By Terry NguyenJanuary 3, 2024
MY FAVORITE BLUE essays begin with a baptism by color. The reader is submerged into the blue of language, the blue of the world “at its edges and in its depths” (Rebecca Solnit). The deeper the descent into the text, the bluer one’s inner world becomes. This is the blue of “the light that got lost,” the bluesy listlessness of William Gass’s blue lists.
For Catholics, baptism is the first act of faith, a sacrament that bears the promise of salvation. Children are often baptized as infants, almost preemptively, years before any belief can be inculcated. But the workings of faith are mysterious, and if no one can claim to know when or how faith’s seeds are planted, can a baptism be considered premature? The church would say that one can never be saved too soon.
As a lapsed Catholic, I find blue—unlike God—to be self-evident. Blue does not need our belief. And yet, there is an iota of faith required in seeing blue, in identifying it to others in the world and on the page, its promise contained within the four-letter word we’ve ascribed to its shifting hues. In giving blue a name, we sacrifice the arcane for the concreteness of language. Something is diminished. Wonder, perhaps, or enchantment at this intuitive understanding of blue as “the language the sky speaks” (Ted Dodson). Growing up, I was told, “In the beginning was the Word.” Suppose the beginning was blue itself. Our retinal perception of color predates all notions of object identification and selfhood, and our eyes are especially sensitive to shorter wavelengths of light, the shortest among them being blue. Perhaps this is how faith begins, like the first sight of color at daybreak, and I realize I have seen blue before I knew its name. I have always known blue. I have felt blue before I succumbed to the wonder of its moods. And as much as I have read about the color, I cannot claim to know it any better, if at all.
Across myriad blue essays, poems, novels, and musings, I’ve come to recognize blue’s utter ineffability—that which distinguishes it from other colors on a visual, cultural, and metaphysical plane. Blue is as apparent as the sky and as murky as the deep sea. Some say that blue is the deepest color, a refractive intermediary between light and dark. It is “the most insubstantial color,” “the color of transcendence,” of lovelorn musings and interior life. Blue is the most modern of the primary colors, younger than red, yellow, and green in obtaining its formal name.
These ambiguities imbue blue with boundless potential for writerly meditation. Writers are aesthetes and obsessives, blue creatures enticed and inspired by the abstract. There is a thrill, I presume, in attempting to define something as linguistically impenetrable as color, for language is not the most effective medium to do so. Simpler instead to paint a blue canvas, as Yves Klein or Agnes Martin have, to get one’s point across. A monochromatic painting retains the purity of blue—“a blue in itself, disengaged from all formal justifications,” to quote Klein—whereas blue texts mire the color with complexity, as writers are wont to do.
My interest in blue stemmed from its emergent intertextuality—blue’s prevalence and presence across a range of contemporary texts: William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1975), Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), Carol Mavor’s Blue Mythologies: Reflections on a Colour (2013), Derek Jarman’s experimental poetic film Blue (1993), and essays like Rebecca Solnit’s “The Blue of Distance” and Julia Kristeva’s “Giotto’s Joy.” These texts comprise their own expansive universe of letters, where blue derives its symbolic power through repetition and imagistic association: blue objects as “a kind of burning bush” that can elicit “a stinging desire” (Nelson).
The color becomes an invocation, a thing that demands Kleinian justification, again and again. Gass, a critic and novelist, wrote one of the first book-length essays on blue because he was intrigued by the word itself. A blue canvas was of little interest to him. As such, the tradition of blue writing, following Gass’s 1975 work, is never strictly about the color blue, but about derivative objects, experiences, phenomena—verging towards language itself. On the page, then, blue is a point of entry and relation for the reader, a navy fog drifting from the mountains to settle upon the sentences. With every new text, I am reintroduced to blue, greeted by this familiar acquaintance whose name and face reliably slip from memory. A certain amount of faith, too, is required of the reader when confronted with a writer’s blue conjurings. These chromatic conjectures can be slippery, whereas pure color is unequivocal (“[E]very color is a completed presence in the world, a recognizable being apart from any object,” writes Gass): blue becomes an inexact metaphor for love, loss, life, and the sublime. While vague, this literary reference to blue functions as “the laying down of One Meaning so that it might at once be pulverized, multiplied into plural meanings,” according to Kristeva. Color is “the shattering of unity” that allows the text to bloom.
All this blue talk owes itself, in part, to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet and scientist. In his Theory of Colours (1810), Goethe sought to refute Isaac Newton’s theory that all color is derived from white light. Goethe, who was no physicist, held a more archaic understanding of color. He thought the eye was affected by both light and darkness. And blue, by Goethe’s account, is closer to darkness than light, having an “affinity with black” and connoting “a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.”
