Over the course of history, darkness and creatures associated with the dark have long beenvilified. Yet according to Adam Barkman, this vilification has often resulted in both aesthetic and ethical injustice. At the root of these injustices is humanity’s constant failure both to keep the literal and the metaphorical separate and to remember that all creation – both in its individual parts and as a whole – was created and declared good. Thus, in this paper, Barkman considers how we should understand, speak about and act in regard to darkness and creatures associated with the dark. Mr. Barkman, the author of C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Wayof Life and co-editor of Manga and Philosophy, is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College.
As an animal-angel hybrid, human beings have a foot in both the physical and the spiritual realm. Insofar as human beings are angelic, they possess the magnificent faculties of creative imagination, rational thinking and free choice. Yet, all too often, human beings demonstrate an internal schism between the scientific and the poetic, the literal and the metaphorical. On top of this, the human being’s ability to reason is limited to seeing only a few things in full and a few more things in part. Finally, human will, which leads humans astray as often as it leads them aright, almost guarantees that as humans progress in one direction, they lose their way in another. Sadly, even in the Information Age, knowledge is not being unified as it ought to be and proper action is not being taken as it could be, and so injustice and violence – that is, unjust hurt – abound.
Nevertheless, in this essay, I do not want to talk about injustice or violence in general, but rather one type of injustice or violence: injustice against darkness and those creatures associated with the dark. Since the beginning of time, human beings have vilified darkness, and while at times this vilification has been just, all too often darkness, and creatures associated with the dark, have been absolutely reviled, the ultimate result of which has been gross injustice not only to nature in the form of light pollution and a certain kind of speciesism, but also to human beings in the form of a weakened aesthetic imagination and an uncertainty about their place on the Earth and in the universe. Consequently, drawing on insights from science, religion, philosophy and literature, I want to examine what the human being’s proper response to darkness and creatures associated with it should be.
Literal Darkness and Light Pollution
According to the physical sciences, light is electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength. More specific to human beings, light is visible radiation or electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths capable of causing the sensation of vision. Opposed to light, and defined negatively or in terms of what it is not, is darkness, which is simply the absence of light. Setting aside the universe’s dependence on the mysterious substance, dark energy, which makes up about 72% of the universe, and dark matter, which makes up about 23% of the universe, we know that even bare darkness, insofar as it contrasts with light, is necessary for the survival of many biological creatures – both animals and human beings.
As for animals, light acts like a powerful magnet for many nocturnal species. Birds migrating at night are known to fly into tall, brightly lit buildings and sea-birds have been known to circle marine oil platforms until they die from exhaustion. Moreover, the artificial light of the city can cause some birds to sing too early in the day, the result of which is, among other things, overfeeding, which in turn can cause early migration, which, of course, is disastrous for not only the adult birds, but also their young and the entire ecosystem they inhabit. And something similar is true for many other species, from zooplankton to moths. Sea turtles, to take another example, prefer to lay their eggs on dark beaches since the darkness affords the eggs, and the young hatchlings, greater protection from predators; consequently, if beaches are too bright, the sea turtle population decreases and everything that depends on sea turtles, both that which eat, and that which are eaten by, the turtles are affected.1 In all of these cases, and in countless others, light pollution or the absence of sufficient, natural darkness greatly harms animals.
As for human beings, not enough darkness can cause circadian disruption and can throw off their biological clocks and sleep patterns, resulting in decreased sexual activity and increased headaches, fatigue, anxiety, obesity and even breast cancer.2 Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, the creative and spiritual desires that arise in human beings as a result of their abandoning themselves to the splendour of the heavenly bodies above is extinguished when there is not enough darkness to contrast with the “bright shoals of stars and planets and galaxies.”3 The lack of darkness paves the way for not only aesthetic injustice through the equalizing, blinding glare of light pollution, but also ethical injustice insofar as human beings, being closed off from the heavens above, are tempted to think that they are alone in the universe and the creator of their own souls. Whereas our forefathers felt awe to the point of worship when they looked up at the celestial spheres, we moderns tend to see a hazy sky and feel proud to know that stars, though we rarely see them, are merely balls of gas; as Friedrich von Schiller remarked in his poem “The Gods of Greece”: “Where lifeless – fixed afar, / A flaming ball to our dull sense is given, / Phoebus Apollo, in his golden car, / In silent glory swept the fields of heaven!”4 In short, the health of human beings in both their biological and spiritual capacities suffers when literal darkness, in its appropriate place, is not appreciated.
