The Brown Study

Or, as a brown man, I think.

But do we really think that color colors thought? Sherlock Holmes occasionally retired to a “brown study”—a kind of moribund funk; I used to imagine a room with brown wallpaper. I think, too, of the process—the plunger method—by which coffee sometimes is brewed. The grounds commingle with water for a time and then are pressed to the bottom of the carafe by a disk or plunger. The liquid, cleared of sediment, is nevertheless colored, substantially coffee. (And coffee colored has come to mean coffee-and-cream-colored; and coffee with the admixture of cream used to be called blond. And vanilla has come to mean white, bland, even though vanilla extract, to the amazement of children, is brown as iodine, and vanilla-colored, as in Edith Sitwell’s “where vanilla-coloured ladies ride,” refers to Manila and to brown skin.) In the case of brown thought, though, I suppose experience becomes the pigment, the grounds, the mise-en-scène, the medium of refraction, the speed of passage of otherwise pure thought.

In a florescent-lit jury room attached to a superior court in San Francisco, two jurors were unconvinced and unmoving. I was unconvinced because of the gold tooth two bank tellers had noticed. The other juror was a man late in his 20s—rather preppy, I thought on first meeting—who prefaced his remarks with, “As a black man, I think…”

I have wondered, ever since, if that were possible. If I do have brown thoughts.

Not brown enough. I was once taken to task—rather, I was made an example of—by that woman from the Three penny Review as the sort of writer, the callow, who parades his education. I use literary allusion as a way of showing off, proof that I have mastered a white idiom, whereas the true threepenny intellectual assumes everybody knows everything, or doesn’t, or can’t, or shouldn’t, or needn’t, and there you are. Which makes me a sort of monkey-do.

Well, you see, I thought I was supposed to. I wasn’t decorating my remarks. Was I too eager to join the conversation? It’s only now I realize there is no conversation. Allusion is bounded by Spell Check.

After such a long education, most perceptions authentically “remind.” And I’m not the only one. The orb Victoria held in her hand has passed to her brown children who, like Christ children in old paintings, toy with the world a bit, and then, when no one is looking, pop it into their mouths. The only person I know for whom the novels of Trollope are urgent lives in India.

It is interesting, too, to wonder whether what is white about my thought is impersonation, minstrelsy. Is allusion inauthentic, Ms. Interlocutor, when it comes from a brown sensibility? My eyes are brown. Cheeks of tan?

Most bookstores have replaced disciplinary categories with racial identification, or sexual. In either case I must be shelved Brown. The most important theme of my writing now is impurity. My mestizo boast: As a queer, Catholic, Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate, Chinese city in a fading, blond state in a post-Protestant nation, I live up to my 16th-century birth.

The future is brown, is my thesis—is as brown as the tarnished past. Brown may be as refreshing as green. We shall see. L.A., unreal city, is brown already, though it wasn’t the other day I was there—it was rain-rinsed and as bright as a dark age. But on many days, the air turns fuscous from the scent glands of planes and from Lexus musk. The pavements, the palisades—all that jungly stuff one sees in the distance—are as brown as an oxidized print of a movie—brown as old Roman gardens or pennies in a fountain, brown as gurgled root beer, tobacco, monkey fur, catarrh.

We are accustomed, too, to thinking of antiquity as brown, browning. Darkening, as memory darkens, as the Dark Ages were dark. They weren’t, of course; they were highly painted and rain-rinsed. We just don’t remember clearly. I seem to remember the ceiling, how dark it was. How tall it seemed. The kitchen ceiling. And how frail we are! What used to be there? A shoe store? A newsstand? I seem to remember it, right about here…a red spine, wasn’t it? Have I felt that before? Or is this cancer?

At last, the white thought, the albin pincer—pain—an incipient absence, like a puddle of milk or the Milky Way. The glacier knocks in the cupboard. Why is cancer the white ghost? Why are ghosts white? And what year was that? Which play? Well, obviously it’s Shakespeare. “Lear”? “Cymbeline”? Golden lads and girls all must…Death is black. Coffee may be black, but black is not descriptive of coffee. Coffee is not descriptive of death. Can one’s life be brown? My eyes are brown, but my life? Youth is green, and optimism; Gatsby believed in the green light.

