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Interstice: Night Where is the philosopher who will give us the metaphysics of the night, the metaphysics of the human night? —Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie Press close, bare-bosomed Night! Press close, magnetic, nourishing Night! / Night of south winds! Night of the large, few stars! / Still, nodding Night! Mad, naked, Summer Night! —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass I woke up suddenly in a cold sweat on the cement floor of a dank basement in an old Victorian house in Minneapolis. Bathed in utter blackness and drowning in the impenetrable depth of night, I was sequestered deep inside something without an apparent outside. Palpable fear and panic set in. I was disoriented, lost even to myself, unsure if I was truly alive and yet so nervously awake as to be able to conclude with implacable logic that I could not possibly be dead. Tripping over sleeping bodies strewn pell-mell before me, I felt my way with the eyes of my feet to a set of stairs, where I extricated myself awkwardly from this abyss and emerged into a less tangible darkness, one which revealed me again to the scrutiny and certitude of my own gaze. “Night is made of night,” observes Bachelard.1 As an ethereal, insubstantial “substance” lit up by itself, night might be apprehended fully only by a highly developed material imagination. Night papers over details and sharp distinctions, enveloping and enshrouding those who enter into its midst and seeming to play a kind of hide-and-go-seek with itself. “Night, the female, / Obscure, / Fragrant and supple, / Conceals herself,” says Wallace Stevens.2 But darkness is not always such a black-and-white affair. It is more typically a phenomenon distinguished by degrees, ranging from the dimming light of day to that of “starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum”—to use the imagery of a contemporary novelist—a chasm so rich it consumes our very bearings.3 Thus, we 283 284 | Elemental Philosophy might speak preferably of qualitatively different kinds of night and characterize it in terms of shades, textures, tones, tints, or tiers. These intricacies are hinted at through the prism of language. In German, for example, there are several different words for darkness, including das Dunkel (the dark), die Finsternis (suggestive of complete and ominous darkness), and die Dunkelheit (where vision is clouded or obscured). “The imagination,” Bachelard hypothesizes, “commonly accepts dreams of an active night, a penetrating night, an insinuating night, or of a night that invades the substance of things.”4 Dusk and twilight are not simply transitional realms between the luster of day and the opaqueness of night but atmospheric conditions with their own character. Of evening, Rilke writes, “The sky puts on the darkening blue coat / held for it by the row of ancient trees; / you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight, / one journeying to the heaven, one that falls; / and leave you, not at home in either one.”5 Strolling through a stand of trees by moonlight, awakening from slumber in a strange bed, rushing for shelter during a lightning storm, or moving between rooms in a poorly lit house, we may step into and out of many forms of the flickering presence of night while our ears and touch compensate for our slowly adjusting eyes and mind. Positioned in a metaphoric way between the withdrawn glow of fire in the form of the sun and the concealed but light-squelching earth in the form of the land, night belongs most basically, however, to the realm of elemental air. Here, it assumes a shapeless shape, obliterating horizons, softening sharp edges, colonizing once familiar spaces, and blooming into an ambient or encompassing event as opposed to an isolated entity. In the words of Alphonso Lingis, “It extends a duration which moves without breaking up into moments.” It arrives “incessantly in a presence which does not mark a residue as past nor outline a different presence to come.”6 In dialogue with all four of the classical elements, night exhibits a special relation to liquidity as well. As Bachelard puts it, night “penetrates the waters, dims the depths of the lake, saturates the pool.”7 Swimming or being at sea very late in the evening, in fact, redoubles and intensifies the experience of the nocturnal deep, subsuming us at once from above and below. Thus, when Pip goes overboard in Melville’s Moby Dick, he becomes invisible three times over in...


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