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Two Hundred Years of Blue

Cerulean splendor from Goethe, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Rachel Carson, Toni Morrison, and other literary masters.

With Carl Sagan’s poetic Pale Blue Dot on my mind lately, I have found myself dwelling on the color blue and the way our planet’s elemental hue, the most symphonic of the colors, recurs throughout our literature as something larger than a mere chromatic phenomenon — a symbol, a state of being, a foothold to the most lyrical and transcendent heights of the imagination.

Gathered here is a posy of blue from some of my favorite encounters with this more-than-color in the literature of the past two centuries.

JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (1810)

In his sixty-first year, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832), by then Europe’s reigning intellect, published Theory of Colors (public library | public domain) — his effort to unearth the psychological link between color and emotion nearly a century before the dawn of psychology as a formal field of study, penned just before his compatriot Abraham Gottlob Werner released his seminal scientific nomenclature of color, which Darwin would later take on The Beagle.

“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe wrote, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” The treatise, composed as a refutation of Newton, turned out to have no scientific validity. But its conceptual aspects fascinated and inspired generations of philosophers and scientists ranging from Arthur Schopenhauer to Kurt Gödel.

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

Goethe writes in the section allotted to blue:

As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.

But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade… Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.

The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1843)

“Where is my cyanometer,” Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) exclaimed in his splendid journal on a blue-skied spring day, referring to the curious device invented by the Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure a century earlier to measure the blueness of the sky, which the polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt enthusiastically embraced. “We love to see any part of the earth tinged with blue, cerulean, the color of the sky, the celestial color,” Thoreau wrote in another spring entry. “The blue of my eye sympathizes with this blue in the snow,” he recorded in a winter one. “Blue is light seen through a veil,” he wrote on the precipice of the two seasons.

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure’s cyanometer, circa 1760.

Thoreau’s writings, dancing at the borderline between observation and contemplation, are strewn with his love of blue. Most often, he records his delight at the raw reality of the color as he encounters it in nature. Occasionally, however, he leaps from the actual into the abstract, drawing from physical blueness insight into the metaphysical dimensions of existence.

In a travelogue from an 1843 walk to Waschusett, found in his indispensable Excursions (free ebook | public library) — the source of his lovely meditation on finding spiritual warmth in winter — Thoreau writes:

We resolved to scale the blue wall which bound the western horizon… In the spaces of thought are the reaches of land and water, where men go and come. The landscape lies far and fair within, and the deepest thinker is the farthest travelled.

Peering into the blue horizon from the conquered mountain summit at the end of the journey, he finds in it a metaphor for the boundlessness of the human spirit:

We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue; that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.

WASSILY KANDINSKY (1910)

Exactly a century after Goethe, the great Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (December 16, 1866–December 13, 1944) examined the psychological and spiritual dimensions of art through the lens of form and color. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art (free ebook | public library), Kandinsky devotes an especially impassioned section to blue:

The power of profound meaning is found in blue, and first in its physical movements (1) of retreat from the spectator, (2) of turning in upon its own centre. The inclination of blue to depth is so strong that its inner appeal is stronger when its shade is deeper. Blue is the typical heavenly colour… The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest… [Footnote:] Supernatural rest, not the earthly contentment of green. The way to the supernatural lies through the natural.

When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human… When it rises towards white, a movement little suited to it, its appeal to men grows weaker and more distant. In music a light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello; a still darker a thunderous double bass; and the darkest blue of all — an organ.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1916)

When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her dearest friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”

Or the blue of the Southwest sky, for what most enchanted O’Keeffe in her new home was the vast firmament with its tempest of color, richer than anything she had ever seen or even imagined possible. In a letter from September of 1916, found in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library), O’Keeffe exults in the azure awe of the Southwest sky:

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

[…]

It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful —

Georgia O’Keeffe. Light Coming on the Plains, I, II and III, 1917, watercolor on paper. (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.)

