The Primary Colors

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In undertaking to write three separate essays whose topics are blue, yellow, and red, novelist, poet, fable-writer, and English stylist par excellence Alexander Theroux (older brother to the more prolific Paul Theroux) has given himself an assignment whose apparent simplicity belies its enormous scope. The entire visible world is, after all, constituted by combinations of the presence or absence of these three colors. That Theroux successfully creates a compelling work of literature out of this is as much a tribute, one suspects, to Theroux’s good relationship to one or several unnamed librarians as to his own writing and research skills.

Each of these three essays might rightly be described as a lengthy, nonthematic meditation. Theroux does not pose as a philosopher trying to revolutionize art or color theory. Instead, he is more of a historian/poet/guru trying to encourage the reader to know and experience the colors blue, yellow, and red in a new way.

A passage from the beginning of his first essay, “Blue,” gives a taste of the style of Theroux’s prose:

It is the color of ambiguous depth, of the heavens and of the abyss at once; blue is the color of the shadow side, the tint of the marvelous and the inexplicable, of desire, of knowledge, of the blue movie, of blue talk. . . . It is the color of anode plates, royalty at Rome, smoke, distant hills, postmarks, Georgian silver, thin milk, and hardened steel. . . .

Such a passage ushers a reader quickly through several big conceptual ideas (depth, the heavens, desire, and so forth), and then through a world of concrete details. The great fun of such passages comes from the odd juxtapositions, the placement of the everyday (postmarks, smoke, thin milk) with the historic (royalty at Rome), and the poetic (distant hills), each detail suggestive of realms of experience, each treated as momentarily equal, the way all details on the ground may appear as equal when viewed from on high.

With virtually all of human experience and history as his territory, one of Theroux’s favorite games is to swoop down from these dizzying heights to explore a few selected details of a particular territory before moving on. Thus, for example, he spends several paragraphs discussing blue dyes and tints, and reveals a “safe and simple” method for making blue tint out of fermented human urine and indigo powder, which, he assures the reader, has an odor no worse than that of vegetable dyes. At least he does not include any discussion of how to ferment human urine; his purpose after all, is not truly to instruct, but to lead experiments in thought, association, and knowledge.

One of the challenges Theroux is constantly facing is how to cram as much knowledge as he can into these essays, and yet preserve the appearance of the entire essay as a unified whole. Toward this end, he labors constantly to move from a consideration of a color in one context to a consideration of the same color in another context by means of whatever bridge is available. Thus, a discussion of the yellows in Van Gogh’s painting leads to a discussion of the yellows in Gauguin’s painting, which reminds Theroux of a speech Gauguin gave in 1900 in which he defended the “poor whites” of Tahiti against the peril of the Chinese lobby, which in turn reminds him of the uses of the color yellow as the mysterious self within, which Conrad suggests in Heart of Darkness (1902) when he has Marlow describe his trip up the Congo as a trip “into the yellow.” For a reader, the effect is a bit like listening to the improvisations of a jazz virtuoso soloist, adapting a series of familiar themes while fitting them all into one overriding theme. A constant challenge is, how long will he be able to keep it going?

Painters and painting naturally play a large part in Theroux’s discussion of primary colors, but not many readers will be able to keep up with all of his references. In a typical passage in the essay on red, he quickly compares shades of red in Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Apostles, Emil Nolde’s The Last Supper, Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban, and Henri Matisse’s Harmony in Red, pausing for only the briefest of descriptions. It is likely that more than a few of his readers will be unable to follow the majority of his references, and that many of his readers will feel left out of the conversation at some point. Theroux manages, however, to achieve this density of cultural reference with a surprisingly light touch, partly because he frequently achieves the boyish “gee-whiz” attitude of a devoted fan who is impressed by how red Saint Peter’s robe in The Four Apostles appears, and is glad to be able to say so. This same lightness of tone serves...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)