ebruary 11, 2019. Twenty-four days ago I left Svalbard after spending four days in the polar night. I now check on the internet the sunrise and sunset times in Longyearbyen. This week, darkness will still rule every hour of the day; the sun, so it says, is down all day. But it will rise again in five days. On February 16 it will rise at 11:22 in the morning and set again at 13:02. This short day will be one hundred minutes long, like a full-length movie. Next, the day will become longer by an additional 52 minutes, from 10:56 to 13:28; the next day it will stretch over three full hours and ten minutes. And onward and onward, more and more minutes of light will be added each day, in a rapid increase. By the end of February, the sun will be up from 08:40 in the morning to 15:45 in the afternoon. Quickly the darkness will shrink. In April it will shine all day long, up all day. Only on August 25 it will begin to set again, and the days will grow shorter until complete darkness in October, and so on and on. This is the northern part of Europe, the continent whose name, according to one conjecture, stems from the ancient Akkadian word erebu, meaning “sunset” (contrary to asu, “sunrise,” the root of the name “Asia.” Because in the eyes of the residents of ancient Mesopotamia, the sun rose from the east and set in Europe’s darkness, in the west).
“On 3 January I caught the plane up to Tromsø,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard of his journey to the small village of Håfjord in Norway’s far away north, in one of the books that motivated me to travel to the great darkness. “Shortly after halfway we flew into a tunnel of darkness, and I knew it wouldn’t end, this was how it would be, pitch black all day for some weeks yet. Then everything would slowly change, soon the darkness would be gone and the light would fill every hour of the day. This was just as wild, I thought, smoking in the narrow seat. But first came the darkness. Dense and heavy, it lay over the village when I arrived by bus on the morning of 4 January, not open, as it could be when the sky was cloud-free and the stars were shining out in space, but dense and heavy like at the bottom of an abandoned well.”
So, on January 13 last year I too left, on a flight to Oslo via Budapest; a night stop at the Gardermoen airport, and then another flight, in the morning, to the tiny and remote town of Longyearbyen. The world’s northernmost settlement, the only inhabited point in the Svalbard island archipelago east of Greenland, only one thousand kilometers from the North Pole, where, at this time of year, total darkness prevails all hours of the day, and winter is at its peak. I went there to participate in an interdisciplinary academic conference, titled “Darkness.” For months, from the announcement of the conference and until the journey itself, I repeatedly dreamed, awake and asleep, in day and in the dark. I tried to imagine how it would be, to experience complete darkness for the first time.
From the airplane window on the way to Budapest, I noticed the darkness falling. I looked at the expanse of black clouds. A dark red line on the horizon, a lighter line above it, the remains of an orange white grey light and on top of it the dark blue of the sky and the small light flickering at the edge of the airplane wing, a light that could be mistaken for a moment for a very big star close by. I knew that several more days would pass before I see daylight again. The next morning, on the flight to Longyearbyen, the sky was reflected not in black but in dark blue, rich in color, deep dark blue, how can a color be described. Even a dull orange-pink line could be seen on the horizon. But a short time before landing, above the Barents Sea of the Arctic Ocean, we entered into the opaque black sleeve and I saw: everything around us was black. And we landed into frozen darkness.
I felt immediately my heart ascending with astonishment. One in the afternoon, half-moon in the black sky, the picture was elementary and sharp: a white icy surface, the red bow of Norwegian Air, the black sky, a very dark blue sketch of serrated ridgeline far away on the horizon behind the plane. And that was it. The cold hit my face and I rejoiced, the heart beating quickly and forcefully. I waited for my suitcase by the baggage carousel with the other passengers and could not stop smiling to myself, quietly. The airport was nothing but a small, and strange, hall. There was no one in uniform to turn questions to, nothing, as if everything was clear, and everything really was clear. I left the hall and went outside and to a bus waiting there and asked for directions for Funken Lodge, and the driver told me that I should go to the other bus standing there. I got on the bus and after thirty minutes, when it filled, we drove away. It was completely dark outside but I could see that we were driving by black water banks that moved softly, and everything around us was quiet and frozen. After a short drive in an invisible landscape, we passed a few clusters of two-story buildings with large windows, gently lit in warm orange light. I could see small kitchens through the windows, chairs surrounding simple tables, fabric lampshades, a guitar hung on the wall, these were probably student dorms. We arrived at the hotel. A few people got off the bus and entered the empty lobby, only a few benches and shelves for the cumbersome winter boots, here they don’t allow to remain in them indoors. The dark lobby on the second floor was designed with a quiet refinement, lit in a soft dull light that seemed to silence all voices. I was given a key to the room which, I discovered, was narrow and tiny but pleasant and very clean, with dark brown wooden furniture, a tall bed with soft, big pillows, and small, dull lights. I could see a big mound of snow from the window, the walkway, a few parked cars, and a lonely streetlight at the opposite side, glittering and blinding against the big screen of darkness.