Two decades later, O’Keeffe revisited blue in her contribution to An American Place — the catalogue for an exhibition of Ansel Adams’s photographs her great love and spouse, Alfred Stieglitz, had put on in New York City. (Thanks, Natalie, for the discovery.) O’Keeffe writes:

When I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones — what I saw through them — particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world… they were most beautiful against the Blue — that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.

MARGARET MEAD (1926)

For Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978), the color blue appeared not in the attentive observation of the real world that made her one of the most visionary and influential anthropologists in history, but in a nocturnal visitation of her own unconscious mind — a strange and wondrous dream about the meaning of life.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — which gave us Mead’s exquisite love letters to her lifelong soulmate and her advice on how to raise a child in an uncertain world — Mead recounts her nocturnal revelation:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF (1937)

There is a strange paucity of blue in the private writings of literature’s bluest soul. Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) rarely mentions the color throughout her journals, collected in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the indispensable posthumous volume that gave us Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the consolations of growing older, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and her arresting account of a total solar eclipse.

But when she does turn to blue, it becomes more than a color, more than a mood — a subtle yet piercing hue of being, or rather the color of the lacuna between being and nonbeing. In an entry from April 9 of 1937, four springs before the blue of her lifelong depression and the River Ouse swallowed her, Woolf limns the singular blue of a particular interior space. Alluding to Wordsworth’s verse addressing “the heart that lives alone, housed in a dream,” she quotes another line and argues with the poet:

“Such happiness wherever it is known is to be pitied for tis surely blind.” Yes, but my happiness isn’t blind. That is the achievement, I was thinking between 3 and 4 this morning, of my 55 years. I lay awake so calm, so content, as if I’d stepped off the whirling world into a deep blue quiet space and there open eyed existed, beyond harm; armed against all that can happen. I have never had this feeling before in all my life; but I have had it several times since last summer: when I reached it, in my worst depression, as if I stepped out, throwing aside a cloak, lying in bed, looking at the stars, these nights at Monks House. Of course it ruffles, in the day, but there it is.

RACHEL CARSON (1941)

A quarter century before marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring, she performed another unprecedented feat. In a lyrical essay about the underwater world — a world then more mysterious than the moon — she invited the human reader to experience the reality of life on this planet from the nonhuman perspective of marine creatures. Nothing like it had been done before. Published in The Atlantic, the essay became Carson’s first literary breakthrough and led to her 1941 book Under the Sea-Wind (public library) — a series of lyrical narratives about the life of the shore, the open sea, and the oceanic abyss.

In a passage about the migration and mating of eels, she bridges the scientific and the poetic to plunge the human imagination into the otherworldly blue of the deep sea:

The young eels first knew life in the transition zone between the surface sea and the abyss. A thousand feet of water lay above them, straining out the rays of the sun. Only the longest and strongest of the rays filtered down to the level where the eels drifted in the sea — a cold and sterile residue of blue and ultraviolet, shorn of all its warmth of reds and yellows and greens. For a twentieth part of the day the blackness was displaced by a strange light of a vivid and unearthly blue that came stealing down from above. But only the straight, long rays of the sun when it passed the zenith had power to dispel the blackness, and the deep sea’s hour of dawn light was merged in its hour of twilight. Quickly the blue light faded away, and the eels lived again in the long night that was only less black than the abyss, where the night had no end.

NAN SHEPHERD (1940s)

Sometime in the final years of WWII, the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) began composing what would become The Living Mountain (public library) — her poetic inquiry into the interconnectedness of nature and human nature.

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Shepherd wrote. She found the most powerful transmutation agent of that alchemy in the singular blue of the mountain air:

The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil. It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings. Brown for the most part in themselves, as soon as we see them clothed in air the hills become blue. Every shade of blue, from opalescent milky-white to indigo, is there. They are most opulently blue when rain is in the air. Then the gullies are violet. Gentian and delphinium hues, with fire in them, lurk in the folds. These sultry blues have more emotional effect than a dry air can produce. One is not moved by china blue. But the violet range of colours can trouble the mind like music.

