On Being Blue by William H. Gass (introduction by Michael Gorra). $14.00, 112 pp. NYRB Classics.
Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea “wine-dark” and the heavens “bronze.” Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Though few would claim that the Ancient Greeks could not see blue, it has been argued that they had no word for it. This would accord with Guy Deutscher, who says in his 2010 book Through the Looking Glass that there is something strange about blue that generally makes it the last primary color a language names.
Perhaps this helps explain the fixation that this color has exerted on English-speakers, a thing the novelist and critic William H. Gass makes extraordinarily clear in his beautiful book-length essay On Being Blue. He begins with a page-long list of “blue” things, ranging from blue noses and blue laws to the blue dahlia, blue moons, blue bottles, and, most paradoxically, blue blood. This remarkable list grows and grows throughout these pages until we cannot help but join Gass in pondering the question that animates this self-described “philosophical inquiry”: just what is this thing we call “blue”?
As a literary critic, Gass is known for taking a microscope to the devilish details most readers would find too commonplace to linger over, and so it is here. In a sense, the meaning of blue is perfectly obvious—it’s that color we see whenever we at the ocean—but just think about that for a second and you realize it actually tells us nothing. For why do we see the sea as blue whereas the Greeks saw it the color of wine, and why can blue at once be a part of so many metaphors, many of them contradictory? And just what is the color blue? Scientists will talk of wavelengths and the cones in our eyes, Goethe will say,
This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful—but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.
As one might imagine, Gass comes closer to Goethe than the scientists, devoting a significant amount of attention to simply finding the right way to ask the question, What is blue?; his other major concern is this question’s answer. These are matters that deal with how language works and what exactly we mean when we say things, and they’re ideal questions for a man like Gass, because few writers of his generation have treated language so painstakingly, nor gone as far in fathoming its secrets. Reading this spectacular example of the creative essay, one soon realizes that though it stops at just under 100 pages, its subject would not be exhausted with 1,000.
So what exactly goes on in this strange little book? After a bravura opening that tours us through all things blue, Gass wastes no time in broadening his inquiry: not content to simply ask what this color is, he now wants to understand language’s strange relationship to reality. What exactly is the relationship of the word blue to the world we inahbit? Sex, it soon becomes clear, is the example par excellence of this separation between words and acts—how does one write skillfully about the sexual act, and why do so many otherwise good authors fail? Gass deliberately and mischievously confuses matters until it is unclear whether he is talking about blue or some other four-letter words, but this is all to his point—language should be like love, and it’s just as messy as a trip to bed. Ultimately, blue really does have more in common with those other words than you would think.
One might argue that On Being Blue is actually just an excuse for Gass to ponder the language of intercourse, and in a sense it is. A true sensualist, he wouldn’t dream of penning a sterile sentence, and this book is, among other things, a way of explaining why he finds “the use of language like a lover” essential to great literature. He very solemnly warns us that “it is not simple, not a matter for amateurs, making sentences sexual,” and it’s clear that this is exactly what he thinks writers must do. Somewhere in those amorous sentences one finds the language of blue, whatever exactly that word means.
On Being Blue came at an interesting point in Gass’s career: it was published in 1976 after he had released what many still consider his best fiction, namely the ’60s trio Omensetter’s Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. He has reached mastery of the literary essay, as evidenced by 1970′s Fiction and the Figures of Life, which collected work he scattered in the leading publications of the day. he would continue to regularly produce volumes of essays, but he would not publish another novel until 1995′s immense The Tunnel. It was here, in 1976, that he released this strange, slender volume, unlike anything else he would ever write—as an essay, it is much longer than virtually any other he would write, but compared to the immense novels he was working toward, it was but a shard.
It comes across as an exceptionally personal book—Gass is known for weighing each word like gold, and the sentences here are lovingly cared for and rapturously manufactured. Absent is the brusqueness that characterizes much of his nonfiction. Although I’m far from unambiguous about Gass, finding him alternatively tedious and magnificent, I can say with no reservations that On Being Blue is one of the best in his bizarre oeuvre. Originally published in 1976 in three luxurious editions by the boutique publisher Godine, it subsequently went out of print and became a lusted over (sorry) commodity. It has now found a second life as a NYRB Classic, with the added bonus of a perceptive introduction by the Pulitzer-finalist Michael Gorra. A true classic indeed, this is a book that feels like it hasn’t aged a day in its four decades, eminently relevant, endlessly fascinating, and a pure pleasure.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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