Publication Year: 2014
What is the effect of light as it measures the seasons? How does light leave different traces on the terrain–on a Pacific Island, in the Aegean Sea, high in the Alps, or in the forest? John Sallis considers the expansiveness of nature and the range of human vision in essays about the effect of light and luminosity on place. Sallis writes movingly of nature and the elements, employing an enormous range of philosophical, geographical, and historical knowledge. Paintings and drawings by Alejandro A. Vallega illuminate the text, accentuating the interaction between light and environment.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Studies in Continental Thought
Title Page, Copyright, Quote
The return of light in spring brings joy and hope to living things. For in one way or another light governs virtually everything of concern to them. It makes visible the things around them; it lets the presence of things and of natural elements be sensed in the most disclosive manner; and thereby it clears the space within which things can be most sensibly encountered and elements such as earth and sky can be revealed in their gigantic expanse...
Clouds are little more than traces of light. On sunny days when only a few are scattered about the sky, the clouds appear to amplify the light, all the more so if they are of the white, voluminous sort. Because they are hardly distinguishable from the light, it is as if they bestowed their whiteness on the purely white, but invisible, light itself, by this means endowing it with perceptible form, rendering it visible...
There are opposites that are said and opposites that are seen. When opposites that have been said come to be seen, they inevitably prove to be less opposed than they were said to be. The sky above is no mere opposite of the earth below; rather, they are also bound together, encompassing the space in which nearly everything of concern to humans appears. Day and night, determined primarily by the presence or absence of sunlight, not only are bound by their sequential occurrence but also display, each in its own way, a certain play of light...
3. Exorbitant Points
Though broader than a great river, the Bay of Corinth flows gently, as if it were a vast lake with no opening onto the sea. It sets the Peloponnisos apart from the rest of Greece. Indeed, together with the Saronic Bay, it divides the entire country into two parts, bridged only by the isthmus running from Corinth across into Attica. Bordered on the east by the isthmus and the city of Corinth, it extends westward and slightly to the north until, as it approaches Patras, it reaches its narrowest point...
Its place is other, utterly so. Its remoteness is so unyielding that any attempt to measure its distance from anything familiar could only have the effect of setting it still more insistently apart. Yet precisely as a place of such alterity, this site is most impressive to behold in its sheer presence. Perfectly framed by sea and sky, as if raised by the earth itself up out of the intensely blue surface of the Aegean, the site belongs uniquely to these elements...
Standing atop the high promontory that juts out into the water, it is almost as if one were at sea completely out of sight of land. There at the edge of the precipice, little or nothing can be seen of the rocky earth; under the intense light of the cloudless day, virtually all that is visible is the sky and the sea. The Aegean stretches beyond to the horizon, which bounds the visible while remaining itself invisible; or rather, it appears only as the line that could be – but is not – drawn where the blue of the sea meets the lighter blue of the sky...
6. City of Lights
These are days when the sky is pure light spreading its gift across the expanse of the city, casting its luminous splendor on the boulevards and the monuments, the gardens and the palaces. On such days the light shines with such intensity that it actually produces the opposite of its usual effect, assuming the guise of a gift that in being given also takes back a certain measure of what it bestows...
7. Time's Shadows
Around the time of the summer solstice the sunlight can become almost unbearable both in its intensity and in its duration. Yet it was a fitting time to chance upon a remarkable instrument by which, in a former time, sunlight provided the measure of time. I found it on the side of an old house in the nearby village of Bergheim. Set between two second-story windows above a small shop, the astronomical sundial consists of a painted square some two meters wide from which extend three metal rods...
8. The Light Spread of Time
The day is exquisite as it spreads its light over the entire valley. The scattered clouds are as brilliantly white as the sky is intensely blue. From this brilliance and intensity along with the sharpness with which the clouds are outlined against the sky, it can be seen that the air, at this moment, is exceptionally transparent, utterly diaphanous. The phenomenon is remarkable: the transparent air can, in this sense, be seen – directly, not by way of inference – even though it is not itself seen, not seen as such...
