The Gloaming

Darkness  (A very delayed response to a WordPress Daily Post prompt from about a week ago.) 

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darkness: absence of light; the quality of being dark in color

At this time of the year, when I rise in the morning it’s in complete darkness. There’s always that split-second shock, where I’m dragged out of some light-and-color-filled scenario busily taking place in that alternate reality we call dreams. One moment I’m on a moving bus (incongruously about to pour peppermint tea into a delicate china cup) and the next, I’m reaching out into the cold and dark, to switch my alarm off.

It’s still dark outside while I eat toast and prepare for work, the sky lightening almost imperceptibly, so that eventually  through my kitchen window I can make out the outlines and contours of ground, hedge, fence, trees, and tool shed. Due to the absence of light, my eyes perceive these objects in varying tones of grey, dark shapes against a lighter grey background that is the sky.

Although I know that plenty of people are up at that time of morning, I’m often the only person awake in my house for half an hour, and while it’s dark, it’s easy to imagine that the rest of the world is still asleep and dreaming.

Dark Street 2012

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darkness: gloominess, dimness; night

I am well acquainted with darkness, from years of being an insomniac. Lying awake through the night, you get to know the sounds of your night environment pretty well.

At different stages in my life I’ve felt a comfortable familiarity with my nightly soundscape. In the country town where I grew up, I would lie in bed listening to a deep silence, broken only occasionally by the sound of a truck driving through the main street, the sound of its engine reaching my ears for a surprisingly long interval, as it passed through town and then changed gears all the way up the hill, back on the highway towards Melbourne. Living in the city, I’ve listened to the rhythm of traffic stopping and starting up again at the traffic lights outside my apartment, off Punt Rd in Richmond, a busy main route that funnels traffic all day and night from north to south.

In this house, my current home, I’ve listened as evening noises (dogs barking, car doors slamming, neighbours talking, cars driving home down side streets) slowly die down, until in the depths of the night there’s just a soft hum, so soft that at first it seems like silence ringing in my ears, but then it becomes apparent that its actually the never-ceasing swoosh of traffic driving on the nearby freeway. Occasionally this is broken by a deep, thrilling rumble, that starts, quietly, to my left – in the south west – and grows louder as it travels solemnly across the sky, reaching a crescendo above my roof, and fades as it continues rumbling on, to my right, or the north-east, as a plane descends into Melbourne airport.

I like those sounds, the traffic and the planes; in the depths of the night they are proof that I’m not the only person who is awake.

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darkness: unhappiness or gloom

On nights of insomnia, darkness can contribute to your state of mind if you allow it to. I remember nights where I’ve felt utter despair when the sky begins to lighten, because it means having to get up in an hour for work with little or no sleep, or, (at another time in my life) that I’ll need to pull myself together enough after lying awake all night, to smilingly greet my baby daughter who will wake any moment now.

In the midst of months of chronic insomnia, it’s very hard to find the strength to do what books advise: don’t lie there in the dark desperately trying to go to sleep. Get up, switch the light on, make a cup of tea, settle in, read a book. Turn on the heater, create some light and warmth. Don’t let the darkness defeat you.

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darkness:  murkiness, shadowiness, twilight, gloaming

If we trace our history back to the stone age, we can easily see why darkness would imbue fear in humans – in those days, darkness brought with it a very real and practical fear of the wild animals that roamed at night and preyed on humans.

(Perhaps it was the remnant of this prehistoric, protective instinct, that kicked in when I was a new mother, so that sometimes in the dark of night, when my daughter was a very new addition to my previously self-centred life, I would manage to make myself more and more tense, as I imagined, almost compulsively, how I’d defend my child if an intruder entered my house and put her in any danger.)

Over the centuries, humans have developed and finely-tuned the art of story-telling, at first through a traditional of aural story telling, and then by using symbols and hieroglyphics, and then by developing rich, complex vocabularies. Across history and throughout all cultures, many of our myths and stories serve to embody our fears – in the shape of ghosts, witches, giants, demons – evil, personified into physical forms.

Inevitably, in these stories, evil is almost always encountered where light is low or absent – in the shadows, in the twilight, and in the dark of night. There’s an otherworldliness about the half-light, or the gloaming, that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end just as much as the pitch dark can do.

