"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."
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;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.
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)
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.
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.