[Image description: Two monochromes by Yves Klein that have been manipulated, one to look like a torn photograph, the other to look like it’s under shattered glass. The photograph has the text “It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem,” and the broken glass reads “Mostly I have found myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.” Both of these lines come from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets]
Article and art by Sam Moore
Kind of Blue
Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a book about a colour. I read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets for an Oxford class on the limits of genre when it comes to non-fiction, and what it means when something that’s ostensibly about “objective truth” or “life writing,” crosses a line and becomes something else; like the autobiographical, semi-poetic fragments of Bluets, or the breathless auto-fiction/theory of Chris Kraus. It makes perfect sense that after reading Bluets (and The Argonauts almost immediately after; for pleasure rather than for school), I would think about adopting that form, for what I’ve been calling, for a while now, my “book about distance.” Fragments of this book exist, and have been heard at open mic nights, all because I fell in love with a book about a colour.
I’d been aware of colour theory for a long time before coming across Maggie’s blues, first off studying Drama from the ages of about 14-18. It was a shortcut to creating feelings, a way of trying to force the audience to emote. The end of Blood Brothers would have to be played in blood red, and any kind of sadness would be blue, of course. Sadness and blue have a long, intimate history. Singing the blues, the minimalism of Kind of Blue, and, yes, Maggie’s Bluets. It’s no wonder that Blue Monday, allegedly the most depressing day of the year, has the name that it does.
I don’t buy into Blue Monday, not really. I don’t really understand why one day could be more depressing than all of the others, especially when winter already feels endless if it gets under your skin. But still, it exists, and it’s something that should be written about. It allows people to have a conversation about sadness, about winter, and about blue.
I am writing this down in blue ink, to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water. (Maggie Nelson)
Things that are written in water don’t disappear in the way that one might think; they don’t just wash out with the tides. Keats’ tombstone made a reference to it. Here lies one whose name was writ in water. (John Keats) I think that it means something different now, especially with writing being more permanent, and with the potential to be more widely shared; instead something written in water is something that can flow, can disappear but can also return. And it’s still deep, still reflective, and still blue.
Blue can be about solace, and that’s what Blue Monday should be about. It shouldn’t be shrugged off as pseudoscience (even if it is), and shouldn’t be called something “invented to sell holidays.” It should be a way for people to speak about their experience, to write moments of their lives into the water and see where the tide might take them.
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own. (Rogers & Hart)
The moon is a reflection of light, and so the blue moon can be a reflection of sadness.
There’s something about that reflection that makes a person want to go running after it. After all, Narcissus fell in love with his reflection. Maggie borrows from Goethe – and his book on blue, one of many on the topic that I’m yet to read – with the line we love to contemplate blue not because it advances us but because it draws us after it. (Goethe) Going after blue is dangerous; there’s always the thought that something might be lurking down there in the depths.
That might be one of the reasons that blue is such an effective evocation of sadness, because it can draw someone after it, tempting them to keep searching the depths. Searching for meaning in sadness is nothing new; it’s been the lynchpin of so much art, expressed with a blunt explicitness in Prozac Nation, when Wurtzel writes that is all I want from life: for this pain to seem purposeful. (Elizabeth Wurtzel) The arbitrary nature of Blue Monday might be part of the appeal, the pseudo-scientific idea that boils down to the fact that the date itself might as well have been picked out of hat, a search for meaning in sadness, and an illustration of how pointless that can be. Looking for meaning in sadness, wanting it to come from something, to be explained away, is dangerous; all it does is invite another submersion into the depths.
When I think of blue, I think of Yves Klein, and a poem I wrote about his monochromes. That might be arrogant, self-involved, narcissistic (there’s that evocation of blues and water again), but so it goes. Monochromes are easy to get lost in; it’s what links Klein’s colours and Rothko’s abstraction, and the dim lighting of the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern; the potential for loss.
So often, sadness gets talked about as a kind of loss; especially long-term sadness, the kind that would have been called a sickness of the soul in the past, but now has the clinical, manageable name of depression. Now it doesn’t come from the soul so much as it comes from chemical imbalances, things that can be levelled out with medication, anxieties that can be talked through on a couch. But still, there’s that sense of loss, the idea that depression is what a person becomes, that it’s easy to forget who you might be without it. One of the most tried and true – but tired – tropes when it comes to mental illness in pop culture is the dramatic flushing of medication, so often seen as a fight against losing a sense of self, being replaced by a kind of clinical copy, a medicated doppelganger, the same but somehow different. In Next to Normal, this happens to the bipolar Diana Goodman after a ballad about missing the pain and joy that got lost amidst medication, although the act of flushing the meds is brought on by a delusion. It seems that with or without medication, Diana struggles with her sense of self, that she’s caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
When you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea can sometimes look very inviting. (Terrance Rattigan)
Blue can so often be darker than people think; the depths of the colours, the spectrum covered by something as seemingly simple as a primary cover. Sadness is a darker shade of blue, the darkness of the ocean floor.
We cannot read the darkness. We cannot read it. It is a form of madness, albeit a common one, that we try. (Maggie Nelson)
Everything above this has been a kind of exercise in trying to read the darkness, dipping my feet into the shallow end of a blue pool of sadness. Blue Monday is like that too, a kind of prescriptivism, a way of trying understand sadness in the simplest possible way; it isn’t surprising that the saddest day in the calendar comes in the winter, and in the wake of the high expectations of a new year. And that it comes on a Monday, a day so disliked that the phrase “I don’t like Mondays” is a kind of pop-cultural-catch-all, a way of bemoaning work, capitalism, and depression, all while quoting a fat orange cat. And the problem with Blue Monday is that it takes the “I don’t like Mondays” sentiment and turns it into a kind of skywriting, a cheap way of saying “we understand,” when that’s clearly untrue. The problem with Blue Monday isn’t that it exists, or that it prompts strange attempts at a kind of self-help like this. Because this isn’t really about “self-help,” it’s about the blue, the way it ripples, and how deep it goes. To fall in love with a colour, or a book about a colour, is a strange thing. To fall in love with blue is dangerous. This isn’t about finding a cure for sadness, but understanding wear it comes from, an attempt to explore the point between mind and soul where something like love can take root, where something like blue can grow.
The film director Ingmar Bergman thought that red was the colour of the soul. That’s why it informs the colour palette of his masterful Cries and Whispers so much; he bares the souls of the characters. But maybe blue is a better colour than red for the soul. Something potentially deeper and more muted. So much of red comes from its extremity; it’s the colour of love, lust, righteous fury. To be overcome by extreme emotions to the point where it clouds everything else is called “seeing red.” In the end, this is an exercise in seeing blue, in trying to understand what lies in the depths, but still with a self-imposed reminder to come back up for breath.