Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Dark Things

On my walk yesterday morning, I was feeling something I rarely feel: that the weather, a thick blanket of Pacific fog after some rain, felt “heavy.” I’ve often heard people use this term, but this was the first time I truly felt it. At this point I’m not sure what it signifies (except that we are approaching the darkest night of the year, in response to which many cultures have long celebrated a ‘festivals of light’ to counteract the dead feeling; and, in addition, that there may well be a residue of darkness in me after the mass murders in San Bernardino and Paris), but it has stimulated some thoughts about darkness, how most of us resist it, and how, nonetheless, it is a necessary and unsung part of existence.

            We humans are all geared to the light, specifically sunlight. We feel more lively when the sun is out, and more gloomy during winter months when, even if the sun shines, it shines for several fewer hours than in summer. When clouds and storms roll in, it gets even darker. Our language reflects this: “I saw the light,” to indicate comprehension or spiritual awakening; “I’m still in the dark,” to indicate bafflement, or “I’m in a dark place” to indicate depression. The sun itself has long been venerated as a kind of god, pouring its beneficence on earthly creatures, its photosynthetic energy into miraculous organs of growth. And sunrise has long signified relief, renewal, a reprieve from the dark of earthly trouble, or even the spiritual trouble signified by the phrase “dark night of the soul.” In a cosmic sense, we respond with joy and hope to the “light” of stars, as opposed to the barrenness of dark and cold and empty outer space. We even measure distance in “light years”—the time it takes, presumably, for light photons from distant stars to reach us, and thus serving as a measure of how far in miles/kilometers from us that star or galaxy is.
            And yet, the sun can be a problem and too much sunlight and heat can lead to all kinds of ailments such as droughts, sunburn, heat stroke, and the drying up of fertility or fecundity. It is when we begin to dwell on this, this diurnal and annual balance here on earth, that we begin to alter our perception and feeling about light and dark. Our internal mechanisms, most obviously our sleep patterns, depend on the alternation of light and dark in regular rhythm. If that balance is upset, as it is when humans decide that people can work at any time in the 24 hours that make up a day, bad things happen. People who work the “graveyard shift” are subject to strange ailments and delusions. Drivers and airline pilots who do this are far more prone to accidents than others working a more “normal” cycle. Travelers who shift time zones often notice that the interruption of their diurnal rhythms can lead to lower performance and even illness. So we humans need the dark, apparently as much as we need light. We need the respite from light; we need the cooling down that darkness brings; we need the dark side of the earth as much as we need the dark side of the moon. We also need the dark activity that night brings; the replenishment that night brings; the dreams and deep revival that sleep brings. This doesn’t even get to the penchant of some artists to find their creativity (a kind of dark dreaming?) much more active at night than in the daytime. Of some hunting animals to find far more prey at night, to only find their prey at night.
            But these are more or less surface matters. At a deeper level, we most of us may be astonished to learn that, though we thought we knew (or physicists did) what the vast stretches of space consisted of, it now turns out that adding up all of the known ‘matter’ in the universe as indicated by the light from stars simply is not enough to account for the accelerated expansion of the universe that seems to be happening. In fact, the known ‘matter’ that we’ve always observed (all the billions of stars and galaxies and planets) accounts for a mere five percent of what must be out there! Incredible. Where is the rest? What is the rest? We cover our ignorance by calling it “dark matter” (now calculated at 27% of the known universe) and its related “dark energy” (68% of the known universe). But what is it? Where is it? It, and we, are in the dark. So all our calculations about the content of the universe and its evolution, starting with the presumed Big Bang (of which we have evidence), may be totally off. Everything we know or think we know is now under review (see http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy/).
            My point is not that we should all try to discover what’s “out there,” but rather that in some basic way, dark is an absolute necessity. Dark Matter. Dark Energy. Without such concepts, even though we don’t know what they signify, everything we seem to be observing makes no sense. The Universe is expanding when it should be contracting due to gravity. And not only is it expanding, that expansion is accelerating at a rate that suggests there is this enormous reserve of matter/energy out there causing it. And what we have always considered ‘empty space’ seems to be charged full of some sort of matter and energy we can’t detect but which seems to just pop up out of nothing. Though we really don’t know. We are in the dark.