VLADIMIR NABOKOV (1951)

“The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are,” Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) wrote in his 1951 autobiography, Speak, Memory (public library), describing the lifelong crossing of the senses that resulted in his synesthetic alphabet.

In aiding the non-synesthete to experience this strange parallel reality of sensory perception, Nabokov constructs a color wheel of the alphabet, allotting each letter to a particular portion of the spectrum. These are his blues:

Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

Although the letters of the alphabet spilled across the entire spectrum of his mind’s eye, Nabokov had an especial fondness for the color blue. He recalls how, as a youngster, his teacher would take the class to the park and enchant them by arranging the autumn maple leaves in a large circle forming “a near complete spectrum” — but, crucially, without the blue, which was “a big disappointment” to the young Nabokov. Perhaps this is why, when he turned his cross-disciplinary curiosity to lepidoptery later in life, the butterflies that most captivated his imagination and became his greatest scientific legacy were the azure-colored Latin American Polyommatini, colloquially known as the “blues.”

ANNIE DILLARD (1974)

Annie Dillard may be the closest counterpart to Thoreau we have a century and a half later — a poet laureate of nature, whose lyrical prose beckons mind, heart, and spirit to heights of contemplation we have forgotten exist. Her 1974 classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) — which gave us Dillard on the two ways of looking and reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder — is strewn with blue. Some of it delights with the pure splendor of sentiment in language:

I saw in a blue haze all the world poured flat and pale between the mountains.

Some of it transports to places of the natural world and places of the interior world we rarely let ourselves notice, much less visit, by our own accord. Dillard invites the imagination into the inky enchantment of nightfall in winter:

Yesterday I watched a curious nightfall. The cloud ceiling took on a warm tone, deepened, and departed as if drawn on a leash. I could no longer see the fat snow flying against the sky; I could see it only as it fell before dark objects. Any object at a distance — like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window — looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue. It was like dying, this watching the world recede into deeper and deeper blues while the snow piled; silence swelled and extended, distance dissolved, and soon only concentration at the largest shadows let me make out the movement of falling snow, and that too failed. The snow on the yard was blue as ink, faintly luminous; the sky violet. The bay window betrayed me, and started giving me back the room’s lamps. It was like dying, that growing dimmer and deeper and then going out.

TONI MORRISON (1987)

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Toni Morrison wrote in her spectacular acceptance speech as she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize. The cornerstone for the trailblazing distinction was Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved (public library), inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.

In a scene on the banks of the river, where the fugitive heroine gives birth to her baby daughter aided by the cover of night and the white woman with the kind hands, Morrison shines a sidewise gleam on the abiding question of destiny. She contemplates what fate may hold for this new life that had so closely escaped death before entering a pitiless world; what it may hold for any life. Morrison wrests from one of this planet’s rare blue plants an exquisite existential metaphor:

Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects — but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one — will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.

REBECCA SOLNIT (2005)

Rebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in a stunning essay that may well be the crowning achievement of this chromatic category of literature, found in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — her sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknown.

In an exquisite centrifugal unfolding from the scientific into the poetic, Solnit writes:

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. “Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This blue of distance and unmet longing, Solnit argues, is what makes desire so disquieting. We seek to silence it either by grasping toward its object in hungry hope of consummation or with the restless resistance of denial and suppression. We seem unable to befriend desire on its own terms and to approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic and self-defeating 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.

After relaying the personal significance of blue in a vividly remembered childhood experience, Solnit closes an altogether extraordinary essay with a return to the universal coloring of distance and longing:

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.

