In Praise of Darkness: Henry Beston on How the Beauty of Night Nourishes the Human Spirit
“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.”
By Maria Popova
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” wrote the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in his glorious 1933 love letter to darkness, enveloped in a lament about the perils of excessive illumination. It seems like, having never quite grown out of our perennial childhood fear of the dark, at some point in the twentieth century we took Carl Jung’s poetic assertion that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being” a little too literally and set out to illuminate darkness into nonexistence. But darkness — like silence, like solitude — belongs to that class of blessings increasingly endangered in modern life yet vitally necessary to the human spirit.
No one has captured the enchantment of darkness and its eternally reigning queen, the night, more beautifully than writer and naturalist Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968), who in his 1928 classic The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (public library) does for night what Rebecca Solnit has done for walking and Robin Wall Kimmerer for moss.
In the eight chapter, titled “Night on the Great Beach,” Beston writes:
Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ver more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of the night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of the stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, to-day’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day.
But Beston’s prescient admonition fell on deaf ears — nearly a century later, our reliance on this circadian artificiality has reprogrammed our internal clocks to a dangerous degree. In fact, our relationship with darkness and the poetry of night has always been complicated, shrouded in various superstitions and cultural taboos. So absurd were some of them that when trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching the first university class of women astronomers, female students were not allowed to go outside after dark. And yet here we are a century and a half later, having replaced the sociocultural obstructions with technological ones — light pollution is blocking our view of the night, cutting off our eternal supply of Ptolemy’s cosmic ambrosia.
Beston describes one particularly poetic night, made pitch-black by the embrace of a thick fog — a night unseen by most of us, and perhaps one already unseeable a century of rabid illumination later. And yet his writing alone transports us to this glorious dominion of darkness, making its magic maybe, just maybe, a little more attainable for us nightless moderns:
Night is very beautiful on this great beach. It is the true other half of the day’s tremendous wheel; no lights without meaning stab or trouble it; it is beauty, it is fulfillment, it is rest. Thin clouds float in these heavens, islands of obscurity in a splendor of space and stars: the Milky Way bridges earth and ocean…
It was dark, pitch dark to my eye, yet complete darkness, I imagine, is exceedingly rare, perhaps unknown in outer nature. The nearest natural approximation to it is probably the gloom of forest country buried in the night and cloud. Dark as the night was here, there was still light on the surface of the planet. Standing on the shelving beach, with the surf breaking at my feet, I could see the endless wild uprush, slide, and withdrawal of the sea’s white rim of foam.
But Beston’s meditation on darkness and the night is ultimately an invitation rather than a lament:
Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity. By day, space is one with the earth and with man — it is his sun that is shining, his clouds that are floating past; at night, space is his no more. When the great earth, abandoning day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some awareness of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.
The Outermost House is an immensely enchanting read in its entirety, uncovering and recovering the civilization-shrouded shimmer of such beautiful phenomena as birds, the beach, midwinter, and high tide. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe’s equally bewitching celebration of the Southwestern sky.
Published June 4, 2015