When the Darkness Sings

There is a method in depth psychology called “gold in the shadow,” which, if I understand it correctly, seeks to find value in what we often deem valueless: our ordinary suffering, our humiliations, our failures. In art practice, a parallel procedure is to maintain a lucid openness to the entire range of experience and to even the humblest configurations of light and matter, for anything can have interest in the appropriate context. Actually, the choices for both awareness and practice are usually determined by more mundane considerations of fitness. Do I have stamina? Am I sleepy? Do I have enough money to get through the week?

Sometimes, despite our ideals, we are given into the darkness and have to work there. So the question is do we succumb to doubt. If we believe that art is for transformation, then we accept the premise that even the darkest experiences can be the preliminary stage for the movement back to the light. Such hopeful acceptance can exist side by side with terrible self-recrimination and moments of despair. Consider the work accomplished by Goya, Rembrandt, and Miro during their dark passages.

When the palette turns dark, you look for luminescence within that blackness, and just as your eyes find light on cloudy nights far away from the city when even your hand in front of your face remains hidden, so too is the creative self guided to produce tonalities within apparent starkness. The natural world provides us with many models when we consider the coloration of clouds in the gray scale; dark ponds, shadowed by trees, with a luster of blacks, purples, greens; bare cliffs that shine overhead by narrow roads. Cities also abound with examples of “tenebrismo”: puddles whose blackest points make them seem deeper than they actually are; dim alleys splattered with eroding colors we’d rather not inquire about; the chromes and the tins of the industrial faces of the city, smudged, grimed, scratched so that only glimmers tease the eye; anchored freighters, whose steely hulls seem to be melting in certain waters. Windows that appear far darker than any night. Does the eye find or does the eye create? I remember a bar in the port of Barcelona whose doorway I walked by because a glance had shown me something in the eyes of the people drinking there that made it urgent for me to walk away quickly. I’d never been there before. Was I simply scaring myself or in that instant it took to walk a few feet and change my mind had I recognized danger?

When your internal journey matches your creative work, then you are engaged in what the ancients would have called alchemy. Alchemically, the first stage in the long process to create “gold” is called nigredo. As the Latin root of the term suggests, this stage deals with darkness, blackness, the realm of earth, compost, waste products. It is the bottom, but earth bottom not rock bottom, since the working premise is that at the very bottom one is buried within the earth, from where each spring life bursts forth. The transformative attitude gathers to itself all the elements of our impoverished situation. The concrete details of where we are and how we appear, however close to despair we are, become the materials of our creative laboratory.

Sometimes it is not possible to work in certain states of despondency and emptiness, but even there, should we have just a glimmer of intention to find our way back, our sense memory of the textures of grief, humiliation, and night anxieties retains its fertile power for the time when we can work again.