Reverse Swing: The perils of demonizing darkness
‘They are fools’, said French philosopher Voltaire, ‘who light a candle to see the sun’. What does one say about those who light a candle to scare away the coronavirus?
In a self-serving appearance on TV, woefully short on both practical solutions and imagination, the Indian PM exhorted everyone to collectively combat ‘the darkness’ of the ongoing pandemic ‘that engulfs us’ and ‘shine the light everywhere’. In a few swift pessimistic sentences, he ended up stereotyping and demonizing darkness, without so much as singeing a microscopic spike of the virus.
‘They are fools’, said French philosopher Voltaire, ‘who light a candle to see the sun’. What does one say about those who light a candle to scare away the coronavirus? Is it possible that the Patanjali or Ambani group of industries have diversified into candle manufacture and are being provided with an under-the-radar marketing boost in these difficult times? Even if half the PM’s 130 crore deshvaasi-s buy and light one candle @ Rs.2, we are talking of a US $18 million business.
Yet, my concern primarily is with this penchant for referring to darkness in pejorative terms. The metaphoric employment of this is similar across many cultures – darkness as negative, evil, sinister, morbid, paishachik – as an agent of death and demonic forces. It segues in with the reductive binary of Black as satanic and White as angelic. Of course, one does not have to labour the implicit racially pejorative connotations in all this.
The binary has been exploited for millennia to construct a universal culture distinguished by its fear of the dark. Darkness has been projected as the space occupied by Valkyries and vampires, bhuta-s and preta-s, ghosts and ghouls and assorted wretched souls tragically stuck in the transit passage between earth and the other-world, who haunt and terrorise us more mercilessly than COVID-19. These denizens of the dark are construed as the flip side of positive life-forces which, like the Roman sun-dials, ‘count only the sunny hours’.
The biggest beneficiaries of this binary have been religious proselytizers down the ages, for whom such a projection helps harvest a rich yield from the fields of the fearful. By cleverly promising a bright light at the end of the dark tunnel of life, they manage to exploit the cultural fear of the dark unknown. From the Vedics to the Incas and Aztecs to the Pharaohs and Zoroastrians, the sun and fire and light was the panacea for anything life-denying. The first thing the Biblical God does is to proclaim: Fiat Lux – Let there be Light. The motto of St. Ignatius Loyola and, therefore, of the Jesuit institutions founded under his name, is 'luceat lux vestra’ – let your light shine. The Upanishadic quest was, tamaso ma jyotirgamaya – lead me from darkness to light. And so on, in an endless distancing of darkness.
For philosophers too, the dark was a proposition full of grim foreboding and unresolved puzzles. It was a site for irrationality, the very ‘soul of darkness’ which Greek mythology personified in the deity Erebus, the brother of Nyx or night. It was the stomping ground of Lucifer and the eerie Nosferatu. It was the laboratory from where Mephistopheles harvested damned and morally doomed souls like Dr Faustus. The Prince of Darkness and Darth Vader are incubated from this St. the Augustinian dark night of the soul. Many a philosopher, like Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, has made a career out of counterpointing metaphysical darkness with ethical light, even though, as we enter the twentieth century, science takes over and dissolves this binary by explaining darkness too as a matter which is an extreme form of light. The Black Hole, by trapping all light, itself becomes the most mysterious agent of enlightenment.
To top it up, darkness has also been given a romantically attractive aura by poets in every language. For poet after unfortunate poet, loss of love constitutes a plummet into the abyss of the tenebrous, an endless purgatory of self-pity or self-flagellation. As an undergrad student of literature, my fascination with John Donne brought me close to a canvas portrait of the 17th-century metaphysical poet, behind which was inscribed in his own curlicue handwriting the line, ‘Illumina nostras tenebras, O Domine’ – ‘Illumine our darkness, O Lady’. Not yet out of my teens, I remember how this became the piteous plea to my own lady of those days, trying to impress her with my non-existent Latin. But romantic acceptance as shimmering effulgence and ditto rejection as the ultimate Black Hole is an enduring trope.
For me, this cliché was disrupted when I began my stint as a lights designer for stage, which paralleled my passion for photography. For over thirty years, I designed and created lights for all the pioneering stage performances of the late choreographer Chandralekha. For over forty years, I was a photographer dealing with nuances of light and shadow. In either circumstance, I came to recognise darkness – foolishly considered the binary opposite of light – as a potent and fascinating aspect of life.
My guru in stage lighting, the legendary Tapas Sen, used to say that after graduating in physics, he got attracted to working with lights upon reading an essay by poet Harindranath Chattopadhyaya titled ‘Black, the Colour of Magic’. Harin-da was Chandralekha’s mentor and, upon being asked about his essay, he urged me to study the paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, to unravel the process of chiaroscuro. It was crystal clear. There was ‘magic’ in the way these painters painted darkness, not light. It was a crucial clue for my work on stage for Chandralekha’s productions. The trick was not to ‘light’ the stage but to ‘darken’ it. By sculpting light, you create an architecture of darkness which is what the audience ‘sees’. It is the darkness that the viewer ‘reads’ and derives meaning from, somewhat like what the devotee experiences when she peers into the gloam of the garbha griha of a temple, punctuated with oil lamps, and literally discovers ‘divine darkness’. It is a confrontation with the sacred.
Ever since, I have been least inclined to fall for lazy descriptions of adversity as ‘dark times’. Inevitably, it was most disturbing to hear the PM push this platitude of the virus as some apocalyptic engulfing darkness which could be pushed back through the resolve of an entire nation combusting as one united candle at a numerologically predetermined date and time and duration. Of course, one knows all this is bluster meant to earn brownie-points from a particular constituency whom he makes feel involved in harmless collective action. Yet, this mindless ‘darkness bashing’ leaves a bad taste. An entire population will think they are in the light, even as they remain in darkness.
Our PM would do well to read the 94 years old Malayalam poet Akkitham Achuthan Namboodiri, who won the Jnanpith Award for 2019 and his immortal line addressed to the baby who cries as she emerges from the womb: ‘Velicham dukkhaman-unni, tamasallo sukha pratham’ – ‘Light is sorrow, o child; isn’t darkness our primal comfort’?