Demons by Candelight

I grew up with frequent power outages and load-shedding, especially during  the summer time. Dark evenings without power were a special time for children. The candle-lit hours on porches and balconies were a strange mix of an ethereal kind of intimacy,  beckoning darkness, and thoughts that retreated from both sunlight and electric lights.

You could do nothing useful during those hours. There was no TV or radio. Reading was difficult. Candle-lit meals tended to be either quick, simple affairs whipped up in semi-darkness, or leftovers. Families who turned the blacked-out evenings into family time generally sat out on the porch. Adults would use the time to tell family stories to children. Teenagers and some couples would stroll up and down the street, occasionally stopping to chat with neighbors. Younger kids would run around squealing and playing, seemingly possessed by the strange euphoria-inducing forces leaking in from another world. Or they would huddle together and try to scare each other with ghost stories.

Even back then, having never experienced cold northern climates, I instinctively knew that the Scottish word fey, born of cold foggy highlands, and which I had only encountered in books, was somehow the right word for the charged pre-Monsoon summer air around me.

***

To a great extent, our existence is framed by the kinds of light that illuminate it. The work/life balance is really a sunlight/electricity balance. Half our waking hours are framed by sunlight, the other half by electric lighting.

If the medium is the message, the message of sunlight is survival and work. Despite emerging lore around hacker all-nighters and owl-work, we are not a nocturnal species, or anywhere close to becoming one. We conduct our affairs in the harsh and unforgiving light of the sun. Sunlight is much too valuable to waste on non-essentials, so it is a light that keeps our mind on practical details. Even apparent leisure activities have a plugged-in-and-present quality to them, with a clearly definable value proposition that can be linked to survival. We save our slow strolls for sunrises and sunsets. Exercise in broad daylight is vigorous and energetic; for health.

The message of electricity-powered evenings on the other hand, is one of active and practical reflection, of learning from our own lives and the lives of others, through television and the Internet in particular. We review our own game-tapes, in solitude or in conversation. We take in and discuss news of distant wars and local traffic accidents, integrating them into the backdrop of our own stories.

Where work leaks into the night, it tends to be the heroic component. Programming or writing sessions driven by the steady energy of flow conditions. Or heavy-lift efforts to conquer piled-up mountains of tax paperwork. The banalities of life — calling customer support, going to the post office, holding meetings — those are for sunlight hours.

But candlelight  hours enforced by blackouts are neither sunlit nor electrically lit. Candlelight is a light of disconnection and isolation; of forced intimacy and reflections easily avoided at other times. Of forced sensory presence in the here-now, rather than a sought-out and self-imposed retreat from life.

It is the difference being wanting to learn to swim and being dumped unceremoniously into the deep end. For adults unused to radical disconnection, candlelight can  bring forth more lurking horrors than the supernatural imaginings of children.

Such people, unable to handle ascetic slowness for even a couple of hours, buy generators.

***

Several of those unplugged childhood evenings have stayed in my memory. I remember no practical details, but I do remember the visceral experience of those hours. The fleeting expressions on the faces of friends, blurs of charged, too-excited play, meditative and relaxed adult brows ordinarily creased by worry or impatience, sensations and smells. The respite of being unable to act due to acts of nature — and power outages are as much a part of nature as lighting and floods  — is an especially liberating sort of respite. You can truly let yourself off the hook.

The darkness was not the forbidding darkness of graveyard nights and malicious monsters under the bed, or deep forests. Looking out at the neighborhood from your porch or balcony, you could see little islands of candlelight in neighbors’ homes, people walking about, occasionally flicking flashlights on or off.  The darkness, even if other-worldly, was of a strangely comforting sort.

Demons seemed to be abroad, slipping silently between the puddles of light, watching quietly from the soft shadows. Not emissaries of distant imperial devils, but personal demons, just a little more powerful than the humans whose minds had created them. Capable of causing pain but not necessarily in a mood to do so.

Those nights were not the lamp-lit evenings of pre-electric times and places. A scheduled withdrawal of electricity provides the necessary hard temporal boundaries between work and life on the one hand and stillness on the other, for demons to emerge. Without those hard boundaries, those fey thoughts from another world cannot slowly and tentatively  suffuse this world.

