Departments

Darkness

Darkness is shadow. The golden shadow of the incandescent bulb; the stainless shadow of the fluorescent; the quivering shadow of the gaslight (seek it where it lives yet; deep down in the oven, the pilot flame is the last gaslight). The footlight, the searchlight, live to dazzle, are stingy with shadows; but most generous of all is firelight, flicker and blaze, casting long shadows that strut and stride, the shadow players whose performance has never been commanded.

You will read that, for our ancestors, the succession of the long, dark nights of winter, solaced only by the wavering fire, relieved only by brief treks through a twilight world stifled with snow, gave on to a kind of trance, and that it is to the visions of the long winter that all superstitions may be traced. Now, the tropics have their own superstitions, but certainly the mind abhors a vacuum, and where there is nothing to be perceived, something will be imagined. So, night by night, they overlaid the everburning stars with bold constellations.

Darkness is night. Morning and evening circle, glooming and gloaming, matutinal rise intersecting crepuscular fall at the liminal coordinate where the spectrum unfolds. Twilight that never ends while the night lights burn: mercurial moonlight over the fields, mercury vapor skyglow over the cities, and the noctilucent auroboros rattling the northern sky, over forests quiet and umbrageous as the shadow lands. The stones under your feet strike triboluminescent sparks. Fireflies constellate with the stars. Far ahead a porchlight shines, generous intent as harborless as a lighthouse.

Darkness is night, darkness is shadow; the one thing darkness is not is the absence of light. The retina is stretched like a drumhead, strung with tense nerves that toll every photon, an inchoate kaleidoscope so sensitive that it need only be pressed behind closed eyes to coruscate with phosphenes like the scintillas of cold light that kindle the eddies of the troubled sea. What light conceals from us, what we see in caves and face-down on the pillow is not darkness but eigengrau, the eyes’ gray, lightened by the twitches of our dreaming nerves. Seeing eyes have never seen full dark. Darkness is not even the opposite of light; it is only a mood of light.

Hiroshima

Every year we made a day trip to visit my great-uncle Denny. He lived with his wife in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, in a house older than the United States with wine-dark rafters and a cellar like a cave. The water cycle ran from pitcher pump to outhouse. The old house stood on a rambling property, all deep green, crossed by an abandoned and overgrown railroad.

Denny was an old man, a veteran of Iwo Jima with a steel plate in his head. If I understood his stories correctly he was one of those who raised the first flag there, the little one. Of the second flag, he said “If we’d known, we all would have gone up.”

He had no interest in children. Perhaps I was oblivious; perhaps I was annoyed at being ignored; but when the subject of WWII came up, somehow, I parroted what I had been taught in school, where we had social studies instead of history: that the bombing of Hiroshima was a needless atrocity, only compounded by the spiteful destruction of Nagasaki—all typically American brutality.

That got his attention. He informed me that the only reason he was alive was because of the bomb. Had the war continued he would have been among the first on the beaches of Japan. He would surely have died. He thanked God for Truman and his bomb.

Of course I shut up, but I was more confused than enlightened. We can number the dead and number the saved, but these numbers are not like other numbers. We can count them, but we cannot calculate with them.

Ask: who, exactly, died to save whom? If this were a question of math there would be proportions to work out. “You, lover, your man died to save ten lives. You, father, your daughter died to save three and a half lives. You, mother, your baby died to save half a life. You, child, your dog died to save one twentieth of a life.”

And there would be responsibility to assign, givers to match with receivers. “You, survivor, see the face, read the name, of the man who lost his life to save your life and five other lives. Now you must remember him.”

But there are no such calculations. These numbers only look like numbers. They are lives. They are incommensurable.

It is true but trivial that I cannot put myself in Truman’s place; if I were Truman himself, I would have done as Truman did, and if Truman were someone else, he would have faced someone else’s choice, not Truman’s. But looking at the numbers we must remember that this is not an equation; there are no factors. These numbers only look like numbers. Nothing cancels out. There is no algebra of forgiveness, no solution for innocence.