Spring 2005

Colors / Gray

Nowhere all over the place

Geoffrey O’Brien

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

There are no gray popsicles or balloons or children’s bath toys. America’s favorite newspaper, USA Today—the one they slide under the door of the desert motel—is, according to its ads, “never gray.” A reviewer of pop music says, “It’s not in the American character to rest in that gray place.” A bureaucrat asked about the broader consequences of a proposed policy change says, with muted contempt, “That’s a gray area,” as if pointing to a wide and useless undeveloped tract of land, overrun with weeds and discarded shopping bags. They despise gray, or fear its influence. It reminds them of dust, or worse. Gray functions like the weeds that creep out through cracks in the pavement. It is what finally takes over: aimlessly oppressive, fogged-out, lichened-over, drained of youthful coloration, devoid even of specifiable characteristics, at once unbeckoning and inescapable. It goes nowhere all over the place. Gray hair, gray skies, the “gray matter” of a brain spinning bodiless within its own circuitry: the flag of a country without sun or flesh or vegetation, the rubble-strewn wilderness that extends between the unattainable purities of black and white. A limbo whose denizens never quite graduate. 

Even the word “gray” can drain life from language. It is the unimaginative short-hand for the death of the imagination, the erosion of moral passion, the stealthy disappearance of individual character and enlivening surprise. In an Arthur Miller play, a neurotic woman has a dream in which “everything is sort of gray,” and it amounts to saying that her erotic life, her hope for any kind of fulfillment, is over. In a certain kind of Scandinavian detective novel, the whole field of vision is gray: the streetcars, the tollbooths, the harbor, the corrugated shed, pieced together from abandoned construction materials, where drug-addicted high school students are found murdered. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit of fifties mythology was supposed to be the man who buried every last trace of adventure, transgression, rebellion, to become a perfectly functioning cog in a social machine that was itself embodied in grayish variants of steel, asphalt, cement, the worn-out faces of coins, and the toxic effluvia of smokestacks.

Gray is the color to which the mind returns as to a prison, where gray uniforms move within a labyrinth of institutional walls of uniform gray. There is a memory loop of descending repeatedly into a basement where the janitor’s buckets are stored, among pipes and canisters that are themselves painted over in thick swaths of gray. From here the subterranean corridors branch out through which we were led unwillingly—or walked even without being led because we could not imagine any other course of action—though they led inevitably to a room we did not want to enter: the room where we would be tested for infection or maladjustment, where we would be forced to remember sequences of numbers, or, worse, to sit and wait in silence, with nothing, not so much as a joke from a package of bubble gum at hand to distract. If acts have color, gray might be the color of passive waiting for an outcome anticipated without enthusiasm. 

We wake years later to discover that among the rooms to which those corridors led is the one we ended up living in. We stare up through its air shaft to discern a patch of gray, or down to see the square of cracked paving condemned to stare blindly back. We had spent our days devising curtains and disguises, floral displays, trails of mascara, anything to avoid looking too long at the cement-and-metal framework of that housing project. It was immense enough to contain within itself railroad depots and airports so as to ensure the constant necessary flow of utensils and battery oil. Indeed it was immense enough to have its own sky. 

Not available from your Good Humor Man (frozen milk and ink on a stick). Photo Ryo Manabe.

No, we didn’t live there, couldn’t have: that imagined space must have come from somewhere else, some final Eastern European enclave of Stalinism, where thought police in gray uniforms ride gray cars with blacked-out windows past miles of state-sponsored apartment blocks built over demolished churches and concert halls. In that city it is always raining. Discontented people think about suicide but lack the energy for the decisive act. The mail is late or lost, the shop closed permanently for repairs. The families hoard cracked photographs of ancestors in bulging broken suitcases that hold all that is left of the place they came from. They speak to each other in hoarse whispers as if to convey that anything spoken is some form of unappreciated intrusion into that silently nurtured suffering—that poisonous mix of rancor and regret—that is their only solace. They have been there so long they love the place, down to the last crumbling bit of soap and the sofa with the broken springs.

I saw them in a movie that was nothing but tones of gray arranged in blocks of shape: a constructivist paradise where people existed to supply an occasion for interesting angles or patterns, epic crane shots of crowds geometrically surging. The tanks rolling through the smashed wall provided an optical delight. The movie could have gone on forever, since patterns are continuously generated wherever human bodies move among structures of stone and metal and there is a camera to register their movements. Now the airplanes are coming, smoke rises from the residential neighborhoods, the crowds are forced toward the pit, the torture unit seals off the street, and it is all a “bracing” or “exhilarating”—or perhaps the appropriate and thus unspeakable word is “soothing”—set of variations of gray. 

Does the prisoner come to love his prison? So much that he can scarcely distinguish between the geometric pleasures of the black-and-white war movies and the paler, airier swirls of an early thirties Paramount picture, where blonde tresses and semitransparent negligees, champagne bubbles and luminous dance halls, translate into slight but crucial variations of gray? The figures that move in that ether are more like life than life itself. They might well look pityingly down on a spectator who can only dream of such invulnerable buoyancy. Color photography would make them artificial. Any conceivable heaven would be gray.

Or is this the final temptation, to harbor (in the face of every form of decay) the desire to write a poem consisting entirely of the word “gray,” a word which in that context—a universe stripped bare of distinguishing characteristics—would mean city, cloud, veil, wall, cliff, ocean, silence, shadow? To plunge into blackness is to die. To plunge into gray? Perhaps merely to succumb to the lure of cloudiness, a morphine-induced dimness, the backdrop for a dreamlike play by some Belgian symbolist of the fin de siècle. Act One: A clearing by a lake. Clouds have gathered. Water and sky merge into a tremulous blur. The barrier of mist is no barrier at all. It denies edges altogether. It hangs in space like some impossibly huge canvas by Mark Tobey. A block of gray, simple and empty, with no trace of the jabbing insistence of sunlight. It lacks both splendors and miseries, lets you vanish into the act of looking at it, neither makes a demand nor gives an answer.

It is not human. Animal, perhaps: the hide of an elephant blocking everything else from view as it passes, or the skin of a gigantic prehistoric reptile filling a frame in a comic book as it emerges from between rock walls. The comic book was Turok, Son of Stone, a fifties adventure in which two American Indian hunters were trapped in a sealed-off canyon where they spent their time—years and years of it—doing battle with the dinosaurs who had survived there. In that world all was gray: either lifeless rock or devouring reptile. The humans darted among crevices and caverns, living to fight another day but never finding a way out. Their presumed despair was alleviated only by the bright flat blue of the Southwestern skies under which they struggled. 

A gray rock streaked with ash-smears: toward some such natural altar you come in the end, even if not daring to pray for more than a change in the weather. That at least is in the realm of what can reasonably be expected. After the tedium of sunshine, there is almost a lust for the transformations that announce the approaching storm. In the theatrical space between black clouds and surging whitecaps, gray runs through all its changes. “The poetry of destructive energy”: the phrase hangs in the air a moment before being swept away by the first blast.

The wintry air-mass pushes forward. The sky in that quarter resembles a solid wall of wet cement. The somber wet gray must be Eden, the color of what is not yet hardened, not yet built.

Geoffrey O’Brien is the author of many books of prose and poetry, including The Phantom Empire, The Browser’s Ecstasy, and, most recently, Sonata for Jukebox and Red Sky Café. He is editor-in-chief of the Library of America and lives in New York City.

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