maggie nelson, “bluets” / william gass, “on being blue”

Maggie Nelson
(Wave Books, 2009)

William Gass
On Being Blue
(David R. Godine, 1976)

I don’t remember why I picked up Maggie Nelson’s book sometime last year; someone had said something positive about it, and I always feel guilty about not reading enough contemporary work. But I took it home & made my way through the not inconsiderable credits at the back of the book & found myself losing interest, and I put it back on the shelf. It seemed odd, I thought, almost inconceivable, that someone would write a long essay (or a short book) about the color blue when William Gass’s perfectly nice On Being Blue existed in the world, and was still in print.

But I found myself thinking about Gass’s book when reading Thomas Browne in Libya: reading The Garden of Cyrus, it became entirely clear where Gass had taken his form for On Being Blue – starting with a concept, almost arbitrary; then moving through digressions to end up in an entirely different space. There’s something comforting about this: reading something and realizing that others that you know have been there before you. But with this realization, of course, there was the need to go back to Gass, to see how he’d changed since I’d last read him – I think I first read this book around 2001, though I could certainly be wrong – and whether the work holds up. And of course there was the Nelson book on the shelf, which I found myself resolving to be unfair to.

And while reading Browne I found myself thinking about the color blue: at about the same time, we were spending a lot of time driving through the sand seas of the Sahara, and I found myself fixated on the line between sand and sky. Partly this is because the desert is aesthetically barren: there are only two elements, and the sky was uniformly blue, the sand was uniformly orange-yellow. As evening approaches, shadows appear, which change things; but until then, there is the horizon. Next to the sand, the blue of the sky pops in an astonishing way: it’s hard to imagine how any blue could be more blue. There was the urge, with a blue so intense, to capture it somehow; I was taking photos with my iPhone, which I knew very well does not take the best photos in the world, but it was hard to fight off that urge to capture that blueness. It’s hard not to have some sort of aesthetic experience in a space like that – in the same way that it’s hard not to when standing in front of Monet’s Water Lilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie. Blue summons up feelings of the infinite; one understands immediately why people feel the urge to write books about the color. Off the top of my head, I can think of Alexander Theroux’s The Primary Colors (which widens its interest to include red and yellow) and Joshua Cohen’s more narrow “Thirty-Six Shades of Prussian Blue” to stay outside of writing about the visual arts; Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art nails down his weird theory of precise meanings of colors and shapes; and of course there are Albers and Goethe and Wittgenstein, and we could go on.

But these two books about blueness, both collections of blue fragments, although they are arranged very differently. One finds Browne sneaking through them; he’s mentioned by name in Gass’s, of course, but one of the most famous passages of Religio Medici:

I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this triviall and vulgar way of coition; It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his coold imagination, when he shall consider what an odde and unworthy piece of folly hee hath committed; I speake not in prejudice, nor am averse from that sweet sexe, but naturally amorous of all that is beautifull; I can looke a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse.

In Gass, this is reduced further:

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. (p. 20)

Gass’s book is an argument about the relation between words and the world, the experience of blueness tying them together: depiction (like Browne’s portrait of a horse) is different from personal experience. Nelson’s approach to roughly the same subject is messier: in numbered paragraphs, she examines her personal experiences with blueness, drawing in a predictable series of artists and works as evidence (Yves Klein, Rose Hobart, poor old Wittgenstein), trying to discern why blue is important to her personally.

Part of my problem with Nelson’s book comes down to a personal distrust of those writers whose confessions aren’t oblique: those who tell all the truth, but don’t tell it slant. When one gets to the end of On Being Blue, it’s possible to say, really, only two things about the physical existence of William Gass: first, that he saw a particular photograph when young that affected him, an experience he talks about in some detail; second, that he’s married. One knows, of course, that he’s read a lot of books, many of which are mentioned or quoted from; and the reader has a distinct feeling for Gass’s sensibility: what he finds interesting and why, how he thinks about the world, at least the tiny chunk of it that he’s encircled in On Being Blue. The reader has a conception of the author; but the reader is held at arm’s distance. The beginning of the final section of Gass’s book explains this:

It is not simple, not a matter for amateurs, making sentences sexual; it is not easy to structure the consciousness of the reader with the real thing, to use one wonder to speak of another, until in the place of the voyeur who reads we have fashioned the reader who sings; but the secret lies in seeing sentences as containers of consciousness, as constructions whose purpose it is to create conceptual perceptions – blue in every area and range: emotion moving through the space of the imagination, the mind at gleeful hop and scotch, qualities, through the arrangement of relations, which seem alive within the limits they pale and redden like spanked cheeks, and thus the bodies, objects, happenings, they essentially define. (pp. 86–87)

In Bluets, Nelson writes off Gass’s book as “puritanism, not eros,” declaring

I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the altar. Your loss. (p. 25)

Because Nelson’s book is constructed aphoristically, she moves on; this is frustrating, because this isn’t really an argument so much as a stance of defiance: her blue is entirely hers, and there’s little space in her book for the reader.


  • There’s a very nice interview with Joseph McElroy on Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm: most interesting thing to come out of the publicity around Night Soul so far.
  • Jace Clayton’s mixtape for Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem Is Nowhere is much better than a mix based on a book has any right to be.
  • Outtakes from William Gass’s reading of The Tunnel at Inside Higher Ed.
  • Stefania Heim interviews Susan Howe February 25 at the Graduate Center.


a list

Martha.     A list.

