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A READER'S JOURNAL

On Being Blue
A Philosophical Inquiry

by
William Gass
Published by David R. Godine/NH in 2007
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2009

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On being blue is the subject of this philosophical inquiry by William Gass, but I read it primarily because of his wonderful cumulative sentences. The very first sentence will illustrate the structure of a cumulative sentence with the base clause "blue has become their color" near last, as well as leap into the subject of being blue. My marginalia reminds me that I was flying on Delta, whose deep blue of its triangular logo can well be called Delta Blue, perhaps the only blue missed in Gass's encyclopedic coverage of things, feelings, and metaphors blue.

[page 3, 4] 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 — lowdown 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.

All one magnificent sentence. Spreading over two pages of the small paperback book with the deep blue cover. What a gas! What a Gass! A laic litany to blue. An autobiography of blue. Blue memories. Blue books. Blue pamphlets and the blue memories they contain.

[page 4] 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.

Did Gass love Wilson's weighty prose or what he spoofing it? Was the sagging descriptive or was it metaphoric? In a philosophical inquiry, one can not stop to query the author about such matters, one can only read on, and with Gass, one reads on in awesome wonder. One is passing by a jewelry store at night, marveling at the diamonds, rubies, emeralds, a rainbowed array sparkling out from the platinum and gold settings of rings, earrings, necklaces, and queen-ready tiaras.

The blue of deep ice, we learned on a cruise to Alaska and Canada, was the special blue that ice takes on when it reaches a depth exceeding 65 feet or 20 meters, called glacier blue.

[page 6] 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. . . . Once, one blushed blue, though to blush like a blue dog, as the cliché went then, was not to blush at all.

Ah! The origin of the expression, "Blue Dog Democrat". Perhaps it is someone who blushes like a Democrat, i.e., doesn’t blush at all, and so does not vote like a true blue Democrat. Makes me want to blush blue at the thought!

Were they blue stones which Molloy famously sucked at the beach under Beckett's direction? Or was the sucking action of the desperate Molloy a blue action? Or does Gass quote long sections of Beckett's novel, "Molloy" because what Molloy does with his sixteen stones is isomorphic to what Gass does with the word "blue" in this philosophy inquiry: he sucks on one meaning, then another, then another, some only by mention, others by rolling on his tongue and ours as we read, until we remove it to another pocket, and replace it with another blue stone upon which to suck for a time, under Gass's direction.

[page 8, 9] Molloy: 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 distributed 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 pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by 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 finished 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.

Gass: Beckett is a very blue man, and this is a very blue passage. Several brilliant pages are devoted to the problem. The penultimate 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.

Molloy: . . . 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 haphazard, 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(1) 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.

Look at blue, it is one word, a four-letter word and every incarnation of it is the same, and yet it rewards us in its various incarnations with many shades, tones, flavors, meanings, and connotations, all squeezed into four letters, b, l, u, e. Yet, even though blue in its many incarnations may, like Molloy's stones, all taste the same, we may suck upon them nevertheless, and, depending on the skill of the writer, draw nourishment and meaning from them.

As Gass points out, we are each obliged to eat, but "there are some perfectly splendid books that never mention the matter." He adds, "A crowd of considerations gathers. Here I can pay heed only to a few." What a delicious metaphor for the writer's mind in which such crowds gather at every stage of writing, more than that on the teeming deck of the whoreship Cyprian.

[page 15] Passage from Barth about events on the deck of the Cyprian: The Moor allowed her a fair head start and then climbed slowly in pursuit, calling to her in voluptuous Arabic at every step. Fifty feet up, where any pitch of the hull is materially amplified by the height, the girl's nerve failed: she thrust her bare arms and legs through the squares of the rigging and hung on for dear life while Boabdil, once he had come up from behind, ravished her unmercifully. Down on the shallop the sailmaker clapped his hands and chortled; Ebenezer, heartsick, turned away.

Did Barth need to provide details of the frigging in the rigging? Even if it was of Joan Toast, the heroine?

[page 16] It has been wisely noted, in this regard, that we are quite obliged to eat, but there are some perfectly splendid books that never mention the matter. . . . An author is responsible for everything that appears in his books. If he claims that reality requires his depiction of the sexual, in addition to having a misguided aesthetic, he is a liar, since we shall surely see how few of this precious passages are devoted to chewing cabbage, hand-washing, sneezing, sitting on the stool, or, if you prefer, filling out forms, washing floors, cheering teams.

