Maggie Nelson’s Bluets takes aim at one of today’s most beloved forms of writing—the autobiography—coyly challenging the genre’s attachment to truthful stories of the self and the form thought best to convey them: that of the realist novel. To hear the mass media speak of it, the mere suggestion of embellishment, never mind invention, disrupts the hopeful economy of memoirs in which a writer bares their soul and the reader feels less alone. Empathy is based on trust, they say, and inventions are lies. Yet what could be more invented than a life story that reads like a novel? Bluets doesn’t invent that way: its inventions are wilder, wiser (and more true) than that.
Three forms inspire Bluets: the philosophical tract, the lyric poem, and the autobiography. Where it is philosophical, it borrows from a form of writing perfected by early twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose books suggest order because their propositions (or mini-arguments) are numbered but whose writing subverts that order because the argument posited in one proposition is often reversed in the next, a method Wittgenstein called “pulling the rug out from under the reader.” The experience is destabilizing but also intimate: his reversals allow his readers to think with him. This is one reason Wittgenstein is so important to Nelson, but another is that he, like she, loved colour. In his last months on earth, as he was dying of cancer, he dedicated his lucid moments to writing his Remarks on Colour. Writing about colour, it turns out, is something many great artists and thinkers have turned to when death is nigh. It is as if the process of taking colour seriously, of actually thinking about what it means for a thing to be blue or red, is a way, finally, of taking life seriously. Asking about the nature, origins, and stability of colour ends up being a way of expressing wonder at everything. What is life? What is suffering? What is love?
In Bluets, the colour blue becomes a medium through which Nelson can reflect on shame in women’s writing, particularly as it relates to love, loss, depression, and physical pain. Nelson is sometimes aphoristic and inconclusive, sometimes intellectual and crass. But for all its erudition, Bluets mostly wants to love you and have you love it back. Here is how it begins:
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 sea horse) it became somehow personal.
It must be human nature to love secrets; it’s certainly contemporary to love confessions. But Nelson is interested in more than mere confessions.
Nelson is interested in looking and what it means to see the world and how that is or isn’t different from what it means to write about it. Woven into the philosophical exploration of colour are narrative strands involving two key figures: the prince of blue, who leaves the speaker, and the princess of blue, who doesn’t. In addition, Nelson’s blue correspondents, both living and gone, offer insights, anecdotes, and amulets. The first of these is Wittgenstein, but we also hear from Goethe, Newton, Derek Jarman, Marguerite Duras, Stéphane Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, creator of the cyanometer, a device that measured the depth and intensity of blues in the world. These voices are unified by a shared concern about what Nelson calls “blunted sight.” What is it we see when we say we see the colour blue? Sir Isaac Newton “took to sticking iron rods or sticks in his eyes to produce then analyze his perceptions of color,” Nelson tells us, and the encyclopedia advises her that “You might as well act as if objects had the colors,” to which she retorts, “But what would it look like to act otherwise?” Perhaps another way of thinking about Bluets is as an instrument: a looking machine whose sensitivity includes the telescopic, the microscopic, and the flash of heat we feel just before we start to cry. “Looking” begins with objects at the farthest stretches of the imagination but ends with an interrogation of the act of looking itself: What does it mean to look? Who does the looking? When Nelson asks where colour resides—in objects themselves or in our perceptions of those objects—she is also asking about love. Where does love reside?
The story of the prince of blue begins with erotic thralldom and ends in pain. He and Nelson meet, fuck in the Chelsea hotel, and then he leaves her, explaining that although he loves her, he loves another woman too. Eventually, Nelson tells us her therapist’s view of things: “If he hadn’t lied to you, he would have been a different person than he is.” It’s a gestalt shift the therapist is after, but for Nelson, the idea that seeing has betrayed her is a source of shame. Swiss psychoanalyst Léon Wurmser calls shame “the night side of love,” and for Nelson, both love and shame are about looking and failing to see. Love has always been associated with blindness, and Nelson has been like a honeybee: “For no one really knows what color is, where it is, even whether it is. . . . Think of a honeybee, for instance, flying into the folds of a poppy: it sees a gaping violet mouth, where we see an orange flower and assume that it’s orange, that we’re normal.” What if the night side of love isn’t merely the fear that we might be unlovable but also that we mightn’t know how, when, or whom to love?
Shame is the unsettling feeling that we have exposed ourselves or been exposed to another person (or idea) that we admire, respect, or aspire to. It is not unlike the beginnings of love. We typically think of shame as antithetical to love—its night side, as Wurmser puts it—but night and day depend on each other. Shame’s desire for connection, experience of exposure, terror of isolation—all of these seem to be the night side of love: love in dark times, say, but something we pursue all the same. Shame reaches out, then withdraws, then reaches out again. One might think of the blush as a manifestation of these competing impulses. Any endeavour that challenges the status quo—writing, reading, falling in love—will also partake in a ritual of reaching out and retreating and reaching out again.
Writers may experience shame as a failure to express oneself or to attain to the idea: we feel language is failing us when we have a sense of what it could do, if only it would. This is never truer than when writing recounts the supposed facts of our lives, as it is meant to do in autobiography. In autobiography, we write ourselves onto the page. We double ourselves. Our writing becomes a mirror. What writer hasn’t felt the shame of a poorly wrought sentence? What writer hasn’t cringed at the thought of being read even when being read was supposedly the reason to write in the first place? Is it shamelessness, then, that brings Nelson to proclaim, “For better or worse, I do not think that writing changes things very much, if at all”?
