Throughout human history and across cultures, darkness carries with it negative connotations. Fear, evil, and death all seem to leap from every long shadow, to stalk every deep cave. We turn from the dark and towards the light.
Fear of the dark is recognised as a primordial fear. From the night comes danger. Spare a thought for our most ancient ancestors, beset by predators in the still of the night, unable to fight what they cannot see.
This is the story told across the world. But there is another side to the darkness, another facet to night. Those same ancestors will also have seen a night sky unlike anything most people alive could comprehend. The dome of the night, awash with stars and galaxies. The overpowering beauty of the universe pressing down upon them, without roof or lamp to obscure.
The controversial poet and mystic, Aleister Crowley, once described what he believed to be the essential structure of the universe to be “Nothingness, with twinkles! … 'But what Twinkles!”. The focus here is not on the darkness, not on the void, but on what the darkness allows us to perceive. The joy and beauty inherent in the world. To look at this more literally, the light of day, and that of our own lamps, only obscures and conceals these “twinkles”, these essential elements of the universe.
Crowley may have been pleased to have NASA back up his metaphysical observations, with some of their own more substantial ones. According to their own studies, less than 5% of the universe is comprised of atomic matter, of “stuff” that we could see or touch or understand. The rest is to be sure not empty, but it is for now beyond our ken. So then. We must focus on the twinkles amidst the darkness.
Much like the Voyager mission, we are destined to wander the darkness, searching for joy. And like that lonely satellite, far from home, we traverse the dark expanse, beguiled by distant points of light. We carry within ourselves also our own golden disc which we offer to the void in exchange for all those stars, inadvertent beacons illuminating another's twilight path.
In her poem 'Night', Anne Bronte describes one of the ways the night can draw out from us that which lays hidden otherwise:
“I love the silent hour of night,
For blissful dreams may then arise,
Revealing to my charmed sight
What may not bless my waking eyes!”
Again we see here the night as the font from which our dreams flow. In order to draw out this “charmed sight” we must first close our eyes and slip into darkness. Each opal all the more radiant and precious for it's obsidian canvas.
For sure, monsters come out at night, but so do our dreams. Tomorrow cannot be born until today dies. And it is at night that we begin to truly grasp the awesome potential of a new dawn, be it through dream or nightmare.
For many, a world of light and colour is associated with happiness, creativity, and life. Artists seek to capture the day's rainbow and transform it into an artefact of joy for others to behold. What then when this colour is lost? Can anything but despair come about from this exchange? A blindfold for a kaleidoscope.
Oliver Sacks tells us the story of one such artist, in his book “Anthropologist on Mars”. “The Case of the Colourblind Painter” is one of a profound initial loss. The artist, known as Jonathan I., became completely colour blind after suffering head injuries in a car accident. As a painter with an eidetic memory, Jonathan I had perhaps enjoyed the spectrum of light and colour even more than most. But after his accident, he was plunged into a world of harsh monochrome and unsettling greys. The sight of his own paintings, devoid of colour and meaning, brought him to despair. Human flesh became “rat coloured” and repulsive. Food quickly became inedible and even his mind's eye was beset with achromatopsia,
“He found foods disgusting in their grayish, dead appearance and had to close his eyes to eat. But this did not help very much, for the mental image of a tomato was as black as its appearance.”
Art, T.V, and even music became sources of torment, rather than inspiration. He could not look to nature either, for the sunrise became a “nuclear explosion”, unbearable to look at. Reds turned into a harsh white, and the clouds disappeared from the sky in a grey haze.
“He was depressed once by a rainbow, which he saw only as a colorless semicircle in the sky.”
All was not lost, however, as Jonathan I. slowly found solace in darkness. He embraced his loss and began to eat black and white foods such as rice and black olives. The calm brought on by nightfall, free from blinding glare or putrid greys allowed him to not only find peace, but also to look forward again.
“It's a different world: there's a lot of space—you're not hemmed in by streets, by people.... It's a whole new world.”.
His embrace of the night was in turn met with reward.
"I feel better because I know then that I'm not a freak...and I have developed acute night vision, it's amazing what I see—I can read license plates at night from four blocks away. You couldn't see it from a block away."
Again, we see that darkness offers us the perfect canvas upon which to appreciate the joy of existence. Just as the Odin of mythology gained arcane wisdom in exchange for half his sight;
“Patients such as Mr. I. show us that color is not a given but is only perceived through the grace of an extraordinarily complex and specific cerebral process. The same is true for the perception of motion, depth, and form: all of these we take for granted, until we see patients who have lost them”
And so. To embrace darkness is to embrace contrast, to temper the chaos of light so that it may beguile, rather than blind. We wander the darkness, so that we may gather joy.
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Cover – Great Comet of 1861 by E.Weiss
Engraving of Leonids Meteor Shower, 1863
'Night on the Dnieper River', 1882 by Archip Kuindshi
May by Frantisek Kobliha, 1911
Monochromatic painting iby Jonathan I