One of the joys of Gwarlingo is meeting art lovers from around the world. Sigrun Hodne and I found each other early in Gwarlingo’s short history, and though she lives in Norway, and I in New Hampshire, I’m constantly amazed by how similar our passions are when it comes to books and art. (If you aren’t familiar with her excellent arts blog Sub Rosa, I encourage you to subscribe.)
Sigrun has studied architecture in Oxford, art history and film in Stavanger, Norway, and literature in Bergen, Norway. (She wrote her Master’s thesis on “Self and Subjectivity in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy; Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable”). She has taught aesthetics in art schools and universities and has done research in language and psychosis. She currently works as an art and literature critic and is attempting to make a living as a writer (no small feat!).
There has been a strange serendipity with Sigrun across the miles. She will write about a particular artist, book, or subject at the same time I’m also investigating that specific topic.
So it was with Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009). I was late to the party with this one, but I quickly discovered why this slender volume is considered a literary masterpiece in certain circles (and a cult classic in others). Nelson’s meditation on the color blue, lost love, and depression is a brilliant, effective experiment that defies categorization. This is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve read, period.
When Sigrun posted about Bluets on her blog at the very moment I was also discovering Nelson’s publication, I emailed and asked if she would be willing to write a short piece about the book. What follows is her essay, and a special excerpt from Bluets.
A special thanks to Sigrun Hodne, Maggie Nelson, and Wave Books for sharing their work.
I Never Knew How Blue Blueness Could Be
by Sigrun Hodne
Lets dive in, give in, lets go where things already have gotten tricky, messy – confused, where words and meanings are bouncing off in different directions, lets have a look at fragment number fifty-one:
51. You might as well act as if objects had the colors, The Encyclopedia says. –Well, it is as you please. But what would it look like to act otherwise?
Indeed, what would it look like to act otherwise?
Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) is a bastard, a hybrid, transgressing all and every genre, as they are yet known. Partly essay, partly poetry, it’s a collection of fragments, of quotations, a memoir with a hint of philosophical investigations. Bluets won’t land in any category. But let’s, for the sake of simplicity, call it a long lyrical essay.
A long lyrical essay on the color blue—blue in a public, scientific, and historical sense, but also blue in the most personal sense.
There are several plot-lines: love, pain, friendship, and loss, to mention just a few.
This is how it all begins:
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
In art-history, color has often been understood as secondary to form, as something that “fills” the form. In Nelson’s work color take on the lead role (– just as love, the color blue is not an optional supplement, an accidental add-on).
2. And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
A book about the color blue, what a peculiar idea!
13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than an ash of sleeve falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
Let’s go back to where we started, repeating our initial question: “… what would it look like to act otherwise?”
53. “We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object” —this is the so-called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you.
“Acting otherwise,” rejecting the systematic illusion of color is, I believe, to abandon a very central social norm: an understanding of the world as a place looking in a certain way – the same way – for each and every one of us. Systematic illusions are the basis of our impression that we share an external reality; it’s the place we meet and interconnect. Systematic illusions make us believe in a common world. ‘Acting otherwise’ is to reject common sense, renouncing the company of humans, and thereby subjecting oneself to alienation and solitude. The extreme consequence of rejecting the systematic illusions of humanity is finally ostracization, solipsism—
“… But I am not willing to go there—not just yet….”
Bluets, An Excerpt
by Maggie Nelson
14. I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book
about blue without actually doing it. Mosty what happens
in such cases is that people give you stories or leads
or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead
of with words. Over the past decade I have been given
blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks,
precious stones, watercolors, pigments, paperweights,
goblets, and candies. I have been introduced to a man
who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli,
solely because he loved the stone, and to another who
worships blue so devoudy that he refuses to eat blue food
and grows only blue and white flowers in his garden,
which surrounds the blue ex-cathedral in which he lives.
I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo
in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s
Blue in heartbreaking drag, and another with the face of a
derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue, and I called this
one the prince of blue, which was, in fact, his name.
15. I think of these people as my blue correspondents,
whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.