I'm quite interested in the way concepts from mystical belief systems persist in post-Enlightenment discourses of reason. I pointed out in a previous post what I saw as a coincidence between the neo-Platonic mysticism of Nicholas of Cusa and the Romantic aesthetic expounded by the likes of Keats. No surprises there, I suppose, given that the Romantic project was self-consciously anti-Enlightenment and retrogressive.
Even after the necessary failure of Romanticism, theorists and philosophers in the Western-Cartesian tradition often cite mystical or occult sources for concepts, but almost always in dismissive fashion, as if a concept can only have life once it has been brought fully into the light of reason.
The irony of this is striking, since the dominant metaphor of the post-Enlightenment project is, of course, light. So how can night reassert itself as a positively-valorized metaphor within this structure, without (apparently) disrupting the balance? This is not a case of yin-yang dualism, natural harmony, all that jazz; but of the strange persistence of a concept that by rights ought to have been sublated into a dominant discourse with which it is wholly incompatible.
Maybe this is simply a case of the natural tendency for an idea to reassert itself in its opposite (whether on the model of Heraclitus or Hegel). Hence the need to reappropriate discourses that challenge our own model of the history of thought, and seem to have no place in the narrative of this development -- occult mysticism to modern eyes being seen as an anomaly in the Renaissance world, a throwback to Dark-Ages unreason and barbarism. I'm sure this is not a new insight, or even one particularly worth dwelling upon. But I certainly would be interested to dig deeper into the subject.
Anyway, in this vein, the casting of night/darkness as a positive concept that goes beyond the conventional dualist valorization, seems to chart this continuity quite well. So I thought I'd note down a few instances of this metaphor I've come across in my reading. My interest in this is purely intellectual, which is to say: I do not buy into any of this stuff; but, some of these scraps make for great poetry.
Hegel, whose thought was of course influenced in no small measure by Hermetic mysticism, has this, of human subjectivity:
The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many presentations, images, of which none happens to occur to him—or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here— pure self—in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head—there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful, it suspends the night of the world here in an opposition. In this night being has returned.
(from the Realphilosophie manuscript of 1805–06)
Blanchot, whose thought was of course influenced in no small measure by Hegel, has this, of the space of literature:
I discover my being in the vertiginous abyss where it is not, an absence, an absence where it sets itself like a god, I am not and I endure. An inexorable future stretches forth infinitely for this suppressed being. …Here is the night. The darkness hides nothing. My first perception is that this night is not a provisional absence of light. Far from being a possible locus of images, it is composed of all that which is not seen and is not heard, and, listening to it, even a man would know that, if he were not a man, he would hear nothing. In true night, then, the unheard, the invisible are lacking, all those things that make the night habitable. It does not allow anything other than itself to be attributed to it; it is impenetrable.
(Thomas the Obscure, 1941)
Slavoj Zizek reads Hegel's 'night of the world' in terms of the overwhelming excess or madness at the moment of Cartesian doubt that is at the origin of the self: 'there is no subjectivity without this gesture of withdrawal'; it is the 'undeniable component of the subject's most radical self-experience', located in the gap between natural and symbolic orders. On another topic (deep focus and lighting in the films of Orson Welles), he has this:
A further point to be made about the Wellesian use of the depth of field, is that it confers a kind of positive ontological density on darkness and shades: when, in an "expressionistic" shot, we perceive in the background an overilluminated object, surrounded on both sides by the impenetrable dark shades, this darkness is no longer simply the negative of the positively existing things, but in a way "more real than real objects themselves" -- it stands for the dimension of primordial density of matter, out of which definite objects (temporarily) emerge.
(Cogito and the Unconscious, 1998)
George Chapman (y'know, the one Keats admired for being good at baseball), went at it in his Hymnus in noctem:
Great Goddesse to whose throne in Cynthian fires,
This earthlie Alter endlesse fumes exspires,
Therefore, in fumes of sighes and fires of griefe,
To fearefull chances thou sendst bold reliefe,
Happie, thrise happie Type, and nurse of death;
Who breathlesse, feedes on nothing but our breath,
In whom must vertue and her issue liue,
Or dye for euer, now let humor giue
Seas to mine eyes, that I may quicklie weepe
The shipwracke of the world: or let soft sleepe
(Binding my sences) lose my working soule,
That in her highest pitch, she may controule
The court of skill, compact of misterie,
Wanting but franchisement and memorie
To reach all secrets.
(The Shadow of Night, 1594)
For Chapman, Night stands for melancholy inspiration (Frances Yates established this in her book on The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, with a brilliant reading of the poem in conjunction with Dürer's Melancholia I engraving).
Incidentally, Novalis -- Romantic, of course, but a Thoroughly Modern polymath of a man -- was quite clearly (to my mind) influenced by Chapman's poem when he wrote his Hymns to the Night:
Once when I was shedding bitter tears, when, dissolved in pain, my hope was melting away, and I stood alone by the barren mound which in its narrow dark bosom hid the vanished form of my life -- lonely as never yet was lonely man, driven by anxiety unspeakable -- powerless, and no longer anything but a conscious misery. -- As there I looked about me for help, unable to go on or to turn back, and clung to the fleeting, extinguished life with an endless longing: -- then, out of the blue distances -- from the hills of my ancient bliss, came a shiver of twilight -- and at once snapt the bond of birth -- the chains of the Light. Away fled the glory of the world, and with it my mourning -- the sadness flowed together into a new, unfathomable world -- Thou, Night-inspiration, heavenly Slumber, didst come upon me -- the region gently upheaved itself; over it hovered my unbound, newborn spirit.
Back in the day, thinkers steeped in negative theology were always quite keen on 'darkness above reason', equivalent to the nox of Orphic mysticism.
Trinity! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God's Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.
I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light! If only we lacked sight and knowledge so as to see, so as to know, unseeing and unknowing, that which lies beyond all vision and knowledge.
(Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 5th century).
Interesting enough, I suppose. But 'tis strange: and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence...