by Knud Sønderby
One winter night in our house far out in the country the lights went out. A fuse must have blown. I realized this with a confused and lost feeling. I had had a book in my lap – still had it –a fraction of a second I could still remember it, see it before my eyes, see the whole living room with all its things and their relationship to one another the way it was in light. It was like the light still existed a moment after it went out. Then the darkness came.
I checked my pockets for a match, fumbled on the coffee table for them, but they weren’t there, even though I knew they had to be.
So I sat for a few moments and just experienced the dark. Waited presumably for my eyes to adjust. But the dark simply got denser and denser, while my memory of light became weaker and weaker until it was like the very last candle on the Christmas tree, until it was like the very last ember on the wick of the very last candle. Then the dark came again – and came and came. And gradually I did, too – myself in darkness.
Matches. They had to be there. I felt around for them on the tabletop again.
This idea of eyes adjusting to the dark, I guess that only works when there’s still a little
light, at least not when it’s completely dark.
Darkness is apparently even darker than we think. It’s like – well, it’s the darkest you can think of, it’s something so dark that there aren’t even any other words for it, but just is… is dark, black, beyond words, overshadows synonyms, is the stuff that broods silently outside the illuminated purview of language, out there, where even words with panicked, rumbling, howling, and terrifying sounds can’t describe it. Black, dark, noir, oscuro, gloom.
I fumbled around and found the matches, but only after knocking over my coffee. I lit the match and the coffee spilled across the table between books and papers which I just barely saved before the match went out and the dark washed over me again. So I went exploring to the kitchen, where I had a vague recollection of a candle somewhere. I found a stump of a candle and that was a big help; with its assistance I found one more. Now I could start to look around, look for new fuses – there weren’t any – and for the flashlight – I had left it at a friend’s house one evening when I was out visiting and had gotten a ride home. But still I had light – two islands of light – one in the kitchen and one in the living room. Just enough that I could recognize things and think about the situation — what in the world should I do?
The country store. Two miles away in rain and wind, and it might not even be open. The neighbors. I went out to the road to see if they were already in bed. Outside the door I fell over a bike that some goddamn idiot must have…oh yeah, it was me, it was my bike. But there were no lights on at the neighbor’s – they must have been in bed – if I was even looking in the right direction.
Branches were knocking against each other in the wind over my head, but I couldn’t see the tree. I couldn’t see the road I was standing on, couldn’t see the sky over the trees. There wasn’t the faintest light to be seen anywhere– not even in the distance. I listened to the branches in the wind, and I got dizzy when I discovered that I couldn’t see myself.
So I went inside again to the house’s two tents of light. Strange, but it was like they were tents of silence, as if the darkness and silence went hand in hand. My otherwise very familiar furniture stood averted and unfamiliar in the ring of shadows, as if they had an issue left unresolved, like they had been given an apology but hadn’t quite accepted it yet. You couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t disappear completely. The cabinet, the pictures, the chairs; they were there, but for how long. They radiated silence, silence from another world towards which they were already turned, staying put for now, trapped by the little energy source on the table — how it worked hard, that quiet flame — giving of itself, burning itself up so things could exist, fighting for the life around it.
I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate, felt the light was too precious — not the stump of candle, but the light — too essential for me to occupy myself with anything but that, to think thoughts that didn’t concern it. A book that wouldn’t weaken the essential, a book that was about light and only light, that I could have read.
An encounter with the light. Or maybe more correctly stated – with the dark, because isn’t that the most elementary? Light in the darkness – it’s complementary, of course – they exist only in relation to one another – in relation to us, at any rate.
A small accident with a highly complicated gadget must occur before a modern person suddenly discovers the most elemental of everything, notices it, feels it. You turn on three heaters instead of two, hit two switches without turning off a third; something with “so many watts,” something with something in it so elemental in nature, yet utilized so complicatedly that you don’t understand it, something like a fuse being overloaded – and then there you are! With the darkness making its presence felt again! Caught off guard, exposed, attentive.
It’s amazing how poorly the modern person knows the dark, so few times in our lives we have encountered it. From our childhood we remember a cellar, where we were sent down with the coal bucket in the evening, a switch that was worn out when flipped, we could just make it, running through the lit hallway, then–if we were lucky–put the key in the padlock, we could, if we were very careful, maybe even open the door and go into the black cellar room, while there was still light in the hall, so we could just barely see, it was important to make it as far as possible, also important because otherwise our song wouldn’t last. Then it happened. The light went out. And we stood drowning to our core in darkness. And we sang, while we shoveled coal into the bucket, not loudly, but with clenched teeth, still singing, Undaunted wherever you go… our body like an organ of invocation – Never fear the power of darkness… Now we were already starting the second verse, and the bucket was only half full, and afterwards there was only one verse left, slower, sing slower, control our panic, don’t squander the words, make them last!
