One of the features of the modern age is our mastery of light. I’ve talked before about the suggestion that pre-industrial sleep patterns were very different, with two separate ‘sleeps’ and a time of wakefulness in the dark between them. I’m currently reading Lee Morgan’s fascinating book on witchcraft – Deed without a name. The author has flagged up another contribution to ideas around sleep and darkness. Our ancestors used to spend a lot more of their time in gloom, twilight, candlelight, firelight.
If we are awake, we tend to have bright light (romantic diners and dingy pub gigs aside). Illumination has become normal, and goes interestingly alongside enlightenment. We live in an age that aspires to know everything and that tends to view everything as potentially comprehensible. If we don’t understand a thing, its because we’ve not yet got the right maths to measure it with, the right technology to observe it, the right theory to rationalise it. We bring everything into the light, where we can clearly see the edges.
Twilight is a place of uncertainty where a crouching man merges with the plant life and you can’t tell whether its mice or spirits making the noises in the undergrowth. Candle light and firelight fill the corners with dancing shadows, reinvent the world as mysterious and turn the familiar into the uncertain. Our ancestors had this as part of their normal, every day reality. Not all things could be brought into the light, and light was not available at the touch of a button to dispel all confusion. To a mind that encounters shadows, gloom and twilight on daily basis, the unknown is inevitable. The unknowable is a daily feature. To the person who lives with light levels they can immediately control, the sharp edges of the world are always visible.
We assume, I think, that the sharp edges and boundaries made apparent by our reliable light sources are real, and that the uncertainties of twilight are illusions brought on by an insufficiency of light. To our ancestors, those uncertainties were real. But here’s a thing. Our light is artificial. The gloom of twilight, the strange partial light of a full moon – these are real conditions. Darkness and shadow are real. Times of warped perception are real. What we have chosen to irradiate is a real and potentially meaningful state.
We throw light on things. We push away the shadows of superstition. We illuminate the issue. We cast it in a new light. We throw the spotlight on it. We put it under the spotlight. Darkness is ignorance. Darkness is superstition. Our man-made light is the really real reality and we believe in it. The light tells us that everything has edges, everything can be known. Yet the further the science goes, the more we see the dark spaces filled with something we cannot illuminate. The more physics I read, the less I feel I know and understand. Perhaps what the turning on of light must inevitably show us, is the sheer extent of the darkness.
Twilight is my favourite time of day. I love the way the light and shadows create a different kind of reality, one with softer edges and less certainty. I love spending time in firelight and candle light, and I wonder what would happen to my perceptions if I gave up electrical illumination entirely, and accepted either the darkness, or the candle. Would I think and feel differently? I’m inclined to suspect I would. In the twilight, mystery is natural, uncertainty is natural, doubt is natural. Perhaps we need a bit more of that to balance up what we’ve learned from switching the lights on.