The Genealogy of Colours

The Genealogy of Colours

November 18, 2021 0 By Anton

‘He is here, Helena. Your teacher just arrived. He is getting ready and then you can join him in the living room.’ Helena’s mother told her blind girl on a soft but solemn tone. Helena could hear the teacher downstairs setting up: papers were placed on the wooden table and the noise of a chair being dragged across the floor could be heard twice – one chair for him and one for her.

‘Come,’ Helena’s mother took her hand and walked her downstairs. A sweet perfume of black orchids and sea salt welcomed the twelve year old girl when she stepped in the living room.

‘Helena, this is professor K.. He is a very busy man but kindly made some time to explain to you what colours are.’ The mother then turned towards K. and, leaning towards him as if Helena wouldn’t hear, she told him on a cautionary note: ‘Quite a few scientists and professors have tried before, I think five or six, but all failed to explain what colours are to my daughter whose greatest desire is to know what red looks like.’

Professor K. smiled and nodded solemnly, suggesting to Helena’s mother that he understood the task at hand. He then looked at the child with his emerald eyes. Helena’s hair was made into two blonde braids and she was wearing a full-body red skirt with white roses on it, as well as a pair of crimson leather shoes.

‘Thank you,’ professor K. replied. ‘We will be just fine.’ Her mother looked at Helena then nodded and left the living room.

‘Please sit.’ Professor K. invited Helena who knew exactly where the chair was and sat down. ‘I was told that you want to know what colours are.’

‘That’s right.’ Helena replied confidently. ‘One of my other teachers told me that colours are what dresses up the reality around us. But I can only feel reality with my hands, or nose, or tongue,’ Helena said as she felt the chair underneath her. ‘This is wood, firm and beautiful, I am sure, but what colour is it?’

Professor K. wanted to reply but the girl already did: ‘Brown. I know. I was told. It is brown. But what is brown? Another person said it is like chocolate. But wood and chocolate are very different things. If colours dress reality, and two different things are of the same colour – and don’t start with their shades please – then what can I make of what colours are?’

Her teacher looked at the animated young girl. Helena’s passion was overwhelming even for K., who had decades of research in the fields of psychology and philosophy at numerous universities across Europe, exploring questions with answers that lurked beyond the human mind. K. was the one who proved the existence of the soul without appealing to logic, imagination or intuition. He built on the work of Augustine of Hippo and bridged philosophy with theology, resurrecting the truth that psychology was the science of the mind and soul, as Carl Jung argued some time ago.

However, never before did K. encountered someone so young with desires so great. Most people wanted fame and wealth – tragic fools. A small minority dreamed of glory and wisdom – desperate individuals. But Helena, this young girl, wanted nothing more than to know the birth of colours.

‘Your mother told me that you can read in Braille. What have you read so far?’

‘Plenty of books. Mostly literature. I have no interest in science or technical stuff.’

‘I see,’ K. replied with a smile. ‘So what have you read?’

‘Let’s see. Just a few days ago I finished The Trial by Kafka. I felt sorry for the protagonist; poor man, he believed in justice and the goodness of society, trusting those around him even as the world around collapsed into madness. I also read one of Mishima’s books, even if my mother told me that it wasn’t for my age. The sailor who fell from grace with the sea it was called. I did not like it, however. Too heavy in aesthetics: too many colours and I couldn’t follow the action.’

‘And when you read The Trial, what did you see?’ K. asked.

‘Mostly darkness. I was told that darkness is black, so I guess I saw black. But there were also shapes, which I followed through the narrow streets and corridors of Kafka’s bizarre and yet very real world.’

‘How real?’

‘They felt familiar. That is what I call reality – a place of familiarity.’

Professor K. took out a sharp pencil out of his leather briefcase which was placed next to his chair and a stack of ten or twelve sheets of paper from the table and handed them to the girl.

‘Draw the shapes for me, please.’ His voice was kind and curious. Helena began drawing without pushing the pencil too hard against the paper, with elegant moves actually, soft and careful, as if someone was guiding her hand.

K.’s emerald eyes followed the charcoal pen leaving marks on the thick, egg-shell paper. As if she sensed that a gaze was following her drawing, Helena inclined the papers at an angle that was out of the professor’s sight. After half an hour, the young girl handed the papers back to him.

What K. saw was nothing less than a work of art: Helena drew tens of shadowy figures, darkened men and women, from the waist up, with their figures black and their faces hidden behind black scribbles, well contoured, all staring at her: a crowd of charcoal, faceless ghosts.

‘Thank you,’ K. said satisfied. ‘We are done for today. I will take this with me, if you don’t mind, and I will see you next week.’ He put the drawing in his briefcase, carefully arranging it so it won’t tear or bend.

‘But you still haven’t told me what colours are. Will you tell me next week?’