The contrast between light and dark plays a big part in the Greek myth of Orpheus, in which I imagine the River Styx, and the Underworld as gloomy places devoid of light. Orpheus wishes to bring his departed lover Eurydice back to the daylight of the living world. The King of the Underworld allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice out, on condition that he may not look back until they are both safely back in the land of the living. But when Orpheus sees the light of the Sun up ahead, he momentarily forgets this condition, and turns to look at Eurydice, who immediately vanishes back down into the dark of the Underworld forever.

 

 

Full Moon in cloudy sky 2012 (over Melbourne Airport)

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darkness: wickedness or evil; as in ‘the forces of darkness’

Darkness is effectively used to evoke fear and foreboding of disaster in any  form of storytelling. Take, for example, the opening of this scene in Macbeth, the night when Duncan, the King, will be murdered:

Banquo: How goes the night boy?

Fleance: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

Banquo: Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heaven: Their candles are all out.

When light is absent, the benign forces of Nature, present in the light of day, are supressed, and evil has a free reign.

In the Lord of the Rings, the power of evil has created the Ring-Wraiths, creatures doomed to do nothing but relentlessly seek the Ring forever. These chilling presences, neither alive nor dead, invisible but for the black cloaks they wear to give them form, are referred to as Black Riders or Dark Riders. Formerly human, they now live in a kind of limbo; only half existing in the world that humans see :

…they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Úlairi, the Enemy’s most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death

The trilogy makes symbolic use of dark and light throughout – in that epic journey, the heroes frequently traverse through forests covered with growth so thick that no sunlight can penetrate its depths, or down into the bowels of the earth, into caves under mountains. These places are always the abode of dragons, goblins, orcs, trolls, and similarly evil creatures, and the fear that even worser evils could be hidden in their depths. When they enter these dark, foreboding places, I am filled with the same foreboding that the heroes have. We learn, through reading and telling stories, that there is a the pattern to our story-telling, so we know it’s inevitable that when our heroes enter gloomy places, something disastrous will occur.

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darkness: lack of intellectual enlightenment; ignorance

Up until recently, European history from the 5th to the 14th Century was commonly referred to as the Dark Ages.

An implication in this term was, that during that period, which came after the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a period of intellectual darkness, that lasted until the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century; a period of high achievement in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music and science.

As noted on Wikipedia, the term Dark Ages employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the “darkness” of the period with earlier and later periods of “light.”

We also refer to the Age of Enlightenment, a period during the 18th Century which saw philosophers and scientists espouse reason, and scientific method, as legitimate modes of thought.

Thus even in colloquial language, a lack of knowledge equates to being kept in the dark, while gaining knowledge will throw light on a matter that was previously not understood.

Throughout history, education has mostly been the realm of a small minority, namely the rich and powerful, while a high proportion of the population has always remained poor and uneducated. In that environment, fear and superstitions are able to gain a strong hold on the collective imagination. It’s a situation that creates a ripe breeding ground for stories that instil fear; and in turn, not coincidentally, that situation creates a handy tool for those in power to utilise to their advantage.

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darkness: secrecy or mystery

The term Dark Ages, mentioned above, used in reference to a period of European history, has a second meaning. That is, that the period was

characterized by a relative scarcity of historical and other written records at least for some areas of Europe, rendering it obscure to historians

In the time in which I write, it is sometimes hard to believe that we can’t find the answer to anything we need to know by merely typing it into Google and seeing what comes up. So it’s fascinating to realise there is a period of history about which little is known due to a lack of historical and other written records. It’s almost as if that period deliberately and obstinately wishes to remain obscured to us.

Really, what could intrigue us more, than that which we do not yet know the answers to? Humans are by nature curious; this drives our desire to learn about the world. Centuries after the Dark Ages, we have a wealth of knowledge and reasoning at our fingertips….and yet for all our supposed modern sophistication, the tendency for humans to fear darkness has lasted through the centuries, despite higher levels of education and scientific advances that should dispel the predominance of irrational fears and superstitions.

After all, who amongst us in 2016, if left alone in the dark, even in the safety and familiarity of their own home, would not prefer to have a light readily available? And be brazen enough to say that it is merely for convenience?

I will be the first to admit it: if I’m home alone, I leave the bathroom light on.

