As a child I used to think that the color of a thing was a clue to its personality. I remember when I first understood there was a rhyme and reason to color: the day I got a toy xylophone for my birthday, each bar a different color, a different sound. Music and light—variations of the same thing, everywhere, patterns of colors, one thing blending into another. The most mysterious color wasn’t a color at all: it was the sum of all the colors—white. If colors were numbers, then white was zero—nothing and everything, concealing in its infinite depths a secret beyond imagining. Whether an alpha or an omega, who could say? Herman Melville wondered about this too, inventing Ahab to be dazzled into madness by the whiteness of a whale.
I understood colors. It was white that kept eluding me.
Blues are fluid and cool, the colors of indifference, dinner conversation, comfort, solace, solitude, promises, harmony, and the airy stuff that surrounds and contains our memories. There is a tragic component to blue: the colors of the sea and sky, water and air, every day fade to black.
Green is the brother of blue, just as orange is the sister of red. The sea can be green, as green as a forest canopy. Green connects blue with yellow and so is the color of connections, of the hidden grid beneath reality. Emerald green is the color of magic and luck. Quarks are toucan green, and so is gravity. Faith is deep Sargasso green. Green is also the color of sickness and hallucination, of illusion and fiction—but not lies Lies, of course, are red. Neon red is the color of demands, of sins, of anger and trouble. Lust is wine red. Death is often wound red. The Devil is cardinal red. Deep maroons are the colors of satisfaction and inertia, the colors of ends and beginnings. And plum red darkening into brown, like dried blood, is the color of Monday mornings; but brightening into orange, like luscious tangerines, it is the color of Friday afternoons.
Yellow is the most temperamental of the colors. The most sublime form of happiness is the yellow of marigolds and mimosas. At its green, seaweed end, it’s the color of disgust, disappointment, rejection. Most people are aware that cowardice is yellow; but few know that so is bravery. Yellow is color purging itself of color, color aspiring to something greater than itself. It’s white before metamorphosis and, therefore, the color of resurrection.
Before white there’s silver, the color of ambiguity, doubt, thoughts; the color of absence, forgetting, nothing. Heroism is medal silver, but so is knife-bright treachery. God is mirror silver. Silver is not quite gray, not quite white. At its brightest, it can be mistaken for the sharp white of glints and sparkles; at its darkest it often passes for the dull gray of storms and shadows. A diamond is silver etherealized out of the powdery blackness of coal: light from night, clarity from obscurity, and therefore a natural parable.
If all the colors of light add up to white, then all the colors of paint add up to black. Black and white are profoundly different and yet profoundly the same, the stuff of paradox, metaphysics, mystery. They contain all the other colors—the birth and death of color. At the absolute center of all things, perhaps the absolute itself, is black and white, each eternally becoming the other—shading and unshading like day into night, like yin into yang, like good into evil, like zero into one, like Ahab into Moby Dick, like me into you.
Cause and effect is black and white: the black bowling ball, a channeled chaos of torque and mass and energy, striking the static order of the white pins. Metaphors are paper white. Peace is dove white. Knowledge, however, is black. It is perhaps the blackest thing of all: a shiny ebony blackness that darkly reflects our faces when we peer into it. Mystery is midnight black, but when penetrated is shown to be dawn white. White is the color of snow; but sometimes there is black snow, which once fell plentifully on Auschwitz and its surrounding towns. Both white and black can be the color of blindness. As can logic, white and black alternating and joining in great dialectical chains; chance is dice-white, and so is opportunity, and thus, so is the future, everyone’s tabula rasa. The immediate past is fog-gray shading to a black dot at the furthest remove—matching the white dot at the other end. The present is hopelessly chiaroscuro. Despair can be either white or black. But forgiveness is only white.
What about love? Isn’t it black and white, like Othello and Desdemona? No, love is blue or red or green or even yellow—any color at all. When it finally becomes either black or white, as it sometimes does, it’s no longer love. It’s obsession. Thus, hate is black and white. As is music—at least initially, as evidenced by the keys of a piano and the black notes and staves on the white page of a musical score; but when actually played or sung, music fractures into all the colors of the rainbow. Beauty, too, comes in many colors, but in its highest, purest form, it is always white, like truth.
I know this to be the case because I once had direct experience of it—an experience that happens once in a lifetime, or maybe never at all. It happened to me when I was climbing in the mountains. After a long, exhausting effort through fog I reached the top of a mountain and broke free into a space of exceptional clarity, finding myself above a thick white carpet of clouds that spread out beyond me in all directions, as far as I could see, obscuring the other mountains and even obscuring the mountain I was standing on but for a small patch of snow under my feet. There was no wind; it was serenely quiet. Above me was another layer of clouds exactly like the one below it. In between shone a white sun, filling the space between the cloud layers with a blinding light.
It was as if I had stepped off the edge of the universe and stumbled into Heaven. I was seized with wonder and terror. Wonder at having arrived at just the right moment, at just the right place to experience this astounding sight. Terror at feeling the horrible truth of my aloneness, the smallness of my being in such a vast space, the insignificance of my place in a reality that hugely exceeded even my ability to imagine it. The effect of these emotions was so great, I closed my eyes, but the inner darkness was just as unbearable!
As soon as I opened my eyes again, the combined sense of wonder and terror was greatly diminished. My mind had had a chance to deal with this new experience, filter it, come to terms with it, cocoon it in reason. Now what I felt was a sense of loss when I realized that for perhaps no more than a minute I had experienced the most extraordinary event of my life—something other-worldly suddenly stumbled upon amid the clutter of our ordinary world. Immediately and in the weeks and years that followed, it all dwindled into a conventional memory, with only a vague trace of that magical wonder and shattering terror I had felt. And then I began to doubt whether it really was that big of a deal after all: just a lucky coincidence of light and clouds and my presence there on a mountaintop in a highly suggestible frame of mind. I granted the validity of my doubts, but I couldn’t forget what I had believed so completely, if only for a brief moment, when I reached the top of that mountain and had an inkling of what sort of truth is concealed in whiteness.
“I’ve always be sensitive to color," Kate said, "to the point that even words have color. I posted it on Facebook, and it’s been getting around. Hundred thousand hits, the last time I checked."
The Meaning of White
Inside River Run