Just now I mentioned two types of injustice that arise as a result of undervaluing literal darkness: aesthetic injustice and ethical injustice, both of which ultimately have to do with a given thing not being valued or treated as it ought to be (though aesthetic injustice refers to matters of beauty, whereas ethical injustice refers to matters of moral conduct). In regard to darkness, I mentioned that due to a lack of literal darkness, human beings are tempted to elevate themselves above God or the gods. Now this is one side of ethical injustice: elevating a thing above its proper position or assigning a given thing more value than it ought to be assigned. But there is also the other side of ethical injustice: lowering a thing below its proper position or assigning a given thing a lower value than it ought to be assigned. Consequently, whereas human beings, due to light pollution, often elevate themselves above God unjustly, human beings, due in large part to Darwinism, often unjustly lower themselves to, or near, the same level as animals. Both directions lead to ethical injustice (at least given my metaphysical assumptions) and so should be avoided.
Nevertheless, while I think it is a grave mistake to see human beings as merely developed animals, the Darwinian impact has had at least one positive effect on thinking in the West: injustice toward animals, particularly those associated with the dark, is decreasing. That is, although psychologist Richard Ryder and philosopher Peter Singer go too far when they accuse most people of speciesism – that is, an unjust bias in favour of our species above any other species5 – and primatologist Frans de Waal and philosopher Martha Nussbaum go too far in decrying the evil of anthropodenial – that is, human beings denying that they are only animals6– I do think that human beings, though their nature is superior to all other animals and thus justly favor themselves above them, historically have devalued some animal species so low as to be unjust toward them. Indeed, as East Asian specialist Thomas LaMarre has pointed out, even when one race uses zoomorphic images to portray another race as an animal, such as the Americans did when they portrayed the Japanese as monkeys during the second world war, people act unjustly not only toward other people but also toward animals since animals, as amoral creatures, do not have the moral flaws of humans because they do not have the moral capabilities that humans have.7 The corrective of Darwinism, then, has been helpful, but if it is taken as more than a corrective, it leads to the errors of Ryder, Singer, de Waal and Nussbaum.
Yet if creatures associated with the dark, to be specific now, should be neither hunted down and killed nor treated like our equals and brothers, what is the correct view of them? I myself favor something like the view of C. S. Lewis in his science fiction book Perelandra, wherein he claims that all creatures were made good and insofar as we see some creatures as inherently evil, we are being tricked by satanic philosophy; as the hero of Perelandra, Ransom, tells us upon visiting an alien world and seeing strange creatures in it:
The creature was there, a curiously shaped creature no doubt, but all the loathing had vanished clean out of his mind, so that neither then nor at any other time could he remember it, nor ever understand again why one should quarrel with an animal for having more legs or eyes than oneself. All that he had felt from childhood about insects and reptiles died that moment: died utterly, as hideous music dies when you switch off the wireless. Apparently it had all, even from the beginning, been a dark enchantment of the Enemy’s. Once, as he had sat writing near an open window in Cambridge, he had looked up and shuddered to see, as he supposed, a many-coloured beetle of unusually hideous shape crawling across his paper. A second glance showed him that it was a dead leaf, moved by the breeze; and instantly the very curves and re-entrants which had made its ugliness turned into its beauties. At this moment he had almost the same sensation. He saw at once that the creature intended him no harm – had indeed no intentions at all. . . . Then, apparently not liking its surroundings, it turned laboriously round and began descending into the hole by which it had come. As he saw the last section of its tripartite body wobble on the edge of the aperture, and then finally tip upward with its torpedo-shaped tail in the air, Ransom almost laughed. “Like an animated corridor train” was his comment.8
Lewis’s point is that any literal hatred or vilification of creatures associated with darkness, such as snakes, insects and so on, is ethically unjust since such behavior treats good things as though they were evil. Moreover, one could even take this further and say that even indifference to creatures associated with darkness (not to mention any creature for that matter) can be seen as, at least, aesthetically unjust since every creature has a specific and unique nature that demands to be appreciated for its own quiddity; hence, I think Lewis is again on the right track when he writes,
