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"The common soldier shall here fight for gold, and pay himself, instead of pence, with plates of half a foot broad, whereas he breaketh his bones in other wars for provant and penury. Those commanders and chieftains that shoot at honor and abundance shall find there more sepulchers filled with treasure, than either Cortez found in Mexico, or Pizarro in Peru. . . " -- Walter Ralegh, "The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana"
We have no night as our ancestors understood and feared it. In both the literal and the many figurative senses of the word, we are without the dark. Astronomers backyard and professional bemoan the lightened skies, but it's worse than that. Our air is being strummed by radio signals along all spectra. All sorts of things are peeping through our bodies, ourselves in search of the single devices tuned to receive them and decode them. Our maps are filled in with more detail than we can usually understand, and geographers report that the average person (that poor, mythical beast) cannot even follow the deep red lines or locate the compass rose without a rhomboid box on a car dash or a cell phone given a paternal or maternal "turn left."
Sun burst at dusk after a stormy day in September, 2000. Photo taken with a manual Minolta camera and an ancient 400 mm telephoto lens made of glass.
No matter how incapable a person gets when stripped clean of devices, the mind of that average person is without darkness, without night. This is almost all to the good. After all, what have we done -- from fire at the camp to fire extending from an Atlas rocket -- except designed a progression of extensions of our eyes and our light to banish the darkness? It is almost all to the good, though, because we cannot lose even our primal enemies without diminishing.

What did the dark promise us? How did the unknown keep us huddled in our families? More importantly, what dreams came from it? I would like to link some of the maladaptive features of today -- Belle Isle crazytown and millinerian militias -- to a consequence of our closed off unknown.

"Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
         Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high heaven doth chime"
Henry Vaughan, "The Night" (1655)
Let us imagine (from evidence) what the dark meant, first. In Silas Marner George Elliott writes of a man who dies in a snow storm because he walks only three or four feet off the road. That was enough, at night, to ensure never finding the road again at night. True dark was just that. When Nathaniel Hawthorne has Goodman Brown travel into the forest at night, alone, any contemporary reader would have expected Satan or death, because there were no street lights out there, no residual glows from towns, and tree branches would have completely covered the path. In medieval literature, no one travels at night. Travel is hard enough in the day. Stories of suspense contained the element of making it to the inn before nightfall. We think of this because of monsters in the woods ("Indians" and wolves), but dark is enough.

There is, though, another darkness, another night, and that is the blank of the map. By this I do not constrain myself to the literal, either, but we can start there.

Public art in Carrboro, North Carolina. A whimsical helicopter for escape.
When my mortal life is o-over/ I'll fly away.
You probably know "Maid Marian" from Robin Hood. She, the way we have her now, is the fiesty, flirty, untamed mate of Robin of Locksley who is imprisoned by the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. However, she shows up in medieval ballads as part of Lady Day festivals and in Anglo-French literature as "Robin and Marion." ("Robin" is a familiar form of "Robert," so it is a stock name for a shepherd.) In her most consistent form, she is a village lass who goes to town with her village (a trip to market was a village trip, not a family or individual one). While there, she hears the singing of a smooth tongued seducer, and she is ready to follow him when Robin, from her village, rescues her body and honor.

Marian's tale was a caution about the otherness of the town and the dangers of the luxuries of the 14th century. Agricultural revolution led to increased population which led to sufficient leisure for decorative arts.

The next town could be anywhere, and anything might be in it. This is because the maps were blank. Imagine a map where it says, "Atlanta" and shows eight lines leading out. Connected to each are different names, "Charlotte, Chicago, Mobile, Savannah, New York City, Washington DC, Nashville" and "Jacksonville." Along the lines there are drawn mountains, swamps, and trees at various points. Now, start walking. The distance from one to the other? Unknown. The places in between? Unknown. Is the map out of date? Unknown.

Our ancestors lived with ambiguous maps, and that is why they were willing to spend fortunes in money and brigades of young lives to get better maps.This is also why the hospitality code was one of the primary social laws in the middle east, the Mediterranean, (also see the ancient Greek "xenia"), the Germanic peoples, and the middle ages. J. R. R. Tolkein tried to communicate the code a bit in The Hobbit with "The Last Homely House."

Because the unknown was everywhere, when a person traveled, the first house she or he came to might have devils in it, farmers, knights, hermits, or four-headed dragons. If it turned out to have people, it was the duty in almost every culture of the owner to take in the traveller and treat him or her very well. (The game that Gawain plays with Bersilak in the latter's home is an example of good hospitality.)

Over the next hill might be ANYTHING.

As we lost our night, we also filled in the spaces. There are no places we do not see at all times, and this excludes the danger and the potentialities.

As recently as the sixteenth century, the town over there might be a bunch of normal people, or it might have pygmies or amazons or pigs that eat people. The wild hunt was regularly heard at night, and there was little doubt but that night had an evil presence about it as not merely the absence of light, but as the presence of death.

= The usefulness of night =

If there is a country that a traveller has visited where women run everything, then we can sit at home, where men run things, and dream of the terror or harmony of that place over there. We can use such speculations to write political satire (e.g. Gulliver's Travels and the micro-boom at the end of the 18th century in distorted representations of American Indian life to criticize contemporary Britain).

If the next county or cave or island could have monsters or pools of gold, then we can dream of dropping our family obligations, leaving our plows in the sod, and taking ship to prove our worth.

In short, the unknown acts as a promise of better, promise of a new scale of value, and a promise of recalibration.

* As a promise of better*

As recently as the 19th century, Romantic organizations of all flavors dreamt of setting up ideal worlds in the United States. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his friends were going to come to America for "Pantisocracy." Later, as the borders of America closed and its contours began to be known by the inch rather than the region, South America remained a target of perfectibility by means of the unknown.

Richard Wagner's racialist descendants came to South America to establish an Aryan perfection. Reverend Jim Jones had been seeking a blank on the map, himself, when he went for a new Eden in Guyana. It is not just Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier" that these people seek, but rather a place of seething chaos, where there is a "nothing," where they can imprint their own order. The dark map offers such a thing.

As we have come to a fully drawn map, those who wish to start over or abdicate from society are the darker ravens of the militia movement (formerly called survivalists in the 1970's), and they have found Montana and some parts of the Ozarks to be their canvas. In their cases -- from the religious David Koresh to the garrulously insane Bo Gritz -- they know that they are still within a society that they dislike or wish to erase, and they are therefore attempting a castle culture.

* As a promise of a new scale of value

A long time ago, now, I wrote that "geocide would be a very common crime, if it weren't so difficult." What I was getting at is that a very, very common thought in fantasy or projection is that the world's population is going to be destroyed except for a few. Whether it's nuclear war, Armageddon, peak oil, Glen Beckalypse, the "race war," the "big flush," or whatever, the eager fantasy is that all of the current measures of good and bad, wealthy and poor, wise and foolish, will be destroyed, and then we'll see the cream rise to the top. The one holding the fantasy always imagines that preparedness will make him or her one of the new elite.

When we have the dark of night, we have fears. The Calvinist spiritual warfare was far more literal in ages of darkness, when the wild hunt could be heard every so often. That darkness allowed, or forced, the individual the chance to fight and win against the devil. In the morning, you may be a peasant or an apprentice, but this night you have stood your ground against the fiend.

Also, the unknown of the map, the borderless seas, the unmanned islands, the new insects and plants, each offered a chance for the dullest person to cast off the weeds of mundane life and prove him or herself against the wilds. Odyssey is the archetype of the endlessly redefining man. Odysseus is a great fighter, but he is more of a speaker and thinker who can adapt. The Travels of Marco Polo said that a regular merchant could be treated like royalty in the courts of the east. Alexander Selkirk's autobiography showed that a common man could be a hero (despite being a very nasty individual) (Selkirk was a slave trader who was stranded and provided the basis of Robinson Crusoe).

If the "world" ended, then all the classifications that have pigeon holed us would end, and the few members of the opposite sex left would see us for the wonders we are. Similarly, if only we could have opportunity, we would be rich, and it seems like it only takes gumption and bravery to sign on with one of those ships or caravans. . . .

As we have lost this potential, our science fiction stepped up, at least briefly. During the space age, which is fairly well over, we had the ability to dream again of making a rocket or inventing cold fusion and then being seen for the John Carters we are. As that has faded, we have resorted to imagining only the lottery win and the reality television star, because they offer the "if only" space that once promised an agon by adventure.

*As a recalibration

The dark of the darkest night, like the coldest winter, was a definitive end of a day. The deep darkness took all things away. I doubt that "primitive man" really thought that the sun had been eaten when there was a solar eclipse, or that the sun would never return when winter arrived (ever seen an animal panic at such a time?), but the value of the dark -- and we are creatures who fundamentally attach values and then extend them into symbols -- means a reset, a zero, a fearful negation, and a death.

Throughout the 18th century, when the European nations were busily making colonies and conquering the "uncivilized," they were simultaneously learning the price of cosmopolitanism. They met up with "Persia" and "India" and wrote letters home about the exotic practices of puttee, of the Mohammedans, of Africa and how the kingdoms there fight with each other all the time. They learned to sneer, and they learned that there were no empty places, and there were no true resets. Everywhere you went, there were people, and none of them were living in Utopia. None of them were in Acrostic Land. Even the antipodes weren't Antipodeans.

There is a certain frenzy behind the arctic explorations that seems to be bred of something other than mere curiosity. Of course there was the vision of a Northwest Passage (now real), but that maniacal lust for the extremes is peculiar.

