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2 july 2018

My heart leapt up when I beheld Daniel MacCannell's book Rainbows in my library's e-book database. I enjoyed reading the book, and for weeks since I've been seeing rainbows everywhere. Well, everywhere but the sky, though I tried my luck one bright rainy afternoon in Kansas last week, placing the sun at my back and looking up 42 degrees. No rainbow, though, nowhere over the rainbow, nothing but Kansas.

I began to see rainbows in art museums and truckstops, in supermarkets and on websites, on souvenirs, clothes, flags, and logos. Once alerted to look for the image, you can't help but notice how ubiquitous the rainbow is, how it stands for everything and nothing, for hipness and glurge, for and against the machinery of capitalism.

Rainbows themselves, as MacCannell establishes, are not only evanescent, but existentially mysterious. They are subjective phenomena, but they can be photographed. Everybody sees a different rainbow, and nobody sees the same rainbow twice: you couldn't ask for a better emblem of relativism, but they are what they are, and they are distinctly real for all their illusions.

MacCannell gets very interested in the history of scientific, and quasi-scientific, explorations of the rainbow. Apparently it took an unusually long time for Western philosophy to figure out what it was beholding in the sky. Rainbows are a complex conjunction of reflection and refraction. They're emblematic of nature too in being difficult to explain while extremely easy to produce: while writing this paragraph, I went out and watched a rainbow in the spray from a garden hose. (It will only work if the sun is lower than 42° in the sky, but it's late afternoon now and though it's midsummer, I'm far from the Equator.)

Because of their complexity, rainbows were misunderstood by Aristotle, by Alexander of Aphrodisias (though he first noted the structure of double rainbows, 1,800 years ago), and by medieval and early-modern observers from Roger Bacon to Isaac Newton. We now think we know what's going on when we see a rainbow, a light-bending display that knocks sunbeams off the walls of raindrops and back out again along a dizzyingly fractured path. But maybe the rainbow will have more mysteries to reveal.

Rainbows in art have rarely been painstakingly observed. They are too evanescent. We can't blame pre-photography painters for failing to get all the colors of the rainbow in their precise order, their exact degree of arc, their appropriate orientation to the sun. Many early-modern representations of the rainbow are simply shiny, as if the spectral qualities we now ascribe to the rainbow were secondary to its sheer luminescence.

Whatever their composition, rainbows have stood globally for hope ever since Noah. Politically, however, MacCannell shows that the appropriation of the rainbow for idealistic causes is very recent. The most prominent early-modern use of the rainbow in political symbolism seems to have come in the German peasant uprising of the 1520s which culminated in the battle of Frankenhausen (1525). In turn, the rainbow emblem which Thomas Müntzer used to rally his rebels became central to an enormous, deeply bizarre painting by East German artist Werner Tübke, carried out in the heyday of the DDR and still on display in its own custom museum in Bad Frankenhausen. But after the peasants were suppressed, the rainbow went on a political hiatus of 450 years or so before it was re-appropriated by Greenpeace, Jesse Jackson, the LGBTQ movement, and other inclusive initiatives.

Poets really took up the cause of the rainbow during the Romantic era, notably the afore-alluded Wordsworth, but also Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats ("There was an awful rainbow once in heaven," till scientists began to explain it). Rainbows always had good associations for the Romantics, if sometimes "awful" in their sublimity. "Schon seit vielen tausend Jahren / Spricht der Himmelsbogen: Friede," as Goethe put it; "For many thousand years now, the rainbow has announced Peace." One of the most spectacular rainbows I've ever seen was on my first trip to Germany, from a train running along the Rhine river. A man sitting next to me, quite old enough to remember the Allies forging across the same river in 1945, pointed it out, and began to sing softly "Warum ist es am Rhein so schön?"

Thousands and thousands of songs feature rainbows. MacCannell concentrates, with reason, on E.Y. Harburg's lyrics to Harold Arlen's "Somewhere over the Rainbow," and his later, more politically pointed show Finian's Rainbow. Harburg, more than anyone else in popular culture, exploited the alternative possibilities of rainbows. My own strongest rainbow-song memories are literally darker, from Paul Simon's "My Little Town":

And after it rains, there's a rainbow
And all of the colors are black.
It's not that the colors aren't there,
It's just imagination they lack.
"Everything looks worse in black and white," as Simon noted in another song, "Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away." As so often in Simon's catalogue, America really is just "black and white," a matter of "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike": but rainbows plus a little Kodachrome imagination allow us to see America as Oz.

The other song that came to mind while I was reading Rainbows was "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," written by Michael McKean and Annette O'Toole for Christopher Guest's mockumentary A Mighty Wind. The lyrics are pure schmaltz:

Oh, when the veil of dreams has lifted,
And the fairy tales have all been told,
There's a kiss at the end of the rainbow
More precious than a pot of gold.
A Mighty Wind is the story of superannuated folk singers still running out B-list hits decades after their time. Ironically, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," sung in the film by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, is very good. It stands out in a film about bad music, to the point of undercutting the satire; McKean's own character has to call the song "pretty." Written as self-conscious kitsch, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" achieved the status of real kitsch when it was nominated for an Academy Award. It ended up losing to a song from The Lord of the Rings – there were songs in The Lord of the Rings? – but not before giving Guest, Levy, O'Hara and their company material for their mockumentary on the Oscars, For Your Consideration. There was something at the end of that rainbow more precious than a statuette of gold.

MacCannell, Daniel. Rainbows. London: Reaktion, 2018.