Feature | Bella Li: Alchemy, allegory, spectres of light

To flip through the thick, matte pages of Theory of Colours is to wander around an abandoned theme park at dusk. Dimly, you can make out certain structures in the falling light: a hotel, a museum, a swimming pool, and various attractions harnessing the vertiginous interplay of height and depth, including mountains, valleys, towers and gaping chasms.

Picking through the brittle skeletons of these forms, testing your weight along beams of decaying wood and surveying barren microclimates, you sense the ‘certain feverish appeal’ that this carnival once held. This has faded now to reveal a kind of ‘peculiar and suspended charm’, both timeless and utterly defined by its vulnerability to the ravages of time. The colours are cracked, consumed by grey, peeling to reveal blank, bone-white surfaces or blooming like weeds and spreading over paths, walls and boulders. The theme park is on an island, or on the waterfront like Luna Park. You can smell old salt in the air. Petals glow neon in the dimming light and shadows flicker at the edges of your vision.

In an interview, Li once reflected that the work of the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud is ‘analogous to paintings or pieces of music’, in the sense that it’s ‘often less about anything fixed or immediately discernible’ than it is a ‘succession of strange and beautiful, often otherworldly, images or moods’. This is a description that could be applied to her own previous books, Argosy and Lost Lake, and on first encountering Theory of Colours it might seem that this collection could be understood in these terms too. On further reflection, though, there’s a sense of aboutness to this book, a staging of a kind of thinking that is more pronounced than simply an affective tone, mood or thematic concern. The signs in this world are still signs, even if their meaning isn’t fixed or immediately discernible. We on the island—‘visitors out of season’—are aware of being surrounded by the crumbling forms of allegorical ruins, but these ruins are irreducible to mute images, the landscape irreducible to a mood board.

This world is not quite as otherly as Li’s other otherworlds. In fact, I would argue that the theme park that is Theory of Colours is located very specifically in our world, designed and constructed at another point in time, according to the logic of a particular kind of fantasy, and subsequently subjected to forces of change that are also very clearly forces of our world. The theme park, abandoned, has been left as a monument to the project in whose image it was constructed—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s project, to be precise.

In his book-length study Theory of Colours (1810), Goethe rejected the Newtonian notion that colours are already present in light, ready to be subdivided according to their refrangibility (a fancy term for how capable they are of being refracted). Rather, for Goethe, light and darkness are pure and oppositional forces containing only themselves—or rather, light is a pure force, and darkness is the absolute absence of light. It is when light comes into contact with darkness, and the two become ‘mixed’, that colour is produced. The colour spectrum is thus composed of overlapping shades of light mixed with dark.

In Goethe’s diagram of light passing through a dark prism, light forms various coloured shades through the overlapping beams emitted from the encounter between light and dark. Notably, the diagrams Li collages into Theory of Colours are illustrative of Newtonian and other contemporary schools of colour theory rather than of Goethe’s, which was largely rejected by the scientific community from the moment it was published.

Like his other scientific work, Goethe’s colour theory has tended to be dismissed as what scholar Angela Rose calls ‘a romantic’s reaction to the rise of Newton’s quantitative science’. As Rose points out, a more generous reading would be that in his attempt ‘to approach the spiritual realm through beholding the sense world in a mode of intuitive perception’, Goethe effectively developed ‘a rigorous and empirical approach to the study of qualities that represents an important complement to quantitative methods’. Where Newton’s modern scientific approach attempted to provide something like an ‘objective’ account of colour, independent of the way it is experienced by the human eye, Goethe’s project attended to the qualitative, ‘subjective’ experience of coloured light.

In her paper published in The New Philosophy in 2018, Rose points out that ‘the word “theory” is used very differently in Goethe’s framework’: for Goethe, to theorise something is to see it, an interpretation that Rose links to the ancient Greek verb theorein, meaning to look at, or see. This relationship between seeing and knowing is particularly pertinent to Goethe’s theory of colour perception and visible light.

