowns in Venice, where he was sent because of his allergy to horses. The wetness required of the gowns’ material such that the folds be permanent is connected to the “folding landscape” of the city of Venice and its labyrinthine waterways. Venice’s water is then itself conceptually “folded,” made to represent both the exquisite beauty of Venice as well as its abject putrefaction. The notion of abjection then leads Mavor to Gustav von Aschenbach, protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). In the novel, Aschenbach falls for the young Tadzio, supposedly inspired by the real-life Polish boy Władysław Moes, whose sailor-like garb leads Mavor, in turn, to F. Holland Day who, in the same time period, made photographic portraits of young immigrant boys. Some of F. Holland Day’s photos are “blue,” in both appearance and content. The borders blurred in Day’s controversial work soon return us to Venice and its own sense of borderlessness and duplicity. In closing this section, Mavor recalls a scene toward the end of Mann’s novel wherein the abject, ill Aschenbach watches Tadzio on the beach, identified with the water everywhere before him, with Venice itself, Mavor tells us. In this scene, Aschenbach, author of A Study in Abjection, “becomes his own book on abjection, Mavor writes — “he is as limitless, as abject, as the color blue.” Aschenbach dies, lovesick against the backdrop of cholera-stricken Venice; blue survives, as the remainder that somehow found its way into the thread and, despite the apparent finality of Mavor’s analysis, could not shake itself off of it.
Some will find it easy to dismiss reflections such as these as fanciful musings on Mavor’s part, fit for a memoir, perhaps, but little else. One can see, however, that the metaphors Mavor uses to guide her from one step to another and to navigate between works, are not as unmotivated as a naysayer would have it. One can see easily enough the central thread running through these reflections as the gradual “unfolding” of Aschenbach, culminating in his escape from folds altogether, that is, his going beyond the limits that had once defined his melancholic existence. Could she have carried out these reflections without having to mention Fortuny, F. Holland Day, and the other references one finds in these pages? Perhaps. But since it is not, strictly speaking, an argument that she is making, there is nothing to which her reflections “reduce,” so it makes little sense to speak of something as being extraneous to them. Mavor treats artworks as though they were stars — she catalogs, and thereby constellates, sentimentally, if not altogether scientifically.
To return to the possibility that her project is genealogical, then, what are those “conditions of perceived danger” to which her genealogy as summons might be responding? One answer, however provisional, is that the perceived danger may be that of mistaking the professional analysis of art as that to which appreciation of art aspires, rather than thinking of appreciation as that which professional analysis sets itself the challenge of becoming, in spite of itself, as it were.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once wrote, “if psychoanalysis doesn’t also facilitate the patients’ capacity not to know themselves, it becomes merely another way of setting limits to the self.” Whatever one’s own opinion of psychoanalysis may be, these words ring true for criticism, as well.
Where does this leave us? It may seem we have come some ways away from the province of Mavor’s book, which was, after all, the color blue. Could such a book be written about any other color? Perhaps. Nonetheless, from the oceans to the heavens, we seem to have found ourselves housed in blue. The disenchanting reasons for this have to do with the scattering of light particles and the way in which light is absorbed. So, in this sense, there is every reason for the cynic to think that, strictly speaking, there is nothing special to be made of the place of blue in our lives. Against the cynic, Mavor’s book testifies to how much we have been able to do with so little, weaving myth out of matter. It is also a reminder of the ways in which things can hang together for us and resist even our best efforts at specialization. It is, finally, a useful lesson in the ways our interpretations seem to create their own special sorts of resistant objects, ones we more or less happily live with but, nonetheless, keep an eye on, lest their ability to affect us ends up outpacing our ability to shape them, which, in the best cases, it usually does.
Dylan J. Montanari is a graduate student at Stanford University, where he also co-coordinates the Philosophy and Literature Initiative. His work has been published in Berfrois, Chicago Review, Philosophy & Literature, and Italian studies journals.