We recently talked with Campion Senior Research Fellow and Archivist Prof. Peter Davidson about his upcoming book, The Last of the Light: About Twilight, out from Reaktion Books this December. Below Professor Davidson answers a few questions about the inspiration and scope of this “cultural history of twilight.”
Q: People may not quite know what to think about a book on the “cultural history of twilight” because twilight is not something that is anymore thought of very often. But then that’s precisely part of what you want to explore in the book, isn’t it: the forgotten idea of twilight.
Peter Davidson: We’ve forgotten the idea of twilight because we lead lives that are excessively brightly lit. We go from daylight to the strip-lit office to the white-lit gym and we just don’t notice that’s it dark outside, which actually does terrible things to your body clock and your constitution!
But the interesting thing about a cultural history of twilight is that it really does have one. It’s a phenomenon right through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—the night is just bad news, as the Hours of the Church suggest, and it’s something to protect yourself from, pray for protection against, close the doors, draw up the bridges, lock the castle.
Whereas suddenly about 1780, they invent really good domestic lighting and from that moment on people feel so much more in control of the light and the dark that there starts to be this whole art of twilight: landscape paintings done in the dim evening light, for instance, and all these sort of feelings that come into Northern European art that associate twilight with melancholy and regret and belatedness. It’s a cultural phenomenon of 1790/1800, and of course we are today at the end of it; when I was an undergraduate thirty five years ago we were still living in a post-war Britain, it still hadn’t been rebuilt, renewed, and generally refurbished. And you generally did still have a sense of that same aesthetic continuing from the early 19th century through traveling to provincial, remote places, looking at effects of light, particularly winter fading twilight. It was very much part of the texture of life in Britain until about the 1980s when all the lights in the buildings seem to get brighter and brighter.
Q: And how much of this is a particularly northern story?
A: Well it’s a very northern story, because as well as having the seasonal variation you have physically very long twilights in northern Europe. The evening in the tropics, on the other hand, is just a few minutes: one moment it goes purple, then it goes black. Just five minutes. But the further north you are the more twilight is part of the experience of life, because you have these long autumnal and spring twilights growing longer and longer and longer. Right around the 60th parallel you have the meridian of twilight— that’s where you have one day of all light and one day of all dark, or it feels that way. It’s so much part of the experience of Northern Europe to have a very long fading of light and this becomes an absolute obsession of late 19th c. England, characteristic in most of the English painters of that time. It is a real solid cultural phenomenon.
Q: In addition to the feeling of doom that twilight brings, there’s something essentially ambivalent about it, even romantic. How can twilight support this sort of dual imagery?
A: You’ve got the romantic, rural light fading over the mountains, it’s true. And you’ve also got Whistler, the great American painter in London, who said that what twilight did for London was it wiped the ugliness of the recent interventions in the townscape out, and it rendered the whole of London beautiful, particularly by the river. You have the lights reflected in the water, and this dim warm colouring over everything. He noticed how the more strident buildings receded into this harmonious, gentle twilight. And also for writers like G.K. Chesterton, the twilight city, especially London, is kind of romantic—it’s like this great forest where any sort of adventure can happen.
Q: And so then for our sense of adventure but also our sense of an organic or shared idea of time, what are the consequences of a loss of twilight?
A: I think first of all they’re very bad for us physiologically, because the more you actually adjust your body to what’s going on outside you, the better you’re going to respond to it. This is really studied very seriously in the north of Europe—right up at the University of Tromsoe in Norway they’ve done a whole set of studies of how to live well in the north. Part of it is that you really ought to do what is customary in certain Scandinavian countries, certainly Finland, which is that however early it starts to get dark, you actually watch it getting dark.
Also, also, with that goes a whole set of cultural things that aren’t so common in Britain, such as sitting round a table, round a fire, using candlelight—which actually does speak quite deep into the brain. The same way in which if you light a fire in the common room here, everyone tends to stay a little bit longer—it really speaks to the human. This can produce a happy, adjusted life. But I really think if you try to fight the tide of the seasons in northern Europe you actually wind up in psychological trouble, because you end up strained. You end up doing something that the human isn’t designed to do and that certainly your brain isn’t designed to do.
A friend of mine who’s a great writer about nature and the mountains cites some terrifying statistic that some 40% of schoolchildren in Britain have lost their night vision because they’ve never used it. They’ve just been constantly moved from the lit room to the lit car to the well-lit event, be it swimming pool or cinema or whatever.
Q: Where did the idea for this book come from and how long have you been working on this project?
A: It came to me from the last page of my book, The Idea of North, which was published by Reaktion in 2005. At the very end of that book I wrote an epilogue which was a personal refection on what it felt like to be in a remote house in the north of Scotland, where I lived at that point, on the shortest day of the year. It was a kind of very, very northern thing—the dark advancing at about half past three. And people liked that epilogue so much—and I was really surprised by the generous reception—that about eight years ago I started gathering things in various languages and thinking about it. And the book just took those eight years, it wouldn’t hurry up.
I also started going into another area that is of great interest to me, which is the history of those people within British society who are seen as somehow overshadowed. Bl. John Henry Newman described the British Catholics as gens lucifuga, a ‘people shunning the light.’ They were living as though they were the twilight ghosts of their ancestors because they were so much on the margins of society before emancipation. And so I got very interested in what conventional English historians call “dark corners”—Herefordshire, Aberdeenshire (where I used to live), those parts of those country that resisted innovation. And this whole idea came together with the idea of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins at Stonyhurst in Lancashire, with Hopkins as an observer of the evening sky. Hopkins actually wrote three or four letters to the scientific journal Nature describing natural phenomena and one of these is an absolutely superlative, extended letter about the appearance of the evening sky after the eruption of Krakatoa—which obviously put a great amount of dust into the air and so affected what the sunset looked like—and it’s a marvellous piece of Hopkins. At one point he actually slips barely consciously into verse.
Once I got all that in place, the whole book found a form that I hope works now.
(Be sure to read The Last of Light, available for pre-order on Amazon now. --Ed.)