The professor looked at the girl, who was swinging her feet at the edge of the chair, and replied on a kind tone:

‘Maybe not next week, but I will eventually. Together, we will find what colours are, and this drawing is an important first step.’

Helena nodded, smiling that finally someone was confident in their approach. All the other teachers were confused and struggled to understand how to proceed about with this task. But K. seemed to know the way, even if that was not true: K., like the rest, did not know how to tell the blind girl what colours were, but he had something which the others did not possess: faith. He believed that he will be able to make Helena’s desire come true and understand and experience colours, even if she could never see them.

Of course, he could give the girl the scientific definition. He could have said something like: ‘Well, Helena, chromatics is the science of studying colours and if we look at the established consensus, then colours derive from the spectrum of light – radiations we perceive with our eyes, or with technological tools, that come from the outer space. You need light receptors to really know what colours are, unfortunately.’

But that would have achieved nothing, for science was unhelpful in this case. So was logic; and imagination could not develop worlds which were impossible to be imagined. What then was left but to simply and totally believe that it can be done? Call it faith if you wish, but that was the final source on which professor K. could draw upon in order to help Helena.

After their session, he went back to his place, a beautiful house in a quiet part of the town and spend hours examining the drawing: the black, eyeless faces were staring through him. Nothing but shades of charcoal, lighter, darker, a fog covering human shapes.

Then, just before midnight, after hours of examining Helena’s work, he spotted something unusual: a shade of pink – faint, lost in between all that darkness. K. then remembered an old story about the importance of beauty: ‘Do not be fooled by appearances, for beauty is found within,’ K. said out loud and rushed to write down this insight, which was, of course, not ground breaking.

In that moment, as he staired at the words he wrote down, K. knew then and there, that the way will reveal itself to him. All that he needed to do is to believe in it. And so, he began abandoning the path of certainty and embarked on the quest of diving into chaos.

K. returned next week to Helena’s house. When he knocked on the door, her mother opened it slowly. She saw in his shinny green eyes that something positive has happened.

‘Did you know how to explain what colours are?’

K. shook his head: ‘No. But we are on the right track.’ The mother invited him in the living room.

‘Helena is upstairs. I will go and get her.’

‘Wait,’ professor K. said, putting his briefcase down and pulling out the drawing. ‘Do you see it?’

Helena’s mother looked at the drawing. ‘See what? Who did this?’

‘Your daughter. I asked her to draw what she saw while reading Kafka’s The Trial and this is what she drew. But look closer. The pencil I gave her was charcoal, as most of the image is – various shades of grey. In the background however if you wish to see it, there is a dash of pink.’

The professor pointed it out to Helena’s mother who was awestruck. ‘I see it,’ she whispered.

‘Only because you wished to see it,’ K. stressed. She looked at him slightly puzzled. ‘This is not a matter of science, or of imagination. It is something else. We must abandon what we thought we knew and venture into the unknown. There the answer to your daughter’s question lies.’

She nodded thoughtfully, although her eyes were sceptical. ‘I will get Helena.’

K. prepared the living room as before: the same set up. In a few moments, the girl was brough by her mother.

‘Hello again,’ K. said smiling.

‘Good morning,’ the girl replied. Her mother looked at K. with hopeful eyes then left the two alone.

‘So, do you know what colours are?’ Helena asked as she positioned herself on the chair.

‘I do. But that knowledge is boring and futile here. I sense that you already have the answer within you.’ K. handed Helena the drawing she did last week. ‘Here, do you feel anything different?’

Helena took the paper and felt it with her soft hands. ‘No. Just a paper.’ Her fingers crossed the section where the dash of pink was. She stopped for a moment. ‘No. Nothing. Why?’

‘There is a different colour on that paper which could not have appeared from the pencil which I gave to you. That pencil was charcoal, and the alien colour is a dash of pink. Faint, as if it is in the distance, but it is there.’

Helena smiled. ‘Really?’  

K. nodded: ‘Yes.’ A deep but comforting silence fell over the room. Helena was wearing a dark green dress with small red horses on it. K. was also wearing a dark green, velvet jacket and brown wool trousers, for it was December and outside it was cold. The streets were mostly empty as the snow and frost made people stay inside and look from the cosiness of their homes how nature transformed itself into a land of stiff, icy and white shadows.

‘Do you know what I think about that pink?’

‘What?’ Helena asked curiously.

‘I think that the colour manifested itself because of your inner world of emotions: your soul spoke louder than your blindness and that was the result of its voice.’

Helena wasn’t pleased by the response. Her mother told her that science would provide an answer, that people in labs and universities were working to solve the world’s greatest mysteries, and, even if hers wasn’t part of that glorious list of questions, they would eventually provide a satisfying answer to defeat her blindness and reveal how reality dresses up.

K. saw this in her body movements: stiffer, with less energy. He knew how to proceed, however.

‘Tell me then, what other things you enjoy, besides reading?’

