A couple of years ago I spent some time at a friend’s cottage in Ireland. Deep in the Roscommon countryside, with the most magical garden I’ve ever known, including a large maze and a cricket pavilion that had become an artist’s studio, what I loved most was the darkness.
On a starlit night the sky was awe-inspiring. And on cloudy nights the quality of dark was of a kind the modern world rarely makes room for. It was a rich blanket of fleecy indigo, impenetrable and yet utterly comforting. It was a darkness that allowed complete rest from the day, a time for the fireside and story, a time for going inward, a darkness that ushered in the deepest sleep.
I’ve always been a night owl. I’m currently reading two books on darkness — Dark Skies and Under the Stars and I’m writing this at 1 a.m. — but the vital place of darkness in life and writing goes beyond my predilection. Writers need to be acquainted with the dark in order:
to be witnesses of sorrow
Life is as fragile as it is precious and with this comes grief. Loss comes in many guises. Sometimes it’s the full rawness of bereavement. At other times it’s about loss or fracturing of relationships, sorrow for the state of our planet, feelings of depression of overwhelm.
No one who loves and lives and breathes is spared loss and when it comes all we can do is give grief its due weight. Mourning is strenuous and painful, but not to be circumvented. No matter how arduous and distressing, grief has to be owned and given its own time if the end result is not to be nihilistic despair.
The depths and the darkness are not comfortable places, yet sometimes we have to spend time there, to resurface renewed and resilient. There are points in our lives when we have to face the darkness and sorrow we carry, including the mysterious enormity of the universe itself, which can fill us with shock as much as awe.
No matter how wealthy or privileged we bight be (or not), we all know hard or dark times. No one is immune from suffering. When life becomes raw and challenging and we find ourselves vulnerable, transiting a dark night of the soul then we need to be able to name the darkness.
To speak of sorrow
works upon it
moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall
writes Denise Levertov.
It’s all the grief that gets repressed that congests our psyches, individual and collective. Writers are amongst those willing to go into the dark and bring such grief into the light.
to bring back treasures from the underworld
Writing, like any art, is a strange mixture of learned skill and the mysterious alchemy of all that has ever influenced and resonated with the paritcular writer. On the surface, writing is utterly individualistic, yet it taps into shared stories and myths that we’ve breathed in from so many others, not all of them still with us.
In Negotiating with the Dead, based on a series of lectures that reflect on the writing life and process, Margaret Atwood uses the metaphor of going into the underworld to negotiate with the dead (those who have left their ideas for us) in order to return with some new knowledge:
A book is another country. You enter it, but then you must leave: like the Underworld, you can’t live there.
Manoeuvring in the dark, making offerings to the hungry ghosts, and bringing to light some insight or knowledge is both costly and rewarding. We bring back the treasures of the underworld and emerge more present to the rhythms of language, more attuned to emotion, humanity, myth. But we also return changed by the journey we’ve made, becoming a different story.
to make art no matter how challenging the world
This story is always bound up with the times that we live in. And in the darkest of times, art (of all kinds) is too often seen as an indulgence or an ego trip. But it is not. Rather it’s a mark of our deepest humanity. It is essential.
When we live in dark times, we must make art. We have a responsibility to keep writing, to keep making things of beauty, to keep interpreting the world in clay or paint or sound or dance … That doesn’t mead we should berate ourselves on the days when it’s not flowing and it’s all we can do to read a few lines of someone else’s writing or hold a beautiful ceramic and admire it … But never let anyone tell you that your creativity is an ‘add on’ or for the good times only. Art is not an indulgence at any time, but a way of forging hope, asserting our humanity, undermining limited perspectives and transforming the story we live in.
When we combine vision and courage, then we find ourselves able to go on making new stories, however slowly, even in the dark, even when we have to negotiate with the dead. We can’t do this by avoiding the dark, or trying to fool ourselves that such a thing is possible.
to assert that resonance and shadow are vital
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates…Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows
So often writing and life cohere. Writing that lives only in the light can become dull, unconvincing and lacking in resonance. It’s the pattern of shadows in writing that evokes memories and associations in the reader, that adds depth.
And a life lived only in blazing light, with artificial light taking over when the sun sets, and illuminating every street and even more and more remote places, speaks of a culture that refuses to rest, that despises ever slowing down.
Darkness, on the other hand, is associated going carefully, with story telling and rest. And with a particular kind of contemplative mindset, as Antoine de St Exupéry notes in Flight to Arras:
Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When one reassembles the fragmentary self and grows with the calm of the trees.
Writing in the twenties during a year spent on a lonely peninsula of Cape Cod, Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House, despairs that modern civilisation seems afraid of the night with its:
… vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of the stars […] today’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night…
His descriptions of the coast in darkness are transporting and lyrical and he goes on:
Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from … experience of man, there vanishes as well … a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity.
Life and writing are each enriched by and made more resonant when there is darkness as well as light, when there is space for shadows, dreams, intuition and rest.
to value doubt and the unknown
The clear light of day has its own quality of vision and perception and, metaphorically, it speaks to what we are confident of, to the meanings we share. But humanity, despite our hubris as a species, doesn’t know everything. There are still more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy — or our science. Night is the counterweight to our knowing, a time to slow down, step back in humility, and wonder. As Henry Beston puts it:
For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time,
When we enter the dark metaphorically, or as we enter dream states each night, we travel in a place we had never imagined and, in so doing, extend the boundaries of the self into unknown territory.
The opening of Dante’s Inferno is one of those terrifying moments of paradigm shift:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
for the straightforward pathway had been lost
The narrator is vulnerable, anything might happen and in that is both terror and a moment of chance. It is the blank page of possibility. Think of the beginning of the Creation story in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep
In Jewish Kabbalah the Chalal Panui or empty space is the primordial vacuum in which the infinite God creates a finite universe and it this that explains how God is able to be both present within and absent from in the world. Even God faces the blank page or the darkness before anything is created.
And it is not only the page or the huge space of our potential creativity. The night can be a time when we face ourselves. Contemplating his own mortality, James Baldwin wrote in Nothing Personal:
Sometimes, at four AM, this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error. Since, anyway, it will end one day, why not try it — life — one more time?
to grow and live
Writers need to be acquainted with the dark because it’s one of the places where growth happens: in the depths, in rich dark soil. The darkness can be a place of dread or a place of transformation and sometimes both at once. Time is deep. The earth we inhabit is deep. What is ‘beneath’ whether in the earth, the unconscious or in the half-buried repository of memories, myths and metaphor, can be deathly, but it can also be life-giving. It is as vital as it can be scary.
Becoming a different story
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Jo Reardon says
‘Art is not an indulgence at any time, but a way of forging hope, asserting our humanity,’ as we nudge ourselves back to the world I find this too Jan. I work better in the morning but don’t always manage to get up early enough! But the night sky, the sound of an owl (which I can hear in our new garden!) remind me that the darkness is only another form of light.
A comforting and inspiring post, thank you.
Looking forward so much to the reading x