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2002-06-08 - 10:49 a.m.

Some time ago one of my teachers told me that the dialectic of being and nothingness is "becoming". But couldn't it just as easily be "disappearing"?


This is some stuff I wrote for my supervisor. I think it probably works for the diary, too. :|


Why are children afraid of the dark? I could not articulate my own fear, give any reasonable explanation for it, but the fear itself was not lessened by any degree by this failure. What am I afraid of, when I cover my writing with my hand, try to become invisible, disappear, let the earth swallow me up, mutter unintelligibly in response to another’s expression of interest? I don’t know. Just like the darkness, something has frightened me that I cannot explain.

I have heard an explanation that it is the “fear of the unknown” that makes the dark frightening, but this seems like a half-answer at best. To the child who is afraid of the dark, virtually everything is unknown, visible or not. And the unknown comes to us in many guises, and is certainly not always a frightening thing.

Perhaps the opposite case can be reasonably speculated; the dark is frightening because it is familiar. Darkness makes the near and the far indistinguishable; the air looks just like the walls, the floor, the furniture. Everywhere you look is sameness, pure and perfect. Brightness can never be as pure and complete as darkness; the darkness is infinitely close, touchable, known and knowing. Someone in the darkness watching me will see exactly what I see when I look at them. This is the colour of space, of the womb, of eternity.

“Familiar” means known but also “belonging to a household”, as in “family”. Can the darkness be familiar in this sense, that we recognise it as a member of the family, ancient, merciless, all-seeing, inescapable? Is the wild fear I feel in the dark because of my identification with this family member, my ancestor, with whom I can see no boundary, no distinction between the darkness and myself?

Darkness is not always frightening. One of my happiest memories of an overseas trip with a friend is of cycling with them through a railway tunnel. The tunnel was long and had a slight curve in it, so that for about two thirds of its length we were plunged into total darkness. In order to avoid colliding with the walls, it was necessary for us to speak constantly to one another, for the slight echo this produced, the sense of our location it allowed. Because the bicycle is a low-friction mode of transportation, then without any visible cues to remind us we were moving, it felt almost as if we were perfectly still, or floating or falling, with nothing else to accompany us in our journey through the darkness but a set of pedals and a disembodied voice. I was unable to articulate the sensation at the time, but perhaps the word I would use now is disembodiment. I became the darkness, the cheerful voices, the squeaking of the pedals, because that was all the existed. The angel of death hovered there, too; we had no idea how we would respond if we heard a train coming, although my friend had a vague idea that such tunnels generally had safety nooks at regular intervals that it would be possible to duck into. Yet this possibility of sudden and inescapable death had no terrible hold on us; it felt like just another exciting ingredient in a delightful mixture. Perhaps because, with the visible world gone, we felt there wasn’t so very much for us to lose.

Sometimes there were monsters in the dark. I would wake up and need the toilet, but stand frozen in the doorway of the room, certain that if I stepped outside, the monsters would see me. This seemed to be enough, on its own, just that they would see me; I had no ideas about being attacked or devoured or killed or hurt or any definite ill consequences. Just the prospect of being seen was enough to make me rigid with fear. Are these same monsters lurking somewhere nearby when I cannot tell a secret? Or is it that I must have a secret, must always cling to a talisman of unseen knowledge, to avoid being seen? The fear comes from nowhere, has no explanation, submits to no reasoning or cleverness, will not depart. The pursuit of my secret is thrilling because I might get caught. Fear begins to take over everything else. My books, my pen, the desk, who I am, my possessions and clothes, my attitudes and beliefs, my carefully worked-out positions, all dissolve into my fear of discovery. They’re going to see me!

“My secrets will go to the grave with me”, a phrase suggesting the grave as a hiding place, death as a permanent safety from discovery. “He is beyond justice now”, they say of a suicide. Dying is far worse than death, far more awful. Death fantasies predominantly linger on the corpse, on the mourners, the funeral. The dying body is not an object of fond imaginings. The struggle of the flesh to keep on being flesh, to keep breathing, to keep circulating blood, while darkness overwhelms it, is not an easy thing to stay with. The flesh has no choice but to keep on trying. Is this what scares me in the darkness? That I have come from this, and will return, but have no choice but to try to stay out, stay above the surface, keep to the light? I can hide in shadows and be safe, I decide. I can be present but unseen. To be seen but not present, to live, to breathe, is to be dying, is to be on my way. I am on my way back into the darkness. There is no light that will not die; is this what lucifer feared?

Issac Asimov’s story “Nightfall” is chilling and evocative even though it describes an alien world and circumstances which are thoroughly unlike our own. Or they might be more familiar than a first glance indicates; we live in sunlight, forgetting the darkness exists. What madness it might bring us to, to be forced to remember.


"One more night

The stars are in sight

And the wind blows high above the trees" - Bob Dylan

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