Quiddity of the False Azure

All colors made me happy: even gray. — Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (line 29)

The weaker the organ the longer the impression of the image lasts. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (pg 51, section 121. )

Scan 13My recent inquiries into perception made me curious to know the oft-cited primary text of Goethe’s Theory of Colours. It is an interesting read, particularly as the content has been thoroughly disapproved making the reading of it a philosophical or poetical exercise more than a scientific one.

Time means succession, and succession, change:
Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange
Schedules of sentiment…
 —Pale Fire (lines 567-569)

Thus inspiration already presupposes expiration; thus every systole its diastole. —Theory of Colour (15, section 38.)

The beautiful fiction in the non-fiction that is twisted inadvertently by Goethe is  conversely, in Pale Fire, “written” by John Shade in four cantos, and yet, similarly, bent. Nabokov elegantly distorts fiction and non-fiction and intentionally plays a stark psychology off the poetical and philosophical posit. The ruse of John Shade is elaborate…what is the purpose? It seems to me that by creating, for example through the officialness of the “About the Author” page followed by “Other Books by the Author,” a Nabokovian mocking of the surety of our perception of truth gains a profoundly moving and tender, if tremulous, capital T Truth.

Life Everlasting-based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that
Was the real point, the counterpuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
 —Pale Fire (lines 803-815)

If Goethe is correct that the longer an impression lasts, the weaker the organ, than I must have a very weak heart. In Pale Fire (particularly the Ginko Press edition I experienced— because it was more than something to be merely read) a persistent ache of a melancholy color bleeds and stains, and yet, and yet… there is a rising blush of “Faint hope.”

*Theory of Colours  translated from the German with notes by Charles Lock Eastlake

**Title from opening stanza of Pale Fire –
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane

*** “Faint Hope.” final sentence of Pale Fire

8 responses to “Quiddity of the False Azure

  1. When did Goethe write this Theory of Colours? From early, his thinking was heavily influenced by the Sturm und Drang movement supporter J. G. Herder whom Goethe did actually met when he was a lw student in 1770. Goethe did nevertheless take on other perceptions as his life went through various stages.

    • 1810, it was mainly an argument against Newton’s ideas regarding color which held that light had no color (based on Aristotle’s ideas) even though it was Newton’s experiments with prisms that showed light breaking up into wavelengths, so he was kind of arguing with the wrong guy in the first place, since Newton didn’t take to the wavelength theory himself. Goethe was sure that color could be explained “independently of optics” (725.) Meaning, the wavelength theory was not at issue and got in the way of understanding color…I think..although I could certainly be wrong, that he was pretty sure of the correctness of his findings until his death.

  2. I’ve always liked Goethe. Not for the accuracy of his science. But for the vitality of his prose. Such a gifted writer. Makes Hegel and Heidegger look so turgid by comparison.

    • Yes, that’s exactly it. I don’t know enough of Hegel or Heidegger to make a comparison, but I’ve started Schopenhauer’s On Vision and Colors..perhaps that will be an interesting comparison…I’ll let you know.

      • I love Schopenhauer! He’s neglected in the university. Talk about a gifted philosophical prose stylist! His contempt of women can be tough to stomach. But he’s a first-rate and very important thinker, influencing so many artists, philosophers, psychologists, and novelists. Eager to read your thoughts on his Vision and Colors, with which I’m not familiar. Cheers. K

  3. I am trying to imagine Faust or Elective Affinities written in the manner of Hegel or Heidegger. What a nightmare!

    I have never dared the optics book, or any of Goethe’s science writing. Nice to see someone else reading it.

    “Plexed artistry” is a curious phrase.

    • “Plexed artistry” stopped me too, it was one of the phrases that I felt revealed the author – who else would come up with such an inventive expression? Nabokov’s genius is, after all, HIS plexed artistry.

  4. Pingback: Divisible Indivisibility of Color (or love) | so very very

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s