An excerpt from
What Color Is the Sacred?
The Face of World History
So far, all that has given colour to existence still lacks a history.
“Men in a state of nature,” wrote Goethe in his book on color, “uncivilized nations and children, have a great fondness for colours in their utmost brightness.” The same applied to “uneducated people” and southern Europeans, especially the women with their bright-colored bodices and ribbons. He recalled a German mercenary returned from America who had painted his face with vivid colors in the manner of the Indians, the effect of which “was not disagreeable.” On the other hand, in northern Europe at the time in which he wrote in the early nineteenth century, people of refinement had a disinclination to colors, women wearing white, the men, black. And not only in dress. When it came to what he called “pathological colours,” Goethe wrote that people of refinement avoid vivid colors in the objects around them and seem inclined to banish vivid colors from their presence altogether. It is as if there are two presences glowering at each other, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. It is as much a body thing, a presence thing, as conscious intellection. One “presence” is people of refinement. The other is vivid color.
As for our German mercenary, I see him in my mind’s eye, promenading through the streets fresh from God knows what violence out there in America, with wild Indians, half-breeds, and crazed Europeans trading furs for whisky along with rings and mirrors, brightly colored great coats trimmed with lace, and, of course, paints for face and body, as much for the corpse as for the living. How many beaver hats bobbing up and down the wintry main street and hanging on the hat stands in the coffee shops in Frankfurt are owing to his efforts? And here he is with his Indian face, perhaps one half yellow, the other vermillion, asymmetrically joined, the face of world history. The “rarest, most precious colors have always been imported from exotic places,” write two experts on dyes and pigments, Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau.
Not only kids, primitives, and southern women love bright colors—war does too. Could there be a connection? And even if brightly colored uniforms have given way to today’s camouflage, you have to wonder whether camouflage is not, in its own right, a play in vivid color as well as a fashion statement for the warring class. Look at them at headquarters far from the front dressed neatly in their uniforms, staring into computer screens and about as inconspicuous as one of their humvees. It’s as if the designers responsible for army gear had not been able to let go of the swirling jungle motif, allowing the ghost of Vietnam to return, this time to the desert sands no less than to the slums and highways of Baghdad, once the center of the world’s indigo trade. The generals look good in camouflage, too, even though they never get close to anything more dangerous than Fox news. But the medals come colored.
French soldiers hung on the longest. Beginning his “storm of steel” in 1915 near the village of Orainville in Champagne, the German soldier Ernst Junger saw them dead and red in the sugar-beet fields lit by moonlight. They wore bright red pants well into the First World War, when it was suggested that their appalling losses might be reduced if they decolored, a fate that was, according to Goethe, Europe’s lot for many a year, “women wearing white, the men, black.” Yet Goethe’s primitives are engraved in the European image of what warriors should be.
Wandering through the darkened streets of Paris one night in 1916, about the time the Frenchmen were losing their red trousers, the narrator in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time happened across a gay friend, the Baron Charlus, surreptitiously eyeing the passing troops. The narrator thought the marvelous display of color must have been similar to the passing of the troops in Napoleon’s time exactly one hundred years before in the same place: “the Africans in their red divided skirts, the Indians in their white turbans were enough to transform for me this Paris through which I was walking into a whole imaginary exotic city, an oriental scene.” By African, he meant the Berbers from Algeria known as zouaves, one of whom was painted in blue, orange, yellow, and black by Vincent van Gogh in Arles in 1888 using oils so as to heighten what he called “the savage combination of incongruous tones,” the zouaves being French infantrymen famous, so it is said, for their brilliant uniform and quick-spirited drill.
That they go together, these quick spirits and brilliant colors, should not be lost on us. Isidore of Seville, the savants’ savant, said in the seventh century AD that color and heat were the same since colors came from fire or sunlight and because the words for them were fundamentally the same, calor and color. Etymology like this is hardly a science, but he was onto something important, same as the famous connection between color and the quick-spirited drill of the Berbers incorporated into the colonial army. And note that in his Etymologiae Isidore of Seville did not say light, but sunlight, light that comes from the biggest fire of all, the one that gives without receiving.
