The field of 'colour studies' is burgeoning, yet the question of how we might approach colour in literature is often left out in the cold. Élodie Ripoll (FSGS/EHESS) and Rey Conquer (visiting from University of Oxford) organised a two-day international workshop for postgraduate students and early career researchers working on colour in literature in the hope of getting closer to answering this question. Drawing on the literatures of over four centuries and four languages, a number of approaches and problems were considered, such as: to what degree should we make use of statistics? Can we fruitfully make comparisons to the visual arts? How do we understand colour symbolism? What can the sciences, whether natural or social, contribute to our work?
Participants, who came from several corners of Europe and North America, were invited to present a ten-minute paper focusing on a specific question or approach as a basis for interrelated discussions on method. Starting with the many colours of water in French Pre-Romantic prose and possible richness of psychoanalysis as a point of entry, we moved to Ellen Meloy's 'prismatic ecological' anthropology of colour and Proust as a theoretician, even phenomenologist, of colour. Colour as an object of cultural historical study was discussed through Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, and the importance of the visual arts, in the form of the incarnate, was emphasised in a reading of La invención de Morel (Bioy Casares). Returning to language, Toni Bernhart addressed the sometimes fraught issue of how we deal with the work of Berlin and Kay through a 'distant reading' of Hans Henny Jahnn's Die Nacht aus Blei. Our keynote speaker, Susan Harrow from the University of Bristol, tied together our discussions in her talk, 'Reading Colour Writing', which looked at the merging of the visual and the verbal through colour, in French and English poetry, art, and combinations of the two.
Our second day began with organiser Élodie Ripoll who turned to the rewriting of colour in the libertine novel and the functions of colour in a literary text. The idea that literature or language itself might have a colour was then treated from two angles: the 'coloured vowel' of symbolist poetry was set against a backdrop of research into synaesthesia, following which Kandinsky's claims regarding multisensory perception were challenged and re-channeled into ideas of colour as nonsense. We finished with a round-table discussion during which we had hoped to tie up any loose ends—but these, after an hour of at times heated but always productive debate, remain for another day. The workshop concluded with a group trip to the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art as a sort of foray into enemy territory, and plans were made to reconvene once further answers had been found, or, as is more likely, questions or problems arose.