The Incertitude of Red Cheeks

Jack Robinson and Natalia Zagórska-Thomas, Blush

CB Editions, 64pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781909585287

reviewed by Will Forrester

In ‘Betraying Appearances’ (1997), WA Cohen’s excellent review of Mary Ann O’Farrell’s Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush (1997), Cohen leans on O’Farrell’s attentiveness to the relationships between the somatic and the semantic to belabour a point. He talks about words in English whose meanings contradict, suggesting the most ‘beguiling’ of these is the verb belie: ‘To belie is to expose a falsehood; it is also, however, to disguise truth behind a falsehood’. He goes on:

‘It can be no accident that a term so affiliated with embarrassment – an emotional state itself indicative of a contradiction between deep feeling and superficial appearance – arouses kindred feelings of shame in writers who attempt to use it.’

The small but energetic field of literary and cultural criticism on the phenomenon of blushing – of which Telling Complexions is a foundational part – has its own embarrassment: O’Farrell, like Elspeth Probyn in Blush: Faces of Shame (2005), struggles to move successfully from an astute survey of what blushing means in 18th- and 19th-century society, physiology and literature to a more contemporary exploration of bodies, sexuality and shame. These books, like most critique on blushing, are embarrassing to read both because they discuss taboo, clandestine things and because they do so awkwardly when they arrive at the contemporary.

Blush, an interdisciplinary collaboration between Jack Robinson and Natalia Zagórska-Thomas, seems to promise something new for blushing in contemporary times. Unlike conventionally analytic studies that falter when they reach the 20th century, Blush’s visual and textual explorations quietly pledge to beguile, belie, play around with, and generally embody the contradictory shamefulness and shamelessness bound up in a modern-day hot red cheek. The book’s jacket copy might reference Darwin (as blushing critics invariably do), but its two epigraphs have something more disruptive in them. One, from Elizabeth Taylor (the writer), rent from its context in the 1956 short story ‘The Blush’ becomes about a woman interrogating her own blushing body in a mirror; the other, from Phillip Roth, asks ‘What embarrasses you? Tell me. Do you even know?’ In more frontmatter, the nature of the collaborative work is explained:

‘Images here are not illustrations, nor are texts captions: they arrived here through talk, which is sallies and parries and all measure of misunderstanding.’

This tells us a little of the book’s intention: this is as much formally experimental art and social commentary as it is cultural criticism; through their ‘misunderstandings’, the slippery meanings of Zagórska-Thomas’s images and Robinson’s text belie the slippery contradictions of the blush with its simultaneous modesty and desire, voluntariness and involuntariness, affect and effect, innocence and guilt.

The first page lives up to the promise: a line of text talks about ‘a chink, a gap, a little slippage . . . where the blush gets in’, under which a photo – of an open door in darkness with a pink wall through it reflecting back onto a shiny floor – slips off the edge of the page. Overleaf, we’re reminded that the book isn’t just about Darwin’s era: ‘Unless I’m looking in a mirror or taking a selfie, I cannot see myself blush’, Robinson says, above which Zagórska-Thomas’s photograph from the Polish National Museum of Art, taken on an iPhone, shows a figure dressed in historical clothing with her face covered in what looks like pink spandex.

