Sunday, November 5th wasn’t marked as a holiday on any calendar, but it was nonetheless one of the most significant dates of the year. That was the day we all reset our clocks (or let our computers do it for us). We woke up to paler skies that morning and drove home from work in total darkness. Though we tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, our bodies told us otherwise.
It’s more than a little weird, really. No one remembers at this point why we decided to create Daylight Saving Time, the benefits it produces are a mixed bag at best, and the negative effects it has on productivity and safety are manifold. But bleary-eyed we carry on with it, year after year.
Maybe it’s a function of age, but I find the change more profoundly affecting each time it happens. It’s a deep disturbance to physical, intellectual, and emotional rhythms that I’m not normally aware of at all, and I don’t think enough attention is paid to it. By me at least. To rectify that, I turned in the direction I always do, toward the bookshelf, where I found The Last of the Light: About Twilight by Peter Davidson. It doesn’t directly address the time change issue, but it meditates at length on the meaning of darkness, light, and the ineffable slide from one to the other. In addition to being a tapestry of the deepest thoughts on the subject by artists, scientists, and philosophers from antiquity to the present, it’s a gorgeous visual record of the “cartography of dusk” mapped by those same great minds. Perusing it in the watery light of late afternoon (which now falls at 2:00 or 3:00 p.m.) I felt like a cloistered monk seeking inspiration in an illuminated manuscript created by a brilliant, vanished predecessor.
There’s so much in Davidson’s work that I didn’t want to ponder it on my own, thus I handed a copy of this dense but lovely book over to my friend and most frequent literary correspondent, Matthew Fleagle. As I’d hoped, he did me great service in clarifying my own responses to myself.
Matt: The Last of the Light is not at all the book I was expecting. I was imagining conversations with photon scientists, bat biologists, urban lighting engineers and other experts (like Paul Bogard’s book about the loss of darkness, The End of Night) that would paint a broad picture of what it means for life on earth that there is such a thing as twilight. I had not expected something so impressionistic, nor was I anticipating that it would focus on the arts.
So I was pleasantly surprised at first, because while I know what I like in art, gutwise, I’ve always been dependent on art criticism to tell me what I’m looking at as an idea. And Davidson delivers in spades. He does not interview any experts. He is the expert. He has it all worked out, and everywhere he points is evidence that Europe has had a bad case of the twilight blues (and ochres and rose madders) for centuries, and can think of nothing else. Early on, Davidson seems to disclaim objectivity. “Some lives are defined by mornings, some by evenings—mine unequivocally the latter,” he says. And in the same breath, “A sense of belatedness in time underlies my fascination with evenings, a sense that I am personally content with remoteness and slowness, moving away from a dominant culture of immediacy and speed.”
I can relate to every feeling Davidson expresses about what twilight means to him personally, and in fact these are some of the most interesting passages in the book, since he voices my own melancholy so ably. But I can’t seem to lose the nagging impression that Davidson is projecting his own feelings onto the whole of Europe. Most of the book is the slow, detailed, and to my lights often subjective assembling of the case he’s presenting, which is that Europeans since the middle ages have felt left out, “belated” as Davidson often writes, arriving as the best things are ending, awakening within a cultural Dämmerung—basically all the things he himself feels.
If I didn’t feel such a spiritual bond at the outset with a person who would write a whole book about how sad and dusky the world appears to him, I may not have hung on for the ride as he brought forth witness after witness from the pantheon of European artists, writers, and musicians. After a while, I began to feel I was being hypnotized and manipulated, or worse, that I was trapped in an abandoned house with a sad old art teacher who sees sorrow in every brushstroke and reads lamentation in every passage of music or poetry.
“Relentlessly crepuscular,” Davidson calls the works of novelist Ronald Firbank, but I would turn Davidson’s phrase back upon him to describe his own perspective on European painting and literature in The Last of the Light. At a certain point, I wanted to go out in bright morning and throw a Frisbee.
James: Having recently stood in driving rain on the sidelines during my son’s interminable Ultimate practice session, I can assure you that Frisbee is not a guaranteed cure for depression.
Matt: Point taken. Still, the prevailing tone is a falling one. Want some examples? In a portrait of Sir William Compton painted by William Dobson during “the catastrophe of Caroline England,” when the court was besieged at Oxford, Davidson sees a deliberate emphasis on twilight and interprets that emphasis as intentional metaphor: “The background to his left is entirely composed of a very dark evening landscape, with a boiling angry sky, a bleeding sunset still flashing up into gashes in the clouds. This dusk and turbulence dominate the whole atmosphere of the painting to the degree that it is difficult to read them as anything other than a metaphor for the broken hopes and desperate condition of the royalists.”
