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World June 14, '13 In praise of darkness (and light) By Rebecca Solnit One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting

off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds. The birds were mostly new species I got to know a little, the golden plovers plaintively dissembling in the grass to lead intruders away from their nests, the oystercatchers who flew overhead uttering unearthly oscillating cries, the coastal fulmars, skuas, and guillemots, and most particularly the arctic terns. The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting. Terns were once called sea swallows for their deeply forked tails and grace in the air, and in Latin, arctic terns were named sterna paradisaea by a pietist Danish cleric named Erik Pontoppidan, at the end of a turbulent career. It's not clear why in 1763 he called the black-capped, white-feathered arctic terns sterna paradisaea: birds - or terns - of paradise. He could not have known about their extraordinary migration, back in the day when naturalists - and Pontoppidan himself in his book on Norway - thought swallows buried themselves in the mud in winter and hibernated, rather than imagining they and other birds flew far south to other climes. Of all living things, arctic terns migrate farthest and live in the most light and least darkness. They fly tens of thousands of miles a year as they relocate from farthest north to farthest south. When they are not nesting, they rarely touch ground and live almost constantly in flight, like albatrosses, like their cousins the sooty terns who roam above the equatorial seas for years at a time without touching down. Theirs is a paradise of endless light and endless effort. The lives of angels must be like this. The far north is an unearthly earth, where much of what those of us in temperate zones were told is universal is not true. Everyone walks on water, which is a solid. In winter, you can build palaces out of it, or houses out of snow. Ice is blue. Snow insulates. Water crystallizes into floating mountains that destroy whatever

Their opposite is the equator. so that in May the days went from nearly 17 to 20 hours long. Many other things turn hard as rock in the cold. about as far north as Fairbanks. I had read about the white nights of St Petersburg in Russia. Alaska. at only 59 degrees north. say. running from the end of October until the middle of February. In Iceland. There. each day of spring was several minutes longer than the one before. The sun dipped low around midnight or after and there were spectacular sunsets that melted into sunrises. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous. and I had once spent a couple of weeks in the Canadian wilderness . and nearly every species but the reindeer and some of the summer birds is carnivorous. And at the poles themselves. the town of Longyearbyen in the Norwegian Arctic at latitude 78. where every day and every night of the year is exactly 12 hours long. between the great day and the great night that each lasts 1. The further north or south you go. and so time stops for the dead. and lichens hidden beneath the snow part of the year. flickering like a strobe. Long ago. the sun rises in late April and stays above the horizon until nearly the end of August. In winter. and one degree south of the Arctic Circle. if not the living. winter is a night as long as that summer day. and the sun rises once in the spring and sets once in the fall. no night. and further north nothing remains of the plant kingdom but low grasses. when sunset finally comes . diminutive flowers.000 hours or more. I lived at latitude 65. to. The 24-hour cycle of day and night we think of as normal and daily comes as a rush of rapidly changing days and nights. Trees dwindle. That summer among the terns. shrubs cling to the ground.a few minutes before sunrise. Nothing decays. because the sun never went entirely away. and by June there is no true darkness.collides with them. which I later visited. there are not 365 days per year but one long night and one long stretch of light. If you go farther north. the longer summer days and winter nights get. mosses. light can seem to shine upward from the white ground more than from the dark sky where the sun doesn't rise or rises for an hour or two a day.