God need not create this Nature. He might have created others, He may have created others. But granted this Nature, then doubtless no smallest part of her is there except because it expresses the character He chose to give her. It would be a miserable error to suppose that the dimensions of space and time, the death and rebirth of vegetation, the unity in multiplicity of organisms, the union in opposition to sexes, and the colour of each particular apple in Herefordshire this autumn, were merely a collection of useful devices forcibly welded together. They are the very idiom, almost the facial expression, the smell or taste, of an individual thing. The quality of Nature is present in them all just as the Latinity of Latin is present in every inflection or the “Correggiosity” of Correggio in every stroke of the brush.9
Of course, a common objection to this kind of view is to ask what, if everything is unique and purposeful, is the purpose of things like mosquitoes or the Andromeda Galaxy? The problem inherent in this kind of question is that typically people mean something like “What is the utility of these things for humans?” But it does not take the Crocodile Hunter, the late Steve Irwin, to see that this begs the question, for why should we think that once we agree that everything was created for a purpose and possesses a unique nature that everything was made for human use? Although mosquitoes do not benefit human beings (and only benefit a few natural creatures) in terms of being a source of food, comfort and so on, the uniqueness of the mosquito must delight its Creator and part of being aesthetically just means learning to appreciate things as God appreciates them – that is, not just for their utility but also for their own sake. We could take this further and argue that although human beings will probably never see the far reaches of the universe, it does not follow that the beauty that is likely found there exists in vain. Perhaps God made such simply for His own pleasure; or perhaps there are alien races that are able to appreciate that beauty. While Isaiah uses the child playing with an asp as a metaphor for the harmony found in Paradise, it can probably be taken literally as well since if all things were created unique and good, then why would God not want to bring all such good things together in reconciliation and delight?10
Nevertheless, while it is ethically wrong to hate any creature, and at least aesthetically wrong to fail to appreciate every creature, including those associated with the dark, it does not follow that we should love or appreciate all creatures equally. Although I do not want to rank animals in terms of ontological worth, I do think that in most cases people are perfectly just in preferring, say, a horse to a bat, or a dog to a wolf – not because these night creatures have been associated with both rational and irrational fears nor because they have been blamed by legends both rightly and wrongly, but rather, or at least most importantly, because of the tameness factor. That is, I think that a tame animal is superior to an untamed animal, and so since horses and dogs are tamed more easily than bats and wolves, typically, though not always, people will then rightly value horses and dogs over bats and wolves. But why is tamed better than untamed? Well, according to C. S.Lewis, if the world was made to be under the benevolent authority of human beings, then all those creatures below humans were made to be under human authority.11 Consequently, while we cannot attribute ethical behavior to animals, we can say that an animal that obeys human authority acts according to its nature (and thus, for its own happiness) and an animal that rebels against human authority acts against its nature (and thus, against its own happiness); as Aristotle wrote, “The same holds good of animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved.”12 Bringing this all together, we can say that the tame animal does not mean a sterile, broken or enslaved animal but rather an animal that enjoys its wildness and freedom within the bounds of proper submission, wherein its true happiness lies. Indeed, Lewis even speculates that in addition to being preserved and elevated above untamed animals, tamed animals might become qualified for a higher life than they, or we, could possibly imagine; thus, in Lewis’s science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, Mr. Bultitude the bear “trembled on the very borders of personality” when in the presence of its benevolent ruler Ransom.13
What about Animal Archetypes?