JANNA LEVIN (2006)

A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) by astrophysicist Janna Levin remains one of the most beautiful, profound, and intellectually elegant books I have ever read — a splendid biographical novel levitating with the poetics of a rapturous imagination, yet rigorously grounded in the real lives and scientific contributions of two of the twentieth century’s most tragic geniuses: computing pioneer Alan Turing and trailblazing mathematician Kurt Gödel.

The richest, most enchanting aspect of the book is the way it illuminates just how inseparable our so-called personal lives are from our public contribution — how Turing and Gödel’s singular lonelinesses and loves shaped their character, informing and inspiring the landmark breakthroughs we celebrate as their scientific genius. For Turing, the most formative fact of his life was his deep adoration of his boyhood classmate Christopher Morcom, with whom he fell in love at the boarding school where the teenage Alan was mercilessly bullied by the other boys, nearly to death. Christopher was everything Alan was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, aglow with charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics. For the remainder of his life, Turing would consider Morcom his soul mate.

It is an intense blue that Levin chooses as the backdrop of their improbable love. In a stunning scene suspended between science and romance — two realms of the human experience grounded in a shared longing to make the impossible possible — she writes:

Chris had shown him the reaction between solutions of iodates and sulfites. Holding the mixture in a clear beaker near his face, he watched Alan’s response as the solution turned a bold blue, tinting Christopher’s hair and deepening the hue of his eyes. To Alan it seemed the other way around, as though Chris’s beautiful eyes had stained the beaker blue.

[…]

He often tries to re-create the moment when Chris’s spirit seeped out of the portals of his eyes and infused the room, a stunning concentration of his soul trapped in the indigo liquid in the beaker. He knows the simple form of the chemicals and the rules of their combination, but he can’t shake the force of the impression that Chris makes on him. He can’t limit the experience to the confines of ordinary matter. In the privacy of his room, he re-creates the experiment, waiting for thirty seconds before the sudden rush of color tears through the fluid. While the process enhances the vibrancy of his memory of that moment, the color never quite strikes the peak hue it reached the time Chris held the tube suspended near his eyes. Where is the spirit in human cells and chemicals and glass?

Three years later, Christopher would die of bovine tuberculosis from infected milk, breaking Alan’s heart and thrusting him into an existential tussle with the binary code of body and spirit. The inextinguishable heartache of the loss would haunt Turing for the remainder of his life, fomenting the restless soul from which his science sprang. Levin writes:

Although Alan is agitated by his own faith — a faith that has never crystallized as well as he had hoped — he does not allow his spiritual leniency to corrupt his pure view of mathematics. As a tribute to Morcom, Turing analyzed sulfur dioxide and iodic acid in explicit mathematical detail. Beneath the differential equations and the chemical compositions he found a sharp result. Lucid and true. He recorded it in black ink on white paper. His proof did not glow in blue or throb with the thrill of the moment the beaker trapped Chris’s radiance. But it was honest and right. His homage to Chris.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS (2016)

Midway through The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (public library) — her symphonic and mobilizing clarion call for protecting the wildernessTerry Tempest Williams includes a most unexpected burst of delight. Recounting her visit to Big Bend National Park in Texas, she enacts her intention “to simply walk and witness the Chihauhaun Desert” in a lovely way: She fills twelve small field notebooks, each a different color and each allotted to one day of her trip, with examples of the respective color she observes in the natural world about her that day.

It doesn’t seem accidental that Williams chooses to begin with the most elemental color of our planet, recording the wild and wildly sundry manifestations of blue with a naturalist’s observation of detail and a poet’s largeness of contemplation. In the small blue notebook inscribed “Day One,” she writes:

Blue is bunting, indigo and quick. Blue is jay, its chatter like jazz. Blue is grosbeak is bluebird is blackbird turned sky. The Chisos mountains at dusk are blue. Blue is ghost-like. Twilight. Deep border blue. Once is the blue moon where panthers dance. Twice is the blue belly of lizards flashing. Blue waves are heat waves, dervishes in sand. Blue is the long song of storm clouds gathering with rain.