The girl thought for a while and then answered in a row: ‘I like to help my mother cook, especially desserts, I like stories, to listen to them when I am in bed, in weekends, and I like music.’

‘Do you play an instrument?’

‘Yes. I play the violin.’

‘Why do you like the violin?’

The girl hummed for a bit and then remembered: ‘I heard a song once, a soundtrack from a movie. It was about the Jews escaping the Germans who, for some reason nobody explained to me, wanted to kill them.’ She was speaking of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. ‘Do you know why they didn’t like the Jews?’

K. knew. But the answer was too dramatic for a child, for the truth was that the hatred among people knew no nationality, ethnicity or creed: it was part of the universality of human nature. Helena could not hear, at least at the young and fragile age of twelve, about the savage nature of men who were civilised only through doom and fire.

‘I don’t know. But I heard about that movie. It was a good movie.’

‘Yes. I saw it with my mother. Well, she saw it. I only heard the action.’

The professor paused for a moment. ‘So the violin. A beautiful instrument for a beautiful soul. And what stories do you like to listen to?’

With a sudden smile, Helena replied: ‘My favourite one is The Beauty and the Beast.’

‘Really? Why is that?’ K. was intrigued.

‘Only love could transform a beast into a beautiful prince. In the end, nobody is that bad.’

Her teacher wrote down before the session was over the three key words from the meeting with Helena: desserts, stories and music. These were the next clues in finding out how to explain to the blind girl what colours were.

That weekend K. was at the library, researching for his upcoming paper which he was writing during his professional life: The lost inheritance of our common psyche: the search for Paradise Lost through nostalgia. Piles of books covered his desk. Jung’s The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Eliade’s History of Religions, Ruck’s The Road to Eleusis and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness could be seen wide open, with pieces of paper and book marks throughout them. The professor was taking notes in the warm light of a lamp.

His emerald eyes were absorbing the literature, paying close attention to footnotes and authors that were no longer cited in other publications: those who were ignored by the general bulk of academics were thinkers who held the keys to worlds which were abandoned because they no longer fit with the metaphysical model of current society. But K. knew better: metaphysics were nothing but the illusory search for truth, malleable guidelines of the human mind.

Hours passed and knowledge was decomposed and recomposed, words flew before his eyes and meaning was framed by his mind. A strange line sent K. to a footnote which then sent the professor to a book with its name in Hebrew. K. decided to look for that book in the library.

After a good search, in the middle of a long shelve, deep into the library’s rows of ancient books and manuscripts, K. found the book. It had a crimson hard cover and seven hundred and eighty-four pages. He identified the book by its smell – of rose oil – not by what was on the front cover as nothing was written there. The professor took the book back to his study desk, moved the other papers and books aside and pulled the lamp over the crimson square.

With a gentle move, he opened the book and looked through its pages. Some were in Hebrew, but others were in an old English. The publishing year was 1790 by an obscure Italian historian who, perhaps out of fear of total obliteration in the name of equality and justice, sought to preserve some of the key insights born in the past.

One of the chapters was entitled The Genealogy of Colours and began at page five hundred and three, extending for twenty-five more pages. K. began reading:

“The first description and categorisation of colours comes from primordial times. According to texts from all over the world, from the far East, various places in Africa, Central Europe and North America, the myth goes like this: a blind shaman was expelled by the warchief of his tribe for not being able to show which war paints the gods demanded to cover the flags with and put on his warriors’ skins. It was of no use to sacrifice any more soldiers bearing the wrong marks for the colours were thought to be the material manifestation of the words of gods. So the shaman left the tribe behind but he was not discouraged, for he knew that the way of faith was the only way to make the impossible possible.

He spent months travelling the woods, sleeping under the naked sky, next to circular bonfires. Not once did the shaman encounter a wild beast nor an insurmountable hardship: he knew that the gods were guiding him through the darkness of his blindness, as well as through the valleys and rivers of his world.

One night, it was total silence. No wind was blowing, and the trees were still. No bird or animal moving around, all was frozen. Something within the shaman told him to start singing. He took the small drum he used for his rituals and began a chant, not about the gods or their ways, not about nature and its ways, but about the human heart.

As the shaman sung, his drum echoed far into the night sky, and the changing constellations stood still. With each vibration, the shaman saw the colours: red, blue, green, yellow, purple, white, and their shades – pink, grey, turquoise and so on. He continued singing until all the colours of the universe revealed themselves to the shaman.”

Professor K. closed the book. ‘Music is the answer,’ he whispered.

In a haste, he gathered his notes and books and went home.

Next week, K. was walking down the street towards Helena’s house. It was a Wednesday at dusk. The winter sky was a dark turquoise with milky-grey clouds covering most of it, scarred by splashes of flaming pink and orange in parts. A river of deep indigo was pouring itself on the horizon line.

