Darkness is fashionable (February 2019)

Welcome to this Blog – I will from time to time add some thoughts or reflections and would love to hear your responses, which you can add in the box at the end of the post.

Darkness is fashionable! When I started to write  ‘The Divine Heart of Darkness’  I thought that I was on to something unique in terms of non-fiction writing, especially from the point of view of darkness being a phenomenon with positive qualities. Far from it!  Apart from the writings of the early church mystics extolling the virtues of darkness as a pathway to divine encounter, my own research revealed an abundance of contemporary material. Just prior to my own publication Barbara Brown Taylor published ‘Learning To Walk In The Dark,’ a gentle, spiritual, and personal narrative of the author’s affinity with darkness and night. A few years earlier Craig Koslofsky’s ‘Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe’ had offered a cultural and historic tour de force, reflecting on humankind’s relationship with night time.

I’ve recently had the privilege of reviewing a new book ‘Darkness: A Cultural History by Nina Edwards, published by Reaktion Books, December 2018.’ Whilst it covers much of what has been written before, it also takes the reader in new directions. This is the first time I have seen a reflection on darkness and fashion for example! It is a beautifully produced work, in hardback, with colour plates and illustrations that reflect the importance given by the author to darkness in art and poetry. It is the sort of book that makes you want to hold it, caress the cover and turn the pages gently. It is less subjective and evangelical (some might say biased!)  than my own work – in terms of extolling the virtues of darkness – but Edwards speaks clearly of the need for balance and draws attention to all that is lost when darkness is simply upheld as something negative, only to be feared and avoided. She is keen to open the reader’s eyes to the reality that whilst there are ‘advantages of light for vision, there remains something curious and untold and deeply attractive about the dark.’

A short while ago I attended a seminar at Guildford University’s Institute of Performance and Urban Living. This was a cross disciplinary research seminar, led by someone who was described to me as a ‘superstar of cultural geography.’ The title of the Seminar was ‘Encounters with Darkness’ and Dr. Tim Edensor led a fascinating couple of hours, deconstructing the notion of darkness as an entirely malign condition and encouraging a new way of thinking in which it becomes a key element of human psychological and spiritual health. I was excited to hear echoes of my own thinking in such an acutely academic setting and in particular to listen to new ideas regarding the use of darkness and light within the built environment. Take a look at his book ‘From Light to Dark: Daylight, illumination and Gloom (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Dr. Edensor was joined by other academics, and I was particularly interested in Yarin Shyldkrot’s thesis relating to darkness and the shaping of atmospheres, in particular in theatres and performance spaces. It might seem obvious, but perhaps we rarely recognise that the dimming of the house lights in a theatre signal so much more than that the play is about to begin; house lights are important in affecting the ways the audience make sense of the performance – they are a key factor in ‘setting the tone’ of the performance.

Just last month, the Financial Times Magazine featured an article by Imogen West-Knights entitled ‘The Dark Fantastic’ which reflects on her experience of living in Scandinavia during the dark winter months, acknowledging the challenges but also recognising the beauty, intrigue and intimacy created by the polar darkness.  Thanks to Imogen for introducing me to a fantastic quote from Mary Wollstonecraft, who whilst travelling in Sweden in the 18th Century described the impact which the sun had on her, saying “that he came forth only to torment.” In the same weekend, the Observer Magazine featured an article by Will Hunt about the lure of underground spaces and the impact which their dark character has upon the human psyche. Again, his writing concludes with some very positive reflections upon the nature and  power of darkness.

There is no doubt – the power of encountering life through a dark or dimly lit lens is very much on trend.  Hopefully it will not be a passing one but build some momentum so that the practical, sensual, spiritual and religious connotations of the wonders of darkness – both as a physical state and a metaphor – can continue to transform our thinking, expression, and practice.

One thought on “Darkness is fashionable (February 2019)

  1. Interesting developments. I’m really enjoying Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘An Altar in the World’ – not focussing on darkness but full of spiritual insight.


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