Say it. Go ahead, stand before the mirror, look at your mouth, and say it. Blue. See how you pucker up, your lips opening with the consonants into a kiss, and then that final exhalation of vowels? Blue. The word looks like what it is, a syllable blown out into the air, and with the sound and the sight of saying it as one. You blew blue, though let’s pause a while before getting on to that, and try it out in the other languages you might claim to know. Bleu. But it’s just not the same, your lips don’t purse as much, the eu cuts the syllable short where the ue prolongs it, sustaining it like a piano’s pedal. Blau—that doesn’t work either, and the ow makes the mouth open too far. It’s not quite a howl, it’s a touch too soft for that, and yet it’s a blowsy sound, and untidy. As for azzurro or azul, well, those suggest something else entirely. They might do for the pale milky sky outside my window on this almost cloudy October afternoon; they won’t capture the color of morning glories or the flag.
In none of those other tongues does the word carry the pun or the homonym of the English. None has that mingled note of synesthesia and onomatopoeia; in German “to blow” is the hissing blasen. For blue is not blue, not always, and not even if light at a certain wavelength will show the same thing from Belarus to Brisbane. The French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau has written that while the classical world produced many treatises on the rainbow, neither the Greeks nor the Romans saw blue in its band of celestial shimmer. That bit of light was there all right, but they just didn’t see it, not there. Lucretius gave us a rainbow with only three colors—red, yellow, and violet—and Epicurus added green; Seneca took it up to five, but then Homer’s sea is wine-dark rather than deep blue and so maybe they had a reason.
Oh, of course they knew the color—and they didn’t like what they knew. The ancient Celts would dye their bodies blue for battle, and Pastoureau adds that to the Romans blue eyes in a woman “indicated loose morals”—like red hair in a Victorian novel. Even after Rome was Christianized it still took a few hundred years for caeruleus to seem appropriate for the clothes worn by both God and his mother alike. The Virgin made it fashionable, though by the time she put on her mantle it had already found a kind of legitimacy in the sports pages; in the third century C.E. it became a team insignia, and the Blues ran their chariots alongside the rival Reds and Whites. Pastoureau’s own Bleu (2000) offers a compendium of the color’s ever-shifting cultural meanings that takes in everything from ancient Egypt to Yves Klein, and among other things he notes that the American word for a particular kind of music has swum unchanged into other languages: le blues. But that’s not the kind of feeling that the French have whenever Les Bleus lose on the soccer field; the phrase for that is broyer du noir, and you have the blues in black in both German and Italian as well. Some shades of meaning just won’t translate.
That’s not a point William Gass makes in his 1976 book On Being Blue, now being reissued by NYRB Classics. He doesn’t need to. But it’s something you can learn from reading him, from letting yourself drown in the book. For Gass has an ear like a Pantone chart, exquisitely alert to the semitones of sound and sense, fifty red words here and a hundred greenies over there. His blues themselves are enough to swallow you down. Consider the book’s first sentence, with its rattletrap inventory of some few of the things that particular color can be:
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—low-down 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?)….
It continues for a full page.
With its three separate sets of parentheses and its grab bag of semicolons and ellipses, Gass’s extraordinary sentence is at once ungainly and balanced, a patter song of rickety improvised perfection, and free. Even so…why blue? He never says, not in these pages, though in interviews he has offered some glimmer of motivation. Gass told The Paris Review, in 1976 (the same year that this book was first published), that he wanted to explore “the way in which meanings are historically attached to words: it is so accidental, so remote, so twisted. A word is like a schoolgirl’s room—a complete mess—so the great thing is to make out a way of seeing it all as ordered.” In another interview he said that “the title and the word were what interested me, not the subject.” In the beginning was the word not the color, not the shade that the spectrum places alongside green, but rather the sound and all that clumps around it, the fuzz balls of meaning that it’s picked up as it has rolled on through time. For Gass stands as a fellow traveler in the linguistic turn of that period’s academic criticism. The real subject of On Being Blue is language itself, which he sees as glorious to the exact degree that it is also inadequate, unable to sustain an immediate relation between a word on the one hand and its arbitrary and yet indissoluble referent on the other. All words are figurative; no blue is ever just blue. But that’s a trivial point, or at least it is when I put it so bluntly. The wonder lies in the way Gass works it all out, and anyone reading both this book and his interviews is likely to call him a liar. Because blue does matter to him. It matters far more than red or green or yellow, and precisely because it comes in so many different flavors and tonalities, because more shades of emotion and meaning have stuck themselves upon it. So “Praise is due blue, the preference of the bee.”
