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.
23. Goethe wrote Theory of Colours in a period of his life
described by one critic as “a long interval, marked by
nothing of distinguished note.” Goethe himself describes
the period as one in which “a quiet, collected state
of mind was out of the question.” Goethe is not alone in
turning to color at a particularly fraught moment. Think
of filmmaker Derek Jarman, who wrote his book Chroma
as he was going blind and dying of AIDS, a death he also
forecast on film as disappearing into a “blue screen.” Or
of Wittgenstein, who wrote his Remarks on Colour during
the last eighteen months of his life, while dying of
stomach cancer. He knew he was dying; he could have
chosen to work on any philosophical problem under the
sun. He chose to write about color. About color and pain.
Much of this writing is urgent, opaque, and uncharacteristically
boring. “That which I am writing about so tediously,
may be obvious to someone whose mind is less
decrepit,” he wrote.
65. The instructions printed on the blue junk’s wrapper:
Wrap Blue in cloth. Stir while squeezing the Blue in the last
rinsing water. Dip articles separately for a short time; keep
them moving. I liked these instructions. I like blues that
66. Yesterday I picked up a speck of blue I’d been eyeing
for weeks on the ground outside my house, and found it
to be a poison strip for termites. Noli me tangere, it said,
as some blues do. I left it on the ground.
67. A male satin bowerbird would not have left it there. A
male satin bowerbird would have tottered with it in his
beak over to his bower, or his “trysting place,” as some
field guides put it, which he spends weeks adorning with
blue objects in order to lure a female. Not only does the
bowerbird collect and arrange blue objects—bus tickets,
cicada wings, blue flowers, bottle caps, blue feathers
plucked off smaller blue birds that he kills, if he must, to
get their plumage—but he also paints his bower with
juices from blue fruits, using the frayed end of a twig as a
paintbrush. He builds competitively, stealing treasures
from other birds, sometimes trashing their bowers entirely.
69. When I see photos of these blue bowers, I feel so
much desire that I wonder if I might have been born into
the wrong species.
70. Am I trying, with these “propositions,” to build some
kind of bower? —But surely this would be a mistake. For
starters, words do not look like the things they designate
71. I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity
in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.
72. It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude.
Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the
problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?
—No, not exactly, It cannot love me that way; it has no
arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of
wink—Here you are again, it says, and so am I.
78. Once I traveled to the Tate in London to see the blue
paintings of Yves Klein, who invented and patented his
own shade of ultramarine, International Klein Blue (IKB),
then painted canvases and objects with it throughout a period
of his life he dubbed “l’epoque bleue.” Standing in
front of these blue paintings, or propositions, at the Tate,
feeling their blue radiate out so hotly that it seemed to be
touching, perhaps even hurting, my eyeballs, I wrote but
one phrase in my notebook: too much. I had come all this
way, and I could barely look. Perhaps I had inadvertently
brushed up against the Buddhist axiom, that enlightenment is
the ultimate disappointment. “From the mountain
you see the mountain;” wrote Emerson.
135. Of course one can have “the blues” and stay alive, at
least for a time. “Productive,” even (the perennial consolation!).
See, for example, “Lady Sings the Blues”: “She’s
got them bad / She feels so sad/ Wants the world to know
/ Just what her blues is all about.” Nonetheless, as Billie
Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in
deeper and deeper saturation is eventually to move toward
136. “Drinking when you are depressed is like throwing
kerosene on a fire;” I read in another self-help book at the
bookstore. What depression ever felt like a fire? I think,
shoving the book back on the shelf
145. In German, to be blue–-blau sein—means to be
drunk. Delirium tremens used to be called the “blue
devils,” as in “my bitter hours of blue-devilism” (Burns,
1787). In England “the blue hour” is happy hour at the
pub. Joan Mitchell—abstract painter of the first order,
American expatriate living on Monet’s property in
France, dedicated chromophile and drunk, possessor of
a famously nasty tongue, and creator of arguably my favorite
painting of all time, Les Bluets, which she painted
in 1973, the year of my birth—found the green of spring
incredibly irritating. She thought it was bad for her work.
She would have preferred to live perpetually in “l’heure
de hleu,” Her dear friend Frank O’Hara understood. Ah
daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days, he wrote, and did.
146. “When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were
drinking, or a child,” Marguerite Duras once wrote. “It’s
a slur on the divine in our nature.” In Crack Wars, Avital
Ronell refers to Duras’s works as “alchoholizations”—as
saturated, so to speak, with the substance. Could one
imagine a book similarly saturated, but with color? How
could one tell the difference? And if “saturation” means
that one simply could not absorb or contain one single
drop more, why does “saturation” not bring with it a
connotation of satisfaction, either in concept, or in
148. The Tuareg wear flowing robes so bright and rich
with blue that over time the dye has seeped into their skin,
literally blueing it. They are desert nomads who were famously
unwilling to be converted to Islam: thus their name.
Some American Christians have been bothered by
this idea of a blue people abandoned by God living in the
Sahara, herding camels, traveling by night, and navigating
by the stars. In Virginia, in 2002, for example, a group of
Southern Baptists organized a day of prayer exclusively
for the Tuareg, “so that they will know God loves them.”
149. It should be noted that the Tuareg do not call themselves
Tuareg. Nor do they call themselves the blue people.
They call themselves Imohag, which means “free
150. For Plato, color was as dangerous a narcotic as poetry.
He wanted both out of the republic. He called painters
“mixers and grinders of multi-colored drugs,” and color
itself a form of pharmakon. The religious zealots of the
Reformation felt similarly: they smashed the stained-glass
windows of churches, thinking them idolatrous, degenerate.
For distinct reasons, which had to do with the fight
to keep the cheap, slave-labor crop of indigo out of a
Western market long dominated by woad, the blue-dye
producing plant native to Europe, indigo blue was called
“the devil’s dye.” And before blue became a “holy”
color-which had to do with the advent ofultramarine in
the twelfth century, and its subsequent use in stained
glass and religious paintings—it often symbolized the Antichrist.
177· Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance
when you told me that you carried my last letter with you,
everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened.
This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever
it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I
never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to
flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened
to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something
to say to you.
About Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson is the author of four books of nonfiction: Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007), The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007), and The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (W.W. Norton, 2011). Nelson is also the author of several books of poetry, including Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007), Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull ShortLit) (Soft Skull, 2005), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003) and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001). She has been the recipient of an Arts Writers grant from the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for Nonfiction. She has taught writing and literature at the Graduate Writing Program of the New School, Wesleyan University, and Pratt Institute of Art. Nelson currently lives in Los Angeles where she teaches on the BFA and MFA faculty of the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts.
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Bluets © Maggie Nelson. All Rights Reserved. These excerpts appear in Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) and were reprinted with permission from the author and Wave Books. Maggie Nelson biography also courtesy of Wave.