With the color grey, i.e. everything between black and white, depending on the mixing ratio, one usually associates this color with something, if not fundamentally negative, then in any case with little worth striving for. Who wants to be a “gray mouse” in a metaphorical sense – among friends, at work, in the Bundesliga, wherever?
Who wants to have a grey-brown face, be described as a gray figure or be constantly asked about the gray in their hair as they get older? Who wants to constantly have to look at a gray Berlin sky or be plagued by gray thoughts?
It is of little consolation that gray represents a great challenge for the arts, especially painting, and has its very own function. As Gerhard Richter wrote in 1975, after he had painted his “Gray Pictures” and found that the color gray “makes no statement”, is neither visible nor invisible: “Its inconspicuousness makes it so suitable to convey, to illustrate, and albeit in an almost illusory way, like a photograph. And it is better suited than any other color to illustrate ‘nothing’.”
Peter Sloterdijk demonstrates in his new book, a “Theory of Colors” entitled “Who I haven’t thought of gray yet”. (Suhrkamp, Berlin 2022. 286 S., € 28.)
authoritative color of the present
In it, Sloterdijk works out the versatility and multiformity of this color, based on a statement by another painter, Paul Cézanne, who once said in a conversation with Joachim Gasquet at the end of the 19th century: “Until you have painted a gray color, you are not a painter .”
According to this, Peter Sloterdijk only wants to see himself as a complete philosopher when he has “thought” gray and analyzed it “as the decisive color value of the present”. This can be understood as a slight exaggeration, since Sloterdijk was celebrated by his friend Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht as “the most important philosopher in Europe” long before his Grau explorations. Under no circumstances should the equally playful and meditative character of the whole thing be underestimated.
So Sloterdijk goes into the gray areas not only of philosophy, but also of politics, photography, literature and Christianity, thinking and metaphorically fanning out his subject.
It starts with Plato’s allegory of the cave and the gray walls in the cave, with the shadows that Plato cast on “two and a half years of old-European thinking”, as Sloterdijk jokes.
This is followed by gray as the key color of philosophy in Hegel, Heidegger as the most important interpreter of shades of gray and later Nietzsche, who felt the gray of rocks and stones as a spiritual liberation and made it philosophically speak.
However, Sloterdijk quickly left his department in order to go into other spheres, first of all politics, wonderfully and with visible pleasure, rich in words and invention. In this it means thinking of the gray from the red: the revolutionary red of the Jacobins, that of Stalinism and the real socialist state experiments, that of social democracy.
It is a red that grew grayer as the story progressed: “The all-encompassing gray became the endogenously generated creed of an enterprise that had begun in deep red.”
Sources for this are, for example, the Erfurt journalist Sergej Locht hofen, who gave his GDR life story the title “Gray” and wrote: “Gray cars. Gray department store shelves. The gray of the circulars and party congress resolutions (…) Gray in all shades. As if every other color was covered with mold. Gray people in a gray land.”
Or the Berlin poet and Georg Büchner Prize winner Durs Grünbein, from whose earlier collection of poems “Gray Zone in the Morning” Sloterdijk quotes an entire poem with “reflexes of specific GDR colourfulness” on two pages.
But the gray wasn’t a unique feature of the GDR: London in the 1970s was a nightmare, as the British writer John Lancaster recalls in his book “Capital”, and even in the Federal Republic not everything was colorful at all capitalistically shone: from the black days, moreover still colored brown, of the Adenauer era to the gray of the Merkel Republic.
In this, the Chancellor managed the “trick”, according to Sloterdijk, “of being lukewarm and obsessed with power at the same time”. In this context, he ventures a small outlook with regard to the traffic light coalition, in particular the renewed government responsibility of the Greens: “The fact that grey-green or green-grey is on the horizon is foreseeable without the help of prophetic drugs. The future belongs (…) to an eco-bureaucratic regulatory policy that prescribes the way into its post-democratic menopause for the state, which is as undercompetent as it is overburdened.”
This is the path to power, which does not tolerate any colour, but for Sloterdijk it is a sign of functioning democracies: those who are looking for majorities and have to make compromises can hardly defend themselves against graying and maintaining the purity of their party political color.
Extended zones of indifference
The digression is characteristic of this entertaining color theory, as it is of Peter Sloterdijk’s writing and thinking anyway. Detours always increase color knowledge here.
The “digression” is part of the organizing principle of this book. Between each of the major chapters there is a small one, beginning with Kafka, his heroes and their walks “in the dim gray light of the authorities through long corridors” to the explanation of the Cézanne dictum.
But even the “gray ecstasies”, the roaming through the gray mysticism and gray ethics, the gray aesthetics and gray theology is interspersed with not always stringent investigations. There is talk of the tendency of liberalized social universes to “transform into Chinese menus”, as well as of the more than a hundred shades of gray that Mercedes offers for its cars, of the connection between opium and capital, as well as of the “aesthetics of the ugly” using the example of the Eiffel Tower.
But the non-stringency is to a certain extent immanent to the substance. This theory of colors is now explicitly about the consideration of “extended zones of indifference”, about gray as a symbol of indifference. It’s nice that Sloterdijk is always funny on the one hand, and despite his claim to the present, he doesn’t take that many excursions into the same.
He briefly mentions the “passive-aggressive varieties of feminism” or “the juvenile Woke ideology” to show that despite all the gray, the Jacobean red has not yet had its day (and of course also to show that he doesn’t think much of it ).
God and Literature
Or he punishes, once again far away from the gray, the social media and their mechanisms: “Half a century after Warhol, two thousand years after the thumb judgment of the Roman arena, liking proves to be the universally understood gesture of indifferent approval of the somehow not very Good.”
The philosopher speaks a lot about God, about God’s omnipotence and omniscience. He tries to give five answers as to why the Last Judgment has still not happened, and possibly never will.
But even more than with God and Christianity, he found what he was looking for in literature: in Philippe Claudel’s novel “The Gray Souls”, for him the initiation, in Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel “The Road”, in the snowstorms with Pushkin, Vladimir Sorokin or Thomas Mann, in Adalbert Stifter’s autobiographical depression report “From the Bavarian Forest”.
Sloterdijk demonstrates how beautiful gray can be, how tenderly one looks at it, with Theodor Storm’s poem “Die Stadt”, an ode to his gray hometown of Husum.
Not least because of found objects like this one, the impression prevails that for Peter Sloterdijk the indifferent, mediocre, moderate, mediating, yes, the lukewarmness of the gray at times has a lot of good things to do with it. Gray zone studies, he postulates, are a form of the art of living. At the end of the reading you feel enriched, sometimes happy. How glamorous the gray can be imagined, how much silver is in it! Only then can you see gray everywhere in the world, you don’t want that.