Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets opens with the line, “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.” Something that began as “[a]n appreciation, an affinity” became something “more serious” and then “it became somehow personal.” In this case the color is blue and what follows is a philosophical investigation into loss, pain, and suffering. In the 240 prose entries the book consists of, Nelson deals with the personal loss of a relationship and witnesses the physical suffering of a friend who became a quadriplegic following an accident (something Nelson also wrote about in her 2007 poetry collection, Something Bright, Then Holes), all while returning again and again to the color blue.
Throughout the book, Nelson consults numerous writers, artists and thinkers, and she places herself firmly in conversation with them. In entry 23, she notes the tendency to turn to color at “a particularly fraught moment” as demonstrated by Goethe’s Theory of Colours, Derek Jarman’s Chroma, and Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. Nelson writes, “[Wittgenstein] knew he was dying; he could have chosen to work on any philosophical problem under the sun. He chose to write about color. About color and pain. Much of this writing is urgent, opaque, and uncharacteristically boring. ‘That which I am writing about so tediously, may be obvious to someone whose mind is less decrepit,’ he wrote.”
So we learn Nelson is in a particularly fraught moment and has turned to the color blue. At a job interview at a university she is asked, “Why blue?”: “We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.” This clearly refers to more than just the color blue. It also refers to “the prince of blue,” a former lover who has since left, and it refers to anyone or anything anyone has ever loved.
Unlike Nelson’s assessment of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour, her own writing about color is certainly not boring. The collection of quotes and facts are reminiscent of David Markson’s Reader’s Block series, but Nelson makes herself more present in the collage, creating an engaging and powerful read. (Of course, Markson’s books were published as fiction, whereas Nelson’s is a memoir or essay.) While readers can certainly delight in the wonderful and strange facts Nelson assembles, the readers also experience a wider range of emotions. Without falling into old standbys and clichés, Nelson articulates loss in a way that readers can relate to. However, the ability to trace and define loss may prove fruitless to some, since she is not able to produce a cure. Early on she asks, “But why bother with diagnoses at all, if a diagnosis is but a restatement of the problem?” By the end of Bluets, there does seem to be some greater understanding or perhaps transcendence or redefinition of the problem, so the book itself serves as evidence that there is something to be said for diagnoses.
With the publication of Jane: A Murder in 2005, Nelson established herself as a serious thinker in search of truth. The lyric essay serves as the perfect form for her investigations. Bluets is brilliant and sad, and it adds to the excellent body of work this prolific, young writer has created.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Disclosure: Gina Myers is a former student of Maggie Nelson.