Whereas there is brown at work in all the works of man. By the 18th century, the majority of Mexico was mestizo, neither “pure” Indian nor “pure” Spaniard—brown. Time’s passage is brown. Decomposition. Maggots. Foxing—the bookman’s term—reddish brown, reynard. Manuscripts, however jewel-like, from Dark Ages, will darken. Venice will darken. Celluloid darkens, as if the lamp of the projector were insufficient sun. College blue books. Fugitive colors. My parents!

If we wish to antique an image, to make memory of it, we print it in sepia tone—sepia, an extract from the occluding ink of the octopus, of the cuttlefish, now an agent for kitsch. Whereas the colors, the iridescent Blakes at the Tate, are housed now in perpetual gloom, lest colors be lifted from the page by the cutpurse sun. The Kodachrome prints in your closet—those high-skied and hopeful summer days—are dimming their lights, and the skies are lowering. Would we be astounded by the quality of light in 1922?

Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

The prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him. And it had come to him that morning with a punctual, unembarrassed rap at the door, a lamp switched on in the sitting room, a trolley forced over the threshold, chiming its cups and its spoons. The valet, second floor, in alto, Hindu Cockney—and with a startled professionalism (I am browner than he)—proposed to draw back the drapes, brown, thick as theater curtains.

Outside the hotel, several floors down, a crowd of blue- and green-haired teen-agers kept a dawn vigil for a glimpse of their Faerie Queene. Indeed, as the valet fussed with the curtain, they recommenced their chant of “Mah-don-ahh. Mah-don-ahh.”

Madonna was in town and staying at this hotel. All day and all night, the approach or departure of any limousine elicited the tribute.

Mah-don-ahh was in town making a film about Eva Peron (both women familiar with the uses of peroxide. Not such a bad thing to know in the great, brown world, Oi, mate?).

I was in London because my book had just come out there. My book about Mexico. Not a weight on most British minds.

Did I ever tell you about my production of “The Tempest”? I had been at the theater the previous evening. Not “The Tempest” but the new Stoppard, and I watched with keener interest as the Asian in front of me leaned over to mouth little babas into the be-ringed ear of his Cockney hire. One such confidence actually formed a bubble. Which in turn reminded me of my production of “The Tempest.” (South Sea Bubble.) I would cast Maggie Smith as Miranda—wasted cheeks and bugging eyes—a buoyant Miss Haversham, sole valedictorian of her papa’s creepy seminary. Caliban would be Johnny Depp. No fish scales, no seaweed, no webbed fingers, no claws, no vaudeville. No clothes. Does anybody know what I’m talking about? Ah, me. I am alone in my brown study. I can say anything I like. Nobody listens.

Will there be anything else, sir?

No, nothing else, thank you.

Brown people know there is nothing in the world—no recipe, no water, no city, no motive, no lace, no locution, no candle, no corpse that does not—I was going to say descend—that does not become brown. Brown might, as well, be making.

My little Caliban book, as I say, bound in iguana hide, was about Mexico. With two newspapers under my arm, and balancing a cup of coffee, I went back to my bed. I found the Book Section; I found the review. I knew it! I read first the reviewer’s bio: a gay, Colombian writer living in London.

What the book editor had done—dumb London book editor of the Observer had done, as Kansas City does and Manhattan does—is find my double, or the closest he could find, in greater London. It’s a kind of doppelgänger theory of literary criticism and it’s dishearteningly fashionable among the liberal-hearted. In our age of “diversity,” the good and the liberal organize diversity. Find a rhyme for orange. If one is singular or outlandish, by this theorem, one can’t be reviewed at all. Worse than that, if one is unlike, one will not be published. Publishers look for the next, rather than the first, which was accident. But the Observer wasn’t even within bow-range. Their gay gaucho was clueless.

The liberal-hearted who run the newspapers and the university English departments and organize the bookstores have turned literature into well-meaning sociology. Thus do I get invited by the editor at some magazine to review your gay translation of a Colombian who has written a magical-realist novel. Trust me, there has been little magical realism in my life since my first trip to Disneyland.

That warm, winter night in Tucson. My reading was scheduled for the 6:30 slot by the University of Arizona. A few hundred people showed up—old more than young, mostly brown. I liked my “them,” in any case, for coming to listen, postponing their dinners. In the middle of a paragraph, a young man stood to gather his papers, then retreated up the aisle, pushed open the door at the back of the auditorium. In the trapezoid of lobby light thus revealed, I could see a crowd was forming for the 8 o’clock reading—a lesbian poet. Then the door closed, silently sealing the present. I continued reading but wondered to myself, Why couldn’t I get the lesbians for an evening? And the lesbian poet serenade my Mexican-American audience? Wouldn’t that be truer to the point of literature?

