Arts & Books Books

Plato, Peppa Pig and the power of darkness

Caravaggio was a master of chiaroscuro, the interplay between light and dark.

Darkness: A Cultural History
By Nina Edwards
Reaktion books, 288pp, £16.99/$27.50

Buttons. Offal. Weeds. Nina Edwards has written books about all of them. Now she has turned her attention to darkness, producing a “cultural history” with three main objectives in mind: to discover how the idea of darkness, cultural and metaphorical, has come to wield “such power over our imagination”; to argue for the “conceptual richness” of darkness; and, quoting Edward Lear, to show that there can be truth and beauty “when awful darkness and silence reign”.

Edwards has most joy with the middle one of her objectives. This is a book the reader can feast on, packed as it is with riches from literature, art and folklore – the fruit, one imagines, of a superhuman research effort.

Darkness might even be a kind of artist’s scrapbook, filled with fragments that will one day seed a great work. Early on, the author takes us in quick succession from Neolithic Ireland to John Gardner’s retelling of Beowulf to Steve Bannon declaring that “darkness is good” during Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House. (Interestingly, Edwards treats Bannon’s declaration in a not entirely hostile way. From the outset, she shows herself as more than able to depart from fashionable nostrums.)

She deals with a huge accumulation of material exultantly. The downside to all of this, though, is that the reader may begin to feel as though he is in the stalls at a breakneck variety show, with Edwards the stage manager calling act after act to the stage and then hauling them off in no time to make way for the next one. Plato follows hot on the heels of Peppa Pig; Johnny Cash makes way for Mussolini. This continues right
to the end. In the last few pages, Hegel steps hastily aside for the playwright Alan Ayckbourn.

Shakespeare, of course, moves in and out of the spotlight continuously, with his retinue of characters, all “ill met by moonlight”. In one of his first appearances, he is made to face the familiar charge of associating darkness of complexion with malevolence and threat (and is swiftly followed into the dock by Emily Brontë and Charles Dickens).

All of this richness thus impedes Edwards from meeting her other objectives quite so convincingly. Her wider arguments often struggle for time to breathe as she hurries to the next alluring scene-change, the next fine soliloquy.

It is also not easy to write at length about something as ubiquitous and central to human experience as darkness without offering simplifications here and there, or lapsing into flimsy, humdrum commonplaces. Equally, this kind of commentary lends itself to use of that baffling “we” that seems to scoop up everybody and nobody, including the author but possibly not: “These days we imagine that all-black clothing will magically transform us, body and soul.” I could lose hours trying to figure out who exactly “we” are in sentences like that.

Nevertheless, Edwards does hit the target more than once when putting forward a big idea. She is good, for instance, on how life in modern, advanced economies has cut us off from true night. As I tap away at this review, late into the night, her warning about “the too-bright, melatonin-suppressing blue light that our computer screens exude” is playing on my mind.

So many things in this book will compete for space in the reader’s memory once he or she finally puts it down. In my case, I will not soon forget Edward’s introduction to Leonardo’s Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair, a work only a few centimetres wide and hastily sketched, but quite remarkable. (There is an accompanying illustration, one of many that enliven and enrich the text.) She plucks out an especially gruesome image from Baudelaire’s poem Une Charogne (“A Carcass”) which is impossible to forget, but which I will leave Herald readers to discover for themselves if they so wish.

I also found myself mentally pocketing the reversal of conventional wisdom that appeared in a Kölnische Zeitung article in 1819. The writer first questions the advent of gas street-lighting for “theological reasons” – it is “an interference with God’s order” – and then goes on to argue that morality itself will be worsened by more light. The artificial brightness “chases from the mind the horror of darkness that keeps the weak from many a sin”. Eh? We are used to thinking of the concealing dark as an invitation to sin. But I wonder whether this unnamed German journalist was, in fact, on to something.

As for Catholic art and literature, Edwards gives the last word in the book to Chesterton’s Father Brown, decisively rejecting the suggestion that there is but one reality “where men melt into Man and Man into God”. But there is also, in this respect, one very startling absence from the host of figures retrieved from the darkness for our inspection. No Gollum.