There are shades of Probyn’s confessionalism early on too, with a passage on ‘buying condoms in Boots’ again situating things in modernity. Robinson – and his various other pseudonyms – has been lauded for his playful attentiveness to everyday life in Days and Nights in W12 and An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B.; here, this roguish attentiveness is invaluable for Blush’s attempts to reckon with modern-day blushing. This is slightly undercut when the text turns to Christopher Ricks’s Keats and Embarrassment (1974), another fundamental critical touchstone which necessarily brings up literature of the past. The 30-or-so ensuing pages on literary blushing from Laurence Sterne in 1768 through the long 19th century are good, but tread little new ground. They are saved from redundancy by some thoughtful images – of some yonic jelly, a white rose with an embarrassing flash of fuchsia on one petal, and a fine white kid glove turned at the wrists to push two fingers into a whorl of pink silk – and the automatic, hectic-but-witty writing style that seems to embody Denise Riley’s concept of a ‘verbal blush’ (a ‘habit of speaking that makes you highly uneasy’) that it references. Zagórska-Thomas’s art has been described as giving its objects ‘identities, desires and ambitions of their own’; there is something in her images here that probes not only at the viewer’s shame and desire but the subject’s shame and desire too. One fine moment in this broadly historical section is a passage on the embarrassing blush of pink on maps of the British Empire; above it is a cropped image of a world map with lipstick smears of pink gouache across it. It hints at an interest in intersectional blushing.

Blush shifts with the words ‘as shame shifts’ to gather pace in addressing modern blushing: it addresses the lack of US presidential shame, the embarrassment of political racism, gendered problematics, janus-faced big business and the unabashed harvesting of online data in the space of a paragraph, with a photograph of all manner of modern-day detritus on Camden Street beside it. The rest of the book continues to jump back and forth between classic English literature and contemporary social commentary but, throughout, a focus on today is maintained because the former is in the service of the latter – in the service of asking What changed? for the blush.

Relishing in the contradictions of blushing, just as the text talks of the incertitude of red cheeks (its ‘embarrassment at not-knowing’, at ‘reasons we can never spell out’, at whether or not ‘we even care’), it also stops talking about what a blush isn't – what you ‘cannot do’ with a blush – and starts trying to pin down what it is. We are told that ‘since the late 19th century the blush has been coarsened: marginalised, cosmeticised, monetised, medicalised’. Modern literary blushes are ‘pasted like emojis’. Blushing is ‘associated with social anxiety’. A blush is ‘a flag of inconvenience’. The ‘impure and imprecise’ emotions that blushing brings to the surface – we should ‘own them’, we are told. Of course, embedded in this certitude is incertitude – that’s the whole point. And Zagórska-Thomas’s images stress it: what look like petals in a pond is actually confetti on a wet street; long hair extends from the bristles of a toothbrush; a photograph of a pink floral button-back chair is cropped in tight. The confessionalism of the text and Robinson’s awkward narration of moments from his youth do the same.

One regret is that the ‘hint’ at intersectional blushing remains precisely that. The text addresses this: ‘there is something English about all this’, it says, noting the class and gender problematics that have been long-upheld by ideas like that of an ‘English rose’ (a nearby image sees a white face with red lips peering through a gap with a London Underground sign in the background). But an opportunity to discuss blushing in terms other than European and white – one demanded by a look at the contemporary – is missed.

There are two passages, however, in the latter half of the book, of particular note and success. One is a discussion of spit and saliva in and out the mouth. The other is on the clandestine vogue for tattooing women’s cheeks in the first decade of the 20th century. These take well-trodden discussions and expand them. A closing passage and image turn to London in 2023, in what is effectively a piece of flash fiction, and pick up some of the points the preceding text and images make. The attempt to recuperate a sense of literary backward-looking and the pitfalls of writing contemporary blushes is admirable – and successful inasmuch as it conveys an embarrassing set of contradictions.

That’s perhaps a characterisation of Blush at large. It isn’t totally coherent, but neither does it claim stylistically to be so; perhaps, more importantly, its lack of coherence expresses the point it tries to make: if ‘adolescence is Early Modern’, then a more contemporary time, ‘after adolescence’, is one where ‘we do have some idea, but we are lost, basically’. ‘Sallying’ together with this text is a picture of a very nice-looking white bag, open, with a rich pink interior, unattended on a toilet floor.

(There’s an afterword of sorts that talks about the blush lingering – staying behind abjectively even after it’s gone. Blush, I think, does the same.)
Will Forrester is a critic, and Translation and International Manager at English PEN.