an essay by
|The years like great black oxen tread |
William Butler Yeats
MINE WAS A CHILDHOOD of seasons, and each season had its own special color. Spring was green with grass and blue for robins eggs found broken in the dirt next to the rosebush; summer was gold with heat and shimmering dust and brown faded lakeweeds left drying on the shore; fall of course was red and orange with dying leaves that matched the ochres of new pencils and book covers; winter was red and white, the colors of impatience, of waiting for the gifts to be placed under the tree and waiting for the moment when those gifts could be opened.
I learned the colors of time early and thoroughly, learned to mark the year and the seasons and the days by their colorful tags, the pink and blue icing of birthdays cakes, the purples and yellows of Easter eggs. Color and time became inseparable, perhaps because my father is color blind and I spent much time trying to "see" the world as he must, as a place of contrast and movement and even a primary color or two but without the subtlety of hue and tint. I learned to use color as efficiently as any watch or calendar and can still tell the time within a half hour or so simply by looking for clues in the way sun hits lilac leaves or tints the clouds. (Don't test me on this. I don't perform well under pressure.)
We tend to think of time as the great invisible. It is friend and foe, lover and for a few brief months when we are so new we can't recognize even a clock's ticking, it is a stranger. Time is omnipresent and, ultimately, omnipowerful. Yet we cannot see or smell or touch this shadow of eternity, winged chariot, great leveler, robber, unmasker of falsehood, this kindly god...or so goes the litany of names given time by poets and philosophers.
Yet we have learned to measure this great invisible, to mark it, to celebrate, to mourn it. We have named it for its duration as moment, minute, hour, day,week, month, season, year, decade, century, era, millennia...eternity. (Time, in old Irish, begins with a word that translates only as "in the blinking of an eye."). We have tried to make time visible by tagging it the way scientists tag butterflies and sperm whales. We have discovered time, measured time, tried to control it by assigning shores and paths as if it were a river we could chart and even dam. We have tried to make the ethereal tangible, even tried to be on a first-name basis with it.
But as well as naming time with an avidity matched only by Adam's urge to name the beasts who shared his Eden, we have colored time. Like children with crayons, we have filled in the outlines of the great invisible and assigned to it portions of the rainbow, that fraction of time between storm and stillness when moisture prisms sun into the never-reached goal of fortune seekers. We talk of green youth and gray age, of rosy dawn and violet dusk, of blue days and silver anniversaries, of black hours and golden eras. We mark the holidays of the year with color, and the different ages of history and its events with color.
For instance, the new millennium is going to be a blue one, according to astrological lore. Blue, the color of both air and water, the color of melancholy and of many spring wildflowers, the color of this planet when seen from outer space, is the astrologically assigned color for the next Great Month, the Age of Aquarius, which began New Year' Eve, 1999. Perhaps the blue of the Aquarian Great Month now beginning reflects the inevitable journey of earth dwellers from closed dark cave to infinite unknown space. Or perhaps the Age of Aquarius will be marked by manic depression on a universal scale.
All Great Months have their own color: the age of Pisces, begun when Christ was born, was sea-green, an appropriate color for an era marked largely by a religion whose foremost symbol was that of the fish. The Great Month of the Pharaohs, also known as the Age of Gemini, was yellow, the color of gold and sun and hot sun. The earliest known Great Month, the Age of Leo, when humans first stood upright and recognized the usefulness of opposing thumbs and forefingers, was an orange time, symbolizing fire and creation.
The colors of the Zodiac are just one of many ways we have assigned a visible characteristic, color, to the greatest of all invisible entities, time; color leaches down to smaller increments as well, to the ages by which we pigeonhole history. The classical eras of Greece and Rome, for instance, favored purple-reds and ochres and black. Empedocles viewed color as the root of all existence, with yellow representing earth, black representing air, red representing fire and white representing water; Homer's seas were wine-red, not blue or green. (Nietzche and other philosophers have even speculated that the Greeks could not see blue and green, seeing in their place deep browns and lighter yellow, hence their tendency to use the same word to describe dark hair and a stormy sea.) In classical Rome, blue was the color of foreigners and barbarians and it was blue-painted Picts who gave the Roman empire that fatal struggle in Britain that helped weaken the empire. The Blues, a political party favored by the emperor Justinian, eventually brought the Roman empire to its knees.
The great monotheisms eventually replaced paganism and violet, the color of penance, eventually replaced purple-red, the color of blood sacrifice and of human beings made into gods (another reversal there, with the Christian dogma of a god made into man!). Attic ochres and terra cottas gave way to the blues and greens in shadowed catacombs and airy cathedrals, and green became the color of the Prophet. The blues of Christianity and greens of Islam clashed in the banners of the Crusades, giving way to the heraldic colors and emblems of the Middle Ages, the gules (bright red), azure (deep blue), purpure (purple), argent (silver) and other colors still found in national and familial coats-of-arms. The many colors of heraldry merged into black during the Inquisition of the seventeenth century, when monotheism became a pawn of power hungry leaders: "black clothing suits our age," commented one observer. "Nowadays everyone loves black: earthly, material, infernal, the color of mourning and sign of ignorance."
