Most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber!
—Lord Byron (Childe Harold)
When I was a child in the late 1950s, the streetlights ended two blocks before our neighborhood on the edge of our small Ohio town. Given the midwestern custom of early dinners, my friends and I often played outside afterward. On dark, moonless nights in late fall and winter, familiar yards were transformed into mysterious black voids relieved only by trash burning here and there in an oil drum. Barely able to see our own hands and navigating more by sound than by sight, we all shouted the same thing when our parents began calling us home: “In a minute!”
Just before going to bed, I routinely took a last look through my second-floor bedroom window at the impenetrable darkness outside: only two or three barnyard lights in the distance proved that the window had not been painted black. That darkness seemed poised to be filled up with whatever I could imagine. It was exciting to think that when I grew up, I would be able to stay out in it for as long as I wanted.
Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
—Ancient Chinese proverb
The ubiquity of artificial lighting has turned the kind of darkness that I am remembering into a novelty to be encountered only during power outages or the occasional camping trip. It has become almost impossible to imagine what preindustrial nights were like. Our distant ancestors experienced day and night less as variants of a unified reality than as two separate worlds, each demanding equal attention. Surprisingly accurate depictions of the night sky appeared centuries before maps of the terrestrial realm existed. Ancient familiarity with the moon, planets, and stars arose from the complete cessation of human activity imposed by the night, when we had nothing to do but regard the sparkling immensity above. This is not to say that we embraced the night with open arms, passively accepting its restrictions. Human society began, after all, in a primal act of resisting the darkness: building a fire and huddling around it. But fire did not diminish the night’s power. If anything, fire reinforced its daunting otherness. Doesn’t a campfire intensify the darkness that lies beyond its reach?
With the coming of permanent settlements, we brought the campfire into our dwellings in the form of the hearth, torches stuck into dirt floors, and eventually, lamps fueled by animal fat or olive oil. The sharp divide between day and night now received its constructed equivalent: inside versus outside. Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean houses gave material form to this nighttime introversion: external windows were tiny and few, and rooms faced inward toward a central courtyard. To be “at home” at day’s end was to consign all that was not home to the reality-dissolving darkness outside. Whoever was inside when the shutters were closed was family; those who were not were strangers, other people.
Speculative thought may have begun as an extrapolation from this ecological dualism. Didn’t we impose binary structures imitative of the alternation of daylight and darkness onto our cultural and experiential worlds? The near-balance of day and night must have made such structures feel inevitable: us versus them, good versus bad, life versus death. As a constant reminder of human limitations, the night lent particular credence to the dichotomy between the seen and the unseen. Campfire talk augmented literal nighttime hazards—predators, injury, and disorientation—with imagined ones, and what we didn’t see in the night was almost always more terrifying than anything that we saw in the light of day.
The thrill that my friends and I derived from our after-dinner play stemmed in part from the aura of danger that moonless nights brought to our neighborhood. Familiar yards became inky voids where anything could happen. Houses flattened themselves into vast, looming planes, their shapes visible only from the stars that they blotted out when we stood near them. The headlights of passing cars assumed unearthly brightness, as if they issued from low-flying spaceships. Shadows came to life, spinning and whipping around whatever those headlights illuminated. Even though we didn’t want to leave this mysterious zone when our parents called, we went home with relief as well as regret. The darkness had been both exhilarating and disturbing: a nice place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there.
I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day; [for] the night cometh,
when no man can work.
For our ancestors, daylight defined the temporal and spatial realm of human activity. It was inevitable that light would be associated with the cosmos in its benign aspect, as the source of life and sustenance; whatever was antithetical to these good things was consigned to darkness. Nighttime guesses at what lay beyond the campfire were embodied in the Greek and Roman personification of Night (Nyx, Nox) as the daughter of Chaos. The ancient association of darkness with ignorance is expressed perhaps most famously in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Deprived of direct access to light, the cave’s deluded occupants do not perceive real things, only shadows prancing on a wall. The biblical authors also gave spiritual and moral ignorance nocturnal form. The prophet Micah compared false prophecy to “night . . . without vision” and “darkness . . . without revelation” (Micah 3:6). Isaiah imagined the consequences of disobeying God in similar terms, as an endless night in which “we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness” (Isaiah 59:10). It still feels completely natural to equate “light” with “enlightened”: Yale’s motto, after all, is not Nox but Lux et veritas.
The religious dimension of light’s positive framing is best understood by the metaphor not of a campfire, but of an oil lamp. To connect light with divine benevolence was to invite the gods into our homes for the night—to make them more like family. Genesis insists that extra-human activity must have begun when human activity began, at daybreak: “Let there be light,” and everything else followed. God did not start the Big Campfire, however, in order to hunker down and stay put for the night, but to challenge everything that was not God to eternal combat. Nor did the ancients see the resulting agon as lopsided. For them, darkness was not a mere absence of light, but an entity that was every bit as real and powerful as light—and one that followed its own capricious whims. Although Gnostics and Zoroastrians are famous for their cosmic dualism, they merely gave especially vivid formulation to common belief. Ancient hearers would have felt right at home with the light/dark dualism of John’s gospel, where “the darkness did not grasp” the divine light. What would have surprised them was the Christian assertion that the light would someday win—that the alternation of day and night would eventually cease. This prediction of light’s final victory was a stunning reversal of common sense. Didn’t each day—and by analogy, each life—end in darkness? The chief innovation of early Christianity lay in turning this observation on its head: for some, the night would end in light.
The resurrective claims of Christianity proved decisive to the Western construction of the night as a realm of moral as well as optical darkness. The New Testament is filled with tropes of opposing the night by watching and waiting—by staying “awake” (Mark 13:37). St. Paul, who described belief as waking up to a never-ending day, warned the “children of light and children of the day” not to “fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess. 5:5-6). These early Christian pleas to stay up late—a precursor to our neighborhood cries of “In a minute!”—spoke to the single most important factor in the demonizing of night: its association with death. This is one ancient notion, at least, whose origins are easy to imagine: night forced us to lie down, close our eyes, and imitate the motionless rigidity of corpses. Homer’s famous epithet for sleep as “the brother of death” (Iliad, XIV) was less poetic fancy than common conviction. Egyptians considered the west, where the sun temporarily died, to be the abode of the dead; in Greco-Roman mythology, Sleep and Death were the children of Nox. And if sleep was like death, then death must be like sleep: God predicts Moses’’s death by confirming that “soon you will lie down with your ancestors” (Deut. 31:16). Ovid expressed the universal desire, as strong now as in antiquity, to prolong the day at all cost: “Lente lente currite equiis noctis”—“Run slowly, slowly, you horses of the night” (Amores 1.13.40).
The impulse to illuminate death’s blackened window with imagined light has survived centuries of religious evolution. Although New Age spiritualities frequently define themselves in contrast to traditional faiths, especially Christianity, not even the most liberated seeker can resist the urge to untie the death/darkness knot. Whether we see it as wishful thinking or an expression of faith, the call for dying persons to “move toward the light” contradicts every normal expectation surrounding death—all that we can actually see and know about it. When Emily Dickinson, who possessed an unusual ability to resist comforting delusions, imagined herself dying, she gave blunt expression to the most frightening association that the night still holds, despite our theological campfires. At the end, she writes, “I could not see to see.”
Press close bare-bosom’d night—press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds—night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night—mad naked summer night.
—Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself ”)
A host of night creatures—demons, evil spirits, and what Paul termed the “rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12)—were eventually conflated into the figure of Satan, the ultimate “Prince of Darkness.” Satan’s terrifying power as the presiding spirit over what Milton would call Hell’s “darkness visible” seemed consistent with observable fact: the night really was dangerous. For whoever ventured there, it didn’t matter whether the night was dangerous because it was satanic or satanic because it was dangerous. Nocturnal evil, both cosmic and human, demanded that you provide your own daylight, either a torch or a servant running alongside your litter with a torch. This necessity, later met with lanterns and lantern-bearing coachmen, marked nighttime comings and goings for centuries.
The first urban lighting came in the form of torches and then oil lamps, hung at intervals in the streets. By late medieval and early modern times, city dwellers were required to hang lamps outside their houses, which produced the added nighttime danger of the fires that constantly gutted preindustrial cities. For the most part, however, those cities remained as quiet at night as they were dim, their stillness punctuated only by periodic calls from the night watchman. His shout—“All’s well!”—brought comfort precisely because the usual nighttime expectation was so completely otherwise.
Real progress in the battle against darkness did not come until late in the eighteenth century, when William Murdoch and Samuel Clegg, Birmingham employees of James Watt, applied the controlled combustion of coal gas to the process of illumination. Gaslights spread like a sudden dawn: London’s Pall Mall was lit in 1807; Westminster Bridge in 1813; Baltimore’s Peale Museum in 1816. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most major cities in Europe and America boasted gas-fed streetlights.
When the lamplighter replaced the night watchman, urban life was transformed. With the expanded time available for human activity, the once-dreaded Nox shrank to little more than a series of numbers on a clock face. The longstanding truisms about darkness no longer applied: work, for the night is coming, when the second shift will arrive to do more work. In addition to prolonging the workday, gaslights sparked the invention of “the evening”: new social space inserted between the day and the greatly delayed night. Urban lighting decreased the danger of going out at night considerably: the risk of attending either the Follies or Lady Pimpernell’s party, depending on your social standing, had become acceptable.
I have often suspected that the dawning of the illuminated city pushed the Romantics toward a new appreciation of darkness. Like their Paleolithic prototypes, those gas-fed campfires must have intensified the night’s imaginative power, especially among those who detested the emerging gods of mass commerce and popular amusement. Indeed, the attractions of the new “night life” did not seem terribly conducive to deep thinking or feeling. Well before the lights arrived, Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts” had turned nocturnal melancholy into a critique of human vanity and a reaffirmation of the immortality of the soul. Now that the urban night was disappearing, some observers felt that such truths were being forgotten. Poised to absorb the “dull realities” associated with the day, the night was becoming too much with us—and much too bright.
The Romantic night was insistently dark: a visionary night where transcendent truths might reveal themselves. As a contemplative stage for asserting the individualism that undergirded a great deal of Romantic thinking, darkness offered communion not only with the Natural Sublime but with deeper dimensions of the self. “Who would go ‘parading’ / In London, and ‘masquerading,’ ” Wordsworth asked, “On such a night of June?” (“The Sun Has Long Been Set”). Within night’s “starry shade / Of dim and solitary loveliness,” Byron claimed to have “learned the language of another world” (“Manfred”). This other world was several cuts above the mundane realm that Wordsworth scolded for its obsession with “getting and spending.” Longfellow confirmed that during the Romantic night, “the cares that infest the day / Shall fold their tents like the Arabs / And as silently steal away” (“The Day Is Done”). And if a good night’s sleep worked wonders, didn’t the pleasant dreams of such sleep suggest the struggle to break the bonds of conformity? Better to embrace the darkness than to curse it: the mundane comforts of the campfire couldn’t hold a candle to Whitman’s “magnetic nourishing night.”
Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and
utility is success.
—Thomas Alva Edison
The darkness that lay beyond the light of stale reason and custom seemed poised to offer what the Romantics most fervently sought: a religion without religion, a way to reimagine the world from the ground up—or more accurately, from the self outward. There was no guarantee, however, that visions encountered in the rehabilitated night would always be pleasant. Even Christianity had warned that the children of light faced terrors in the “dark night of the soul.” Nighttime devotees of the Sublime could experience similarly “dark” outcomes—the result, chiefly, of shifting the light/dark agon from the cosmos to the mind. Once the demonizing of the night took a psychological turn, Nox became truly noxious—a realm of night terrors and horrifying apparitions. Such darkness reaffirmed the old campfire lesson that imagined horrors are worse than visible ones. Didn’t Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown venture into the nighttime forest only to return as a joyless, desiccated wretch? And wasn’t it “upon a midnight dreary” that Poe’s speaker in “The Raven” confronted the unrelenting despair of grief ? If it was true, as Young had claimed, that “by night, an atheist half believes in God,” the night could also push seekers in the opposite direction: toward apostasy, nihilism, and insanity. Genius close to madness lay, especially during pitch-black nights when the curbing effects of reason and custom seemed to evaporate.
This is the night that looms within the Gothic strain of Romanticism—and it continues to offer its forbidden charms. Gothic darkness has assumed cultural and (anti)social form as “Goth” darkness—a vampirish realm with immense appeal for young people who are desperately trying to forestall their worst nightmare: becoming Mom and Dad. Run slowly, slowly, you horses of graduation. The forbidden night also extends its cover to other rebels with anti-establishment causes, often illicit ones. Patti Smith shouts that the night “belongs to lovers”; Ray Charles purrs that “the night time is the right time / to be with the one you love”—and here, “to be with” means more than holding hands. Paradoxically, as Willie Nelson attests in “Night Life,” the night is also the natural habitat of the loveless, of lonely and misunderstood souls determined to drink away their pain. Whatever their motives, children of darkness hope that magic will occur “after midnight,” as Eric Clapton promises. But they must also encounter the morning after, the “deep remorse” that Mark Twain claims to have faced many times in the light of day: “I realize that from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race—never quite sane in the night.”
If anyone was ever truly driven insane by the night, it may well have been Edison, who confronted his own small-town Ohio nights in Milan, just sixty miles away from my pitch-black childhood window. Edison must have had far less fun playing in the dark than I did—and so he banished it, not by “inventing” the lightbulb, as many think, but by making it technically feasible by perfecting a carbon filament that would glow inside a vacuum-filled bulb for a reasonable length of time. Like gas lighting, electric lighting spread like wildfire. Edison produced the first successful prototype of the incandescent bulb in 1879; by the turn of the century, electric lights were illuminating most of the world’s major cities.
Electric lights merely hastened what gas lighting had begun: the gradual disappearance of the night as a physical entity. Thanks to rural electrification, begun in the 1930s and 1940s through such initiatives as the Tennessee Valley Authority and continuing today throughout the Third World, almost everyone is on the grid. A Martian astronaut orbiting the earth would have no trouble observing the results: nighttime satellite photos can double as population-density maps, with massive globs of light extending, in many cases, for hundreds of miles. Sadly, the Martian’s gaze would not be reciprocated. For anyone living in one of those globs, his spaceship would be impossible to spot through the nighttime glare.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
—Robert Frost (“Acquainted with the Night”)
Nowadays the night exists more as a metaphor than as a physical reality—an ironic outcome, since we no longer give much credence to poets. We do give credence to scientists, however, and they have been warning us about the impact of light pollution on a variety of animals, especially birds during their migrations. Everybody knows that a pet bird will not sleep unless its cage is covered; deprived of darkness, it will collapse into a zombielike state of exhaustion. But what about us? We know a great deal about the debilitating effects of light deprivation on humans: there is even a name—seasonal affective disorder—for the short-day winter blues. Prompted in part by allegedly high suicide rates in the Scandinavian countries, a variety of light therapies now exists to combat depression. Far from proving that darkness is intrinsically harmful, however, such therapies merely return darkness and light closer to their natural state of near equity.
It seems likely that human health and well-being have been compromised more by excessive light than by excessive darkness—and I am not referring just to the obvious risks of tanning beds. The suspiciously large number of people with poor night vision suggests that our bodies have adapted only imperfectly to our artificially prolonged days. Jet lag is not just a matter of sleep deprivation: it is the body’s response to a disruption of the light-and-dark rhythms that we have always required. Most damning of all is research suggestive of a connection between illuminated nights and various cancers, especially breast cancer. Although we routinely subject criminals to bright light, the glare in our prisons is only an unusually dramatic form of the torture that we inflict on ourselves, night in and night out. Our bodies seem to intuit these dangers: at bedtime, don’t we deploy blinds, drapes, and facemasks to shut out all the campfires that we have lit?
My own poor night vision, which makes nighttime driving a clenched-knuckles affair, suggests that I am a physiological photophobe. But my eyes might also be following a mental directive that stems from that childhood memory of playing in deliciously dark space. That play may also account for my adult status as a night owl—or more darkly, a “night person.” Western culture has never been kind to night people, investing us with something of the creepiness commonly attributed to nocturnal animals. Franklin’s famous maxim, “early to bed and early to rise,” sums up the presumed virtue of dairy farmers, morning-rush DJs, and other day people; the rest of us are consigned to the night, to outside space. Only a deviant would choose to be a child of darkness.
We night people, at least some of us, are not children of darkness so much as children of balance. We volunteer for the night watch because we seek to counter the aggressive brightness that surrounds us. I realize that this desire might seem willfully perverse. Didn’t human civilization result from a longstanding struggle against ignorance, superstition, evil, and chaos: everything that the night represents? But in beating back an allegorized Night of otherness and terror, we have done lamentable violence to the natural night, that inky realm in which we all used to stay put, catch our breath, and imagine what we could not see.
Now that we have taken back the night to the point where it is nearly unrecognizable, I can’t help wishing that we would let the night take us back a little. The true children of night nowadays might be the members of the Dark Sky Society and the International Dark-Sky Association. Aren’t these people urging us to inhabit the world in a more ethical and unobtrusive manner by breaking our longstanding addiction to bigger and brighter campfires? When the owners of a new McMansion light the place up like a Bangkok whorehouse, they are not just wasting energy: those lights embody an unreflected mix of arrogance (see how rich I am) and fear (please don’t rob me). Whenever I see a house lit up like that, it is difficult not to succumb to an unpleasant blend of nostalgia and class rage. Didn’t those dark nights that I remember as a child take place in a neighborhood where nobody was rich and nobody was afraid?
I hope that my attraction to darkness reflects something more than visceral preference. I hope that it shares something of a perspective articulated in The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry, who envisions the antithesis of a fearful and arrogant relation to the night by affirming our need to “re-enter” the nighttime woods, both literally and metaphorically:
For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own
absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the
world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and
his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that
darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in—to learn
from it what it is.
It would be too much, I suppose, to issue three cheers for silence and darkness. Still, accepting the night for what it is might help us accept ourselves for what we are: poor forked creatures in whom the capacity for joy and the awareness of our mortality have always shared uneasy coexistence. As it turns out, the ancients were right to identify the night’s most frightening significance as an ongoing reminder that each life, like each day, comes to an end. Even a night person will concede that a really dark night, if one can be found, rehearses our future absence. But such a person might counter this gloom with a question: when has so disturbing a lesson ever been conveyed so peacefully and with such beauty? Even if we cannot help seeing darkness as a precursor to death, we should be grateful for the night’s gentle way of getting us used to the idea.
Jeffrey Hammond is the Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. His literary nonfiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the American Scholar, Fourth Genre, Ohio Magazine, and River Styx, and has won two Pushcart Prizes, Shenandoah’s Carter Prize for Essay, and the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. His most recent books include The American Puritan Elegy: A Literary and Cultural Study (Cambridge University Press, 2000), Ohio States: A Twentieth-Century Midwestern (Kent State University Press, 2002), Small Comforts: Essays at Middle Age (Kent State University Press, 2008), and Little Big World: Collecting Louis Marx and the American Fifties (University of Iowa Press, 2010).