As I mentioned earlier, many animals associated with the dark have developed bad reputations over time. Some of these reputations are justly given and some are unjustly given; for instance, it is unfair to the bat to link it with vampires since by doing so, bats are seen to be more harmful than they really are, whereas it is not unjust to fear and attempt to remove a snake from around one’s house since snakes really do bite anyone who startles them. However, even in the case of the snake we should not make the move toward injustice by linking our rational fear of snakes with the idea that snakes are somehow inherently evil, for snakes have no evil intentions: they simply act according to their natural instincts. Moreover if nature really has been in rebellion against humans since the time that humans rebelled against God, it still does not follow that any part of nature should be seen as evil, since to qualify as evil an act of the will is necessary.
Be all this as it may, I agree with the basic insight of scholars like Karl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others when they say that human beings have access to universal archetypes which gives them genuine knowledge about some mysterious truth. Moreover, I think that such archetypes are not merely grounded in some original primal experience that somehow passed down through the ages in the form of cultural generalizations; rather, I think that these archetypes are reflective of some higher, more mysterious aspect of reality that is only partially understood by human beings, who, as I said, are limited creatures. Of course, none of this is to deny cultural generalizations: it is only to say that in addition to cultural generalizations, there are also genuine universal archetypes.
Now what this has to do with creatures associated with the dark should be obvious. Most cultural generalizations about creatures associated with the dark, such as the bat, are negative, the result of which is that such creatures are usually treated unjustly. But what about some creatures like the snake or the dragon? Are these creatures not archetypes of evil? Even if one were to grant that the history of the snake and the dragon is the history of creatures associated with great evil –hence, Satan possessed the snake in the Garden of Eden and, perhaps in connection with this, was linked with the dragon – it does not follow that snakes and dragons are inherently evil, only that they were appropriated for evil and thus associated with it. Thus, when the Buddha reformed, and enlisted in his service the snake-dragon Naga, we are provided with a powerful reminder that such creatures should not be stereotyped as inherently evil. Consequently, I would deny that the snake or dragon is an archetype of evil since according to my theory, archetypes should reflect natural, objective natures, such as the cunning of the snake, the stealth of the bat or the majestic terror of the dragon.
While I am opposed both to treating any animal as though it were inherently evil and to equating cultural generalizations, which are often unjust, with universal archetypes which reflect true natures, I think that there are a few occasions for linking darkness with evil.
To begin with, we must be clear about literal darkness: literal darkness is not a thing and so is neither good nor evil in and of itself; indeed, it has no “self” since it has no nature. The goodness of literal darkness must be seen in the context of the created whole, where certain absences – in our case, the absence of light – are appropriate in certain places. Thus, literal darkness should be seen as a good thing insofar as it contrasts aptly with proper light and color, an implication of which is that light pollution is both aesthetic and ethical evil since such pollution diminishes the proper shade of the night sky, which results in both aesthetic injustice toward the beauty of creation and ethical injustice toward the humans and animals hurt both directly and indirectly by too much light. Of course on the flipside, when literal darkness is present where light and color should be present, such as when lights are kept permanently off at an art gallery, then literal darkness may be considered (at least in this case, an aesthetic) evil.
And something similar is true of metaphorical darkness. Our metaphors linking darkness and evil may be considered just metaphors insofar as they are based on a similarity grounded in privation or unnatural lack. Thus, we could use the metaphor of the death of a human as being like the extinguishing of a candle justly, but we could only use this metaphor justly insofar as we meant that the extinguishing of a candle is an unnatural event. If we meant that the death of a human being, which is always unnatural (in the grand scheme of creation), is like the extinguishing of all candles – naturally or otherwise – then we would be creating an unjust metaphor. Hence, in this case we should qualify the metaphor by saying something like the death of a human being is like a candle extinguished by a sudden draft from an open window.
