And Darkness – I/IV

 

A dream born of crimson and pitch…

 

In the story of any grief, there is a crux. The anguish becomes nearly too much to bear, the pain turns to nausea, and the mortal is given a choice: turn back, or press on. The you-who-you-are can never overcome this suffering. The you-who-you-might-be could stand a chance. And the choice is made, you cast your lot, and the world continues with or without you. Those who choose to remain as they are, usually those old enough that they are ready to die but far too often those too young to know what they’re giving up, wither away like plants without the sun. We’ve all seen this. We all know this.

My obsession has been with how to live a good human life, with how to withstand the violent and chaotic (and terrifyingly orderly) forces of our world to make the best of it. To that end: therapy. Equally, my eye has been on art, on truth, on understanding, and how to find that which is good and valuable in a world of empty signalling. To that end: aesthetics. What follows is something of a synthesis of the two.

I can only ever seem to write at night. There’s something about daylight that scours my thoughts as they try to leave my mind. They’re fragile things, and end up bleached by sunbeams, so instead I keep them locked inside my head and only let them out in the safety of darkness. It’s quiet, now, and even the electric lights outside seem to fade. It’s a meditative time, a holy time, and if it be the shadows which preserve, so be it. Others may take the light.

It’s the darkness which fascinates, as well, and which always has. In the light, everything is clear and sharp, but darkness holds potential. Something clearly illuminated can only be what it plainly is, while something shadowed over could be – anything. This is why our images of horror are always set in darkness: to accentuate the horror, to protect us from it. If the horror were plainly spelled out, if its exact terms were known, then it would cease to be horrifying and instead become ordinary and factual. It would cease to be fear in the dark, and instead would become a commonplace feature, as did midday public executions. Why else did you think that the Aztecs conducted their sacrifice to the sun? No, sunlight knows what happens beneath it, and what you do under the sun is defined and finite, and in our bright world there is little left to claim but that in absolute darkness.

A fable: the world was once dark, dark as can be, dark as night all over. The first humans struggled up from the darkness, looked around them, and were struck with fear. They buried their hands in the nyctian sludge, rooted around, and drew up some of the darkness to burn, and with that burning cast light. They huddled around it, and fed it, and spread it out, making a ring of torches as a barrier between themselves and the dark. And in the middle, they huddled together and hugged each other and slept and dreamed. They were safe to, now. The light protected them. And when they woke, they began drawing more from the murk beneath them, building structures in the light and lighting more fires, until all was illuminated in that brilliant glow. The light made rich their luminous empire, and the humans walked tall and proud, gazing upon the myriad forms subdued and shackled by the light. And they had children, and the children were born in the light, and they were born looking at distinct things, and they slept in bright rooms. But when those children closed their eyes, under their lids and under their skin was a place that no light could reach. They tried to stay awake, resisted sleep, but when it finally came, their dreaming eyes watched the light retreat from all the familiar objects of day, the shadows retaking the things they held dear. Their forms became muddied and indistinct, half-dissolved in darkness, looming, leering, mocking, and the children felt small and weak, as the objects of the real jeered at them, DID YOU THINK YOU KNEW ME? DID YOU THINK YOU OWNED ME? And the children, so different from their inconsistent daytime babbling, screamed as one. This was the first nightmare.

I’m certain you see the analogue. We, having grown up in a world of brightness, of distinct lines and answered questions, have been denied our birthright and birthrite of primordial darkness. Our ancestors were able to bury their hands in the sludge and draw light from it, but we have no such privilege. Instead, we wander around in circles of light and play with the bright baubles offered us and have night terrors and make bad art.

For it’s art that loves the dark, and which perishes in the light. The best example is that old joke: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: you learn a lot more about it, but the frog dies.” Explication annihilates the aesthetic, which is why contemporary art with its attempts to make everything explicitly political or otherwise distinct is so atrocious. You can look at it once and have nothing more to see, while the character of good and classical art is that you can revisit it, look deeper into it, and find something there. That makes it worth more than can be possibly imagined, unless of course it’s interpreted in the same way as contemporary art, at which point it rapidly becomes worthless.