True enough, and you know that Gass must have had fun with that line’s alliteration and internal rhyme. Still, it’s a bit sententious, as befits a maxim dropped in between allusions to Goethe and Aristotle, and this book is usually up to something more mischievous. For there’s a phrase that he perhaps deliberately does not use, a blue activity that he doesn’t mention as such, even though he both writes about it and provides his own best example. Working blue—the stand-up comedian’s term for the kind of routine one could do in a nightclub but not on television, not in the days when there were still seven words you couldn’t say. Raunch and filth and sex and sweat, the smoke-filled room as smut-filled room. And at moments Gass himself works as blue as Richard Pryor, with something salacious in every moist slippery thought that comes out of his “Quink-stained mouth.” Many poets, he writes, are given to measurement even though they “would never meter their stick,” and John Cleland, the author of Fanny Hill, had such “a deep sense for the blush in blue language” that he managed to produce “a dirty book without a dirty word,” except perhaps in its title. As for Gass’s own title, it is “appropriate that blow and blue should be—at our earliest convenience—utterly confused.”
Yet working blue isn’t an end in itself, not in this room. Gass’s language in this “philosophical inquiry” is notably freer than that in the fiction he had published in the Sixties, the novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and the stories collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968). Written English in those few intervening years had grown ever closer to the spoken tongue; certain “scrupulosities” no longer needed to be observed, and Gass was quick to allow himself a few liberties. Here, for example, is the first sentence of this book’s third chapter: “When, with an expression so ill-bred as to be fatherless, I enjoin a small offensive fellow to ‘fuck a duck,’ I don’t mean he should.” It’s true that having once said it Gass can’t resist imagining what it would be like if he did mean it, and yet most such expletives are neither literally nor consciously intended. The words may have been used but the speaker has inevitably “ignored their content,” and in that sense they haven’t really been used at all. They have merely “appeared,” and in consequence our freedom to use them in print has produced no “improvement in our life, thought, or writing…because [that] appearance is as unmeant and hypocritical as [their] former absence.” Nor is it much better when the blue is consciously chosen and inventively worked. Nipples may be said to resemble the ripest of raspberries or perhaps even a thimble, but “why take the trouble when the trouble taken is so evident,” though Gass himself is willing to do it and make it look effortless. Maybe they really look like “the lightly chewed ends of large pencil erasers,” and for someone who spends his days at his desk that image can prove surprisingly effective.
Working blue provides an especially vivid instance of the way words operate, with erotica’s clichéd call-and-response serving to illustrate the formulae within which any linguistic system is mired. Yet where other theorists of his day take a mingy delight in what Fredric Jameson called “the prison house of language,” Gass himself refuses to accept the idea even as he recognizes its force. Criticism may often stand as a kind of literature, but the knowledge it offers rarely has the power of art. On Being Blue seems to me an exception, and in time Gass will probably be remembered as much for it, or for the essays collected in such books as Habitations of the Word (1985) or A Temple of Texts (2006), as he will for his fiction. Few American novelists have written so barbed and sensuous a prose, and yet his own rumpled brain has always seemed to me more consistently interesting than any narrative situation or character he has yet contrived. Nevertheless it’s the fact or rather the existence of the fiction, of such grandly conceived books as The Tunnel (1995), that gives his criticism its life—it’s the novelist in him that makes him want to break out of jail. Gass’s essays rarely pursue a single line of thought, and they offer not a progression of ideas so much as an experience, all feints and nuance, and with the argument itself vanishing within the sportive accretions of his prose. But then that play of mind is itself the argument, and where the theorist believes that language can cripple, the novelist knows that it may set you free.
Gass’s erotic attention finally rests, therefore, on the bluest thing of all, “not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.” Words caress, they glide their fingers down the spine and breathe between the toes, and “If any of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we’d never long for another, never wander away: where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood?” That’s a dirty one, that sentence, though its beauty would vanish if I tried to tell you why. It means what it says and about eight other things too, and that perhaps is the final point of being blue. Joseph Conrad once complained that “no English word has clean edges.” The language had too many synonyms, words that approximated each other and yet were never quite identical, and with each finely shaded meaning carrying so many connotations as to make those words little more than “instruments for exciting blurred emotions.” Still, Conrad must have liked that imprecision, for he chose despite himself to work in English and not the cut crystal of French. Yet let me have a pun once more. Our words are not so much blurred as blued and bent, a bit less than they should be, and a bit more because of it, vehicles of the unintended.
Meaning is ever labile, as Pastoureau’s account of the rainbow suggests, but however much one may bleed into another our words have each their own unduplicated specificity. Blue is many things for Gass, and his account of it will make him speculate about the way children distinguish shape from size from color, it will take him back to Democritus and forward to Edwin H. Land, and lead him on to comparisons of Rilke and Rodin, Pollock and Picasso. And as you read down his roster of “damson, madder, and cadet,” of slate and steel and gentian, you will realize that this rhapsode has made blue into something like life itself. Or no. For we should rather surrender “the blue things of this world in favor of the words which say them,” the words and syllables and sounds that may shelter us in a time when “everything is gray.”
Adapted from Michael Gorra’s introduction to On Being Blue, by William H. Gass, to be published by NYRB Classics on March 11.