Issue 60 Containers Winter 2015–2016
Colors / Turquoise
“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.
This course explores the philosophy of green, the most significant color in the history of humankind and the fundamental basis for all other colors. Special attention will be paid to turquoise, a shade in the cyan group, which also includes aquamarine, cerulean, sea green, teal, verdigris, viridian. Of these, turquoise clearly has the greatest and greenest depth of spirit. As a case study, turquoise proves that, despite grandiose claims about, say, the color blue, everything is in fact always already green. (Perhaps with envy; see Art 254.)
This graduate seminar revisits the best historical novelist of the twentieth century, Anya Seton. Why has no one attended to this genius of biographical writing? Why has this bestselling author been overlooked in favor of lesser peers like Margaret Mitchell and Cormac McCarthy? Let us dwell on her third work of genius, The Turquoise (1946), the story of a beautiful woman who leaves the “magic mountains” of her native New Mexico for the “piratical, opulent, gaslit” New York of the 1870s. Named for her hometown, Santa Fe (“Fey”) is born to a Spanish mother and a Scottish father, and inherits from them both an “intense psychic perceptivity.” Recognizing Fey’s gift, a noble Native American gives her a “turquoise amulet.” This symbol of the spirit dominates Fey’s life, which swerves between “violent contrasts”: rough wagons v. scented hansoms, glittering mansions v. dreary tombs, suave swindlers v. ideal suitors, “Indians” v. everyone else. Topics: capitalism, exoticism, romanticism, sexism, and “Indian gifts” in literature.
Ethnic Studies 101.
The problem of turquoise is the problem of the color line. This is-it-blue-or-is-it-green tincture, this mulatto of the color wheel, this indeterminate and shady shade, emerges in the contact zones where cultures clash and disadvantaged minorities succumb to hegemony! Even its etymological root, the Old French word turqueise (meaning “related to the Turks”), could be characterized as racially insensitive. And the history of turquoise gems is itself intrinsically problematic. Bloodless Europe pilfered turquoise from the mines of the great Khorasan province of Persia. The Egyptians used turquoise to decorate lavish tombs for despots like King Tut, who was killed by either a chariot crash, a kick from a royal horse, or a hippopotamus bite while hunting! When New Mexico belonged to the Aztec Empire, turquoise was more valuable than gold, but Spanish conquerors and American imperialists plundered those lands and the veins of ore running through them. For more than a century, the Pueblo tribe was forced to work in underground and open-pit turquoise mines for The Man. But after a fatal cave-in in 1980, they boycotted and rebelled! Viva la revolución! Or as the Turkish have it: Vur ha!
An introduction to phlebology, the science of veins, which are not, in fact, anatomically blue-green in color, but simply appear to be because of how paler shades of skin refract wavelengths of light. Topics include: vein gross anatomy, histology, and embryology; venous flow, reflux, and thrombosis physiology and pathology; venous surgery; phlebotomy; phlebectomy and sclerotherapy; and gangrene, that turquoise putrescence of the flesh caused by insufficient blood supply to the extremities.
Advanced topics in Secondary Mineralogy. Turquoise, CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8· 4H2O, occurs in the potassic alteration zone of hydrothermal porphyry copper deposits. Also formed by the action of meteoric waters, usually in arid regions, on aluminous igneous or sedimentary rocks (as vein filling in volcanic rocks and phosphatic sediments). The turquoise group was recently reevaluated (Foord & Taggart, 1998) and found to be quite complex, comprising six minerals, including planerite. Foord & Taggart argue that many occurrences of “turquoise” in previous literature are in fact occurrences of planerite. They recognize that planerite “hardly has the romantic cachet of ‘turquoise,’ so redolent of a rare and precious material, and the name is unlikely to be changed any time in the near future.” Nevertheless, their revision of the turquoise group ought to be of considerable interest to specialists.
My name encompasses an entire people. I am noon skies and gulf waters and northern lights. I am often unearthed and can be opaque, clear, or mottled. Like the double-stop chords of a cello, I am rough and smooth, warm and cool, two in one. I am a word for sad plus a word for jealous. I am the heavens and the seas. I am cash and oxidation. I am iris and vein, a tint in dark hair, a glimmer in plumage and scale. I adorn the temples and crowns of the brownest kings; I adorn the throats and wrists of the palest queens. I am native and secondary, imported and mined. I am many shades of in-between. I come in Crystal Oasis, Tropical Sea, River Mist, Artesian Well, Cayman Lagoon, Caribbean, Galapagos, Splashy, Aqua Chintz, Dragonfly, Rainwashed, and Surfer. I might irk you—my tone is coy. Who am I? What am I? Won’t you hold me in your hand? Won’t you let me drown your eye?
Namwali Serpell is a writer and an associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first published story, “Muzungu” was included in The Best American Short Stories 2009 and shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing; she won the 2015 Caine Prize for her story “The Sack.” Her first book of literary criticism, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, was published by Harvard University Press in 2014, and her first novel, The Old Drift, will be published by Hogarth Press in 2018.
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