Notes for a piece on visibility and truth that's coming along incredibly slowly. We start with:
This came from Matt Webb some time ago. Colour words in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755), p215-218, table 33:
- bistre: "A colour made of chimney soot boiled, and then diluted with water, used by painters in washing their designs."
- lutarious: "Of the colour of mud."
- grisly: "Dreadful; horrible; hideous; frightful; terrible," but several citations make it clear that grisly is a color word.
- hoar: "1. White. 2. Grey with age. 3. White with frost."
- lake: "A middle colour, betwixt ultramarine and vermilion, yet it is rather sweet than harsh. It is made of cochineal"
- roan: "Roan horse is a horse of a bay, sorrel, or black colour, with grey or white spots interspersed very thick."
- rubican: "Rubican colour of a horse is one that is bay, sorrel, or black, with a light, gray, or white upon the flanks, but so that this grey or white is not predominant there."
- bice: "The name of a colour using in painting. It is either green or blue."
- ceruleous, cerulean: "Blue, sky coloured."
- plunket: "A kind of blue colour."
- welkin: "sky-coloured"
Isn't that "the name of a colour using in painting. It is either green or blue" fantastic! Rather than a colour (word) whose meaning (colour value) was uncertain, it's more interesting to imagine a colour which couldn't be assigned to a primary-colour or secondary-colour "family" at all. Perhaps a colour that you couldn't look at directly.
Welsh speakers won't be surprised though - the use “gwyrdd” (pronounced “goo-irrrth”) as a general word for green. Yet “grass” literally translates as “blue straw”. That is because the Welsh word for blue (“glas”) can accommodate all shades of green."
At art school I seem to recall someone (was it Russell Haswell?) spent months making paintings with paint that was puce coloured. Puce is allegedly the colour of a blood-engorged flea that has been squashed.
Elsewhere, the green flash (or rayon vert) was a favourite of Duchamp. The green flash is a brief optic phenomenon seen at sunset caused by variances in astronomic refraction, and there's a rarer subset - the green ray, which does flash, more literally. (It's getting hard to pin down these colour phenomena with mere words, isn't it).
Duchamp's version was a photograph, as if seen through a porthole, with a green dot. It was shown in the 1947 Surrealism exhibition in Paris, and apparently disappeared afterwards. Duchamp didn't reproduce it, which seems fitting.
After I left school I went sailing for a few months on a square-rigger. We looked for green flashes and rays at sunset but never saw any, but mid-Atlantic one night we saw something fall out of the sky, seemingly on fire - it lit up the sky - and landed over the horizon. A mystery: we couldn't raise any other ship on the radio that might also have seen it.
Tetrachromats are people who see four rather than the three colours channels (red, green, blue) everyone else does. And tetrachromacy is most often seen (though sightings remain rare) in females carrying the genes for major red-green pigment anomalies - colour blindness).
What does the colour greenred look like? How would you explain it to someone who couldn't see it? How would you know if others couldn't see it?
My inability to summarise those articles right now is an analogue of the trichromat attempting to understand a tetrachromatic space. That, or I'm tired.
O theoperil! Ethiaop lore, the poor lie [FW, 223.28]
All of which reminded me of heliotrope, which manages to be a colour - a pink-purple near lavender - , a flower, a tendency amongst flowers (to seek the sun), a synonym for the mineral bloodstone, and a sighting instrument. I first came across it in Joyce's Finnegans Wake, in which it appears several times, often camouflaged as an anagram, and where it mostly acts as a placeholder, a metaphor, yes - a (helio)trope - for desire.
This is Margot Norris on heliotrope(ism) in the Wake in Coping with Joyce:
Heliotropism is a gesture of turning toward the sun—a gesture whose form is a dance or a movement in a desirous ballet. As a gesture or a signal, heliotrope is implicated in nonverbal language or pantomime, for it functions as a signal that refers us to acts and gestures rather than speech—including speech acts rather than the semantic content of discourse. A heliotrope is a signaling device using mirrors to reflect the rays of the sun: a semiological technique reflected in Joyce's works when its heliotropic references and gestures mirror and reflect each other in asign thematics of desire. In all these ways, heliotrope functions as a trope, a metaphor or figure of the movement of longing, reaching, turning, communicating, and dancing that signifies desire. As all these things, in the plenitude of its overdetermination, and with its significatory function, heliotrope is the answer to the riddle of desire not only in "The Mime of Mick, Nick, and the Maggies" in Finnegans Wake, but in Joyce's oeuvres as a whole.
(Speaking of Joyce, Russell Davies is planning a conference of various interesting things on Bloomsday this year, to which Ulysses might offer:
"citizen up in the corner having a great confab with himself and that bloody mangy mongrel [...] interesting communication published by an evening contemporary" [U 235.39, 249.19])