In Praise of Dark­ness

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By heather lanier

The art of the es­say in fraught times.

RIGHT now at MASS MoCA, per­haps the largest con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum in the United States, lo­cated in North Adams, Mas­sachusetts, there is an ex­hibit called “Into the Light” in which artist James Tur­rell uses light as a sculp­tural medium, which is a very weird and cool and even breath­tak­ing thing to see. “Squares of sky seem to float, sus­pended, in ceil­ings or walls,” write the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tors about Tur­rell’s work. “Ar­chi­tec­ture dis­in­te­grates; and bril­liant geo­met­ric shapes lev­i­tate in midair.” I’d never seen the crys­talline pu­rity of light come so fully alive un­til I vis­ited “Into the Light.”

One par­tic­u­larly pro­found in­stal­la­tion of the ex­hibit, “Hind­sight,” is con­tained within a room of seem­ingly ab­so­lute dark­ness. The mu­seum of­fers a lit­tle map of the path­way to the room and ad­vises that you use the handrail to find your way: “It can take as long as fif­teen min­utes for your irises to open suf­fi­ciently to per­ceive this work. In the mean­time, you will be in to­tal dark­ness.”

You en­ter “Hind­sight” by step­ping into a nar­row cor­ri­dor—the only source of light is be­hind you—which quickly turns 180 de­grees to the right. As you get far­ther along, the walls must be painted black be­cause now the dark­ness is nearly com­plete. If you go with chil­dren, this is when they’ll start to grasp your hand tighter. If you go alone, this is when you might seek out the handrail, flu sea­son or not. You’ll feel the handrail bend, and you’ll let it guide you through an­other 180-de­gree turn. The dark­ness at this point be­comes thick, al­most pal­pa­ble, and if you’re like me, you’ll put your hand out in front of you be­cause you’re cer­tain you’re about to walk into a wall. You’ll fol­low the handrail un­til you reach its end, at which point you will have no sense that the space has just opened up into a room. Your hand will even­tu­ally find an arm­rest, which means you’ve ar­rived at the view­ing chair. You sit and wait in the black­ness. Your eyes will not have ad­justed to see any art just yet.

I don’t know how ob­vi­ous this metaphor is, but you might be able to tell where I’m go­ing. Writ­ing an es­say can feel very much like en­ter­ing one of James Tur­rell’s ex­hibits. Or at least writ­ing cer­tain kinds of es­says can. Not

the five-para­graph things we also call es­says. And prob­a­bly not the dog­matic, de­ter­mined opin­ion pieces we see all over the In­ter­net. I’m talk­ing about the lit­er­ary es­says that usu­ally take longer to write, es­says in which writ­ers open them­selves up to dis­cov­ery. Es­says like these might be­gin with un­cer­tain­ties and cu­riosi­ties. They of­ten de­velop through ques­tions. And when writ­ers stum­ble across con­fu­sions and con­tra­dic­tions, rather than delete them, they wrap their arms around them, as in a wrestling match, or an em­brace, or maybe both.

Good es­says, es­says that en­dure, are of­ten made when the writer metaphor­i­cally walks to­ward the black room, de­spite its warn­ing signs, fol­low­ing lit­tle more than a handrail into the dark­ness.

Maybe the handrail takes you here: to the im­age of your mother’s plas­tic pink comb on a dresser, which some­how in­ter­sects with the big red book on her shelf by Betty Crocker, which makes you in­ter­ested in the his­tory of casseroles, the in­vis­i­bil­ity of do­mes­tic work, and the fact that your hus­band cooks, but your son won’t play with the toy kitchen you bought him. There’s some­thing there, you sense.

Kind of like the Tur­rell ex­hibit. While you’re sit­ting in the black room, you know there’s some­thing there.

Or maybe the handrail takes you here: to the most re­cent school shoot­ing and to the al­most im­me­di­ate spew of voices af­ter­ward, point­ing a fin­ger at this or that sin­gle thing to blame. And as much as you might find your­self on one side of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, maybe you also see how some of this so-called pub­lic dis­course of re­ac­tionary blame is a way for peo­ple to push the pain away, on to some­thing or some­one or some­where else, which re­minds you of the very place from which vengeance and vi­o­lence comes. And this makes you think of that one time you ac­tu­ally shoved some­one, hard, for no good rea­son other than your fa­ther died three weeks ear­lier and you didn’t know what to do with your grief. You walk along the handrail—or in this case write into these ideas and im­ages and as­so­ci­a­tions—with faith that there’s some­thing there, in your un­cer­tainty. There’s art in that dark room. You might find your­self craft­ing an es­say about what it means to hurt and how peo­ple might heal with­out fur­ther hurt­ing oth­ers.

Es­say­is­tic think­ing pro­gresses with the writer’s will­ing­ness to not know and to coura­geously and cu­ri­ously ex­plore. But our cul­ture does not im­me­di­ately re­ward this kind of work. Our me­dia’s at­ten­tion of­ten spins around un­nu­anced, po­lar­iz­ing opin­ions and hasty, in­flam­ma­tory state­ments. The flitty, top-of-the-head po­si­tions of a cer­tain world leader are like hourly wrenches into not just a news cy­cle but peo­ple’s lives—trans­gen­der mil­i­tary per­son­nel, Dream­ers, refugees en route to the U.S. from Syria, chil­dren taken from their par­ents at the south­ern bor­der, to name just a few. So in times like these, I’d ar­gue that es­say­is­tic think­ing is down­right coun­ter­cul­tural: It in­volves sus­pend­ing our knee-jerk re­ac­tions, ab­sorb­ing mul­ti­ple viewpoints, ex­am­in­ing facts, sum­mon­ing the courage to ques­tion not just oth­ers but our­selves, and giv­ing our­selves time to ar­rive at nu­anced an­swers.

We need this now more than ever. Pro­gres­sive Chris­tian pas­tor Rob Bell de­scribes a yearn­ing spe­cific to our cul­ture right now: “I call it the bass note,” he said in an episode of his pod­cast last sum­mer. “We are crav­ing bass notes right now. The tre­ble is the squeakier, higher-fre­quency note, and then there’s the bass note. And some­thing about mod­ern cul­ture, and some­thing about the way the In­ter­net has worked on us… the way in which blips and squeaks are com­ing at us faster than ever, the way in which news is sen­sa­tion­al­ized, the head­lines that de­mean ac­tual news and jour­nal­ism and re­port­ing, this TMZing of our world, it’s sped ev­ery­thing up so that ev­ery­thing is hap­pen­ing right here in this mo­ment. Have you seen this Snapchat? It can eas­ily dis­con­nect you from things that are older than five min­utes. Life can be­come all tre­ble, no bass.”

Here is what you might see when you wait fif­teen min­utes in that dark room of Tur­rell’s ex­hibit and your eyes fi­nally ad­just: a faint, gray, amor­phous source of light. It’s so faint you might not be able to place its shape. Cir­cle? Oval? Blob? It’s like a re­flec­tion of a re­flec­tion of light, like a moon of a moon, like a gray lake’s mir­ror­ing of a dulled sil­ver spoon.

Or you might see, as the mu­seum at­ten­dant later told me she saw, a lava lamp of vague shapes, ooz­ing against the far wall.

Or you might see col­ors, as the at­ten­dant said was com­mon for oth­ers, es­pe­cially pur­ple, al­though oth­ers have re­ported see­ing blue, or red, or even flashes of green.

The art we even­tu­ally ar­rive at varies, ac­cord­ing to who we are and how we view the world. But if you’ve waited long enough to see that there is ac­tu­ally some­thing there, then you might even no­tice a sound, like I did. It’s a low, steady hum. Like a sonic ground. Like an en­dur­ing, sin­gu­lar bass note. Like some cos­mic foun­da­tion of the uni­verse.

Here’s what I think: We know we have found the art in our writ­ten work when we write the sen­tences we didn’t know we could write, when we say the things that strike us anew some­where in the deep­est parts of our­selves. We dis­cover these sen­tences. I have found that some­thing deep in­side me will, if given time and quiet and trust, have far wiser things to say about any­thing in this world than the top part of my brain that likes to prof­fer opin­ions about x and y.

But this deeper part of me re­quires time, and pa­tience, and, yes, the courage to sit in the dark. It’s not easy to trust that the dark has any­thing to of­fer. A few weeks ago my hus­band sat in a sim­i­lar Tur­rell ex­hibit—al­though not quite so dark—wait­ing for his eyes to ad­just, when two col­lege-age women stum­bled in, link­ing el­bows. They whis­pered that they couldn’t see a thing. They stood at the en­try­way, re­fus­ing to take an­other step. And then my hus­band watched as one of them drew some­thing from her back pocket, and in an in­stant the stark light of her cell phone lit up their faces.

It takes about twenty min­utes for your eyes to ad­just in the dark. If you’re camp­ing at night and you turn on a flash­light, poof, your abil­ity to see into the navies and char­coals of the woods is gone, and you have to wait an­other twenty or so min­utes. In a sec­ond the women traded their night vi­sion for an im­me­di­ate sense of ori­en­ta­tion.

I don’t mean to shame them. I’ve done the same thing a thou­sand times. Get stuck on a para­graph? Check my e-mail. Feel con­fused about what my es­say is re­ally about? Flip my phone over and read the text mes­sage that buzzed a

few min­utes ago. Disori­en­ta­tion isn’t an easy ex­pe­ri­ence to sit with.

So, let me of­fer some prac­ti­cal tips in mak­ing room for es­say­is­tic think­ing: • Don’t set­tle for your first idea or point, the thing that might have brought you to the page. Let that first point be a jump­ing-off place to deeper ques­tion­ing. I have a daugh­ter with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties, and when I started an es­say on the et­y­mol­ogy of the word re­tarded, I re­al­ized in an early draft that I had only re-cre­ated the ar­gu­ment that peo­ple should not use the R-word. But who re­ally needs an­other es­say about that? What am I telling peo­ple that’s new? In­stead I looked at a harder is­sue, a ques­tion I didn’t yet know the an­swer to: Would chang­ing what peo­ple call my daugh­ter re­ally change so­ci­ety’s at­ti­tude to­ward her? Do words change our think­ing? For a writer this is a high­stakes ques­tion, and I was shocked to find out that most lin­guists said no. I kept writ­ing through this trou­ble­some ques­tion, and ar­rived at some­thing of a con­clu­sion, and pub­lished the es­say in the Sun. It was named a No­table Es­say in a Best Amer­i­can an­thol­ogy. I know if I had spun out an­other “don’t use the Rword” re­sponse piece, it wouldn’t have en­dured. So keep seek­ing the deeper ques­tions, the ones for which you don’t have ready an­swers.

• It might be ob­vi­ous, but be pa­tient. “The R-Word” took me six months to fin­ish, and I would of­ten emerge from my of­fice bleary-eyed and baf­fled be­fore the piece clicked into place. Re­mind your­self that you’re some­times wait­ing for your night vi­sion to kick in.

• Now here’s a bit of so­lace: Head­ing into the dark doesn’t mean go­ing with­out a map. MASS MoCA has posted di­a­grams at the start of Tur­rell’s ex­hibit, show­ing you what turns you’d have to make to reach the dark room. So by all means make an out­line of how you think you might get to your best sen­tences, to your cu­ri­ous glow of light. There will still be plenty of un­cer­tainty along the way.

• Find ways to guard your­self against the on­slaught of what Rob Bell calls “tre­ble notes.” The blips and beeps, the buzzes and tweets. Cre­ate bound­aries with the dig­i­tal world that work for you. Com­puter sci­en­tist Cal New­port be­lieves we’ve cre­ated a cul­ture in which it’s very hard for peo­ple to carve out time for what he calls “deep work,” be­cause tech­nol­ogy en­cour­ages us to be con­stantly avail­able. He stud­ied writ­ers and thinkers like Carl Jung and Mark Twain and J. K. Rowl­ing and no­ticed that, in his own words, “They all seemed to have this drive to, on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, cut them­selves off from their lives of busy­ness and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dis­trac­tion, and iso­late them­selves to think deeply.” If es­say­is­tic think­ing asks us to go deeper than the parts of our brains that form opin­ions, pref­er­ences, re­ac­tions, and judg­ments, then it makes sense that we guard our­selves against the medi­ums that thrive on these flitty, squeaky re­sponses. Twit­ter. Face­book. Twenty-four-hour news head­lines. It doesn’t mean we cut our­selves off from them—for some of us, they can be use­ful fod­der for es­say­is­tic think­ing—but it means we put bound­aries around them. I’ve had to ex­per­i­ment and con­stantly tweak my bound­aries, but a few that have worked for me: no e-mails be­fore writ­ing in the morn­ing, no so­cial me­dia un­til 3 PM, and at least one day a week I’m not on the In­ter­net. Find the bound­aries that work for you.

• Spend time with the bass notes. Spend time with the di­rect op­po­site of a tweet from the forty-fifth pres­i­dent. Sit in an an­cient cathe­dral in which peo­ple have prayed for eight hun­dred years. Run your fin­gers along the old­est, most en­dur­ing ob­ject you can find in your town. Read a 2,500-year-old text like the Tao Te Ching. Stand in the woods. Watch a sun­set longer than it holds your in­ter­est. Sit in your liv­ing room at dusk and let your eyes ad­just to the var­i­ous shades of blue with­out turn­ing on a light. Cul­ti­vate en­durance in the dark room. And re­mem­ber the words of my friend the poet Steve Ku­u­sisto, who once told me, “I trust things that take a long time to make. Like trees and books.” Like es­says, too.

“Per­fectly Clear (Ganzfeld), 1991,” an in­stal­la­tion of James Tur­rell’s ex­hibit “Into the Light,” now show­ing at MASS MoCA.

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