The true beauty of places and things is revealed in the pattern of shadows, the interplay of light and dark.
Gentle reader: When you look back upon your life, do you have memories so visually perfect you can’t believe they actually happened to you? Moments that seem more like scenes from a film than from life?
Bicycling through south east Portland, Oregon in the wee small hours of a warm late-summer night with my great friend Hang and two of her housemates back in September 1998 (en route to a very late-opening Cajun restaurant) is one such memory for me. It seemed even then that magical moments like that are all too rare. It seems now like a sequence from a film. The streets had a character and the air had a flavour that just isn’t there in the daylight.
In the smallest hours of the London night
“The city is at its most earthly and unearthly at night.” This is Matthew Beaumont (the author of a terrific book entitled Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London), from his Guardian article on nightwalking. He describes how, in the smallest hours of the London night, a sense of the living, breathing earth beneath the city’s endless concrete, brick and tarmacadam returns:
“It is not quite the same at night. At 2am, in the empty streets, no longer fighting against the traffic of cars and commuters, the solitary pedestrian’s feet begin to recall the ‘real earth’. In the abstracted, monochromatic conditions of the nighttime, it becomes more apparent that a sloping road curves over the sleeping form of a hill and tracks the course of an underground stream.”
There are so many aspects of London’s true beauty that only become visible at night. The pools of shadow created by the streetlights and neon signs can help reveal the city’s hidden truths. Spirits slip their masks.
Golfing with the spirits
In his book Crazy From The Heat, David Lee Roth describes an idiosyncratic habit he developed over decades of touring. He gets to know each city on his tour itinerary via repeated nocturnal cycling. He is fully aware of how the magical truth of each place reveals itself:
“By now, I’ve seen most of the world by night, by bicycle, when it’s fairly well vacated from human beings. It’s a special kind of experience, because it’s not cluttered with the humanity. Leaves a lot more space for history. Leaves a lot more space for mystery, you know, when it’s quiet and electrically lit. There’s shadow. There’s beauty in shadows. It’s in the shadows where you find the history, where you find the legends and the stories. You don’t find that under a bright light. You don’t find that during the light of day. […] If you want to go stand on the parapets of Edinburgh Castle with all the same guys who stood on those parapets from the day they declared the building finished, don’t go for the lunch break. Go as the sun’s going down. Ride your bike right up next to it just before the sun’s coming up. Same thing for St Andrew’s Golf Course in Scotland. If you want to golf with the spirits, you go at dawn just before the light is full, ‘cause they’re all still there, every one of them.”
Were it not for shadows
“The quality that we call beauty must always grow from the realities of life.”
This is Japanese novelist Junichirō Tanizaki, from In Praise of Shadows*, his 1933 essay on aesthetics. For Tanizaki, beauty is not found solely in light, or solely in darkness. Rather, it arises from the interplay of the two:
“We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates. A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and colour in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows describes the culture clash experienced by Japan in the early decades of the 20th Century. He argues that these were times of jolting, shocking change for the Japanese eye. The quiet introspective subtleties of traditional Japanese design, art and architecture took on Western influences for the first time. Harsh electric light replaced the previous world of profound shadows that had been created and revealed by candlelight. Beauty had to seek other ways to manifest itself.
Yet Tanizaki did not want to turn back the clock. He writes of his reactions to an article he had read about the complaints of elderly women in England (remember, this was at the start of the 1930s):
“It struck me that old people everywhere have much the same complaints. The older we get the more we seem to think that everything was better in the past. Never has there been an age that people have been satisfied with. But in recent years the pace of progress has been so precipitous that conditions in our own country go somewhat beyond the ordinary.”
We must avoid the temptation to hide in the shadows of the past. A memory might seem like an image from a film. More perfect than life itself. But this is an illusion.
Nostalgia always seeks to work against life’s relentless forward motion, the constant and undeniable need to change. Even the shadows we see when the light and the darkness interact are always changing.
The true beauty of places and things is revealed in the pattern of shadows, the light and the darkness.
There is beauty in shadows. This is why I love the endless night-time of winter, and can take or leave the prolonged daylight we are currently experiencing at the height of British Summer Time. Soon the nights will draw in once more. The shadows will return. Followed by the light. And so on.
Shadows bring everything to light. Shadows bring everything to life.
* I came across Junichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows via a recommendation in Tony Fadell’s 2019 appearance on the Tim Ferriss podcast. This podcast is highly recommended. With inspiring energy and positivity, Fadell generously shares a lifetime’s worth of wisdom, learning and insight. Download the MP3, or view on YouTube.