Wednesday, July 21, 2021

night notes

The pier at Ocean City, MD. (Not my pic.)

I've been visiting the shore towns of southern Delaware since before I could walk on my own. Even though I've become enough of a cynic in my old age to recognize the gauche avarice on which coastal resort towns are built, I retain a soft spot for them. I still visit Fenwick Island from time to time, and recently took a four-day vacation there with Shirley. I think we had more fun chasing ghost crabs across the beach with a flashlight after dark than playing miniature golf and meandering around the curio shops during the day.

There's a dichotomy in the region that's most apparent at night. It first struck me years ago as a teenager visiting the Ocean City boardwalk—a place which, to my imagination, encapsulates the ugly side of the American character as much as Las Vegas did for Hunter Thompson. Despite all the sand sculptures of Jesus and the youth groups lip-syncing and performing awkwardly synchronized dance routines to Christian rap numbers, this place is Babylon in miniature: a three-mile bazaar teeming with hucksters, hicks, baleful teenagers, middle-aged adults debased by drudgery and cable television, and children who ought to be too young for obesity, all hawking and consuming garish tchotchkes, warm and technically edible congealed grease, margaritas in soda cups (on which the myriad tattoo parlors depend for their business), T-shirts too déclassé for Spencer Gifts, and hermit crabs who've got to believe their Chesapeake cousins being devoured en masse in the seafood restaurants down the street got off easy. It could be anthropomorphized as a circle of faceless men made of neon signs, fried dough, unwinnable SpongeBob plushes, seagull dung, blaring Top-40 tunes, and lobster claw grabber toys ejaculating on the despondent face of human decency.

Don't get me wrong, it's a fun place to visit—provided you hold no strong opinions about the reality of social and/or spiritual progress.

Riding the ferris wheel at night, arcing momentarily over the commotion and carnival lights, you can see out to the ocean—pitch black, silent, circulating with the winds and tides, concealing strange and multitudinous life. The contrast is sobering enough to harsh one's buzz, which may account for why the ride's dour operators usher people out of the cars after only a few turns. When I was young, the apparition of the world beyond the light and noise of humanity fascinated me more than any of the arcade games, bikini-clad girls my age, or precariously legal smokables for sale in the disreputable paraphernalia shops, though I couldn't articulate why. It was the kind of ineffable experience that an adolescent tries to come to grips with by writing awful poems about it, and I probably don't need to say that none of them succeeded.

Ocean City, MD. (Again, not my pic.)

Southern Delaware's shore towns (and Ocean City, Maryland) lie in a latitudinal line on a narrow isthmus between a series of bays and the Atlantic Ocean. (Ocean City, MD borders Fenwick Island, DE to the south.) A lot of the land between them has been set aside for habitat preservation, and the main road lacks street lamps there. At nighttime, it gets quite dark—in spite of the cream-colored stains on the northern and southern horizons. If you pull onto the shoulder and step out of the car on the southbound side, what you'll see to your left is darkness over the dunes and the ocean. To the right: darkness over the salt marshes and the bay (and maybe a speckling of distant lights on the opposite shore). In the summer, under a clear sky, you can look straight up and glimpse the band of the Milky Way (and know for sure what you're seeing is the Milky Way). 

Traversing DE-1 at 11:30 PM last week, I had an inkling that darkness may have taken on a renewed meaning in our abundant and nominally rational epoch.

From the beginning, humanity's dread of the night was immanently practical. Creatures such as we are, dependent on visual sense-data and evolved for diurnal activity, behave clumsily in dark settings where we're especially vulnerable to animals with sensitive eyes and sharp teeth—not to mention to others of our own kind. In prescientific times, a daily change in the world that impedes visibility and movement, coincides with the appearances of strange and sometimes dangerous creatures (bats, wolves, tarantulas, scorpions, etc.), and allows for events to occur without human witnesses will invariably amass a body of attendant superstitions. The earliest of these, transmitted orally, entered into currency and were retained on the basis of their utility in preventing people from coming to harm. Members of a tribe of hunter-gatherers taught to fear the wicked spirits that come out after sunset were less likely to wander away from the group after dark and get mauled to death by a cougar. 

It shouldn't surprise us that in polytheistic religions, deities associated with the night are often fearsome figures whose bailiwicks are death, strife, and dangerous magic. In the Iliad, Homer recurs to the image of darkness falling over the eyes of slain heroes—the blindness and stillness of night becomes a metaphor for oblivion. In Exodus, the final and most terrible plague the Lord inflicts upon Egypt strikes its victims at midnight; the Gospels claim that from "the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour" of the Crucifixion; "darkness" is employed as a metaphor for sin, death, and remoteness from God all throughout the Old and New Testaments.¹ In the same breath, Shakespeare's Iago calls upon "Hell and night" to bring his insidious plot to fruition; only after dark does the ghost in Hamlet haunt the castle grounds. The Malleus Maleficarum advises Christians to beware the incubi, succubi, and witches that move about and operate after sundown, doing harm to innocents, despoiling crops, and spreading plague. Today, "benighted" endures in the English language as a synonym for backwardness and ignorance; The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars films abound with dialogue about "the shadow of Mordor" and the "dark side of the Force;" the infamously grim and unforgiving Dark Souls games are set in a world of perpetual night—&c., &c.