***

When the power came back on, people would retreat into their homes, return to their lives with an odd mixture of relief and regret. Children would attempt to play on, desperately trying to hold on to the magic retreating into the deeper darkness, far from the harsher boundaries guarded by electric lighting.

But the euphoria would drain away. Hunger or sleepiness would overcome them, and reluctantly, they would go home.

It took me a long time to recognize this sense of loss that accompanied the return of power as a sense of parting from infrequently encountered (and often unrecognized) personal demons. We might fear and repress them, but we realize deep down that we need to stay connected with them; that disconnection is a kind of loss; that the natural and non-threatening encounters by candlelight were precious; that connecting with them deliberately was difficult.

I know now, having been in situations where someone has died, that part of the dark euphoria was the darkness of ever-present mortality in our midst. Under normal circumstances, death is a distant abstraction. For the religious, it is an after world of a heaven high above or a hell deep below. For atheists, it is some vaguely poetic notion of temporary waves of low-entropy consciousness subsiding back into the larger material background of the universe. Perhaps dissolving into some incredibly dilute universal background consciousness sloshing about. Quarks to quarks.

During periods of bereavement, those abstractions turn personal and immediate. Demons that normally never emerge in our daily lives walk abroad in both broad daylight and harsh electric lighting, with temporary funerary visas that allow them to interrupt and still our daily lives, but restrained somewhat by the leashes of funeral rituals.

But the dark euphoria of candle-lit blackouts is the sense of those funerary demons lurking in the shadows without an immediate reason for being there. They are there because life is on pause and there is nothing else competing for our attention. They are the demons of the incredibly important but incredibly not-urgent parts of our lives; the parts whose due dates are own death-dates.

They are the demons of our growing but unprocessed understanding of mortality,  which accumulates through life as a dark philosophical debt. Demons who will eventually call to collect on our own unconscious commitments to ourselves. Commitments to pause and evaluate the significance of everything in our lives, in light of the acceptance that it will end some day.

Mortality is not so much a scary proposition as a rarely used and therefore unfamiliar one. It rarely appears on stage in our awareness, because it rarely plays a part in our everyday computations concerning groceries and paychecks, inboxes and car oil-changes. But mortality also represents a second set of books in our life. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we realize that the first set of practical books cannot make sense unless we keep the second set of mortality books somewhat up to date. It is this book-keeping that makes the examined life worth living, and the unexamined life increasingly incomprehensible. The contemplation of mortality is the ultimate sort of refactoring.

Sometimes I think I should set up email alerts at random times in the future saying, “you are mortal.” Now that I live in a country where rolling blackouts are about as rare as condors, I can feel more dark philosophical debt accumulating than I am used to carrying around.

It is not good to go too long without pausing to consciously reflect on the idea that we are mortal beings. Otherwise the subconscious sense of accumulating debt creeps into our lives in other ways, and we begin to act dead while still alive, like a plant that wilts because dead leaves are not being pruned away. To live fully, we must be occasionally reminded that we, and those around us, will not live forever.

***

I learned recently  that our ancestors did not sleep as we did.  Before street-lighting (first oil and gas, then electric) became common in the 1800s, apparently humans tended to sleep in two sessions, eight hours spread across two sessions within a twelve hour period between sunset and sunrise. Between first and second sleep, people apparently lived a third life that was distinct from the work of daylight between dawn and dusk, and the life of evenings until first bed-time.

I suspect the period between first and second sleep was something like what we experience today during blackouts. The link above mentions several interesting things about the period, and references a few books I plan to read. One interesting snippet:

An English doctor wrote, for example, that the ideal time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.” And, explaining the reason why working class conceived more children, a doctor from the 1500s reported that they typically had sex after their first sleep.

Our modern understanding of the work/life balance, or as I called it, the sunlight/electricity balance, is incomplete. Our lives are really lived in three pieces. Work/life/stillness. Or sunlight/electricity/candlelight.

