‘The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.’ John Ruskin
The black cat has locked eyes with me and he will not let go. He is sitting on the inside of a windowsill and behind him there are samples of blue dabbed on the wall – one is calming, another lively, a third rich. In this neighbourhood the only thing redder than the bricks are the sports cars. The roads might as well be paved with gold. Falling leaves are brown and yellow and green.
I’m out walking in a neighbourhood I can’t afford and noticing the colours because I have just finished two books on the subject that have left me reeling: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – 240 pieces about her love affair with the colour blue – and Han Kang’s The White Book – 65 short pieces mixing poetry, essay and autobiography, about the narrator’s older sister who lived for just two hours.
What are these books, how do we define them? Are they discourses, polemics, explorations of colour? Not quite. What they both have most in common is a kind of poetry, and an obsession; although obsession is too cold a word, because both authors care for their colours deeply. They are not trying to change our – the reader’s – relationship with colour, or indeed even to say something especially about colour, only to describe their own relationship with it.
They’re not biographies of colour so much as memoirs through colour.
This is not history or academia then, this is autobiography and this is love.
Let us call them love letters to colour.
Yes, let us call them love letters and be done with it.
‘Suppose I was to fall in love with a colour’ begins Bluets, Maggie Nelson’s cult hit of 2009, released in the UK just this year following her breakthrough memoir, The Argonauts.
A book she claimed to have been writing for years – as perhaps all books are – Bluets was eventually begun following two traumatic events: the end of a relationship with the so-called Prince of Blue, and an injury to a close friend that left her disabled. It is a hauntingly beautiful, deeply personal account. Alongside the philosophical exploration of colour are narrative strands steeped in Nelson’s own life: people, places, sex, disappointment, hope, dreams, and ultimately loss.
‘In the spring,’ Han Kang writes, ‘when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.’ For Han Kang white means salt, snow, ice, moon, rice, waves, blank paper. It also meant swaddling bands, newborn gown and shroud. Included too are less intrinsically white things – white bird, white dog, white hair – that get us closer to her personal experience of the colour. Colour is one of our weightiest metaphors, simultaneously a preprogramed biological symbol and a sociological and historical reference point, but it’s no surprise that Bluets and The White Book are full of stuff: we know colours through things.
It’s a cold October day in a North London suburb and I have left blue and white behind and instead run into black. I reached the top of the hill and paused for breath. I was quietly congratulating myself on catching the streetlights coming on when I noticed a movement in the otherwise still neighbourhood. The lights in the house on the corner were left on, and inside was a beautifully empty room. I noticed first its emptiness and then the swatches of colour tested on the wall. My eyesight narrowed and it was only then that I saw the black cat, sitting on the windowsill staring back at me.
I had my own black cat once. He jumped in our living room window and my ten-year-old self fell in love with him instantly. I named him Prowler because it sounded like he would have his own TV show and solve problems little boys like me had all over the country. Meanwhile my mother sat in the kitchen tapping her foot. You know how they say that animals can smell fear? Well, in my mother’s case, so could I. And she reeked. She has never been comfortable around animals and I had no idea at the time what it cost her to sit there quietly and let me play with the pet I had so often longed for. I have no idea either what it cost her to sit there and say nothing when she must have known that the black cat who had one day jumped in the window would one day jump out of it again.
Prowler meant the world to me for the hour that he was mine, before he disappeared and never came back. He was important to me long after that though: he became a symbol for what could have been, if my life was different, if my mother was different, if I was different.
Maybe it was because I had been looking closer at the world’s colours, or maybe it was because I had just read these memoirs through colour, but when I noticed the black cat on the windowsill whose jump to that ledge had caught my eye he sent me back to that hour when I had one of my own. When our eyes met, somehow, irrationally, I wondered not just if that cat belonged in the house, but also if it was Prowler himself who’d finally found a home. Or more truthfully, the little boy in me wondered if he’d found me again. Because we all have a relationship with colour, and that relationship is shaped not just by nature and society, but by experience and by memory. It was then that I realised that one does not know colour objectively or definitely, but personally.
