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Is light the new dark?

Dark. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is dark, the darkest of the Harry Potter movies. Reviewers used the adjectives to describe but also to praise. That is not unusual. I might not have even noticed except for wondering whether certain youngsters in my circle would be seeing the movie and what its impact might be. (To be sure, one certain youngster has not only read the book but could relate it scene by scene.) Dark means serious. Dark means shadows. Dark means not evading the sad and inexplicable complexities of lifeor even worse. Dark is grownup.I was mulling this when I read a short piece in the November 25 New York Review of Books about a previously unpublished confessional poem that Ted Hughes wrote but never finished before his death in 1998. It dwells on whom he was sleeping with, and where, on the weekend when his estranged wife Sylvia Plath committed suicide. Dont count me among those fascinated by either Plaths death or Hughess infidelities, any more than among those obsessed with whether the Rosenbergs were guilty. Those are special tastes.But Carol Ann Duffy, Britains current poet laureate, did get my attention by praising the poem as the darkest poem that he wrote about the death of Sylvia Plath, one that seems to touch a deeper, darker place than poem hes ever written.Actually the NYRB article, by Mark Ford, leaves a rather different impression, of a mans desperate effort to exorcise the memory of squalid, shameful behavior. Even before I read enough to entertain that conclusion, however, I was wondering how shopworn our praise of darkness has become, or how much it tells us about the conventional thinking of a post-Christian culture.Profound = deeper = darker. I understand the subterranean metaphor. But could we turn it around? What of the image of light? Though darkness is inescapable in our faith, could we write, even if somewhat paradoxically, that a poem touched a deeper, brighter place than any before it?Let us then throw off the works of darkness, Paul told us this morning, and put on the armor of light. I am sure that Harry Potter will. Maybe some reviewers will take up the challenge.


Commenting Guidelines

Peter==Are you sure that the post-moderns are praising the darkness of such writings as Ted Hughes' confessional poem? It seems to me that what has happened is that they've discovered that the optimism of the Enlightenment wasn't justified, and the Age of Aquarius which their children have been touting is not a viable hope either. Freedom was at the apex of their values, but maybe they've started to realize that freedom as they viewed it was really just license all along, and it doesn't work to bring us happiness. (Freedom. Now there's a paradoxical problem.)Post-post-modernism is with us, and they're finding it unexpectedly ugly, scary and dark.

Peter,your reflection brought to mind once again the grace of the liturgical year and its human and cosmic rhythms: from the half-light of Advent, through the tenebrae of Good Friday, to the joyful proclamation of the "Exultet." Happy reading of "Light of the World!"

Here in bourgeois suburbia, we have so many ways to self-medicate against the experience and the spectacle of human suffering that, perhaps, contemporary writers and artists do us a favor by pulling back the veil to reveal just what it is about our condition that causes us to cry out, "Come, Lord Jesus!"

It is true that the light/darkness metaphor has been atrociously overused since the very first day of the Creation, to the point that it's now almost impossible to use it without descending to the level of platitude.A few weeks ago there was a discussion on one of the threads about whether Stalin was mentally ill. I thought the Harry Potter books I read (I'm not sure which ones) were inane, but I remember the author making the point that Voldemort is evil because he's not all there, he's like darkness, the absence of light. This is a Christian truism, of course. But one person who does not fit this paradigm, is Milton's Satan (Milton describes the illumination in hell as "darkness visible"). He is evil because he's power-thirsty, he really, really wants to be the alpha dog. (This is, incidentally, one way the HP books avoid the very common trap of making the bad guy more sympathetic than the good guy. Does anybody really like Milton's Jesus better than Satan?) I think this is a pattern; Stalin was not mentally ill. Mental illness is due to malfunctions in the brain's equipment or operation. Stalin was evil. Somehow, he was completely missing pieces of his mind, things normal humans have.I'm personally less thrilled about using darkness as a metaphor for ignorance, as in the expressions "dark matter" "dark energy" "dark entropy" and such. If "dark" simply means the absence of knowledge, fine and good. But in this case, it seems the "darkness" is pretending to be knowledge. ("What causes the acceleration?" "We don't know, so we call it dark energy" as opposed to "Oh, that acceleration is caused by dark energy.")

Felapton --It's my understanding that "dark matter" is called dark because it literally emits no photons. The gravitational pull of black holes (composed of dark matter) is so powerful that the photons can't escape, and that's why we have no pictures of them. They're the Darth Vaders of this universe. Or is this right?

I agree Mr. Steinfels with what you have written here and think that "dark" or "darkness" in addition signifies for many people "reality." Too often "goodness" or "light" is presented as saccharine, sentimental and so demonstrably false. Unfortunately, people have turned away from the fact that the "light" is not artifically sweetened falsehood, but the heart of reality, that "true light" goes everywhere and anywhere and the darkness cannot overcome it. There are too few depictions of the toughness of the light.

