I'm sure this has happened to you, because it happens on every
flight that lasts more than three hours. As the video pods descend
from the ceiling of the cabin, the flight attendants advertise
the in-flight movie. They've made the speech a thousand times before,
and invariably it closes with the suggestion that all passengers,
including those who want simply to read, snooze or just be left
alone, lower their window shades to reduce the glare on the screens
inside the cabin.
a request I've never honored, even on flights where the only things
to see below the aircraft are the tops of the clouds that blanket
the North Atlantic. Sometimes I'm the only one with the window
shade up. Like most Americans living in the 21st century, I've
logged so many hours in commercial jets that flight is a routine
part of life. But I never tire of the view out the window.
writers who celebrate the glory of flight talk about the novelty
of the aerial perspective, about the gestalt-altering experience
of seeing the earth from strange angles and in unexpected proportions.
But I'm just as happy, sitting by the window at 37,000 feet, to
look up instead of down.
outward and up against the dome of the sky, the wing becomes a
scale against which to measure the changing hues at the blue end
of the spectrum. These are colors almost never visible anywhere
else. From the surface of the earth, the sky appears uniformly
and mildly blue, the way it looks in children's drawings or in
picture postcards; this is because of the scattering effect of
the atmosphere on the shorter (or blue) wavelengths of light.
the higher you fly, the less light is scattered by the thinner
atmosphere, and the easier it becomes for human eyes to sort out
the multitude of colors at the nether reaches of visible light.
Up there, the shades of blue proliferate wonderfully. They pass
from cerulean to azure to indigo, changing finally to shades of
purple: lavender, mauve, eventually an unworldly violet. Together
they form a curtain of colors so rare and pure they seem more invented
than real. Words can't describe such colors because, well, they
language has its own peculiar blind spots, and if you don't name
a thing, there's a sense in which it's really not there. Colors
are notoriously shifty in this respect. We distinguish commonly
between gray, green and yellow, but Anglo Saxons, who had no use,
among other things, for traffic lights, called all these colors
arts patrons in 15th century Italy included in the commissioning
of contracts for portrait painters, in addition to instructions
about the subject, stipulations as to the kinds and colors of paint
that the artists were to use. The painters' clients were often
concerned about gold and silver--the splendor of gilt highlights
did not come cheap--but much more remarkable was their fondness
for the color blue.
the contract for Domenico Bigordi Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the
Magi, for example, the purchaser stipulated that the painter "must
colour the panel at his own expense with good colours and with
powdered gold on such ornaments as demand it, with any other expense
incurred on the same panel, and the blue must be ultramarine of
the value about four florins the ounce."
blue, which was made from powdered lapis lazuli imported from the
Levant, was a color of unusual richness; sensuous, even slightly
dangerous, it gave to paintings a hue deeper and more exotic than
blues made from carbonate of copper. Contracts such as these, writes
Michael Baxandall, are more than records of commercial transactions; "they
point," he says, "to a sophistication about blues, a capacity to
discriminate between one and another, with which our own culture
does not equip us."
humbling to think that our ancestors had a greater capacity for
sensual experience than we do, but that sometimes seems to be the
case. Once my son brought home from elementary school a science
worksheet; his assignment was to fill in the colors of the rainbow.
There were six blank arcs ready for coloring, one each, he said,
for red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. What happened
to indigo? I asked. He said those were the only colors he'd been
taught. I told him that when I was in elementary school I learned
that there were seven colors in the rainbow, that between blue
and violet was a distinct band called ultramarine, or indigo, and
I told him further that I learned to accept this on the authority
of the person who had first defined the spectrum of visible light,
was going to raise a fuss with the DeKalb County schools for dumbing
down the rainbow, but while I was boning up for my encounter with
my son's teacher I discovered that subject was murkier than I had
thought. Newton indeed described seven colors when he passed a
ray of sunlight through a prism--he identified red, orange, yellow,
green, cyan, ultramarine and violet. Nevertheless, his separation
of visible light into seven distinct visual zones seems to have
been less than scientific.
first thought was to name five colors. But this great man of science
yearned for the universe to be structured according to mathematical
and musical principles, and so ultimately he saw--or decided he
saw--seven spectral colors, a number important both in philosophy
and theology, and which, not incidentally, corresponded to the
number of intervals in an octave.
Babylonian word for this blue we are no longer taught to see was
uqnu, and the Babylonians, according to John Berger, prized the
color for its overwhelming sensuousness; one could speak, in that
time, of both male and female varieties of the color, the darker
one being the male.
strange and sad to think of a color divided against itself in the
way of the sexes; stranger and sadder still to wonder why we habitually
lower the shade on it. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet,
but to see a color truly we need to carve out mental space for
it with words.
I think it's a hopeful sign that Crayola recently restored "indigo" to
its largest box of children's crayons. The color itself is not
new, apparently, just the name. The manufacturers state on their
website that "indigo" has been available to the young artiste all
along, just hidden under a different identity.
so many things, this too comes down to politics, and the history
of indigo's disappearance and reappearance on the palette of the
Crayola Corp. is a revealing commentary on how words follow fashion
and how thought, in turn, follows the words. Small wonder we haven't
been able to see it: During the latter part of the 20th century,
Crayola reports, the crayon now called indigo bore the emphatically
uncelestial name "thistle," boxed along with a host of other lackluster
but mindlessly "natural" colors like "fern," "eggplant," "manatee" and--oh,
say it ain't so!--"macaroni and cheese."
This essay first appeared in the July 2004 edition
of Loose Canons ,
the English department newsletter, and is reprinted with permission.