A black cat carries much baggage: some say they are lucky, others the opposite; in some cultures a lady with a black cat will have many suitors, in others they are a symbol of evil, or witches in disguise; at Plymouth Rock anyone caught with a black cat would be severely punished or even killed. But the black cat meant something completely different and unique to me, his ‘blackness’ and his ‘cat-ness’ and especially the intersection of that Venn diagram is forever named after the cat that was never mine.
When we meet a person, we notice their hair is brown and their eyes are green … and then we stop noticing. A thing is its colour. Or a thing becomes its colour. Change the colour of something and we change not just its appearance but its very essence and our relationship with it. The colouring book lied to us: outlines are wrong, we are not an object and a colour. Colour is not on the world, it is the world.
Colour coats our world, it is so intrinsic, so omnipresent that sometimes we barely see it. As William H. Gaas says, ‘Colours flood our space so fully that there isn’t any.’ What then can we learn from these books, these love letters to colours? Let us leave black and bring white and blue into focus.
Bluets is a roll call of blue addicts and Nelson takes solace not just in her lifelong affair with the colour, but with the others who were similarly obsessed. When Wittgenstein, she tells us, was dying, he wrote Remarks on Colour. Of all things, ‘he chose to write about colour. About colour and pain’, Nelson says. And it is in her own suffering that Maggie Nelson turns to blue. Blue, the colour of our blood, but only when we cannot see it. The colour becomes a lifeline: glimpses of blue tarps on rooftops, blue scraps of paper on the street, a patch of blue sent by an old lover are the personal messages from a higher power, ‘the fingerprints of God’ that appear in her life like little buoys of hope that keep her afloat in her grief, her pain.
We all know what it is to feel blue, Gaas wrote a whole book about it, but what does it mean to feel yellow or green or white? Indeed ‘the blues’ are black in both German and Italian. Why blue? That old adage – we cannot help who we love – is apt, as Bluets says love is ‘choiceless’. Colour, like emotion, is useful because it is universal, and so colours in general, and ‘the blues’ in particular, bridge the gap between all of us.
It would be impossible to remember Bluets without considering its sensuality, its sex. Gaas too was first attracted to the sound, not the sight, of blue. For him blue was deeply sexual, here he is opening On Being Blue: ‘It is therefore appropriate that blow and blue should be—at our earliest convenience—utterly confused.’ They may be books about colour but they are also deeply human. Bluets and The White Book are filled, not just with things, but with people – family, lovers, friends, strangers – and their absence, those who have left or died.
In both books, colour fills the space where the departed once were. Blue and white give our writers a connection, something to look for in the world, something to collect and occupy the mind, and it too gives them both something to write about, but in particular something they can write about by filling it with themselves. It is a way of talking about themselves by proxy, by implication. They are talking about blue and white, not objectively, but subjectively, and so we learn, as we wanted to, not about these colours, but about these women. This is a book not about love for a colour, but this woman’s love, and thus the woman too is the subject, is in fact the primary one.
Whereas Bluets draws on the rich history of blue-obsessives – as well as Wittgenstein we hear from Goethe, Newton, Derek Jarman, Marguerite Duras, Stéphane Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, creator of the cyanometer, a device that measured the depth and intensity of blues in the world – The White Book uses no sources, no studies, no fellow obsessives. The White Book is written in isolation, both physically – the author is alone in a new snow-covered city – and artistically.
There is, however, a rich history of white in art, from the white whale of Moby Dick to The Beatles The White Album to, why not, Joan Didion’s The White Album too. In snow alone we find some of the greatest lines in all of literature, such as James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (although Ulysses was bound not in white, but blue), and who could resist, when talking about white and snow and loss, quoting this from C.S. Lewis:
‘Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end.’
