LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This review contains language some readers may find offensive.
First published in 1976 and now reissued by NYRB Classics, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry is an exploration of color and language, a celebration of the written and the spoken. In the hands of a novelist like William H. Gass, blue becomes everything there is to know about the world. "Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen." For starters, yes.
On Being Blue — for its musicality and penchant for description — begs to be read aloud, the way monks might take to their text by a fire. Words are candy, sweet treats to be shared and heard by all living beings. Big words, not so big words, the sound they make, their rhythm, the way they flow from willing lips and give life, like Genesis. There are also balls and cheeks. Nipples, too. With Gass, it isn't long before the dirty words get the treatment: cocks and socksuckers, ficking and facking. It's all there, for our amusement; pondered with casual and beaming wit, clarity of thought.
The voracity with which Gass tackles the nature of meaning is fun and downright encyclopedic. Blue goes from clear to baffling in ten seconds flat — but it's never dull. Gass strips words to the dry bone, dissecting them, until what's left are his strange yet utterly convincing interpretations: "Rice is like language" and cursing "defies the gods."
He challenges the way we employ words, and our intentions when doing so. "Immediacy is essential," he offers. And everything is blue. Not red, green, orange, or even yellow, like a prized lemon, but blue: a four-letter word among so many, seemingly, inferior ones. "Color is consciousness itself, color is feeling," he writes, measuring shades and colors by their emotional range. Some are "difficult to turn up" while others are, quite simply, not joyful. Blue is "the color of interior life" — and, as we know, what stems from that interior life is all else. Life itself.
Gass breaks down insults and quips with the examined detail of a poet, getting at their root with quotes from Joyce and Barth and Henry Miller. Ah, writers. Writers are more "susceptible to the blue disease" he tells us. Writers know their weakness.
William Gass has been writing stories, novels and criticism for more than 50 years. His most recent book was Middle C.
The mark of a good essay is its ability to span worlds — illuminate complex ideas with a careful, personal touch. In On Being Blue there is life and death, pleasure, sadness, sex, personhood, theology — worlds of words. Gass takes us to church, extolling the majesty of syllables and phrases. "We cover our concepts, like fish, with clouds of net." His praise is linguistic exercise: "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."
In many ways, On Being Blue is less a book to read than an experience to be had. It's essentially a rant, a riff, poetry, music, art, all of that. But it isn't apologetics. There's no scientific argument, no clear-cut hypothesis to be found. It's not a treatise on the nature of man and his place in the universe. Gass is more interested in getting across a passion for language, and the way the words look and sound on the page. Blue is life and love, it becomes quite easy to believe. But wait for it, because in the end, "everything is gray."