There have been many times in my life when I have been totally at ease in complete darkness. It isn’t for everyone, I know that, and there are many people who get freaked out whenever they are left to their own devices in total darkness. My younger sister is one of them, and my material grandmother was another. This isn’t to imply this is a gender issue but I will lay claim to the darkness disorder being on of cultural inheritance. We humans see better with light but this has been taken to an extreme that is blinding us all.
The black belongs to those of us who remember it. I remember the tomes before security lights and blinding everywhere- you- go- illumination. A man could once see a million more stars at night than can be seen now and each nighttime horizon has more and more sunrises from towns that light up the skies with photo-pollution. There are keychains with lights on them so you can find the right key and the correct place to slip it into. There are more and more lights and people can see less and less clearly at night.
What has confounded many a scientist over the ages is how cave painting were done so well and there not be any more ceiling scorching than there is. There is evidence torches were used in the caves but the drawing and paintings in the caves in France must have taken many hours yet there just aren’t that many torch marks or that much soot to be found. Some, true enough, but not enough to shed light on how they managed to do so much work with so little light.
If you knew the smell of a torch might mean someone else out there would know what you were doing and the light of a torch would announce to everyone and everything where you were, how big of a torch would you carry? Would it be one of those four foot long Hollywood torches you see in all the movies or would you carry illumination just enough for you to see what you were doing? Excess in all things is a strictly modern trait and to attribute it to our ancestors thirty-thousand years ago is foolish and misguiding.
How much light do you really need to open your door at night when you are carrying an armload of groceries? I do it on a regular basis with no light. My fingers find the right key by touch. The slot for the key is clear to me in total darkness because this is how I have opened this door for over eleven years now. I can find the handle to my truck door in the dark, and I frequently navigate my home and property without light. Could you change a tire in total darkness? Could you wash a load of clothes without a light? Could you walk ten miles to a cave in a few hours, in total black night, and in subfreezing temperatures? You do realize that the harnessing of light in any form is more or less a modern trait also, do you not? The movies that show ancient Egyptians with palaces that are lit up Las Vegas style are very likely incorrect, at best.
When we draw or write we use a surplus of light. My efforts on a computer lights up a room with enough light to have several Abraham Lincolns doing math homework on the head of a shovel with a piece of coal and it doesn’t seem excessive to me now. But after a couple of hours of writing I can go into the backyard with the dogs and I am all but blind. This isn’t the way we began, you know, and it isn’t the way we have to be now. But we’ve come to believe dark and foreboding are one in the same and they are not.
You have to remember that as a class of human beings, artists have nearly always been those who stayed in the darkness. Not because we are evil or depressed, but because late at night is when the Muse will visit, and by the light of a low fire, the cave drawings might have been done. How much light is needed by those who have little to begin with? How many great writers scribble away thousands of years ago by moonlight, starlight, and the light of a tiny oil lamp? How much of what we consider to be literature was written by the flame of a single candle? How many words have been typed away on a mechanical typewriter when there was only the light of a single bare bulb, dangling overhead?
Imagine if you will the coals that you might cook a hamburger upon, or roast a few ears of corn with. Imagine that this was the brightest light that you could afford without having to go get firewood, or risk giving yourself away in the night ( or in the day) for cave bears were known to love caves of all things. Who can say? Was this something an entire group of people did? Was one person in the clan appointed to paint? Was this a social event, a ceremony, a plea to the gods, a flight of passion, or something that we of the bright lights and instant access to everything, simply cannot comprehend?
We will never know.
Nothing exists of these people but stone tools, some bones, and the cave paintings. We know they buried their dead, but not in the Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There are no human remains left behind there. That cave doesn’t seem to be used for living, but rather, perhaps, the first art gallery. Perhaps the presence of large predators made making art the first dangerous form of self-expression. Perhaps before we humans chased the cave bears away our art was created there for some shamanistic reason.
We will never know.
But there are still those of us who fear no darkness, who walk with the dogs in the night full of stars, and who see quite well when there seems to be nothing there but fear, and a cave of dreams.