Bluets: Maggie Nelson on the Color Blue as a Lens on Memory, Loneliness, and the Paradoxes of Love
By Maria Popova
“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” This particular color — or, rather, this universe of hues — seems to have drawn after it more minds than any other, inking the body of culture with a written record of adulation bordering on the religious.
After my recent excursion into the color blue across the past two hundred years of literature, a number of readers pointed out that I had missed an invaluable contemporary addition to the cerulean canon. (I might say “somehow missed,” but somehow implies a level of surprise at the fact, and it is hardly surprising that when one spends one’s days with dead poets, philosophers, scientists, and artists, the living cease to be one’s forte.) I had missed Bluets (public library) by Maggie Nelson — a slim, splendid collection of 240 numbered arguments? meditations? incantations? about the color blue, about its tentacled reach into nearly every chamber of Nelson’s life and into universal questions of desire and destiny, compulsion and choice, the disorienting delusions of memory, the delicious delusions of love.
Nelson begins with the elemental consideration of what it means to fall in love with a color:
A voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.
She draws from the fact of blue — a physical phenomenon, rooted in the chemistry, biology, and physics of the material world — poetic truth imbued with what Rachel Carson called “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” It is not uncommon for a passage to begin with a cool report of fact and end with an existential observation:
Fifteen days after we are born, we begin to discriminate between colors. For the rest of our lives, barring blunted or blinded sight, we find ourselves face-to-face with all these phenomena at once, and we call the whole shimmering mess “color.” You might even say that it is the business of the eye to make colored forms out of what is essentially shimmering. This is how we “get around” in the world. Some might also call it the source of our suffering.
Again and again, Nelson interpolates between the poetic and the encyclopedic, the cerebral and the sensual, emerging with something larger, something William James might call noetic:
But what kind of love is it, really? Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity. Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it? There is so little blue food in nature — mark food to avoid (mold, poisonous berries) — that cautionary advisers generally recommend against blue light, blue paint, and blue plates when and where serving food. But while the color may sap appetite in the most literal sense, it feeds it in others. You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world. You might want to dilute it and swim in it, you might want to rouge your nipples with it, you might want to paint a virgin’s robe with it. But still you wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.
Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.
With an eye to “the half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean,” Nelson writes:
That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.
This question of agency — in life, in love, in the love of blue — undergirds the book as Nelson’s meditations on the color spill into a half-whispered dialogue with an unnamed, vanished lover, a Thisbe whispering to Pyramus through an impenetrable wall of blue. In the thirteenth fragment, she frames the central question that bridges her obsession with blue and the broader inquiry emanating from it:
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 a sleeve of ash 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.
Invoking Goethe’s theory of color, in which the German polymath painted blue as apt “to disturb rather than enliven,” Nelson wonders about a color what we often wonder about the human heart:
Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?
Some of Nelson’s numbered passages shine a sidewise gleam on blue, the color itself absent as a subject but present as an aura around a state of being. Seventy years after May Sarton insisted in her stunning ode to solitude that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” Nelson writes:
I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.
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.
Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
If this dazzling, kaleidoscopic book has a primary focal lens, it is memory — or, rather, memorialization — and its dueling desires: the wish to remember and the wish to forget, the warp thread and waft thread of which writing itself is woven. (Lest we forget, “forgetting” is one of the three essential elements of creativity and memory is more an act of creative retelling than one of recording.) Reflecting on what writing does to the writer’s memory, Nelson offers a meta-meditation on her subject:
At times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many specific blue things — I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.
But if writing displaces the idea — if it extrudes it, as it were, like grinding a lump of wet clay through a hole — where does the excess go?
I contemplate this where-does-it-go question often, in the context of the memory of feeling. Say someone has colored your entire world for a period of time. Say when you encounter them after another period of time has elapsed, you find yourself not only devoid of the feeling that filled you so intensely for so long, but unable to even retrieve the memory of the hue. Where has it gone? Where does love ever go when it goes? Nelson encapsulates this abiding question in a devastating metaphor:
To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.
A dozen arguments later, in the context of another meditation, she seems to return to this heart-hollowing question and offers what might be there only consolation there is:
Look for yourself, and ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.
Perhaps, we come to feel as Nelson approaches the close of her two hundred and forty numbered sentiments, uncertainty will always envelop the question of what is real, and reality is only ever saturated in the present moment — all else is projection, interpretation, a tug of war between the creativity and choicelessness of memory and forgetting. Echoing Kafka — “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” — Nelson writes:
That the future is unknowable is, for some, God’s means of suturing us in, or to, the present moment. For others, it is the mark of a malevolence, a sure sign that our entire existence here is best understood as a sort of joke or mistake.
For me, it is neither. It is simply the way it is. Whether this accident be happy or unhappy is probably more a matter of mood than anything else; the difficulty is that “our moods do not believe in each other” (Emerson). One can wander about the landscape looking for clues, amassing evidence, but even the highest pile never seems to decide the case.
Published August 6, 2018