There are two big trees in my garden under which, when friends are visiting, we sit and talk, sometimes during the day, but usually at night. Especially at night, when talk seems less inhibited, wider-ranging, strangely more stimulating. There is something about sitting outside in the dark that seems conducive to unfettered conversation.
Jorge Luis Borges inherited from his father a disease that he knew would eventually leave him blind. Sometime after his fiftieth birthday, he noticed that his sight was growing much worse. The doctor forbade him to read in dim light. One day, on a train journey, he was so engrossed in a detective novel he was reading that he carried on, page after page, in the fading light of the evening. Shortly before his destination, the train entered a tunnel. When it emerged, Borges could no longer see anything, except a coloured haze in the "darkness visible" that Milton thought was hell. In that darkness Borges lived for the rest of his life, composing poems, essays and stories. In the light of the first half of his life, he wrote and read silently; in the gloom of the second, he dictated and had others read out loud for him. Darkness promotes speech. Light is silent; or, as Henry Fielding explains in Amelia, "Tace, madam, is Latin for a candle."
Tradition tells us that words, not light, came first, out of the primordial darkness. According to a Talmudic legend, when God set out to create the world, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet descended from the terrible and august crown of God and begged Him to effect His creation through them. God consented. He allowed the alphabet to give birth to the heavens and the earth in darkness, and then to bring forth the first ray of light from the earth’s core, so that it might pierce the Holy Land and illuminate the entire universe. Light (what we take to be light, Sir Thomas Browne tells us) is only the shadow of God, in whose radiance reading is no longer possible. God’s back was enough to dazzle Moses, who had to wait until he was back in the darkness of the Sinai in order to read to the Jews their Lord’s commandments, through whose words the light shines upon the world. St. John, with praiseworthy economy, summed up the events in one famous line: "In the beginning was the Word."
Words call for light, bring it into being, and then mourn its passing. The poet Dylan Thomas urged his father not to allow himself to die by pressing now famous words on the old man: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light!" And Othello too, in agony, unable to say more words (the words that lend him life on the page), confuses the light of candles with the light of life, and sees them as one and the same: "Put out the light," he orders, "and then put out the light." Words call for light, but light seems to oppose the active word. When Thomas Jefferson introduced the Argand lamp to New England in the mid-eighteenth century, it was observed that the conversation at dinner tables, once lit by candlelight, ceased to be as brilliant as before, because those who excelled in talking now took to their rooms to read silently in bed. "I have too much light," says the Buddha, and refuses to say another word.
In one other sense words create light. The Mesopotamian who wished to continue his reading when night had fallen; the Roman who intended to pursue his studious documents after dinner, the monk in his cell and the scholar in his study after having said the evening prayers, the courtier retiring to his bedchamber and the lady to her boudoir, the child hiding beneath the covers to read after curfew—all set up, for the sake of the words they sought to read, the light that would illuminate their search. In the National Archeological Museum in Naples stands an oil lamp from Pompeii in whose light Pliny the Elder might have read his last book before setting off to die in the eruption of 79 A.D. Somewhere in Stratford, Ontario, is a solitary candleholder that came (it is said) from Shakespeare’s house; it once held a candle whose brief life Macbeth saw as a reflection of his own. The lamps that guided Dante’s reading in Ravenna and Racine’s reading in Port-Royal, Stendhal’s in Rome and De Quincey’s in London, all were born from words calling from between the covers, light assisting the birth of light.
Sometimes light, once born, is self-sufficient and doesn’t need words to tell a story. Seeing the dazzling display of lights on Broadway, G. K. Chesterton exclaimed: "What a wonderful sight this would be, if only we couldn’t read!" The night landscape, once dotted with the glimmer of stars and fires, is now studded with the eerie glitter of television and computer screens, grey, blue and green, signalling their desperately brief messages that proclaim the abolition of time and space. They require no content, assume no particular reader: light for the sake of light, beyond illumination.
"May the obscure poet persevere in his obscurity, if he wishes to reach illumination," wrote Jean Paulhan, for whom light, born from words, became a text that, in its absolute clarity, no longer required reading.