Charles Riley - Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color

Extracted from: Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology by Charles A. Riley II, UPNE (1995), pp. 265-267 [1]

As the chapter continues, the history of Vineland's discovery is reviewed in picturesque and even more strained chromatic terms. The trees become "too high, too red to be literal trees." This is a good example of the role color plays in the memory and in history according to Pynchon. It leads to an abrupt switch to the grisaille of an old photograph, which complements the austere and disturbing image of a burning forest (Crescent Camp No. 1 by Darius Kinsey) used on the jacket of the hardcover edition:

Someday this would be all part of a Eureka-Crescent City — Vineland megalopolis, but for now the primary sea coast, forest, riverbanks and bay were still not much different from what early visitors in Spanish and Russian ships had seen. Along with noting the size and fierceness of the salmon, the fogbound treachery of the coasts, the fishing villages of the Urok and Tolowa people, log keepers not known for their psychic gifts had remembered to write down, more than once, the sense they had of some invisible boundary met when approaching from the sea, past the capes of somber evergreen, the stands of redwood with their perfect trunks and cloudy foliage, too high, too red to be literal trees — carrying therefore another intention, which the Indians might have known about but did not share. They could be seen in photographs beginning at about the turn of the century, villagers watching the photographer at work, often posed in native gear before silvery blurred vistas, black tips of seamounts emerging from gray sea fringed in brute-innocent white breakings, basalt cliffs like castle ruins, the massed and breathing redwoods, alive forever, while the light in these pictures could be seen even today in the light of Vineland, the rainy indifference with which it fell on surfaces, the call to attend to territories of the spirit ... for what else could the antique emulsions have been revealing? (p. 317)

The virtuoso effect of the switch to black and white is startling. Pynchon freezes time photographically and simultaneously allows for rapid interplay between two ages, as well as between physical fact and metaphysical belief. The passage begins with the look of what is primary, or prior, in all of its chromatic fullness. It verges on something metaphysical or extrasensory in its power and beauty. A significant phrase is the "too red to be literal" description of the trees that baffle ordinary senses. As the officer in Gravity's Rainbow wondered what controlling hand might be sending messages through the diffused parts of the explosion, so the sense of another order is invoked in the landscape.

When Pynchon shifts gears into the photograph, he has to deal with a difference in medium. Now it is the light and dark contrasts that emerge from the "antique emulsions" that command attention. The passage is very like the description of the chalk drawing in Rainbow in its sensitivity to delicate tones and shades. From white to silver to black, Pynchon still manages to evoke chromaticism in an object that is ostensibly achromatic. The challenge is to make the photograph represent more than it is, chromatically as well as "spiritually."

The same challenge faced Pynchon in his writing. In both novels, he managed to evoke responses to an ostensible color world with the barest means. The fictive role he gives to color is full enough to raise some of the most pressing philosophical and even physiological questions in the history of color while maintaining his individual palette and way of handling color. Like Joyce, he let the forces of chromaticism run roughshod over the linear battlements of schematic thinking. Pynchon's maps are all covered with the bright stains of his own peculiar tonal concoctions. It may not be easy to discern the patterns or plans the strains follow, and the systematic nature of the codes breaks down, but the effect of color let loose is wonderful to watch.

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