I lived a large part of my life, about 15 years on a mountain in Umbria where I regularly return and where I could experience the absolute darkness. As there were no nearby houses, therefore no artificial light, on many nights, moonless and wrapped by clouds, leaning out of my lighted house was like leaning over a dense black abyss, to which the senses were stranger: my window was the black square of MALEVICH where everything was restrained. It was the realm of vague without interruption, because the separating light, which creates distinction and outline, there did not exist. If my enlighted house was the realm of those who see, that, the black abyss, was the infinite, the place of absolute possibility.
The enveloping darkness protects the things it contains from the view, eliminating hierarchies and differences. While the gaze, as in Leopardi’s Infinity, creates limits and boundaries, fragments and decomposes.
Light invades space, while darkness, like the ocean water, invades us if we fall into it.
One day, wondering where things end up when they fall into the darkness, I threw my senses beyond the window: from my enlightened house I directed a torch in the night, and with this I enlightened fragments of that “everything” on which Malevich had put a seal stone, saying “the infinite cannot be penetrated”; I violated this agreement by directing a beam of light in its black square. The light bursting from my window into the darkness, revealed to the eye things, shapes, usual objects, recognizable or not, of common sense or less, but this was not important, because in that moment I had removed them from infinity, from the black abyss that encompassed them, and they were witnesses of infinity. This made them wonderful, enchanting and noble. Like when, in the night, we meet an animal with the headlights of the car on, and it seems to us the revelation of an abyssal monster, half plunged in the darkness, of which we distinguish some shapes and the eyes full of our light. That monster tells us about the never ending black which, until our meeting encompassed it. That monster is witness to it. It is a fragment still plunged in the whole. Ready to be swallowed up by it.
This is what perception, or rather attention, does.
Like the beam of light from my window, or like the wayfarer’s torch, enlightens portions of reality bringing them to the senses, and immediately plunging them back into nothing as soon as the cone of light no longer enlightens them, so attention creates and annihilates reality according to whether you relate to it or not. By listening, seeing, imagining, thinking or just remembering something, we reveal it, make it exist, every time itself, every time new (think of the Madeleine of Proust), only to kill it in the next moment of inattention. This is the continuous tragic staging that we do on reality: Alighiero Boetti spoke of “give birth to the world”.
We live in a theater of shadows – someone else would have spoken of a cave – where the substance of things is elsewhere and observes us dumb from its stands.
Reality does not ask us questions, we ask them. The physical substance of things is anxiously silent, meaningless, ataraxic and inscrutable, spectator of this theater of ours. It watches us as we build up our models on its naked body as if they were clothes.
Like a wind, we wrap things up without getting into them: we can only go around them. Illusion – the only plausible truth.
Reading the short story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The night flight, written in 1931, I found a powerful metaphor for the journey to infinity, from the separating light to the totalizing and absolute black night, to nothing: that is, the anxiety of infinity of the artist.
In Paraguay, at sunset, the small postal plane leaves its safe and horizontal airport, becoming lighter and lighter, less and less tied to gravity, to the physicality of the world. Slowly it gets into the penumbra, and gradually into the darkness, where the luminous references of the enlighted houses become thinner and thinner, until they merge with the stars, when the horizon is no longer recognizable. Then the total darkness due to entering the clouds, and the fusion of the cardinal orientation with the zenithal one: getting lost, disappearing, the emptiness, the extension of the soul – to put it with Sant’Agostino. Or its dissolution.
It seems to see the whole life of Mark Rothko, from his first colored and fragmented paintings, then gradually more and more desaturated, going from all shades of gray to absolute black, both in his paintings, and in his own existence, which ended with his suicide. An initiatory journey.
If we give a revealed and visible world on this side, and on the other side an infinite world of darkness where everything falls down continuously, the gray mirrors of Gerhard Richter are formidable thresholds between these two worlds, exactly halfway between the absolute black of nothing and the light of this world, where the reflection of the visible merges with opaque black, becoming gray. A mirror of shadows, a romantic masterpiece.
Perhaps this is the attraction that the great art exerts on us: it brings us to the threshold of the abyss, showing it to us, and telling us about the nothing that is immediately after our “logical fence” or our imagination, our theater.
Baudelaire said: “the beauty of art veils the terror of the abyss”.
If you lean too far, the punishment is madness, nonsense, the ruin into nothing.
Exactly the same attraction / repulsion that we feel observing from a boat the dense depths of the sea. Exactly, that sublime that the romantics were looking for in the ravines of the Austrian mountains.
The promise of happiness that every morning gives us, when the light reveals the appearances of the world, deceiving us with the power of the evidence, is slowly veiled and obscured by the certainty of its disappearance the following night.
This cyclicity between light and dark is a metaphor for its own end that everything carries within itself. Each lit candle promises its own darkness. One could say: “but tomorrow there will be a new dawn, new light on the darkness …” and to this, better than me, Seneca replied recommending to his pupil Lucilio not to worry about the death that will come, because you die every moment of life. As if to say, “life itself is a succession of losses, and findings”. The black night is not only in front of us but it is within us, exactly like the day.
Reality as vanitas.
I would like to offer you one last image, and it is that of a shipwreck, dear to the romantics. But this is the shipwreck of the shipwrecks: the Titanic. I imagined this ship sailing the night, it is sparkling, it is an island, it is “a world in itself”, it is a party, the light defines its boundaries. It needs only itself, in perfect balance as it is, where the surface of the black marine abyss adheres specularly to the abyss of the atmospheric night in a single black magma.
Till something shapes the night: it’s the iceberg. It is solid, it vertically connects the ocean to the sky, it is white, it is light in the night, it interrupts the fluidity and breaks in. It is the shipwreck of lights. Slowly swallowed, they glide bit by bit escaping the certainty of the surface, helplessly setting off to the place that the abyss will assign them. Now the night regains its kingdom, water and air go back together, they set together again in the most total darkness. The next day, at the first glow of dawn, a glove, some pieces of furniture, some playing dice, a book, will return to the surface of the water, witnesses of this fusion between worlds.
And I will be there to collect them.