What Color is the Sacred?

January 14, 2010

Thread destined for a woman's skirt, Salcaja

The gringos here in Guatemala told me that the day before coming back, I would be depressed. I was fine the day before- it was the day after that really got me. Sometimes, even the volcanoes and tortillas don’t make up for the loneliness that comes from losing yourself in another culture. 

In What Color is the Sacred?, Michael Taussig writes about the frequent evocations of color in the diaries of Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish anthropologist who developed the “participant observation” method of fieldwork. Living in the South Pacific, Malinowski wrote about brilliant pink sunsets and deep blue oceans, the experience of entering the waves in canoes and of moving through blinding white light. Malinowski did not find “participating” at all easy: feeling lost and depressed, his survival strategies ranged from reading Dumas to using cocaine. But it was color, Taussig argues, that enabled him to enter into the cultures he studied. “It was an invitation to take him out of himself … to exchange ways of bodily being,” writes Taussig. “All that fine work society has performed over the years since we were born, orienting and adapting us to physical and cultural realities, shaping our sense of self and bodily being- all of that is shaken, and in the process, new ways of being invite us to be.”

Taussig’s lyrical- if somewhat meandering- book starts from an anecdote about Goethe, who observed that “people of refinement” in Northern Europe only wore white, black or gray. Color was associated with the New World, Southern Europe, the tropics: in other words, people who “lacked” refinement. Even as Taussig questions the veracity of this claim, tracing the consequences of European desire for bright Indian muslins and powerful indigo dye, he argues that color is imagined differently in other cultures. Anyone who has spent time in Latin America would have to agree. The excess of clashing color that is common here would be considered garish in the United States. But after the initial surprise, it becomes fascinating, provocative, beautiful. 

Growing up, the landscape of my imagination was irrevocably Northern. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louis May Alcott and dreamed of golden prairies and white winters. The colors of the tropics were the chemical red of powdered fruit punch and the neon pink of plastic leis. It wasn’t until I came to Latin America – first Brazil, later Mexico- that I really understood how potently, hypnotically colorful the world can be. I will always remember Mexico as a turquoise comedor on a Saturday morning, light spilling on the red and yellow oilcloth on the table. And here in Guatemala, when I am feeling lost and lonely, I walk under the lavender flowers that fall over the walls, close my eyes, and wait for new ways of being to invite me to be.


One Response to “What Color is the Sacred?”

  1. Nora said

    this is beautiful.

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