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Darkness and its delights

Essay: 3:30 min read

“Wait, wait, what are you doing?”

“I’m, you know, acting,” I said to my acting professor, Fred Euringer.

“No, no, you should be thinking about what the character is feeling.”

I was playing Francisco, one of the guards in the first scene of Hamlet. He has eight lines. The longest of these was only 13 words. He doesn’t appear again in the play. Francisco is what many would call a “spear carrier” – basically an extra. He was barely a character. I looked at my professor, baffled.

He sighed. Fred then patiently walked me through the scene. “Take this seriously. This is important. We’re setting up the whole play, here. You’re on watch. This is the middle ages, so you know what that means?”


Heavy sigh: “Yes. But what else? What is Francisco doing?”

“Oh, he’s on watch.”

 “And what time is it?”

It’s right there in the script. “It’s almost midnight,” I said.

“And it’s dark. Remember, there’s no lights, except maybe a torch. Have you been in that kind of darkness?”

I had. I’d been in the woods in Ontario, without a flashlight or even a campfire. It’s a kind of darkness you don’t forget. The kind where you can’t see your hand, even when you hold it up in front of your face. Anything could be out there.

“Ah,” I said.

Not wanting to miss a moment to be dramatic, and assuming my ‘ah’ was a gasp of idiocy, Fred had someone turn off all the lights. The effect was slightly spoiled by the emergency exit sign, but it was pretty dark. 

“You’re responsible for the entire castle,” he said. “You can barely see. And it’s dark. There are rumours of a ghost, seen on the ramparts”¦Now, try again.” He nodded to my classmate, Gerry, who was playing Bernardo, to start again.

“Who’s there,” Gerry (Bernardo) said.

I channeled the dark. The cold. The responsibility that Francisco held, even in his fear: “Nay, answer me! Stand and unfold yourself!”

Fred grunted in approval.

Fire Good

In retrospect, Fred was pretty good at his job, because I’ve thought about that acting class many times. In particular, I’ve thought about darkness. What it means to us as humans. And how it is now a scarce commodity.

That’s right. Think about your own life. Unless you own a sensory deprivation tank, or regularly go camping in the wilderness without modern equipment, light is everywhere. Getting a bedroom to be completely dark requires special curtains. In addition to actual lighting, we have a plethora of screens that give off light. Watches, clocks, electronics of all kinds – they all cast illumination, even if it’s dim. My air filter has bloody lights!

Without a doubt, the invention of light was a major advance for our species. First from fire, which protected us from nocturnal predators, and then in electric form, which liberated us from the tyranny of darkness. But it also split us from our basic biological rhythms.

Biphasic Sleep & Darkness

Back to the middle ages. Francisco would have been keeping watch during a period called “first sleep” – the time from sundown to roughly midnight. Before the industrial era, sleeping in two shifts was common. A short “first sleep,” a one- or two-hour period of light activity, and then a longer “second sleep” that lasted until dawn. Scientists have discovered that if we have to live without artificial lighting, this sleep pattern emerges naturally after four to ten weeks.

Two sleeps may be better for us than one, longer sleep period. Desynchronizing from our natural circadian rhythms may account for the plethora of sleeping disorders from which modern humans suffer.

Sleep keeps us sane. It repairs our bodies. It makes health possible. And for me, sleep opens the doors to dreams. Dreams, as I’ve written here before, drive a lot of my fiction. The Amadeus Net, The Fridularity and The Fatness all began, or were seeded, by that salubrious somnolence.

lightbulb in darkness - the curse of edison
Such a simple technology, yet it has changed so much about us.

The Curse of Edison

And here’s the thing – that’s only the lightbulb. A bit of glass and tungsten has altered our relationship with sleep and our biological needs. (Though I’d argue that capitalism and the need to run factories for maximum profit also contributed greatly to this problem.) Sleep disruption has levelled up since the invention of the back-lit screen.

These buggers make it even harder to keep our sleep patterns, because not only are we separated from that darkness that scared Francisco, the blue light of the screens emulates a blue sky. It signals to our brains that we should be awake, because the sun is up, you lazy primate! Even when it’s midnight, and the ghosts should be the only ones wandering about.

And that’s just light, and sleep. What else is technology doing to us?

Photos by Marius Ispas and LED Supermarket from Pexels

And now, to lighten the mood, Sad Affleck (who actually did a good job playing the Dark Knight):

cover art of The Fridgularity and Marvellous Hairy, both by Mark A. Rayner

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