As another Goethe scholar, Ronald Gray, puts it, ‘colours’, for Goethe, ‘reveal to the sense of sight the whole of nature … and so symbolize in themselves the whole working of the universe’. Like the Urpflanze, Goethe’s beloved conception of the originary, protean form of a plant from which all other plants have evolved, colours ‘reveal in microcosmic form the nature of the macrocosm’. His study of coloured light is thus exemplary of his approach to science, and human knowledge, more broadly, which holds that any phenomena, properly perceived, can reveal the same universal truth.


As I have indicated, the study of colour seems to be a field in which it’s intuitive to privilege the role of subjective experience in mediating our knowledge of the material world and its various ‘qualities’. It is this qualitative dimension that makes colour so enormously important in the alchemical tradition, where a change of colour frequently comes to not only represent but actually constitute the changing state of matter as it is transmuted into a higher state; in many accounts of early alchemy, there is little to no distinction between something that looks like gold, and something that is gold.

In the same vein, for Goethe, to watch yellow and blue turn to red—to watch a phenomenon grow increasingly ‘darker’, and in the process to shed its own distinguishing characteristics and come to embody that which it already contained—is not simply a metaphor for the process in which conflicting forces give rise to a ‘completeness’ that transcends both of them, but rather is itself a legitimate example of that process. In addition to being exemplary of his broad approach to science, Goethe’s Theory of Colours marks the epitome of his engagement with alchemy.

As Gray puts it in his 1952 monograph, Goethe the Alchemist, the young Goethe was self-confessedly enamoured with the esoteric doctrines of the alchemical tradition, which can be seen to have met his ‘deep need for wholeness in a world-view’. Given his obsession with the revelation of the macrocosm in the microcosm, the ultimate unity of all being, and the correspondence between sensorial perception and a more elusive, spiritual knowledge, it makes sense that Goethe was enchanted by the language, imagery and mythology of alchemy, which by the eighteenth century had come to figure something much more elusive in the collective imagination than simply the attempt to transmute base metals into gold.

And yet, in sketching the alchemical ‘quest’ that underpins Goethe’s Theory of Colours, I am aware that I come across as something like a conspiracy theorist. If there’s one thing that writing a PhD on alchemy and poetry has taught me so far, it’s that there’s nothing more boring and suspicious than someone’s justification for why a given text is an alchemical allegory. Nevertheless, it is my conviction that the alchemical ‘quest’ provides the most lucid figuration of the yearning, or longing, that pervades Goethe’s scholarship in Theory of Colours: a desire for an experience of wholeness, a kind of universal ‘truth’, that transcends the division of sensory perception and thought, or spiritual reality, or whatever you want to call it. In this sense, I am convinced that it is crucial to understanding the appeal that Goethe’s project presents for Li two centuries later.

It’s not only that this yearning is figured in Li’s Theory of Colours, but that it is figured in the same terms, as a kind of alchemical quest. Granted, this allegory is not overt— you might even have to want to see it for it to appear. However, once you start looking, it’s definitely there: a shadowy form emerging in the accumulation of fragmented, gestural moments and thematic concerns that cluster around some ancient ‘practice’ that has ‘fallen into disrepute’.

This practice involves various apparatuses and seems preoccupied with the intensification and unification of a particular substance: ‘This tint in the agitated sea / demands completeness’. Sulphurous smouldering, mineral hues, ‘sparks of fire’ and the smouldering light of flowers at dusk, emitting their ‘momentary light’, are presented alongside repeated injunctions to reproduce particular experimental conditions to attain a mysterious result. The steps are unclear, the whole operation faintly but insistently suggested by the sense of another significance beneath the surface—repeated gestures towards a mysterious ‘change’, a magic ‘spell’, a desired union, which, as in Goethe’s account, is figured as the development of a particular shade of red.