Curious, it seems to Gass, that writers, who will lasciviously interrupt almost any act for a flashback, flash forward, or flash sideward, reverse time, or some other unexpected yank out of the story, often without even a dingbat to make the dislocation, will scarcely ever interrupt coitus.

[page 20] As writers we don't hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead? how often does the insertion come before erection, weak knees anticipate the kiss?
      I would 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.

When is blue not blue? Maybe when it appears pink or brown? Perhaps when we are color blind or insane or live in a room of our own in a fictional world?

[page 30] The mad, as we choose to speak of others who do not share our tastes, provide cases galore of color displacement: they think pink is blue, that brown is blue, that sounds are blue, that overshoes are condoms, and we have only to describe these crazies directly and they will smuggle the subject in all by themselves. Freud thought that a psychosis was a waking dream, and that poets were daydreamers too, but I wonder if the reverse is not as often true, and that madness is a fiction lived in like a rented room. The techniques, in any case, are similar.

Everyone remembers the nursery rhyme from childhood, "The House That Jack Built", with its plethora of thes: this is the cat that lived in the house . . . etc, the thes marching on with an incessant drum beat, line after line, a Bolero for toddlers, the partridge in a pear tree replaced by the house that Jack built, marking the end of another extended litany of things associated with Jack and his house. Gass calls this repetition of the's as having "nouns all nailed too firmly to their thes" and offers a passage from Virginia Woolf as an example in prose.

[page 33] Meanwhile the shadows lengthened on the beach; the blackness deepened. The iron black boot became a pool of deep blue. The rocks lost their hardness. The water that stood round the old boat was dark as if mussels had been steeped in it. The foam had turned livid and left here and there a white gleam of pearl on the misty sand.

We learn from Gass that the word blue once rhymed with phooey back in the day when its "e" was pronounced separately and that the word violet has a rapid sexual shudder. His inquiry now plunges us into the dissection of words and the metaphors their shapes and sounds conjure up in his mind and ours as we read his words. Ever and always his focus begins and ends with blue. As in place names in songs begin in blue like "Blue Bayou" but in french-speaking South Louisiana end in blue like Bayou Blue. Blue. Blue. Blue "is the word, it's got groove, it's got meaning." Blue "is the way we are feeling." But, what can one say about the word blue itself?

[page 34] The word itself has another color. It's not a word with any resonance, although the e was once pronounced. There is only the bump now between b and l, the relief at the end, the whew. It hasn't the sly turn which crimson takes halfway through, yellow's deceptive jelly, or the rolled-down sound in brown. It hasn't violet's rapid sexual shudder, or like a rough road the irregularity of ultramarine, the low puddle in mauve like a pancake covered with cream, the disapproving purse to pink, the assertive brevity of red, the whine of green. What did Rimbaud know about the vowels we cannot also find outside the lines in which the poet takes an angry piss at Heaven? The blue perhaps of the aster or the iris or the air a fist has bruised?
      'The lights burn blue; it is now dead midnight,' Shakespeare wrote. 'Pinch the maids as blue as bilberry . . . ' 'Her breasts, like ivory globes circled with blue/A pair of maiden worlds unconquered . . . ' And so to the worst: 'Her two blue windows' (here he means the eyelids of reviving Venus) 'faintly she up-heaveth.' Blue Eagle. Blue crab. Blue crane. Blue pill. Blue Cross.

Ever been befuddled by a word? I was by the verb "fuddle" and learned that it is a transitive verb, means "to make stupid with drink or to confuse". Right now I feel a certain exhilaration using fuddle for the first time. No longer will the appearance of this word fuddle me; I can boldly write: "Ever been fuddled by a word?" and not repeat unnecessarily the verb to be. Why am I using that word? Because it appears in this wonderful passage where Polish-born Joseph Conrad reckons that, in writing, English lacks the precision of his native Prussian.

[page 41] Conrad also rather bitterly complained, regarding the precision of his elected language, that writing in English was like throwing mud at a wall. But blueness fuddles every tongue like wine.

SPLAT! . . . See, Joe, it works, no mother-fuddling around.

What would the world be, without red, green, orange, violet, or blue? What kind of masochist would want to live in a world devoid of senses, such as the one which Democritus butchered for us, and Bacon fried up for us some sixteen centuries later? The reason there is Arts & Sciences is precisely that these two exist at the ends of a spectrum, from the sensory-deprived abstract logic world of Science to the lush, vivid, redolent, cushy, feeling world of Art. The former you can only think of and the latter you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. The one you can make a living out of, the other you can make a living within.