Talking to Primo Levi, famous for his memoir of Auschwitz, the American novelist Philip Roth suggested that his imprisonment was in some sense a gift. Levi replied: “A friend of mine, an excellent doctor, told me many years ago: ‘Your remembrances of before and after are in black and white; those of Auschwitz and of your travel home are in Technicolor.’ He was right. Family, home, factory, these are good things in themselves, but they deprived me of something I still miss: adventure.”
Being a chemical engineer, Levi survived because he worked as a slave in the Chemical Komando in the factory set up at Auschwitz by IG Farben, the largest chemical corporation in the world, making everything from toothbrushes to the poison gas used for the final solution. Farben means colors, and it was the search for dazzling, standardized colors that in the mid-nineteenth century led to the new science of organic chemistry from which emerged a world of commodities beyond even the dreams of Faust, just as it was these same dazzling, standardized colors that gave the final spit and polish to what Karl Marx saw as the spirit-like character of the commodity. The brave new world of artifice created by chemical magic was to Germany what empire was to Britain and France and eventually, as nature gave way to second nature, came to far surpass that old-fashioned, graspable sense of imperial destinies which Proust and van Gogh so admired with the zouaves. To ask, What color is the sacred? is to ask about these connections and whether we have lost the language that could do that connecting for us: the way the primeval forests and swamps went under to become coal and petroleum, the way that coal gas came to illuminate nineteenth-century cities and excrete a waste product from which first colors and then just about everything else could be made in one mighty imitation of nature. We cannot see that as sacred or enchanting because we have displaced that language of alchemy by that of the chemists. We do not mistake color for calor.
To equate calor with color as did Isidore of Seville detaches us from a purely visual approach to vision and makes color the cutting edge of such a shift. Color vision becomes less a retinal and more a total bodily activity to the fairytale extent that in looking at something, we may even pass into the image. Three of my favorite authors relish this power of color: Walter Benjamin, William Burroughs, and Marcel Proust. They see color as something alive, like an animal, and all three expend considerable verbal talent in getting this across: Benjamin concentrating on the child’s view of color and colored illustrations in early children’s books; Burroughs on drugs, sex, and games with language; Proust on the fullness of involuntary memory transporting one’s body to the event by chance recalled. All of which is to say color comes across here as more a presence than a sign, more a force than a code, and more as calor, which is why, so I believe, John Ruskin declared in his book Modern Painters that “colour is the most sacred element of all visible things.”
This or something like it can be experienced acutely in many non-Western societies, as when an anthropologist casually spoke of indigenous Australians as “color mad” (a compliment), and Ticio Escobar writes of the Chamacoco Indians of Paraguay in the 1980s as obsessed with colors, dyeing , as he puts it, the deepest conceptions of their culture. What does he mean by this arresting statement? What could it mean?
Here colors illuminate the backdrop of myths and set the body alight during ceremonies. Colors “force the object to release hidden meanings, meanings that are neither complete nor lasting, to be sure, but that can gesture, ever so obliquely, to truths that remain otherwise concealed.”
Escobar has a story.
Clemente’s niece Elena is a lovely and vivacious fifteen-year-old. Her proud grandfather assures me that she has shamanic gifts and that she will one day be a great konsaha. For now she sings, maraca in hand, in accompaniment to her teacher. Since Emiliano, the director of the Spanish TV crew, arrived, Elena has not taken her eyes off him. Her gaze is so direct, so natural that the Spaniard, more curious than uncomfortable, asked her one day: “Why do you stare at me like that?” Elena’s dark eyes did not look away from his blue ones. “What is the color of the world to you?” she asked him. “The same as it is for you, of course,” he answered. And she then said something to which he had no reply: “And how do you know what the color of the world is to me?”