Colour, for Li, is a force of life which also paradoxically intimates mortality—‘Chroma begins in the blood’, and spreads like a virus, coming ever closer, culminating in the reader’s ominous encounter with red square on a black page. This page, the final in a series of coloured pages based on the description of chambers in an abbey in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, corresponds to a black room illuminated ‘a deep blood colour’ by the light filtering through the tinted surface of a stained-glass window. Red, in this series, aligns with Goethe’s fantasy of pure red as a moment of absolute union between light and darkness, the blue, yellow, green, purple and white of the previous pages, a transmutation into a universal state that is also a kind of death.

The fact that the ‘stone’, so to speak, is presented wordlessly, a red square on a black page, reflects the methodology of the Goethian scientific project. In the same way that Goethe outlines countless experiments and activities for his reader to try at home, Li’s book becomes itself an apparatus, the means by which we might ‘approach the spiritual realm through beholding the sense world in a mode of intuitive perception’. In this sense it is a kind of Goethian experiment—which, as Frederick Amrine argues in Goethe and the Sciences (1987), ‘is not like a single, practical syllogism but rather like artistic practice directed towards the refinement of one’s perception over time.’
Given this definition of experiment, it is difficult to see how its results might be measured or evaluated. Nevertheless, it seems haunted by a sense of inevitable failure. However long we stare at the red square on the black page, it will never attain the status of absolute and universal truth that Goethe attributes to it.

In fact, I think it’s the very failure of Goethe’s project, the unfulfilment of his desire for this kind of immediate and universal symbolic truth, that Li finds so compelling—the failure of Goethe the scientist to give an accurate account of the material world, which illustrates the relationship between desire, art and ‘reality’.

Perhaps the best way to approximate this failure involves the distinction between allegorical and symbolic meaning in Goethe’s vision of literature. As he writes in Theory of Colours, he understands a true symbol to be ‘so closely identified with its meaning as to require no explanation’; ‘the object referred to conveys all the meanings by which it can, by its very nature, convey’, and thus the ‘symbol is reality itself’. The symbol, in other words, thus marks the very correspondence or ‘union’ between ‘concept’ and ‘image’—it is indivisible, it contains both. Goethe contrasts symbolic meaning with allegorical meaning, which, unlike symbolic meaning, is extended in time and involves the arbitrary or historically situated attribution of particular ‘signs’ to corresponding meanings. In the same section, he gestures towards symbol’s role in the apprehension of ‘mystical meaning’, the way in which the nature of a given phenomenon can teach us something about the true and corresponding nature of the divine, which we cannot comprehend directly but only infer from the universal knowledge we derive from the perception of material forms. As Goethe puts it:

since every diagram in which the variety of colours may be represented points to those primordial relations which belong both to nature and the organ of vision, there can be no doubt that these may be made use of as a language, in cases where it is proposed to express similar primordial relations which do not present themselves to the senses …

Importantly, the original phenomena can only be used to arrive at a higher understanding if we accept that it presents us with a certain kind of direct, unmediated truth in the form of the symbol in the first place. Thus, even the simple fact of light passing through glass can reveal to us a world composed of a dense network of correspondences, all stemming from the fact that everything in existence is derived from the same essential principle, namely, the ‘general law of separation and tendency toward union’. As Gray puts it, Goethe ‘employs language to trace out a pattern of universal significance’, based on the notion that ‘to divide what is united and to unite what is divided’ is not only ‘the very life of nature’ but the very nature of the spiritual and ‘“inner” subjective quest towards the divine’.

We can thus make sense of the extent to which Li draws together so many discourses to suggest relationships between seemingly disparate phenomena. Her characteristic visual and textual collage has been described as ‘alchemical’ before, including in the blurb to Lost Lakes, in the sense that it combines disparate elements to produce an unexpected ‘third’ result, a fusion of the two that is also a kind of transmutation—something already present in each element raised to a new height in a different form. Theory of Colours continues to splice disparate images and texts to produce this effect—landscape photography and animal hides, scientific diagrams and vintage photographs of settler colonial photographers in Aotearoa– but the object seems less the resulting newness than a hidden logic of correspondence implied between the source texts.