 

Think for yourself

It’s that time of the academic year. Diligent students are putting their heads down, rolling up their sleeves, sharpening their imaginations, shaking the dust off the piles of reference books tottering on the desk next to them, and lazy (or time-challenged) students are turning desperately to Professor Google, in the hope of  finding easy answers to the essay questions they have been set.

In case you’re wondering, I’m aware of this because an increased amount of search terms landing on my blog are searching for clues to the themes in the great classics. Is Shakespeare an absurdist? Is Wuthering Heights a study of melancholia? Did Nietzsche die because of his mustache? (Huh??? Sorry, that intriguing question can wait for a different post.)

For example:

life is but a tale told by an idiot

wuthering heights melancholia

does the place support macbeth there you that life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and the fury signifying nothing (??? Good luck writing an essay)

What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so that it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies…

it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing how is it existentialist/absurdist?

There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody but I have the patience and self control to walk….

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing meaning

existentialism in macbeth’s tomorrow

is oskar’s monologue included in the novel extremely loud and incredibly close

which word completes the quote…..it is a tale/told by an……, full of sound and fury signifying nothing 

Existentialism? Never heard of it!

Existentialism? What is that shit?

I’m pleased to see that one of my favourites, Macbeth, is still popular on reading lists, and it’s good to see that students are also reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, (which I wrote about here) and A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. (which I wrote briefly about here) because I loved both of those books.

Now, my initial tendency is to frown in disapproval, to think these students have not, for whatever reason, read, or taken in, the play or novel in question and are unable to come up with a response for themselves. I feel that they are really missing out. But perhaps I shouldn’t rush to judge them just because they are using Google to search for answers. Perhaps they won’t plagiarise the answers they come across.  Maybe they’ll use the entry on Wikpedia as a springboard to guide their further research, rather than to copy word for word into their essay. Perhaps they are hoping to land on a reference list they can print off and take to the library. Here’s hoping.

I’ve always been grateful that my English Literature teacher in year 12, Mrs McRoberts, forbid us to read any secondary references on the books we had to write about in our final exams. Our ideas had to come from our own interpretations, aided only by lively discussion in class. That Literature class was probably the best and most creatively stimulating class I ever took. (and I have a Bachelor of Fine Art). (Despite that Literature class, it never occurred to me to pursue writing – go figure.)

There is also another, complementary theme to the searches on my blog at the moment – people searching for a painless way to write a 4000 word essay:

4000 word essay

4000 word essay 4 days

4000 words in 3 days is it possible?

Can you write 4000 word essay in one day

How long does it take to write 4000 words?

As it happens (not co-incidentally), I’ve previously written a helpful post on how to write a 4000 word essay, which is the reason all these hapless creatures are landing on my blog. Warning: it’s almost guaranteed that my post on this topic will be no help at all, and in fact, that anyone who takes 4 minutes to read that post will wish they had those 4 minutes back, as they would have been better spent putting a header on their essay. What’s more, they now have only 2 days, 23 hours and 56 minutes to write it in, and are still none the wiser on where to start.

I feel a little bit guilty about that – I didn’t intentionally write that post to waste the time of people who’ve obviously left it till the last minute to start their 4000 word essay and are so panicked that they are hoping the internet can help them do it. Well, why did you write it? I hear you ask. Fair question. As you’ll probably gather if you read it, I wrote purely to waste my own time, when I should have been writing a 4000 word essay.

So I speak from experience, therefore, when I say to the person who asks, can you write a 4000 word essay in one day? – why, yes you can! Don’t waste time Googling the internet to ask if it’s possible, just  start writing!

Of course, your essay will be vastly improved if you have already done some reading on your topic before you start writing (a tip that I really must try to follow myself at some point, here on this blog!). Your essay will also benefit if you can schedule in some time to review what you’ve written and ensure that you have structured the essay in a logical way that leads towards a coherent conclusion. University professors are a fussy bunch, and notoriously picky about people submitting academic essays that start with lines like  “Well, as I was only just saying to my hairdresser the other day”  and end with “as you can see from the above anecdotes, it seems reasonable to suppose that the proposed theory could well be correct.”

