In defense of darkness (from the universe to our psyche)

“Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” – Caspar David Friedrich

When we take care of ourselves, we fight the good and the bad within us. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned that fighting monsters without care could cause you to become a monster. Fighting internal monsters – like psychological stress or personal obstacles – requires coming to terms with the reality of this darkness. Contemplation of nihilism and despair, whether its dwelling on the past, philosophizing, or addressing fear, anxiety, and hatred, can open up a dark place in oneself. But grappling with good and evil, as Nietzsche would suggest, of the darkness can bring personal transformation. Through a surrendering of the ego, vanity, and hubris to overcome psychological difficulties, humans can find a way to transcend the fears within themselves. This is the darkness we all fight.

Darkness can be seen as a passion, a tendency to search for answers in places others fear. This absence of light gives perspectives, contrast, and dimension to everything else we see in the world. It can warn us of feared fascinations with power (such as the shadowy lair of Scar in “The Lion King,” where Simba was instructed to not go) to the balance of good and evil (such as the balance of light and dark in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”) People find themselves at battles between angels and devils internally. In these psychological places that invoke fear and shock inside of us, darkness offers humans the insight into what makes our skin crawl. But, after acknowledging that humans are capable of great evil and destruction, humans find sacred truths corrupted or lost within ourselves.

Recognizing the dark tendencies within themselves, people can engage in a deliberate self-reflection of morality. They figure out what’s right and what’s wrong within themselves. What might seem like hideous qualities – denial, projection, and other monstrous aspects of human behavior infect our intimacy, socialization, commerce, politics, and spirituality. This psychotherapy reveals deep problems many people ignore – symbolized by darkness itself. And the ignored darkness of human beings become apparent through this corruption. Remaining silent to not displease others, subtle government propaganda, or the rise of religious extremism that have marked a post-truth, postmodern era have these roots in darkest parts of the human psyche. 

Grappling with this darkness can show us what we truly find aesthetically beautiful. Philosopher Edmund Burke described the heightened sense of threats that lie outside our control or understanding as a key feature of the sublime. Our senses heighten through the mystery of the unknown, as brought upon by darkness. And beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or darkness is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. The imagination is moved to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is “dark, uncertain, confused.” This beauty, captured through art, shows this struggle we have within ourselves to understand darkness.

Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” depicts a man on a rocky precipice that pierces the landscape. It’s often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you,” from the philosopher’s book “Beyond Good and Evil.”

In Friedrich’s piece, there is an apparent contrast shown through the combination of light and dark colors. The eye is drawn to the figure and the cliff below it, since they are painted darker than their surrounding. The shades of dark green and brown contribute to the mysterious and heavy emotions of self-reflection, while the light blue-pink fog in the background produces a sense of nothingness or isolation. It seems unfitting, though, that Caspar David Friedrich captured a painterly version of the sublime while Nietzsche himself declared the sublime out of date in 1886. Aside from movie posters, the painting’s influence captures the self-reflection of an unknown, foggy future and the mysterious search for meaning in a world of isolation. Finding these threats that are shrouded in darkness, the onlooker in the painting can find truth. 

“Untitled (Text For Some Place Other Than This)” – Douglas Gordon

Through the sublime, we can find ourselves attracted to areas and things we normally fear. Things that pique our curiosity and fascinate by questioning our subjective experiences. Douglas Gordon’s “Untitled (Text For Some Place Other Than This)” lures viewers to an uncanny extreme. Its structureless, unsettling place that these sublime features expose what we repress within ourselves. It could be our own limits of understanding or some other inherent human insufficiency. Whatever the source of the anxiety is, it is a dark abyss we gaze into. These works of art bring about images of the dark side of human nature.

Outside of art and philosophy, physicists probing what matter is made of have struggled with darkness. In her book “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” physicist Lisa Randall draws on the similarities of the universe’s transparency with human empathy. Dark matter, the substance that scientists find scattered throughout galaxies, is invisible. It makes up most of the universe, yet it doesn’t absorb or emit light. Randall argues that that the way humans can’t detect dark matter is similar to the way people have a gap between their perceptions and reality. And people need to understand this to understand the way humans empathize with one another.

“People’s attitude toward dark matter is bedeviled by the same instincts that influence their responses to different races, castes, or classes whom they might not truly see but who are nonetheless essential to society,” Randall wrote in the Boston Globe. The way we repeat quotes such as “It is only in the darkest of nights when the stars shine the brightest” might indicate that darkness is more than the absence of light, but, rather, what we don’t understand. These are the fears and psychological hurdles that plague our everyday moral decisions.

Image from Dark Universe, showing the distribution of dark matter in the universe. Credit: AMNH

Randall’s analogy seems stretched, and that might spell trouble for understanding darkness. It’s one thing to acknowledge limitations in understanding of the universe, but it’s another thing to say human beings don’t empathize with people from different races. The former deals with scientific methods of understanding while the latter relies on human morality.

Moreover, dark matter itself is an auxiliary hypothesis, not an empirically observed phenomena. It is added to theories to make things make sense – not in any deeply justifiable basis. The scientific discussion of dark matter has its own flaws, as professor of astrophysics Paul Kroupa writes, “Yet even within academic circles, there is a lot of confusion about dark matter, with evidence and interpretation often conflated in misleading and unproductive ways.” Kroupa himself published a paper in the 1990’s attacking the ways scientists used dark matter to explaining the structure of satellite galaxies. What the scientists called “dark matter” was explained with other phenomena.

People will find danger in ignoring the darkest parts of themselves. Repression of these internal monsters or even denying that they exist at all can result in more dangerous psychological problems. Nietzsche’s quote about fighting monsters spoke of humans as works of art. People view themselves through values that can range from elegance and harmony to cacophonous grotesque pieces. These presentations of ourselves – much like paintings, sculptures, or scientific theories – are built on the aesthetic principles we create. The darkness reveals this artistic power that we can use for good and evil.

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