blue, here is a shell for you

October 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was initially meant to be my bedtime reading, a sort of break from the cacophony of voices that litter Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives when it clearly became much too noisy to handle before my nocturnal wind-down. Bluets is another one of those genre-fucking books like Bolano’s, and written with such clear-headed evaluation for both personal pain and philosophical observation that it did nothing to help me sleep – by the end of it, I was sobbing into my pillow.

So… restful read? Not so much.

It seemed interesting to me, or sort of serendipitous not in a romantic-comedy way but in a sad literary way that the two books I picked to read concurrently were not written in easily-identifiable forms. The publisher of Bluets, Wave Books, categorises the book under “Essay/Literature”, although I’m unsure if 240 propositions constitute an essay. Maggie Nelson is known for having written both poetry and intriguing works of nonfiction in the past, and for me it seems like Bluets is poetry done as philosophy.

“Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition,” is something that Wittgenstein said, and it comes as no surprise that in interviews Nelson has alluded to Wittgenstein’s influence on Bluets. Having never read her other work, it’s useless for me to say that Nelson seems to make a home in, and out of, poetry. However, her approach to theorising colour, by way of personal experience and singularly, by way of emotional pain, seems to have been tailor-made for prose that is expressly poetic. And by “poetic”, I mean language that is highly-attuned to itself, not merely to narrate or describe or explain, but by its very act of creation, language that allows itself simply to be and permits fluid, changing modes of expression – from confessional to abstract.

Philosophy is an inquiry into the nature of things – forgive me if there’s something more abstract to it than that. And Nelson’s inquiry into the nature of colour – the colour blue, that is – is delicately layered between two over-arching themes; that of love or obsession or coupled with desire (who can tell the difference, sometimes?) and loss. Nelson’s exploration of loss is intrinsically aware of its relation to yearning; that you can only lose what you had and all yearning is the consistent pining for something or someone you had for awhile and is now gone. In Bluets, this is explored through the speaker’s deep loss over a terminated love affair as well as through Nelson’s shared anguish with a good friend’s loss of her physically-mobile, able-bodied self after a serious accident.

With references to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, Mallarme, Leonard Cohen, Catherine Millet, Cezanne, Gertrude Stein, and various miscellaneous real-life and fictional people of religion, literature, science, and philosophy, Bluets is a solid testament of the work of art in the Information Age. The reading experience of Bluets is so smooth yet if you flip through the pages it appears to be nothing more than a cobbling together of information, facts, tidbits and interesting “nuggets” in 240 paragraphs of varying length. But the propositions are schematic, layered, and ordered – each inquiry into a quote, or a piece of information, is the backdrop for further exploration of an idea, such as:

69. When I see photographs of these blue bowers, I feel so much desire that I feel I might have been born into the wrong species.

70. Am I trying, with these “propositions,” to build some kind of bower? – But surely this would be a mistake. For starters, words do not look like the things they designate (Maurice Merleau-Ponty).

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

72. It’s easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or 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 as a sort of wink – Here you are again, it says, and so am I.

Bluets can look like an easy Facebook note patched-together with random factoids, but the proliferation of ideas from these bits and pieces of carefully-reconstructed information is stunning. Nelson deftly weaves acutely-felt emotions into her intellectual musings. Can desire be satisfied with not-having its wants fulfilled? Yearning thrives on unfulfilment; desire too is properly set aflame only from a distance. “Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.” Much of Nelson’s explorations on love acknowledges its Janusian other face, obsession. If love sets you free, supposedly, obsession is right there to tie you down. How is loving a colour different from loving a person? “Are you sure – one would like to ask – that it cannot love you back?”

What of the female gaze? “There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head.” There are numerous references to “fucking” – an interesting choice of word when used in relation to the intensity of her obsession with the man in question. No “making love” here; straightforward lust is juxtaposed with endless longing for the other person who cannot be had. It’s a deeply-unsettling effect, as when she writes: “Fucking leaves everything as it is” (italics hers) only to say this, pages later: “For better or for worse, I do not think that writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is.” From writing to fucking to creating – everything leaves things as it is yet seems to profoundly alter the subject behind those acts.

One gets the impression that Nelson wrote Bluets mainly as a form of record-keeping, in the manner in which writers can sometimes take comfort and pleasure in how words on a page can give shape to memory and stand testament to a lived experience. The intellectual inquiries into the nature of things and ideas and people form the architecture of this house of words; but it’s the emotions germinated by those cerebral explorations that inhabit every room and fill the space of every corner.

Fittingly, the final page contains this proposition:

238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would have rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.

Bluets is a thin, unassuming book that runs riot in ideas and feelings, the kind that makes your head and heart ache with newly-blooming thoughts and feelings just like the best poetry and philosophy should do – regardless of what you want to call it.

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