Maggie Nelson – Bluets

Two excerpts from Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets, a book on the color Blue –


Try, if you can, not to talk as if colors emanated from a single physical phenomenon. Keep in mind the effects of all the various surfaces, volumes, light-sources, films, expanses, degrees of solidity, solubility, temperature, elasticity, on color. Think of an object’s capacity to emit, reflect, absorb, transmit, or scatter light; think of “the operation of light on a feather”. Ask yourself, what is the color of a puddle? Is your blue sofa still blue when you stumble past it on your way to the kitchen for water in the middle of the night; is it still blue if you don’t get up, and no one enters the room to see it? 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.


Goethe also worries about colors and pain, though his reports sound more like installments from the battlefield: “every decided colour does a certain violence to the eye, and forces the organ to opposition.” Instantly I recognize this phenomenon to be true from my years of working in a bright orange restaurant. I worked in this restaurant for ten-hour shifts, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., sometimes later. The restaurant was incredibly orange. In fact everyone in town called it “the orange restaurant”. Yet every time I came home from work and passed out in my smoke-drenched clothes, my feet propped up on the wall, the dining room reappeared in my dreams as pale blue. For quite some time I thought this was luck, or wish fulfillment – naturally my dreams would convert everything to blue, because of my love for the color. But now I realize that it was more likely the result of spending ten hours or more staring at saturated orange, blue’s spectral opposite. This is a simple story, but it spooks me, insofar as it reminds me that the eye is simply a recorder, with or without our will. Perhaps the same could be said of the heart. But whether there is violence at work here remains undecided.


Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Seattle: Wave, 2009. Print.

Ultramarine Blue_LRG


About Michael Johnson

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