Martin, the minibus driver who drove me and a few South African conference participants to a tour of the town, told us that the population of Longyearbyen was a little more than 2,000 people, including 700 students who only live there for short periods, come and go, and 400 children, the sons and daughters of the permanent residents. He himself is of German origins, married to a Thai woman and father to a small boy. He has been living in Longyearbyen for eight years. Daily life in Longyearbyen is simple and tough, and mostly consists of facing the burning cold and the distance from other settlements. Food and other products arrive here by plane and ship, cancelled in times of storms and avalanches and leaving them sometimes without provisions, so they hoard food and are helped by their neighbors. The strong winds of the storms make the houses sway like ships on high waves, one can feel seasickness, he said, saying that his wife experienced it last winter. Alcohol and Netflix are two common addictions for the residents of the town, but community life is warm and close. They often meet in the local pub and the 24/7 church, where one can always have tea and biscuits.
We circled the town, saw the large paddocks for the Siberian huskies who drive the tourists’ sleds. On the side of the road there were a few young men, in skis, wearing protective suits with prominent reflectors, their heads tied with rubber bands holding small torchlights to their foreheads. We drove a little further, up until the famous sign announcing the danger of polar bears, beyond it the icy plains of Svalbard, and, with no sign of any light, the utter darkness. It’s forbidden from here onward to proceed without escort or weapons. The danger of being devoured is real and clear. In the distance we could see the tiny lights of travelers who had erected a tent for themselves in the heart of the wilderness. We exited the car near the active coal mine and stood on top of the hill. The wind was strong and a hard coldness paralyzed the bones, minus 17 degrees Celsius according to the thermometer hanging above the driver’s seat. I heard the darkness blowing like a large animal, its growls a black frost. We are used to thinking of frost as white. But, no: frost is as black as black can be. I felt my toes frozen and painful in my padded winter boots, and realized that I would need many more layers.
We passed not far from where once there were graves but now they were empty. Martin told us that these are graves more than 100 years old, where the bodies of six coal miners who died of the Spanish Flu in 1918 were also buried. The eternal frost kept not only the old bodies from rotting, but also the active bacterium that annihilated five percent of the human population then. Scientists have already gathered the necessary samples for a study that should prevent another outbreak, but, in the meantime, with climate change, the layer of permafrost began to slowly melt and terrible snow and mud avalanches exposed some of the graves, spilling bodies onto the ground, and some innocent passerby walking one day in the dark stumbled on the unbroken bodies, they had to remove them and fly them away from here and conduct a new burial for them in Tromsø. Ever since, it has been forbidden to be buried in Longyearbyen, and whoever wishes is flown before their death to return their souls to God in Tromsø. Others can choose to be cremated in the local crematorium, and their ashes are spilled in the Arctic Ocean. Childbirth is also forbidden here, the local hospital is not prepared for births and hospitalizations, and pregnant women leave, along with the wounded and sick, to Tromsø, as do the local bags of trash, destined to be recycled. We ended the tour by the Global Seed Vault. Entering it was forbidden but we could detect its cubic outlines in the dark. It has been under repair and renovation for some time, after it was discovered that the layer of eternal frost was not that resistant and that water had penetrated it, endangering the seeds that were gathered and collected and brought here from all corners of the world, in order to survive any possible extinction of the gene reservoirs of millions of seeds, especially edible seeds. Those left alive after man-made disasters shall come here, to collect the samples in order to try and renew growth and life in the destroyed areas. We stood in the frozen wind. Far, in the heart of a black wilderness, defined by an angular mountain ridge, an illuminated plain twinkled: the airport.
“I had always loved darkness,” writes Knausgaard. “When I was small I was afraid of it if I was alone, but when I was with others I loved it and the change to the world it brought. Running around in the forest or between houses was different in the darkness, the world was enchanted, and we, we were breathless adventurers with blinking eyes and pounding hearts. When I was older there was little I liked better than to stay up at night, the silence and the darkness had an allure, they carried the promise of something immense.”
