When I was doing my MFA, I became obsessed with purple in a way that was bordering on eccentric. It was not intentional, this saturation of red and blue combined. It was just something that happened gradually, crept up on me, the way an afterglow fades to shades of black so deep they’re purple.
I’ve always had an admiration for the colour. But when I hit my MFA, the perfect storm of purple which had been brewing for years, erupted around my person.
My backpack, which I brought to school every day, was purple. My laptop, which I took out of it to use in class, was encased in a hard purple shell, which in turn was kept in a soft-shell case, which was also purple. (Purple within purple, within purple.) My writer’s notebook, which I carried practically everywhere with me and, yes, also fished out of my backpack to use in class, was purple. I wrote with a purple pen. On rainy days, I wore my purple alpine jacket, my grape rainboots, and carried my magenta umbrella. Did I mention that my glasses are purple?
One day, my professor lost it with all the purple.
In addition to my usual accessories, I happened to be wearing a purple shirt with purple lace overlaid, and a purple sweater to top it off. (There were two sweaters – one lavender, the other plum, which I pretty much rotated through the days of the week. I happened to be wearing my lavender one that day.) My professor called attention to my purple on purple on purple. So much purple! For me, purple was just ordinary. It had become my primary colour.
It was around this time of the purple call-out (shout out?) that I decided to write an essay about purple.
At some point in the writing process, someone suggested that I read personal essays on other colours . . . one called “Red” or maybe “Blue.” I’d never heard of the recommended essayist before though, forgot his name, and never tracked the essays down, never read them.
Last week, at a library book sale, on a table of essays, I found a book by Alexander Theroux called The Primary Colors: Three Essays. It intrigued me. I picked it up.
Three essays, written by a Harvard, MIT, Yale, University of Virginia professor, one essay dedicated to each of the three primary colours. I’ve been living in a blue / yellow / red world ever since.
“Blue is a mysterious color, hue of illness and nobility, the rarest color in nature.” So begins Theroux’s essay “Blue,” a beginning which is representative of the rest of this first essay, and the other two which follow. In them, he gives a general statement about the colour, then follows this by a host of examples, juxtaposed with unusual deftness.
“It is the color of ambiguous death, of the heavens and of the abyss at once; blue is the color of the shadow side, the tint of the marvelous and the inexplicable, of desire, of knowledge, of the blue movie, of blue talk, of raw meat and rare steak, of melancholy and the unexpected (once in a blue moon, out of the blue).”
“. . . the color yellow in nature is complex in beauty and as various in its modality as the fire yellow tiger, emblem of power, is from the fleet yellowhammer or male golden oriole–if upon which, Pliny related, a jaundiced person looks, he recovers but the bird dies–or hooded warbler, emblem of grace, in the transcendent skies overhead, a color registering solidity and speed, light and labor in its facets all at once.”
“It is a color of clothes that has always enticed, promised excitement, shone. It has spotlighted everyone from the Canadian Mounties to innocent Little Red Riding Hood to the Scarlet Pimpernel. ‘Her clothing is of linen and wool dyed reddish purple,’ is one of the thirty-one characteristics from Proverbs 31:10-31 of ‘The Woman That Fears Jehovah.’ When Dante first saw Beatrice she was only eight years old and wearing a crimson dress. Dorothy’s slippers in The Wizard of Oz are ruby. But there is often something shocking in the color. Exaggerated. Even shameless.”
Theroux’s essays, in essence, are a series of lists. But they do not read like a jumble of information. Rather, they are strung together in relative association – and interesting asides – juxtapositions that work because, though unexpected, there is a meditative thread, connecting the items.
His lists in each colour in question include examples from literature, popular culture, history. In “Blue,” he has an entire section on the sky, water, and blue eyes; in “Yellow,” on hair, the sun, and gold; in “Red,” on blood, optics, and cosmetics. He includes recipes for dye, the formula for paint, the names of different tones, tints, and shades, and the substances used historically to create these.
He calls upon science, fashion, ancient history, art history, the culinary arts, and linguistics, all in the name of covering the depths and breadths of these primary colours. He never claims to be exhaustive in his search for associative meaning and examples, but with dozens of obscure items of interest on every page, you get the sense that he’s covering his bases.
The only thing blue he does not mention is a recycle bin (also known as a “Blue Bin”).