[page 62] Measures, not immersions, concerned our sciences almost from the beginning, and we were scarcely out of the gate before Democritus was declaring that 'color exists by convention, sweet by convention, bitter by convention; in truth nothing exists but the atoms and the void.'

Goethe postulated that our eye was created by the presence of light irritating the surface of our face until, curious about what was causing the irritation, our body evolved an organ to experience it. Thus, we see light, not because we have eyes, but we have eyes because there is light. But rather than argue which is the cause and which is the effect, let us with Schopenhauer agree that it all happens at the same time. One cannot exist without the other. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be to have eyes if there were no light, ears if there were no sound, a nose if there were no smells, tactile sensations if there were to objects to bump into, and taste if we all received nutrition by osmosis through our skin? In fact, scientists have found fish in deep dark caves where no light reaches them who have no eyes. Their eyes created once in the presence of light have since atrophied into non-existence.

[page 64] Goethe — great pagan that he was — sounds the same note:

The eye owes its very existence to light. From inert animal ancillary organs light evokes an organ which shall be light; and so eye learns to give light for light, emitting an internal ray to encounter that from without.
       . . . No one has ever come close to saving and explaining the objective appearance of perception, not even Schopenhauer, whose suggestion was at least worth a try: namely that perception was a process in which a felt effect, in the moment of its existence, was nevertheless always experienced as if it were occurring in the space of its cause, and that understanding was simply the ability to experience any such effect farther and farther back along the chain of its conditions or grounds.

Bishop Berkeley might have asked: If a Delta Airlines plane crashed in the forest and no one saw it, was it blue when it crashed? What can anyone say about the blueness of an event no one saw?

[page 68] Will the Bishop do better by blue? After all, he appeals to common sense and to the experience of ordinary men. Yet

Berkeley: It is an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding.

Color, according to Rudolf Steiner, who studied Goethe closely and understood him better than anyone else, offers what I accept as the best operational definition of color ever given: Color is the suffering undergone by a light beam on its journey to our eye. By suffering, one needs to understand its descriptive meaning, not the evaluative meaning, namely, suffering as enduring or surviving or passing through. When we perceive a color we view the result of the path it took to our eye. Goethe hinted at that aspect of color and Steiner refined it and gave it his own unique tone.

[page 73] So — in short — color is consciousness itself, color is feeling, and shape is the distance color goes securely, as in our life we extend ourselves through neighborhoods and hunting grounds; while form in its turn is the relation of these inhabited spaces, in or out or up or down, and thrives on the difference between kitchen and pantry. This difference, with all its sameness, is yet another quality, alive in time like the stickinesss of honey or the gently rough lap of the cat, for color is connection. The deeds and sufferings of light, as Goethe says, are ultimately song and celebration.

When I read this next passage, my friend Kevin Dann's fine book on Synaesthesia came to mind, Bright Colors, Falsely Seen. Clearly Kandinsky's marvelous paintings owe much to his own synaesthesia, an ability to feel colors, see sounds, as well as intermix any and all his senses with each other.

[page 76] Kandinsky claims that a circle of yellow will seem to ooze from its center and even warmly approach us, while a similar circle of blue draws away from the spectator. The eye feels stung by the first circle while it is absorbed into the second' (Concerning the Spiritual in Art).
      Yellow cannot readily ingest gray. It clamors for white. But blue will swallow black like a bell swallows silence 'to echo a grief that is hardly human.' Because blue contracts, retreats, it is the color of transcendence, leading us away in pursuit of the infinite. From infra-red to ultra-violet, the long waves sink and the short waves rise. 'Just as orange is red brought nearer to humanity by yellow, so violet is red withdrawn from humanity by blue.'
      When the trumpet brays, Kandinsky hears vermilion. The violin plays green on its placid middle string. Blues darken through the cello, double bass, and organ, for him, and the bassoon's moans are violet like certain kinds of gloom. He believes that orange can be rung from a steeple sometimes, while the joyous rapid jingle of the sleigh-bell reminds him of raspberry's light cool red. If color is one of the contents of the world as I have been encouraging someone — anyone — to claim, then nothing stands in the way of blue's being smelled or felt, eaten as well as heard. These comparisons are only slightly relative, only somewhat subjective. No one is going to call the sounds of the triangle brown or accuse the tympanist of playing pink.