Or listen to Victor Turner who, on the basis of his time among Ndembu-speaking people in central Africa in the 1950s found that their three primary colors, white, black, and red, were “conceived as rivers of power flowing from a common source in God and permeating the whole world of sensory phenomena with their specific qualities.” And he went on to say that these colors “are thought to tinge the moral and social life of mankind with their peculiar efficacies.”
But first he has to clear some ground.
The hypothesis I am putting forward here is that magico-religious ideas of a certain kind were responsible for the selection of the basic color triad and for the assiduity with which its constituent colors were sought or prepared. It is not the rarity of the pigments that makes them prized but the fact that they are prized for magic-religious reasons that makes men overcome all kinds of difficulties to obtain or manufacture them. I could cite much evidence to demonstrate the quite extraordinary lengths to which societies will go to get red or black or white pigments.
These colors are alive. As mysteries they are invoked in the seclusion of cults concerned with death and with the passage from adolescence to adulthood. In the funerary cult, boys and girls witnessed the priest dig a trench in the form of a cross, evoking sexual intercourse. Along the cross he placed antelope horns containing medicine, and filled the trench with water tinged red from a beheaded fowl, singing, “This is no ordinary river. God made it long ago. It is the river of God.” Posing riddles when all three rivers of power, white, black, and red, were finished, the priest sang songs with archaic and bizarre terms.
Shamanic songs the world over often use archaic and bizarre terms. Could we dare think of color the same way? As that which is at odds with the normal, as that which strikes a bizarre note and makes the normal come alive and have transformative power? (Just a thought.)
Certainly color in this description by Turner is sacred, theatrical, and mysterious. What is more, the idea of a color code is inappropriate, a brutal gesture towards containment. Far from being symbols, distinct from their referents, the colors are those referents in a deeply organic sense and that is why they are thought of in reference to God no less than to the copulating, procreating, growing, and dying human body. As Turner says after his survey of research by anthropologists on color in several other non-Western societies, including India, a human physiological component is rarely absent from the contexts in which color is used in ritual.
What he means is that color is fundamentally involved in the making of culture from the human body.
This helps me understand why Burroughs is drawn to color as an organic entity, alive and intimately related to the human body. His writing oozes color that serves him as an agent of metamorphosis. In this regard he is similar, it seems to me, to a Ndembu ritualist, tapping into rivers of color, making and remaking culture from bodily fluids and processes except that Burroughs’s idea of metamorphosis is sardonic and revolutionary.
Thanks to Victor Turner and his Ndembu friends in the 1950s, our imagination is given some breathing room. To advocate a Ndembu sense or a Benjamin, Burroughs, or Proustian sense of color-sense is not to say color is really this or really that. Instead it is to speculate on some of the implications of the way the West talks about color, what relationship such talk has to world history, and what wonder lies obscured within, such that if we think about color as heat or even as weather that propels you into the image, we might never think the same about thinking itself.
Such attention to the way we talk about color is precisely what Wittgenstein was getting at in his remarks on color and his statement that “Colors spur us to philosophize. Perhaps that explains Goethe’s passion for the theory of colours.”
Yet Goethe did not go far enough. Not nearly as far as the German soldier who painted his face in the manner of the North American Indians. For while it may appear that people of refinement, unlike “man in a state of nature,” are averse to vivid color, the situation both in Goethe’s time and in our own seems to me even stranger; that this distaste for vivid color is actually an unstable mix of attraction and repulsion, which the face-painted soldier got right. When Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, and William Burroughs bring out the fact that even in the West color is a whole lot more than hue, that color is not secondary to form, that it is not an overlay draped like a skin over a shape—they are not saying that “man in a state of nature” has gotten this right and we in the West are nonsensuous creatures who are frightened of passions and the body. To the contrary, it is the combustible mix of attraction and repulsion towards color that brings out its sacred qualities which, as Goethe’s face-painted mercenary suggests, owe more than a little to the Western experience of colonization as colored Otherness.