Jumoke Verissimo’s new novel, A Small Silence, amongst other things is about darkness. The actual material darkness of not turning the lights on at night and of inhabiting a darkened room with the curtains drawn during the day. It is within this nightly space that Desire meets and converses with Prof.
The tradition of imagining a darkened space goes back to Plato’s “Simile of the Cave”. This is seen variably as a metaphor for our ignorance as human beings, an analogical method for exploring the nature of knowledge. It is sometimes alluded to as the ascent from illusion to pure philosophy. In the cave, the flickering images on the wall, are but shadows thrown by sunlight and grasped by the prisoners of the cave as what reality is, these images are erroneously coincidental with the real objects in the world and taken to be true. There is here no distinction between surface, depth and reality.
One of the prisoners, gains his exit from the cave, comes into the light where he is momentarily blinded by the light and when he comes to, he finds that the flickering shadows that he had assumed to be reality were merely images of a full and fresh world that he has come to behold
First he would find it easier to look at shadows, next at the reflections of men and other objects in water, and then at the objects themselves. After that he would find it easier to observe the heavenly bodies and the sky at night, and to look at the light of the moon and stars rather than at the sun and its light by day […] The thing he would be able to do last would be to look directly at the sun, and gaze at it without using reflections in water or any other medium, but as it is in itself
He returns to the cave to tell his previous contemporaries about the nature of reality but they reject his account and treat him with disdain.
Allegory or not, Plato’s “Cave” points to the problem of whether we can ever come to know the true nature of reality. It also makes the important point that
[…] the eyes can be unsighted in two ways, by a transition either from light to darkness or from darkness to light, and will recognise that the same thing applies to the mind
[…] Our argument indicates that the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind, and that the organ by which he learns is like an eye which cannot be turned from darkness to light unless the whole body is turned; in the same way the mind as a whole is turned from the world of change until its eye can bear to look straight at reality, and at the brightest of all realities which is what we call the good [my italics]
Another way of thinking of Plato’s Cave is that it refers to the nature of the perceived world, the distinction to be drawn between the images we perceive that are determined by the apparatus with which we study an object and the ‘true’ nature of that object. The naked eye only sees so much but the X-ray, for example, divines the hidden, just as the microscopic world, too, is revealed by an instrument designed for that purpose. Or to be more obtuse, the bat’s perceptual world is inevitably different from ours, being created out of sonar, but neither ours nor the bat’s worlds reveal the ultimate, true nature of reality.
So, it is into this terrain that Verissimo’s novel traverses, moving deftly in the dialogue between a young woman and a much older man, revealing what it is possible to communicate without sight of the Other, drawing on the degree to which prejudices and past experience determine, limit or facilitate the transaction between people. The degree to which sight is an impediment in these social transactions is underestimated- the neuroscience literature reveals the degree to which in congenitally blind individuals the brain areas that deal with vision are colonised by audition, vibratory and tactile senses. This makes the musicality of blind people more comprehensible.
But it is perhaps Oedipus Rex, Sophocle’s masterpiece, that most directly speaks to Verissimo’s novel. Aristotle thought that this was the paradigmatic tragedy, principally because of the unity of time and action: the drama unfolds in the one time and place but allows an exploration of the past as a means of understanding the present even, when the past is unknown in its fullness. The past is always being recapitulated, always leaking into the present, activating and obstructing, often distorting if not assaulting, the possible and probable futures.
The underlying thesis in Oedipus Rex is the maxim ‘Know Thyself’, that declarative sentence at the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi. But, in Oedipus Rex, the pursuit of self-knowledge, the desire to know oneself is portrayed as perilous, and in some sense, maybe not something to be done lightly or done at all.
But it is the links to darkness that resonate with Verissimo’s novel: the fact that in Oedipus Rex, insight, knowledge in Teiresias the seer, is allied to physical blindness and Oedipus who has his sight is indeed very blind to his situation. It is as if insight is only possible in the context of blindness, in darkness. Oedipus plucks his own eyes out once he gains insight. This is hardly a proclamation of the benefits of insight, of self-knowledge.
You have your eyes but see not where you are [..]
Alas, how terrible is wisdom when
it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!
Oedipus says at the end
Horror of darkness enfolding, resistless, unspeakable […]
We can see (pun intended) how darkness is stigmatised- the term ‘enlightenment’ and the Yoruba Ìlàjú associate light with knowledge and understanding.
Verissimo’s skill is to use darkness as a means of accentuating the architecture of the physical world
Desire was attentive to everything in the house, so much so that she could even tell when Prof moved to the edge of his seat or relaxed against the backrest. She followed the faint white of his eyes which were comparable to candlelight striving on a windy night
You shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking darkness is bad. Sometimes having light is the problem. Darkness is a cypher. Things, potentials, are created in darkness -think of that Bible story in Genesis, the total darkness that engulfed the earth brought light. What brings Darkness? Darkness welcomes light all the time. We can see in darkness, only if we let our eyes master the dark
Here Verissimo is saying perhaps that out of the formless darkness comes the structured formal world, and that darkness is pluripotent and envelopes the possibilities of invention.
This brings me to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. A country has been affected by an infectious epidemic blindness. Only the doctor’s wife remains sighted in this country and she says
[…] she serenely wished that she, too, could turn blind, penetrate the visible skin of things and pass to their inner side, to their dazzling and irremediable blindness
The doctor’s wife looked, saw the girl slowly remove her dark glasses, hiding her movements, then put them under her pillow, while asking the boy with the squint, Would you like another biscuit, For the first time since she had arrived there, the doctor’s wife felt as if she were behind a microscope and observing the behaviour of a number of human beings who did not even suspect her presence, and this suddenly struck her as being contemptible and obscene. I have no right to look if the others cannot see me, she thought to herself [..]
This is the burden of the enlightened, perspicacity as sorrowful, as estranging, not as privilege but rather as a strain instead. You could say that Verissimo’s Prof is an example of the desolation that knowledge and self-knowledge causes.
To catch sight of the blind, the interned blind in ‘the dazzle from the strong light from outside and the abrupt transition into the shadows of the hallway’ spread terror in the yet to be infected. This experience of the horror of darkness is experienced, viscerally by the doctor’s wife who is not blind but yet cannot see in the pitch darkness of the underground store in the hospital
[…]plunged into darkness, as sightless as those blind people out there, the only difference was in the colour, if black and white can, strictly speaking, be thought of as colours…Now I know what it means to be blind…the darkness is like a thick paste that sticks to her face, her eyes transformed into balls of pitch
Saramago’s blind characters recovered their sight but in recovery there was the inevitable quest for understanding and the fear too of the possibility of further blindness, of darkness
A great fear entered his soul, he thought that he had passed from one blindness to another, that having lived in the blindness of light, he would now pass into the blindness of darkness, the fear made him tremble
I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see
Verissimo’s A small silence is a blaze of light in a field of darkness.
Photos by Jan Oyebode