Dark Light

A little hole in the clouds opens up. I see the sun and the moon. I yell: ‘wohoo!’. The eclipse is not complete, and the hole is there for just five seconds, but it’s enough to propel me back to a field in Luxembourg on August 11th, 1999. It’s the vivid darkness of the moon’s shade.

As kid I was very much drawn to the stars. I used to look up at night. Walking, in the car… Still do, in fact. Especially during the end of my teenage years, I knew a lot about the stars and the planets, and how they all align. The universe. Whatever explanation you wield for their existence, there’s something magical about the way they flicker in that eternal, deep darkness. There’s something mesmerizing about the fact that they float in a space that seems so infinitely big. Those bright lights in that vast darkness are just beautiful.

It must have been March that year when I picked up the phone and heard the voice of my uncle. He didn’t ask for my mom, but presented the news to me. Something spectacular was going to happen, and he and his friends would like to come over to our little farmers’ village in Luxembourg to check it out. I was instantly convinced. In the months that followed, I looked for all the information I could find about eclipses. How they occur, how they look and how exceptional they are. In books and papers, we didn’t have internet back then. I looked so much forward to seeing the sun’s corona.

When the day finally came, we drove out to some fields slightly further south, to have a longer view on the dark totality. Cars were parked alongside all farmers’ roads. For the only time history, it was hard to find a spot. But we did, and got out. My uncle yelled ‘follow the leader’ and up we went, a group of ten, fifteen, in the middle of crowded Luxembourgish nowhere.

Though I wouldn’t be able to find it back, the spot is still here in my memory. There were quite some trees on the north side, growing around a long fence, reaching over the fields. We had a good view over some meadow hills to the south.  It wasn’t that special, really, but it would be fun to return there once. The sun was already quite blinded when we arrived, but we had some time to go, in which we looked at each other in expectancy. After some twenty minutes, gloom approached us over the hills. Birds stopped singing, as we saw the moon silently move in front of the sun.

That deep darkness, surrounded by bright light. The quiet. It seemed so tangibly close. Not the surrounding light, but the darkness itself spoke up that day. Spoke out. Speaks out. It was with me when I ‘wohood’ last week.

In the early 19th century, Johan Wolfgang Goethe experimented with light and dark. He is known as a poet, but Goethe himself was of the opinion that his poetry was average. What really counted to him, were his studies of colours, where he disagreed with the already deceased Isaac Newton on some points. In his view, black light and white light were the two basic forces. All colours were a result of the interplay between the two. Yellow, he saw as white light weakened by dark light. He learned this from staring into a flame in a dark room. Blue, on the opposite end, was black light weakened by white, as occurs in the sunlit blue sky, reducing the vast darkness of the universe. His approach largely reflected the dualistic christian worldview of the opposites ‘good’ as light and ‘bad’ as darkness.

The dominating scientific belief of today teaches that Goethe was wrong. Based on earlier ideas by Newton, darkness is the absence of light, and the colours with their wavelengths together compose white light. Goethe’s response to this idea was that perception is an essential aspect of colour which can not be excluded from the equation. Adding a prism to the experiment means interacting with light, and can thus not be seen as an objective experiment. Goethe’s work still has influence in art. His intention was not to provide explanations, in fact he was against them, his intention was to describe his observations. For him, the psychological impact of light, the question how it moves us, how it triggers our imagination, was an important part of the study.

The room where I grew up could be blinded to total darkness. Most of my friends had night lights, I didn’t. I couldn’t sleep with them. I liked it dark. But I do remember feeling presences. Sometimes I turned the lights back on to check if something was lingering under the bed. That act changed the atmosphere entirely. The feeling of a presence was gone as soon as I turned on the light. As I grew older, I learned that it was my imagination playing tricks on me. Since the eclipse of March 20th, I’m suspecting the darkness itself.

Doesn’t the darkness feel closer than light? More intimate? Or inward focussed at least. For me it has always been a presence, not an absence. Closer than my carotid. It compelled me in 1999, and I saw that again last week. The memory of a beam of black light.

I wonder what the world would have looked like, had Goethe´s ideas been followed in the same way as Newton´s. Would children still fear the dark?

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9 thoughts on “Dark Light”

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