K. looked at the magnificent colours as he was walking, thinking how to apply what he learned from that old crimson book to his session with the young girl.

After a soft knock on the wooden door, the Professor was invited in by the mother. He went inside the warm home with a bit of cold winter air from outside. Helena was waiting for him in the living room. The chairs were already set up as before. K.  placed his briefcase down and saluted the girl.

‘How are you this afternoon?’

‘I am well, thank you.’

Helena’s mother closed the door and left them alone.

‘I have good news,’ he said as he pulled out of his briefcase the crimson book. A sweet scent of roses engulfed the room.

‘I think I found a way to make you understand what colours are. But it is not guaranteed that it will work; it is based on an old legend which is described in this book,’ the professor explained and placed the book on the table, next to a violet vase full of white peonies. The little girl’s head turned towards the gentled thud. ‘But I will need your help with it.’

‘How can I help?’ Helena asked eagerly.

‘Can you play the violin for me?’

The girl nodded, stood up and went to the door, opening it. Her mother came at once when she heard the door open.

‘What happened?’ she asked nobody in particular.

‘Can I go and get my violin to play for my teacher?’

The mother looked at K. who smiled and nodded. ‘Of course. I will go get it. You go back and sit on the chair.’ Helena did as she was told.

In a few moments the mother came rushing down with Helena’s delicate violin. As her daughter prepares the instrument, she looks at K. whose emerald eyes invite her to stay in the living room with them.

‘What should I play?’

‘Anything that your heart desires,’ the professor replied. After a small pause during which Helena gathered her thoughts she began playing a soft and melancholic tune. The two adults watch the blind girl play, and her violin cried and cried. K. closed his eyes and with a soft touch of hand he encouraged Helena’s mother to do the same.

Ten minutes have passed, and the song ended. Nothing happened. Helena’s teacher opened his eyes, and her mother did too. There was no sense of telling what colours were. K.’s eyes brushed the old book stationed on the table and then fixated on the girl:

‘Do you know another song?’

Helena nodded and began to play another one. This time too, the two adults closed their eyes and travelled the black darkness as the violin was played. The song was shorter than the one before and ended more abruptly.

‘Why am I playing the violin?’ Helena asked. K. approached the blind girl, took the musical instrument from her hands and placed it on the table, sat her on the chair and stepped back, closer to her mother. He then explained the discovery he made in the library.

The mother looked unconvinced, almost disappointed that this prominent intellectual could only come up with this explanation which she regarded as nonsense. However, the girl, after pausing for a few moments, said:

‘Then, I have to play what I want not what I have learned.’

Both K. and her mother looked at the determined blind child as she picked up the violin, positioned it and began playing.

The tune was melancholic, almost nostalgic. That feeling of longing for something lasted for a good ten minutes, going lower and higher into the pits of alienation from the world around her. An intoxicating scent of burnt pine tree and sweet cherries engulfed the room. The mother and K. had their eyes shot and allowed themselves carried away by the vibrations of the violin.

Then, from the abyss, shades of indigo appeared. Purple, dark and bright, pink and a dash of red, all separated each other and united in a dance directed by Helena’s song.

The song went on, now with a romantic undertone, accentuating the red and bringing to life shades of bright yellow that merged and formed lighter and darker oranges.

As the constellations stopped changing, just like the old legend was claiming, all the colours of the universe slowly revealed themselves with each different vibration of the song. The last one to appear was blue: from slate to navy, into teal and a bright arctic.

Helena finished the song. Slowly, the professor and her mother opened their eyes. They were both smiling, awestruck by what just happened.

‘I saw the colours. I know what they are now.’ Helena explained.

‘What are they?’ her mother asked.

Placing her violin on the table, next to the crimson book, the girl replied: ‘Vibrations. Colours are how our soul speaks to us through music. Even if I cannot see red, I know what red looks like because I know how it feels.’

K.’s job was done. He picked up his book and briefcase and, before leaving, he kneeled in front of the bling girl and extended his hand:

‘It was a pleasure to work with you Helena.’

Sensing that his hand was in the air, she shook it. ‘It was a pleasure for me too. Who would have thought that I already knew the answer.’

Her mother, smiling, looked at the teacher as he got up: ‘Thank you. I thought this was impossible.’

‘Me too. But Helena believed it was not, and that was sufficient.’ K. then left the house and went back home, travelling afoot through the winter night. The sky was clear and the stars were scattered burning white dots.

Once home, K. took out the old book and put it on the table so he could return it to the library the next day. However, he felt compelled to look through it one more time, double checking if what he read was true.

K. opened the book and noticed that the first page, before the contents were enumerated, was torn in part. On the piece of paper that was left hanging from the book’s cover, in black ink that now decayed into an old grey, someone handwrote:  

“How foolish we are to think that we need eyes to see. All that there is exists within us.”