Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Storm Thoughts

As you may have heard, the eastern edge of North America was recently hit by a hurricane with record-breaking properties, at one point it stretched over a thousand miles across. It was named variously: Sandy, Superstorm, or my favorite, Frankenstorm and ventured into areas where hurricanes normally don’t go, such as Ohio, where I live. While other parts of the country had severe flooding, sewage backups and gas explosions, the main problem in my locale was power outages due to lines downed by high winds or falling trees. The electric in my apartment building was out for 39 hours, from 9 pm Monday night until noon on Wednesday, October 31st.
The daytime wasn’t so bad, though it was quite cold and the pouring rain wouldn’t stop. But at night it was worse. I had LED camping lanterns setting around and most importantly, my Nook book light. Because what I did, in between “meals” of saltine crackers and applesauce, was read. I figured if the battery ran down on my Nook, I’d switch to traditional books, though surprisingly, my Nook lasted through the storm, as I finished a mystery and started on a memoir.
As the long nights went on, I’d pace the floor to warm up, before falling into a fitful sleep under several blankets. The lanterns cast patches of light, but the rest of the room remained dark, making it look unfamiliar. It also made my thoughts go down an unfamiliar path too, how much did the darkness influence writers of days gone by? After all, humans lived in partially dark houses for centuries. Even when we watch a costume drama such as “Downton Abbey” or “The Duchess” where the homes are lit by chandeliers and gas lamps, it’s not as dim as it truly was, because modern film needs a certain amount of bright light for anything to be seen on it. Probably the closest cinematic approximation is “The Libertine”, featuring Johnny Depp’s depredations in the 17th century. Not only is it filmed in a strange monochromatic lack of color, the the scenes of actors onstage at the theatre with bowls of flames serving as floodlights feel close and oppressive.
So the dark rooms with pools of light would’ve been the common working environment for people in any number of professions. Decades ago, I wrote a journal entry exploring the idea of candlelight affecting painters, most notably the golden hues of Rembrandt. But now I’m wondering about the part it played for authors. Did it set a mood where certain trains of thought came easily? Not just in the expected way for someone such as Poe, whose talking birds could’ve easily flown into a smokey corner. But what about the Brontes? Would someone as untamed as Heathcliff have been possible in a brightly lit penthouse? Did the dark nights emphasize the isolation of Emily Dickinson, making her really feel like Nobody? Was it the secret mysteries of the night that Shakespeare was referring to when he said “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”? Ok, I think we all know the answer to that last one, but I never thought of it as the opposite of daylight before.
Darkness brings out the primitive fears in us. We are more alert to danger, to the unknown, to how flimsily humans are made. Not just threats on the earth that we know of, but whatever our wild imagining can invent. Is the current fascination with vampires a teasing throwback that we can banish with the flick of a light switch? And would today’s sci-fi be possible in a candle-lit world? The adventures of Jules Verne were very different from the genre today.
The first night of the storm, the lightning went on for hours, flashing not only overhead, but on the horizon, behind the trees. Though I normally love to watch lightning, I had to admit that it looked especially apocalyptic just then. The next night it actually looked brighter, though the lights were still out. I kept thinking how many stars I could probably see, if only all those pesky rain clouds weren’t in the way.
Though the experience is not one I wish to repeat anytime soon, especially for that long, I was glad that I had learned something besides how little time it takes for all the food in the freezer to thaw. Hopefully, I can apply my questions about candlelight and fireplaces to future reading, even if I never learn the answer, it might add an extra dimension to understanding the book.

Jackie is a wildlife artist who tried painting during the storm, but found the low light too challenging. You can see some of her work painted in brighter times at this website. The photograph is one she took out her apartment window on another dreary day a couple years ago.

10 comments on “Storm Thoughts

  1. annebrooke
    November 12, 2012

    Fascinating article, Jackie – I’m sure darkness and night have much more of an influence on us than we think.

    So glad things are back to normal for you know though!

  2. Kate
    November 12, 2012

    This is so imaginative, you ask questions about the process of writing that I’ve never thought about before, and I’ve been studying literature for decades. The embarrassment! I shall be feeding in what you ask to my classes next term …

  3. Maggie Craig
    November 12, 2012

    Fascinating and thoughtful post. I think I’m right in saying that one reason why 18th century clothes – at least for the well-to-do – can be very bright to modern eyes is because they were being seen by candlelight. I know yellow was a very popular colour for ladies’ gowns in the mid 18th century, might be a bit too bright for us now, but it shone and shimmered under the sconces.

