I know it’s a minor thing, and stupid, but the new cover bugs me. The On Being Blue I know is the Godine edition, gray text and this little squiggle thing (there’s a name for what it is, no doubt, but I don’t have it in me to go casting about on Google) set on a sea-blue rectangle with a razor-thin black border, and a thicker outer border, gray again, the same gray as the text (and squig-gle!) as if to suggest that the letters are not written upon the blue but cut out from it, a pale dark-ness coolly burning through a rich brightness. It is, I hope at this late date, no so-called “spoiler” to say that “gray” is the last word of this fantastic, bewildering, obnoxious, little book.
A book, if it’s lucky, lives many lives. Editions come and go and so does an author’s reputation, her or his absolute standing in the culture (literary or otherwise). There is also the relative importance assigned to individual works within a body of work, which is itself as subject to revision as any of the above. For the Romantics, Shakespeare was Hamlet first, then everything else. In our own crepuscular ill-led age, plagued by superstorms and selfish old men, we cannot help but love Lear best. If you’d told Melville in 1860 that eternal renown would yet be his by way of Moby-Dick, he’d have died laughing. If you’d told Robert Lowell in 1960 that he’d mostly be remembered as Elizabeth Bishop’s pen pal, he’d merely have died. With William Gass, still alive and writing at 90, it’s a bit early to play canon games, or at least to play them fairly. Still, the dedicated cultists of The Tunnel notwithstanding, it seems that this thin “philosophical inquiry” has pulled ahead of his many and variegated—and tomelier—tomes. Even Michael Gorra, introducing this new edition, confesses: “Few American novelists have written so barbed and sensuous a prose, and yet his own rumpled brain has always seemed to me more consistently interesting than any narrative situation or character he has yet contrived.”
The new On Being Blue is laid out cleanly and sits well in the hand. I’m not sure why there’s a Francesca Woodman photograph on the cover. It is ominous and dreamy, as you’d expect from Woodman, and blue in the original rather than tinted for the occasion—a rarity for an artist whose work is overwhelmingly gray—but the point of reference in the text inevitably evoked by the image is a pornographic photo Gass saw as a child (his first glimpse of a naked female) to which he returns many times throughout the book. The photo, I should add, was also of a child, and Gass-the-adult speculates about the inevitably baleful circumstances of its creation in a way that Gass-the-child never thought to. Is this like going to a concert and then reviewing the concession stand? I’ll take my lumps for that if I have them coming, but the forced connection of expertly executed self-portraiture by an artist of the first water and the utterly artless exploitation of a young girl (probably by her own father) seems bizarre to me, and unfortunate, though the fault here is hardly Gass’s. Probably the explanation is this simple: Woodman is in right now. So are book covers that feature a photograph of a woman’s body with her face obscured.
Blue the color, blue the mood, blue as in ribald, dirty, sleazy. Blue as in smut. Gass is interested in all valences, usages, traditions, evolutions, intersections; he likes coincidence and resonance, though there can be little, we suspect, in the way of pure serendipity, when the operative intelligence (his) is so fiercely, well, intelligent—also nimble, exuberant, hard-working, handy with a quote or ten.
A list, closer to complete than not, I think, of the writers, artists, and thinkers mentioned, discussed, quoted or otherwise cited in On Being Blue: John Barth, Virginia Woolf, Rilke, Whitman, Pound, Yeats, Burns, Rossetti, Conrad Aiken, John Hawkes, Robert Graves, Wilhelm Reich, Sir John Sudeling, Samuel Richardson, the Song of Solomon, D’annunzio, Donne, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Conrad, Pierre Louys, Gertrude Stein, Beckett, Joyce, Stevens, Rabelais, Anaxagoras, Democritus, Plato, Galen, Colette, Protagoras, Henry Moore, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Descartes, Goethe, Bishop Berkeley, Jackson Pollock, Thomas Reid, Kandinsky, and Henry James. The book is 91 pages long.
“A philosopher-voluptuary,” Diane Ackerman calls him, and that’s true. Too true, sometimes: “Suppose the name of any maiden’s private part were known to her alone. Suppose the name of Ellen’s pout were Rosalie. Then that name, if we came into possession of it, would argue an intimacy for us no parent or lover could overlook, as though we had been privy to the mole on her mount of Venus. […] If signs are not the same as the things they designate, they are at least an essential segment, so that to speak the word, Rosalie, is to be halfway to Ellen’s occupation.”
“As readers,” Gass argues, in a passage less vulgar but no less blue than the above, we want “the penetration of privacy.” Fitting, then, that “the privacy which a book makes public is nevertheless made public very privately—not like the billboard which shouts at the street… [T]he secret lies in seeing sentences as containers of consciousness, as constructions whose purpose is to create conceptual perceptions—blue in every area and range: emotion moving through the space of imagination, the mind as gleeful hop and scotch, qualities, through the arrangement of relations, which seem alive within the limits they pale and redden like spanked cheeks and thus the bodies, objects, happenings, they essentially define.”
I feel happy, and maybe smarter, just for having typed those lines. This is Gass at his sinuous enlivening best, and the book, slim as it is, is rife with such wonders. It is worthwhile then, if not always easy, to forgive the portions of this little masterpiece that have aged poorly, for the rest is ageless, or maybe just forever young.
Justin Taylor is the author, most recently, of the story collection Flings. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and at http://www.justindtaylor.net/ .