            And this is the other part of the mystery. We really don’t know how the world works, how life works, how existence works. We want it to be apparent. We want things to work logically, causally, in the bright light of our brains, our consciousness, our reason, our mathematics, our machines, but they don’t. Rather, they work in a way that is only partially explained by our science and technology. Whenever we think we have some organizing function solved, we are stumped to learn that exceptions always appear. The dark side emerges. Uncertainty reigns. Some strange eruption blows all our predictions and calculations. This pertains in our social organizations in a way that gets more prominent as time goes on. Democracy was supposed to be the perfect system, giving each member of a society his vote and thereby a share in its success or failure. But democracy in the United States these days has been ‘hijacked’ by moneyed interests. Perhaps it has been from the beginning, but it seemed to work fairly well for a century or two, and to most people’s contentment. Not anymore. Rather than a society of equals, the United States has become a society of haves—the 1% or the 0.1% who control the vast majority of the wealth, and thereby the politicians who depend on that wealth—and have nots—the mass of people who vote in elections which seem more and more rigged to elect representatives who ignore the people’s will in favor of the will of corporations and the wealthy few. There’s even a term for this: “dark money.” And in this sense, the undue influence of those with money and power can be seen as the eruption of the dark side. So can the eruption of imperialism. Rome taught us that democracies can be easily replaced by empires and dictatorial emperors (the Greeks posited this transition as a natural, inevitable progression). The same thing has happened in the United States. From a nation of mostly independent farmers served by leaders who discouraged “entangling alliances” with foreign adventures, we have become the most powerful empire in history, with nearly a thousand military bases to govern our ‘soft’ empire, and nations everywhere quaking at our approach to “help them.” And some, as in San Bernardino recently, attempting to kill as many of us as possible. Again, the eruption of the dark side.
            So our enlightened penchant for equality, for fairness in sharing that finds its apotheosis in socialism or communism or democracy, tends in practice to have to pay its dues to the dark side. Russian communism demonstrated this clearly: instead of leaders and bureaucrats who were motivated by the good and equal sharing of a new kind of human, the Soviet Union degenerated into a cult of brutal megalomania in which the most necessary organization was the secret police—making sure that no one deviated from prescribed dogma. Instead of a government devoted to raising the level of existence for the masses, the Soviet government became, like its American twin, an instrument of empire. It gobbled up just-liberated nation-states with as eager an appetite as any empire of old. The dark side had eventually become dominant. No matter how glorious and efficient our dream of equality and cooperation has been, in short, all our utopias have sooner or later descended into the “some are more equal than others” mode immortalized by George Orwell.
            Perhaps this should not surprise us. Ancient religions have always felt the need to pay homage to this dark side—seeing, probably more clearly than we moderns, that the dark side will always emerge and demand its due. They perhaps saw that nothing that is all light can exist. It cannot exist in nature. It cannot exist in human groups or societies or religions. So in Hinduism, there are “dark” gods and goddesses: Shiva the Destroyer, Kali the Dark Mother adorned with skulls, the womb and tomb of the earth (related in this sense to Coatlicue of the Aztecs, whose name means “serpent skirt”).  Shiva is “responsible for change both in the form of death and destruction and in the positive sense of destroying the ego.” This latter capacity makes Shiva the god special to the Indian practice of meditation where the mind is stopped and everything associated with individuality and the world is dropped. So the dark side of the Hindu pantheon is ultimately seen as necessary to the most pure and aimed at the most good.
            We can see how this might have occurred to Indian philosophers and sages. They could see, as we can when we focus on it, that the world and existence could not survive if there were only creation and fecundity inspired by light. Most animals—as we are demonstrating ourselves today—have been given far too much reproductive power. If any animal or even plant were left to survive with no predators or diseases thinning it, it would soon overrun its nutritive zone and cause famine and chaos. Insects without birds to eat them would become destructive hordes, as locusts sometimes do. Rodents without larger animals to prey on them would overrun the world with disease and death. Humans with too much ability to counter diseases and floods and other natural disasters like the toll insects take on our food plants, would do precisely what we are doing now: increase far beyond the carrying capacity of the territories we inhabit, and force countless other species into a mass extinction without parallel. The destroyer in its many forms maintains the balance. Without destruction, without death, life cannot continue.
            Thus, from a larger point of view, we can all see that the dark side of death and destruction—no matter what form they take—are and must be part of the cycle of existence. Much as we as individuals would like to (for ourselves at least), we cannot eliminate them from our experience, cannot ignore or alter for long the fundamental centrality of darkness in the way the world functions. And it may well be that we are about to learn—especially we in the United States of America, who have always been nurtured on the myth that we are the special creation, the special light-bringing nation—that our mania to purify existence so that it can be palatable to our massive egos can only end in deep, deep oblivion. And that the regulating balance mechanism that has brought the earth to this pass must, in the end, rule as it always has—with us, or without us.

Lawrence DiStasi

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