Jerome Shea       September 3, 2008      Weekend Wonk

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(Wm. Carlos Williams)

I am gazing out of my office window and the world I see is a world of color and it is lovely for that. Zimmerman Library is a restful adobe tan*. The sycamores vary in their foliage, many drab and jaundiced (they never seemed to do well around Smith Plaza), but the big, dark ponderosa pines set everything off and yet pull it together, and the patch of lawn, even in this desert, is Erin-green. The sun is shining; the sky is blue. Inside, my bookshelf is a trove of colors, relieving the institutional grays. A big orange jack-o-lantern (don’t ask) grins down at me from the top of an étagère. Like the lucky majority of us, I am not colorblind. The colors I see are true, as far as I know, and I have been enjoying color—and taking it for granted—my whole life.

This will not be a wonk on the optics of color, why red is red, and so forth. I am not even sure I know the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue, aren’t they?). More in my line is the fact that colors imbue our speech and thinking as much as they do our world. For millennia, colors have been metaphorical as well as physical. I daresay you can’t talk for more than five minutes without making some sort of reference to color (go ahead, try it). Are you feeling blue today? Are you going green these days? Or are you green with envy of someone? Or are you still a greenhorn? Do you see red when someone cuts you off in traffic? Are you still waiting for your white knight to show up? Anyway, I hope you’re in the pink and are not in a brown study or a black mood.

And orange you glad to be reading this wonk (sorry)?

There really seems no end to it. Just take red, for example (as in my Little Red Beast, a babe magnet but a cop magnet, too). Red is the color of blood (which is a generalization right there: the LRB’s shade is close to arterial blood, while our Honda CR-V is the color of venous blood, which is just to say that all colors come in shades and that the whole palette is almost infinite). Anyway, blood is the reason why red is the color for martyrs and heroes (see The Red Badge of Courage). It also signifies anger, perhaps because the blood supposedly rises and tinges everything one sees. Blood really does have a lot to do with it, as when one blushes (embarrassment) or gets red in the face (anger). Though we now know that it is due only to the waving of the cape, we like to think that rojo is what gets el toro all ticked off. Fire engines are traditionally red, either because that is the (idealized) color of fire or to make them more visible. (Nowadays, fire engines as often tend to be a shade of chartreuse, which really is more visible.) We do associate red with emergencies (“Code Red,” Red Alert”). A “red letter day” was a special day because it was marked in red (“rubric”) in your missal. Then accountants supposedly started using red ink in the debit column and red got a whole new connotation: if you are “in the red,” you want to scrimp and save until you are back ‘in the black [ink].” Teachers traditionally grade papers with red ink, and I have been known to apologize for losing my temper and “bloodying” a student’s essay. Red does mean love, as in Valentines Day, but love’s more robust cousin is passion, as in “red rage.” Blondes may be ditzy, but redheads have hot tempers. Cardinals wear red. So does Santa Clause. So does Satan. Red has no favorites.

How about a safer color, like white? Some would say that it is the absence of color, no color at all. Be that as it may, we have hung values on it, chief among them being purity and innocence. Babies and brides wear white (so what’s with the groom wearing black?). Snow is white, pure white (until it goes gray and grimy). That knight who is coming to save you rides a white horse. The good guy wears the white hat. But to show the white flag of surrender is only slightly better than to show the white feather. Unfortunately it has taken on racial overtones also (“The Great White Hope.” “That’s really white of you,”), to the denigration** of black (“black-hearted,” “black hat”). Finally—if there is a finally—in some cultures white, not black, signifies death. (Maybe it is only a coincidence that I see as many white hearses these days as black ones; ironically, it may be felt that white takes the sting out of death.) And a very famous chapter in American literature is “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Moby Dick. Read that and white will never be a comfort to you again.

*Is “adobe tan” redundant? It is not uncommon for a substance to also denote a color. If I simply say “adobe” or “ebony” you know what color I’m talking about. Some substances seem to be on the cusp, as it were. A decorator might use “slate” as a color, but most of us, I think, would keep it adjectival, as in “slate gray.” On the other hand, “coal” is always and everywhere black, is it not? But we would never designate a color as “coal.” It is fossilized forever in “coal black,” the blackest black we can imagine. We get the same effect with “blood red,” come to think of it—the reddest red we can imagine.

**”Denigrate” : L., “to blacken.”

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