“Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself.”
The Outermost House: A Year of Life On
The Great Beach of Cape Cod
The Outermost House before it was swept out to sea by a 1978 hurricane.
In Truro, a 50-mile drive east-northeast from mainland Massachusetts, we will suffer sunset at 4:12 on this, the shortest day of the year – and the longest night.
Night visits special terrors on some.
Here’s how I described one such night of torment in my forthcoming novel, Cold Stun:
The darkness of Jenny’s bedroom was as absolute as an amusement park horror house, and the quiet of the place was as deep as its darkness. The only sound she heard was her own pulse where her ear pressed the pillow, and she shifted her head to silence the cadence. She drew up her knees and tugged the duvet high on her face. She knew her wide-awake mind would start racing with overwrought scenarios and exaggerated rages – all the incubi that had become nocturnal visitors since her breakup.
For others, as Rod Serling wrote, “there is nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on.”
Many find dark a place of transcendence.
Vincent van Gogh was one: “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
If we agree with Henri Matisse that “a picture must possess a real power to generate light,” we have to ask -- what about dark? What power must a painting possess to depict dark?
Here is how van Gogh answered this question in 1888, painting at night and directly from nature …
“Starry Night over the Rhone”
Terror, transcendence -- even humor -- can be found when we toy with day and dark, light and night.
Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, wrote this ditty famous for its winsomeness:
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
Jersey Tomato toyed with the subject:
“Lincoln studied by the light of a fireplace. Mozart composed by candlelight. Galileo invented by oil lamp. Didn't they ever think to do their work during the day?”
And the late George Carlin joked:
“Why is it called 'after dark' when it really is 'after light'?”
So what is dark? Is it after light? Is it absence of light?
The difference between light and night might come down to nothing more than one letter of the alphabet.
Then why the eternal joust between light and dark?
Fearing the descent of endless, unmarked days of darkness, J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937 -- on the eve of World War II.
The newly released second installment of The Hobbit movie trilogy crystallized Tolkien’s anxiety. The Dark Lord Sauron confronts Gandalf the Grey: “No light, Wizard, can overcome the darkness.”
Some 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi glimpsed a different outcome in the contest between light and dark.
Christmas was his favorite day, and in 1223 he conceived the idea of celebrating the Nativity by reproducing the Bethlehem manger scene in a church at Greccio, Italy.
It was he who gave us the devotional tradition of the crèche that brightens so many homes and places of worship during this Christmas season.
And it was St. Francis who promised us:
“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
In my next blog, “Light”