The Weave and Werve of Words in William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry
by William Gass
D. R. Godine, 1975 / 1991
91 pages / Buy from Amazon (1975 ed / 1991 ed)








Monday is a good day to think about William Gass’s On Being Blue because Mondays often are. The color blue, Gass’s muse, is, in this slim book, organized, discussed, described, pondered, and psychoanalyzed; the first page is a list of just a few things that could be blue—stockings, movies, laws—and the last page is a fading away, these wild words all we have left, as  “everything is gray.” From blue to gray to yellow and green and wherever in between, On Being Blue is a hopscotch around the rainbow. It infects you with synesthesia. There’s the “disapproving purse to pink”, “violet’s rapid sexual shudder,” and “the rolled-down sound in brown.” There are also lots of curse words and fucking.

(Some form of the word blue appears 412 times, according to my count.)

Not only fucking, there’s also “ficking,” “facking,” and “focking.” Blue is the color of obscenity-laced literature and balls. It’s a portal into the sexual, a catch-all color that captures the deliciously libertine, our deviant wants and protruding desires that in fiction are titillations of the imagination provoked through language. Gass turns sex into linguistic gymnastics, so he fascinates us with “not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.” Beautiful language is, to Gass, a great aphrodisiac. He quotes verse by Sir John Suckling and a scene from The Lime Twig. He pokes around Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

Few books are as frolicsome as On Being Blue, which is more than amusing and at times quite confusing. Gass riffs over this-and-that and tells you about the slang terms he coined that never caught, “kotswinkling” and “may shit fall upon you from a biplane”, fun phrases like money minted in a country which exists only in his imagination, lovely and utterly useless elsewhere. The book is a blast, a hodgepodge of facts and figures, most of which are probably true—Gass weaves together the personal with the encyclopedic, recollecting books he’s read and relating them to shades of feeling, those ghosts, thoughts and hues felt once and recalled after running one’s finger across the spines of faded dustjackets disordered along a shelf. Books carry Gass through the world the way life boats bare survivors across the great, deep blue.

Originally published in 1976, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry is out-of-print right now, a dastardly situation that ought to be corrected by somebody immediately. It’s a 91-page love triangle between Gass, color, and the written word. Every page is filled with dizzying sentences that make the reader like feel a voyeur peering through a rotating kaleidoscope. There’s a mesmeric flow to the prose. Gass delights in words, curse words, weird words, short words, German words, wack archaic words like “gamahuche” and “houghmagandie.” Are they “[n]oises or notes”? Gass asks. Both, of course. Words are the tasty treats this man can’t get enough of. At times, he pigs out, feasting on “these little shapes and sounds . . . the same saliva surrounds them all, every word is equally a squiggle or a noise, an abstract designation.” The trick is to twist them into something beautiful, something tangible and delectable, a sentence or phrase that’s fiercely unforgotten.

Gass isn’t great at elaborating an argument if it’s about anything other than aesthetics. In later essays, he writes directly about politics and philosophy, and the points he tries to make get lost in the rush and rhythm of his words. Here Gass is at his finest. The only thing he wants to convince you of is the pure, sheer joy of a well-made page. The world might be rotten, Gass reminds us, “tomorrow [might be] falling toward you like a tower,” but look at these lovely sentences! Of course, you might ask, isn’t 91 pages a long time to spend on one color? And why blue? Why not red or yellow or chartreuse, or some kind of sassy mauve? But what other color appears as often, can be used to describe everything from birds to balls to moons and mornings? Art, like life, is rife with the blue. Blue guitars, Picasso’s The Blue Room, Joyce’s word “bluehued.” There’s “[t]he swim of blue in the toothbrush glass.” There’s the blue you feel as a cloud of melancholy looms in and dampens your day.  Blue, according to Gass, is “the most suitable color of the interior life.” Therefore, it’s most deserving of such an ecstatic ode. After all, what other color can you live in? What other color can you sing?


Alex Kalamaroff is 25 years old. He lives in Cambridge and works for Boston Public Schools.

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  1. Scott Riley Irvine

      One of my favorites. Bought a used copy from Amazon, and now inadvertently own a copy with a discreet Gass signature on the title page, addressed to a woman named Laura.

  2. lorian long

      o man that scene from the lime twig where thick beats margaret is sexeeeee. have u read maggie nelson’s bluets? i actually liked that better than gass’ book, i think. i just read willie masters’ lonesome wife which is gass walking around with his young prick out fucking every letter in the alphabet. it’s great.

  3. James Gray

      Very Nice, I Have loved this book for 30 years, and tonight I’m writing about Robert Burtons’ The Anatomy of Melancholy check it out !