Thirteen years ago, the Canadian poet Don Coles published a remarkable essay with the title “Light Fantastic” in the Three for Thought series that used to run at the back of the Globe and Mail’s Books section. At the time, I was so impressed that I cut the essay out of the paper and filed it away. Since then, I’ve developed the habit of re-reading the piece every year at this time, after we abandon Daylight Savings Time and take the headlong plunge into winter’s cold and dark. For some reason, doing this seems to fortify and brace me for the advent of winter, if only because Coles affirms that the approach of darkness—and the dread that that approach inspires—is part of a struggle that defines our humanity.
The Globe and Mail ran the essay on 24 December 2005, a few days after the winter solstice, when night falls like a curtain around 4:30 p.m. in southern Ontario. In his 800-word meditation, Coles considered three works of art for the way they reveal the fundamental control that light (and its absence) exerts over our moods and enthusiasms: a film (Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), an essay (Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse”), and an epic poem (the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s facing-page translation).
The hero of Bergman’s film is an aging professor who has collected many honors for his life’s work but whose emotional coldness has ruined his marriage and kept him at a distance from his children. Coles focuses on one retrospective scene from this man’s youth, a luminously sunny day he spent in the company of others his own age by the bank of a river. The soft light so suffuses the scene that it seems to impart a sense of forgiveness for everything that came after in this man’s life. Perhaps—I’m extrapolating on my own here—but perhaps, a kind of mystical connection exists between light and memory, and perhaps the fiber of that connection consists of grace.
Dillard’s essay describes an eclipse that she and her husband watched from a hilltop in the American West. At the moment the sun disappeared, the black shadow on the land rushed at them with such speed that they both screamed in terror. There’s nothing more basic, Dillard suggests, than our dependence on the sun, and nothing more terrifying than its disappearance.
Beowulf may be far removed from us in time, but in one sense it represented familiar territory for Coles, who lived for several years in Sweden, the place that Beowulf also called home. In the poem, it’s the darkness of night that releases the monster Grendel from his lair in a black pond, and every time Grendel is mentioned in the poem, he’s associated with the night. For twelve years, Grendel attacked Hrothgar’s thanes, ripping them limb from limb and drinking their blood. Until Beowulf arrived in his glittering armor and the real battle commenced, a battle between, as Coles points out, the sun on the one hand and primal darkness on the other. That the sun wins out in the end gives us cause for hope, even if hope itself has limits.
In an unexpected coda at the end of the essay, Coles, who was 78 at the time he wrote, remarked: “So light triumphs, yes. But to the old and the ill, things are not as we have said. Darkness and night are more familiar to them than they are to us, their hearts do not screech as the humiliations of the day are discarded and they enter that sought-after, unwatched, unjudged privacy…. They enter into the dark bearing their strong thoughts.”
Thirteen years ago, I had to clip this minor masterpiece out of the newspaper in order to save and read it over and over again. Now, thanks to that particular branch of the Akashic Record known as the Internet, you can access and read the article anytime you please by clicking here: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/light-fantastic/article740681/
It’s worth a click, I would say.
A couple of updates …
- An article I wrote has been accepted for publication by Canadian Notes and Queries, where it will appear sometime in 2019.
- I’ve started publishing articles and stories on the website called medium.com. If interested, you can access a short story here: https://medium.com/@edtoronto/fairchild-garden-69b96f894782