BP

Life, Loss, and the Wisdom of Rivers

“It’s a mercy that time runs in one direction only, that we see the past but darkly and the future not at all.”

Life, Loss, and the Wisdom of Rivers

“The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river,” Virginia Woolf wrote some years before she filled her coat-pockets with stones, waded into the River Ouse near her house, and, unwilling to endure what she had barely survived in the past, slid beneath the smooth surface of life.

One midsummer morning seven decades after Woolf was swallowed by the Ouse, Olivia Laing set out to walk the river’s banks from source to sea while navigating her own upheaval of the soul in the wake of heartbreak. She recorded her forty-two-mile existential expedition in To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (public library) — one of those stunning, unclassifiable, uncommonly poetic books that seep into crevices of your psyche you didn’t know existed and settle into the groundwater of your being.

Laing writes:

I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. “When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.

Laing examines the particular pull of the Ouse and its riverine stretch across “233 square miles of land the shape of a collapsed lung,” haunted by Woolf yet animated by some singular spirit of its own:

For a while I used to swim with a group of friends at South-ease, near where her body was found. I’d enter the swift water in trepidation that gave way to ecstasy, tugged by a current that threatened to tumble me beneath the surface and bowl me clean to the sea. The river passed in that region through a chalk valley ridged by the Downs, and the chalk seeped into the water and turned it the milky green of sea glass, full of little shafts of imprisoned light. You couldn’t see the bottom; you could barely make out your own limbs, and perhaps it was this opacity which made it seem as though the river was the bearer of secrets: that beneath its surface something lay concealed.

It wasn’t morbidity that drew me to that dangerous place but rather the pleasure of abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control. I was pulled to the Ouse as a magnet is pulled to metal, returning on summer nights and during the short winter days to repeat some walks, some swims through turning seasons until they amassed the weight of ritual.

Reflecting on the cataclysm that thrust her toward this riverine journey — “one of those minor crises that periodically afflict a life, when the scaffolding that sustains us seems destined to collapse” — and the aim of her unusual experiment, Laing writes:

I wanted somehow to get beneath the surface of the daily world, as a sleeper shrugs off the ordinary air and crests towards dreams.

Rivers may be among our richest existential metaphors — “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river,” Borges proclaimed in his timeless meditation on time; “I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow,” Frida Kahlo wrote in celebrating her unconventional relationship with Diego Rivera — but they are also the raw material of our existence, the seedbed of civilization. Laing writes:

A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.

Native boat, Kongo River, circa 1915 (public domain)

But whatever rivers may nurture with their physical presence, Laing argues, they also foment some essential metaphysical part of our humanity:

There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today. Unlike a lake or sea, a river has a destination and there is something about the certainty with which it travels that makes it very soothing, particularly for those who’ve lost faith with where they’re headed.

[…]

A river moves through time as well as space. Rivers have shaped our world; they carry with them, as Joseph Conrad had it, “the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.” Their presence has always lured people, and so they bear like litter the cast-off relics of the past.

Echoing Woolf’s metaphor of the river as the permeable boundary between the present and the past, Laing writes:

At times, it feels as if the past is very near. On certain evenings, when the sun has dropped and the air is turning blue, when barn owls float above the meadow grass and a pared-down moon breaches the treeline, a mist will sometimes lift from the surface of the river. It is then that the strangeness of water becomes apparent. The earth hoards its treasures and what is buried there remains until it’s disinterred by spade or plough, but a river is more shifty, relinquishing its possessions haphazardly and without regard to the landlocked chronology historians hold so dear. A history compiled by way of water is by its nature quick and fluid, full of submerged life and capable, as I would discover, of flooding unexpectedly into the present.

