Friday, 12 January 2018

Twelve Dark Passages

Text written to Sam Winston's DARKNESS VISIBLE project at the South Bank and, for one evening, at The Whitechapel Gallery on 11 January 2018

As we enter night we close the curtains to make sure the room is dark. We are moving to a different house. The night house. The hall, the kitchen, the bathroom, the spare room, put on their masks and turn to the wall.

As a child I saw animals come and go, squeezing their way through walls, then drifting from this world to the next and back as though they belonged to both. They were eyeless and soft as the dark that received them. They were, as I knew even then, thoughts formed to the purpose, their business to fill the dark spaces provided for them both outside and inside the skull, which was the darkest of the dark spaces at the very heart of the problem.

It is not a problem to us. It is dark, so we sleep. That is normal. We enter the normal through the simple subterfuge of turning off the lights and closing our eyes, the closing of the eyes being an affirmation of the normality we have chosen. This now is normality. This is the lightly-cushioned vacuum we have chosen. Lean back, stretch out, curl up, listen.


The room is studded with noise that lulls and spikes. It grinds its way through the space that is now divided between room and body, a space that so fills the head it is positively dense with it. We have entered the train that passes, the boy that shouts, the laughter that builds and peaks and splits into constituent noises.

We have entered.

Now think.

Think night and what night provides even without night, in the simplest terms of its darkness. The mind begins to move and feel its way round. The entrances and exits of childhood begin to present themselves as possibilities. Here is that endlessly complicated building you entered somehow but could not leave. Here are its stairways, cellars and precipices. Don’t look over the rails! Is that someone falling? Is it someone you know? Is it the most loved of those who should not fall who is now falling?

This nonsense monologue continues on another level. This is language after all, not darkness, not an image. When a smell appears it quickly finds a name. When a voice laughs, it quickly lodges in a phrase or cadence.

Let’s build something out of this. Let’s make some kind of statue, a sculpture.

a web
of such thin
they might be
strings stretched beyond their capaci t   y
on an imagined

Here’s the spider
to its natural music,
its codas and counterpoints,
its musical terminology of bar lines
its suspensions
its hemi-demi-semiquavers
its acciaccaturas
its gasping drops
its staccato and stuttering
its splintered crochets.

Oh spider,
hang in there,
help is coming!

Having established a bedrock of pure darkness we may perhaps be able to name its sub-classes, all the classic blacks we know. Let’s say their names: Ebony, Taupe, Davy’s Grey, Noir, Charcoal, Soot, Jet, Onyx, Lamp Black, Carbon Black, Super Black, Vantablack. That black.

The black of your polished shoe, the black of the ribbon on the undertaker’s hat, the black of drypoint in curled metal. The raven, the crow, the rook, the blackbird, the black swan. And other blacks. Keep adding. These are only names, and names are there to be invented. But do it in darkness. In the dark backward and abysm of time. In time’s eloquence. In time’s infinite capacity and its vast belly that keeps expanding and never will stop expanding.

Are we there yet? Is the thought of time a black thought yet? Is darkness visible supposed to be visible?

It’s just a room. These are just thoughts waking to find themselves returning as words. But they are waking in darkness, a darkness in which it makes no difference whether your eyes are shut or not.

If I were to think rationally about this
in the form of a sonnet, say, this is what
it would look like: without emphasis,
its lines open at first but eventually shut.
If this were a game with proper rules we might
roll the dice and chance the next move into
the dark before us. We could call that night.
We could play the game all the way through.

If this were convention we could call upon
exemplars and enter the last six lines as if
they were our last six lives, and then be gone,
having served our purpose, terminal and stiff,
with just a couplet as an ironic gesture, a spark
to briefly light what should remain as dark.

I have paced the room and know its dimensions. I can trace the wire back
to the plug and socket. I know where the couch and table are, and where the chair
is in relation to the table. I can feel my way to the door and the wall with the window. I can assure myself this is so. I can sit down. I can close my eyes, I can speak into the recording machine. I can chronicle my time and circumscribe it. I can even locate, or think I can locate, the ‘I’ figure that haunts these lines of writing and trap it, right here. This I. Can’t I?

When I was a child I wanted the door left open at night so some light could get in. The light meant the outside world was still there: my mother, my father, the geography of the entire apartment, the sense that I hadn’t entirely left them. A few years later, still a child, I saw a television programme where a tiger was enticed into a house and left to roam it. From then on the outside world meant danger so I had to have the door closed.

But there were dangers in semi-darkness too. Clothes left hanging on the door began to walk and drift towards me. The room lost dimension. It was all drift. Beyond the window, if I drew the curtains, would be a street that had little to do with me at night. It was the beginning of a world that extended into the infinite distance, across the house, over the park, beyond the railway line, past the industrial estate, disappearing down tunnels into the air, into the desolation of a universe lit by lampposts.

Even now, darkened alleys and passage-ways, empty malls, deserted stations, derelict theatres, all those peopled places unpeopled but intimating presence, leave me wary, pressed back into myself.

A totally dark room is whatever happens to be the case.

Darkness is not night. It is simply darkness. It depends where you find it and how easily you can leave it. Your body becomes an object in a specific space, a vulnerable location that is, nevertheless, habitable. What you cannot see expands into a set of alternatives. Don your blindfold. Put your hand into this bag? What do you feel? What if I suggested what it might be? What after all have you been expecting? Those are your own fingers, aren’t they? You’d know them even in the dark, wouldn’t you? Can you feel them moving around the inside of your head? There! Now you’ve located them. Now locate yourself. Be your own object. Possess something.

The idea of total darkness is not the same as total darkness.
The idea of light is not the same as light.
The words expressing the idea of light or total darkness are not ideas.

This word may be imagined vanishing into total darkness.
This word has begun to express an idea but most of it is lost in darkness
This sentence is not total darkness.

This one is.

I have not talked about blindness.
I can’t see how I could.

1 comment:

Gwil W said...

Fantastico! Even reading it. Performance another thing. Wonderful must be. I read somewhere long ago of a person who was going about in the Himalayas. It went something like this, that he was directed to a cave he was seeking where there lived a holy man, let's say a monk, who had visions. The person went into the cave with the monk and right in the very back where there wasn't even the faintest hope of of light and sat with the monk in absolute darkness such as he'd never experienced and waited, and sure enough before long he witnessed what the monk was seeing for himself. Ciao!