The Blackness of the Stout

Posted on Nov. 14, 2019, 2:38 p.m.

My Uber deposited me, amid the lashing gales of a moonless night, on an avenue as sparsely peopled as an arctic ice shelf. Sodium-vapor lamps cast their hideous jaundice over my shivering form and the various neon enticements smeared the sleet slicked pavement with a lividity that suggested a deranged clown’s makeup. The grueling length of my journey, being indirectly proportional to the strength of my spirit, left me in such a state that I could only perceive glacial indifference and hostility in my environment. Surveying the street, a distant sign beckoned ‘OPEN,’ and I mustered the dregs of my temerity, hoisted my duffle, and trudged aweather in hopes of refuge. 

The inn offered assuagement of the many privations that weary the winter traveler. Foremost being shelter from the season’s punishing bluster. And only just behind that, a hearty and restorative repast. But it was as I was repairing to the bar, seeking that third comfort known only to those that abjure temperance, that I first encountered the character: a soul hardened by vicissitudes unknown, yet doubtless deleterious to mirth, who eyed me with bald suspicion verging on malice. 

“To the warmth and comfort of a fine stout, friend,” offered I, raising a glass. 

“Thou hast no claim upon my friendship while thou sup on the Devil’s bile, stranger,” was his rejoinder. 

“I intend no offense. I merely relish the prospect of companionship after many solitary miles.” Again I proffered a raised glass. 

“And may thou suffer such exile the whole of the globe’s girth, long as thou keep brandishing that jug o’ pitch at me. Motherless cur! None but dastards and wastrels poison their insides with infernal brews such as thou dare toast at me!” 

At which point he summoned and rather pointedly expectorated phlegm upon the floor at my feet and removed himself to a table as distant from me as the hall would allow. Taken aback by the stranger’s obstreperous rejection, the promise of the inn’s conviviality dissipated and I slumped over the bar, left alone to contemplate the glass of stout that so repulsed him. Plumbing the depth of its blackness, marveling at the consummate dark delights promised therein, I was pulled into a deeper philosophical disposition. And the ebon potion before me, with an undeniable gravity not unlike those cosmological phantasms called black holes, drew me inescapably into a reverie upon the meaning of Black and its myriad manifestations and mysteries. 

Project yourself out onto the furthermost edge of the observable universe. Here at the boundary of Hubble’s contribution to history, what do you see? What color is the outer limit of Eternity? One could, in an empirical mood, argue that it exhibits no color; that sight, bound as it is by the electrochemical interpretation of light waves striking the retina, has no meaning in a realm where electromagnetic radiation escapes the detection of our feeble and limited apparatus. Such cold empiricism, however, but delays and answers not the problem before us: for each of us, if honest with ourselves and secure in exemption from argument or reproach, could say with certainty. It is black. 

Facing such blackness at the edge of existence, one could be forgiven a certain dread. Poised at the precipice of nothingness, the abyss beyond comprehension, where our corporeality and sensuous natures lack power to provide meaning, who among us would not shrink before the prospect of the Unknowable? But back here, far from the edge of existence and safely ensconced in the familiar sphere of the physical, where one sees with one’s own eyes the comfort of a lilac field dancing  in the wind; where birdsong seduces the ear; and where a hand may be extended, laid upon and reciprocate the warmth of another’s hand, such horrifying blackness is held at bay. Not even sleep is devoid of placating stimulus, as generous Morpheus awards us kaleidoscopic visions of such richness to rival that of the waking world. It is the imagined absence of these colors, and implied absence of our existence, that cause Black to become a metonymy for existential dolor. 

And the all-consuming blackness of insentience takes root in our collective psyche as nyctophobia: fear of the dark. Consider the Homerian wine-darkness of oceanic depths which swallows whole intrepid vessels and the unfortunates aboard who pledged their faith in buoyancy against its monstrous appetite. The impenetrable ink of Karst hollows, which our lore informs us is the natural abode of trolls, goblins, and any number of abominations; and with which in unimpeachable reality, the Stygian bowels of the Earth exercise their hunger: sinkholes opening without notice and consuming entire houses and the innocent inside. Even the benign darkness underneath the bed or in the closet promises unspeakable horrors. Such does blackness, with its philosophical taint of nonexistence, stalk us amidst our world of lucent pleasures. 