Gass imagines acquiring the fabled ring of invisibility, something any teenage boy would love to possess, but few teenage boys have ever done the analysis of what that feat might enable them to do with the alacrity that Gass has in Chapter IV. He takes us onto an imaginary trip, invisible like him, into the home of his buxomy neighbor with the fat husband who wears both belts and suspenders. Here a tidbit of his trip to tantalize you and inform those still in their teenagership. His final advice is along the lines of if you want perfection, read fiction.

[page 84, 85] Books whose blueness penetrates the pages between their covers are books which, without depriving us of the comfort of our own commode or the sight of our liberal selves, place us inside a manufactured privacy. This privacy is really not that of someone else. It must be artificial because the real world plainly bores us. Impatient, we can't wait for nature to take its course. When we take our textual tour through the slums, we want crime, violence, starvation, disease, not hours of just sitting around. We want the world to be the world we read about in the papers: all news. What good is my ring if the couple I am using it to spy on make love in darkness once a month, and then are quick, inept, and silent? Better rob banks. The money is always there. What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day's-end muff? I've that at home. No. Vishnu is blue in all his depictions. Lord Krishna too. Yes. The blue we bathe in is the blue we breathe. The blue we breathe, I fear, is what we want from life and only find in fiction. For the voyeur, fiction is what's called going all the way.

Gass ends the book with advice to the writer, advice which spins itself out across several pages, unwinding like a ball of blue yarn bouncing across the living room, glancing off the ottoman, rolling under the dining room table, caroming into the kitchen, hitting the mirror-sided, no-fingerprint trash bin, and unreeling itself into the hallway where the cat begins to pounce upon it, sending it down the stairs into the basement, cat bounding after it, where it rolls under the Chinese-blue MG TD sports car, exiting the other side of the tiny car, rolling out down the sloping driveway until it unspools into nothingness — in other words, one long, delicious cumulative sentence about things blue, one last chance to complete the litany of blue, like filling the last few inches of a glass milk bottle with blue M&Ms, before sealing it for the Elementary School contest of Guess How Many M&Ms are in the bottle. A book that is colored blue and filled with blue lore — in which you can read about blue till you're blue in the face — there's no possible way that it could end except with everything blue.

[page 89, 91] So to the wretched writer I should like to say that there's one body only whose request for your caresses is not vulgar, is 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 which say them: 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. . . chant and pray, since the day may begin badly, in a soggy light that moistens the soul before consciousness has cracked so every thought is damp as an anxious forehead, desire won't spark, and the morning prick is limp. . . consequently speak and praise, for the fall of the spirit, descending like a diver toward the floor of the ocean, is marked by increasing darkness, green giving way to navy, then a hair-wide range of hues which come to rest, among snowing fish and plants pale as paper, in a sightless night; and our lines are long when under water, loose and weedy, turning back upon themselves like the legs of a dying spider; we grow slack of feature in our melancholy, and the blue which marks the change is heavy, thick as ooze. . . so shout and celebrate before the shade conceals the window: blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese. . . while there is time and you are able, because when blue has left the edges of its objects as if the world were bleached of it, when the wide blue eye has shut down for the season, when there's nothing left but language. . . watered twilight, sour sea. . . don't find yourself clergy'd out of choir and chorus. . . sing and say. . . despite the bellyache and loneliness, new bumpled fat and flaking skin and drunkenness and helpless rage, despite dumps, mopes, Mondays, sheets like dirty plates, tomorrow falling toward you; like a tower, lie in wait for that miraculous moment when in your mouth teeth turn into dragons and you do against the odds what Demosthenes did by the Aegean: shape pebbles into syllables and make stones sound; thus cautioned and encouraged, commanded, warned, persist. . . even though the mattress where you mourn's been tipped and those corners where the nickels roll slide open like a slot to swallow them, clocks slow, and there's been perhaps a pouring rain, or factory smoke, an aging wind and winter air, and everything is gray.

Okay, I was wrong. Or maybe life starts out blue for Gass and turns gray when he, like the winter air, turns gray. What will never turn gray is the freshness of his writing, which as I type these last words, my attention is called to those words highlighted in red by my Word Perfect software because they don't exist in its already large spelling dictionary, nor in my even larger local word set: clergy'd, bumples, unspooled, stickinesss, absentness, cyanosis, unplayed, absentness, whoreship, and thes. These are some of the clumps of mud which Gass threw at the wall, and we enjoyed every SPLAT!



---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. Beckett curiously alters the old saying “don't give a tinker's dam” here, taking “dam” for “curse”. A tinker’s dam was the clay mold of a tinsmith or tinker which was thrown away after each mold was done and therefore worthless.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.

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