March 22, 2015

On William Gass's "On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry"

Language can be delicious, a taste of words juicy on the tongue, tart and sweet, with a complex depth of flavors. Such was my experience reading the long essay by William Gass, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. Although ostensibly about the color blue in all its manifestations––visual, physical, metaphoric––the essay is truly a celebration of language. Why blue?
Of the colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range. Sad reds and melancholy yellows are difficult to turn up. Among the ancient elements, blue occurs everywhere; in ice and water, in the flame as purely as in the flower, overhead and inside caves, covering fruit and oozing out of clay. Although green enlivens the earth and mixes in the ocean, and we find it, copperish, in fire; green air, green skies, are rare. Gray and brown are widely distributed, but there are no joyful swatches of either or any of exuberant black, sullen pink, or acquiescent orange. Blue is there most suitable as the color of interior life. Whether slick light sharp high bright thin quick sour new and cool or low deep sweet dart soft slow smooth heavy old and warm: blue moves easily among them all, and all profoundly qualify our states of feeling. 
And Gass makes lively lists:
There's the blue skin of cold, contusion, sickness, fear...absent air, morbidity, the venereals, blue pox...gloom.
There are whole schools of fish, clumps of trees, flocks of birds, bouquets of flowers: blue channel cats, the ash, beech, birch, bluegills, breams, and bass, Andalusian fowl, acaras, angels in decorative tanks, the bluebill, bluecap, and blue billy (a petrel of the southern seas), anemone, bindweed, bur, bell, mullet, salmon, trout, cod, daisy, and a blue leaved and flowered mountain plant called the blue beardtongue because of its conspicuous yellow-bearded sterile stamens. is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit...  
I came across mention of this book while I was puttering along on my boxed paintings, Blues, and thought it would be appropriate to read it then. Gass names colors, vividly:
It is of course the sky. It is the sky's pale deep endlessness, sometimes so intense at noon the brightness flakes like a fresco. Then at dusk, it is the way the color sinks among us, not like dew but settling dust or poisonous exhaust from all the life burned up while we were busy being other than ourselves. For our blues we have the azures and ceruleans, lapis lazulis, the light and dusty, the powder blues, the deeps: royal, sapphire, navy, and marine; there are the pavonian or peacock blues, the reddish blues: damson, madder and cadet, hyacinth, periwinkle, wine, wisteria and mulberry; there are the sloe blues, a bit purpled or violescent, and then the green blues, too: robin's egg and eggshell blue, beryl, cobalt, glaucous blue, jouvence, turquoise, aquarmarine. 
And he goes on with more naming of dyes and pigments. But much of this essay is about blue language––vulgar, dirty, obscene, pornographic––and the failure of language to describe sex:
I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken's wing.  
He doesn't shy away from  profanity, he revels in it, and what could be thought of as vulgar language (just to warn you if you decide to read the essay.) He praises John Barth for not "disrupting the form" by describing a rape, only "that the lady was ravished unmercifully and turns his hero sadly away". Gass tells us, passionately,
that the ultimate and essential displacement is to the word, and that the true sexuality in literature––sex as a positive aesthetic quality––lies not in any scene and subject, nor in the mere appearance of a vulgar word, not in the thick smear of a blue spot, but in the consequences on the page of love well made––made to the medium which is the writer's own, for he––for she––has only these little shapes and sounds to work with, the same saliva surrounds them all, every word is equally a squiggle or a noise, an abstract designation (the class of cocks, for instance, or the sub-class of father-defilers), and a crowd of meanings as randomly connected by time and use as a child connects his tinkertoys. .....what counts is not what lascivious sights your loins can tie to your thoughts like Lucky is to Pozzo, but love lavished on speech of any kind, regardless of content and intention. 
 This spill of words, as through the entire essay, is thrilling to read: words built as though physical things to move around, to build with, to sculpt, not just thin squiggles on a page. Gass praises other authors in addition to Barth, and my most favorite author of all, Henry James; how could I not love this essay when James is praised in this way:
If any of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we'd never long for another, never wander away: where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood? Who else would robe us so richly, take us to the best places, or guard our virtue as his wont and defend our character in every situation? If we were his sentences, we'd sing ourselves though we were dying and about to be extinguished, since the silence which would follow our passing would not be like the pause left behind by a noisy train. It would be a memorial, well-remarked, grave, jut as the Master has assured us death itself is: the distinguished thing. 

Oh my oh my! I am again swept away, thrilled by the copy of the essay is full of underlinings, and I'd like to share many more, but this post would be much much too long. I will end with Gass's advice to writers, which could just as well refer to any of the arts:
So to the wretched writer I should like to say that there's one body only whose request for your caresses is not vulgar, in not unchaste, untoward, or impolite: the body of your work itself; for you must remember that your attentions will not merely celebrate a beauty but create one; that yours is love that brings its own birth with it, just as Plato has declared, and that you should therefore give up the blue things of this world in favor of the words that say them....


  1. Thank you for the review, it sounds very interesting. Have a nice Sunday.

  2. I love the assemblage at the heading--it's as if all the clipped papers of blue rushed to gather there. That last sentence is sad but speaks of something necessary, to give up things of this world in order to create.

    1. James, I photographed my recent blue paintings for the header. I agree that Gass is saying there's a sacrifice needed for making art.

  3. Replies
    1. Does that mean you're an environmentalist, JBS?