Friday, August 11, 2006

"Men in Black"

Do you ever consider the possibility that the color of a character's clothes in a novel bears some significance?

I’ve been skimming around a scholarly book titled Men in Black, by University of Cambridge English professor John Harvey, which will make me pay closer attention to that question.

I’m not really recommending the book—there’s enough nonfiction in our daily lives, and I think you would more wisely spend your reading time with one of this John Harvey’s “Charlie Resnick” procedurals—but there are some interesting bits in the book.

“Men’s clothes went black in the nineteenth,” reads the flyleaf: “Dickens, Ruskin, Baudelaire all asked why it was, in an age of supreme wealth and power, that men wanted to dress as if going to a funeral.” A couple of hundred pages later, Harvey suggests an answer:

[O]ne may say that if there is a dominant meaning in the widespread use of black, that meaning is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man. The ultimate allusion of black is to death, and in the high-black periods, the power the men in black have served has been dead- or death-serious both at home and in the state…. [Yet] in spite of the “dark” values black has often had, one would no more want it cut out of clothing than one would want people to have no weight or no shadow. Which is as well for the many people who, without being ascetic or power-assertive or spiritual, happen still to look best in black, having in themselves a colour, an intensity, a light.
By the way, the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed movie Men in Black followed Harvey's book by a couple of years, and I expect Professor Harvey would like to think of it as confirmation of his thesis.

Consider some black clothes from literary history:

Although Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830) anticipates the large-scale adoption of black fashion in Europe by some years, in addition to the titular black of the powerful clergy Julian Sorel wears the seminarian’s black suit (though Harvey points out, Julian has his “suppressed vivacity.”)

In Madame Bovary (1856), Emma dreams of an imaginary “husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails,” and later takes a lover who she “wanted…to dress all in black, and grow a pointed beard, to look like the portraits of Louis XIII.”

The significance of black clothes in literary history is obvious at least as early as Hamlet (1600?). From Act 1, Scene II:
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black…
That can denote me truly…
… I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
A few centuries later Dickens makes extensive use of black. From his—bleak yet humorous-- description of Pip’s sister’s funeral in Great Expectations, Chapter 35:

At last I came within sight of the house, and saw that Trabb and Co. had put in a funereal execution and taken possession. Two dismally absurd persons, each ostentatiously exhibiting a crutch done up in a black bandage--as if that instrument could possibly communicate any comfort to anybody--were posted at the front door….
Then later:

The remains of my poor sister had been brought round by the kitchen door, and, it being a point of Undertaking ceremony that the six bearers must be stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along, under the guidance of two keepers….
Harvey even delineates at some length the significance of black clothes in Kafka. And there are many, many more instances from literary history to support his thesis.

Closer to our own time, Harvey reminds us of a slice of dialogue from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs:

Why can’t we pick out our own color?

I tried that once, it don’t work. You get four guys fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black.

There is a great deal more in the book; so much more, in fact--as Michiko Kakutani points out in her review of the book here--that the "problem with writing this sort of book [is] the subject can become a metaphor for just about anything and everything that crosses the author's line of vision."

Which happened to me as I read Harvey on Mr. Jaggers in Great Expectations. As a lawyer, Jaggers would be expected to wear black, and Pip recognizes him by "his dark complexion, his deep-set eyes, his bushy black eyebrows, his large watch-chain, his strong black dots of beard and whisker...."

Jaggers? Black? I could not help but think of that fine lyricist Sir Michael Jagger who, with Keith Richards, wrote Paint It Black (1966).

But Harvey does not usually overshoot his thesis or oversell his evidence.

Bonus note on color in literature: if you happen to read Zamyatin’s We--and I recommend that you do--look for the many uses of yellow; it signifies sex.

--Marshal Zeringue