and it didn't matter so much when I rose. Hate cannot drive out hate. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness. and I missed the rhythm and structure they provide. I missed stars. fair maidens. not staying in the light. requires this amorous engagement with the unknown. and though that's where they may be seen by others. this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. In praise of darkness Sometimes during that summer when the sky was often gray but never black. snowy angels. when I traveled. The sensuality of night had never been so clear to me. biological and artistic both. only love can do that. and generation. darkness descending like velvet to wrap around you and enclose you in its black cocoon.at that latitude near midsummer. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light. Darkness no longer shut me in: I shut light out to sleep. but . and the term has often carried emotional. but actually living through them was a little disorienting. by walking into darkness. when I slept. that never let up the rational alertness of daytime. to take you to your other self and others. at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. I would think that a task had to be done before darkness and then realize that there would be no more darkness while I was there. For me day and night were time itself. and religious overtones as has its opposite: the children of light. I had always wanted to see the white nights farther north. Darkness is generative. It was as though I had entered a landscape that itself never slept. that's not where they're born. which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. In darkness dreams awaken and dreamers merge. But darkness is a pejorative in English. moral. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you're doing. never dreamed. and white knights. the light of interrogation and analysis. when night was just a blush of darkness that generally began and ended while I was asleep in my tent." said the dark-skinned Martin Luther King Jr. only light can do that. Merging is dangerous.

The light that leaked through the intentional.and it streamed across the space in strange ways. Turn off the lights and come to bed. The path turned at sharp angles. . When you spend time in the desert. with open blackness and hard pale surfaces. what was light was spaciousness into which you could move. In a big room in Iceland's National Gallery. and at midday it flattens everything into a harsh solid.sometimes love is darkness. Desert light is fierce. Elin Hansdottir. just as cold is the Arctic's biggest animal. light is golden and every crevice and fold and protrusion of the landscape is thrown into the high relief of light and shadow. you come to love shadow. and you lost track of the distance that you were going.it came from fluorescent tubes . At those times. the respite they give to the menacing blaze of day that burns you out and dries you up. day and night intertwine like dancers. and then your eyes adjusted to the faint. or so it seemed to me. but reality as you bumped into it was often the other way around. the space seemed to be absolutely dark. like lifeguards. and a pair of watchers in the outer gallery monitored entries and exits and occasionally went in for a rescue. and shadows are as powerful a presence as the things that cast them. Heat is the desert as predator. When you stepped in from the daylight and the door closed behind you. sometimes the glare is what needs to be extinguished. she built a zigzag route of Sheetrock that gave off that material's dusty clean aroma. and darkness. shade. One person at a time entered Path. careful cracks in the walls and ceiling was faintly lavender blue . Journey to the center There was only one dark place left in Iceland that summer. You could move forward when you were blind or wait until you could see. so that you knew that you were being turned around and around. with the help of two meticulous carpenters. faint light. but placing a hand on one side of the walls helped you travel too. like lovers. or more so. growing and growing until the sun disappears below the horizon and darkness spreads like water on the land. a young artist who had been instrumental in the chain of coincidences that brought me to Iceland. had made a labyrinth titled Path. but early and late in the day. and I went there again and again. It was easy to believe that what was dark was solid.

the walls began to press together and it was as dark as it had been at that first moment you stepped in and closed the door behind yourself. It contains beginning. but would have to test it. a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer. A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space. but I found in it an embrace of darkness. At the end. winds up a path like thread on a spool. In a labyrinth you're lost in that you don't know the twists and turns. arrival. and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing. a handmade night. so that wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. and this felt like such a journey. but if you follow them you get there. but the time inside had no such quantifiable measure. In this it is the opposite of a maze. somehow. once for so long the attendants grew concerned. eyes. and then you reverse your course. you moved deeper into the labyrinth. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. I kept coming back all summer. knowing now that you did not know what was solid. of finding out one literal step at a time. a destination. I felt at home there. . You may wander. Did the path fork? Or was there only one route? How far did it go? Was the way out the same as the way in? All this would have to be found with the hands. which has not one convoluted way but many ways and often no center. It was time apart. Path was a space in which you perfected the art of not knowing where you were.Your expectations reversed. There and back again took me 10 or 15 minutes by the clock. or such a center. what was space you could occupy. over and over. having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground. a slow journey to the heart of the unknown and the unknowable. arrive. and feet as you traveled. symbolic time. perseverance. and return. A maze is a conversation. Jules Verne's novel about Iceland was called Journey to the Center of the Earth. seven times in all. It seemed as though it ought to feel claustrophobic. may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it. confusion. become lost. spin about. more myself than anywhere else in Iceland. And then you could go no farther.

