On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William H. Gass




Blue's more than a color, mood, or groove of a jukebox tune.  The symbology of blue, along with its definitions, are as infinite as its nuanced hues.  Aqua, azure, turquoise, cerulean, indigo, cobalt, ad infinitum ...  There's endless shades of adjectives on the adjective, blue.  Or so posits William H. Gass (and I tend to believe him), in his idiosyncratic, intertextual synthesis, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1976), of all that's ever been --or could be-- blue.  Besides blue ontologically and blue philosophically, Gass covers blue cross-culturally, literarily, aesthetically, psychologically, epistemologically, phenomenologically, erotically, metaphorically, and practically every other word ending, "-ically," that one might encounter in the O.E.D. too.

First printing, 1976
At the book's core, I believe Gass is asking: How do blue's meanings become blue's meanings and what do blue's meanings then mean to our very being?  Even an intrepid or sadomasochistic-type reader easily lured by books odd or arcane, incomprehensible, might be wondering "huh?" or even, regrettably, "WTF!?" at such an inquiry regarding "blue meaning and blue being," as I was, after having just asked it up above.  Keep in mind, if you're still with me, that if Gass confounds you to the point you'd like to hurl On Being Blue out the window into the great blue yonder, know you're not alone, but in some very good company, as William H. Gass is a certifiable Linguistic Mystic.  He gets off on the alchemy of language -- what he's coined, "a world of words," like he's a wizard with a wand --much more than making his language, particularly in On Being Blue-- always easily understandable to an understandably perplexed, though diehard, willing to work hard for those nuggets of comprehension, readership.

On Being Blue, while beholden to all of the momentarily forthcoming labels, is not necessarily in a monogamous relationship with only one, be it prose poetry, strict philosophy per se, literary or art criticism, soft core erotica, autobiography, or a confabulated hodgepodge of all the forms, including fiction.  Rather, On Being Blue, borrowing something from all styles of discourse, serves as William H. Gass's metaphysical manifesto built not out of the blue, but literally out of blue.  The Epicurean blue of knowledge.  The blue in gnosis and the gnosis in blue.  It's a highly stylized interdisciplinary hybrid of a master-wordsmiths exposition that doesn't offer any easily navigated routes (let alone clues) of interpreting every facet of the diamond, blue.  And Gass makes no apologies for failing to do so, too.

No real surprise there, as Gass has never cared about being contemporary or orthodox or popular for everyone's easy consumption, so in love with the crafting and fashioning of language he is; and, in reading On Being Blue, it certainly seems his animated language loves him back.  Self-indulgently so?  Onanistic?  Perhaps.  And that's probably the harshest criticism I could levy against it (and perhaps against Gass' oeuvre in general) that the point of it all (in his essays) or the plot of it all (in his postmodern stories and experimental novels) gets lost in his lush, elaborate language and esoterica.  Gass echoes Walter Benjamin in that recondite regard.  For it's akin to seeking out a rare genus of weed in the Amazon rainforest, hunting for the reclusive plot (if it even exists) in, say, Gass' dark magnum opus, The Tunnel (1995), for instance.  And even in his earlier fiction, like the typographical hijinks so common in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (1968), spliced with provocative black-and-white photography of the attractive lonesome wife's naked anatomy, posed as she is among so much sensually arranged textual formatting (discovering as she does that intercourse with words is sheer ecstasy!), the plot, nevertheless, is about as visible to the reader's naked eye as an atom.

If there is a point to On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, however, the point is obvious: The point is blue.