Pure Color

Twice, so far, the experience of color has been utilized as an analogy for Spiritual Experience on this project: once by me, and once by a commenter. I find the analogy quite fascinating. Color does not, in fact, objectively exist, but is an artifact of the way we perceive light. There is not, simply put, any such thing in the world which is by its nature red. The existence of red is a thing which requires first a particular biological apparatus and then a particular mental construction for its most basic existence. What we perceive as color is nothing more than selective reflection of certain wavelengths of light. That light which an object does not absorb, but reflects away from its surface, we perceive as color due to the peculiar nuances of our neurology.

This becomes even more fascinating when one reflects on the way that color is then encoded in various human languages. Japanese, I have been told, does not distinguish between blue and green. The Poetic Edda names only three colors in the rainbow (though, interestingly, this essay by Kirsten Wolf, explains that this was a common view in Ancient Greece, as well, referencing Aristotle and Aristophanes). It seems as though there is more than mere physiology which plays into our perceptions of color, but some form of inculturation as well. The perception of color is as much a result of form as it is of concept.

I am fascinated with the way that our culture interacts with color, particularly in the realm of home decor. A wall is no longer merely pink, but Ballet Slipper Pink, its name raised to a proper noun and turned from mere word into phrase. Color, in this context, is no longer meant to speak simply of optical effects, but of a subtle emotional details, of a lifestyle: of a way of being within a particular space. Within a room painted Ballet Slipper Pink, we become like little girls, playing at being ballerinas, we are returned to a child-like state of easy imagination. There is, in this forum, a great mythologization of color. Color has the power not only to transform a space, but also the occupant in a purely ephemeral way. An act as casual as walking through a door can now render a strange transmutation, an entire demeanor and manner of existence is altered as one navigates through the rooms in one’s house: from Greek Sailor to Ballerina to Fly Fisherman all in twenty paces.

I think this strange elision goes further, as well, especially with the generations of people who grew up with artificial colorings and flavorings. Drinks are often no longer defined by the fruits whose flavors they are meant to mimic (and fail at, terribly), but by the color of the liquid. Blue is now a flavor, and I can describe and contrast it with the flavor of purple (purple is mellower and slightly more sweet, whereas blue is tart and a little cooling, occasionally with a salty note). I find it incredibly interesting how color, centered in our visual perception of the world, comes to overwhelm other sensory inputs.

Color is pervasive throughout our experience of the world, and yet the subtleties of color become incredibly hard to describe without resorting to poetics. As such, I find the analogy of color to spirituality to be quite useful. Both are artifacts of the particular ways in which we experience the world, and yet both are slippery and elusive in definition. I wonder at the cultural forces which produce the varied discourses on color, and wonder if there could be a linkage with spirituality as well. At what pint does it become necessary for a rainbow to have more than three colors? At which point is it necessary to fracture blue into green and blue? I don’t feel as though we can say that the originators of the Poetic Edda or Aristotle simply did not see all the colors, it simply wasn’t necessary for them to define the gradations beyond three divisions. When does the linkage between color and concept demand that the discourse of color complicate itself to the point that we, today, have a vast array of English color terms?

I would argue that the discourse on Spirituality is just as tied to cultural pressures. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that Spiritual complexity is directly linked to cultural complexity, merely that the needs different culture phenomena impact and alter the ways in which a culture will contextualize Spirituality. How much is Spirituality a cultural product? While one might turn away from the idea of color as cultural product, the meanings and allusions which we link to the experience of color are as much embedded within a cultural context as within the realm of our pure experience.

I think, as far as Spirituality goes, it is incumbent upon us to examine those culturally instill definitions and sensations and analyze their inherent usefulness. I would never imply that one is entirely bound by one’s culture, merely that culture supplies a set of ready made meanings which we quickly map on to given experiences, and which we, as Spiritual Seekers, must be aware of and resist as necessary. The pure enjoyment of color can become quickly muddied by certain cultural allusions (men must not wear pink), and Spirituality is just as prone to such contamination.

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