it was about not knowing. That is the home to which you return from the pilgrimage. your alliances. the labyrinth. your affections. the unemployed. about being lost. as is commonly supposed. but to be heard by whom. you build your beliefs. Out of all this comes your contribution to the making of the world. by touch and by ear If Path was a book. and to be heard is a great desire of the majority of us.is that another way to imagine this path. and thereby it becomes part of you. You build yourself out of the materials at hand and those you seek out and choose. though some of us have far more latitude than others in all those things. but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. and like bread it becomes part of you. translate it into the language particular to you. The name suggests that if the labyrinth is the passage through which sound enters the mind. a book you read with your feet. then we ourselves bodily enter labyrinths as though we were sounds on the way to being heard by some great unknown presence. your sentences in the ongoing interchange. The word empathy originally meant feeling into. this listening. The tragedy of the imprisoned. Anatomists long ago named the windings of the inner ear. You digest an idea or an ethic as though it was bread. It's not passive but active. fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond. and the marginalized is to be silenced in this great ongoing conversation. and about darkness. your home. this symphony that is another way to describe the world. because it's not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence.The end of the journey through the labyrinth is not at the center. the adventure. The unpraised edges and margins matter too. Journeys into and toward. It's as though you retell each story. this journey. the disenfranchised. to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. by what? To be a sound traveling toward the mind . whose channels provide both hearing and balance. the unwinding of this thread? Who hears you? We live inside each other's thoughts and works. the darkness of the deep interior. and to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the . To walk this path is to be heard. To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear.

though. compassion. You see someone get hurt . There are people whose response to the suffering of others is to become upset and demand consolation themselves. from the Greek word for passion or suffering. until it becomes vivid to you. generosity. compassion. from which we also derive pathos and pathology and sympathy. Sometimes. To enter into. The root word is path.maybe they get insulted or they're just very tired . kindness. babies cry in sympathy with each other. one person's story becomes the point of entry to larger territories. It's a coincidence that empathy is built from a homonym for the Old English path. Through imagination and representations . Recognizing the reality of another's existence is the imaginative leap that is the birth of empathy. Or a dark labyrinth .labyrinths of the senses. Or you work harder and study them to imagine the events you don't witness. though the words sympathy. and others covered the same general ground before Edward Titchener coined it in 1909.films. pity.and you feel for them. often in terms of your own experience. It's easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you your best friend. the person who just slipped on the ice. Kindness. since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. fellow-feeling. Even some animals do it. are often talked about as though they're purely emotional virtues. a word invented by a psychologist interested in visual art. The word is only slightly more than a century old. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular. but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones. second-hand accounts . or in distress at the sound of distress. You take the information your senses deliver and interpret it.you travel into the lives of people far away. as though another person's life was also a place you could travel to. or feeling into. the suffering that is not on the surface. It was a translation of the German word Einfuhlung. we say. printed stories. But to cry because someone cries or desire because someone desires is not quite to care about someone else. as in a trail. Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand. as though the feeling itself reached out. This identification is almost instinctual in many circumstances.

through images. Up close you witness suffering directly. Few if any of us will travel like Arctic terns in endless light. recordings. a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca Solnit had been writing for TomDispatch for a decade. from which this essay is adapted. if we listen. if you care. if we reach out. though even then you may need words to know that this person has terrible pains in her joints or that one recently lost his home. Empathy is a journey you travel.named Path. if we go deeper. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking. if you desire to do so. but in the dark we find ourselves and each other. mostly on nonelectoral politics. and narratives. and she is the author of 14 books. if you meet it. uprisings. the information travels toward you and you meet it halfway. Suffering far away reaches you through art. and insurrections. if we keep going. including the newly published The Faraway Nearby (Viking). (Copyright Rebecca Solnit 2013) . if you pay attention.

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