    Living in rural Scotland, we occasionally get power outages because of winter blizzards and storms. Yes, the world is a very different and much scarier place when you can’t just snap on an overhead light. At this time of year I always make sure I know where the torches, candles and matches are.

  4. kirstyjane
    November 12, 2012

    I thought this was terrific and I’m so glad you wrote it. On one hand it’s such an obvious thing, the lack of light, and yet I’d never really thought about it either. Many thanks for this thoughtful and fascinating piece. Brava!

  5. Hilary
    November 12, 2012

    What fascinating musings, Jackie – though I’m sorry for what you had to go through to have them and glad that all is now back to normal. I remember feeling an odd mixture of attraction and terror at seeing lightning at night, when I was small and living in the country where the street lights went out at 10. I think you are spot on in your perception that these days we are shielded from that plunge into darkness. It must place some limit on our imagination, just as experiencing the dark has liberated yours.

  6. Karen
    November 12, 2012

    It’s interesting what we think of during adversity, or when things are changed-up on us. My eyes are not so good. I would have been in all kinds of troube reading prior to the electric lights and power we have today.

  7. markwagstaff1
    November 12, 2012

    This piece is so thoughtful and really resonates with me, Jackie. Thank you. The part of Manhattan where I was staying that week lost power following the 14th Street substation explosion, leading to the longest outage I’ve experienced since the distant days of the 1970s – the oil crisis and all that. It was also my first real experience of writing by candlelight, night after night, surrounded by the vast gloom of a dark, high-ceilinged old apartment. I became very conscious of the candle, the page, and me, in this tiny pool of light, with no light from outside, hunched over and scrunching my eyes to read what I just wrote. That and no heat made for an oddly ancestral kind of feeling, thinking of writers in other times – but also today, in other parts of the world – with no choice but to work that way. It certainly makes the accomplishments of our predecessors seem all the more extraordinary and hard-won. Though my experience doing without light and heat was nothing really, compared with those who lost far more in the storm.

    Picking up on Maggie’s point, parts of the Soane Museum in London have been restored to their original state, when John Soane lived there in the 18th century – including a vivid sulphur yellow colour scheme, with candles in chandeliers to show it off even better. Sort of decor I aspire to!

  8. Fauquet
    November 12, 2012

    You expressed very well the feelings most varied and deep we can feel when we are exposed to exceptional events. It is a benighted. We have just celebrated the end of War I(1914-18) and I often think of what the poor soldiers in the cold, the night and the mud were thinking in their trenches before the assault where they were going to be killed . Your imagination was excited and you have been well inspired ..
    Michel

  9. Moira
    November 13, 2012

    Lovely, thoughtful piece Jackie … And I know first hand how enforced darkness can change your whole mindset. We lost our electricity for several days over Christmas a few years back … and I appreciated for the very first time how short the daylights hours are in December … and how hard it is to see to do anything by candle or lamplight. And of course, candles were not the uber-cheap items they are today … All of which concentrates the mind in ways you don’t expect. You become very focussed and then – when the light goes – strangely quiet and still, because moving around is a major undertaking, having to take your light with you. You’re forced inwards on yourself – forced to stop and think and ponder. If I need to slow down and disconnect myself from the 21st century – I turn off the lights and light a candle. it changes everything …

  10. Maggie Craig
    November 14, 2012

    I enjoyed your piece so much Jackie that I’ve just come on again to see if there were any more comments, all of which I have just enjoyed reading. Mark and Moira, you have both inspired me very directly with your comments. My current WIP is set in the 18th century. My hero’s a soldier but he still has to do his paperwork, at night by candlelight. Have imagined all this, of course, but planning on sitting down one of these dark evenings under the same conditions and seeing what appears on the paper and experiencing, and having him experience, what’s out there beyond the tiny pool of light you mention, Mark. Thanks, guys, you’ve really made me think about this.

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This entry was posted on November 12, 2012 by in Cleveland connection, Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: essays, Non-fiction: nature and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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