This drawing-from-darkness is the fundamental form of the aesthetic, the transformation of the unformed into the formed. It is judgment itself, and of course, we have been taught to fear judgment. “Don’t be so quick to judge!” as if judgment itself was what was wrong, to leave judgment to our elders and stay sweet and innocent ourselves – doesn’t that seem familiar? What they were afraid of, of course, was bad judgment (which they clearly had in spades), and what they failed to fear was an inability to judge at all. So we get to the present day, where fear of judging means that people either internalize the dread and leave all their judgment up to others or hide their judgment from others and never learn how poor their judgment is. In neither case do we get skillful, expert judges who can tell good from bad and right from wrong. All we have is an unending expanse of echoed opinion, applying and reapplying to every object under heaven. We get generations most competent in faithful regurgitation, re-expressing and re-applying the judgments they’ve been taught, approved by society, often imagining their independence all the while, and never making a single judgment they must support on their own. If they do defend, it’s on the merits of relativity. “Hey, it’s just my opinion.” With perfect irony, this likely means they don’t have one.

This is the deepest cause of our loneliness. The prerequisite of friendship is the bond in deep shade: you and he or she meet, and only God watches over you. The decisions you make, the way you act, who you are, all this is shared in shameless openness and is judged on its purest merits. The question is only ever: what does this mean for us and what we care for? The divine adjudicates, an impartial but caring presence, through the words you speak together, and the result is what’s best for the two of you. Unseen by the watchful eyes outside, in the rich and dark space between you, you can act with complete freedom and with guilt over shame. And what’s more, as that friendship gets closer, the barriers between you break down, and what was once two souls – does not become one, that is impossible – becomes more murky, muddled, indistinct. And in that moment, with a lessened ability to tell who is you and who is they, with a heightened sense of the hopes and fates of the us, you are finally less alone. And that was the goal all along.

Friendship requires darkness. The darkness there is protection: you put your heads together, and use your bodies to protect the space between you, to shelter it from the light. For as soon as your relationship, your exposed selves, fall prey to the light’s judgment, they will be conformed to that judgment and lose that needed freedom. Guilt and trust evaporate and are replaced by shame alone, such that both of you turn from confidantes with the divine to informers for Panopticon. What you do will cease to matter. What remains is how you appear to be, and suddenly the comforts of friendship turn to anxieties.

The bright principles of society seek to turn all of us to informers. The core of friendship is the tacit assurance: say what you will, and I will say what I will in return, but I will never tell another soul you said it. I may castigate you for your sins, I may demand repentance, but I will not sell you out to others. Without this, there can be no honesty, and this is what honesty truly is. You must have a friend, or family, and you must be able to speak without shame. It is liberating, and it uplifts the soul. Without practicing this sacrament you will suffer agony unimaginable. If you punish honesty with untrustworthiness, then you will have done the unforgivable. This is how society breaks us apart: by dazing our minds with judgments so searing that we inform upon our friends. No, not for legal matters, but for moral matters: “he/she thinks this, and it’s terrible!” And both end up alone.

Acquaintances, rivals in society’s light, must stick to their appearances in order to survive. Inconsistency is taken as proof of duplicity, and failure to cleave to morality shows a wicked heart. This is why public figures turn into caricatures or have “clearly lost it;” if they keep the act up all is well, and if they let it down they must be insane. Illumination, the gaze of others, paralyzes unless the object breaks.[1] This happens to all of us to some degree, and the way we escape it is into darkness, through privacy, either by total solitude or the kind gaze of those who would grant us unending freedom to change.

The change I’m describing, of course, is growing up.

[1]If you’re interested: this is literally a Kuhnian paradigm shift. What, did you think psychology somehow didn’t run through science, that the part and the whole can be distinguished? No; knowledge and definition strain a psychic structure increasingly as they grow more absolute, whether that structure is a theory or a human soul. Don’t you dare do this to others. Leave them a way out.

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