Erin's Everyday Thoughts

Monday, April 10, 2006

Dark vs. Light

There has been a lot of discussion lately centered around darkness. (See Theresa’s blog, as well as Paula’s.) This reminds me of a conversation I had some months ago when several friends were visiting my house and began to look through the books on my bookshelf. A question came up—“Erin, do you have any books that aren’t depressing?”

I had never thought of my books as “depressing” before, so it was interesting to hear this label given to them. And when I started to think about it, I understood why someone might consider them so. It is true that in many books I read, sad things happen. My shelf is heavily populated with Margaret Atwood books, for example. Her work tends to deal with dark themes. A Handmaid's Tale tells the story of a society overthrown and built up again on a base of hypocrisy and fear. Many scenes are excruciating in their detail of frustration, anger, hopelessness. The Blind Assassin is also fat with frustration and the darker deeds in life, as is Lady Oracle and Surfacing.

Atwood’s work may be an extreme example because there is a lot of dark, and perhaps not a balanced amount of light. But I think each of these novels expresses truth in one form or another. If these books are depressing, it’s because life is often so.

Many other books that rest on my shelf have periods of despair broken and surrounded by moments of joy, of light. It may be true there is more sadness than joy in these books, but I wonder if the joy would mean a thing if the sadness wasn’t abounding. As in my life, where it seems my highest highs immediately follow my lowest lows, in these books, light shines all the more brightly when it comes out of a blanket of darkness.

And I don’t think the “light” that balances dark has necessarily to do anything with joy. It can be as simple as a reprieve, or a moment in which someone is utterly human in such a way that one knows an undeniable instinct has kicked in. In T.C. Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain, there is a point near the end of the novel where two antithetical characters come together in a desperate moment (I’m being vague because I don’t want to give anything away, in case you haven’t read this and want to) and human nature kicks in to produce a glorious light. It is not a cheery scene, and the overall outcome is not light, but that moment is pure and beautiful—it helps to balance out so many awful things that have been done earlier in the novel.

The other thing I find interesting about the balance of light and dark, in literature as well as in life, is that light for one is often dark for another. Happiness and accomplishment for one almost always translate into sadness and disappointment for another. When I land a job I’ve been vying for, there are a handful of others who didn’t get it. When I find a $20 bill on the ground, someone else must have lost it. In Memoirs of a Geisha (which I’ve just finished reading), when the dreams of the protagonist geisha are realized, the dreams of another geisha are dashed away. I find this balance unbelievably fascinating. It’s something I’d like to explore more in my writing.

Now, I think that when my friends were talking about “depressing” books vs. “non-depressing” books, they were likely talking about “light” (i.e. “quick read”, “pulp”, “beach”) books. Every so often I still do indulge in a book that I know will mean little to me just because I don’t feel like thinking about much. But I find that the more I read my “depressing” books, the less patience I have for any book that doesn’t contain a truth (through the use of dark and light and whatever it takes) about human nature, life, society, the world. Once you’ve tasted a book with some guts, grime, darkness, it begins to seem like a waste of time to read anything less.


  • Erin, you've really expressed yourself beautifully here. I also have shelves full of "depressing" books and I love "depressing" movies, too. Recently, I mentioned the book/movie REQUIEM FOR A DREAM in my Imaginative Writing class, and half of the ones who'd seen it absolutely hated it because it was so dark; the other half loved it and didn't find it depressing at all. Things that depress me in books or in real life: shallowness, manipulation.

    By Blogger Theresa Williams, at 2:51 PM  

  • Erin, this is beautifully written.

    A Poem
    Once in a while it happens,
    like falling snow at night
    collapses colors to their source,
    sadness envelops me.

    Thoughts travel their circular path...
    well trodden and muddy,
    descending, inevitably,
    into ignominy and shame.


    By Blogger V, at 9:31 PM  

  • Vince is right - I love how you express yourself here, Erin. I have no wish to denigrate your friends' tastes, however, I find that for many depressing = needs work to digest. I cannot do with books that need no work to understand and process. The pages lie flat and pasty. Works such as those you have on your shelves can be glorious in the mental effort and imagination they demand of us. Thomas Hardy, a favorite of mine of old, could be said to be depressing but oh the images and the human spirit he depicts bring such pleasure.

    Sometimes all we have to do is to stir ourselves enough to pull open the blackout curtain and the light will flood in.


    By Blogger Vicky, at 1:07 AM  

  • Out of darkness comes light; out of chaos comes equilibrium; out of pain comes joy. Or so I think, anyway. At this point in my life I question the people who question my reading tastes. Hey, why can't they delve into the darkness? ~ Beth

    By Blogger beths front porch, at 8:14 AM  

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