A bald brant is a blue goose

This essay on William H. Gass’s On Being Blue appeared in the Guardian.


William H Gass is a lover of lists. So playful, odd and long are these litanies that in his essays and fiction Gass rivals the great inventory-mongers – Rabelais, Joyce, Perec – for sheer pleasure taken in setting one damn thing down after another. In an essay from 2002 entitled “I’ve Got a Little List”, he describes the meaning and methods behind his own and others’ paratactic urge; the list, Gass tells us, is a basic literary gambit: “It occurs constantly, and only occasionally draws attention to itself.” It is an essentially democratic mode, levelling its elements however disparate to a single plane or stratum, and laconically implying some absent linking verb: buy, invite, remember. Pursued at length, however, such modesty flips or flowers into syntactic extravagance – “The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess.” In sum, lists tend to get out of hand.

The strangest and finest expression of Gass’s listomania comes at the start of his book-length essay On Being Blue, first published in 1976 and recently reissued. I would love to quote it whole but it’s far too long, and in truth it is hard to know where the list ends: the entire book is a catalogue of sorts containing blue things, desires, concepts and usages. Here is a taste from its infinite menu: “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 its delirium …” And so drunkenly on, over a page and a half – this by way of introduction, mind. Readers arriving cold to Gass’s svelte little study and wondering what they’ve got themselves into – a book about blue? a book about the blues? – may be forgiven for thumbing forward, flummoxed.

In fact, On Being Blue is richly stocked with information regarding the colour in its title. (There is a subtitle – A Philosophical Inquiry – but more of that below.) We learn a great deal about etymology, derivation, metaphorical deployment. “Blue” is from blavus, has affinities with “bael”, which means a fire or pyre, and with “bold” and “bald” alike: “a bald brant is a blue goose”. Gass piles up mundane and eccentric uses of the word, trawling the dictionary for entries that are “obs.”, “rare” and “colloq.”. He uncovers blue skies, blue jeans, blue boys and Oxbridge blues, but also blue backs (Confederate bills), blue john (skimmed milk) and a mercurial ointment called blue butter. At the same time the book can be read as a general reflection on this most suggestive and mysterious of colours: its signalling of cosmic or private depths, the blue remembered hills of childhood, the bruising or delicate insistence of certain hues in writers from Beckett (“A very blue man,” says Gass) to Katherine Mansfield (“Very beautiful, O God! is a blue tea-pot with two white cups attending.”)

Before long, though, one has the sense that the colour, for all its preciousness, is a kind of pretext – but for what? The blueness of language for one thing. Gass is interested in the figurative elisions found in swearing: “When I enjoin a small offensive fellow to ‘fuck a duck’, I don’t mean he should.” He turns in a deft precis of JL Austin’s concept of “performative” language – outlined in How to Do Things With Words in 1955 – without once mentioning the philosopher, and with notably fruitier examples: “Fuck‑yous are in fact the principal item of macho exchange.” And closing in on his book’s proper philosophical import, he marvels at the poverty of language when it comes to describing sex: “We have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses. We have a name for the Second Coming but none for a second coming.”

Neither his vagrant attitude to the structure of an essay nor his detailing the limits and ambitions of ordinary language will exactly surprise readers of Gass’s novels and short stories or his collections of playful and occasionally fractious critical writings. From the early mock-Faulknerian ventriloquism of Omensetter’s Luck in 1966, through the stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country to his most recent and possibly last novel Middle C – published in 2013, when he was 88 – the fiction has been speculative, digressive, baggily plotted and texturally gorgeous.

Gass is usually, and not entirely accurately, aligned by critics with American postmodernism in its imperial phase: with writers, that is, such as Donald Barthelme, John Barth and Robert Coover. There is some truth in this judgment, and, in fact, On Being Blue contains admiring passages on a few of his metafictional contemporaries. But one difference is that much, or most, of Gass’s self-conscious experiment is going on at the level of the sentence, its style and especially its sound, rather than look-at-me games with plot or character. This is partly a matter of poetic influence – Stevens and Rilke have been constant references – but the presiding example is probably Gertrude Stein, about whom he has written several essays. Stein is nowhere to be seen in On Being Blue, but the book is surely in thrall to her Tender Buttons and its incantatory way with the rhythms and phonics of everyday American speech.

In a later essay, “The Music of Prose”, Gass defends his immoderately euphonic style as a deliberate affront to readers hung up on content: “lead-eared moralists and message-gatherers”. On Being Blue is the book where he broached this fully for the first time, and it is possible to read his reflection on colour, coition and communication as a prose poem scored mainly for the ear. For a start – and this likely repels as many readers as it allures – he may well be the most shameless alliterator this side ofNabokov. Here he is on painterly blues: “Seldom was blue for blue’s sake present till Pollock hurled pigment at his canvas like pies.” And adding a little assonance, on the colour of corpses: “So it’s true: Being without Being is blue.” There is much more in this “rinky-dink” (his own term) line, but the cheapness of the effect conceals a serious intent: Gass wants us to think hard about how we get snagged by the sound of prose.

In particular, he wants us to consider the ways words and bodies connect and come apart. A good deal of On Being Blue is given over to the failure of other writers to recount without bathos the moments when we lose ourselves in lust and languor. Sex resists the most painstaking style, “even the best are betrayed”, and a novelist as sensitive, as exacting of his own sentences as Henry James can end up referring to a character’s “hard manhood” when that is not what he meant at all. Nor is straight pornography much good at the task: “I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing.” Gass has a lot of fun with this stuff, but not only in the mode of the Bad Sex award. He knows, of course, that lurid metaphor – stand up, Henry Miller– is just as treacherous as frankness, and he seems to want instead a type of writing driven to extremes of indirection, where things “become concepts, light as angels”.

Gass finds something of what he is after in passages from FlaubertWoolfand Colette. But this strand of On Being Blue is the place where it reveals itself to be, as many readers no doubt come to it expecting, a book about melancholia. Because what is left for us to say or to write if in the end the most intense bodily adventures will escape our sentences? You could read Gass’s endless list-making as a sort of depressive rosary, or an addiction long detached from its instigating trauma. (He’s very good on the recursive stone-sucking sequence in Beckett‘s Watt.) This is a short volume – less than 100 pages in my old edition – whose unlikely but direct ancestor is Robert Burton‘s vast and swelling The Anatomy of Melancholy, a book of which Gass once wrote: “[its lists] subside only to resume in no time at all with words even more exotic, redolent, or chewy”. Like Burton, Gass can’t help being led by his appetite for language, even if it proves unsatisfying. “Chewy” seems the right word, too, for On Being Blue – it is a talismanic, self-contained kind of book that seems more giving, more delicious each time one returns.

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