Books

The Doing and Undoing of Philosophy

In A Treatise of Human Nature, Scottish philosopher David Hume remarked that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So it is quite appropriate that for a book owing so much to the 18th century philosopher, Jennie Erdal has imbued The Missing Shade of Blue with characters whose reason, if not wholly enslaved, is at least then passionately indentured.

This is Jennie Erdal’s first novel under her own name. For twenty years she ghost wrote for Naim Attallah, the London publisher Erdal has compared to “a rare and tropical bird.” Erdal began working for Attallah as a translator before becoming his hand for much of his correspondence and public writing. The Times Literary Supplement complimented the prose of Erdal’s true first novel, A Timeless Passion, as “spare and precise,” leaving its critique for the empurpled descriptions of sex Attallah had implored Erdal to include.

One could also describe the prose of The Missing Shade of Blue as spare and precise, thanks to Erdal’s narrator, Edgar Logan. Logan is an introverted half-French, half-Scottish translator who travels to Edinburgh to work on translating Hume’s essays. He swaps out his flat in Paris for a mews cottage near the city center, with the caveat, given to him by its owner, that he stay out of its locked garage. As Logan settles into Scottish life, the figures of his dead father and Harry Sanderson, a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, take on central roles for him and thus for the novel itself. Logan says his father was the reason “behind everything, more or less.” Sanderson, whom Logan meets early in the novel at a faculty event, provides much of the reason for everything after (where not a single sex scene is found).

Sanderson is a character in the style of Saul Bellow’s Von Humboldt Fleisher. An insatiable orator, he seems at times comically maladapted to contemporary life. He suffers from a skin condition which forces him to smear parts of his body in olive oil. He loathes his peers, both other philosophers and university administration. Just as Humboldt grows more eccentric and unbalanced the longer he is a mentor to Charlie Citrine (who, coincidently, narrates Humboldt’s Gift), so too does Sanderson become more unraveled the longer he is a friend to Logan.

In a scene typical of Logan’s understated counterpoint to Sanderson’s overstated style, the two men are out fishing when Sanderson surprises Logan with the contents of a glass jar:

“Exhibit A,” said Sanderson at last. “I removed it from the bath.”
“The bath?”
“Yes, it was floating in the water, after my wife got out, after the bubbles had gone.”
“Floating in the water?”
“I scooped it up in a tooth mug.”
“A tooth mug?”
“Then I put it in one of my old maggot jars.”
“Maggot jars?”
It was inane to repeat everything. I knew that.
“Do you know what it is?”
“No.”
“Think about it.”
“I am thinking.”

Sanderson is never able to prove that what he has found is, in fact, semen. Sanderson half-jokingly calls his troubles “the disease of the learned,” what Hume’s doctor is believed to have called the young philosopher’s nervous breakdown. The cures for Hume’s psychological stress were friendship and exercise. For Sanderson, though, who seems almost friendless outside his relationship with Logan and who is too afflicted for regular exercise, his remedy proves less forthcoming.

The specter of mental illness looms throughout The Missing Shade of Blue. Alfie, the son of Sanderson’s wife, has been institutionalized because of schizotypal tendencies. Logan’s mother suffered from psychiatric illness for much of her life, a fact which strengthened the central relationship in Logan’s life—with his father. Logan himself had a breakdown in college. He still keeps the doctor’s note to the university stating that he had healed, as if to ward off the return of trouble.

If Logan must be a kind of ghost of David Hume in order to translate him effectively (Logan’s daily routine includes walking to Hume’s grave), another ghost appears when Logan begins sensing the presence of something strange inside his cottage. The reader wonders if Logan might be mentally unwell once again, as he also senses that someone is following him around town. I found myself drawn to these moments of potential menace, which intrude a rare sense of plot into Logan’s otherwise spare and meditative narrative; owing to its subject matter, The Missing Shade of Blue (subtitled A Philosophical Adventure) is indeed more philosophical than adventure, yet it is the mysterious—which I would not have minded more of—keeping it together as a novel, not simply a discursive essay on philosophical ideas. While Erdal slowly unravels the truth of Logan’s perceptions and Logan musters the courage to inspect his locked garage, we’re led through discussions of fictionality and translation, the mysterious origins of painting, while the true center of the novel, David Hume, never feels far away.

“The missing shade of blue” refers to Hume’s argument that simple impressions must precede their corresponding ideas. A person familiar with all shades of blue but one, according to Hume, when given a gradient of blues with a gap for the missing shade, can supply this missing color by using his imagination. Which is to say, simple ideas may precede experience. This notion has posed a problem for subsequent philosophers because it seems to refute Hume’s thesis that “every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression.” That Erdal has named her novel for Hume’s qualification subtly emphasizes her characters’ own contradictions, which, true to life, are many.

Stephan McCormick lives in Los Angeles.