Illustration from The River by Alessandro Sanna

The supreme allure of rivers may be the intoxicating interplay between what they reveal and what they conceal, and that may also be what makes the river such a wellspring of metaphors — for, as Nietzsche well knew, this duality is at the heart of every potent metaphor. In consonance with astrophysicist Janna Levin’s beautiful and disquieting intimation that truth may be something you can see “only out of the corner of your eye,” Laing writes:

There are sights too beautiful to swallow. They stay on the rim of the eye; it cannot contain them… We talk of drinking in a sight, but what of the excess that cannot be caught? So much goes by unseen… No matter how long I stayed outdoors, there was a world that would remain invisible to me, just at the cusp of perception, glimpsable only in fragments, as when the delphinium at dusk breathes back its unearthly, ultraviolet blue.

And yet the journey itself seems to train in Laing this essential receptivity to beauty — or, rather, to untrain the imperviousness to it that so-called civilization seeds in us, affirming Terry Tempest Williams’s assertion that beauty is our natural inheritance.

A century and a half after Laing’s compatriot Richard Jefferies insisted that “the hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live,” she records one such sublime moment of surrender to beauty on the meadowy banks of the Ouse not far from the English Channel:

What a multitude of mirrors there are in the world! Each blade of grass seemed to catch the sun and toss it back to the sky.

[…]

The wheat was preoccupying me. It had here reached another stage, the long greenish hairs unfurling and turning it into an ocean of grass, in which the wind moved as it will across water, folding the pile first back, now forth. The wind worked across it and so did the light, and I could not at first piece together how the trick was mastered. The stalks here, on this sloped field, were almost blue, a blue that increased from the boot upward like a flush, though later in the month they would grow gilded and then bleach daily until they were almost drained of colour, becoming the common straw that was once used to roof most of England and is still required by law for repairing the thatch of some listed buildings. The heads of the wheat were golden; the hairs that are known as the beard a watery greenish gold that became bronze towards the tip. When the wind flattened the heads — ah, that was it! — they caught the light, which rippled and rushed down the hill in little ebbs and flurries.

And yet, even as these internal transformations come abloom, Laing carries with her and continually revisits the heartache that set her off on the journey. In one of those cyclical thrusts into bleakness that are the hallmark of every grief, she writes:

It began to occur to me that the whole story of love might be nothing more than a wicked lie; that simply sleeping beside another body night after night gives no express right of entry to the interior world of their thoughts or dreams; that we are separate in the end whatever contrary illusions we may cherish; and that this miserable truth might as well be faced, since it will be dinned into one, like it or not, by the attritions of time if not by the failings of those we hold dear… It would be a long time before I trusted someone, for I’d seen how essentially unknowable even the best loved might prove to be.

Still, the most remarkable aspect of the human heart may be just how elastic our range of experience is — how, even at its most contracted by loss and turmoil, the heart can be seized with delight and surprised by visitations of acute joy. Laing is swallowed by one such moment when, delirious and almost euphoric with hunger and fatigue, she finally reaches the Ouse’s homecoming to the sea:

What a bay! What a day! I turned full circle, treading water, liking the way the land seemed to hold out two chalky arms to fend off or embrace the waves. I could see all the way to Seaford Head in the east, and in the west there were the two lighthouses that marked the mouth of the Ouse, gushing out into the Channel at a thousand tonnes a minute. There must have been the odd molecule drifting in these crashing waters that had travelled south beside me, working its way from the oak-shadowed source down the deep gulleys of Sheffield Park, across the gravel beds of Sharpsbridge, over the fish ladders at Barcombe Mills, past the wharves of Lewes and out through the maze-ways of the Brooks… I kicked out my legs and wallowed there in joy.

This cyclical interplay of joy and despair parallels the fate of the physical world. Beholding a dry riverbed where the Ouse meets the sea — the remains of Tide Mills Creek — Laing draws on her riverine journey to contemplate the largest questions of existence and its counterpoint:

It’s a mercy that time runs in one direction only, that we see the past but darkly and the future not at all. But we all have an inkling of what lies ahead, for against the ruins of the ages it is apparent that our time is nothing more than the passing of a shadow and that our lives… run like sparks through the stubble.

