Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fiction Review: "Blue & Green," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Virginia Woolf contemplates colors, asking the reader to consider them in tangible and intangible form, as well as from objective and subjective points-of-view.

“Blue & Green” features Virginia Woolf in her prose-poem mold. There’s no significant narrative content; the piece is a meditation on the perceptions of color. Woolf specifically focuses on color being experienced in both tangible and intangible forms. Tangible color includes the appearance of animals, such as green feathers or blue skin. The examples of intangible color Woolf describes are the heat mirages above desert sand, as well as the image of light refracted through the stained glass of a chandelier. The immediate impression of the piece is that it is a cataloging of how color takes diverse forms.

Woolf, though, is too sophisticated to waste a reader’s time with something as simplistic as a list. She also emphasizes that the experience of color is as relative as it is diverse. She uses blue details to heighten the reader’s sense of a great fish’s strength as it swims through the sea, which she then juxtaposes with the use of the color to render its pathos while it lies dead and rotting on a beach. Colors are also depicted as relative to themselves: the light refracted through the glass can be either blue or green depending on the time of day.

Woolf is also sophisticated enough to give the piece a clear structure, having it move from objective to subjective perceptions. The examples of color in the opening half, such as the light seen through chandelier glass, carry no emotional inflections; they’re of color experienced coolly and impersonally, an effect Woolf heightens by including a bracketed description of birds squawking. Sounds, like emotions, carry shock and immediacy; objective perception simply is. By definition, it stands apart. However, there’s no standing apart from the images of the fish’s life and death that take up most of the second half. Woolf means for the reader to identify with the fish in both its glory and degradation. We see the light refracted through glass; we feel the fish’s experience of life and death. The subjective takes over from the objective.

And in the final sentence, the subjective gives way to the ambiguous. The renderings of the fish prompt a straightforward emotional response. Woolf, though, closes with an image of a cathedral’s interior, and one doesn’t know whether to experience it as a description of peacefulness or oppression. One is inclined towards the latter, but one isn’t quite sure: Woolf pointedly says the feeling to be evoked is different from that of the beached fish. My own thought is that the cathedral is intended as an image of strength, but not one like that of the swimming fish. The fish in its life evokes joyous awe; the cathedral is a presence that--perhaps--inspires fear. However, one can also take the cathedral as an image of permanence; the fish’s glory, in contrast, is fleeting. I suppose the insight one is to take away is that colors carry many meanings, including ones that can’t quite be sorted out.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf