There is No Darkness
Sometime just prior to my teen years, I got my hands on a book called There is no Darkness by Joe Haldeman, who you might recognize as author of The Forever War, and his brother Jack. If you don’t, you should read it. There is no Darkness is not quite the masterpiece Forever War was, but it’s a damned good book. It centers around a group of students in a sort of spaceship/school for the rich or gifted . . . and, of course, references Shakespeare’s line, “There is no darkness but ignorance.”
The story was fun, the line was something I internalized on an entirely different level. It may have been the most influential single sentence in my life (perhaps excepting, “Let’s get dangerous,” by one Drake Mallard). Few people could quip an earthshaking truth like the Bard.
Shadows I Couldn’t See
Once, in my first year of college, I was listening to KRST 92.3 country radio (92.3 is a rock station in Las Vegas, and I was too lazy to adjust the presets) crackling in and out of static as I wound my way through the mesas on the approach to Los Alamos, to visit my college girlfriend. It was getting late, and the whole world was defined by the range of a T100’s headlights and the radio. One moment, Vince Gill was warning his buddy to shape up, or he was going to steal his girl, then I went around a bend, and my radio was hissing like the little elves that power the circuitry (my understanding of electronics is hazy) had taken a fiver to fry up BLTs.
Then I turned another bend, and Vince was explaining that the girl was just tired of being Cinderella, and I realized with stunning clarity that I was driving through shadows I couldn’t see. The world around me was a riot of light, and I was awash in words written out on colors of light I couldn’t see in a language I didn’t speak. They’d been there all along, I’d used them my entire life, and just never thought to think about it.
And I thought to myself, “There is no darkness. . . “
It sort of changed my opinion of conspiracy theorists . . . I mean, what if I walked up to you right now on the street and told you the air was full of words we couldn’t hear without a metal tube and some transistors? That there were messages hidden in the colors we couldn’t see? Crazy, right?
Pale Blue Dots and Abyssal Gazes
Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot still gives me goosebumps. It made me mist up a little the first time I read it, and I’m not prone to that sort of thing.
Our one little world, alone in that endless abyss, it seemed so humbling and so impossible; it couldn’t be true. Since then, I’ve learn it wasn’t, except in a pale small way, for all its beauty.
Long after Pale Blue Dot I read about the Hubble Deep Field. Have you heard of it? It was a case of someone doing something that would, on the surface, seem pointless: They looked around until they found the darkest patch of sky. It a tiny slice of the sky, one-twenty-four-millionth of the visible sky, hidden in the heart of the Great Bear, and they aimed Hubble right into it.
They gazed into the abyss, you could say–a line I first encountered at the beginning of Baldur’s Gate (a video game) around the same time as I read Haldeman’s book as a preteen, and four years later when my Philosophy 101 class introduced me to Thus Spake Zarathustra. In full, it is, “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you,” another line the sticks. It’s one of those things everyone knows subconsciously until they hear it spoken aloud, and then wishes it had stayed below. The Darkness gazes back, as we’ve all known since we were little children.
Them the Hubble gazed long, ten days long, more than three hundred images long, into the abyss.
The thing was, the abyss didn’t gaze back.
What they found hidden in the abyss was not nothing and more nothing, but, in fact, everything. Galaxies and galaxies, containing so many stars that if each of us picked our own small piece and started counting, all of us would be dead of old age before we’d tallied a fraction of them. The darkness held nothing but more worlds than we could ever dream of. Wonders we could never count, and none of which we’ll ever see.
For awhile, I thought nothing at all. There are moments we have that just wash over us, and this was for me, and many others I think, one of them. Then I thought, if we could do it again, pick the darkest twenty-four-millionth of this photo, and look into that, we’d see something just like this all over again.
Then I thought, There is no darkness.
Whatever it is, it’s Not Nothing
Over the past few years we’ve been grappling with the concept of dark energy and dark matter. We know it’s there, because it’s doing things, it has gravity, which means it has mass, but we don’t know much else, because we can interact with it meaningfully. It’s either mass we understand behaving in a way we don’t, or mass we don’t understand behaving in a way we do. Either way, it’s puzzling. The stuff it’s made out of just doesn’t seem to want to mess with the stuff we’re made of. Observation and understanding require interaction, on some level.
So we don’t know what it is, we just know it’s not nothing. Where there should have been nothing we’ve only found a different sort of something.
There is no darkness, only ignorance, indeed. I wonder sometimes, how long it took Shakespeare to think of the phrase. Was it a flash of brilliance, a labor of intense thought, or just a quip ironically ignorant of its own scope?
It’s a very comforting thought, There is no darkness, until the second bit wiggles into you, except ignorance. The implication that there is no darkness demands the understanding that, no matter how it looks, it is never empty, no, just full of things you cannot see. The darkness is full, full to the bursting, layered and bound up in twisting knots of more things than we can experience, more things than we count, more things than we can perceive–and the possibility that just because we can’t see them, yet, doesn’t mean they can’t see us.
Perhaps Nietzsche knew what he was talking about after all.