The Colors Of Life

It was formerly the custom in such provinces as Normandy, for example, or Britanny, to consecrate children to the color blue. The vow was limited to a certain number of years,—seven, fourteen, or twenty-one,—probably because of the virtues of the number seven, as considerable as they are mysterious.

Most often the final figure was decided upon,—the age of reason, says the Church, which considers it never too soon to place its hand upon the conscience and the will. It was charming for the little girls, though somewhat monotonous; on the contrary, it was troublesome to the little boys. But it seems the custom was efficacious in warding off the illnesses of childhood, and that it drew to the “consecrated one” the protection of the gods—I mean, of the Virgin—and of the celestial court. The divine personages, inhabiting the sky, which is blue, were in fact seen in blue by the popular imagination, and to adopt their color and assume their livery was to put oneself in the shelter of their power and win their good grace.

Women, through an analogous, though much more complicated and varied symbolism, often select a color and match all the elements of their toilette to it as far as fashion permits. It is exceedingly difficult to ascertain the reason for their choice. They themselves are at a loss for explanation. Often they believe that they have chosen the color or the shade that best frames their complexion or that harmonizes best with the color of their hair. But often they go astray. Those who are fond of bright blue would look far prettier in very pale green or in deep red, for example. They admit this, but for form’s sake only: a secret power holds them to the color that they have desired through instinct,—the color under which they will live, under which they will know love and all the joys and all the tears of life.

Not only women, but men have their color. We seem to do the choosing, but it is nature that imposes it upon us,—it is she that dedicates us to the shade that shall be our favorite atmosphere.

One who will never feel merry amid red hangings will grow cheerful amid green or yellow. Astrologers say that we are dominated by a planet that controls our destiny. This is not very easy to understand. On the contrary, nobody would deny the rôle played in our lives by colors. Would such and such a woman have evoked the passion which is today her happiness if her gown, on that evening, had been rose and not mauve? Who can tell? It requires so little to entrance the eye and so little to provoke it. A false note, and the concert that was thrilling us fills us with laughter. If Cleopatra’s nose, said Pascal, had been shorter, the face of the world would have been changed. As for me, I believe that Cleopatra rather resembled Dido, who, according to Scarron’s mot, was “somewhat snub-nosed, in the African style.” Perhaps it was really the happy shade of her tunic, the harmonious hue of her peplum that vanquished Antony and brought him to the feet of the queen of Egypt. History, which so often gossips beside the point, is mute upon this capital question. Nevertheless, were I to write the life of Cleopatra, I should write it in green,—Nile green, of course,—and nobody, I believe, would have the effrontery to contradict me.

Writing lives or stories in such and such a color is one of the things I have recently tried to do, and the attempt has in some instances proved to be a rather delicate affair to manage. There are blue women; there are rose ones, and mauve and red; that is to say, they may be scarcely represented except in association with one of these colors or shades. Conceiving an old maid who had retained her good looks, who was very pious and yet of very equivocal habits, I could see her only in violet. The story is violet from beginning to end; it was impossible for me to introduce a different hue; I would have felt that I was committing a gross offence against harmony. The lady is vowed to violet: to place upon her head a blue or rose hat would have been a sort of sacrilege which would have terrified even her. Can this be the reason why her narrow life as an old maid found late in life so many happy, if perverse, days? Without a doubt, for violet, which is her color, is also her logic, and it is always well to have respected the logic of one’s destiny.

Now, in thus amusing myself, I have not made any pretensions toward reforming esthetics, nor toward revolutionizing the conditions of the art of writing. I have simply been playing with a box of pastels, loving the colors for themselves, one by one, somewhat in the manner of the great and singular artist Odilon Redon, whose flowers are so real that one is moved to smell them.

We have our favorite colors. Tastes and colors…. This aphorism is not at all so frivolous as one might believe. Nietzsche, who was by no means a superficial spirit, cites it willingly. It is an argument that favors individualistic philosophy and freedom of thought. It is an argument, too, and not the least valuable, that supports determinism and the philosophy of necessity. For the colors we love are not dictated by choice but by a secret sympathy which it is impossible for us to reason out. The study of tastes and colors should form part of psychology. Perhaps there might even be discovered here the elements of a new science. Being fond of red or of green is not a matter to be dismissed with indifference.

A preference for red indicates rudeness, and the fondness for green reveals tenderness of character. It is known, moreover, that red is an excitant, while green induces repose, and meditation. The studios of the firm of Lumière, where photographic plates are prepared, were at first provided with red panes of glass; but this led to such effervescence,—the men and women, after several hours of red gazed at one another with such sparkling eyes, that it was necessary to have recourse to panes of a soothing color. Men that come from large cities, overexcited by the disharmony of sounds and colors, can regain a bit of calm only amid the forests and the prairies or at the sea-shore, which is green when it is not blue. Blue is the most soothing of colors, and it is doubtless thanks to its blue sky that the South may endure the brilliancy of its springs, the purple of its autumns.

Color has its importance. Before making friends with anyone, before undertaking the conquest of a woman, observe what their favorite colors are. Think at the same time of your own, and try to make happy combinations. If you are fond of red, take to yourself a dash of blue, thus forming an agreeable lilac; and if it is blue that charms you, do not reject yellow; this combination will give you all the shades of green and will assure you lifelong peace. How many misfortunes have been caused by the maladroit mixing of hostile colors! But above all, beware of violet. There is no more perfidious hue; it is, among the colors of life, the least stable and the most hypocritical.


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