I recently attended the first meeting of a new Book Club organised by one of my friends. The focus of our reading is on cultural and critical theory, and the first book on our list was William H. Gass’s ‘On Being Blue’. The author subtitles the book as ‘A Philosophical Inquiry’, but it is clear from the outset that his primary concern is language: he uses it, abuses it, savours it and concludes by encouraging the reader to wallow not in ‘the blue things of the world’ but in the language which says them.
Since reading this book I, like Gass, have been meditating on blue and its multiple manifestations. For Gass, blue is pornographic, melancholic, cold, wet, violent. Blue is emotional, adulterous, physical, sensational, unstoppable. And language is the medium which gives this blueness its materiality. Without language, blue would be a vague feeling. With language, it is vivid and sensational, captured in many forms by Gass throughout the book. It is this materiality that really intrigues me.
Some weeks ago, I spilt an entire pot of blue ink on my bedroom carpet. My initial reaction was one of shock; I was frozen to the spot, watching the stain spread like a pool of blood. The blueness of the ink was almost as shocking as that bright red might have been. I spent two hours scrubbing the carpet to get the ink out and, like a bruise, it grew gradually lighter: from navy, to green, to yellow until it was barely visible. This blue that had spilt on my floor seemed to be the material body for words that might have been; the ink that would have fuelled my fountain pen and given life to language on paper. Sitting on my carpet, bruise-like, it looked bluer than ever; melancholic, lost and lonely. I imagined the words I might have written sinking into the carpet and vowed to use ink cartridges in the future.
There has certainly been an artistic trend to meditate on blue: Picasso’s so-called ‘blue period’, Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and Matisse’s blue cut-outs, to name but a few. Perhaps Gass could have chosen any colour or object or theme and found a way to weave a linguistic web around it, as he has done here. Perhaps blue is incidental, an opportunity for him to meditate philosophically, using language, on any given subject. But I was drawn in by his magic. There seems to be something peculiarly special about blue and its connotations.
‘It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word’ (p. 32). Gass is preoccupied with the physical, with the fleshiness of language and its relationship to our experience. Whether this inquiry is philosophical, literary, emotional or personal, it taps into the relationship between language and experience which permeates all of our lives, whether we know it or not.
As much as I relish refilling my fountain pen from a pot of ink, I am still using ink cartridges. Once the bruise is light enough, I will return to my old ritual. I will return to the physical, impulsive injection of blue that seems such a crucial part of writing.