Li’s speaker reports that their dreams, ‘WITH THEIR DENSE AND SULLEN MUSIC, TOOK ON THE COLOUR OF MALACHITE’; similarly, the superimposition of orbs of animal print against rock forms draws a kind of thread between the two as natural forms, zebra hide and ‘A RIDGE OF SHALE, MASSED AS A JAGGED SPINE’ entering into a kind of shadowy tacit relationship. Again, the result is not ‘otherworldly’ but rather suggestive of lost language or pattern with which to understand the world from which each of these source texts has been drawn. These Goethian correspondences are implied, rather than explicit; they persist in traces, gestures, the sense that there must be something drawing these phenomena together into something like an argument or a unified whole. Perhaps the correspondences were once clear, and have since been subjected to the ruination of time?

On first reading Theory of Colours, I found myself oscillating between feeling that these implied connections were all the more tempting and compelling for being so delicate, so gestural, and the sense that there were so many missing links that the whole system resembled a kind of arbitrary and defunct relic, the almost unrecognisable ruins of a past belief—an ‘excursion into chaos’ rather than the pursuit of a unified whole

As Gray himself finally concedes, ‘the bulk of [Goethe’s] colour theory is, on his own terms, not symbolical but allegorical,’ in that it ‘depends on associations which are not based on the general experience of mankind’, but rather derived from alchemical texts and other adjacent strains of Western mysticism and philosophical thought. This offers a way of understanding the fact that so much of Li’s work seems concerned with something closer to dead allegory than timeless symbolic truth. Rather than disclosing their truths, many of the signs suggest some hidden meaning requiring a code to decipher; the ‘senses’, then, ‘are not “open”, but can only be understood with the help of a key’, which we cannot ignore precisely because we do not possess it. ‘There is no Babel’, no code immanent to the text, but merely a suggestion of an absent one yearned for.

Since there is no a-temporal, universal Babel through which to parse them, Goethe’s signifiers are encountered as the abandoned attractions of an allegorical theme park, which once aspired to the status of an immediate and timeless, universal symbolic truth. The landscape of the alchemical text ‘ruins itself’—we roam the ‘VANISHING BABYLONS: WINTER GARDENS, PLEASURE DOMES, JUNGLE CITIES, BIOMES, CRYSTAL PALACES OF KINGS’, or pick our way through the gutted shell of a ‘SPACESHIP, LONG ABANDONED ON A DESICCATED PLANET’.

The ‘MONUMENTS’ haloed by ‘BRIGHT SPECTRA AND A TRAPPED SULPHUROUS LIGHT’ are monuments to Goethe’s project: in his own words, ‘to imagine an absolutely pure red … [which] includes all other colours … ’ Such monuments still offer a kind of glimpse into a vision of utopia, but one that is always already ‘failed’, like an Edenicvision recalled only once it has been lost—


This abandoned amusement park is preoccupied with the gap between what is and what could have been. In other words, and true to form, it is haunted—multiply haunted, by spectres of different kinds, but perhaps haunted primarily by the afterglow of the ‘spell’, the alchemical transmutation, which stands in for the quest—the possibility of ‘completeness’.

The absent witch, the alchemist in the tower, makes their presence felt on every page: ‘this is the change I tell, remember me, remember the spell’. The ruins give off a desirous afterglow, playing out spectral illusions, ‘Around the monuments bright spectra and a trapped sulphureous light’.

The primary figuration of this haunting is the presence of ‘spectres of light’, particularly the optical phenomenon of the ‘after-image’—ghostly impressions which produce in us the sense of apprehending something before us that isn’t ‘there’.

These kind of subjective, unreliable experiences of light—aberrations in sight—are hugely important for Goethe, and many of the lines that Li lifts directly from his Theory of Colours are drawn from the opening section, on physiological colours, in which various disordered or aberrative experiences of colour are discussed. In the ‘history of spectral phenomena’, Goethe notes, these things were not taken seriously, but rather ‘looked upon as extrinsic and casual, as illusion and infirmity’, ‘too evanescent to be arrested’ and thus ‘banished into the region of phantoms.’ Goethe, on the other hand, takes these ghosts seriously, and indeed it is his interpretation of such spectral phenomena that forms the basis for his colour theory.