In addition to cases where darkness can be justly (and unjustly) linked with evil in metaphors, there are also cases where darkness can be justly (and unjustly) linked with positive good in metaphors. Focusing on situations where darkness can be justly linked with positive good in metaphors, I want to consider two examples: the affect in the soul that Rudolf Otto calls the numinous and certain forms of Negative Theology.
In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto examines “the Numen” or “the Holy,” which is a technical term used to describe the sacred minus any moral or rational aspects.14 From the word Numen, Otto derives the word numinous, with which he then speaks of a numinous category of value which is always present when an individual is in a numinous state of mind. “This mental state,” Otto writes, “is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other; and therefore, like every absolutely primary and elementary datum, while it admits of being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined.”15 According to Otto, the numinous is the feeling that overcomes the mind when the individual “is submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness.”16 This feeling, in turn, is always accompanied by a sense of complete dependence on the Divine.17 However, this feeling of dependence is not merely a natural feeling of dependence, such as insufficiency resulting from a difficult circumstance; rather, it is a mystical sense of dependence, like the dependence Abraham felt when he pled with God for the people of Sodom: “Behold now, I, who am but dust and ash, have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord.”18 Otto calls this kind of dependency the “creature-feeling;”19 nevertheless, while the numinous is broadly identified with “creature-feeling,” Otto claims that this can be divided into two key elements: (1) the feeling of mysterium tremendum, and (2)fascination.
When an individual experiences mysterium tremendum, he feels he is in the presence of something which is at once awful, august, majestic, overpowering, living, urgent, different, pulsating, dark and uncanny.20 The feeling of mysterium tremendum may “burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy ,to transport, and to ecstasy;” in itself, this feeling may be either demonic or angelic, something wild and grisly or beautiful and pure.21 Yet in whatever mode this feeling takes, it always makes the mind shudder and the individual think of himself as less than nothing since he feels himself to be in the presence of something that is supernatural, wholly other and yet pulsating with an energy and life more real than his own. The dark or uncanny nature of mysterium tremendum is a vital part of this concept since it points to the unlimited, supernatural nature of the numinous. Otto himself compares this element of the numinous to Immanuel Kant’s sublime, for while neither are concerned with beauty, both are concerned with the mysterious, the maddening, the daunting, and the boundless22 (although, of course, Kant’s sublime has to do with aesthetics, whereas Otto’s numinous has to do with religion; hence, Otto claims that Kant’s sublime is “a pale reflexion of” the numinous23). Consequently, the numinous can be incited by things like romantic literature, fairy stories and myths; as Otto writes, “But the fairy-story proper only comes into being with the element of the `wonderful,’ with miracle and miraculous events and consequences, i.e. by means of an infusion of the numinous. And the same holds good in an increased degree of myth.”24
The second and final element in the numinous is fascination. This sensation occurs in the individual as a result of his experiencing the mysterious and unknown. Awe, it is true, brings the individual to her knees, but desire to see and understand the mystery – indeed, fascination and “love” for the dark mystery25 –causes him to raise her eyes. And what she sees when she raises her eyes causes her to be overcome with a kind of madness, but it is the madness of the finite looking into the infinite,26 and in this sense, it bears resemblance to Platonic eros, which speaks of the need for the soul to be possessed by divine eros in order to ascend into the heavens.27 Consequently, the individual who experiences the numinous feels at once terrified of, and attracted to, the dark, haunting mystery.
