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Lighthinking

In defence of dark woods

Interview with Nina Edwards, author of Darkness

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Published: 28 Aug 2019
"Whereas light stands for enlightenment, insight, lucidity, clarity and hope, darkness easily appears to suggest ignorance, dishonesty, deceptive glamour, emotion and blind despair", writes Nina Edwards in Darkness (il Saggiatore, 2019). These are valid metaphors in a number of different cultures, including our own of course, and they have found expression in the languages spoken by those cultures, their legends, religions and artistic traditions. Metaphors that probably originated from primitive experiences in the night and darkness. Metaphors which by continuous repetition have reinforced negative prejudices towards the dark, night, and by extension, even black and dark colours, in certain contexts.
In defence of dark woods

The front covers of the Italian and English editions of Darkness

Of course, no culture is monolithic and those with greater access to history and information are even less so: "Darkness is at one end of a spectrum, so it never disappears in any culture. Some who live in the far north still hanker after light and find the Northern Lights depressing, as in our own cultures there are those who find the dark beautiful and grieve over its diminution". She herself tells us she was always reassured and captivated by darkness. Just as there cannot be light without shadows, it is impossible to dull down the concept of darkness and night with only negative connotations: “Look how we continue to enjoy fireworks, which depends on a dark context. Darkness is precious indeed, but not sufficiently recognised as such".

The famous scene in Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau
when the vampire's shadow climbs the stairs,1922

There is even a UNESCO resolution from 2007 on the subject, Declaration in defence of the night sky and the right to starlight, from which Edwards quotes a passage: “the enjoyment of the contemplation of the firmament [as] an unalienable right of humankind”. In reality, even when there is too much light, both physical and metaphysical, "there is something overwhelming", notes Darkness. “Just as light can destroy the beauty of a night sky, so too much clarity in our personal relations can be crude and destructive, trampling on what is uncertain but still of value”.
In defence of dark woods

From the left: Rembrandt, Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1628;
Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait with straw hat, 1887

"Darkness is an elusive concept" writes Edwards Gathering the many facets of the dark and nearly dark involves looking at the world from a sometimes less familiar perspective, as if turning back to where we began.

It is like examining a photographic negative, familiar and yet not so, like a sudden experience of déjà vu that bewilders, that pulls you up sharp and forces you to see the world anew.

The structure and wealth of the discourse in Darkness are ideal for understanding the number of aspects that the absence of light and correlated metaphors adopt: the eight chapters, as well as the introduction and conclusion, bring together a large number of references taken from literature, visual arts, religion, fashion, psychology, neurology, physics and zoology. Precisely because of this, it is difficult to entrust a limited selection of examples and anecdotes with the job of conveying an overall idea of the book. Probably the most suitable image is the one most commonly conjured up in Darkness, that of Taijitu, the symbol representing the compresence and balance between yin and yang concepts from ancient Chinese philosophy; they too connected to darkness and light but in a perspective that identifies them and seeks harmony in them.
In defence of dark woods