Bluets is not the first autobiographical book Nelson has written. Two others—The Red Parts: A Memoir and Jane: A Murder—recount the murder of her aunt. Another, Something Bright, Then Holes, is a collection of poetry that speaks in part of a friend’s motorcycle accident; this friend reappears in Bluets. In her most recent book, The Argonauts, Nelson quotes her lover, who says, “You’ve written about all parts of your life except this, except the queer part,” to which she replies, “Give me a break. . . . I haven’t written about it yet.” That “yet” captures a philosophy of selfhood I find incredibly comforting: the self is impossible to pin down but still somehow coherent. The self becomes like the ship owned by the mythical Argonauts—even if every last sail, every last oar, every plank, every bolt were to be changed, its name would remain: it would still be the Argo that sailed out and the Argo that returned. The speaker in these books is ever changing and ever Nelson. In Bluets, the happy equivalents between the life of the book’s speaker and that of its writer effectively string up the tightrope upon which the rest of the book will perform. Along the way, the performance gets political.
Writing about the self starts to be indistinguishable from writing about reading or, as here, writing about looking. In Bluets, Nelson is interested in blindness but also in looking even when one “shouldn’t.” She skips past the stories of Oedipus, who lost his eyesight out of shame, and Milton, whose blindness let him think, and plunges into stories of lady saints. Saint Lucy, Saint Medana, and Saint Triduana all lose their eyes: they pluck, gorge, or tear their eyes from their heads in order to “prove that they ‘only have eyes’ for God.” Religious accounts explain that these women were either announcing their fidelity to God, punishing themselves, or doing whatever they could to prevent further temptation. A woman who could see was a danger indeed. Nelson pulls the rug out from under those accounts, proclaiming,
59. There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head. “I love to gaze at a promising-looking cock,” writes Catherine Millet in her beautiful sex memoir, before going on to describe how she also loves to look at the “brownish crater” of her asshole and the “crimson valley” of her pussy, each opened wide—its color laid bare—for the fucking.
Her diction here refuses all the subtle euphemisms that would whisper about sex and instead adopts a raucous, shameless attitude. It’s a knowing effort, which is immediately followed by another reversal:
60. I like to look, too. “Saint Lucy, you did not hide your light under a basket,” begins one Catholic prayer.
Saint Lucy’s light isn’t normally understood to be anything like a crimson valley; Nelson draws the parallel to make fun of ecclesiastical euphemisms and remind us that even if Saint Lucy’s light isn’t sexual, plenty of other biblical imagery surely is—one has only to think of King Solomon’s odes to peaches.
A critical examination of Nelson’s irreverence reveals how her writing heralds a new kind of order. Just as we’ve not heard enough about the female gaze, we’ve heard too much about the male gaze and all the ways that it disciplines the female body. Nelson establishes the new order by taking down the old one. William Gass, an icon of sexual freedom, writes that readers who want to see under the skirt will only be disappointed:
“What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s-end muff? I’ve that at home.”
In a delicious about-face, Nelson accuses Gass (of all people!) of puritanism: “This is puritanism, not eros,” she says, thereby founding her own moral order (Puritanism is bad! Eros is good!). She defies Gass, the glossy magazines, and anything that would do less than celebrate the female body in all its ways:
For my part I have no interest in catching a glimpse of or offering you an unblemished ass or an airbrushed cunt. I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light.
Nelson knows that the gaze is a position of power, and she wants women to adopt it. Women should have the right to look at what they want, and they should have the right to be seen as they are. Earlier, I said Nelson’s writing is political. I should have said it is feminist.
Bluets is one of many books that, since the 1980s, have written against the traditional autobiography, the coherent story of a single and singular personality, which has also usually been that of a white, straight male. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick; Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water; Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?; and, casting the net a little more widely, Kathy Acker’s oeuvre (but especially Blood and Guts in High School); and much of Eileen Myles’s work, the spirit of which might be captured in the fabulously titled The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading—all of these books have rejected the prescriptive presentation of selfhood in favour of the abject, the bawdy, the unbound. If men have called them hysterical, they’ve retorted, and how. The scope of their writing has moved beyond the tidy bounds of autobiography into literary criticism or the other way, from criticism into autobiography.
The new autobiographies refuse the shame of debasement and also refuse the shame of love. “Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement?” asks Chris Kraus. These autobiographies tell the most private of stories, but they become, says Kraus, “performative philosophy.” What separates Nelson’s work from the body of work characterized by Kraus, Myles, Acker, Zambreno, and Heti is that every sentence is beautiful. Rather than attach herself to an aesthetic of ugliness in an effort to refuse the confines of what Zambreno would call the patriarchal literary establishment, Nelson transcends them: each proposition is breathtaking.
And so we return to love. Love leaps past our deficiencies on the way to our core self. One of Nelson’s last propositions addresses the prince of blue, only to speak, for the first time, in a tone that is no longer bitter. What remains may be the ruin of blue, the nostalgia of it—“there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; . . . than all the blue in the world,” but that time is over. The penultimate proposition cites Simone Weil, whose self-effacement is legendary. An unidentified interlocutor seems to correct Nelson, saying:
239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”
Nelson accepts this, providing a conclusion to Bluets when we might have expected anything but:
240. All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.
Jocelyn Parr has a Ph.D. in English Literature, and is a professor of history at Dawson College in Montreal. Her creative and academic work has been published in France and Germany and in Canada with Brick, Grain, Matrix, and others. She is at work on a novel about a brain museum in 1920s Moscow.