Favor is always granted to the upward look. Vision is invariably drawn to the heights, as if by nature, as if orientation to the upward way were indigenous to human nature, inscribed there by nature itself. Not even the most extreme obsession with things close at hand or with their bearing on us can render us entirely insensitive to the force of attraction to the heights. This force not only draws vision upward but also, as the heights open up, recoils earthward, comes over us, eliciting affective simulation of the sublime ascent that vision will already have traced...
10. Summer Snow
Even though it is midsummer, almost a month after the solstice, yesterday brought a fairly heavy snowfall in the mountains. As we drove up through the pass, the temperature plummeted, and the heavy rain and thick fog deprived all but the immediate surroundings of its visibility. There could be little doubt but that higher up, around the soaring peaks, snow was falling. Yet, as night came on to enshroud everything, enclosing even the fog and clouds in darkness, not even the slightest glimpse of the raging elements above was possible. We would have to wait until morning...
11. Dark Light
When we speak apart from nature, even in speaking of nature, the lines that separate things, the figures of their demarcation, are distinctly drawn. Light is light, and dark is dark; and if, as at twilight, they appear to blend, it will be said that they do so without either of them relinquishing anything of itself to the other. One arrives, the other withdraws, and it is only a matter of their presence, of the degree of presence of each. When one arrives and the other withdraws, then, as always, light remains light and dark remains dark...
12. At Sea
The ship set out from Trogir. It was a small ship carrying only a dozen passengers and manned by a crew of four. We were to be at sea for a week, remaining on the ship except for relatively brief evening visits to a few of the cities, towns, and other sites along the way. As the ship pulled out of the harbor and headed southeast along the coast of the mainland, its continual swaying and the loud splashing of the waves against its side offered a constant reminder that we were at sea...
I went down yesterday to the harbor along with some of my most perceptive friends. We were eager to observe the sea at close hand, to relish the sights it offered, both the sea itself in its various guises and all that was gathered around it or that might emerge from it. As we walked on silently, heading directly toward the landing, past all the spectacles that might have distracted us, we not only anticipated the sights at sea but also were brimming with expectations that being at sea would prompt memories retained from the most cherished tales of the sea...
They come and go with the clouds, fading into the surrounding shadows as the clouds come to block the direct sunlight, disappearing entirely whenever the clouds are sufficiently dense, then reappearing as if by magic. If they appear on the forest floor, then some of the growth that is sparsely spread across that expanse is also illuminated, its shiny leaves sparkling in the same light that casts the sunspots...
15. Visible Time
Not many leaves have yet fallen. Most are still green, even if beginning to show fringes of orange and yellow. Yet there are already a few trees that have donned their fall colors, displaying them brilliantly on days that are bright and clear, attesting visibly to the arrival of the season. Though the sun now stays a bit lower in the sky and the character of the light is noticeably different from that of summer, there is still, on bright, clear days, more than ample sunlight to let the blaze of color appear in all its radiance...
Although the day was overcast with a thick, steely gray cloud cover, the deep orange of the bird’s breast – a color not unlike that of a robin – shone almost as on a bright summer day. This coloring, along with the distinct white bands on the feathers of its broad, fan-shaped tail, made its specific identity nearly unmistakable. But the dark red patches on its shoulders, which, when it was in flight, broadened to form much of the leading edge of its wings, served to dispel all doubt. The bird was a red-shouldered hawk...
Now, after the snow, there is not the slightest hint of the wind that so recently swept out of the northeast, bringing with it the first winter storm of the season. Now the trees and everything around them are completely still. Not even the slightest breeze comes to give voice to the dry, brown leaves that still cling persistently to the branches of the oaks. There is not the slightest rustling among them. Only silence...
Some days have passed since the big snowfall. It was a gentle snow with large snowflakes coming straight down, as there was almost no wind to divert them or to set them whirling about. Indeed, it was less like a storm and more like a dreamy, magical scene, almost as if staged purely for our enjoyment and in this sense exemplary of natural beauty. As the snowflakes floated slowly downward, they were the very picture of lightness itself...