Elaine Scarry, “Imagining Color: Color Threads in Proust and Murasaki” | National Humanities Center

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Elaine Scarry, “Imagining Color: Color Threads in Proust and Murasaki”

December 7, 2017

Literature, unlike the other arts, has no material content. The pictures are made on the mental retina. When we imagine a color, do we think of a piece of language that spells out the name of the color or does a physical (or quasi-physical) event take place in the brain? This lecture traces out the moments at which two great colorists, Marcel Proust and Lady Murasaki, summon color into being both in the worlds of their respective novels, and on the “mental retina” of the reader. Using contemporary neuroscience as well as classic experiments on the imagination from cognitive psychology, the lecture examines the phenomenon of color threads, the background colors against which our imagination carries out its acts of image-production, and the unexpected relationship between color and mortality.

Elaine Scarry
Elaine Scarry, Harvard University
Elaine Scarry (NHC Fellow, 1979–80) teaches at Harvard University where she is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. Her books include The Body in Pain, On Beauty and Being Just, and recently, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom. Her focus is the problem of citizenship in the face of intentionally inflicted injury: torture, war, and the monarchic structures in place since the invention of nuclear weapons. Scarry has explored the image-making power of the mind in Dreaming by the Book, which received the 2000 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. Her essays appear in Boston Review, New York Review of Books, and Best American Essays of 2007, 2005, and 1995. In 2005, Prospect Magazine and Foreign Policy listed her in “Top 100 Leading Public Intellectuals.” She has lectured widely to programs in literature, medicine, and law.

Elaine Scarry photo by Rick Friedman