= Creating the Void =

Currently, we have professional fools wanting to make Belle Isle an Unprivate Park.  ("Big Babbitt" is a fantastic turn of phrase, by the way.) They want to declare themselves free and separate, want to erase the red line on the map. They follow Dick Cheney who wanted to be a blur on Google maps. (He could have waited for Apple maps, I suppose.) VP Dick followed the various "micronations." Anyone remember Sealand?

Outside of Cryptonomicon the silly suckers really existed. . . or exist. One can never be sure, as their reality appears to be rather less certain than Tinkerbell's. More fascinating than they were the micronations of Bob and Stan and Lou and Mike's driveway, which blended with the "sovereign citizens," who blended with survivalists, militias, and Mormon fundamentalists.

One of the things they have in common, and I by no means wish to suggest that it is the driver, is a desire to recreate the unknown, the unknowable, the uncharted, and the possibility of the dark. The moated castle is present, of course, but there is also a desire to neither know nor be known by the interconnected and predicted usual and permuted world.

When Alexander instituted Hellenism, he sought to make every city a Greek town, and he succeeded. As a result, Greeks wrote that "cosmopolitanism" meant a sense of boredom and ennui, as the world grew small. Today, we have variation, but we have no darkness at all, in a literal or figurative sense, for most of our lives. This is for the best, but it is not without its price.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 06:18 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


When I want the unknown, I. . .

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Comment Preferences

  •  I would add to your sentence (9+ / 0-)
    The dark of the darkest night, like the coldest winter, was a definitive end of a day.
    That the darkest, blackest earth is also the most fertile.  The definitive end of a day is also the start of a new one.  
  •  We watched all of Africa, (8+ / 0-)

    (Sir) David Attenborough's latest, one episode after another. As usual the film work was excellent, and like all good nature porn, the human species was notable by its absence. Five episodes of marvellous vistas, micro and macro fauna, and atmospherics.
    Then the last episode. In the midst of the formidable Sahara, there were two men, living in a tiny concrete building amongst the sandy dunes, willing to (almost) keep watch over the film crew's time lapse cameras. Some of the rhinos were, if not tame, at least kept, and performed as needed. A silverback mountain gorilla and his band trundled through someone's back garden, among many back gardens.
    The blank spaces are disappearing very fast indeed.

    "We are monkeys with money and guns". Tom Waits

    by northsylvania on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 06:59:25 AM PST

    •  The dark continent, indeed (9+ / 0-)

      The vast fortunes of the interior, lost Stanley, and all that. . . romance was so much hooey, and we exchanged it for the garden Africa -- too precious to be entrusted to the impoverished Africans. That was not so much worse than the Liberated one, where nature must feed the troops.

      Meanwhile, the people there, treated as objects or welcomed as us, grow as sick as we do of the known, tame, and trammeled, I suspect. (No, I do not want to go on a Village Green Preservation rant.) (I just mean that there are consequences to these losses, and our lunatics act out in predictable ways.)

      Everyone is innocent of some crime.

      by The Geogre on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 09:34:10 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Love this diary -- you do a wonderful job (10+ / 0-)

    at summoning up the simultaneous fear, mystery and wonder that night and the unknown once held.

    Have you read A. Roger Ekirch's book "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past"? I haven't yet gotten my hands on a copy, but I've read some excerpts, which sound fascinating (among them the idea that people used to sleep in two "chunks" of around 4 hours each, separated by an hour or more of waking in the middle, as opposed to our modern-day unbroken 8-hour sleep pattern. This older sleep pattern is known as "segmented sleep" and apparently research subjects have still returned to it when they are exposed to long periods of darkness.)

    A good article on segmented sleep is here:

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell) Join the Forward on Climate Rally on February 17!

    by Eowyn9 on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 11:35:00 AM PST

    •  His book sounds great (10+ / 0-)

      It also sounds like background knowledge that everyone who teaches anything of the past should have.

      The segmented sleep would reinforce other findings about "cat naps" being beneficial. It seems as if people do, indeed, go in lumps by nature. "As much as the watchman waiteth for the dawn" is a formula in the Psalms, and I've tried to explain to students that it's not that the watch were afraid that the sun was gone, but rather that there were no wrist watches. How long is the night when you stare at the horizon waiting for sun rise? Twice as long as when you're asleep.

      I hate those "Primitive man made religion to understand where the sun went" stuff. That "man" had the same brain we do, and it was a better brain than the dogs she already had domesticated, and the dogs were completely calm.

      Everyone is innocent of some crime.

      by The Geogre on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 12:13:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Captivating diary! (6+ / 0-)

    I never really understood Night until I started working the 7p-7a shift while in nursing school. Myth number one is that patients sleep at night ... um, no, and certainly never all 5-6 of them at once!  