The numinous, of course, is related to Negative Theology, that is, theology that attempts to define God or the Divine by what it is not. According to Church Father Gregory Nyssa and later on, theologian Pseudo Dionysius, a human being’s knowledge is so limited that his understanding of God, who is unlimited, often appears to be nothing but nonsense. This nonsense is what is known as the “divine darkness,” which is a person’s feeling that the Divine is so far above his understanding and so bright that the Divine appears dark before the light of the human mind, just as a human’s eyes see black after staring into the sun too long.28
Consequently, it seems to me that both the numinous and certain types of Negative Theology create just metaphors to highlight natural darkness and goodness. For instance, in the case of the numinous, the link between human ignorance and darkness is a good one since some ignorance is natural to humans and this natural ignorance entails natural curiosity. Or in the case of certain formulations of Negative Theology, the metaphor that links God and darkness is a good one since it is natural that when human beings mentally stare at God in His full splendor, they should feel confused, and hopefully, properly humbled.
In conclusion, I think a proper approach to darkness and creatures associated with the dark begins with separating literal and metaphorical darkness clearly. If this is done, then I think it becomes apparent that literal darkness in its proper place and all creatures associated with the dark are natural and good, and if people want to be both ethically and aesthetically just, they need to value and appreciate such. Nevertheless, unnatural darkness can be linked justly with evil in metaphors. However, I would encourage people to follow Rudolf Otto, Gregory Nyssa and Pseudo Dionysius in exploring ways to illustrate positive darkness in metaphors not only because such is natural and right but also because this corrective (the important word here) is badly needed in a world that largely sees darkness, and all that is associated with the dark, as both literally and metaphorically evil.
Cite this article
- Michael Salmon, “Artificial Night Lighting and Sea Turtles,” Biologist 50 (2003): 163–168.
- Scott Davis et al., “Night Shift Work, Light at Night and the Risk of Breast Cancer,” Journal of National Cancer Institute 93 (2001): 1557-1562; Eva Schernhammer et al., “Rotating Night Shifts and Risk of Breast Cancer in Women Participating in Nurses’ Health Study,” Journal of National Cancer Institute 93 (2001): 1563-1566.
- Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Our Vanishing Night,” National Geographic 28 (November 2008): 108.
- Friedrich von Schiller, “The Gods of Greece,” in The Poems of Schiller (New York: Dodo Press,2007), 3.1-4.
- See Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Random House, 1975).
- To put my thesis in a nutshell: anthropodenial, a uniquely human tendency, is not simply a pernicious intellectual position: it is a large cause of moral deformity.” Martha Nussbaum, “Compassion: Human and Animal,” presented at Seoul National University (29 August 2008):4.
- Thomas LaMarre, “Speciesism, Part I: Translating Races into Animals in Wartime Animation,” in The Limits of the Human, vol. 3, Mechademia, ed. Frenchy Lunning (Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 76.
- C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, in The Cosmic Trilogy (1943 reprint; London: Pan Books, 1990), 310-311.
- C. S. Lewis, Miracles, in C. S. Lewis: Selected Books (1947 reprint; London: HarperCollins,1999), 1149.
- Isaiah 11:8.
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in C. S. Lewis: Selected Books (1940 reprint; London:HarperCollins, 1999), 545-546.
- Aristotle, Politics, trans. R. F. Stalley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1254b10-12.
- C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, in The Cosmic Trilogy (1945 reprint; London: Pan Books1990), 672.
- Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1958), 6.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 25.
- Genesis 28:27.
- Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 8.
- Ibid., 13-30.
- Ibid., 12-13.
- For Kant, emotion is irrelevant to beauty, but not to the sublime. Moreover, while beautyhas to do with quality, the formed, the finite and the natural, the sublime has to do withquantity, the unformed, the infinite and the non-rational. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judge-ment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner, 1961) [2.23]. It should be noted that the divisionbetween the sublime and the beautiful did not originate with Kant, for Kant himself derivedthis idea from Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and Beautiful (not Longinus’ On the Sublime).However, since Otto dealt with Kant and not Burke, I have restricted my comments to Kant.Cf. Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1937), 101[3.27].
- Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 40.
- Ibid., 122.
- Ibid., 41.
- Ibid., 29.
- Plato, Phaedrus, 249-50.
- Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, in The Complete Works, trans. Paul Roem, et al.(Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987), 1048a-b.