Friday, November 21, 2014

On Darkness

I want to talk about darkness. About shadows.

There is going to be a lot of Jung flying about here, and as I am not a Jung scholar, I apologise for taking great liberties with the great man’s theories.

Shadows are things do not exist without light. Yet we all cast them, and the brighter the light, the more obvious they are.

Shadows are dark, by definition. We are programmed to fear darkness, because we usually equate it with evil. Things lurk in there that we probably don’t like. We treat our shadow worlds like dustbins, shoving things we’d rather not face into the black corners. We know that deep down in the oceans exist scary creatures: jellyfish, viperfish, giant isopods and squids, things we don’t want near us when we swim.

We come to the conclusion that the darkness is a convenient place to store anything, like an eveready cupboard we can stuff things into when we need to appear neat and tidy.

But it is only a temporary holding place. Separated from the light that is supposed to probe and unpack them, undesireable things learn to adapt to a new ecosystem. Think of the bleached moles and spiders that have evolved in deep caves. Fungi grow there, metabolisms alter, and colonies of strange creatures form. Then, one day, these altered beings creep out of the cave when we least expect it.

What lies beneath?
And what do we blame, after we have screamed and run away? The darkness. When in fact, we polluted it in the first place.

We forget that evil, actually, is banal. It can exist and thrive during the day or at night. We forget that we hide good things too in our personal caves, to our own detriment. We deny our ability to stand up to unfairness. We indulge in the incessant forgetting of our strengths. We cast aside the vast collection of happiness, of dreams, of moments of joy with the slightest arrival of criticism or slight.

The problem is, how do we see these shadow things for what they are, when our eyes are meant for collecting light? Plato famously said that we plunge with torches into a cave, but are unable to experience the knowledge of the darkness because we have to bring fire. (And, for those of us raised with Christian theology, we must remember that the traditional conception of Hell is not dark, but rather, populated with raging flames where the damned are roasted eternally.)

It took the British psychoanalyst Bion to come up with the confusing, but startling concept of the “beam of darkness” we need to shine into that cave. It is only through it that we can understand the inverse of light. This necessarily implies a descent into the unknown, with the realisation that we carry an internal battery as it were that has been charged, yes, by the sun. Suns collapse into black holes, but they burst forth again in supernovas, brighter than they have ever been after their sojourn into the unfathomable black.

The truth is that dark feeds light, and light feeds dark. Such has been the wont of the Universe ever since its birth.

In the cave with its black light, alone, we can breathe, and sort the wheat from the chaff, so we can bring them into light again. The giant squid that we thought was lurking there to squeeze the life out of us turns out to be an atrophied shrimp. Strings of painful memories evaporate into a sad but soft mist as we coax them out into the sunshine again. And, if we combine the discernment the light taught us with the instinct of the dark, we can exorcise the fake demons we conjured and finally bid them goodbye. (I think now of the sorry debacle of the nineties when ethically suspect hypnotherapists conjured fake experiences of sexual abuse from their patients with highly controversial “regression” therapy.)”

Keeping things in the dark, as it were, is of course vitally necessary to cope with life. We don’t need to remember how we drove to work, or what muscles we used to swallow our bacon and eggs this morning. We can’t remember the conversations we had yesterday. The brain needs to engage in more complex things, so that we remember instead how to sing along to a favourite song, or how to swim when we spot a beautiful lagoon, or make an important transaction or prescribe a patient an essential drug. As for song, it is only because of the silences between the notes that we can appreciate the music. Silence brings punctuation, and punctuation affords understanding.

We could equate our consciousness to stars glowing in the darkness, then, at their coronae, we encounter the membrane of the pre-conscious that encapsulates them. And there they float in the deep unconscious that flows between the stars. Or, to use my favourite analogy which a friend told me: think of an ocean. Think of a kelp forest that sways from side to side, and that at the surface, an island floats. The island is our consciousness, held by the kelp, that sways on the bedrock of the unconscious that anchors it. The bedrock needs no light. Nor does the ocean. But when light shines through it, it is filtered, and becomes even more beautiful. The moon emits no light of its own but is content to reflect that of the sun’s.

Where do we find our beam of darkness?

