09-29-13, 11:53 AM #1
"On Being Blue" by William Gass
"In the Heart of the Heart of a Color"
By JOHN BAYLEY
ON BEING BLUE
By William Gass.
"This is an enchanting book. If the praise sounds old-fashioned the book is too, for Mr. Gass is an esthete and the flavor of his prose, however updated in terms of its matter and manner, carries us back to the days of Flaubert and Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.
Like her essay, "The Death of the Moth," it is a meditation on life and art, and the way our reactions are shaped at the meeting-point between them. The tone is sharpened by a hint of self- mockery, of elegant exaggeration. Blue means for Mr. Gass, so he would have us believe, an atmosphere like that of mauve, or green carnations, to an earlier generation of esthetes. Blue is for him the color of language used for the sake of art, to bring things and experiences into the focus of the phrase. Those who do this, whether they are poets or novelists or just writers in the head, are living, he tells us, "in the country of the blue," and it is to them that his reverie is dedicated.
So far, so good. We could all use more care in choosing our terms and shaping our sentences, even joining in together in "a worship of the word." For Mr. Gass the word "blue" symbolizes our pleasure in words as things--blue flowers, blue stones, blue blood, blue jokes. He explores the language of blue as Rimbaud in a famous sonnet listed the colors of the vowels, and as MallarmÈ was haunted by "L'Azur." He reminds us of the poetic critical flights of ValÈry and Bachelard, but his sinuous English escapes the clarion pretentiousness of the French intellectual esthetes. It is saying the same sort of things, but with a blue tongue tucked in its cheek.
So in spite of the philosophical dressing, "On Being Blue" is really a flight of fancy, as that genial word was used by the Metaphysical poets. And naturally enough, the longest and liveliest aspect of Mr. Gass's discussion is the bluest part of blue, so to speak--the pornographic. He maintains that writing today has mistaken the nature of our enjoyment in reading about sex by failing to be blue enough, by neglecting to find the right verbal correlatives to render physical experience; by failing to grasp that language lives in the world of the spirit.
It follows that sex, like eating, can only be described in spiritual terms: "I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken's wing." Oddly enough Virginia Woolf, most ethereal of authors, can for that reason describe the pleasures of the table better than any down-to-earth trencherman. We feel we are almost tasting the boeuf en daube in "To the Lighthouse" and the sole and partridges at a college feast in "A Room of One's Own." This reflection made me feel that Mr. Gass certainly has a point. We enjoy what is "blue" in sex, that is, narrated and not personally enacted, in the same way that we enjoy everything else about what Mr. Gass calls the blue, as a matter of style and language. "Being without Being is blue" says Mr. Gass: by which I take him to mean that all our experience that takes place in the head comes under his color category.
This is, of course, a heresy for true believers in D.H. Lawrence, who denounced what he called "sex in the head," and claimed that its spiritual center was in the buttocks, the loins or the solar plexus. Experience proves him wrong, and Mr. Gass devotes many witty pages to the proof. It is true that after the "Lady Chatterley" affair an English judge, off the record, disarmingly defined pornography as "words that gave him an erection." Words can certainly do that, but they do it most effectively through fantasy and metaphor, through the poetry of the blue, and not by an attempt at literal recording. Fanny Hill, by the 18th-century pornographer John Cleland, shows this as clearly as Lawrence's own "Women in Love."
Mr. Gass equates most modern attempts at pornography with the cult of the inarticulate. "I am firmly of the opinion," he tells us, "that people who can't speak have nothing to say." Their experience, sexual or otherwise, is automatically impoverished by being incommunicable--"the words which in our language are worst off are the ones the worst-off use." Impoverished by universal use, the vocabulary of sex has nothing blue about it. It is unseductively descriptive, sometimes not even that. Even today, the vocabulary of theology is more resourceful than that of the bedroom.
In its reliance here on metaphor, language shows us how separate its function must always be from that of sensation. The philosopher's point Mr. Gass wishes to make in literary terms is that style is not just an addition to language but its essential nature: it enables us to inhabit "the blue" in a literal sense by removing us into the perspective of the sky, away from the earth. Rilke remarked that sex "requires a progressive shortening of the senses." "I can hear you for blocks," quips Mr. Gass. "I can smell you, maybe, for a few feet, but I can only touch you on contact. A flashlight held against the skin might as well be off. Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content...that there is no major art that works close in." As Yeats put it, and Mr. Gass might well agree, "the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul"; but it is the glory and the justification of "blue" language to remain perpetually virgin.
Undeniable; and yet blue can also be for danger, though Mr. Gass would not admit it. Blue boys can want the external world for one thing only--the words they can have it off with. Mr. Gass's blue style is ideally pornographic because in it "there's one body only...the body of your work itself." The country of the blue, while it suggests so well that enchanted space where matter exists in words, is also self-insulating and self-gratifying. That is the risk run by Virginia Woolf as well as by modern stylists and disciples of the blue--Updike, Stanley Elkin (from whose novel, "A Bad Man," Mr. Gass supplies a savorous quotation) and Mr. Gass himself. The truer stylist-- Hardy, James Joyce--has too wide a repertory to play only on what Wallace Stevens called "the blue guitar." "Ulysses" is made not out of blue but out of Bloom--a man and his meaning. Great writing has in it all colors: Mr. Gass's favorites manage only one, though he gives himself and us a nice ride over the rainbow."--http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/0...gass-blue.html
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