While the fight to be blue’s patron saint must surely be between Yves Klein and Picasso, white has similar acolytes amongst painters. The history of all-white paintings is a long one, from Kazimir Malevich to Robert Ryman, yet Han Kang’s narrator, unlike Maggie Nelson, has no need of them. This is not to say one approach is right and the other wrong, only to appreciate the differences and attempt to understand the reason for their existence. Well, let us examine them so.
INT. ART GALLERY – DAY
An art gallery in the centre of a cosmopolitan city, open today only to the public. All the walls are painted white. The art is for sale but there are no prices anywhere. To ask would be in bad taste.
Groups of normal people, not art aficionados, stand around. They are uncomfortable but trying not to be. The groups include an elderly tourist couple, school children on a class trip, colleagues on lunch from a media company, some bankers.
On the main wall hangs a white canvas covered entirely in white paint. It is presented as a work of great significance.
Any of the above people approach the artwork sceptically.
One of these went for $20 million!
Ridiculous, I could have done that.
A person dressed all in black with a too-sharp haircut, clearly the curator, has overheard and approached.
But, my dear, you didn’t.
The curator turns on their heels and walks away, the crowd parting to let them through. All eyes follow the curator. When they are gone, the crowd turn back towards the art and the camera leans in with them to read the exhibit label on the wall beside the artwork.
It reads: Many ‘all-white’ paintings were created as part of the Minimalism movement. Minimalism emerged as a reaction to, amongst other things, abstract expressionism. Whereas paintings by the likes of Jackson Pollock were an attempt to represent their innermost selves, Minimalism rejected this cacophony of colours in favour of a more singular, concentrated style. Instead of art as a reflection of the author or their life, ‘all-white’ paintings like this one were an attempt to separate the artwork and its creator, to let the painting be a thing unto itself. In Minimalism, as Frank Stella said, ‘what you see is what you see’.
Art is useful to us here. If we compare Minimalism to, say, Pop art, which is full of purposefully recognisable symbols, from Coca-Cola to American flags to Warhol’s Marilyn, in Minimalism and an all-white painting (or all-blue, all-green, all-black), there is more work for us as the viewer to do, just as there is more for us to do when listening to John Cage’s 4’33”, composed completely of silence. We have a less obvious relationship to a white paint on white canvas than we do to logos or brands or even people. Pollock is interesting to us from a blue perspective too (ha ha I hear Gaas laugh). Before Pollock, rarely, as Gaas says, had blue been used for its own sake. Blue was always burdened with representations: both metaphorically – divinity, holiness – and literally; to quote Fozzie Bear in the greatest of Muppets’ jokes, it’s not the ocean but the ‘Big Blue Wet Thing.’
But to say we have a lesser relationship to a colour than logos or brands or people is wrong. In Pop art ‘we’ – that is we as a people, we as a society – tend to have a relationship with the depicted object, whereas when we look at an all-white painting we’re asked, what is ‘my’ relationship with this painting? In either case it is the relationship that is under scrutiny, the relationship that is the point. From Pop art to Minimalisms the shift is from the ‘we’ to the ‘I’. We are asked to work harder, to think harder, to participate more in the painting. Plain colours invite us to interpret them and we move from the general and the mass, to the specific and the personal.
If we take these lessons and look again at Bluets and The White Book, something quite different is happening: it is not ‘I’ – the reader, the viewer – who is being asked to have a relationship with this colour, but instead being let into our author’s, our narrator’s, viewing – we are seeing their relationship with colour, all that happens to them were they to stand before one of these paintings (or a blue stone, a white wall, a blue pebble, snow).
And so these books are not about ‘our’ relationship with colours, but ‘theirs’. If we think again of Minimalism and its attempt to separate the object from its creator, what we have here is not staring at white, but watching someone stare at white. It’s no surprise, in fact it’s inevitable, that both books possess a healthy dose of memoir, that they bring not the colour into focus, but the authors – their lives, their experiences, their pain.