My favourite part of “Yellow” was a rare moment of the personal in which he gave “A subjective list of things that seem yellow to me,” including, “maiden aunts, gumdrops, diffidence, the letter H, all women’s poems (except Emily Dickinson’s, which of course are red), lewd suggestions, debt, the seventies, Nat ‘King’ Cole’s song ‘China Gate,’ sadness . . .”
“And as to autumn leaves,” writes Theroux of an interesting fact in his final essay, “the greater the disparity in temperature, cold at night, hot during the day, the deeper the red.”
Of course, as I read, I wondered if Theroux indeed was the essayist recommended to me that I’d never read when attempting my own essay on purple. His essays certainly are rich examples of what one can do when writing essays on colours.
Theroux’s examples, spanning centuries and almost every continent, were interesting, universally relevant. The ways in which he wove these all together into a systematic whole is beyond my comprehension. I kept wondering how he kept all those facts – years’ worth of them – organized and filed before he sat down and wrote them all into some sort of seemingly intrinsic, tryptic whole. It’s truly impressive.
What I’ve learned from Theroux’s three essays The Primary Colors (among dozens of interesting anecdotes and ancillary details) is this: I could do well to include a lot more research and a little less personal aspects in the way I write about purple.
Theroux is at one end of what I might call the “personal” spectrum, I’m at the other, in the matter of our individual essays on colours. He seems more an interested observer and researcher; I, a lively participant in it, perhaps over-infused.
And yet, I would have enjoyed seeing more of the personal in his essays. Theroux mainly reveals his mind through the associative listings he provides, not personal details. Though, we do get a hint of him with the inclusion of minor details, like the fact that his bedroom walls are painted a custom mix of his favourite shade of blue. In some ways, these small amounts of personal revelation (which, incidentally, seemed to increase with each essay), reminded me of the ways in which Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay, wrote. I would do well to learn from this.
Purple, after all, is better as an accent.
Question: How have you written about colours /colors?
A few months ago, a friend ended an email with the words, “purple pen to paper”. Since she is a writer, I “Googled” it and found many references to “purple prose”, meaning prose that is extravagant and flowery, so much so that it detracts from, takes attention away from the meaning. Have you heard of this? What do you think?
Yes, I have heard of “purple prose,” which I think has an unfortunate (unfair?) connotation, purely because of my own bent towards purple. I suppose I want purple to be all-things-wonderful (and “purple prose” seems only to be used in a pejorative way). Every colour is much more nuanced, though, than a one-dimensional interpretation, as I’ve been reminded and further enlightened as I’ve read this very nuanced book. I was planning to include the notion of purple prose somewhere in my essay on purple (a work in progress still). Just not sure how yet.
The quote from your friend reminds me of something else from Theroux’s book, about writers and the colours they choose to use: “Alexandre Dumas père . . . wrote his fiction on blue and his poetry on yellow, wrote his nonfiction on rose-colored paper.” Who knew!
I have often felt that I give disproportionately great attention to colour. I spent much of my childhood affixed to all things green. I have since stepped away from that, but I remain dedicated to understanding and applying colour. I seek meaning in degrees of tones, shades, tints, and hues, and I try to apply my understanding to more accurately express myself, as though colour carries a code of symbolic meaning derived from a little-known language but inherent in its message in spite of that. I find purple often (though not always) evokes an energizing feeling. I quite enjoy it.
As far as purple prose goes, I find myself bothered by this phrase. My writing style is not very casual, and my experience is that some (not most) people call anything descriptive purple, even if the writing is quality. If I were to edit out every instance in which I describe something with multiple adjectives, or my prose sounds poetic in any way, I would be attempting to transform my prose into something that is not natural to my expression (assuming that said adjectives are not redundant and do not stilt the text). Literary fiction is purple of it’s marketed as genre fiction, which makes purple prose, as purple pigment, more subject to individual perception than one might assume.
I’m glad you wrote what you did about the phrase “purple prose.” You’ve hit on something, I think, that I’ve also felt about its connotation but have not been able to adequately express. Thank you for articulating it so well!
I also like your astute observation about how a piece is marketed – literary fiction versus genre fiction, and our tendency to label descriptions “purple” if the latter. I wonder if that is because, as a whole, we deem literary fiction worthy of our literary attention, while we assume genre fiction is not — and categorically cannot — contain the same literary merit?
You may be interested to know (I forgot to mention it in my post) that Theroux followed up this collection with a book called *The Secondary Colors,” which looks to be after the same manner as the first: meditative essays on individual colours. I’ve not read it, but I think I probably will. It includes an essay on green . . . as well as purple, of course!