But Goethe’s most memorable blue musing, which the poet Maggie Nelson quotes in Bluets, strikes a more pensive tone: “We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” Blue earns our affections like an elusive lover, beckoning us towards its illusory arms. By her telling, Nelson’s love affair with the color began quite typically. Blue entered the door of her life, and she succumbed to its “voluntary delusion” (haven’t we all?). Bluets is a meandering dialogue between the speaker and a lost lover: “This is the deepest blue, talking, talking, always talking to you.” A close read of Bluets, however, reveals Nelson’s investment in the idea of blue as desideratum. Blue is a literary device by which the writer abstracts into the realm of feeling while the color’s concrete features, like that of an anonymous, faceless lover, dissipate entirely: “If I were today on my deathbed, I would name my love of the color blue and making love with you as two of the sweetest sensations I knew on this earth.” A sentence too mawkish, if you ask me, that is simultaneously evasive in sentiment, but perhaps that is to the point of blue’s name. It follows a logic unique to its own apparatus.
Goethe’s theory contained many empirical inaccuracies, namely for his assumption that darkness is an oppositional force to light. (Newton proved that a “dark” room with no visible light simply contained few light particles.) Nevertheless, I am partial to how Goethe considered color a visual phenomenon unique to each viewer. He was especially interested in color-blind and blind people. Color, he wrote, “is a law of nature in relation with the sense of sight.” We are its audience. Color achieves its sensuality through subjective interpretation.
To free themselves from the centuries-old artistic mythologies of form, perspective, and narrative, the postimpressionist and abstract painters let color stray loose on the canvas. Of this nonrepresentational style of painting, Henri Matisse said: “When the means of expression have become so refined, so attenuated that their power of expression wears thin, it is necessary to return to the essential principles which made human language.” Matisse, in other words, was advocating for a radical shift in painting: a return to honoring the essence of basic shapes and colors away from representational “refinement.” What’s striking is how Matisse, a painter and collagist (he constructed a series of magnificent and orotund Blue Nudes), refers to language in a discussion about painting. Language may only approximate a color’s essential qualities, but perhaps we can recognize color as a private language unto itself—what Wittgenstein described as something “known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private sensations.”
When asked by colleagues and friends “Why blue?,” Nelson admits that she has no adequate response: “We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.” The same can be asked of our ineffectual attempts to elucidate color through language: why bother to say the unsayable? Unlike Nelson, though, who ascribes these whims to fate, I believe we have some choice in these discursive matters. Blue writers have undertaken a Sisyphean task, for even a million blue texts are unable to accomplish what Klein’s canvas achieves in a split second of sight. But perhaps, much like Goethe’s efforts, the thought experiment is the point, however flawed one’s conclusions may be. “I want she said / a theory that explains / everything,” writes the poet Louise Glück in “Blue Rotunda.” As do I. I want what I want so I write to resolve my knowledge of the world, to intuit David Hume’s concept of “the missing shade of blue” from somewhere within myself.
There are a handful of recurring sources that blue writers tend to cite, among them Goethe, Wittgenstein, Jarman, and Klein. Reading them seems to be a rite of passage for any blue connoisseur, or maybe I had been diligent in following the azure threads of history. Still, I resisted refurbishing passages already quoted by Nelson, Gass, or Mavor, although such overlap is a natural by-product of this kind of intellectual and intertextual exercise. Of course, originality is not impossible, but blue, like God and love and death, has been discursively wrung out by writers, so to speak, like a pair of faded jeans turned inside out in the wash. Correlations and coincidences can’t be avoided. Blue’s poetic progenitors are bound to be quoted for posterity, I suppose, to serve as “formal justification” of the color’s literary significance. It unites us as tourists traversing this foreign blue land.
These writings are a form of “blue tourism,” to borrow a phrase from Mavor, who described her Barthesian multidisciplinary study of blue as such. In Blue Mythologies, Mavor is our self-appointed tour guide on a blue excursion, from Giotto’s Arena Chapel to Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski's film Three Colors: Blue (1993) to Belgian artist Francis Alÿs’s The Loop (1997). These blue artworks and objects ground Mavor’s writing, in a sense, on the chromatic spectrum. Her digressions are brief, relative to Gass’s and Nelson’s, though Mavor’s methodical meditations reveal how we imbue our own matrices of meaning upon favored blue phenomena. A derivative patchwork of associations emerges from our mental interactions with the color, even if what we encounter isn’t tangibly blue. We recognize non-blue phenomena, like feelings, songs, disease, even fiction, as blue in sentiment for the color is “self-contradictory, yet true.” Blue is a uniquely paradoxical color, Mavor argues: “The color blue yields meaning, but paradoxically will also give way to opposite meanings, as if it were performing the intransitive form of the verb, to blue.”