Maryas.     A list.

Marius.     A list.


Maryas.     A list.


Maryas.     A list lost.

Martha.     A list lost reminds her of a fire lost. Smoke is not black nor if you turn your back is a fire burned if you are near woods which abundantly supply wood.

Maryas.     A list lost does not account for the list which has been lost nor for the inequality of cushions shawls and awls. Nowadays we rarely mention awls and shawls and yet an awl is still used commercially and a shawl is still used is still used and also used commercially. Shawls it may be mentioned depend upon their variety. There is a great variety in calculation and in earning.

Marius.     A list.

Mabel.       A list.

Martha.     A list.

Martha.     There is great variety in the settlement of claims. We claim and you claim and I claim the same.

Martha.     A list.

Maryas.     And a list.

Mabel.       I have also had great pleasure from a capital letter.

Martha.     And forget her.

Maryas.     And respect him.

Marius.     And neglect them.

Mabel.       And they collect them as lilies of the valley in this country.

Martha.     A list.

(Gertrude Stein, from “A List,” p. 401 in Ulla Dydo’s A Stein Reader. Cited in William Gass’s “I’ve Got a Little List”.)

the book as a container of consciousness

“It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create (since not all books are bent on that result), but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about; by singing to themselves the large, round lines they find, at the same time as they applaud their placement on the page, their rich surroundings, and everywhere the show of taste and care and good custom – what a cultivated life is supposed to provide; for if my meal is mistakenly scraped into the garbage, it becomes garbage, and if garbage is served to me on a platter of gold by hands in gloves, it merely results in a sardonic reminder of how little gold can do to rescue ruck when ruck can ruin whatever it rubs against; but if candlelight and glass go well together, and the linens please the eye as though it were a palate, and one’s wit does not water the wine, if one’s dinner companions are pleasing, if the centerpiece does not block the view and its flowers are discreet about their scent, then whatever fine food is placed before us, on an equally completed plate, will be enhanced, will be, in such a context, only another successful element in the making of a satisfactory whole; inasmuch as there is nothing in life better able to justify its follies, its inequities, and its pains (though there may be many its equal) than in getting, at once, a number of fine things right; and when we read, too, with our temper entirely tuned to the text, we become – our heads – we become the best book of all, where the words are now played, and we are the page where they rest, and we are the hall where they are heard, and we are, by god, Blake, and our mind is moving in that moment as Sir Thomas Browne’s about an urn, or Yeats’s spaded grave; and death can’t be so wrong, to be feared or sent away, the loss of love wept over, or our tragic acts continuously regretted, not when they prompt such lines, not when our rendering of them brings us together in a rare community of joy.”

(William H. Gass, “The Book as a Container of Consciousness,” pp. 351–2 in Finding a Form.)


“Let us look back a moment at Hobbes and his language, which seems to unwind across the page in a continuous and dutiful line and seems to be presenting us with lively incidents from an old story. Yet the rules of English grammar, which determine word order and the direction of modification, require the reader to return, again and again, to what has gone before; to move the eye, that is to say, not at all like a stylus in a groove, but like a tailor’s needle, loop after loop. When phrases are well turned, we linger over them, which interrupts the narrative; and when predicates lead us back to their subject, we find ourselves looking over our shoulder as we go, instead of straight ahead. ‘Hereby it is manifest,’ Hobbes declares, and we must carry that boast forward over an entire paragraph. What is manifest? That men are, when without a common power, in a condition of war. Hobbes halts his thought to tell us what war is in terms of what weather is. In short, any complex idea is like a territory to be traversed, not the way a number of ticks reach their tocks, but the way we crisscross a neighborhood or inhabit a building, holding the whole in our head as we walk along one walk, watching a florist wrap a bouquet or, through a window, a barber shave.”

(William Gass, “The Story of the State of Nature,” p. 257 in Finding a Form.)

orality now

“The mouth is our sustainer: with it our body is fed and our soul made articulate. Orality as a developmental stage is as early as any, near to our deepest and often most desperate feelings. The spoken language is learned at the point, and in the manner, in which we learned to live; when we heard love, anger, anxiety, expectation, in the tones of the parental voice, and later began to find the words we had heard forming in our own mouths as if the ear had borne their seed. Moreover, we still communicate at the daily and most personal level by speaking, not by writing, to one another. If the telephone suggests physical closeness at the price of spiritual distance, E-mail promotes that impersonal intimacy sometimes experienced by strangers. Writing has even lost the kinetic character the hand once gave it, or the portable conveyed through its worn and pounded keys. Prefab letters pop onto a screen in full anonymity now, as if the mind alone had made them, our fingers dancing along over the keyboard as unnoticed as breathing until something breaks or the error beep sounds. As Plato feared, the written word can be stolen, counterfeited, bought, released from the responsibility of its writer, sailed into the world as unsigned as a ship unnamed or under borrowed registry. Suppose politicians were required to compose their own lies, use their own poor words, instead of having their opinions catered – how brief would be their hold on our beliefs; how soon would their souls be seen to be as soiled as their socks.”

(William Gass, “Finding a Form,” p. 43 in Finding a Form.)