If some of the mystics are to be believed (and why not?), then darkness isn't a bad thing at all. Some of them talk of the "cataphatic way" of meeting God in the depths of the soul, and those depths are dark, and God who is met there can be described only negatively. On the other hand, the great Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross describes "the dark night of the soul" as a painful separation from his beloved. In the history of Western mysticism it seems that Plato's description of the Good as "the sun" is the exception not the rule. Augustine, a neo-Platonist speaks of the :illumination" of the soul by God in his flights of prayer, but not everyone agrees that Augustine was a mystic in the sense of one who experiences the presence of God within. Bonaventure does talk of "rays of light" from God, but does not identify God with a metaphorical "light". There was an obscure lady mystic, Sophia of Klingenow who did say God was Light, but she never developed a big following.So, while the Christian mystics describe God as "Love", which is certainly a positive, they do not usually describe Him as "Light". Hmmm. On the other hand, in Dante's Paradisio he describes God as "Living Light". Hmm.Buddhists are said to achieve "illumination", but this is not a literal interpretation of being a "bodhi", which apparently just means "awakened". (One can awaken to darkness, can one not?) And the Hindu "nirvana" means literally just a "blowing out" of disturbing feelings, etc.Does the Bible speak of God as "light"?

Oh, how could I forget: And the Light shineth in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it.

Hi Ann, I think massive black holes and brown dwarfs are one thing some physicists think the "dark" matter could be. Other physicists think it could be subatomic particles. High energy physics and astronomy are two fields in which it's notoriously hard to get research funding, so there could be some wishful thinking involved in the hypotheses. You are right, fundamentally, it isn't matter that is missing; it's light. But basically, it's a name they pin on their lack of understanding, not an experimentally verified quantity. I would like to qualify my objection to "dark" nonsense in physics, because it occurs to me that the history of "energy" is a series of episodes just like this one. First you think energy is conserved. Then you think some is missing. Then you find it's electromagnetic "energy" and you think mechanical energy plus electromagnetic energy is conserved. Then, oops, some of your energy is missing again. Then you find that heat is random kinetic energy. OK, good, conservation of energy is back in style. But then you have to call T*dS (temperature times delta-entropy) an "energy," which seems fishy. So the concept of "energy" has come a long way in the process of our insisting that it be conserved.Did the concept have to evolve this way? Suppose we had said, back in the nineteenth century, "OK, conservation of energy is false. We need to define something new which we'll call "blarg." Energy is not conserved; energy plus blarg is conserved. Energy can be converted to blarg. Blarg can be converted to energy. If we had done that, what would quantum mechanics look like? Usually people ask this question in the form "If we met extra-terrestrials, would their science be the same as ours?" That makes it sound ridiculous, but it is an interesting question. (IMHO)

Here are some thoughts on the subject of darkness in literature from John Updike. It's from a translation of an interview he did just a few years before he died:"John Updike: [Laughs] I think its true to say that Iyou know there was a mode in the sixties or was it the seventies of black humorthere were a lot of black humorists and darkness and a kind of reflexive gloom, which many writers seem to give off. And Im relatively cheerful, youd have to say The expression of joy or of praise or of gratitude to be here, gratitude for the world, excitement at being conscious to the degree that we are conscious, all that plays into my work and may make me a relatively anachronistic or old-fashioned kind of writer. There certainly is enough gloom and tragedy, in even my writing, to go around. But its never only that. Its always something, if its only in the words themselves, theres something celebrative, to celebrate the world as it is. So yeah, I dont know too many people exactly like me."

If I had to have a beer with Harry Potter, Gandalf or Winnie-the-Poopbag, I would choose Harry. But I'd sure rather skip the beer.Thank God I'm an American!

Peter's post reminds me of C.E.M. Joad's "Decadence," which, if I recall correctly, includes a section that rails against "darkness" of various types in literary forms (Faulkner and especially his "Sound and Fury" come in for oblique criticism in particular). I see the book is on Google Books, so I should go over and reacquaint myself with it.On the other hand, I like Jim Pauwel's comment--thinking "Heart of Darkness" (or really anything by Conrad). Or "Night" by Elie Wiesel. Steinfels, Felapton, et al are free to air their views about Harry Potter without having slogged through all seven books, of course.. But I would suggest that anybody who finds Potter inane (let's remember that it's a book for children) would also find "Beowulf," the Arthur legend, Shakespearean tragedy, St. John of the Cross, or any exploration of the nature of the soul inane. Last time I plan to try to defend Potter. But, as a parent, it's a breath of fresh air to find a series for children that speaks frankly of the soul, of sacrifice, of the redemptive nature of suffering. But then, I can't design a bridge or do anything really useful (perhaps Felapton prefers Thomas the Tank Engine, an encomium to the Protestant work ethic and a capitalistic system in which workers who fail to perform unquestioningly end up on the scrap heap--literally).I'm only a dumb loser who teaches liberal arts. (Ouch! And apparently pretty thin-skinned to boot, cuz that bruise still hurts.)

