Absolute Darkness

A curious disorientation

Lydia Davis

Pierre Soulages, Painting 190 x 222 cm, 5 February, 2012 (Peinture 190 x 222 cm, 5 février 2012), 2012. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

In Objects of Desire, a writer meditates on an everyday item that haunts them.

Years ago, when i lived in a far noisier place, I dreamed of utter silence and sometimes went in search of it—once at a rented cabin in the mountains, on a vast pond with an inlet from the forest. At dusk, I took a canoe and paddled up the inlet in search of silence. As I remember, I found it, though there must have been little creature noises or at least the rippling of water against the sides of the canoe.

Now I live in a quiet place, at the edge of a small village in a rural area, on a road that is less traveled. At night, sometimes, or in the late evening, there is an enveloping silence. I have an indoor cat who likes to be held for a while in the evening on the front step. This is a boring thing for me, but nice for the cat. I don’t stand there for long, but, having nothing else to do, I look around and I listen. What I hear on a quiet night, when no cars are passing, are two things only: wind blowing in the trees around the house and across the road, if there is wind, and, if heavy rains have been fall­ing in the previous days, the sound of high water in the creek a few minutes’ walk down the road. This sounds like a distant stream of traffic.

There is never total darkness because of a wide glow in the sky beyond the hilltop and, usually, a single bright light bulb above the back door of the house across the road, whose occupant turns on the light at dusk and leaves it on all night. The bulb itself, from where I see it, is a small point of light sparkling in the tangled branches of a hedge, but its wide beam crosses the road into our driveway and yard and shines into our living room windows.

Lately I have been worrying about excessive light in most places on earth. Light pollution is one of the main causes of the steep decline in insect populations. Two-thirds of all invertebrates are nocturnal and depend on “natural” alternations and degrees of light and dark for their livelihood and reproduction. Their cycles and behavior are being disrupted, often fatally, by our insistence on an overabundance of artificial light.

The skies where I live are dark enough on a clear night so that I can see a number of stars, though only the brightest ones. I can only imagine the thousands more I would see with complete terrestrial darkness. In so many places, we are missing a great celestial display.

an unusual experience started me thinking even more closely about degrees of darkness, the nature of darkness, and darkness as a physical thing.

I had attended a meeting in an isolated building down a country road with woods beyond. The meeting was over, and it was time to go home. Our cars were parked a few hundred yards away from the building. My friend J., wearing a light blue sweater, went out the door first. I left the building a minute later and stopped short. Looking in the direction of the cars, I saw nothing. I saw nothing at all but solid darkness, a wall of darkness. It must have been a cloudy night, because the sky was dark. The closest house, across the road, was dark.

J., though she had no light, had walked ahead anyway into the darkness. Now she called to me that she couldn’t see and didn’t know where she was. I couldn’t see either. I looked toward her voice and saw only the faintest dim patch where she was—her sweater against the dark. I knew the landscape, so I knew that she was headed away from the cars and into a field of grass.

Absolute, unbroken darkness feels like one massive, enveloping substance, though it is not a substance and is not palpable.

I prolonged this moment, in which the darkness was so com­plete, more complete than I had ever experienced before, because I relished it. We were in no danger and did not mind being thus “lost” a few yards from our cars. I was marveling at the novelty of this utter disorientation. Then I took my car keys from my pocket and unlocked the car, making the lights blink and blink again as I unlocked it from where I stood. The space in front of us acquired dimension; the cars receded across the distance; we knew where the ground was. We were no longer disoriented. J., in her blue sweater, began moving again, away from the edge of the field.

In retrospect, the memory of that evening became more and more impressive to me because it had been so rare. The experience of that dense darkness became an absolute against which I could now measure the partial darkness of some evenings and nights and the over-illumination of the roads and neighborhoods nearby—the hooded or unhooded lamps over so many outside doors, the street­lights at intersections, the floods of light in empty parking lots.