The tenacity of our physical remains, their unwillingness to fully disappear, is at odds with whatever spark provides our animation, for the whereabouts of that after death is a mystery yet to be unpicked. What is this world, really? We’re told we have infinite choice and yet there’s so much that occurs beyond the perimeters of our command. We do not know why we’re set down here and though we may choose the moment when we leave, not a single one of us can shift the position we’ve been assigned in time, nor bring back those we love once they have ceased to breathe.

Illustration from Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish meditation on love and loss

In a sentiment evocative of poet Jane Hirshfield’s ode to the raw optimism of the natural world, Laing adds as she stands at the seashore where the Ouse ends:

These sound like cheerless thoughts, but they filled me with a strange exhilaration… Down in the riverbed, in this territory of vanishings, I might have been at loose in any time. The things that survived here did so against all odds, blooming into the teeth of the wind, amid the shifting beds of shingle. The plants rose from the stones like a conjurer’s trick, working roots down into hidden pockets of sabulous soil: white and gold stonecrops with their flowers like stars; the spiked leaves and overblown petals of yellow horned poppy; great outcrops of sea kelp, the leaves whittled into extraordinary shapes by the relentless churnings of the air… [I was] as purely happy as I’ve ever been right then, in that open passageway beneath the blue vault of sky, walking the measure allotted me, with winter on each side… I had the sense I’d fallen into some other world, adjacent to our own, and though I would at any moment be pitched back, I thought I might have grasped the knack of slipping to and fro.

It is not an accident but some elemental part of our humanity that the sea should catalyze such existential revelations at the borderline of the tragic and the transcendent. “Against this cosmic background,” Rachel Carson wrote when she invited the human imagination into the life of the sea decades before Laing walked the Ouse and shortly before Virginia Woolf drowned in it, “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”

“Death and Rebirth” by artist Bhajju Shyam from Creation, an illustrated cosmogony based on Indian folklore mythology.

At this shoreside endpoint of her journey, Laing offers a poetic denouement:

Outside the Downs had disappeared, obliterated by a swelling wall of thunderheads. The cloud was growing as I watched, banking up into headwalls and cornices and deep ice-blue gullies. It looked like the aftermath of an explosion, like the world beyond the hills had been bombed to smithereens. But that’s how we go, is it not, between nothing and nothing, along this strip of life, where the ragworts nod in the repeating breeze? Like a little strip of pavement above an abyss, Virginia Woolf once said. And if she’s right, then the only home we’ll ever have is here. This is it, this spoiled earth. We crossed the river then and pulled away, and in the empty fields the lark still spilled its praise.

To the River is an immensely beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Laing’s subsequent existential experiment in the art of being alone, then revisit Virginia Woolf on the shock-receiving capacity necessary for being an artist.

BP

Nabokov’s Synesthetic Alphabet: From the Weathered Wood of A to the Thundercloud of Z

“The long A of the English alphabet… has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French A evokes polished ebony.”

Nabokov’s Synesthetic Alphabet: From the Weathered Wood of A to the Thundercloud of Z

Metaphorical thinking is the wellspring of the human imagination — that virtuosic cognitive pivot of describing what a thing is through something it is not. “Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept,” Nietzsche proclaimed in his meditation on metaphor and reality.

Some of our mightiest metaphors draw on color to describe our perceptual and psychoemotional reality — a blue mood, a red rage. But while for most of us these metaphorical pairings of concepts are a form of abstract thinking encoded in symbolic language, some people experience a literal transliteration of the senses — for them, a particular number or letter or music note or day of the week may indeed be blue or red, rendered in unmistakable color in their mind’s eye.

