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Joan Mitchell Les Bluets
Les Bluets (1973)© Estate of Joan Mitchell

Getting the love blues with Maggie Nelson

How do you fall deeply in love with a colour? David Shields selects an excerpt from the lyrical essayist who will tell you how

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.

Staging a mid-week takeover is prolific genre-bender David Shields – the author of both non-fiction and fiction whose literary collaging constantly eludes classification. We've pinned him down for an exclusive manifesto, as well as curated content from those authors and poets who he believes are breaking all the right rules.

From Picasso to Beyonce to Kieślowski, the colour blue has inspired an untold number of artists. For Los Angeles-based writer Maggie Nelson, to love the colour blue was to fall "under a spell": "a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns." Her words are taken from 2009's Bluets, her book-length essay that comprises of lyrical philosophising in the practice of all the best lyric essayists – Shields included. For our guest editor, though Nelson's book emerged in 2009, its beautiful patterns are worth revisiting more than once. A break-up book and so much more than that, the colour blue does not filter the emotional insights of the book – instead, the writer's personal suffering is refracted and reflected in its all-too-clear hues. Test the waters with the book's enigmatic opening, below.

David Shields: “Both Maggie and I are interested in the ‘fragment as a unit of prose composition’; I’ve learned immensely from her beautifully patterned books, especially 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 seahorse) 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.

3. Well, and what of it? A voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe. How could all the shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles, or the bright blue tarps flapping over every shanty and fish stand in the world, be, in essence, the fingerprints of God? I will try to explain this.

4. I admit that I may have been lonely. I know that loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, if it stays hot enough for long enough, can begin to simulate, or to provoke—take your pick—an apprehension of the divine. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)

“Each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.” – Maggie Nelson

5. But first, let us consider a sort of case in reverse. In 1867, after a long bout of solitude, the French poet Stephane Mallarmé wrote to his friend Henri Cazalis: “These last few months have been terrifying. My Thought has thought itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered throughout that long agony, is indescribable.” Mallarmé described this agony as a battle that took place on God’s “boney wing.” “I struggled with that creature of ancient and evil plumage—God—whom I fortunately defeated and threw to earth,” he told Cazalis with exhausted satisfaction. Eventually Mallarmé began replacing “le ciel” with “l’Azur” in his poems, in an effort to rinse references to the sky of religious connotations. “Fortunately,” he wrote Cazalis, “I am quite dead now.”

6. The half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless. I returned there yesterday and stood again upon the mountain.

7. But what kind of love is it, really? Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity. Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it? There is so little blue food in nature—in fact blue in the wild tends to mark food to avoid (mold, poisonous berries)—that culinary advisors generally recommend against blue light, blue paint, and blue plates when and where serving food. But while the color may sap appetite in the most literal sense, it feeds it in others. You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world. You might want to dilute it and swim in it, you might want to rouge your nipples with it, you might want to paint a virgin’s robe with it. But still you wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.

8. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning. “We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,” wrote Goethe, and perhaps he is right. But I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any “blueness.” Above all, I want to stop missing you.