This Melbourne University academic has already marked this post as a D- and commented, "no coherent structure to the essay. It appears you have not read the references"

This Melbourne University academic  commented, “no evidence of having read the references, no coherent structure.” and marked my post with a D-

However, don’t panic. Elements such as content, an introduction, a well-thought-out argument, a cohesive structure and a logical conclusion are what we call in the industry*, value-add ons. You asked merely if it was possible to write a 4000 word essay in one day and I answered, yes. A quick calculation will tell you that you just need to blurt out 500 words an hour and you can have it written in 8 hours. An essay written that way probably won’t get you an A+, (or even a C-)but it is possible to do it.

(Not that I would ever attempt it – I’m not a total masochist!)

Fortunately for me, as it happens, I’m writing a blog, and not an academic essay, so if I’m missing an introduction, a cohesive, flowing argument and a logical conclusion that sums up the argument, I’m not going to lose any points, so I reckon I might finish right here.

*the advertising industry

The Beatles – Think For Yourself

Do what you want to do

and go where you’re going to

think for yourself

cos I won’t be there with you

A Really Brief History of Time

7.5 billion years ago: Things are pretty quiet as far as we can see. Earth does not yet exist, which accounts for the lack of extra noise. Out in the universe, stars burn away for millions of years, and that’s about it for action, really. Occasionally they explode, which livens things up for a while. As it happens, right at the moment that we are looking back at, one such star, GRB 080319B (although, at this point in time, it went by the name of unnamed) explodes, and the light from this explosion begins to travel through space.

Star exploding

 7.5 billion years ago

6.5 billion years ago: ….oh, sorry, I’d fallen asleep. It felt like a billion years just went by. Anyway, not much has been happening, things are pretty much the same as they have been for the last billion years. Even a maths lesson on a hot stuffy afternoon would seem action packed in comparison to this. Light from the explosion of GRB 080319B  still hurtles rapidly through space, allegedly travelling at the speed of…well….light. (Eye witnesses are hard to locate.)

4.5 billion years ago: Major thrills!  Over in a galaxy  – which will later be named “The Milky Way,” after a delicious chocolate bar that does not spoil the appetite – a new planet forms. This will be designated as “Earth” by the inhabitants, but that naming ceremony is still billions of years away.

3.5 billion years ago: More excitement! Who said nothing happens around here? The first life forms appear on Earth. Later named “bacteria,” these primitive life-forms prove to be the most resilient anywhere in the universe.* Meanwhile, light from the explosion of GRB 080319B continues to zoom through space.

650 million years ago: animals with nerves and muscles, but no brains, begin to appear on Earth. They are called Jellyfish. (Some of these creatures evolve to become Rugby League players.)

250 million years ago:  dinosaurs roam Earth. Light from the explosion of GRB 080319B is still ploughing steadily on through space at a consistent speed. (if ploughs could be said to go at the speed of light.)

100 thousand years ago: Homo Sapiens first appear on Earth. Apparently one of the main things that distinguish Homo Sapiens from Neanderthals is their production of artistic objects. Thus the beginnings of the human race is marked by its need to make art, which is handy for a thematic link to my previous post.

1 thousand years ago: the real Macbeth reigns in Scotland, but not in entirely the same way as the famous fictional character did – eg, there are less witches boiling up trouble, and not so many ghosts popping up through the fruit platter at banquets. A mysterious voice proclaiming “Macbeth has murdered sleep” in the middle of the night might really have been heard, depending on just how loudly he partied at night.

500 years ago: Shakespeare writes Macbeth, basing it on the king who lived 500 years earlier. (To Shakespeare and his cronies, Macbeth’s time seems like ancient history, but they didn’t have the benefit of being able to read this handy post to put things into perspective.)

Meanwhile, throughout all of this planetary, and now human activity, light from GRB 080319B continues to whizz steadily through the universe. Remember people, it was going at the speed of light, not at the speed of a segway. Reports from this time are still sketchy, but it appeared to be heading in the direction of The Milky Way.

60 years ago: Beckett writes Waiting for Godot and makes obvious reference to Macbeth.**

13 years ago: Stephen Hawking publishes A Brief History of Time, which explains a lot of stuff about the workings of the universe but overlooked the connection between  Macbeth, Waiting for Godot, black holes, stars exploding and the endlessness of the universe. Hawking’s so-called “brief” history also takes a lot longer to read than this post, even though I’ve managed to add in the parts about Macbeth and Waiting for Godot that Hawking left out of his.

3 years ago:  the light from GRB 080319B, that has been travelling for all that time, reaches Earth’s atmosphere. The light from the explosion that happened 7.5 billion years earlier and has travelled across the universe for all that time is seen briefly by Homo sapiens, on Earth.

