This December, our seasonal reading series will concentrate on the theme of darkness in literature, beginning with a poet's search for 'starry dark' and solstice light
During the long days of summer, it's easy to forget the dark. The slow, dissolving twilights and bright mornings have it on the run; by midsummer, you can go to bed at 10pm and wake at 6am and miss it completely. But at this time of year, when the northern hemisphere nights are pressing up against the window and we're filling our houses with lamps and fires and Christmas decorations to beat back the blackness, it's a different story. Daylight in December is pale and fleeting; by midwinter's day, we're spending two-thirds of our life in the dark. And as the nights draw in, the metaphors come flooding back, too: darkness as absence, darkness as challenge, darkness as threat. The metaphysical struggle between good and evil, dark and light – which Christianity codifies as the birth of Jesus, the light that "shineth in darkness" – is enacted daily.
In Darkness and Light, the thoughtful, beautiful opening essay to her 2005 collection Findings, Kathleen Jamie considers both the metaphors that darkness furnishes, and darkness itself: "dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that's wicked". It's midwinter, and in the midst of all the usual seasonal pother, Jamie skips out and takes the ferry north from Aberdeen to Orkney. She's in search of two things: "real, natural, starry dark" and, in the neolithic burial mound of Maes Howe, a beam of solstice sunlight that, if conditions are right, will creep through the darkness and illuminate the tomb, as it has done every midwinter for 5,000 years.
In the event, she finds neither. Even at sea, where Jamie had been "secretly hoping for a moment where there was no human light … wholesome, unbanished darkness" there's always a light somewhere: coastal towns on the port side, oil rigs to starboard. And Maes Howe itself is a complex anticlimax. Not only does the sun neglect to perform, but the tomb is filled with surveyors, mapping the walls with lasers to check the progress of worrying cracks. When Jamie emerges from the entrance tunnel she finds that "inside was bright as a tube train, and the effect was brutal … At once a man's voice said, 'Sorry, I'll switch it off,' but the moment was lost." Darkness and light, Jamie shows us, aren't really locked in a dialectic at all, particularly not since the industrial revolution. Maes Howe, sunk in the dark for countless generations, is these days being held up to the light. Try as we might, we'll never experience darkness in the way its builders did.
But if Jamie admits to a throb of disappointment, there's no ersatz nostalgia here for a state that no one born in the 20th century has ever known. This isn't a lament for the oppositions that electricity's stolen from us; she's far too sensible and interested for that. "My ventures into light and dark had been ill-starred," she says. "I'd had no dramatic dark, neither at sea nor in the tomb, and no resurrecting beam of sunlight. But lasers are light, aren't they? Intensified, organised light. I'd come to Maes Howe at solstice, hoping for neolithic technology; what I'd found was the technology of the 21st century. Here were skilled people passing light over these same stones, still making measurements by light and time."
I first read this essay in high summer, when Findings was published, and was astonished at how effectively it conjured the atmosphere of midwinter. Physical dark, thick and limiting, with curtained windows and Christmas lights gleaming against it: this was what I came away with. But I've read it many times since, and with each rereading I take greater satisfaction in the way Jamie responds to the subtleties and gradations of a duality that appears at first glance to be black and white. "For five thousand years we have used darkness as the metaphor of our mortality," she says, towards the end. "We have not banished death, but we have banished the dark. We have light, we have oilfields and electricity and lasers. And by the light we have made, we can see that there are, metaphorically speaking, cracks … We look about the world, by the light we have made, and realise it's all vulnerable, and all worth saving, and no one can do it but us."
Five thousand years on from the construction of Maes Howe we still have darkness, we still have light, and the two of them still fit together, hand in glove. But in the hands of Kathleen Jamie, the metaphors they offer slip and slide and grow in complexity. If you're looking for a read to get you in the spirit of midwinter, this is it.