William H. Gass: On Being Blue

Starting this post off with a bit of a disclaimer: other than this book (which I’ve read only once) I have never read anything else by William H. Gass. I know many out there are big fans. When I saw that NYRB Classics was reissuing On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1976), I tweeted the news and was surprised by how many people tweeted their excitement. I’m a bit out-of-step here, then, but I assume many of you are too, and maybe you’d like to know how someone in your shoes found this book on blue.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

The first thing I’d say is this: don’t be intimidated by the status of the author or by the subtitle “A Philosophical Inquiry.” On Being Blue is a witty, fun exploration of a great deal of topics, but the best part, for me, is just the delight Gass must have took in running off his lists, lists that place a great deal of disparate things in alignment, coming together in a great coda. Here is (part of) the opening paragraph, which introduces how “a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word [blue] the way lint collects”:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit — dumps, mopes, Mondays — all that’s dismal — low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; [. . .]: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it’s stood for fidelity.

Definitely my favorite part of this book was its poetic discussion of words and their allusions. Parts of it reminded me a great deal of my favorite chapter in Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale” (which I discuss in the second part of this post here), where Ishmael dissects the color white, and how that ushers him to the frightful intimation that there’s nothing out there:

. . . yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

Gass’s object is also somewhat existential, only he’s not searching for God but rather for human connection through language, by way of sexuality. He laments that the mind has created so many rich ways to talk about so many things, including “blue” but has not done something similar to talk about sexuality. Consequently, writing about sex is limited and ridiculous:

A flashlight held against the skin might just 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 the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. Not an enterprise for amateurs. Even the best are betrayed.

What he’s looking for is not the word made flesh but rather “the flesh made word.”

Just before I read On Being Blue I read Alice Munro’s story “Lives of Girls and Women” (my post here). In that story, Del’s understanding of sex comes by way of words, whether the words allude to something clinical or vulgar. Her impression of sex matches the tone. How can we expect her first actual sexual experience to differ? The content of words mixes with the content of experiences which mixes with the content of words, and so on. Gass puts this beautifully:

So blue, the word and the condition, the color and the act, contrive to contain one another, as if the bottle of the genii were its belly, the lamp’s breath the smoke of the wraith.

There are significant tracts of On Being Blue that I have not discussed here because they were not as interesting to me. I’ll leave those sections to those of you who delve into the book.

4 thoughts on “William H. Gass: On Being Blue

  1. Betsy says:

    Your remarks on Gass ring a bell with me, Trevor.

    He’s writing at the same time as Updike and Munro. Updike’s writing is of what Gass calls the “close-in” variety, and while daring, it doesn’t work very well for me. I feel inspected, sort of.

    Munro’s story, “Baptizing” (from Lives of Girls and Women), in contrast, strikes me as perfect – marrying physical and psychological and spiritual. Munro is deft. Her specificity is not in the anatomical but in the layers she gives experience.

  2. Shelley Frisch says:

    Haven’t read this book yet, but I’m a fan! Guess he won me over when he reviewed a Kafka biography (Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years) I translated from the German, in Harper’s a few years back, then last year included that essay in a collection of his own favorites, called Life Sentences. The review of the Kafka is related as a first-person narrative BY THE BUG!! Great fun!

  3. Trevor says:

    Ha! I love that, Shelley! After a bit of searching, it seems the review is available only to subscribers — and I sadly am not.

    I do want to say that I’ve heard only great things about the Kafka biographies and your translations. Am I right that Stach’s first volume is now underway? I thought I heard that somewhere, but now I’m not seeing it. At any rate, even before I’ve had a chance to read the book, I want to thank you for your work translating something so important.

  4. Shelley Frisch says:

    The first (and final– a nice Kafkaesque touch, no?) volume is indeed underway– Reiner’s still writing it in German, but he’s sent me a good many chapters to get started with. Don’t hold your breath, of course– we’re looking at 2017 as a pub date. Many thanks for your kind words!

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