Hughes? Yuck. Plath? Also yuck.Potter? As Jean says, for children. I think I read one of the books and didn't hate it. I can't get through the movies, although I like bits of them -- the moving pictures in newspapers, Alan Rickman, etc.But I don't understand the criticism of them (or of any children's books) for being too dark. Being scared is what listening to stories is all about, imho. When the ancestors sat around their fires listening to the earliest story tellers, or when kids sit around fires at camp, isn't being scared the point? The light of the fire vs. the darkness behind?I devoured Grimm's fairy tales as a child, and it would be hard to beat the horrors. In an interview with Russel Hoban in the FT the other day, he was asked what novel he would give children to introduce them to literature. He said, "Not a novel but a collection of Grimms fairy tales. The Goose Girl is one of my favourites."That was one of my faves, too. Oooh, dark. (And it prepared me for the scary Book of Esther, too, the whole megillah.)Interview with Hoban: Goose Girl:

Yes, the fairy tales are "dark". But there's a certain sinister undertow in the Harry series. Barnes & Noble here is currently filled with big pictures of Harry/Daniel Radcliffe. Terribly sad looking kid. He looks five times his age I kept thinking that his next project would have to be Hamlet. Sigh.

One thing that intrigues me about the HP series is the moral developmental trajectory they show. Children's formative experiences aren't left behind, but build the adults we become. A small (not-a-spoiler) example is how Hermione became involved in justice for house-elves earlier in the series. She took pity on their wretched state (they are a slave-species, ragged, servile, and almost universally-disdained,) in a way very typical of a tween or young teen adopting some social cause. Harry and Ron roll their eyes at her for this ridiculous interest, never having thought much about it themselves. But it's not ridiculous, and at least one house-elf remains loyal and indebted when things get really, globally threatening in the new film. Dobbie may be a member of a slave-species, but he is a free elf. The series has been pretty serious from the start--Voldemort's been after Harry with murderous intent all the time, while Harry makes solid friends, navigates school, finds romance and all the usual growing up stuff. But the baddies now threaten to take over the world, and the good people have to step up. The echoes of WWII, and what that might have been like for draft-age kids then, are unmistakable. And the light? Wisdom that is kind to children and takes them seriously (Dumbledore,) strict and fair teachers (Prof. McGonnagal,) friends who love you enough to call you on your mistakes (Ron and especially Hermione,) people of uncertain goodness who seem to be battling their own childhood demons (Snape,) the power of parental love beyond death; in all of these, the power of love itself in all its manifestations. The light's everywhere. We'll see in the finale whether the darkness can overcome it.

Peter's original idea, that our culture may be extoling the dark rather than the light is an interesting one, and perhaps explains the popularity of "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.I know there are at least three ways to read the ending, from unrelentingly grim to salvific. And there are metaphorical ways to see the story. But I found the book nearly unreadable. And I say that as someone who has made some modest cash money reviewing dystopian novels, so it's not like I don't understand, enjoy or profit from the "dark side." But a good dystopian is not dark for darkness' sake (sorry, Oscar). It's a warning: "Don't go down this road because here's where it leads." McCarthy's book is something else, but I haven't figured out exactly what.I've never known what to make of Hughes, Plath, Sexton, et al. It would be uncharitable to suggest that they made train wrecks of their lives in order to have something to write about.

Why "darkness" would be praised in in the Potter7.1 movie seems kind of strange unless the reviewers appreciate that the grim elements haven't been "Disney-fied." The kids look like they've been through the mill--as they have in the story. Maybe they feel that the darkness of the story elevates it to "grown up" reading. I haven't read the reviews so don't know. Overall, I haven't enjoyed the Yates treatment of the books on film, though I think 7.1 is better than the perfunctory job done with installments 5 and 6.Ann, Daniel Radcliffe would make a great Hamlet! If only he were a better actor.

Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.........Terry Pratchett

Please let me make a note about dark matter as I am an experimental astrophysicist looking for the stuff. "Dark" matter will not glow if heated; it does not cast a shadow; it does not reflect light. It is dark because it has no electric or magnetic interactions. It is there however, because we can feel it's gravitational pull. We can see the bunching of galaxies on the largest scales and we can see how our own Milky Way rotates. Across scales from the whole universe down to scales of our galaxy dark matter seems to be there.It _is_ possible that the issue could be solved with a so called "modified" theory of gravity, but no one has a theory of gravity that fits the data as well as the assumption of small particles of dark matter.Similarly dark energy - much less understood but there is no interaction that is electric or magnetic involved so it can't absorb or create light.It should be noted that dark matter is not dark in the way coal is dark. Coal absorbs light and casts a shadow. ===As for HP7a, I see it Monday. I think the reviewers like it dark because Voldemort and the Death Eaters really are awful. Like the Fascist Captain in Pans Labyrinth.


About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.