I have been re-reading a yellowed article clipped from the New York Times in June, 2001. In the Arts section was an essay about an art exhibit I regret never having seen, yet seems to live in my personal curio cabinet of ideas.
Artificial light changed the world. We will never be able to see it as it was seen before gas and electricity lit it; as it was seen from the beginning of time until a mere two hundred years ago. Imagine! Oh sure, we can go to a desert or mountain top to experience the absence of artificial light. But, can we really see what it must have been to live a day to day existence throughout one’s life without a flash light to guide us, a light bulb to read by? I struggle to put myself there.
The Carnegie exhibition posited that “light was different before the 20th century, and the way people experienced it was different.” Literature, which shows us emotions, psychology, and physical life falls silent regarding light. Light is natural, essential, assumed, and incorporated into our lives.
Visual artists show us what life looked like. Vermeer and Rembrandt, for two, painted the effects of natural light. And then there is Monet, Van Gogh, Turner who tried to actually paint the light itself through reflections and changing qualities as it fell on objects.
Painting the light, striving to paint the light seems to me to be a heroic, even quixotic, endeavor. Those artists determination and curiosity expand my world beyond words. I am grateful to them.
While writing historical fiction we pay close, loving attention to details of clothing, transportation, finance, speech patterns, social norms. It’s important to get it just right. I like immersing myself in the time; projecting myself to there and then. The one piece lost to me is how my characters, how people in the past, actually saw the world. I can imagine how it smelled without plumbing, with food carts in the streets, with horses trotting.
We know today what morning light on a rainy day looks and feels like, just as we know the shadows that close in as daylight fades. But, happily, I click on a lamp to dispel the gloom of weather or night. I wonder how must it have been to struggle day and night with tallow light or gas lanterns, and how dim the world away from those fragile lights appeared.
No, I have no desire to live in that darkness. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what the world looked like without artificial light.