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Bluets: Maggie Nelson on the Color Blue as a Lens on Memory, Loneliness, and the Paradoxes of Love

“To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”

Bluets: Maggie Nelson on the Color Blue as a Lens on Memory, Loneliness, and the Paradoxes of Love

“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” This particular color — or, rather, this universe of hues — seems to have drawn after it more minds than any other, inking the body of culture with a written record of adulation bordering on the religious.

After my recent excursion into the color blue across the past two hundred years of literature, a number of readers pointed out that I had missed an invaluable contemporary addition to the cerulean canon. (I might say “somehow missed,” but somehow implies a level of surprise at the fact, and it is hardly surprising that when one spends one’s days with dead poets, philosophers, scientists, and artists, the living cease to be one’s forte.) I had missed Bluets (public library) by Maggie Nelson — a slim, splendid collection of 240 numbered arguments? meditations? incantations? about the color blue, about its tentacled reach into nearly every chamber of Nelson’s life and into universal questions of desire and destiny, compulsion and choice, the disorienting delusions of memory, the delicious delusions of love.

Blues by Maria Popova

Nelson begins with the elemental consideration of what it means to fall in love with a color:

A voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.

She draws from the fact of blue — a physical phenomenon, rooted in the chemistry, biology, and physics of the material world — poetic truth imbued with what Rachel Carson called “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” It is not uncommon for a passage to begin with a cool report of fact and end with an existential observation:

Fifteen days after we are born, we begin to discriminate between colors. For the rest of our lives, barring blunted or blinded sight, we find ourselves face-to-face with all these phenomena at once, and we call the whole shimmering mess “color.” You might even say that it is the business of the eye to make colored forms out of what is essentially shimmering. This is how we “get around” in the world. Some might also call it the source of our suffering.

Illustration by Anne Herbauts from What Color Is the Wind?, a serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child

Again and again, Nelson interpolates between the poetic and the encyclopedic, the cerebral and the sensual, emerging with something larger, something William James might call noetic:

But what kind of love is it, really? Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity. Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it? There is so little blue food in nature — mark food to avoid (mold, poisonous berries) — that cautionary advisers generally recommend against blue light, blue paint, and blue plates when and where serving food. But while the color may sap appetite in the most literal sense, it feeds it in others. You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world. You might want to dilute it and swim in it, you might want to rouge your nipples with it, you might want to paint a virgin’s robe with it. But still you wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.

Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.

Color chart by Patrick Syme for Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts.

With an eye to “the half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean,” Nelson writes:

That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.

This question of agency — in life, in love, in the love of blue — undergirds the book as Nelson’s meditations on the color spill into a half-whispered dialogue with an unnamed, vanished lover, a Thisbe whispering to Pyramus through an impenetrable wall of blue. In the thirteenth fragment, she frames the central question that bridges her obsession with blue and the broader inquiry emanating from it:

At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.

Invoking Goethe’s theory of color, in which the German polymath painted blue as apt “to disturb rather than enliven,” Nelson wonders about a color what we often wonder about the human heart:

Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?

Some of Nelson’s numbered passages shine a sidewise gleam on blue, the color itself absent as a subject but present as an aura around a state of being. Seventy years after May Sarton insisted in her stunning ode to solitude that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” Nelson writes:

I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.

It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? — No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink — Here you are again, it says, and so am I.

[…]

Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

If this dazzling, kaleidoscopic book has a primary focal lens, it is memory — or, rather, memorialization — and its dueling desires: the wish to remember and the wish to forget, the warp thread and waft thread of which writing itself is woven. (Lest we forget, “forgetting” is one of the three essential elements of creativity and memory is more an act of creative retelling than one of recording.) Reflecting on what writing does to the writer’s memory, Nelson offers a meta-meditation on her subject:

At times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many specific blue things — I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.

[…]

But if writing displaces the idea — if it extrudes it, as it were, like grinding a lump of wet clay through a hole — where does the excess go?

I contemplate this where-does-it-go question often, in the context of the memory of feeling. Say someone has colored your entire world for a period of time. Say when you encounter them after another period of time has elapsed, you find yourself not only devoid of the feeling that filled you so intensely for so long, but unable to even retrieve the memory of the hue. Where has it gone? Where does love ever go when it goes? Nelson encapsulates this abiding question in a devastating metaphor:

To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.

A dozen arguments later, in the context of another meditation, she seems to return to this heart-hollowing question and offers what might be there only consolation there is:

Look for yourself, and ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.

Perhaps, we come to feel as Nelson approaches the close of her two hundred and forty numbered sentiments, uncertainty will always envelop the question of what is real, and reality is only ever saturated in the present moment — all else is projection, interpretation, a tug of war between the creativity and choicelessness of memory and forgetting. Echoing Kafka — “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” — Nelson writes:

That the future is unknowable is, for some, God’s means of suturing us in, or to, the present moment. For others, it is the mark of a malevolence, a sure sign that our entire existence here is best understood as a sort of joke or mistake.

For me, it is neither. It is simply the way it is. Whether this accident be happy or unhappy is probably more a matter of mood than anything else; the difficulty is that “our moods do not believe in each other” (Emerson). One can wander about the landscape looking for clues, amassing evidence, but even the highest pile never seems to decide the case.

Complement the uncommonly wonderful Bluets with Rebecca Solnit on how blue colors distance and desire, then revisit poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on memory, the self, and the universe.

BP

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha Reads Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” and Tells a Lyrical Personal Story About Her Path to Science

A poetic reflection on what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception.

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha Reads Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” and Tells a Lyrical Personal Story About Her Path to Science

Among the thousands of people around the world watching the livestream of the inaugural Universe in Verse was one spectator who would become a centerpiece of the show the following year: Natalie Batalha — an astrophysicist involved in the search for life on planets orbiting stars outside our Solar System and the project scientist on NASA’s Kepler mission, which has outlived its expected lifespan of 3.5 years nearly threefold and has discovered an astonishing 1,000 exoplanets.