3 days ago: I write a post that manages to tie the explosion of a star 7.5 billion years ago to Macbeth and Waiting for Godot, and which, no doubt, astronomers, physicists, literary academics and my local postman will be quoting in the years to come.

Just now: In what is already rapidly becoming the short-term past, I hit the “publish” button on this post, written to give an overview of the history of the universe so that it was clear where Macbeth and Waiting for Godot fitted in to the grand scheme of things.

Meanwhile, out in deep space, things are going along pretty much the same as they were, billions of years ago.

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In other relevant news, apparently Milky Way now comes in a spread.

 

Milky Way spread

Milky Way spread. Neanderthals didnt think of that one.

*With the possible exception of Daleks

* *Beckett’s reference to Macbeth seems obvious to me, but is just my opinion, and I am not an academic. Any literary scholars who would like to disagree this may send in a 500 word essay on the topic, which will be published here in serial format.

A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. (But it mentions stars exploding.)

In my last post I referred to the “spine-tingling” factor that happens when I contemplate the stars and universe.  As a reminder to all you regular readers out there (or should I say, “in there”, since most of you exist only in my head?  Still, thanks for reading either way) – I’m talking about how that light that we see, and call a “star,”  is the light from a massive body (that’s the star) that could have already exploded and died  – and yet that explosion won’t be seen (by the naked eye) for maybe millions of years.

Yeah, that’s right, I had to reiterate that fact, because I can’t get enough of it.

Anyway, strangely enough, when I think about this stuff, my mind often makes an association to something else that I find spine tingling – a quote from Macbeth! I say strangely, because it’s nothing to do with stars or the universe. It is the famous quote, which I have located this morning in a falling-apart copy of Macbeth (complete with scribbled notes all over it) and goes:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, v.5)

Did your spine tingle? Mine did. I can’t put my finger on why it is, but I have heard that this Shakespeare dude is quite a good writer, so I reckon he knew how to make a few words have an impact.

I suspect the reason why my brain connects this text from Macbeth with stars exploding and their light travelling for thousands or millions of years and still hitting our vision thousands of years later, is that idea that human existence is so brief, such a mere blip on the radar of what Macbeth describes as dark and dusty nothingness, or in my mind, is the fathomlessness of the universe.

Of course, the play is full of foreboding, and conveys a growing sense of dread and darkness, so all of that contributes to Macbeth’s famous speech, which comes close to the end of the story, feeling so potent and causing my spine to tingle.

I reckon that Samuel Beckett’s spine felt a little tingle when he read Macbeth, too. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon echo some of Macbeth’s ideas.  I think the spine-tingling I experience at these passages is partly due to recognition of Macbeth’s famous speech, as well as my reaction to the similarly dark content of what they are saying. Have a look back at what Macbeth says, and then check out the similarities:

Vladimir: All evening we have struggled, unassisted. Now it’s over. It’s already tomorrow. (p77)

Vladimir: In an instant, all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness! (p81)

Pozzo: Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!….One day,  is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?….They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. (p89)

I wonder if Beckett was having a little bit of a joke, too (given the nature of his absurdist play it seems likely) as Vladimir and Estragon could very well be the “idiots” that Macbeth speaks of, telling the tale that signifies nothing. The power of their statements is achieved very differently in Waiting for Godot. This play does not develop a growing sense of dread, rather I think that, for me, the power of these deep, existential statements is probably highlighted by the contrast in the way they are delivered: amidst conversation that, on the surface, appears to be pure rambling, by bumbling, pathetic characters that we feel sorry for.

So art can make my spine tingle too, just like the idea of stars exploding, and the universe in general, can do.

I guess that what makes for a spine-tingling feeling varies for everyone, but occasionally we all feel it for some reason or other, either by staring up at the stars, listening to a beautiful piece of music, or reading Macbeth!

Star exploding

An explosion 7.5 billion years ago – visible in 2008

Photo Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler, et al.

(Click here if you want to read about this exploding star. Apparently it exploded 7.5 billion years ago – well before Shakespeare was born, or even before Macbeth, whose story took place a mere 1000 years ago.  After travelling for all that time, the light from the explosion finally arrived close enough to earth to be seen by the naked eye in 2008.)

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