On Being Blue

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

In this essay on sex in literature, William Gass contends that the color blue, like the idea of love (which he implies is the compulsion to saturate), invokes the tone and mood of a variety of subjects and meanings, for it is the color of the human impulse to meditate, appropriate, complete. Pointing out how popular blue is in the ordinary speech of frustration and awe as well as in literature, Gass elaborately describes both the blue-bound books of his boyhood and the “blue” photo of the nude girl he treasured at that period of his life. As he later alludes to Aristotle, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Berenson, and other philosophers to explore the nature of color and perception, Gass refers to writers such as Barth, Hawkes, Colette, and Flaubert to exemplify the best use of sex in literature.

The author begins by insisting that it is useless to depict sex directly in a literary work. In the first place, to describe sex detail by detail fails to include or produce the feelings that belong to it. Moreover, the closer a writer approaches sex, the less he sees of it, and so the less justice he can do to the feelings which make it an actual experience. At times a writer such as Henry Miller, presenting details through metaphors, will enlarge sex beyond its mechanical limits, but in general the writer must stand back from this subject to redeem it. Without this distance, he impairs his freedom to manipulate the design of his work, for he exaggerates a part at the expense of the whole, and is unable to interrupt or rearrange the part (for example, placing climax before stimulation) without seeming ridiculous.

As for words themselves, Gass explains that our vocabulary of sex reveals hostility and contempt. There are too few of these words to distinguish among the physical and emotional varieties of a given sexual act. The writers who use these words usually betray not only a hatred for what they mean and an impoverished imagination, but extraneous motives like profit or fear of seeming out of date. Gass inquires why sex cannot have the same verbal abundance which the word blue has to the extent that the things and conditions it refers to and the word itself are loved.

The good writer is better off approaching sex indirectly. In John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, for example, sex is only implied when the character Thick beats Margaret with a truncheon. Since the language of this scene relies on unadorned descriptions and understated similes, and extends to the room the victim and her assailant occupy, the meaning of the scene comes into existence as the verbal texture itself, and this is the new experience of the old subject the reader undergoes. Flaubert and Colette write with a similar objectivity and care, for it is, Gass concludes, the sound become image, “the flesh made word,” that matter when one is writing about love.

The vital blue in things which such writing reveals also exists in the reader, though the “blue eye” of lust is often the mode of this energy he brings to the text,...

(The entire section is 1242 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Booklist. LXXIII, November 1, 1976, p. 382.

Christian Century. XCIII, November 24, 1976, p. 1061.

New Republic. CLXXV, October 9, 1976, p. 38.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, August 5, 1976, p. 36.

New York Times. CXXVI, October 4, 1976, p. 25.

Time. CVIII, November 15, 1976, p. 98.