The color grey holds a certain mystical power over the spectrum. While specific chromatic shades can stun the senses in their vibrancy or calm the mind with their lackluster, none possesses the versatility of grey. Stretching the span between light and dark, grey encompasses the essential elements of every color. Grey is the form and grey is the shadow, defining both while adhering to neither. Its power as a mere visual sensation is so great that it easily extends beyond itself to the realm of abstract thought. The subtle middle ground between dissonant ideas, the complex interaction between good and evil, the grounding force, the definer of reality. Grey contradicts absolutes and challenges convictions. As one gains knowledge of reality through learning and experience, things shed their stark contrasts and take on wonderful shades of grey.
Yet, all this drift from pure lightness or pure darkness does not leave one lost in a static world bereft of meaning. Rather, the realization of grey frees one to explore the infinite shades between shades, opening a world of awing complexity where once there was only oppressive dualism. The power of grey, the source of its myriad strengths, is the middle ground it occupies. A relative measure between two poles becomes the center about which all things circle.
To the eye of a modern viewer, a film in black-and-white appears drab and superannuated. Why bother with so archaic a form, entirely lacking in visual distraction? For someone used to having his mind assaulted with impossibly fanciful images, a limiting of visual sensation is foreign and oppressive. Closer examination reveals the sublime. Like a cubist painting or a temporally disjointed narrative, the deceitful medium uncovers new truths. Contrasts of grey lend shadows weight, faces poise, forms stature, and surroundings grandeur greater than they might have had otherwise, awash in a sea of distracting colors. Greys focus the mind on the contrasts, forcing one to pay attention to the subtle shifts between light and dark.
For example, in the short, modern German production Schwarzfahrer, Pepe Danquart introduces visual layers of meaning to a theme of racial conflict between black and white Germans. He does so by shooting the film itself in black and white. In an age where the normality of color is so omnipresent as to be unnoticeable, the choice was clearly deliberate. The focused colors highlight the separation between two passengers on public transportation; a white, elderly woman who regales the entire tram with her racist thoughts on the ‘foreigner problem’ and a long-suffering black man who sits beside her. In a palette of greys, the stark juxtaposition of their skin colors—deathly pale and deep ebony—provides a visual representation of the cultural gap between them. The reversal of normal color conceptions, with viewer sympathy drawn strongly toward black instead of white, shows the importance of flexible perspective. An aesthetic born of technological necessity becomes something greater. Greys are not an oppressive limitation, they are a welcome shelter from information overload. With grey, a reduction in noise opens up a wealth of signal.
In Freshman year, my English teacher began the class with a memorable phrase. “I am going to make grey your favorite color.” For a teacher of literature, nothing better suited the explication of his purpose. While the statement was cryptic then, time has revealed it to be an accurate prophecy. Grey is my favorite color, and the lens through which I best comprehend literature. The central element of all works of prose is the conflict, some hitch in the plans which makes the unfolding story worth following. But to fully resolve the conflict seldom does anything more than provide a shallow sense of contentment. It makes no statement about the world of human experience. It reveals no truth. In reality there are seldom solutions, much less easy solutions.
Black and white aren't the places to look for answers. Characters without redeeming qualities become suddenly sympathetic when shown in a different light. Good intentions lead to inconceivably disastrous conclusions. Impersonal forces make deeply personal impacts. Good literature blurs boundaries, speaking to the mind and spirit by showing the world as it is. Not the transient appearances, but the fundamental truths. The absolute is the unreal, the grotesque distortion of truth. To deny the grey deals a death blow to literature and to life itself.
While it seems easy to cast polarities as fundamentally negative, no one would cling to them so tightly were it really so. There’s a danger in the middle way. To leave sure ground risks losing it altogether. If anything can be seen from a different perspective, cast as a different shade of grey, then what’s the use of making judgements anyway? It’s all grey. It’s all relative. One cannot succumb to such a temptation, if only because its consequences are catastrophic and nauseating. The most horrifying of human atrocities and the most noble of human endeavors all melt together into the same meaningless soup. It is the nihilistic antithesis of life. Yet because it appears to flow irreconcilably from the acceptance of grey, something must be made of this monstrous conclusion. The nothingness must be transformed into potential. And inherent in grey is the tool to do so.
Grey is not a monolithic color, static and unchanging. It can represent an infinite array of areas between light and dark, each just as ‘grey’ as the next, yet easily comparable. In this can one find salvation. Judgements cannot place anything definitively to either pole, but they can place elements of grey nearer or farther from light or dark. Actions such as murder, rape, or abuse of power may and shall embody some positive aspects along the spectrum of grey, but the overwhelming negative aspects still allow one to condemn them as a very dark greys. Bravery, charity, and humility may and shall be shaded with their own tinges of ill-intent, but the good they still do allows one to laud them as light greys. Making the judgement is certainly not easy. It requires a careful consideration of all perspectives, an open mind to counterintuitive ideas, a willingness to compromise, and keen wits. Faith in absolutes does not demand the same constant, tiring vigilance as confidence in greys does. There is always, no matter how clear things seem, the possibility of error. But full acceptance of grey still allows one to judge, and gives the better probability of judging wisely.
The key to the mystery of grey is fluidity. Grey is the gradual movement toward an unreachable, but ever perceivable center.