We had found ourselves disoriented with something of the same sense of novelty and release as that which J. A. Baker describes in The Peregrine, his account of his sightings of a pair of peregrine falcons day after day over some months, though for him, it was silence he relished: “In the flat fens near the coast I lost my way. Rain drifted softly through the watery green haze of fields. Everywhere there was the sound and smell of water, the feeling of a land withdrawn, remote, deep sunk in silence. To be lost in such a place, however briefly, was a true release from the shackles of the known roads and the blinding walls of towns.”

I came upon Baker’s depiction of disorientation not long after my own. Then I happened to read Emily Dickinson’s “We grow accustomed to the Dark—,” which begins with a description of stepping “uncertain” into the night, as J. and I had, and managing to “fit our Vision” to it—which we had not been patient enough to do—so as to “meet the Road—erect.”

After a shift into considering larger, existential Darknesses—“Those Evenings of the Brain”—Dickinson follows with some sur­prisingly graphic, almost comical lines:

The Bravest—grope a little—

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead—

That account, at once literal and figurative, might have described J. and me and barely didn’t.

I also thought more carefully, after that experience, about what darkness feels like. In describing deep darkness, I want to use words like velvet or soft or blanket. Is that because darkness con­ceals the edges of what we see in light? The room I am in, illumi­nated by daylight, has many edges in it—not only the hard edges of the furniture but also the softer borders of a rug or the lines where the walls meet each other and the ceiling. A forest, though it is, in season, full of soft-seeming foliage, is also striped by the vertical hard trunks of the trees. Even the vast, billowy body of water that is the ocean is defined by the straight edge of the horizon. Absolute, unbroken darkness feels like one massive, enveloping substance, though it is not a substance and is not palpable. It feels close to the face, right up against the face. We need some light—even the faintest light will do—to create a perception of dimensional space. When there is no light at all, I have no depth perception, and so the darkness seems to press up against me. When I look into the near-complete darkness in my darkened bedroom at night, I sometimes see stipples, or pixels, evenly spread through the space, overlaying the dim shapes of furniture and walls, and I think perhaps they are coming from my eyes themselves.

These days, as I am thinking about darkness, I find it again in a book I am reading that describes events in the year 1884 in an English village—The Wheelwright’s Shop by George Sturt. There, the municipality put the streetlamps out at midnight to save money. In winter, a man who needed to set off for work before dawn “had to find his way without any light.” If there was starlight, he might be able to make out a snowy rooftop—barely visible as a lighter area in the dark but enough to indicate where the road was. If there was a “freezing fog” or the “blackness of dense rain,” one might see nothing at all—the same absolute darkness I saw that night, like a blanket, close up against one’s face. On one such occa­sion, says Sturt, “I lost my whereabouts in the familiar street.” He knew only by some familiar dips and rises in the pavement under his feet where he might be. On another occasion, he writes, “a little glimmering light that met and passed me proved to be a lighted candle-end between the fingers of a chimney sweep.” He says that without that lone small light there could have been an unpleasant collision. The absolute darkness Sturt describes did not extend for just a minute or two but all night, from midnight till close to dawn.

In his village, at this time, there must also have been ample silence—one could hear a wagon coming along the road a full three miles away, says Sturt, a distance so great, for a slow-moving wagon in those days, that one had time to go indoors for a bite to eat before returning to the front step of the shop to see it pull up.

after everyone had left the meeting that night, after the lights, motion, and commotion of the general leave-taking was past, silence and dark would have descended again on the place, out on that country road. Nearly absolute darkness, to a human, but a more varied patchwork of darkness and dimness for all the other creatures abroad, whose vision in the dark is very different from ours, to various degrees keener and more discriminating.

Now, in the midst of this civilization we have created that is in many ways so satisfyingly and productively busy, I often crave the relief of an old-fashioned relative quiet, even utter silence. And I crave the sort of deep darkness I experienced that night with my friend. At home, I turn off the lights, in room after room, well before bedtime, not only to spare the one moth outside who is beating against the kitchen windowpane but simply to welcome some restful darkness into the house.

Excerpt from “We grow accustomed to the Dark—” from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Lydia Davis is the author of many collections of fiction, including, most recently, Our Strangers. She is also the author of a novel, The End of the Story, two volumes of nonfiction, Essays One and Essays Two, and numerous translations from the French and other languages.
Originally published:
June 3, 2024


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