Discussing “Rugby Chapel,” a poem by Matthew Arnold about his headmaster father, Davidson points out that Arnold arrives too late to visit his father’s grave in the chapel: “With the sense of belatedness goes a sense of devouring failure, formless grief, unfinished and unfinishable business. So many feeling citizens of the nineteenth century—an age that was in architecture and the arts often an age of revivals and imitations of the past—regretted that they had somehow been born too late in time. It is unsurprising that the arrival at twilight, the watching of lit windows as a stranger in the darkening cold, is a repeated motif of the nineteenth century in all the arts.”
The author states that the music of composer William Lawes, who lived and wrote during the same siege, “clamours to be interpreted in retrospect as fears and anticipations of how this bright world will end.” It is music, he claims, “that has found a language for disaster.” He examines in particular a viol consort where “the strain of contending voices moves into unresolved discord and impending breakdown, until the sound simply stops (music taken beyond endurance), silence (the end of music) and then restarts in a barely imaginable atonal grinding (anti-music, the sound that comes after the end of music).”
James: In other words you wouldn’t go on American Bandstand and say it’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to. I won’t deny that The Last of the Light is a strong draft of drink, but sometimes it’s good to wallow over a glass, isn’t it? I found in the book the same quality I do in the writing of, say, Cormac McCarthy, who is so painstaking in his examination of life’s horrors that the results are redemptive and invigorating. The human ability to confront and catalog the darkness is remarkable; the ability to share that experience with others is a great comfort and one of Davidson’s strengths. Dare I say that there’s a muscularity to his crepuscularity? Only if I want to sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan parody, I suppose.
Dispelling the gloom for a moment, let’s not neglect the other pleasures this book affords. What a treat to be taught so much! And by such an expressive author!
Matt: The Last of the Light is without question a beautiful artifact of Davidson’s astounding scholarship. He is at his best when he is helping us envision a time when twilight was an integral part of our lives, what the day’s rhythms were like in the world before the pocket watch.
Davidson recalls that in the twilight of Mediterranean Europe, people once came forth from their homes and workplaces to gather and commune in the streets and public spaces, a movement called the passeggiata. He then points out that until the invention of artificial lighting methods stronger than candles and lamp wicks in the late 18th century, “daily experience would have included the slow fall of the light, an awareness of the slow process of twilight.” And he writes of a mountaineer friend who shares his worry “that people don’t have time any more to allow their eyes to learn the skills of half-light and the near-night. What they miss by confinement to the hours of daylight, lighted places.”
Later, Davidson points out that the use of bouillon thread in the vestments of the clergy would have had a much different effect in the half-light of candle-lit ceremonies than they do now in the world of electric daylight.
James: I love the image of those glittering threads. Puts me in mind of Shakespeare’s transition from the Globe to Blackfriar’s Theatre, from sunny afternoons outside to candle-lit evenings indoors. When his company of players made that change, his dramas changed, becoming subtler and more interior. One of the most potent stage effects from that period is in The Winter’s Tale, a nearly static moment when a statue quickens into life. The actor playing that role would likely have worn cosmetics made with crushed pearl to simulate polished marble, and the flickering candles would have enhanced that shine convincingly. When the cold stone began to breathe and move there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the house.
It’s the kind of effect that’s possible only in proximity, when people gather together to focus on things that aren’t obvious in the broad light of day. That’s what used to happen in the Blackfriars, and it seems to me that Davidson’s built the same kind of space in The Last of the Light.
Matt: Agreed. Thank you for this book, James. It is a beautiful volume. More than that, the gift of this book is the gift of a room, large and lonely and serene and dimly lit, hung with the works of seemingly every European who painted, etched or rhymed about the hours after sunset since the Renaissance, and occupied by Davidson’s solitary voice as he leads us very personally from one work to the next in a gallery tour that is authoritative and cogent if also strangely rambling. He knows everything, which is only slightly more than he’s telling us. It’s a room and a book I would enter only in certain moods and tarry in for but brief periods. Still, I’m richer for our visit.
James: Yeah, best for us to get home before it’s pitch black. Lots to think about until the next tour. See you then.
James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books on Mercer Island, WA. He and Matt have also shared their perambulating adventures with nwbooklovers.