Bluets

1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.

2. And so I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.

(…)

18. A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.

19. Months before this afternoon I had a dream, and in this dream an angel came and said: You must spend more time thinking about the divine, and less time imagining unbuttoning the prince of blue’s pants at the Chelsea Hotel. But what if the prince of blue’s unbuttoned pants are the divine, I pleaded. So be it, she said, and left me to sob with my face against the blue slate floor.

(…)

42. Sitting in my office before teaching a class on prosody, trying not to think about you, about my having lost you. But how can it be? How can it be? Was I too blue for you. Was I too blue. I look down at my lecture notes: Heártbréak is a spondee. Then I lay my head down on the desk and start to weep.—Why doesn’t this help?

(…)

48. Imagine, for example, someone who fucks like a whore. Someone who seems good at it, professional. Someone you can still see fucking you, in the mirror, always in the mirror, crazy fucking about three feet away, in an apartment lit by blue light, never lit by daylight, this person is always fucking you from behind in blue light and you both always seem good at it, dedicated and lost unto it, as if there is no other activity on God’s given earth your bodies know how to do except fuck and be fucked like this, in this dim blue light, in this mirror. What do you call someone who fucks this way?

49. There is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue.

(…)

59. There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head. “I love to gaze at a promising-looking cock,” writes Catherine Millet in her beautiful sex memoir, before going on to describe how she also loves to look at the “brownish crater” of her asshole and the “crimson valley” of her pussy, each opened wide—its color laid bare—for the fucking.

(…)

61. In his book On Being Blue, William Gass argues that what we readers really want is “the penetration of privacy”: “We want to see under the skirt.” But his penetration is eventually tiresome, even to himself: “What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s-end muff? I’ve that at home.” After asserting that the blue we want from life is in fact found only in fiction, he counsels the writer to “give up the blue things of this world in favor of the words which say them.”

62. This is puritanism, not eros. For my part I have no interest in catching a glimpse of or offering you an unblemished ass or an airbrushed cunt. I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light. I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the altar. Your loss.

(…)

90. Last night I wept in a way I haven’t wept for some time. I wept until I aged myself. I watched it happen in the mirror. I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill. The tears not only aged my face, they also changed its texture, turned the skin of my cheeks into putty. I recognized this as a rite of decadence, but I did not know how to stop it.

91. Blue-eye, archaic: “a blueness or dark circle around the eye, from weeping or other cause.”

92. Eventually I confess to a friend some details about my weeping—its intensity, its frequency. She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair. (Can a reflection be a witness? Can one pass oneself the sponge wet with vinegar from a reed?)

(…)

134. It calms me to think of blue as the color of death. I have long imagined death’s approach as the swell of a wave—a towering wall of blue. You will drown, the world tells me, has always told me. You will descend into a blue underworld, blue with hungry ghosts, Krishna blue, the blue faces of the ones you loved. They all drowned, too. To take a breath of water: does the thought panic or excite you? If you are in love with red then you slit or shoot. If you are in love with blue you fill your pouch with stones good for sucking and head down to the river. Any river will do.

Maggie Nelson, Bluets, 2009.

The room thickened with the sound of one keenly intelligent woman taking another down

In October of 1998, just a few weeks into my graduate school career, I was invited to attend a seminar with Jane Gallop and Rosalind Krauss. Gallop would be presenting new work, to which Krauss would respond. I was excited—back in college I had liked Gallop’s heady, disobedient books on Lacan (such as The Daughter’s Seduction); they evidenced a deep investment in Lacanian thought without seeming to have drunk the Kool-Aid. She was having a fling with the philosophers all right, but she seemed to be learning everything there was to know about the boiler room so that she could blow it up. Krauss’s work I knew less well, but I gathered that everyone was invested in her theories about the modernist grid, and I liked the plain matte cover of October magazine. Didn’t she write on Claude Cahun? I liked Claude Cahun. And busting the avant-garde’s mythos of itself was, even then, my idea of a good time.

The professors gathered solemnly around a long wooden table in one of the more handsome rooms at the Grace Building, where CUNY was then situated. I felt as though I had truly arrived—somehow I had been plucked from the corner booth of Max Fish and deposited in the center of an intellectual mecca, complete with dark wood and academic superstars.

Gallop gave a slide show: her recent work was about being photographed by her husband, appropriately named Dick. I remember a photo of her with their baby boy in the bathtub, and one of her and her son lounging around together naked, Carole King—style. I remember being surprised and pleased that she was showing us naked photos of her and her son, and talking unabashedly about her partner Dick (heterosexuality always embarrasses me). She was trying to talk about photography from the standpoint of the photographed subject, which, as she said, “may be the position from which it is most difficult to claim valid general insights.” And she was coupling this subjective position with that of being a mother, in an attempt to get at the experience of being photographed as a mother (another position generally assumed to be, as Gallop put it, “troublingly personal, anecdotal, self-concerned”). She was taking on Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and the way in which even in Barthes—delectable Barthes!—the mother remains the (photographed) object; the son, the (writing) subject. “The writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body,” Barthes wrote. But sometimes the writer is also the mother (Möbius strip).

I liked that Gallop was onto something and letting us in on it before she fully understood it. She was hanging her shit out to dry: a start. She was droopy-eyed and louche in a way that I liked, and had that bad but endearing style that so many academics have—kind of stuck in the ’80s, feather earrings, and so on. She even talked about how much she liked a shirt she was wearing in one of the slides—a black button-down with white bubbly scribbles all over it. I find it irresistibly interesting when people are cathected onto their bad style rather than simply oblivious to it (a description that may apply to us all; I sense the risk increases with age).

The slides were over, the talk was over, it was Krauss’s turn. She scooted her chair up to the table and shuffled her papers. She was Gallop’s inverse—sharp face, classy in a silk scarf, Ivy League, Upper East Side way. Feline, groomed, her thin dark hair in a bob. Kind of like the Janet Malcolm of art history. She started by saying how important Gallop’s daring and thorough work on Lacan had been. This praise went on for some time. Then, theatrically, she swerved. The importance of this early work is why it is so deeply disturbing to behold the mediocrity, naïveté, and soft-mindedness of the work Gallop has presented to us today. The color drained out of Gallop’s face. Krauss ignored her, and went in for the kill.

The room thickened with the sound of one keenly intelligent woman taking another down. Dismembering her, really. Krauss excoriated Gallop for taking her own personal situation as subject matter, accused her of having an almost willful blindness to photography’s long history. She alleged—or so I recall her alleging—that Gallop had misused Barthes, had failed to place her investigation in relation to any lineage of family photography, had punted on the most basic aesthetic concepts in art history, and so on. But the tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think that an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting.

It’s true that Gallop is no art historian, certainly not in the way that Krauss is. (Nor was Barthes, for that matter, but artistry trumps mastery.) And Krauss has always been something of a pugilist, just as Gallop has always been something of a narcissist—two perversities that proved, on this occasion, to be incompatible. But the lashing Gallop received that day stood for some time in my mind as an object lesson. Krauss acted as though Gallop should be ashamed for trotting out naked pictures of herself and her son in the bathtub, contaminating serious academic space with her pudgy body and unresolved, self-involved thinking (even though Gallop had been perfecting such contamination for years). But staging a fling with a philosopher was one thing; a pudgy mother in love with her son and her ugly scribble shirt was another.

I didn’t have a baby then, nor did I have any designs on having one. Nor have I ever been what you might call a baby person (nor an animal person, nor a garden person, not even a house-plant person; even urgings toward “self-care” often irritate or mystify me). But I was enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity. And, as I remember it, Krauss was not simply quarantining; she was shaming. In the face of such shaming, I felt no choice. I stood with Gallop.

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, 2015.