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Maggie Nelson’s Bluets: a (wavy) review

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I am finishing Bluets while listening to the waves in Hiroshi’s Yoshimura Teevee, included (ironically) on the album Green (1986). My heart skips a beat when I turn the page after proposition 240 and I see a blank page: the book is over, there are no more propositions left for me to read. At least not for the first time.

I think about a wave:

[Noun: A long body of water curling into an arched form and breaking on the shore.]

1. Its colour: Blue. Like the sea, the sky, etc.

2. Its sound: Quiet yet powerful. Overall, it transmits calm.

3. Its form: So clear when being drawn.
3.1 I think about how kids tend to draw small simple waves.

This is how I think kids draw waves. This is how I also draw waves. Am I a kid?

3.2 At the same time, I think of The Wave, i.e. Under the Wave off Kanagawa (ca. 1829-1833), a part of the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai.

To be fair, Hokusai could have drawn Fuji a bit bigger.

So strong and threatening. The only common element I can think of that the sound, the generic children’s kind of drawing of a wave, and Hokusai’s wave share is the fact that they all transmit some sense of powerfulness.

4. Its metaphorical use: I think of a piece of writing. Of how a text moves like a wave; how it acquires its own melody by means of sound, but also by how the ideas and meaning embedded in a text flow and draw an imaginary curved line.

***

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes:

  1. It does not really bother me that half the adults in the Western world also love blue, or that every dozen years or so someone feels compelled to write a book about it. I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share. Besides, it must be admitted that if blue is anything on this earth, it is abundant.”

Maggie Nelson understands how common it is to love what she loves. Her love is selfless, and unique in its commonality; and it is precisely because of this unconditional, selfless love—the one, however, guarded by a sense of security and trust in both blue and herself—that the relationship becomes so personal. Her love is like faith. It is so strong that it doesn’t need any other comparisons to be understood, nor could any attack lessen it. Like faith in other entities, even its hypothetical non-existence wouldn’t diminish that connection. As Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace:

We must experience the fact that we love him [God], even if he does not exist. (p. 15)

I think Maggie Nelson would love blue even if we lived in a colourless world.

Having said that, I don’t think Bluets is really (only) about blue.

Because  colours —especially blue— are everywhere, we can easily attach different metaphysical experiences and emotions to them. They are a commonplace element of the physical world we live in, so it seems evident to associate any trace of them with some of our thoughts and actions. We can establish a special connection to and with colours. We live by colours.

Maggie Nelson is able to dive into her own life, explore her own thoughts and emotions, past and present experiences without getting lost because of blue. She uses the colour to navigate and introduce order to a series of thoughts and experiences.

I do have to admit, though, that the above stated is a somehow naïve idea, or at least it has the potential to be so. Any general concept or category present in our everyday life, such as it is the case of colours, can impregnate our lives and we can end up (voluntarily or involuntarily) making it a central concept of our experience, paying attention to any small appearance of it in our daily life, giving to that general concept a status of magic and importance that becomes almost mystical.

It is not a coincidence, it is not destiny, nor faith. Rather, it is a commonality. And Maggie Nelson understands that very well. She neatly shows how an everyday, average concept becomes special and magical, not mystical, for her. It dyes her life blue but, still, leaves space for nuances. It is not about a specific thought or emotion behind a specific shade of blue; it is about the underlying complexity and the range of colours in the scale. It is also about how the writer accounts for that complex scenario. For Maggie Nelson, the colour blue provides some kind of order to her being and her thoughts.

***

But what does it exactly mean that Bluets is not about blue per se, but rather about this spectrum of colours in the scale, this dyeing her life blue, this accounting for it?

In my opinion, Maggie Nelson is able to dive into her own life, explore her own thoughts and emotions, past and present experiences without getting lost because of blue. She uses the colour to navigate and introduce order to a series of thoughts and experiences. In other words, to accomplish the rather difficult task of making sense and connect her internal and external worlds.

For that, one can say that Bluets is (also, somehow) about love, and depression, and a painful breakup, and an injured friend, and philosophy, and history: In The Guardian, Gavin Francis considers it “a meditation on love and grief; an exploration of loss; a reverie of blue”. The back cover of the book itself reads: “Bluets winds its way through depression, divinity, alcohol, and desire, visiting along the way with famous blue figures […]”. etc.

When I try to make sense of that difference of opinions between a rather floating blue space, a monochromatic blue aquarella filled with experiences and emotions that I feel the book is, and other reviews as the one above, where they mostly focus on all these specificities found in the text, I can’t help but take very seriously propositions 150, 164, 181, and 182, in which Maggie Nelson discusses (in different ways) the concept of pharmakon.  

