Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

The other day at work in the library while prying apart two colossal artbooks- my left hand pushing the row as far over as it would budge, while holding between right thumb and forefinger another sizable tome, the remaining three fingers were left with thrusting the opposing mountain of books to the opposite side when Lo! a small book revealed itself recessed in the deep shadows of the imposing giants surrounding it. With all of my fingers engaged, I let out an exasperated sigh. With reluctance, I released the hard earned space I had created. I  deftly (more likely, spasmodically) slipped my left hand in before the hidden entrance snapped shut in the jungle of books squeezed onto the shelf. If it hadn’t been a high shelf I might have engaged my foot to keep that damn space, but alas, I do try to maintain a professional demeanor.

My wearied fingers just managed to coax the little book out. I had only intended to help it reclaim its allotted space, but when I read the title, The Primary Colors by Alexander Theroux, I had to take a look. That very morning I had finished reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies, so when his back-of-the-book-two-cents blurb promising essays of “prodigal and vagarious adventure” as oppose to the “terse and apophthegmatic” sort, well, I ask you – how could leave it on the shelf?

The word sings. You pout pronouncing it, form a kiss, moue slightly, blowing gracefully from the lips as if before candles on a birthday cake (3).

Blue. It can only be blue, of course. Theroux’s discursive, plaited, and enigmatic exaltation of the primary color is a crazy delight to read. In equal parts: laundry list, rapturous praise, historical, poetical, and literary- azure my love, and blue, blau, bleu…some 50 pages into the thicket of illusive, expensive, pensive, doleful, blithe, yet blissful blue, Theroux insouciantly begins a new paragraph by saying, “Speaking of blue…”

Georgiana Peacher in Mary Stuart’s Ravishment Descending Time may well have given us the greatest passage on yellow eyes ever written, which I include here for, among other things, the edification of those undermedicated hacks, shameless book-a-year novelists, and jug-headed commercialists yahoos whose predictable prose comes cranking out of the trafila of their heads like streams of common pasta (104).

Yellow seems the perfect color to evince such a vitriolic run of the pen. At once sickly and weak it just as easily turns to exuberant luster. The sultry and louche lemonade pucker in no way disturbs the energetic primordial yellow, “I was going into the yellow” as Theroux quotes Marlow looking at a map of the Belgian Congo, “I was going into the yellow” (157).

As to barbaric richness of color, Francis Bacon, who wanted, among other things, to make the human scream into something “which would have the intensity and beauty of a Monet sunset,” like the color of blood, whether Antioch-red or paintbox bright or cherry: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the color of meat” (193).

Indeed, it is not accidental, I think, that  “there is no red Necco wafer” (172). Of all the names for red: cochineal, carmine, rubious, crimson, scarlet, a seemingly endless array of nuance and aspects. The copse of all that red denotes, connotes or promotes seems to tangle Theroux a bit in the final essay. As if there is too much to feel in this – the true primary color (no matter the language, “red” is always the first color named after black and white). Love and death, fervor, pain, a blush, the saucy and tart – my heart! my heart! Cranberry that it is, bursting with bitterness, but ever awaiting the sweet start.


*luteous (from lutum, mud) one of those perfectly good English words completely ignored nowadays as pretentious and arch, except by literate people like Virgil, who in his day used the word “luteus” as a synonym for yellow (73).

** Print by Dana Jennings Rohn


15 responses to “Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

  1. What a concept for a book.

  2. Dear Jessica —

    Love your title and you clearly have an impressive vocabulary. Mazarine, Luteus, Vermillion — not your average take on the primary colors: blue…yellow…red. Coupled with the imprint reminiscent of your father’s hand, there is no question his legacy lives through you. Good luck in your ongoing studies.


    • Thanks. Yes, there is connection to that hand and my father. Vermillion is perhaps not so obscure, and I didn’t know luteus before reading this book. Mazarine I did, but that’s only on account of a spirited defense I once made for letting the variation of names describe the variation of tone (visually and in feeling)…I was really just being obnoxious, and yet now mazarine is a deep blue sky, or an electric-blue butterfly, to me. Thank you again.

  3. I love these old words – stops us from taking what they mean for granted. forget where I read it, but apparently people who lose their tempers are more likely to see red in an image than calmer people. Nothing as trutful as a metaphor.

  4. I found this stunning site: The colourful words in this post is not listed on it but it is rich in archaic terms. Enjoy!

  5. Good post. Colors are words for painters, lines are letters. Three phosphors light up, red, green, blue; the stylus makes more with varying hue. Adjusting blue—the last color we see as night falls–is how we control the inevitable aging yellow cast in a pixel-bound work and oddly too, for Marlow, yellow on a map is the presence of its opposite, a lack of knowledge. Green’s opposite is magenta–a color that doesn’t really exist, a failure of theory, not of art. Red’s opposite is cyan, and that’s why Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” works. The small red sun screams at the cyanic rest of the work. But Bacon’s red is as he says, simply meat and not a scream. In his essentially black and white “Figure with Meat” the red smear is under the carcass’ bared ribs but omitted from the human’s open mouth.

    • I am rather taken with the non-existence of magenta. In fact, illusions and misperceptions in general keep me embarrassingly preoccupied.
      Guy Deutscher has a fascinating chapter in Through the Language Glass concerning blue…yes, the last color we see before night, and yet, overwhelmingly ignored in the domain of language. Most children will describe a blue sky as white. The color is non-existent in the works of Homer as well in many languages- it is always the last color named…why is that? Is there some fundamental lack of a need to know associated with blue?
      I read once that The Scream was more or less an accurate representation of the sky as it appeared due to some geological event before the advent of a 24 news cycle where one might know why the sky suddenly turned red. The entirety of modern angst brought about by a volcano in the Philippines or somesuch distant local – oh it does make one laugh at oneself.
      Yellow…yellow on a map….you have spurred an examination within me to ponder my general lack of interest in yellow…

  6. perfect testimony to the librarian activity of labor and discovery…

    • Yes, truthfully it was a tedious sort of job, recently come to an end and yet as I begin a new stint working in a rare book room and starting an internship at an art book pub. But, I found myself saying to a friend, “I am going to miss….to miss…” What was it exactly? The dust, the overstuffed shelves, going blind looking for the call numbers, having to remind myself over and over again that r comes before s? But my friend knew, she filled in my thoughts, “- the books.” Yes. The books.

      • You’ve definitely got that book sickness/addiction thing. I just unloaded another pile of books I’ve never read and know I never will at the charity shop. Only the gratitude fo the staff makes stops me feeling bad to give them up. What is an art book pub – is it publisher? In the uk it is a public house so sounds a great combination.

      • Well, as I always say, you don’t have to own a book to love it! haha Yes, a publisher – Granary Books – largely collaborations between poets and artists. It is a great combination not least of all because it celebrates and points to the value of the object of the book itself – in this digitized day and age, a reminder that we humans have no compelling reason to give up the physicality of the codex, and many reasons to keep them! Long live Form, Function, and Fancy!

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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