What’s a colour, anyway?

A couple of Sundays ago, the gospel reading in church told the story of Jesus healing a man who had been blind since birth.

The story went into considerable detail about what Jesus did, and how the religious authorities of his time reacted against this exceptional event. That’s understandable, I suppose, since a recurring theme in that particular gospel is the conflict between Jesus and those religious authorities.

But what caught my attention was not the institutional struggle – whether or not it really happened that way – but the experience of the blind man.

It seems that he still lived with his parents. He would have made his way, every day, from their house to his favourite begging spot beside the main road, where he collected a few coin from passers-by who took pity on his plight.

Being blind, he must have learned his route through other senses. The feel of the dirt road under his feet. The sequences of sun and shade falling on his skin. Voices overheard through open doors. The echo off the walls of his walking staff as he tapped his way along….

Perhaps even smells guided him.

And then one day, he could see.

How did he find his way home? Nothing would be familiar – nothing at all. He couldn’t turn left at the house with the red shutters on its windows, for example. He hadn’t known it had shutters, let alone what the colour red looked like.

What is red, in fact? How would you describe the colour red to a person who had never seen it before?

For that matter, how do I know that what I see as red is the same thing you see as red? I can’t see how your brain processes those wavelengths of light. All we have is a mutual agreement, an unstated consensus, that that thing over there, yes, that one, is red.

Even our reactions to colours are not universal but culturally conditioned. Most cultures think of red as representing excitement, passion. So most cultures paint women’s lips – a hyper-sensitive body part – red. Not green, or blue.

In India, brides typically wear red.

On the other hand, our western world tends to connect red with illicit passion. New England branded alleged adulteresses with the Scarlet Letter. Rather than red, western brides wear white – the colour we associate with innocence and purity.

As a child once asked, “Then why does the groom wear black?”

Black, for us, implies evil or death. But China, I understand, uses white for death; red generally means good luck and prosperity.

So how would a man who had never seen any colours before know which was which? Would he experience the same emotional reactions to colours as his culturally conditioned compatriots?

We don’t know, of course. We can’t know. We can only extrapolate from our own experience.

So if the blind man was anything like people nowadays, I suspect he might have been tempted to close his eyes, and retreat into the familiar ways of doing things that he’d known all his life.

 

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; rewrite@shaw.ca.

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