Presented with absence, what do we fill it with? Han Kang fills it with snow and salt and butterflies. Her mother – mother too to her dead sister – fills it with rice, the pre-mature baby ‘with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake’ that she begged not to die. Like Bluets, The White Book comes from deep inside: for a book like it to be translated into a different language, from Korean to English by the commendable Deborah Smith, and still make sense is in itself a triumph.
White is not a blankness, or not only, but a thing unto itself. White is not just a canvas, although that too, but also art. Asked what the book is, its author said ‘I hope that it is not a “fixed” book, only a white book.’ Butterflies – who possess the most diverse range of colours in the animal kingdom – become in Han Kang sapped of colour, drained to whiteness, to transparency, to death: ‘Only a little time is needed now, and the whiteness will leave those wings completely. They will become something other, no longer wings, and the butterfly will be something that is no longer butterfly.’
White, to our narrator, is her dead sister and so all whiteness, particularly in this new city covered in snow in an all-white apartment, is reminiscent of the unlived life, her elder sister whose life may have negated her own.
Here’s Han Kang again:
‘I think of her living to drink that milk.
I think of stubborn breathing, of tiny lips mumbling at the nipple.
I think of her being weaned and then raised on rice porridge, growing up, becoming a woman, making it through every crisis…
And I think of her coming here instead of me.
To this curiously familiar city, whose death and life resemble her own.’
Colours are a language of symbols, but they are not fixed – they change and warp and adapt between time and geography. Because that’s the thing about sight, about perception, it is constantly shifting, it is subjective and fluctuating and often false. Pink for girls and blue for boys is a recent invention. So too are synthetic dyes which allow almost anything to be almost any colour, disrupting a whole swathe of colour’s previous significance. So as a society our feelings towards colours change and warp, so too do they for us as individuals. All of our eyes take in colours – wavelengths of light – but what each of our brains do with that colour differ, and they differ because of our experiences and our memories.
Nelson called Bluets a ‘confession’, blue ‘became somehow personal’ she says on the opening page. And later:
‘When I talk about colour and hope, or colour and despair, I am not talking about the red of a stoplight, a periwinkle line in the white felt oval of a pregnancy test, or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.’
Film too is useful to us. To Nelson, film – like abstract expressionism to Minimalists – is too much, it tells us how to feel instead of asking us to feel. She quotes the artist Mike Kelley: ‘My removal arose not out of a conscious decision, but was simply a natural fading away from film. We have become filmic language, and when we look at the screen all we see is ourselves. So what is there to fall into or be consumed by? When looking at something that purports to be you, all you can do is comment on whether you feel it is a good resemblance or not. Is it a flattering portrait? This is a conscious, clearly ego-directed, activity.’
If we are told how to feel, ‘what is there to fall into or be consumed by?’ That is the attraction of Minimalism, of blue and of white: they let us fall into them, they are there to be consumed by.
In Korea, the clothes of both the new-born and the dead are white. Discussing the book, Han Kang explained, ‘In Korean there are two nouns for “white”. Hwin and hayan. The Korean title of this book is the single-syllable hwin. If hayan indicates the white as an ordinary colour, in hwin there might be a certain sadness, the colour of fate.’ In The White Book, for the younger sister who lived, the white of her departed sister’s ‘swaddling bands’ and ‘new-born gown’ already contain her forthcoming death; the breast milk she did not live to drink, the rice she did not live to eat, and is finally the ‘blank page’ on which the narrator herself writes the sisters’ story.
The problem with white is it so easily sullied, so hard to obtain. So often it is grey. Snow melts quickly and its whiteness is gone. Our only quote about white in these books comes not from Han Kang but via Nelson who quotes William Carlos Williams: ‘No whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory of whiteness.’ It is this memory we’re dealing with.
