Et sic infinitum | Robert Fludd, 1617
From “Utriusque Cosmi Maioris scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica, atque Technica Historia” or “The Metaphysical, Physical, and Technical History of the Two Worlds, Namely the Greater and the Lesser”
In every issue of Cabinet Magazine there is a section on color, commissioned by the magazine’s staff, in which a writer is assigned a color to toss around and examine from all sides, cut open and taste like a pomegranate. I’ve been pretty into color as a subject recently, as something that exists so concretely in the natural world but which has so many manmade emotional, spiritual, and intellectual connotations, and Cabinet’s most recent Color piece, Black, struck my fancy in particular. Paul La Farge speaks of black as being not a color, but as a space void of light and thus, scientifically, as an absence of anything visible; as a moment in which our eyes have the sudden potential not to see. Black, he argues, is the color of choice – of potential: it is the only color that gives our eyes another option. La Farge put it this way, quoting Giorgio Agamben: “This twofold potential, to do and not to do, is not only a feature of our sight… it is the essence of our humanity: ‘The greatness—and also the abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness.’ …Black is the color of refusal; it’s the color of coming to a fork in the road, and not taking it.”
I love this idea of black as a space of ultimate potentiality (and I think space is really the most appropriate word, as it gives black a greater freedom of movement, of definition, than does the limiting term ‘color’ that we apply to red, green, or yellow, and in doing so recognizes its foundation in choice). La Farge goes on, speaking of the sadness fundamental to this potential: “Black is the color of what might have been, not of what is: it is the color of pleasures past. Regret is black, and so is its cousin melancholy.” But in Western culture, what exactly is it that we are grieving when we wear black to mourn? At a funeral, are we showing our regret for what might have been had death not cut short a life, or are we acknowledging the potential for the unknown after death (momentarily suspending all talk of the soul and afterlife as complex cultural ideas)? In wearing black, are we mourning the death of potential, or celebrating its reinvigoration?
Why is it that Western culture has chosen black, as a color holding so much potential for rebirth – consider the primordial ooze! – to represent death? Is it not true that white, which Eastern countries wear for mourning, is bleaker for its emptiness; its lack of dimension? If black is the color of potential, white is the color of the end of the line, of the lack of choice, of confrontation with light and its erasure of any opportunity not to see. It is easy to think of the obscene horror that is Herman Melville’s white whale as a symbol for the terror of that which lies beyond human control; for the complete lack of choice. Black is a soft, cavelike space for regrowth, concealing mistakes and nurturing deliberation, while white allows us no such luxury, blinding us with the glare of our failures, our confusion, our shortcomings.
Nirvana – Black & White Blues (from rarities album “Elements”)
Further questions I hope to return to: if “blindness” is defined simply as the inability to see, are we in fact more blinded by darkness, where we’ve on some level chosen to put aside sight, or by light, which can take it from us whether we like it or not? If sight is the eyes’ absorption of light, what is there to ponder about the irony of being struck blind by light (by the saturation of sight; by white) and from then on plunged into darkness (into a state of permanent limbo; blackness)? In what way does white, in this scenario, rob black of its potential, and render it a state of immobility?
Alright enough for now – time for croissants and coffee. Before I go here’s The Miracles Club‘s atmospheric new track “Light of Love.” Listen to the downbeat-switchup at 0:48.
Miracles Club – Light of Love