In the Enlightenment and later, color became the subject of scientists and philosophers who, perhaps wearied of the often dangerous splitting of fine hairs and arguments over angels, sought to find rational explanations for how and why we see color at all, and the physical properties of color. Hegel, Jean-Paul Marat and Goethe all proposed color theories as part of a new humanism; color, in the modern era was no longer about decoration and representation, but light and space, red stars and blue stars and the infinity we now measure in terms of light years. In this modern era, the Age of Aquarius, color may well become the primal color of the big bang, the explosion of white and light that began time. (Interestingly, archaeologists speculate that our first calendar was white, Neolithic piece of carved bone that marks a two month cycle of lunar change.)
To color time, though, we don't have to look for anything as grand as an era or age. The seasons that eventually make up the ages, as well as the Great Months and Great Years (a great year is about 28,000 solar years, or the length of time it takes the Earth to move through all the signs of the zodiac) also have colors associated with them, and perhaps the most colorful season of all is spring. In the West, spring is traditionally the color of yellow daffodils and purple crocus, but in India the spring festival of Holi is marked with crimson and saffron, the specially tinted waters that children throw at each other to celebrate the new season.
In the traditional Chinese calendar an Azure Dragon presides over spring, the Divine Tortoise (brown) presides over winter, The Vermilion Bird guards summer, and the White Tiger symbolizes autumn.
While most cultures think of yellow as a good luck and happy color, in the Arabic calendar, the month of Safar, yellow, is considered unlucky not because it is the autumn time when leaves turn yellow but because it is believed to be the month when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps one of the most poetic forms of telling time also comes from the Arabic, from Islam, when the break of day is marked with the first prayer: day begins, according to this theology, at that precise moment of dawn when gray is vanquished and our eyes can pick out colors.
Color marks vanity as well as glory, and mid-afternoon, during France's Ancien Regime, was known to a certain class of people as the White Hour. It was the time between informal morning audiences and the more formal activities of the evening, the time when hairdressers scurried from palais to palais, trailing the white talcum powder of their trade behind them, when miladies and milords, swathed in sheets of linen, let attendants douse their heads with clouds of talc so they could emerge fashionably pale and white-haired. (I've always found it strange that a color most people identify with age should have reached such extreme popularity, especially in a group of people not particularly known for their sobriety.) While the hair was being powdered, ladies and gentlemen of style dressed in colored silks with ridiculous names such as "infant puke" "flea dirt" and "mouse's belly." Later, that same white hair would earn you a trip to the guillotine, so hair dressed au naturel quickly became the custom. It was no longer advantageous to see so quickly, and easily, who was master and who was servant, and the White Hour faded to nothingness.
A hundred years later, another folly, almost as dangerous as being aristocratic in an age of revolution, was marked by the Green Hour. Absinthe, distilled from the leaves and flowers of wormwood, is green in color and toxic when unmixed. When combined with alcohol it can produce hallucinations and intense, prolonged intoxication. Around 1840 the French military began adding it to the wine stock provided soldiers in Algeria, thinking it might help prevent fever, and by the end of that century absinthe had become a stylish cocktail favored by Manet, Daumier, Picasso and others who gathered at their favorite Parisian cafes for the Green Hour. Van Gogh, in homage, painted a still life of a glass and decanter of absinthe, the recreational drug of choice for nineteenth-century artists such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, Degas and Baudelaire. And for many of them, the Green Hour ended with early death related to the same addiction that fueled both art and social life.
While France enjoyed its Green Hour, Rome, less fantastic in its domestic pleasures, began the old world tradition of the Blue Hour, that time of day when men traditionally visit their mistresses after work, but before going home for the evening meal.
In the nineteenth century the complex pastels of monarchist Europe gave way to a Victorian fascination with white: Moby Dick was a white whale, the white Arctic and Antarctic glacial fields became the explorer's destination of choice and women of any reputation preferred to be painted in white, as well as married in white. White, the final statement of absence, became the ultimate contradiction in an age of ever-increasing contrast: white tombstones against skies black with industrial smoke, chaste wives in white gowns in harlot-red boudoirs, pseudo-classical sculptures in white marble, whereas the originals would have been glorious in polychrome. White, in the nineteenth century, became more than an absence of color, it became a statement of bourgeois values.
How will we eventually tint the late, great twentieth century, a century known not for great religions or inventive pastimes, but for immense politic frameworks? Will it be green, for the color of capitalism, or red, as a kind of memorial to that other economic option? That's the thing about color, it must be viewed from a certain distance, like history itself, before it is really knowable, identifiable. We can pick our favorites, but only time itself will make the ultimate decision on the appropriate hue for time passed.
And, of course, while we play in time, test time, and suffer in time, we dress ourselves in the colors of time, putting infants and toddlers in playful pastels, youths and maidens in pure whites, lusty adults in red (Adam, according to Hebrew tradition, means "red" and red has, since Adam, been a color of life, of passion, of celebration). We clothe old age and the weight of the years in black and violet, the color of ashes, the color of mourning. Perhaps, eventually,in the blackholes of outer space, we may even find a world where time reverses itself, where continuity of change, like light, is pulled into a denseness so rich and inevitable that time itself no longer holds us, as Dylan Thomas voiced it, "green and dying, and singing in my chains like the sea."
Jeanne Mackin is the author of six novels and a book of herbs. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College.
This essay originally appeared in The Book Press in June of 2000. Thank you for logging on. We post frequently, so please check back again. You can contact us at OnagerEditions@aol.com.