In Praise of Darkness
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.