Does this, perhaps, offer insight into why some recoil at the darker fruits of the brewer’s art, refuse sable elixirs redolent with roasted malt, and repudiate those obsidian offerings whose bouquet time has imbued with spirit character? 

There lies a mistake, however, in the conjectures that malign black on such a fundamental level. It begins with our conception of color. In its pure, quantum mechanical explanation, color is subtractive. White light is the fullest expression of those wavelengths permitted to grace our sensorium. Were the full spectrum of light depreciated wavelength by wavelength, black is the theoretical remainder. If some devilish omnipotence, by dint of a wholly vicious nature, expunged from the world every individual color, plucking each hue between two horny talons and flinging it into the void, black would be indeed be the appalling corollary of its cruelty. Surely, then, would Black be a fitting emblem of deprivation and emptiness. 

But color wielded as a substance in the grosser applications of human industry behaves differently. It is additive; and Black is the summation of all conceivable color.  Likewise are our lives additive in nature: the totality of an individual is the summation of experience. And the ruby of the gem set in Grandmother’s ring, the azure of a blissful summer sky on an afternoon playing hooky, the tinge of a lover’s flushed cheek, and the storied verdancy of the forests of the Ozarks can never be vacated from the soul of the one who experienced them. Surely, then, Black better represents the collective palette of perceptions acquired across time, which inform our mortal manifestation as it exists at any given moment. Black, in this way, is not a result of absence, but the concretion of presence. Black does not indicate death, but, rather, life. 

Neither is Black the color of the sepulcher: any eyes contained within having ceased function and perceiving color neither in its splendor nor absence. But the babe nestled in the womb, having never experienced light, knows blackness only as the canvas upon which, soon, life, in its wondrous vibrancy, will imprint itself. Purity of innocence and potential is Black. Embrace of the future, staking one’s claim of experience, rending from the world the ore of knowledge, smithing from that ore wisdom: these are Black. 

Black must be afforded respect as the fullest aesthetic expression of life, both lived and yet to be lived. Therefore, Black must not be consigned the color of the morose, the pessimist, and the Nihilist. Rather, let us grant the crown of Black to the industrious, the courageous, the ardent, and the eager. 

And with this epiphany thus was I returned to my present surroundings, atop a stool with no certainty of structural integrity, at a bar scarred by countless pen-knives, in a public house exuding a subtle sordid whiff, having long since accepted ignominy over plaudits; yet offering, despite all this, a superb draft list. My spirit, much stimulated by the mental exertions related above, compelled me to celebrate a renewed exuberance for my current circumstance, as well as those circumstances of unknown provenance or result which I would undoubtedly encounter in the days still allocated to me. I ordered another stout, one with lineage to the court of Catherine the Great. 

Now before me sat a new glass of unparalleled potency, midnight-hued and capped with a substantial ochre froth. With one deft gyration of the vessel, I unleashed its robust bouquet and bowed my head in supplication to the seductive aroma. Passing the threshold of my lips, the libation awarded my tongue the full panoply of its charms:  an opulent wave of roasted coffee, dried fruit, with a coy suggestion of licorice. Such exquisite complexity of sensation in such numinous harmony banished, if but for a moment, the long chain of travails that had brought me to this distant and indifferent city, the concatenation of torments that bedeviled my perspicacity. 

Seizing with purpose the glass, I swiveled upon my stool and sought across the expanse of the room the boorish interlocutor who had instigated my rumination and subsequent revelation. Espying him and fixing him with an arresting gaze, I called, in stentorian voice, “To the warmth and comfort of a fine stout, friend!”

And then turned I myself back to the bar, taking, this time, no heed of his reply. 


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