The presentation of his findings involves not only detailing in great subjective, literary detail his own personal experience of such spectral phenomena in the past, but also the impartation of dozens of detailed instructions so that readers might produce such effects in their own vision at home. Goethe’s readers are encouraged to conjure their own ‘coloured visionary circle’ that might float before them for up to seven minutes; they are encouraged to stare at the sun, to enter darkened rooms and stare at the wall, to roam the mountains at dusk—to understand that ‘every image occupies a certain space on the retina’ and leaves a complex impression there, floating on the pupil. Again, such an impression, experienced as a spectre, suggests the presence of something absent. And yet the impression is phenomenologically true, and in its submission to the same fundamental laws of the universe, spectral perceptions actually help us to comprehend things that do exist but which cannot be directly perceived.

Shifting away from Goethe, here, what makes these after-images or visual aberrations important in the context of Li’s project is that they are invested with longing, rooted in the perceiver’s desire for them to represent what they may not.

In ‘Coloured Shadows’, the desire for vision is given a stuttering voice in a page filled with openings to sentences that trail off—‘I noticed’, ‘I recognised’, ‘I felt’, ‘I perceived’—all speaking to a desire to see something simultaneously impossible and yet already darkly felt, or known—‘I knew there was a figure … ’

This figure, whose presence is alternately yearned for, sensed and perceived as an apparition, a shadow or an after-image, takes the form of the speaker’s brother in Li’s Theory of Colours, a brother who seems to have passed away and with whom the speaker was once close.

The brother, presumably, is the subject of the photograph that the speaker carries with them to the island: ‘a photograph, at which I had ceased to look’, a phrase which is repeated and which in its phrasing suggests a constant process of turning away after having looked, the imprint of the image of the retina predicated in the instant before the cessation of looking but never quite fading from the pupil. This brother is figured as an ‘apparition’, ‘an echo of an echo, ghost of the hour’, ‘an absence’ which has ‘wandered in from the landing’—‘The presence of a third person’ aside from speaker and reader, constantly on the verge of vanishing from view.

What is important about this ghost is how fiercely his presence is desired, a desire which I think has everything to do with the fact that it is perceived the way it is. There is a resonance here with Goethe’s recognition of the fact that ‘visions of persons or things which are the object of love’ can provoke ‘morbid affections’ of the eye, which for him indicates a ‘connection between sense and thought’ which discredits neither, because it is precisely via the interplay of both that we can know anything true about the nature of the universe. Rose-coloured glasses are welcomed into the fold of colour theory, with an openness that corresponds to Goethe’s lack of shame in admitting that his scientific method involves looking for examples of phenomena in nature that seem to correspond to what he already intuits to be true.

In other words, Goethe’s Theory of Colours is a masterclass in seeing what isn’t there, a miracle produced by the union of desire and sense perception. He presents us with a map of the world, but its internal errors and inconsistencies remind us that it doesn’t correspond perfectly to its object, the real world. In foregrounding the gaps, or holes, or overt wishful thinking in this kind of project, we find ourselves contemplating the extent to which all representations of the world are underwritten by desire—a desire for something missing or unresolvable in the ‘real world’, the real world being that which we can never directly access and represent, but whose existence can be inferred in precisely this failure.

We might understand this in terms of another image of an abandoned theme park. In the penultimate scene of Jurassic Park, in the destroyed bowels of what used to be the visitor’s centre, a T-rex picks up a velociraptor in her massive jaws and shakes it back and forth as Sam Neill, Laura Dern and the children look on in awe. As her head turns back towards the camera there is a moment—a frame, to be precise—in which the velociraptor vanishes, leaving the T-rex with an empty, gaping mouth. It’s a minor error, and literally imperceptible, even if you know when to look. But there’s something so compelling about the isolated frame—something spectral, maybe.