Synesthesia is a neurological crossing of the senses, in which a stimulus in one sense (say, sight) evokes a sensorial response in another (say, smell), so that the synesthete registers a particular smell as inherently endowed with a particular color (or a number with a sound, or a tactile texture with a smell). Although synesthesia has long been thought to be an extremely rare condition, a growing body of neurological research and scholarship exploring centuries of written accounts from the world’s body of literature have revealed it to be far more common. Oliver Sacks has written about its science. The writings of Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Charles Baudelaire reveal them to be among its famous embodiments. But no one has described the interior experience of synesthesia and its transcendent sensorial discombobulation more electrically than Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) in his 1951 autobiography, Speak, Memory (public library).

Vladimir Nabokov

“The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are,” Nabokov writes, confessing that he has frequently experienced various mild aural and optical hallucinations since childhood. But as the crowning curio of his unusual sensory apparatus, he holds up his “fine case of colored hearing.” Constructing a kind of private Newtonian rainbow or Moses Harris color wheel of the alphabet, Nabokov writes:

Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation)… In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by “brassy with an olive sheen.” In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with “Rose Quartz” in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv.

With an eye to Nabokov’s exquisitely vivid account, Diane Ackerman observes in her splendid Natural History of the Senses that “either writers have been especially graced with synesthesia, or they’ve been keener to describe it,” and adds:

Great artists feel at home in the luminous spill of sensation, to which they add their own complex sensory Niagara. It would certainly have amused Nabokov to imagine himself closer than others to his mammalian ancestors, which he would no doubt have depicted in a fictional hall of mirrors with suave, prankish, Nabokovian finesse.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly indispensable Speak, Memory with a synesthetic musician’s animation of what it’s like to hear Bach in color, then revisit Nabokov on inspiration, the necessary qualities of a great storyteller, what makes a good reader, and his passionate love letters to Véra (who was also a synesthete).

BP

Optimism: A Poetic Stop-Motion Celebration of Nature’s Resilience and the Persistence of Life Against All Odds

A spare and lovely ode to that which we so easily forget yet which animates the center of existence.

Optimism: A Poetic Stop-Motion Celebration of Nature’s Resilience and the Persistence of Life Against All Odds

One spring morning in 2017, walking along a San Francisco sidewalk, I was arrested by the sight of a tiny weed poking through the crevice between a concrete wall and a chain link fence, boldly blooming in its yellow gramophone blossoms. I stood there marveling at its persistence, remembering Gwendolyn Brooks’s beautiful lines: “Wherever life can grow, it will. / It will sprout out, / and do the best it can.”

Poetry was on my mind that day — I was in the final stages of composing the inaugural Universe in Verse and was on my way to meet the poet and ordained Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, whose work I had cherished for years and who had kindly contributed to the program her mighty protest poem about the silencing of science and nature.

A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem “Optimism” for the show. Perhaps because it is thematically kindred, or perhaps because adjacent memories so often get enmeshed when encoded, it instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of brining the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film playing with this idea of the improbable and inhospitable environments in which life, against all odds, persists — the raw optimism of nature.

I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Books Is a Planetarium — and sent her a photograph of the little yellow weed that had germinated the idea, inviting her to explore this concept with her masterly paper engineering.

Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.
Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.
Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.

Kelli poured tremendous time, thought, and craftsmanship into creating a set of delicate, exquisitely engineered paper weeds, then setting them to “grow” in various real-world urban environments around Brooklyn — crawling along a brick wall, sprouting through concrete, blooming in a pavement crack — to the sound of Jane reading her splendid poem and a cello score by Zoë Keating, who was also part of The Universe in Verse. The resulting short film is a collaborative labor of love, celebrating a simple truth we so easily forget, yet a truth that animates the center of existence:

OPTIMISM
by Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

“Optimism” appears in Jane Hirshfield’s altogether spirit-quenching Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems (public library).

Find more highlights from The Universe in Verse here, including actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature and astrophysicist Janna Levin reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, inspired by Carl Sagan, then revisit Zadie Smith on optimism and despair.

BP

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