We might consider the last items as a sort of cultural vestige. For most of us in the affluent world—where we have little use for beliefs concerning witches and devils—nighttime is simply the transition from a natural light source to an artificial one. Electric lamps brighten our homes more brilliantly and thoroughly than candles and torches ever could. Our cities are seldom truly dark; overcast nights in metropolitan areas have become brighter than clear ones. We travel by night as conveniently as we do by day, our way illuminated by headlights and sodium vapor lamps. If we live in reasonably safe suburbs or urban neighborhoods, the most significant effect of the transition from day to night is (most) shops and restaurants locking their doors till morning. 

As technology alters the landscape, it remodels the architecture of our inner life. Our primary mode of transportation—automobiles traversing asphalt tracks—linearizes our spatial awareness, as electric lights decide our sightlines. Infrastructure delineates areas of ingrained relevance from zones which are effectively purposeless to us. Notice how quick we are to call a miles-long stretch of highway with no evidence of human habitation on the roadside "the middle of nowhere"—anodyne by day, but under a black sky, with no tail lights ahead of us or brights in the rear mirror, and no orange lamps leading us forward, it seems to harrow us.

Our discomfiture shouldn't necessarily be equated with fear. What exactly are we afraid of? What's menacing us? Not the desolation in and of itself—though perhaps by night it calls to mind the fallibility of the machinery on which we're depending to convey us to a bed and a wifi connection in a lit building, to a diner with glowing windows, or a refulgent gas station with eclipses of moths dancing under the canopy. But fear of breaking down in the boonies isn't fear of the dark or of remoteness per se, but of uncertainty. (How long will it take a tow truck to get out here? What will it cost me? Will I have to cancel my engagements? Etc.) Maybe we're afraid of being discovered by a serial killer—but that outcome is so unlikely as to qualify as a sort of modern fear of witches.²

That unaccountable emotion, that tensed apprehension and quickening of the blood in the solitude of an unlit roadway between upstate exurbs, or on DE-1 between Dewey and Bethany, or at the highest point of the ferris wheel on Ocean City's pier, where you can see beyond the halo of electric light, and view the Atlantic Ocean of Earth as something cosmic, as an apparition of alien seas on a planet orbiting a star of Delphinus or Sagitta—what we're feeling is an apprehension of proportion, a heightened cognizance of the overall situation.

Delaware Seashore State Park. (I didn't take this picture, either.)

A technological age is an anthropocentric age. When none of us needs attend closely to the soil, the sky, the lakes and rivers, or the plants and animals in our environs in order to provide for ourselves, we tend to have only an indistinct sensibility of these things. Though we see and hear them, they reach us as noise in the signal, as incidental facts concurrent with the people and the manmade appurtenances that actually determine our actions. What we experience as the desolation of a dark, unpeopled place is a state in which our immediate environment and its nonarbitrary features give us nothing to work with (for lack of a better term).

A counterexample would be an average city park at twilight. It provides us benches to sit on, well-lit footpaths to walk, signs to read, people to watch and listen to, sculptures made for us to examine, and the view of buildings and the hum of nearby traffic on the surrounding streets, just a short walk away, offering opportunities for dining, drinking, shopping, and any number of habituated ways in which we can occupy ourselves. It's an eminently functional environment in the sense that we possess well-worn response patterns to its constituents.

But what does one do, outside of one's car, on the shoulder of a tenebrous road between sand dunes and salt marshes he can barely see, except get back in the car?—Or respond to his own lack of responses and proceed from there?

What I first saw all those years ago on that ferris wheel, which perplexed and beguiled me, was a profound hole in the familiar order of things: the prospect of a space I didn't know what to do with (both practically and conceptually) because it communicated nothing—not even the aesthetic pleasure of the picturesque, which it surely would have proffered during the day—nothing but the unsignifying and incontrovertible fact of itself. It was the Earth naked, afterhours, luridly doing what it does and being what it is, irrespective of our attention or interest, and what it will go on doing and being millennia after all of us are gone and forgotten. Being in wide, roofless spaces where it's actually dark after the sun goes down humbles us, humiliates our tacit presumptions of centrality within the order of things.

What I felt then, but couldn't put a word to, was the intimation of eternity—if not of holiness.

1. Of course, God often chooses to communicate with his favorites at night. An alien examining human culture might find it bizarre that so many traditions associate nighttime and darkness with revelation in addition to ignorance and danger. We understand that there's really no paradox here. 

2. To be fair, a woman stranded by herself on a lonely highway has good cause to be wary of the man driving the tow truck or the trucker pulling over to ask if she needs a lift—but, for our purposes here (and very sad to say), her misgivings would be justified at any hour, day or night.


  1. This evokes memories of a phrase I coined, "the lonely highway", to describe the feeling of introverted melancholy of driving down some desolate and isolated road in the pitch-black of night. Just me, whatever is directly visible ahead, and whatever tune I happen to be playing at the moment. Even now, listening to the right sort of city pop/future funk can send me right back to barreling down that inky nothingness.

    1. I have a lot of memories like that attached to AFI's All Hallow's EP, for some reason. That and VNV Nation's Empires. Dark Jersey backroads & all.