I have a friend who went blind when she was a toddler. She can only remember one colour – white, the cool impersonal white of the hospitals where they tried but failed to prevent the blindness. She says now all she can see are shadows.
Sadness is a colourless state. Science bears this out: the retinas of a depressed person are less responsive to contrast. They are less alive to colour, to light.
But is the average person truly alive to colour? If I were to tell you that Bluets is a book about the colour blue, would you dismiss it as banal? Colour is so quotidian, you might say. To name a favourite seems a juvenile impulse or, at best, irrelevant.
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is, and is not, about blue. Blue becomes a stand-in for intensity of feeling. In amongst the blueness catalogued, you’ll find fucking, friendship, beauty, philosophy, pain. To read it is to fall under the spell -- you begin to be taken in by blue, to feel the narrator’s rapture. I am reminded of Zadie Smith: “The object of the passion is just an accessory to the passion itself”.
Above all, it is about loneliness. The peculiar tediousness of longing. Addressed to an anonymous “you”, the fixation on blue becomes a projection of Nelson’s desire for this former lover; a sublimation and a psychosexual obsession.
I understand obsession, its irrationality. Working the graveyard shift for months, I soothed myself in quiet moments by watching videos of buildings being demolished. I slept during daylight hours in a windowless room and saw no light. The visions of imploding towers both stirred and relaxed me. I watched them over and over again.
I understand obsession but I cannot explain it. It is the province of the lonely.
At 95 pages long, Bluets is a book you can finish in a sitting, although my experience was more of submersion. I read its 240 numbered fragments lying in a teal bathtub. Alone, naked, underwater.
Bluets #71 and #72:
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 is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it 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 to be a sort of a wink—Here you are again, it says, and so am I.
I tried to staunch my loneliness with science. I read about touch deprivation in monkeys, and scheduled weekly massages. I heard how coldness is linked with loneliness and brought a jacket everywhere I went.
I thought: People can provide a cure for loneliness, but they also cause the problem. Sometimes our loneliness is concentrated on the absence of one person despite the abundance of others.
I suppose it is possible that one day we will meet again and it will feel as if nothing ever happened between us. This seems unimaginable, but the fact is that it happens all the time. “No whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory / of whiteness,” wrote Williams. But one can lose the memory of whiteness, too.
Art goes where science cannot. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets made me feel, if not less lonely, then more understood. Beneath the peeling yellow paint of that bathroom the walls were painted blue, and I choose to see it as a sign of beauty, not neglect. It felt like a wink.
I own three copies of Bluets now – one on my e-reader, then two paperbacks I bought to loan to friends. But I am scared to lend it out. What if they don’t like it? That will either make me like them, or it, a little less, and I want to love the things and people I love without compromise.
I may not share Nelson’s preoccupation with blue. As far as colours go, I cannot say it has ever greatly moved me. I love a blue sky more for the light the sun casts down than the colour of the backdrop. But I have these blue books, and they make me understand.
Amelia Marshall can be heard reading the news and making bad puns on Triple J Breakfast. When she’s not writing news, she spends her time writing short stories and poems. She tweets @amelia___m and blogs at versesversus.tumblr.com. She completed a Masters in Creative Writing at UTS in 2013.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.