Perhaps that is the point: White is never itself truly white, it is too pure to exist in this world (like her sister), it is always tainted, or about to be. A search for whiteness is then too a search for our origins, before we are tainted by this world, for the narrator’s sister, before we are touched by death.
Her sister’s life was, and her own life has become, white to white to white, from the whiteness of birth to the whiteness of death, the white baby clothes could remain the same garments her sister was buried in, so too her ‘white as rice’ skin never had to grow up and retains the paleness we usually associate with death and that is in fact her short life’s only colour. White is not just absence but presence too, even if it is only the presence of the absent.
And what of lives devoid of colour? A man suffering from Achromatopsia – total colour-blindness – is no longer a man: Neil Harbisson is a cyborg, a human with technological advancements. Neil has an antenna implanted in his skull and can now ‘hear’ colour; it vibrates at a different frequency depending on what colour it is pointing at.
He claims going to an art gallery now ‘sounds like a symphony’, but to me it resembles the passing of a cargo train or carrying a sack full of vibrating mobile phones. Regardless, this ex-man was desperate to experience colour because he felt in some way left out of humanity. His antenna now detects colours beyond the range of the human eye: ultraviolet and infrared. Ultraviolet is a colour that literally kills us.
What too of the opposite, those who experience colour more or differently than the rest of us? Nabokov is our most famous synesthete, or more likely simply my favourite – although the list of ‘sufferers’ from the condition contains a shocking number of amazing artists, make of that what you will. For synesthetes, stimulation of one sense triggers an automatic, involuntary experience in another sense. Nabokov could ‘hear’ colours. He describes in his autobiography, Speak Memory (1966), how different letters produce this ‘coloured hearing’. For instance there ‘is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl’. And finally were he to say what letters represent the colours of the rainbow, ‘The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv’.
The phenomenon is delightfully depicted in a story from Eley Williams’ phenomenal recent collection, Attrib. and Other Stories, in which a synesthete is so overwhelmed by the world that she can only fall in love with a man who makes her experience nothing but the world itself. If only we were all so lucky.
Both Nelson and Han Kang become highly attuned to their respective colour: finding it, holding it, loving it, asking something of it. Their worlds are shaped by their experiences, and so once they come to treasure blue and white, they find the colours everywhere they look, like a new word learned. Regardless of how we experience colour, it is one of our most basic interactions with the world and so for both authors to turn to it in their time of need is also to turn to some fundamental human experience, to seek some shared universal language, some empathy.
The fragmentary nature of Bluets and The White Book means they are both filled with white spaces, with silences and gaps, but, as Hang Kang shows us, whiteness is never just itself, the blankness says something. Emptiness is occupied by the unwritten words, the unlived lives, the dead.
Both books – blue and white – are about loss, the loss of people. And so in a sense both books are an attempt to get over someone or through something, and to do that by taking solace in colour, and in particular by finding beauty in colour, because yes these books are about loss and pain and suffering, but they are about surviving and getting through and love too.
There’s something calming, meditative, therapeutic about both books. There’s something of confession to them both, and healing too. They are both deeply personal and yet written through the medium of something – a colour – we all experience and know. And this connection through colour gives the reader an insight into their suffering and recovery too, that they heal through something familiar brings the texts alive.
When we look at these two collections of colour, blue and white, they are not ‘a mountain’ of blue as Nelson hoped, but rather a collage: it may appear to be white-on-white, or nothing but blue, but if we look close enough we see different items and through them different memories and moments, different people and places, we see different shades and tones and hues of blue and white that add up, not to a plain colour, but to something different for each of us.
But sometimes there is looking too closely. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.’ Well, let us unspoil it: sometimes we need to step away from the label on the wall of the gallery, sometimes we need only to pet the black cat and tell him he is pretty, because colour as metaphor – yes; and colour as symbol – yes; but yes too simply to colour as colour, white as white, blue as blue, and all the more beautiful for it.
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is published by Jonathan Cape and Han Kang’s The White Book is published by Portobello