In a beautiful essay marking the third anniversary of the mission, Batalha reflected on the life of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler, after whom it was named, and on the larger questions animating scientists in the search for other worlds. She wrote:

Reality is a poem on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite remember, familiar yet distant. It’s a form seen through a veil.

When she kindly agreed to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, I asked her to read a portion of a very old, very long poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950), which deals with this question of what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception — an excerpt from the title poem in Millay’s 1917 collection Renascence and Other Poems (free ebook | public library).

Batalha prefaced her reading with the lyrical personal story of her uncommon path to science and recounted two formative experiences that awakened her to the beauty, fragility, and interconnectedness of life on our own planet — experiences remarkably resonant with Millay’s poem. Enjoy:

from “Renascence”
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.

Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.

But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And — sure enough! — I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

I screamed, and — lo! — Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.

Among the other highlights from The Universe in Verse are astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton’s ode to the kinship of all things, and poet Marie Howe’s remarkable tribute to Stephen Hawking. Edna St. Vincent Millay also figured in the inaugural Universe in Verse with her stunning sonnet about Euclid.

BP

James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.”

James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman wrote, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” Nearly a century later, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — another poet laureate of the human spirit — embodied this ethos in one of his shortest, most searing, and timeliest essays.

In 1963, the children’s book author Charlotte Pomerantz edited an anthology of prominent writers’ and artists’ critiques of the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the Orwellian investigative committee largely responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Hollywood blacklist. Titled A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana, 1938– 1963: A Tragico-Comical Memorabilia of HUAC, it featured writing and art by such titans of creative culture as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and Ben Shahn. Baldwin’s contribution was later included in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library), which also gave us his abiding insight into the redemptive power of language and the artist’s role in society.

James Baldwin

Reflecting on how such metastases of power imperil the moral climate of a society and corrupt the very foundation of democracy, Baldwin writes:

We are living through the most crucial moment of our history, the moment which will result in a new life for us, or a new death… a new vision of America, a vision which will allow us to face, and begin to change, the facts of American life… This seems a grim view to take of our situation, but it is scarcely grimmer than the facts. Our honesty and our courage in facing these facts is all that can save us from disaster. And one of these facts is that there has always been a segment of American life, and a powerful segment, too, which equated virtue with mindlessness… It always reminds me of a vast and totally untrustworthy bomb shelter in which groups of frightened people endlessly convince one another of its impregnability, while the real world outside — by which, again, I mean the facts of our private and public lives — calmly and inexorably prepares their destruction.

Baldwin notes that this is the reality he himself inhabits as a black man, but it is a reality from which the vast majority of Americans spend their lives taking flight. In a sentiment of excruciating timeliness today, he writes:

People in flight never can grow up, which means they can never, really, become citizens — and we simply must not surrender this great country to those people. We must not allow their fear to control us, and, indeed, we must not allow it to control them. Rather, we should attempt to release them from their panic and their unadmitted sorrow. We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

A century after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… while the strength of a majority is illusory,” Baldwin adds:

We must dare to take another view of majority rule… taking it upon ourselves to become the majority by changing the moral climate. For it is upon this majority that the life of any nation really depends.

Half a century before Toni Morrison counseled young graduates that “true adulthood… is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of,” Baldwin examines this intensely hard won glory not on the individual level but on the collective, and considers what true adulthood really means for a society:

The time has come for us to grow up. A man grows up when he looks back, realizes what has happened to him, accepts it all, and begins to change himself. He cannot grow up until he reaches this moment and passes it. We are now at the end of our extraordinarily prolonged adolescence. A very great poet, an American, Miss Marianne Moore, wrote, many years ago, the following description of our terrors: “The weak overcomes its menace. The strong overcomes itself.”

Two generations after some of the world’s most prominent thought leaders co-signed the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind with the commitment “never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes,” Baldwin concludes:

That self-knowledge which matures a nation as well as a man presupposes free men and free minds.

Complement The Cross of Redemption — a trove of cultural and spiritual insight that has only fermented with time — with Baldwin on our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, what it means to be an artist, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his fantastic forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Albert Camus on the artist as a voice of resistance and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.

BP

Tiny, Perfect Things: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence

A serenade to the small wonders that fill life with aliveness.

Tiny, Perfect Things: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” pioneering psychologist William James declaimed in the final years of the nineteenth century as he considered how attention shapes human life. At the dawn of the following century, Hermann Hesse offered in his increasingly timely manifesto for savoring life’s little joys as the portal to living with presence: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” His was a world without radio, television, or the Internet, predating the golden age of consumerism — a time we can now barely conceive of, before busyness and distraction became the governing law of every waking hour. And yet, even from his inconceivable vantage point, Hesse could foresee the direction in which humanity was headed — toward habitual flight from presence and accelerating grandomania.

A century on, poet M.H. Clark and artist Madeline Kloepper offer a mighty antidote to our inattentive apathy in Tiny, Perfect Things (public library) — a lyrical invitation to apprehend the small wonders that strew the everyday: the yellow leaf blown to the ground, the smiling face of a neighbor, the spider laboring at her web, the red feather in a passerby’s hat, the snail triumphant atop the fence, the pale, luminous moon against the nocturne.

Radiating from a young girl’s vibrantly illustrated neighborhood walk with her grandfather is a lovely embodiment of Henry Beston’s insistence that “in the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic.”

Complement Tiny, Perfect Things with Be Still, Life — a songlike illustrated invitation to living with presence — and Sidewalk Flowers, then revisit Annie Dillard on choosing presence over productivity and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.

BP

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