Blue is, by all means, a hot mess. It contradicts itself, in nature and in language. The blue of the sky is simply a trick of light: the shade we see is a result of scattered particles, bouncing off gases in the atmosphere. “Blue” foods and “blue” flowers derive their color from a bluish-purple compound called anthocyanin; they are often more purple than “true” blue. Blue, as an adjective, can represent the religious or the profane: blue stories are fairy tales, whereas blue movies are X-rated flicks. Tempting as it is to think of these blue ideas and associations as artificial inventions (how, I want to ask Gass, can fiction be blue?), stretched into a clunky, book-length metaphor for our moods and states of mind, I take solace in blue’s illusory states and its synthetic prevalence in nature. The sky “only gives our wish for blue a whet,” writes Robert Frost in the poem “Fragmentary Blue.” Fitting, then, that blue evokes “conflicting temperaments” in culture and language. The color’s fragmented mythologies have accumulated over centuries, such that blue has become saddled (or shattered, as Kristeva claims) with all sorts of meanings. “Sometimes, it seems, that everything is blue,” Mavor muses. This is, of course, untrue (the grass isn’t blue), but I suppose she meant that blueness can be ascribed to our heart’s whims.
Roni Horn’s monologue Saying Water is, as the title implies, about water. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that blue is the dominant mood of her hour-long performance, which I have listened to many times in the dark with closed eyes and clasped hands, as if Horn’s steady voice could offer me deliverance from my insomnia. Saying Water is conversational and poetic, though the observations are steeped in an indigo despondency. Horn had written the monologue at a residency in England, taking daily walks along the River Thames, which has the highest rate of suicides of any urban river. She speaks of suicide and bodily dismemberment. She growls the word “water” and stretches its fluid syllables. “Watching the water, I am stricken with the vertigo of meaning,” Horn says. What she witnesses is dirty, swirling, opaque, black, but the images conjured, to me, are insistently, indubitably blue—“Water is the final conjugation: an infinity of form, relation, and content.” Like blue, water is fluid, consisting of a multiplicity of meaning. Water is “the master verb,” as blue is intransitive, a gestural state to be acted upon.
Skeptical as I am of employing the terms of grammar to literalize the universality of water and color, I often return to Wittgenstein, who famously proclaimed: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” And color, for Wittgenstein, was a black box of meaning. Inspired by Goethe, he wrote Remarks on Colour (1950) within the last 18 months of his life. It is perhaps a last-ditch attempt to clarify the logic behind the words ascribed to color, even though Wittgenstein believed that “any attempt to describe [color] will always be insufficient.” He writes, “I can describe a language game to a blind person, or to a colour-blind person, but I cannot demonstrate it. If this is the case, then how is it possible that people learn the meaning of colour names?” A language game, in Wittgensteinian terms, is the process by which we learn, understand, and use language to communicate with others. The unspoken “rules” of the language game teach us to understand a word (like blue, for instance) by associating it with blue images and blue things.
But the conundrum that plagued Wittgenstein over the course of his intellectual life—how the meanings of words are developed and reinforced through collective use—began long before writing Remarks on Colour. The first chapter of Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, a set of 1933–34 lecture notes that were bound in blue cloth (hence the name), begins with this question: “What is the meaning of a word?” And later, he deconstructs an example of how a person may come to learn the word yellow. They are trained like a dog, to put it crudely, to harbor an instant association, a feeling of recognition between word and image. The ball is yellow, the trees are green, and the sky is blue because we agree they are so.
It is impossible to succinctly describe Wittgenstein’s philosophy without deconstructing the mechanics of a sentence and the relative meanings of its accompanying words. However, I find myself returning to Wittgenstein whenever I am faced with a sense of semantic satiation, which occurred several times while writing this essay. The word blue began to ring hollow in its shape and sound; I struggled to grasp its meaning while marveling at this temporary cognitive glitch, engendered by a word’s mere repetition. When I am in this state, blue becomes, in effect, a placeholder, a daunting sign that can stand for anything and everything. Sometimes it takes me a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, to extricate myself from this void of associations, when I feel like I am standing briefly outside language itself. Horn describes water as “a form of perpetual relation, not so much a substance but a thing whose identity is based on its relation to other things.” Blue, on the page, is as viscous in its literary properties as water, always presented and posed in relation to another thing. Only when it becomes reduced to hollow echolalia do I feel distanced from blue, rendered briefly ignorant of its connotations and mythologies. It is a sort of linguistic blindness—not visual, of course, and certainly not as severe as what Jarman suffered from. When Jarman’s vision was deteriorating from AIDS, he often saw streaks of blue light. His entire field of vision turned blue when he put in the prescribed eye drops. However, the partial blindness unlocked a realm of pure color, one that allowed Jarman to see “the fathomless blue of Bliss.”
There are two ways we can learn the meaning of a word, according to Wittgenstein. One can do so “inside the language” by seeking out a definition in the dictionary, or the meaning can be imparted outside the language demonstratively, which is the simplest way to recognize colors or textures like alabaster or travertine. There is, I think, a purity to being outside language. It is a retreat to a private sphere of thought where the truth of blue resides, a realm beyond logical and linguistic interpretation.
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