Stillness has been missing from our lives for a while now. Our brains have play and rewind buttons, but no pause button. By stillness, I don’t mean the sort that $65/hour life coaches with a flair for Hallmark-card spirituality recommend we build into our lives. Not the embarrassed stillness of overly self-conscious attempts to “slow down” in the spirituality theaters of our times. Not the turn-of-your-cellphones affectations of self-important motivational speakers and yoga instructors.

I mean unguided, uncoached, unscripted stillness as a natural component of the patterns of life. A component that our ancestors learned to experience as a matter of course in their regular lives. A component that was a happy consequence of blackouts during the age of unreliable electricity (an age that continues today in large parts of the world).

This does not mean, by the way, that you can legislate more stillness into our lives through blackouts planned solely for the purpose. Blackouts are accidental stumbles into stillness. The demons do not come forth if we plan parties for them.

***

Stillness is the third space between spaces of action and reflection. A space that vanishes if life becomes too frictionless and reliably provisioned.

The work of daylight is the trial-and-error of doing. Where action is relentless movement in pursuit of survival and reflection is real-time learning and self-correction.

The life of evenings is replay and reflection. A searching and restless energy that pursues meaning in the day’s action. We play back emotionally charged events over and over, trying to process them into intelligence to inform days to come, significance to deepen evenings to come. The pursuit is a pursuit of sacredness. What do we value? Evenings curled up with books? Evenings spent drinking with friends? How do we get more of what we value? How much money do we need? How can we get it? What went wrong? What went right?

The pursuit of the sacred is the pursuit of a worthwhile life and worthwhile work. In the industrial pattern of life, we seek to enable it during the day and enjoy it during evenings, separating worthwhile into two pieces. If we succeed, an increasingly refined sense of the sacred becomes our measure of money. If the separation becomes too perfect, money becomes our measure of the sacred, a deep sort of existential corruption.

But corrupted or not, a sense of the sacred is an incomplete measure of life. Because to sacralize something is to view it in an eternal rather than transient light. We may apply the adjective precious to a moment, but what makes it so is not the moment itself, but its persistent, undiminished significance through future moments, including moments beyond our own deaths.

Stillness is the other side of sacredness, the experience and contemplation of transience, letting go and irreversible loss. The practice of accommodating emptiness. In the presence of the demons who represent the work of our lives that must be done before we are done.

We can blend work and life. Sunlight and electricity are, to some extent, interchangeable. The globalization of personal connections means half our long-distance calls and chats are suffused by some mix of electricity and sunlight anyway. We have learned to stumble through greeting rituals that mix good morning and good night within the space of an hour.

But stillness is hard to reach, harder to blend into work and life.

But it is the other measure of money.

***

There is a new kind of stillness creeping back into our lives. The dim glow of smartphone screens is more like candle light than electricity or sunlight. It is a warm bubble of connected hyper-intimacy we carry around with us through both days and evenings.

Sometimes, when I look up from my smartphone and unplug momentarily from Facebook and Twitter, I get the same sense of unreal other-worldliness that I used to get looking out at the urban landscape of a blackout.

Darkness is a relative thing after all. Even the brightest-lit scene seems dark when you become sensitized to what you’re not seeing. Walking about, glancing up from the small screen, I realize that I am surrounded by darkness. People whose lives are opaque to me. Trees I know nothing about until I try to identify them on Wikipedia. Docked ships with invisible stories attached, which I cannot see unless I look up a ship-tracking site. And somewhere in the universe of unexplored information, lurking demons of our digital selves who can wander invisibly even in the brightest sunlight, stewards of debts we did not know we were accumulating.

The demons of our smartphone lights are perhaps more powerful than the demons of candle light. Because until recently, we weren’t even aware they existed.

Now we do. We know they’re out there. We know they represent unrecognized debts to ourselves. More work-of-life items for our to-do lists. And that, I suppose, is what makes the age of the Internet a new kind of enlightenment.

The light of smartphones is a weak one today. It is not always on or all-powerful in relation to the universe of digital information, the way electric lighting is in relation to physical darkness. Using a smartphone feels like using a flashlight during a blackout. I often hop back and forth between offline and online worlds, googling birds and ships I spot, restaurants I walk by. Soon, I suppose, I’ll learn more about people I see through my AR glasses, whenever those become cheap enough for me to buy. Those will perhaps be the electric bulbs of our time, replacing the smartphone candles we stumble about with today.

