Brain Pickings

Why the Sky and the Ocean Are Blue: The Color of Distance and Desire

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“Something is always far away… After all we hardly know our own depths.”

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote after Apollo 8’s legendary “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, “is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold…” Its unprecedented perspective of distance seemed, paradoxically enough, to bring us earthlings closer together, to desire connection to one another more strongly than ever before. Nearly three decades earlier, Simone Weil touched on another aspect of this paradoxical relationship between spatial remoteness and emotional closeness when she wrote in a letter to a friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.” So much of “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” that takes place on our Pale Blue Dot seems to stem from this eternal tug-of-war between distance and desire.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — that sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknownRebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in an exquisite essay that begins with the scientific and blossoms into the poetic:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

Trampolining off former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass‘s memorable formulation that “desire is full of endless distances,” Solnit dives into the pooling of the physical and the metaphysical:

Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This relationship between desire and distance, Solnit argues in one of the most poignant passages in this altogether brilliant book, is also the root of our deep-seated unease with desire — a state we approach with a single-minded quest for its eradication. We seek to demolish it either with grasping action, through consummation, or with restless resistance, through denial and suppression. We can’t, it seems, just be with desire — bear witness to it, inhabit it fully, approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” With extraordinary elegance and sensitivity, Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic anxiety:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

Playing off Simone Weil’s bittersweet paean to distance and separation, Solnit writes:

The far seeps in even to the nearest. After all we hardly know our own depths.

Artwork from Ralph Steadman's illustrated biography of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Blue, it turns out, has long been used as a symbolic demarcation of distance. Solnit cites Leonardo da Vinci’s philosophy on painting buildings:

To make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building . . . of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.

Solnit considers the role of temporal and psychological distance in the architecture of memory — that singular human faculty that keeps the horizons of our lived experience, however distant and blurry, in sight — by recounting the disintegration of a vivid childhood memory:

When I was two, we lived in Lima, Peru, for a year, and all of us, mother, father, brothers, and I, went up into the Andes once, and then sailed across Lake Titicaca, from Peru to Bolivia. Lake Titicaca, one of those high-altitude lakes, Tahoe, Como, Constance, Atitlán, like blue eyes staring back at the blue sky.

One day a few years ago my mother took out of her cedar chest the turquoise blouse she bought for me on that trip to Bolivia, a miniature of the native women’s outfits. When she unfolded the little garment and gave it to me, the living memory of wearing the garment collided shockingly with the fact that it was so tiny, with arms less than a foot long, with a tiny bodice for a small cricket cage of a ribcage that was no longer mine, and the shock was that my vivid memory included what it felt like to be inside that brocade shirt but not the fact that inside it I had been so diminutive, had been something utterly other than my adult self who remembered. The continuity of memory did not measure the abyss between a toddler’s body and a woman’s.

When I recovered the blouse, I lost the memory, for the two were irreconcilable. It vanished in an instant, and I saw it go… Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Solnit closes with a return to the overpowering duality of distance, at once destructive and generative:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.

[...]

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is spectacular in its entirety and remains one of the best books I’ve ever devoured.

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