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The Minotaur & the Maze: A Cultural History of Night #1

By Darran Anderson.

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“Darkness is simply an accretion of “black air”, the scientist De Selby insisted in Flann O’Brien‘s The Third Policeman, “a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain ‘regrettable’ industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable dyes.” And who’s to doubt him?

Well, the Greeks for a start. The ancients personified the night as a black-winged goddess Nyx, daughter of Chaos, lover of Erebus the god of shadow, whose children include the gods of sleep, death, guilt and dreams as well as Charon the sinister hooded figure who ferries souls across the Acheron, the river of pain, to the underworld. Tellingly, she was said to have been feared by even the most powerful of her fellow deities and had a wicked desire to aid and conceal diabolical human deeds from ambush and slaughter to incestuous union.

Similarly, the Aztecs’ fearsome night deity was named Tezcatlipoca the “smoking mirror”. Aside from the night, he had jurisdiction over hurricanes, jaguars, sorcery, war and virtually anything else that laid waste to the general populace and came upon the earth as a treacherous shape-changing figure to lure people to their doom. So petrified were they of his presence, every year the high priests would select a young man who would for a short blissful spell be given the life of a king, including the four most attractive girls as lovers, before he’d be taken to the temple and have his still-beating heart ripped from his chest to appease their lunatic god. In contrast, the ancient Slavs of Eastern Europe and the Urals had the benevolent night goddess Zorya, a sort of celestial Lorraine Kelly (as terrifying as such a thought might be), to protect them, their prayers to her beginning, “Hide us, Goddess, with your veil from our enemies’ bows and their arrows…” and who like her Wicca equivalent appeared often in the matriarchal trinity of Virgin, Mother and Crone. All very different approaches to worship (and all pointing perhaps to the prevalence of hallucinogneic drugs amidst our ancestors in dreaming such madness up) and yet all with the same implication; that life back then, in true Hobbesian-style, was “nasty, brutish and short” with a tendency to come to a brutal end in the hours after dark, when men were prey to the elements, wild animals and each other.

It’s easy to mock the supposedly primitive beliefs from our lofty vantage point of modernity, writing this as I do in a country that has not only still has the absurd feudal pomp of monarchy and lords but an official religion based on misrepresenting the teachings of a two thousand year old Galilean magician-fisherman. In fact, most of these ancient civilisations knew fine rightly that night was simply the period of time when the sun is below the horizon. It’s a kind of orientalist prejudice that we demonstrate towards the past, that “other country” in L.P. Hartley’s words, that we fail to see that myths were symbolic, even back then, rather than tangible beliefs, believing our forefathers to be superstitous halfwits who believed that the stars rotated through mechanical processes and that the earth was flat and if you sailed far enough you would spill off it. A solar eclipse may well have caused the Median and Lydian tribes to cease hostilities mid-battle but largely the civilisations of old merely used myths as a means to represent the way of things rather than explain them. In Hindu tradition for example, Rahu the giant chariot-riding snake was supposed to swallow the sun during an eclipse despite Vedic astrologers knowing what the actual causes were (ie, the moon getting in the way). Myth-makers were simply the artist, filmmakers and novelists of their day. They dealt in the telling of lies to illuminate the truth.

Part of the problem comes with the West’s inherited world-view from the Christian age. The Church, when faced with a new culture to invade (either literally with the Roman army as vanguard or employing missionaries to spread the word), sought to absorb (and thus defuse) what it could absorb, existing pagan rituals and festivals for example, and discredit what it couldn’t. In a vast array of ancient religions, the planet Venus, which appears a pinprick of dazzling light in the East just before sunrise, was understandably seen as a holy even magical portent, bringing with it the promise of dawn after the hardships of night in an age before conventional heating and electricity. Christianity, barrel of laughs that it is, made it the symbol and namesake of Lucifer.

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Today, few of us ever see the morning star or indeed the dawn with any regularity. We guard ourselves against the night, insulate ourselves against it; the chill winds with double-glazing, the encroaching darkness with electric lights that fool us it is day (the word “daylight” itself has been trademarked by a company selling fluorescent light bulbs). Helicopters circle the cities with infra-red vision, pursuing the ghost silhouettes of suspects careering through clotheslines and over fences or spotting glowing cannabis farms in attics. New York, Las Vegas, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai all paint spectacularly egotistical stains of light on the canvas of night, cities that boldly claim the superhuman time-defying ability to never sleep, vast machines for living in as Le Corbusier defined, built in defiance of the night and emitting enough light to extinguish the stars from view, places in denial that the sun ever sets. Why? Well, because money, and the worship of it, never sleeps.

Night might well be just technically the period of time when the sun is below the horizon. Yet it is also another vast transformed world, one which has its own vast and myriad culture; in poetry alone, the Aubade and the Alba (shared odes between lovers who must be tragically separated at dawn), in music the Nocturne (a rhapsody of, and for, the night). For all their beauty, these forms do little to describe to us what the night truly is, what this curse is that afflicts us at the dimming of every day?

In a sense, night is another frontier, alongside space and the ocean depths, that we’ve yet to truly tame. We may have mapped the entire landmass of the earth with GPS but controlling the hours after sunset eludes us. We may throw up a 24-hour garage like some outpost of civilisation or lines of streetlights but they are merely train-tracks through savage country. The nocturnal walk through the streets, familiar by day but changed utterly by night, can be a disconcerting experience. The dark brings out the undesirables that dare not show their faces in the cold light of day. “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal” in the words of that gentle misunderstood soul Travis Bickle. That is its curse and its glory, when buoyed by the dutch courage of drink we choose to embrace it and join the ranks of the damned. “Most glorious night!” Byron wrote, himself no stranger to hedonism, “Thou wert not sent for slumber!”

