Edward S. Curtis’s 1914 photograph, ‘Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon’, shows the Kwakiutl tribe of North American Indians circling a fire ‘to make a sky creature sneeze and disgorge the moon’. Raised arms are silhouetted against the sky, faces remain imperceptible, and bodies are shrouded in smoke. It is apt that such a mesmerising image should accompany the opening chapter of Nina Edwards’s beguiling book, which gallantly aims to subvert common views of darkness, both physical and metaphorical.
Given the enormous scope of her subject matter (from clothing to Christianity, electricity to the Enlightenment, Islam to the Industrial revolution, black holes to Steve Bannon, and Milton to the moon), it’s perhaps inevitable that some topics receive rather scant treatment (on one page the jump from disembowelling to unlit coastal paths is somewhat unnerving). But, for the most part, Edwards’s approach is considered and engaging as she explores the curious paradoxes and possibilities of ethereal half-shadows and ‘umbral blackness’.As Van Gogh once remarked to his brother: ‘The night is more alive and richly coloured than the day.’
While the gradual introduction of electricity was regarded by many as a symbol of progress and a civilising force in the wilderness — ‘the lighter people’s lives could become […] the better all would be’ — others saw it as an enemy of the benefits of darkness. Edwards questions our desire to be ‘brightly and irrecoverably lit’ and quotes the writer Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel) as suggesting it is the gentle light of the lamp, with its imperfection, impetuosity and limitations, which is ‘more in sympathy with this human nature of ours’.
Even before the arrival of electricity, the concept of light posed a threat to some. In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Keats mourned a lost rural idyll of darkness which stood in contrast to the brightened world in which he lived; and a fevered article in the Kölnische Zeitung newspaper from 1819 deems street lighting ‘an interference with God’s order’, its artificial brightness chasing from the mind ‘the horror of darkness that keeps the weak from many a sin’.