Much of the darkness being lifted today only reveals a world of new banalities. But hidden among those there are new debts to fill moments of stillness.

When augmented reality finally hits our world in earnest, another layer of darkness will be peeled away. Demons that lurk today in the darkness of smartphone-level connectedness will retreat.

And we will come to cherish newer kinds of unexpected and unscheduled darkness.

 

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Venkat:
    Nice post. I enjoy most of your writing on Ribbonfarm. This piece in particular has a unique feel to it. It seems more organic in tone, less self-consciously cerebral. I live in northern New England, the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire to be specific. It is mountainous, heavily wooded, lots of lakes, deep snow, gusting winds and sub-zero Winter ( I’m aware that seasons do not need to be capatalized, but trust me, a New Hampshire Winter deserves to be) temps. We frequently lose power in the Winter, so I’m deeply familiar with the shadowy candle-lit world you write of. This is a world where the demons and ghosts of our mortality and life reflection push the stark light of the sun and electricity aside, for a more ephemoral introspective illumination.

  2. A nice change from business driven perspectives.
    However swapping diurnal for nocturnal shows that you are still ensconced in the “bright” side :-)

  3. Appreciated your rare essayistic foray, Venkat. It did feel like it belonged more to the Tempo blog though (or Aeon for that matter). Anyway, a few questions just to characterise your terminology better.

    Is stillness the time for paying dark philosophical debt by reflecting on mortality and humanity, as long as you don’t reflect on daytime or evening activities?

    Is the stillness of smartphones while we use the smartphones or immediately after?

    What would the demons of smartphones (and AR glasses) remind us of compared to those of candlelight?

    Would it be possible that smartphone and AR life actually become our work/life and that disconnection from them would be the new blackouts and times of stillness?

    Hope this doesn’t seem like excessive hermeneutics.

    • I think we’re still figuring that out very slowly. And yes, I think mortality and humanity are always the perennial themes despite technology shifts. We just discover new aspects.

      All those ghost-in-the-machine sci-fi stories of uploaded brains etc. hint at what’s to come.

  4. Nice post. Brings me glimpses of my own far away childhood, and thoughts about the way we are spending night time.

  5. 1st sleep is mentioned multiple places in the Decameron; it’s also in the Satyricon from the Roman era.

  6. Jiaoning says:

    Spot on! This also makes me reflect on the periods between house moves when I have a new internet service not quite installed. I always cherish this time. I have even drawn it out for a couple of weeks, using computer cafés to cover the necessities.

    My relationship to my computer during that time is changed. I think there is are a few of those dark debts there. Lurking inside my silicon box there is a whole subset of my own thoughts feelings that only get touched with the Internet is off. I also have this strange feeling of relief and a life back to normal when my Internet gets turned on, but yes it is accompanied by sadness.

  7. Manjunath says:

    Venkat,

    Loved it!! A very neat description of what I have experienced during the growing years…again, loved it!

    Manju

  8. This is a very refreshingly different post than one of those you say you do once in a while. Not too many reference links but many references. Amazing line you have trodden, with a secular, spiritual musing without unnecessary guru-bashing.

    While you have warned against separation, I think you have not sufficiently explored the attempts (if not success) of some to not just blend but seek “work” that is completely selfless and continuously in a “spiritual flow” mode, without money being a measure.

    Your evocative description of candlelit discussion and observation due to power cuts seems to have struck a chord with many. I would have thought it is a developing economy thing but these days one does hear of long power outages even in the East and West Coasts of the US!

    While the style of the post probably fits better to the broad (and expanding!) range of Ribbonfarm than to Tempo book blog, the themes touched upon here relate to many over at Tempo. Stillness, and balancing the experiencing of it with reflecting about it, both have time sense aspect (including timelessness) in them. This post reminds me of learning recursively, turning oneself inside-out etc.

    As I was reading I felt this one post can evolve into a hitherto-not-ribbonfarmesque book but you won’t write it :-D

    After a long time, a ribbonfarm post that I felt I grokked. Maybe.