Well, what’s the difference? I do not see myself as a writer in the world’s eye, much less a white writer, much less a Hispanic writer, much less “a writer” in the 92nd Street Y sense. I’d rather be Madonna. Really, I would.

The Frankfurt Book Fair has recently been overrun with Koreans and Indians who write in English (the best English novelist in the world is not British at all but a Mahogany who lives in snowy Toronto and writes of Bombay).Inevitably, the pale conclusion is that brown writers move “between” cultures. I resist between, prefer among or because of. You keep the handicap. After all, it has taken several degrees of contusion to create a jaundice as pervasive as mine. It has taken a lifetime of compromises, the thinning of hair, the removal last year of a lesion from my scalp, the assurance of loneliness, the difficulty of prayer, an amused knowledge of five-star hotels—and death—and a persistence of childish embarrassments and evermore prosaic Roman Catholic hymns, to entertain a truly off-white thought. Here comes one now. Un marron!

No, I guess not. There’s a certain amount of “So what?” that comes with middle age. But is that brown thought?

Thus did literary ambition shrivel in my heart, in a brown room in a creamy hotel in London, constructed as a 19th-century hospital and recently renovated to resemble a Victorian hotel that never existed except in the minds of a Hispanic author from California and a blond movie star from New Jersey.

Eve’s apple, or what was left of it, quickly browned.

“Christ! A white doorway!” was Bukowski’s recollection of having taken a bite on the apple. When Eve looked again, she saw a brown crust had formed over the part where she had eaten and invited Adam’s lip. It was then she threw the thing away from her. Thenceforward (the first Thenceforward), Brown informed everything she touched. Don’t touch! Touch will brown the rose and the Acropolis, will spoil the butterfly’s wing. (Creation mocks us with incipient brown.) The call of nature is brown, even in five-star hotels. The mud we make reminds us that we are: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return into the ground; for out of it wast thou taken…

Toil is brown. Bruegel’s peasants are brown, I remember noting in a Vienna museum. I

n his book “Abroad,” Paul Fussell reminds us how, early in the 20th century, the relative ease of modern travel and boredom allowed moneyed Americans and Europeans to extrude the traditional meaning of the laborer’s brown and to make of it a glove of leisure. What the moon had been for early 19th-century romantics, the sun became for bored 20th-century romantics. The brown desired by well-to-do Europeans was a new cure altogether: tan.

There is another fashionable brown. An untouchable brown. Certain shrewd, ancient cities have evolved an aesthetic of decay, making the best of necessity. Decrepitude can seem to ennoble whomever or whatever chic is placed in proximity—Anita Ekberg, Naomi Campbell. The tanned generation, aka the Lost Generation, gamboled through the ruins of the Belle Époque. The cardinali of post-war drug culture—Paul Bowles, William Burroughs—found heaven in North Africa, mansions white. It’s a Catholic idea, actually—that the material world is redeemed; that time is continuous; that one can somehow be redeemed by the faith of an earlier age or a poorer class if one lives within its shadow or its arrondissement, breathes its sigh. And lately fashion photographers, bored with Rome or the Acropolis, have ventured further afield for the frisson of syncretism. Why not Calcutta? Why not the slums of Rio? Cairo? Mexico City? The attempt is for an unearned, casual brush with awe by enlisting untouchable extras. And if the model can be seen to move with idiot stridency through tragedy, then the model is invincible. Luxury is portrayed as protective. Or protected. Austere, somehow—“spiritual.” Irony posing as asceticism or as worldly wise.

One of the properties of awe is untouchability. Silènzio, the recorded voice booms through the Sistine Chapel at five- or 10-minute intervals. Do not speak. Do not touch. Even resurrected Christ—the white doorway himself—backed away from Mary Magdalene’s dirty fingernails. Don’t touch! I would have expected a Roman Catholic understanding of time to accommodate centuries of gaping mouths, respiration, prayer, burnt offerings—and reticence—offering the exemplum of a clouded ceiling to 20th-century pilgrims. After all, we live in time. Our glimpse of the Eternal must be occluded by veils of time, of breath, of human understanding.

The human imagination has recently sustained a reversal.

One would have expected the pope, as the preeminent upholder of the natural order, to have expressed reservations about the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling. The pope, however, in a curiously puritanical moment, gave his blessing to a curator’s blasphemy, which was underwritten by the Japanese fetish for the cleaning of history. The blasphemy was to imagine that restoring the ceiling might restore the Vatican’s luster. The blasphemy was to imagine that time might be reversed. The blasphemy was to believe that time should be reversed.

