On Being Blue

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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.

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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only a hatred for what they mean and an impoverished imagination, but extraneous motives like profit or fear of seeming out of date.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, just as it is the mode an artist can paralyze his work in the service of. The photograph of the nude girl which Gass presents earlier in his essay illustrates these a priori expectations. The photographer produced an amateur work because he cared nothing for art, only for the money that lust would pay to see it. The viewer is a boy, however, whose inexperience treats sex as a mystery and thus raises the snapshot, including its unintentional details (such as the weed growing between the steps), to the status of an icon. The problem for the literature of sex, Gass assures us, is how to lure the blue already in the eye of the beholder into its best meanings, as the mature Gass tries to do by his re-creation of the photograph in On Being Blue.

As a writer, Gass admits that every other consideration in his essay leads to the love for language. The good writer knows that “Sex as a positive aesthetic quality” can only occur in a work where, as in Beckett’s description of Molloy’s dilemma of the stones, there is no euphemism, no awkward rhythm or pace, no monochromatic syntax, no waste of any kind.

In his anatomy of language, Gass contends that words have layers. When we swear, for example, we mean something other than what we literally say, we imply a hostility not contained in the words themselves, and we reveal through this implication a despotic nature. Moreover, words can state, suggest, or escape a meaning. Gass calls such an escape “utterance,” and a writer is guilty of it when he cares not for words themselves but about what others might think of them or of him for writing them. Even the word blue can be used carelessly and disposably in this way. But blue is also a word we love, which is why we return over and over to the lists and reference works in which it occurs, and why we regard it highly, and use it extensively, as a symbol.

Philosophers may have traditionally treated color as merely an aspect of substance, but Gass argues that blue is an essence in itself, and as such has a meaning beyond shape (the distance a color goes before it vanishes) and form (the relation among the vertical and horizontal, the exterior and interior modes of shape). Blue is “the color of the interior life,” and though it has an emotional range as various as the instances of earth, air, fire, and water which complement it, it is a recessive color, and ultimately lends itself less to arrival than pursuit, less to sexual climax than to the meditation after it.

To see is to distinguish and compare. To do this well, to write well, requires distance and concentration. If the writer’s intelligence pays attention to its own biases, his feelings will not deceive him; sex will not enter his work as a superficial and damaged notion, but will come into being as verbal strategies which contain “knowing” and which induct the reader into the pleasure of using his own mind.

One must admire Gass for his practical and sensitive view of language, perception, and the relation of sex to both in literature. From a philosophical standpoint, his essay takes issue with science for its narrow view of phenomena, and with metaphysics for its overfastidious view of being. Based on a love for language mortified by the corruption of love itself in the art of the time, the aesthetic of his essay projects itself through the words Gass loves, the writers he esteems, and the style in which he writes about style itself.

For On Being Blue is first and last about the writer’s love for words, and though it follows the structure of reasoned discourse, it also proceeds by resonant analogies which suggest that the theme of blue finally exists as the style in which it is presented. Indeed, as in his In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, where the language of place and event is the situation and feelings of the narrator, Gass convenes a “blue” dialect in On Being Blue to put the reader as much in the presence of being or “quality” as the beloved is by the sound of the lover.


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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.

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