And what was there to be afraid of? Just the darkness. To be separated from the world. To be alone and lost in this black unreality. Even though, as kids, we were in our own house, in a cellar hallway we knew inside and out, even though we knew our parents were right upstairs and they could hear us if we shouted — when the light went out we were the most alone individual in the world, forgotten and abandoned. It was like we stepped over the threshold to another world, where everything was changed, where lawlessness ruled over everything that we had always believed, knew, were sure of. A world so strange, so distant from the light that maybe our shouts couldn’t be heard. Maybe we’d entered a different time dimension. With no light it’s like we’re cave dwellers again, trying desperately to retain a connection to our own time, to law and order, to ourselves, the song safeguarding the weak thread so it doesn’t break.
But that was childhood of course, and though there were electric lights, oil lamps hadn’t yet been completely supplanted, but neither of them were used as much as now. Remember to turn off the light. Did you turn it off? There weren’t as many switches either – just one in each room – seconds of darkness as you moved through the house between turning lights off at one location until you reached safety at the next switch.
Today we protect ourselves against darkness like it was a disease, like against contagion by a disease that is so eradicated that no one catches it anymore or knows what it is. Anywhere near a city at night a cloud of light floats overhead. Copenhagen lights up half of Zeeland
. Plus there are streetlights, house lights, headlights from vehicles everywhere. The dark is pushed back. The basic condition for half our lifetimes once has now become the unapproachable, treacherous, dangerous darkness. The dark like it was, when you couldn’t get around it, was threatening, dreaded. And now, it’s like something else is lost along with the loss of darkness – a reality – yet it’s still there. It willingly appears – just a little crack and it’s there, in all its original glory, undiminished as if it had never been gone.
We remember the war as dark times, also literally, although the technical blackout was only outside. Indoors we existed in pools of light similar to conditions long ago.
How did people in times past remember the winter? As dark times. Black times.
Darkness has spread itself like a heaviness in our souls as in our language, so that “dark” times are not meant only literally. And the poor lighting methods they had at their disposal were only used when it was necessary for work or another situation where they had to be able to see. I spent one fall on a farm in Norway and one evening the mistress sent me on an errand to the neighbor’s farm. “What if they’re in bed? I asked. “You can just wake them up,” she told me. From a distance I could already see that they must have gone to bed – there were no lights on anywhere. I had a flashlight to help me at the rough places on the path. I used it, too, when I knocked on their door and when I came into the entry and began to knock on more doors. “Come in,” someone said. I opened the door and stood there and looked into a completely dark room. I’d turned off the flashlight. You don’t just shine lights into strange people’s living rooms. I explained where I came from and told them my errand. “Yes, sure, I think we can take care of that,” said a voice in the dark. “Oh, you’re a Dane and you’re living there, well, all right,” and we chatted a bit. But then I did need to borrow that one thing. And I hear the man get up from his chair and after a moment I hear the clink of a lamp glass and a match is struck, and the light from the lamp fights its way outwards, and spread around in the room are eight or nine people sitting there – old, young, a whole family plus farmhands.
That’s the way people gathered. With a grounding in darkness — were their own entertainment, had television inside themselves.
They were familiar with it in the olden days. We can imagine how it was. Like a lightning bug it rummages in our consciousness, a decidedly antiquated situation, something that was left behind on the surface from antediluvian layers of tales and reports, something that has made an extra impression, because it was fundamental like a family memory. The situation occurred repeatedly. A person went out at night and lost their way, then caught a glimpse of a light far off in the distance, and walked towards it: a house, a residence, a candle flame behind a window. The person walked towards the light as if it were a star.
In this way Blicher
must have walked across his Jutland heaths at night. “I stopped at times to ascertain if the light had moved. No!- therefore it could not be a lantern or a watchman;
but must be one of those secretive meteors, that are believed to signify buried treasure or buried corpses. Of the former I was not afraid, even less of the latter; I kept going. The glare steadily increased in size and clarity.”
It was something that used to happen; it was a daily occurrence; it was the way things were.
Fourteen hours darkness. Sixteen hours darkness. Half of life they lived in darkness. So much so they must have felt that that was the basic element.
The calendar year itself ended for them like a light going out, like the light went out for me, just the embers on the wick of the last small candle after the splendors of summer. There they sat remembering the dying vision of a light like a memory on the retina, while they fumbled their way through the tunnel to the new year.
You sit with a candle, by a clean burning flame and have a blind date with the darkness.
The darkness – this substance there hardly are words for, but just is there, this absence which is so difficult to describe clearly, because the descriptions begin with this basic element of darkness, this condition, against which you could toss all diminutives, all verbal abuse, if you didn’t feel at the same time that it were in vain, because it is the essential, the original, the wordless, silence itself – and that all degrees of light, ourselves, and everything we know that needs words are like a rash, just a passing illness from lack of darkness.
By Knud Sønderby, “Mødet med mørket” ©1964
Translated by Michael Goldman
First Published in em Journal, 2015