    In all I did three years of night shift before my health began to suffer and I had to transfer to a day job. I still miss a lot of things about nights, though -- IMO night crews are cooler and more interesting, and you don't get micromanaged because there are no redundant bean counters around at 3am ;)

    I used to love going up to the 5th floor lounge for "lunch" with my iPod and a hot cup of soup, looking out over the city in the wee hours of the morning. It really does feel like another world in those hours.

     I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine.     -- Kurt Vonnegut

    by SteelerGrrl on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 03:15:30 PM PST

    •  The purple stained world of night (4+ / 0-)

      There is that opening to Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard,"

      "THE Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,     
        The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,     
      The plowman homeward plods his weary way,     
        And leaves the world to darkness and to me."
      At night, there is an ice sheet that comes between the viewer and the object, even on the ground, and we have a sort of fugue state of observation. It is an alienation and participation that leads people to say, with T. S. Eliot ("Rhapsody on a Windy Night") that there is a magic madness involved in the catterwauls, flotsam, reflections, and acute angles. It is a special moment of equipoise, between things, and it is only available to those who see through the night.

      Of course, these days we've lost the magic, because we've increased the lighting, and it's just a different class at night instead of a different life.

      Everyone is innocent of some crime.

      by The Geogre on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 05:28:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've always been a night person (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ybruti, The Geogre

        For various reasons. But about that lighting -- we had the power go out here one night last summer. I raced outside to enjoy the darkness! And what darkness this moonless night! Alas, it was overcast, so there were no new stars to be amazed by, but that just made things even more incomprehensibly dark. I made my way out front to the street and realised that i couldn't see the neighbours house -- it's white -- just across from me. Oh, joy! What mischief i could get up to in this inky terrain.

        I had to inch back up the driveway because our car is jet black.

        All things in the sky are pure to those who have no telescopes. – Charles Fort

        by subtropolis on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 08:25:27 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Night shift people are different, lol. Having the (7+ / 0-)

      suits restricted to dayshift is a definite advantage. Worked 7p-7a in the units for many years. You couldn't pay me more to work days, much less pay me less. ;-)

      Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. ~The Druid.
      ~Ideals aren't goals, they're navigation aids.~

      by FarWestGirl on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 07:31:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  yep. Give me the night. (5+ / 0-)

        There's a public park that sits on a big hill on the edge of town here.  Many walk their dogs, fling frisbees... is just a great spot to hang out during the day, and I often walk that park to keep the blood flowing, pretty much know every footstep.  A bud FB'd me to join him in the park.  He was walking his dog.  At midnight.  Sure!  Meet you in 15!  Ain't smart phones grand?!  Well, I parked the car at the bottom of the hill, 'cuz I really didn't know if it was "legal" to drive up there so late at night.  Besides, it's a 5 min. walk up the hill.  Walk it every week.  Well, one can take the pathway or take the steps.  I chose the steps.  105 steps to the top.  About ten steps up I realized, "wow! this is really dark!"  As in no street lights dark.  No moon and overcast dark.  Well, I've climbed those steps a thousand times if I've climbed them once.  "No biggie.  I know these steps... "  Half way up it got scary.  "I can't see 7 feet in front of my face."  Literally.  "Just my luck I get eaten by a bear."  Once to the top there still was a 1/4 mile jaunt to where I was to meet my bud, so I wasn't out of the woods.  But, the paths are paved and I know every step.  I still can't see 7 feet in front of my face but I know the way.  Six, 7 minutes later I reach the spot where he's s'posed to be.  Don't want to yell 'cuz I don't want to wake the bears, but where is he?  I waited ten minutes and then headed back down.  Took the path this time.  Safer.  Still couldn't see shit, and you just know Jason or Freddie gonna leap from the bushes to stab my ass!
        My 20 minutes of total darkness in the park.
        Amazing how dark it can get in a hurry!  And scary.  There are hungry wildlife in that park.  To say nothing of the Jasons that might be lurking.  Still, give me the night.  I hate life much before noon.  Turns out the FB message from my bud was from the day before.

        •  That fear was EVERY night (5+ / 0-)

          That's the tight fist around your throat that announces, "The familiar is gone. Your power is gone." It's not wonderful, but it is a necessary wonder, I think, for us so that we don't have to invent it.

          I've had that sense of the alien in the familiar, the sense that the chess board had been turned over all of a sudden, several times before, and, although I knew that the animals were terrified of humans and would climb over each other to stay out of my way, I was certain that every footstep was on a rattlesnake, every step was beneath a mother wildcat with young, or that I was just going to step into a gopher hole and tear up my ankle.

          Everyone is innocent of some crime.

          by The Geogre on Thu Feb 14, 2013 at 03:45:18 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre, exterris

    I study night as well; always refreshing to see others take the subject on.

  •  thanks! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre

    l really enjoyed this!

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