The human imagination has recently sustained a reversal. We have cleaned the ceiling. Michelangelo’s “Creation” and “Judgment,” the first and the last and the pride of centuries—a vault over the imagination of the world—have been cleaned, have been restored, unhallowed, changed and called “original,” though no one has any idea what that might mean. (What was the light of day in 1540?) Nile greens and rose-petal pinks, tangier oranges and the martyred saints —what supernal beaver-shots. Well, we want them preserved, of course we do. And we are keen to see them as they, the dead, saw them, as Michelangelo painted them. The very Tree of Knowledge has been restored, each leaf rinsed and all the fruit polished, the fruit and the sin re-polished. Having seen, we also want them back the way they were.

We want what Eve wanted…Just curious.

We had become accustomed to an averted eye, to seeing darkly, as old men see. It required many thousands of Q-Tips, many thousands of gallons of distilled water, which is to say, merely a couple of years, to wipe away the veil of tears, the glue from awakened eyes, to see born-again Adam touched by the less complicated hand of God. Now our distance from the representations, both alpha and omega, has been removed. And with it all credibility.

Blind John Milton—brown all!—dictating “Paradise Lost” to his aggrieved daughter in the dark, understood that what changes after Adam’s sin is not creation but our human relationship to creation. (We cannot be content, even on a warm, winter day in L.A., but we must always carp about a white Christmas.)

Maybe Milton, in this sense, in his preoccupation with the Fall, was more an ancient, swarthy Catholic than a true, ready Protestant. (Protestantism was also an attempt to clean the ceiling.) Those famous religious refugees from Restoration England were (like Milton) Puritans who believed they had entered a green time and were elected by God to be new Adams, new Eves (as old John Milton could not, with the scabs of Europe grown over his eyes, and painted tropes of angels plaguing his memory—brown all, brown all).

Let us speak of desire as green. In the Roman church, green is the color of Ordinary Time, a prosaic pathway. For American Puritans, green was extraordinary. They supposed themselves re-made by their perilous journey to a new world they were determined to call green, proclaiming by that term their own refreshment. They had entered a garden ungardened and felt themselves free of history, free to re-enact the drama of creation.

Green became the founding flag of America; and so it would remain for generations of puritans to come, whatever our religion or lack. American optimism—our sense of ourselves as decent, naive, primary people (compared to those violet, cynical races); our sense of ourselves as young, our sap rising, our salad days always before us, our belief that the eastern shore the Europeans “discovered” and the fruited plain beyond were, after all, “virgin”—all this would follow from an original belief in the efficacy of green.

Thus did the Dutch sailors in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” spy the sheer cleft of an approaching “fresh green breast.” That same green breast is today the jaded tip of Long Island, summer home to New Amsterdam investment bankers and other rewarded visionaries who do not resemble their portraits. And the tragic hustler’s ghost:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning…

We—I write in the early months of the 21st century—we are now persuaded by Marxist literary critics to goddamn any green light, to hack away at any green motif. Someone off-stage has suffered, and no good can come of it. We are a college of victims, we post-moderns; we are more disposed to notice Fitzgerald’s Dutch sailors were not alone upon the landscape (we easily pick out chameleon Indians hidden among the green tracery) than we are to wonder at the expanding, original iris: How the Indians must have marveled at those flaxen haired Dutchmen.

Well, most likely the Indians were too terrified to morphologize or eroticize on the spot. What happens next? Watch, as the Indians did watch—with darker dread and puzzlement—what cargo these pale sailors unloaded. From below deck emerged Africa in chains, the sun in thrall to the moon.

Thus, perceiving Europeans having only just arrived, the Indians already saw. Indians saw Original Sin. The dark ceiling. The stain spreading like oil spill. Rumor, too, must have spread like wildfire across the Americas—making green impossible from that moment except as camouflage or tea.

Forgetting for the moment the journeys of others and the lateness of the hour, considering only the founding triad of our clandestine exhibit—Indian, European, African—we see (as well as the Founding Sin) the generation of the erotic motif of America. A brown complexity—complexity of narrative and of desire—can be foretold from the moment Dutch sailors and African slaves meet within the Indian eye.

I think I probably do. (Have brown thoughts.)

About the Author

Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. He is currently at work on two books, one about the Abrahamic religions and the desert ecology, and the other about beauty.

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