Perhaps the eyes glow only because
they need to lead the way.
It is difficult. It is a primal thing, animalistic, a night creature unhindered by rational thought. We fear it, thinking it will bring destruction. But it will only bring destruction if we shear it off from our beam of light with scorn. We forget that we gestated for nine months without light in our mother’s womb, or that in sleep, our eyes are closed, melting into an internal night.

We do not need to tame this creature, we merely need to meet it at the mouth of a cave and let it show us the way. Native Americans speak of a totem animal; in visualations and dreamscapes they descend to meet it. My totem animal, fittingly, is a wolf of course. But it could have been an otter, a fish, or a starling. The physiology need bear no resemblance to the container of the darkness, it merely needs to be able to enter it. We trust this animal, guiding us past the rush of our thoughts, leading us, until we realise we are carrying a torch, our beam, that can shine either light or dark. And there we will find the subconscious has brought forth castles of quartz, stalactites of diamond, conflagrations of jewels.

What will happen when our beam shines? What will be illuminated? What will we be able to bring back? Hopefully, our cave will be neater, freer, with room to breathe. For new things to be stored... temporarily... to cool perhaps, under a sun that has scorched them.

We try too hard, of course, to integrate things. I think we should feel liberated that there are limits to what we can know. That these things are shared and nurture us. Millions of molecules are assembling and disassembling in our cells right now, but we are not aware of them, instead, we can read, kiss our loved ones or admire a sunset. And as carbon is essential to life, arsenic is toxic, yet they are made up of the same fundamental particles.

Carbon, of course, is black in the light, while arsenic is silvery-white and lustrous in its elemental form. It would be very dangerous to assume their actions based on their colour now, wouldn’t it?

Let us examine the night now, the most tangible darkness we know.
Who are you, and why are you here?

I was afraid of the dark as a child. I needed a night light, except when the full moon shone. I regularly checked for monsters under the bed and kept the cupboards closed in case ghosts decided to take up residence there. Is this perhaps because we unwittingly teach children that the dark is bad? Certainly, it is disarming when we cannot see. Up, down, left and right become completely arbitrary (forgetting gravity.) The normal layout of maps is a hangover from Western dominance of the seas; there is no reason that South shouldn’t be at the top. (There is, in fact, an upside-down map of the world available, and it is refreshing to look at.) It took my cat to disabuse me of this: a night-creature himself, he purrs and lies at the foot of the bed, his eyes engineered with rods that make maximal use of the scarcity of photons.

Then my bed would becomes a spaceship. Here I’ve learned to float, not to fear.

There are many ways we can acquaint ourselves with our nocturnal shadows. (Often we are forced to here in SA with out rolling blackouts, thank you Eskom.) We can drive to Sutherland where the Karoo sky is at its blackest and see the galaxy the way its meant to be. We can go to the Bushveld and sit around the fire until it dies and then lie in our huts and listen to an African night at play. We can get up early and walk to the ocean before sunrise and see the daily birth of our star.

But most of all, we can close our eyes and wait for the dreams to come.

Cruelly for me, I struggle with insomnia. I’ve tried meditating, medication, warm milk, banishing electronic devices from the bedroom. Our current regimen of eight hours of sleep followed by daily activity is in fact artificial. During pre-electric days, humans would alternate sleep and activity during the night, dozing for a few hours, then becoming productive.

Electricity not only illuminated, but scarred our pineal glands forever. And so we reach for melatonin, for zolpidem, for yoga classes and B-RST free milk. It is perhaps a fitting irony that we are forced to confront the dark when insomnia hits.

The dark illuminates, too.
I’ve formed a relationship with my insomnia. I don’t fear it anymore, I let it guide my thoughts as I lie in the darkness listening to the rustle of the wind and the soft breathing of my wife. Clocks tick, the dog settles herself in her sleep, the foundations of the house creak. Night birds sing and far away the odd car revs its engines. The night is as alive with life as the day. Eventually, I do fall asleep. I only wish civilisation would make allowance for those us whose clocks are wound differently: I would happily start work at ten and work through till seven in the evening. Then I could potter around at midnight at my laptop and let the words flow, and do their magic in the darkness, and let the shadows speak.

But I digress.

The very pixels of the words that form on the screen right now are black: where the light is turned off. And yet I read.

As Zukofsky said: Come, shadow come.

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