I can’t help but think that those different ways of understanding Bluets have to do with the fact that Bluets is Maggie Nelson’s pharmakon.

***

In proposition 224, Maggie Nelson writes: Recently I found out that “les bluets” can translate as “cornflowers”. You might think I would have known this all along, as I have been calling this book “Bluets” (mispronounced) for years. But somehow I had only ever heard, “a small blue flower with a yellow center that grows abundantly in the countryside of France.” I thought I’d never seen it. I guess at some point we all have been pretty confused about what bluets is.

In order to understand why Bluets might be Maggie Nelson’s pharmakon, we need to first, understand a bit better what is pharmakon, and second, to go a bit back in time and talk about Plato and Jacques Derrida.

Bluets is Maggie Nelson’s pharmakon, as blue loses all its specificity of meaning and becomes all meanings it needs to be, impregnating all the text, making it impossible to choose one specific shade of blue, one specific connection between thoughts, actions, emotions, and blue.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Theuth the Egyptian god of writing offers Thamus the King writing as a pharmakon (remedy) to help him with memory. The King (I imagine, kindly) refuses the gift, for in his mind it is pharmakon (poison), and as such he thinks it would contribute to his forgetting even more (side note: how powerful was this Thamus king that he could refuse a present from a god [without any consequence]?).

In Dissemination, Derrida spends a substantial amount of time discussing the meaning of pharmakon in Plato’s Phaedrus, and the different renderings of the word. He explores the concept closely in order to use it as an example to further explain what he calls la différance. But let’s stay focus on pharmakon and save la différance for another day.

Derrida explains that pharmakon has been given those opposite (poison and remedy) meanings because pharmakon is “caught in a chain of signification” (p.95); and Plato sometimes seems aware of this entanglement of meanings, that he himself actually created, and sometimes not. Because of Plato’s half-awareness of the different meanings of pharmakon spread into the text on the one hand, and the highly interconnected but different significations, on the other, Derrida sees “reconstructing the entire chain of significations” (p.96) as impossible.

Thus, Derrida asserts that parmakon can’t be understood neither as bestowed with multiple significations nor as having only one meaning. Pharmakon is rather a concept holding a range of meanings, which fact in some way takes away any specific characteristic of the concept, but at the same time impregnates the text with all the meanings, making it impossible to choose one only.

In proposition 181, Maggie Nelson writes:

  1. Pharmakon means drug, but as Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, the word in Greek famously refuses to designate whether poison or cure. It holds both in the bowl.

Now, Maggie Nelson applies this concept to fucking and has previously mentioned how Plato sees colour, as well as poetry, as pharmakon (poison). But in my opinion, this idea goes further than that. I see those four propositions as leads to understanding what Bluets is.

Bluets is Maggie Nelson’s pharmakon, as blue loses all its specificity of meaning and becomes all meanings it needs to be, impregnating all the text, making it impossible to choose one specific shade of blue, one specific connection between thoughts, actions, emotions, and blue.

It is because her conviction of the existence of this scale of colours in life and in the text, and because, at the same time, her awareness of the level of complexity involved in the mission of communicating this insight to the audience prevails, that Maggie Nelson decides to present it to the world in the clearest way she can think of. She writes poetry in prose, uses powerful words, and borrows other thinkers’ ideas with an impeccable style and clarity. What she is writing about is real, almost universal; which makes it universal but also unique in relation to herself.

Bluets is not an ode to blue, but an ode to human thought and experience with all its complexities – to understanding life and appreciating its nuances, and also its extremes.

***

I think about a wave again:

5. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets: its sound, its form, its use. I think about how Bluets is a wave because it is indeed blue, but also powerful, it transmits calm, it is so clear in form, yet it is constantly changing shape and reality. I think about how the whole text moves, how the ideas flow, grow, merge, and finally, reach one’s mind shore.

 

 

Works cited:

Maggie Nelson – Bluets (2009)

Simone Weil – Gravity and Grace (1947)

Plato – Phaedo (2009)

Jacques Derrida – Dissemination (1972)

 

Cover image: Les Bluets – Joan Mitchell (1973)

Neus spends most of her time thinking about Sylvia Plath in general, Jon Krakauer’s adventures in particular, and why My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is so good. She once read Infinite Jest, but the only thing she seems to have gained from it is a hopeless crush on Hal Incandenza. She has an MA in Cognition and Communication, which she still doesn’t understand what was really about.

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