I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized A Study of Scarlet

A Study of Scarlet

Catherine Marshall
Red: The History of a Colour, by Michel Pastoureau, Princeton University Press, 216 pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0691172774 Ingmar Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers dramatically disrupted his signature black and white palette. All Bergman could offer in explanation for the change was, “All our interiors are in red, of various shades. Don’t ask me why, it must be so, I don’t know … the whole thing is something internal … I have pictured the inside of the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red.” Even the customary black used to divide film sequences is replaced with red in Cries and Whispers. Michel Pastoureau employs the same dividing formula in Red: The History of a Colour, but without the visceral impact or ambiguity that surrounded the colour for Goethe, Bergman, Freud, Mao Zedong and others. Even Anne Carson’s verse novel Autobiography of Red suggests a life for the colour that transcends Pastoureau’s prosaic history, linking it to Greek mythology, frustrated passion and homoeroticism in contemporary Canada. Like Bergman’s film the “autobiography” associates the colour with a sense of the primal, of inexplicable forces beyond our control. In attempting to give a chronological account of how the colour came to be produced, valued and used in Western society since the days of the cavemen, Pastoureau falls back on a formula that worked for his earlier books about black, blue and green, but seems oblivious to the uncontainable energies that make the concept of this book so exciting. You cannot contain “red”. Pastoureau does point out that “red is an ocean” and the historian risks drowning in it. So he confines himself to a “few leading threads (the lexicon, clothing, art, fields of learning, symbols)”. Yet his heroic attempts to deal with those threads, fascinating as they are, fail to acknowledge that mysterious power that Bergman could work with but not rationalise. Sadly they fail on another count too: it is simply not possible to deal with the symbolic uses of the colour – even if we agree about what it is – in Western society over thousands of years, whether in flags and heraldic banners, road signs or the French cap of liberty, in just a few image-filled pages. The symbolism of red is so undermined by contradictory practices that it is virtually impossible to claim it for either good or evil as the author attempts to do. The colour of prostitution, and the devil, of avarice,…

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