The Bright Side of Gray

With a long gray line of winter days stretching ahead, we would do well to explore the positive aspects of the spectrum between dark and light.
With a long gray line of winter days stretching ahead, we would do well to explore the positive aspects of the spectrum between dark and light. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gray is good.

If we could just learn to live this fundamental truth, think how quickly these long, gray wintry weeks would pass. In the morning, you'd throw open the curtains, cast a connoisseur's eye out on a slate-gray sky with touches of woolen hues over an ashen base, and say to yourself: By God, another beautiful gray day! You wouldn't pine for the cheap poetry of a rosy-fingered dawn. You'd be happy that today, just like yesterday and the day before, the morning began like someone turning up a rheostat from pitch black to a colorless color that smothers light in a peculiar, hard-to-define, can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it, uniquely today gray way.

But there's the problem with gray. It is the color of ambiguity and, as with most ambiguous things, we lack an adequate vocabulary for it. Gray eyes are good, gray hair is not (salt-and-pepper, for men, is considered "distinguished," a dubious compliment at best). We're happy to wear gray suits on our skin, so long as they don't make our skin look gray. And the shades of gray we can readily identify are few. Add battleship and pewter to the aforementioned slate, woolen and ashen, and that's about it. All the other grays, like the green-gray of the ocean before a late-afternoon storm, or the blue-gray of a Jackson Pollock painting, are gray with impurities. They're not real gray, because gray is more about the absence of color than it is a color of its own ("an achromatic color of any lightness between the extremes of black and white," reads the dictionary).

We remember this from finger painting. Mix colors together and you get nasty browns and eventually black. Mix black and white together, and you get lovely gray. But as long as gray is defined, metaphorically, as the absence of something -- color, life, happiness -- rather than the purest expression of all the nuance between black and white, gray will be synonymous with monotony.

And anxiety, and indecision. The young English poet Rupert Brooke, sitting up in bed, staring at a wall in his room at Cambridge, described his feelings at dawn on a summer day in 1912 after an early, awkward sexual encounter: "I unexcitedly reviewed my whole life, and indeed the whole universe. I was tired, and rather pleased with myself, and a little bleak. About six it was grayly daylight."

"Grayly daylight" isn't very poetic, for a poet, but you get the point. Neither happy nor sad, neither satisfied nor empty, gray is for Brooke a philosophical mood, a mood for contemplating the whole universe but without much passion. It's a middling mood that's not so bad when you're in it but seems "a little bleak" in retrospect. Add "morning after" gray to the list of specific gray hues that might enhance our basic Anatomy of Gray.

Brooke's post-coital gray is a close relative of mortal gray. They are only one exit apart on that Freudian inter-county connector of the unconscious. Gray as absence of color is also gray as death. "The gout and rheum, that in lag hours attend for grey approachers," Shakespeare says of the elderly -- using the English spelling, with an e, which has the virtue of distancing gray from gravy and gravel.

But Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," a literary symphony in gray, turns this around. Life may be sad and gray, but color is false. Leaving the gray north of Europe for the gray south of Europe, a man whose name is Ashenbach -- that's Ashbrook or Graystream or River of Soot in English -- confronts the most fateful decision of his long, distinguished, woolen-gray life: To dye his gray hair and tart up his gray skin, or live an honest gray life? For Mann's man of gray, color is death.

To embrace gray, we must resist the idea that gray is all about absence. Politicians, grayness made corporeal and animate, should seize on the better meanings of gray. John Kerry lost because he couldn't turn gray around. He couldn't convince the people of Ohio -- is there a grayer state in the Union? -- that gray was better than black and white, so the country went black and white and red all over. Gray didn't work very well for Bob Dole, either. And pity poor Gray Davis, a man with a buzz-kill epithet for a first name.

No one would look at a black-and-white photograph by Ansel Adams and think: Where's the magenta? The Japanese-born photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has photographed the subtle gray line that divides gray sky from gray water, the fuzzy horizon over ocean, sea and lake, with an obsession for the nuance of gray. Some might say his photographs are really all about silver, but what is silver but gray with a vulgar sheen? Add to the repertoire of gray "Sugimoto gray," a vague, subtle, to-be-used-sparingly descriptive term (like "evanescent" and "haunting"), that really means gray in an indefinable sort of way.

What Sugimoto has sought in his photographs -- the full spectrum of gray -- we could all productively seek in our lives. A life spent dreading gray is a life in which whole months disappear into monotonous gloom, a life in which time and aging are felt as a leaching away of something vital, rather than a gathering of subtlety and experience. To thrive in a January of short days and under a low-hanging canopy of creeping gray clouds requires yet another hue of gray. Call it Absolute Gray, the holy grail of gray, a gray beyond which nothing is grayer. Add or subtract one thing from Absolute Gray and it would be less gray, less perfect in its grayness.

Pursue this color. Perhaps you think you've found it on a rainy day in Stockholm, but then you notice, no, they paint their city lively colors, they resist Absolute Gray with a Maginot line of yellows. You haven't found Absolute Gray yet.

Maybe it's there at 3:30 in the afternoon on a cold, overcast December day in Romania, a country that makes no defense against gray. Gray concrete buildings, set against a gray sky and the withered gray remnants of dead, gray grass, so gray that if an ocean of white and an ocean of black mingled for millenniums, they still couldn't be grayer, that's Absolute Gray.

Or is it? Because if you've found it, so early in winter, so early in life and so far from home, how will you make it through Washington in February?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company