When Milton was writing Paradise Lost, he was, biographers tell us, quite unable to see. His light was “spent,” to use his own description from his nineteenth sonnet: he simply could not see. He could not perceive faces, or shapes or colors. With remarkable skill and precision, he dictated his magnum opus to two scribes. He could no longer see the vivid images of this world. He had receded into permanent physical nightfall, the black quietude of total darkness. He no longer knew colors firsthand.
Colors are remarkable things. To my mind, colors are perhaps the most amazing things in the universe, or at least the universe as I know it. Now I admit, that the strange fish that pop up from time to time are also remarkable.
They are, often, surpassing strange, marvelous in their own right, if a quite terrifying right. I once had an alligator gar pass right by me when I was swimming in a lake. Startling.
But to return to colors. Colors can be explosive.
Fish themselves, even the not very weird ones, can be the bearers of those colors, and spectacularly at that. And so can human beings, particularly their eyes.
Gazing into someone’s eye (not, as one does on Valentine’s day, into someone’s eyes but rather into someone’s eye, quite literally) reveals not only the receptacle, as it were, of the colors, but also a world of colors per se, all dancing on a quivering, gentle and vulnerable stage.
The eye and the colors it both houses and receives cry out something even more special than a perfect sunset, which offers a moment of beauty, but one that is quite far away. They eye offers its luster close at hand. Yet, like the sunset, that beauty is untouchable, for one cannot and should not, of course, touch another person’s eye. Its beauty, its colors, are preserved in a special space, close at hand but strangely afar as well. And of that beauty, the most amazing part is the variegated color, the shifting moments of dark, light, blues, browns, and greens.
Color then is suggestive, to my mind, of a kind of unnecessary bonus for humankind. One could make the same argument for honey or chocolate or even coffee or hummus, but hummus, tasty as it is, is a human construct, made of natural ingredients, but nonetheless confected by human hands. Honey, purer, of course, and sweet as it is still requires some kind of harvesting. Coffee requires picking and roasting. Chocolate, say such as is in a dark chocolate dove bar, must undergo some true preparation by chocolatiers, of whom I know but one. Her name is Susan, and she was, she told me once, when she lived in California quite a good chocolatier. Now she is a student of literature.
But these treats, tasty as they are to ponder, are all delights that we human beings have harvested for ourselves. Colors are not. They are true gifts that, save to the blind or the colorblind, are here for all to see and admire, and to ponder. Yes, to ponder, for they need not have ever been there. We could easily have been born into a world without color (or honey, for that matter). And the world would have been, of course, far less sweet for the loss of both.
But how did colors come into being? Science answers that question in the form of a dissertation about refracted light. But the question of why there is color at all, why we do not live in a colorless world or colorless universe—indeed, we can even at the great distance of 48,678,219 miles (as compared to the Moon, which is a mere 238,900) see that Mars is the “red” planet—that question seems to me to be within the purview of philosophers or theologians. I can only say, from my limited vantage point, that colors make me think of a Creator of color, a great Artist of the universe, who, not satisfied with a merely monochrome world decided to add color—to create color, and then to splash it upon all things. While I know we owe much to Isaac Newton’s analysis of how color comes into being through the refraction of light, still there is something beyond mere refraction that I am alluding to. I am alluding to why in the world (or rather, out of this world) refraction exists. Why, even though it does, the human eye can detect it at all. After all, so I am told, dogs can see only a touch of color. But we can more, many more, and to me the capacity to see that beauty suggest both that there was an Artist who rendered it and that that Artist wanted an audience to enjoy it. But I wax theological, so I leave that aside.
Rather, I would like to return to the issue of color as it manifests itself in today’s world, at least in my part of it, which is the United States. It seems to me that people think about color here either not enough or far too much. Either they fail to ponder what I just fleshed out above, not linking color with beauty or the Artist who created all beauty, or they ponder too well that things are different colors or, rather, that people are. Elaine Jakes, after whose Curious Autobiography this website is named, taught me a very long time ago not to see color, not to notice. She wasn’t politically correct, and indeed despised political correctness. But she was—or rather she chose to be—racially unbiased. (If you don’t believe me, read the opening pages of chapter 4 of that book.)
Bias, you see, is a choice—it is always a choice. It is never a matter of, “poor fellow, he grew up in a bigoted family. Perhaps he is simply suffering from a case of ‘affluenza.’” Yet at some point one decides to appropriate for one’s own or reject the values or biases or even favorite athletic teams one inherits from one’s parents.
Some of those values are eternal, for example, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”—or at least they should be. Others, not so much: put your napkin on your lap—okay, maybe that one ought to make the cut, too. But what about “text your parents daily when you’re off at college.” That might be appropriate for some folks, but not for others. That final example of a family rule, while far from a bias, is nonetheless one that can be changed and adapted to fit the circumstance. In other words, it’s a choice.
And so are crappy “values” or “biases” that you know are crappy and have no demonstrable foundation and should be done away with: they are choices. Looking askance at someone because of skin color or background or gender or social caste is precisely this. Which brings me to the idea that some see colors too well. Those who do, notice skin tone, and judge based on it. They themselves can be of any race. They themselves judge other groups inferior to their own. They themselves see that kind of color too well, and probably fail to see the color of the eye, or even of a spectacular sunset.
All colors matter, all are beautiful. At the same time, color does not matter, and it does not precisely because all human beings matter, and all are beautiful. I hope that you and I both see and not see colors this week, that we enjoy the colors that matter, not those that do not. Choose wisely, choose colorfully. May you choose to see the beauty of color.
So Ovid once wrote, “God and better nature redeemed this strife, for He separated the land from Heaven and the waters from the lands… .” (hanc deus et melior litem natura diremit / nam caelo terras et terris abscidit undas)—Met. 1.21f.