Jurassic Park is often read as an allegory about technology, science, a kind of moral lesson warning against hubris: you think you can control nature, but that control is illusory. As a leather-clad Jeff Goldblum puts it, ‘Life will not be contained. Life will break free’. From a slightly different angle, we might read it as an allegory of extinction—a more ambiguous exploration of the notion that our technology will be able to undo the irreversible, save humanity and the planet from climate disaster and other forms of apocalypse.

The irony is that even as the film’s characters berate each other for their arrogance in believing they can resurrect and control natural forces without obliterating human life as we know it, the franchise itself is making a certain kind of claim to absolute power, precisely in its emphasis on hyperrealistic CGI and its capacity to invoke and unleash these forces of chaos within a hyper-controlled representation.

To argue that cinematic technology is the real fantasy that structures Jurassic Park is not original—in fact, it’s probably a cliché. Perhaps, though, it can help us make sense of this image’s appeal: the disappearance, for a split second, of the velociraptor from the jaws of the T-rex. There’s something about the gap, the space, the moment of failure in which the fantasy is revealed for what it is: a desire for things to be other than they are.

In her chapter in the 2021 collection New Directions in Contemporary Australian Poetry, Li considers a quote from Italo Calvino’s The Count of Monte Christo. Calvino’s hero, trapped in a fortress, suggests: ‘we have only to identify the point where the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one and then find it’. As Li puts it:

This answer … in the form of a riddle, illuminates what we might see as both a breach and a bridge between the imagined and the real: on the one hand, the existence of such a point, from which an escape within the ‘real world’ of the novel can be effected, is a pure impossibility. On the other, escape is only possible and can only be effected through this point, because it is here that the imagined fortress does not faithfully mimic the real, but proposes an alternative to it, one that does not exist.

She goes on to argue, following Calvino, that language is ‘a labyrinth constructed from the inside’, but which seeks to escape its own confines—the value of literature thus derives ‘not from its ability to represent what is already there, but to allow for what does not yet exist—a passage, a window, a door—something that might lead us out of the seemingly fixed places we find ourselves in’. Her vision for literature is that it can allow us to arrive at what Calvino calls ‘the point at which something not yet said, something as yet only darkly felt by presentiment, suddenly appears and seizes us and tears us to pieces’. As Li puts it, ‘This “something not yet said”, a dense and obscure thing, is a limit of language: the limit of what is known because it can be named, and named because it can be seen’.

This vision of ‘poetry’ is figured allegorically in Theory of Colours as a Derridean labyrinth, the ‘Hotel L’avenir’:


These missing steps, like the T-rex’s empty jaws, or the space between beams of overlapping light in one of Goethe’s inaccurate diagrams, or the means by which the masked, corpse-like figure somehow, impossibly, penetrates the fortressed walls of the abbey in Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, represent the gaps opened up by our inaccurate perceptions of the world. In Li’s critical writing, these gaps are a kind of miracle, holding open the possibility of an impossible escape from the limits of
what we can see and know and say.

To celebrate literature’s role in facilitating our contemplation of these gaps, to hold them open and to widen them, seems to be Li’s project in this book. It’s a project which is very much concerned with its historical moment—impending climate collapse, colonial violence, a global pandemic and a growing sense of the foreclosure of any alternative to the forces of global capital. From this point in history, it seems that Li might have us turn to poetry, to literature, with the dream that it will provide a way out. But what does that way out actually look like? And what does it mean to figure such a potential liberation allegorically.

As an allegory of poetry’s liberatory potential, Li’s Theory of Colours seems to waver between performing the miracle it allegorises, and building a monument to the desire that such an operation might be possible. There is a suggestion, perhaps, that both projects amount to the same thing.


Abigail Fisher

Abigail Fisher is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. You can find her reviews and other writing in various places online and in print, including Overland, Sydney Review of Books,Australian Book Review, Rabbit Poetry, Mascara Literary Review, Cordite, Kill Your Darlings and TEXT Journal.

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