Monday, June 02, 2014


This has been a most puzzling book. Sentence by sentence it's absolutely gorgeous, but I have trouble making sense of it.

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, by William H. Gass, is about the colour blue, and about blueness, but mostly it's about sex. Kind of.

The thing is: it's breathtakingly beautiful. Just loll-your-tongue-around-it gorgeous. But it didn't make any sense. I get how blue refers to sex, but really? Random sex passages throughout all literature are blue? Random passages throughout all literature are really about sex? Everything is blue? Really?
So a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects. The mind does that.
Then I read a couple of reviews, was reassured that I wasn't alone in being somewhat mystified, and gave myself over to it.
Then there are the blues we'd love to have loom large and linger long around us like deep sofas, accommodating women, and rich friends.
It's a great book for skimming, and there are sentences and long breathless passages that beg to be read aloud.
"For our blues," Hoogstraten says, "we have English, German, and Haarlem ashes, smalts, blue lakes, indigo, and the invaluable ultramarine." It is of course the skiy. 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 those named for nations, cities, regions: French blue, which is an artificial ultramarine, Italian, Prussian, Swiss and Brunswick blues, Chinese blue, a pigment which has a peculiar reddish-bronze cast when in lump-form and dry, in contrast to China blue which is a simple soluble dye; we have Indian blue, an indigo, Hungarian, a cobalt, the blues of Parma and Saxony, Paris, Berlin, and Dresden, those of Bremen and Antwerp, the ancient blues of Armenia and Alexandria, the latter made of copper and lime and sometimes called Egyptian, the blue of the Nile, the blue of the blue sand potters use. Are there so many states of mind and shades of feeling?
The Guardian:
One difference is that much, or most, of Gass's self-conscious experiment is going on at the level of the sentence, its style and especially its sound, rather than look-at-me games with plot or character. This is partly a matter of poetic influence – Stevens and Rilke have been constant references – but the presiding example is probably Gertrude Stein, about whom he has written several essays. Stein is nowhere to be seen in On Being Blue, but the book is surely in thrall to her Tender Buttons and its incantatory way with the rhythms and phonics of everyday American speech.
Although, I wonder if that review merely skimmed the book, as Gass does directly reference Stein, including specifically Tender Buttons. And the review contains other factual errors.

In many ways, On Being Blue is less a book to read than an experience to be had. It's essentially a rant, a riff, poetry, music, art, all of that. But it isn't apologetics. There's no scientific argument, no clear-cut hypothesis to be found. It's not a treatise on the nature of man and his place in the universe. Gass is more interested in getting across a passion for language, and the way the words look and sound on the page.

On Being Blue was the subject of a book club I attended last week, and it turned out to be less inspiring of discussion than had been hoped. Without a clear thesis, it's difficult to argue against anything Gass brings to the table. While it's mostly internal to Gass — the connections he makes between colour, science, philosophy, sex, language — it's also weirdly impersonal. The thing to do is just read it, let it wash over you, accept it, and think about blue.
(curses without a curse, they contain only archery and cleverness like a purse full of chocolates and needles)


Stefanie said...

Interesting. So would you say it is more meditation than philosophical inquiry as the title claims? Which wouldn't be bad, it just sets itself into a different expectation and method of reading.

Isabella K said...

That's a good distinction, Stefanie. Yes, it's more meditation, although despite his acknowledging that the world is grey, his approach is very black and white, less exploratory than I would expect a meditation to be. In my reading, the book is about sex and language; there's no science of blue, no melancholy. Very different from what I expected it to be, but as you say, not a bad thing.