Rather than take our chances, we mostly, and wisely, hibernate indoors. And yet with a simple switch, the night gets in, it floods through the glass, pours under the doorways, seeps in through the cracks. A power cut causes us to be thrown back centuries in time. Contrary to our wishes, darkness is the natural state, the default mode of the universe. In the beginning, there was darkness. When the light of Genesis appeared, it was as an intruder, a usurper exploding in the biggest of bangs. And yet it was already dying from the moment it appeared, every second moving closer to heat death, the hypothetical end of everything. The diminishing of daylight is a daily reminder of our insignificance in the vastness of space, evicted from the centre of the universe to a backwater hinterland by Copernicus. It also exposes our utter vulnerability to forces within and without our planet. Life is indeed the brief glimmer of light between two eternities of darkness. A curious miracle of probability taking place in the narrow Goldilock’s Zone where life can exist, not too far from the sun, not too close and with the essential ingredient of water. Night is a reminder of our fragility and our resolve. A dress rehearsal for extinction with dawn as our daily reprieve.

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No-one did more to keep the night at bay than Nikola Tesla, the forgotten Serbian genius who created the 20th century. Aside from working on designs for death ray laser beams, robots, earthquake machines, forcefields and thought cameras, he single-handedly invented lesser known contraptions and phenomena such as radio, x-ray, the electric motor and AC electricity, which powers virtually everything including the computer you’re reading this on. When you examine satellite images of the earth at night and view the circuitry of cities lit up by electric light, you are gazing at the handiwork of Telsa, arguably the most gifted human being in history. Joseph Swann may have given us the light-bulb but it was Tesla who lit up the world from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 onwards. And still the night came for him. Cheated out of his rightful fortune and fame, he died penniless and alone in the New Yorker hotel, talking to ghosts and tormented by obsessive compulsions (everything he did, for example, had to be divisible by three) and hallucinations of lightning bolts. Even he, this light-bringer in the Prometheus mould, could not entirely banish the dark.

Consider again the satellite map, the lights showing us not just the urban conurbations, the great seats of commerce and misery but also the reach of civilisation, the island outposts, remote mining communities, the straggle of lights clinging to the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Trans-Amazonian Highway. It also demonstrates the limits of our reach, the places that have so far beaten us, the vast dark spaces on the map unspoiled by light, elusive to us as the darkest regions of the human subconscious; the Rub’ al Khali (“the Empty Quarter”), the Gobi, Patagonia, the Outback, the Taiga of the north. If the electric light has played its part in man’s modern sense of disengagement from reality, the sense of pampered dislocation we have that our grandparents never did, shielded from death, nature and toil, and lost in some meta-world of the internet and mass media (powered too by Tesla’s alternating current via Cathode Ray and LCD), these areas speak to the lost primitive in everyone. They dare us to go forth into the wilderness, to venture where no Lonely Planet Guide exists and where men are subject to, instead of masters of, the murder of nature (ignoring the cautionary tales of Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell, as featured in Werner Herzog‘s astonishing documentary Grizzly Man). Can any of us truly say we’ve set foot, even a solitary time, somewhere that no other human being has ever previously been? And can any of us deny the desire to do so? They warn us too, the dark swathes of the map, of the arrogance of civilisation in believing it is immortal and all-powerful; the Ozymandias legacy. All is transitory. Someday all the world may be as pitch black as these spaces, all those lights switched off through natural or more likely man-made cataclysm and the satellite still revolving on automatic, taking photos that no-one will ever see.

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Unsurprisingly, given the apocalyptic fervour, darkness is a recurring theme in Biblical history from the Psalms (“though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”) to the eclipse that followed the death of Christ (framed terrifyingly in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece) to the dank catacombs that were the hiding place of the early pilgrims. Indeed, it could be said that the very idea of the long dark night of the soul was invented by Jesus when he prayed through the night in Gethsemane prior to his betrayal, the so-called Agony in the Garden when “his sweat was as if it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground”. Few artist’s have ever reproduced the scene and the subsequent Passion and Crucifixion more powerfully than Blind Willie Johnson in his chilling lament Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground. It is a song that remarkably, given it’s humble origins, may well outlive not only Christianity but the entire human race. When Carl Sagan and committee were choosing which recordings (representative of Earth) would be etched onto Voyager’s Golden Record and fired into space, he chose alongside sounds of thunder and birdsong, Navajo night chants and Aboriginal morning songs, Mozart‘s Magic Flute and Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring, Dark was the Night…, a keening dirge sung by a man who knew the true depths of the night; savagely blinded by a vengeful stepmother, persecuted for his colour, finally catching pneumonia living rough in the charred ruins of his burnt-down home. He was buried in an unmarked grave, having died after being refused admittance to a whites-only hospital. An article in the New Scientist revealed how surprisingly rapidly all trace of mankind will vanish from the planet, “Alien visitors coming to Earth 100,000 years hence will find no obvious signs that an advanced civilisation ever lived here.” The mightiest concrete and steel buildings will have crumbled, forests and deserts will have reclaimed the streets and the earth will be as dark and silent as it was before man. And yet the Voyager probe (already outside the Solar System and the furthest man-made object from our planet) will still be hurtling through space, protected by the cold and the vacuum for several billion years it’s estimated before disintegrating long after the sun burns out (if not intercepted by another race), the last relic and evidence we ever existed at all. And on it, Blind Willie Johnson’s funeral song, one of those rare times when not just the magic of night or the terror of night are captured but both are at the same time, entwined and inseparable as they are.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is the author of the poetry chapbook Tesla’s Ghost and the forthcoming novel The Ship is Sinking. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, gin and regret.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 17th, 2010.