August in Blue: The Blues in Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

While August in Blue seeks to celebrate the Afro-American contribution of blues music, the genre week that today comes to its close, also encourages us to reflect on the overall role the blues plays in our lives even when we’re not listening to the blues. To have the blues, is in part, to experience the blues music. The blues can be found everywhere, especially in literature.  And we owe it to blues musicians for furthering the ethos of ‘having the blues’ beyond music.

So, suppose you could write 240 mini love letters. Who would you address them to—what would you address them to? For writer Maggie Nelson, it was the color blue. In the 2009 experimental Bluets, Nelson melds memoir, poetry and philosophy and essay writing in attempts to transcend the signage of language by finding ways to discover what the color blue means to her, all while detailing her affinity for blue without any of the clichés of having the blues. As Nelson does so, she also grieves the loss of a lover.

Nelson obviously is not the first person to write about having the blues. Our notion of Melancholia as a self-reflexive state of being aware of our sadness and choose to continue wallowing within it as an “art” that heightens one’s appreciation for life comes from the late 19th century Romantics. But even before poet John Keats wrote of Melancholy as a “wakeful anguish of the soul” and before William Wordsworth poeticized the bucolic vales “overflowing with the sound” of a nightingale’s “melancholy strain”, Melancholy was considered by the Ancient Greeks as one of the body’s Four Humours; the four bodily liquids that determined a person’s well-being. When a person was Melancholic, it meant that there was an excess of black bile in the spleen, and so the notion of treating any emotion under a clinical microscope formed how civilizations to come would rationalize feelings.

Take Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy for instance. In 1621, Burton publishes the first edition of the medical treatise addressing Melancholy (and what would be in many hundreds of years later, Nick Cave’s favorite book), in over 900 pages that explored what he believed was the nature, symptoms and causes of Melancholy (which to him we’re God, witches, and devils among other external forces), potential cures such as dieting and cleanses, as well as distinguishing between religious Melancholy and love Melancholy. And as history goes, women’s feelings of sadness or depression were always dismissed as delirium. But in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton also furthers the sexist trope of connecting a women’s melancholy to being sexually deprived whereas a man’s melancholy is continually associated with intellect—for instance, take the Romantic poet Lord Byron who is revered for being a brooding figure. In The Anatomy, Burton proposes that women ought to domesticate “those vicious vapours which come from menstrous blood” through marriage, under a chapter title that I’ll let speak for itself: “Maids', Nuns' and Widows' Melancholy.”

Nelson’s Bluets, however, is unapologetic. Most of her memories she recounts in the book are memories of “the fucking” between her and her former lover. Within the context of herstory and when Nelson writes “there is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue”, she subverts the sexism that’s pronounced in The Anatomy and the notion of associating Melancholy to sexuality as a whole; demonstrating how her blues are instead associated to trauma, by subsuming the color to the loss of her former lover who she coins as “the prince of blue.” Nelson also juxtaposes the visceral experience of feeling vs. the palpable experience of sight between her heartbreak and love for the color blue with her close friend who has become quadriplegic. What arises as a result, is a tension between what can and cannot be expressed about emotion, which blue intensifies for Nelson.

With the loss present in Nelson’s life, from the pains of heartbreak prompted from the ‘prince of blue’ and her close friend’s life-altering disability, my favorite moments from the book happen to be the ones that meditate on her consequential loneliness and nostalgia. One of the book’s themes is grappling with solitude, yet Bluets is anything but isolating with the writing stylistically reminiscent of a written letter; which perhaps is Nelson’s way of garnering closeness, even if it’s in the hands of some reader. This calls to mind when in Letters to Milena, Franz Kafka suggests, “writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts”, and Bluets' epistolary-like writing style also points to another realization Nelson must come to terms with: that writing to the prince of blue, and of the memories is to speak to an ideal that may never have been fully present.

It becomes apparent to readers that Nelson’s book of all things blue, is actually one of letting go, “for just because one loves blue does not mean that one wants to spend one’s life in a world made of it”; a reality fraught from nostalgia’s allure. She calls to mind an instance where Leonard Cohen, in an interview, admits that “he could no longer remember the specifics of the love triangle that the song ['Famous Blue Raincoat'] describes.” To which Nelson confesses, she “find[s] this forgetting quite heartening and quite tragic . . . for to wish to forget how much you loved someone- and then, to actually forget- can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.” Notions of the passing of time and the ephemeral come to the forefront without ever being directly addressed, but the heaviness lingers between the lines; the weight being left to sympathise with anybody who has experienced heartbreak and the torture of memory.