In the small village of Håfjord, during the experience of continuous darkness, Knausgaard, the teenage, 18-year-old teacher, developed a feeling of uselessness, a lack of motion, lack of meaning. The total freedom offered by darkness swallows everything and paralyzes him completely.
“But this darkness was different. This darkness rendered everything lifeless. It was static, it was the same whether you were awake or asleep, and it became harder and harder to motivate yourself to get up in the morning. […] Everything vanished, everything dissolved into the great darkness in which we lived. I might as well say this as that, do this as that, nothing made any difference.”
I will be only spending a few days in Longyearbyen, and maybe this is the reason for my distinctly different experience. My senses, which have been accustomed to all shades of light, now absorb the movements of black lines and plains in the air and the landscape, drawing dark matter into me, dark frost. Martin said that many of the permanent residents in Longyearbyen tend to sink into seasonal depression and prefer to leave the island between October and February, to go south into Norway or other places until the light returns, but that the children love the winter and the long darkness, the nightly games, wrapped in large wool scarves, the dark shadows, the hot chocolate served to small mouths. I thought, maybe these children would be free from the concept of darkness as an anti-social space, terrifying and negative, and would learn to move easily, confidently, in fields or the darkest of streets.
During the conference I have listened to presentations on light pollution, travel diaries into the northern nights in the Romantic period, dark paintings, about the marine darkness, the history of urban outdoor lighting, about darkness as a symbol of sickness, about its place in Scandinavian crime fiction, about vampires and zombies, building design for the blind population, about many more subjects. And I talked about the possibility that literature can keep more and more dark havens, inapproachable secret areas, especially in this era when it always seems like everyone already knows everything about us, that everything is revealed and seen, that every cell in our brain has been already deciphered ad nauseam. It was interesting to discover the extent to which the presentations that dealt with darkness really talked about light, not darkness. Darkness was repeatedly understood in the quantitative sphere, as a case of a lack in light, a zero degree that each climbing out of it is already a degree of light. All this, when the staying in Svalbard, inside this great darkness, changed the traditional relationship between light and darkness in front of my eyes, and conveyed a completely different experience, no longer degrees of light and a black screen in the background, but degrees of darkness in front of slight, fleeing light.
Here in the continuous darkness, I thought, nothing remains of the regular cyclic experience. When it is always dark, there isn’t really a difference between day and night, morning and evening, not in what we see, not in the temperature, the feeling, the experience. Then why do the hotels continue to offer breakfast at 7am and dinner at 6pm, why are the few stores here open only between 10 and 6, why are school days conducted as usual, at the same expected hours? There has been an opportunity to completely interrupt the capitalist cycle of work and consumption, the stiff cyclic system of 24 hours a day, to experience this period as one long night, like the bears perhaps, like ancient cave men, or in the anarchy of those who decide to no longer be subjected to the unchanging, dry, deadening cycle of hours, the redeeming cycle, too, in fact, why not in fact. In the morning I woke up to a dark night, the view from the window was identical, the same glittering streetlight, the same mound of snow, the same black screen of impenetrable darkness. In the hotel restaurant the visitors sat for breakfast by the big dark windows, gently clanking their utensils on the black plates with the vegetables, eggs, fatty cheeses, jams, which were flown here from far away.
After my return, I read the English translation of the first chapter of a Norwegian book, a book about darkness. The author, Sigri Sandberg, writes that we only understand darkness as the lack of light. From an astrophysical point of view, darkness is the lack of light reflected between objects, and thus has no existence in itself. I recalled Monica’s presentation. She talked about the medieval interpretation to the question of whether darkness is “a thing” with an essence and a reality for itself, or whether it is utter negation. If God created all things by the power of the word, hence “light” is a thing (“Let there be light—and there was light”) and darkness isn’t. But if the existence of a name represents the existence of a thing, then the name “darkness” testifies, in itself, to an essence. “And the darkness he called ‘night’,” reads the text. But who gave darkness its name? I thought, what about all the things that have no name, that cannot be uttered in words? Once upon a time someone bothered to show that whatever has a name is already a thing, that it cannot be otherwise. Can it? If every name is a thing, does every thing have a name? Sandberg notes that the human eye, with its small pupils, has very meager optical capabilities, absorbs only very little light at any given moment. There is so much light we don’t see at all—radio waves, microwaves, infrared and ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays, they too are energy, are light. And we have binoculars and cameras, telescopes and optical machines that can perform better than any eye, that can calibrate light and direct us to see better and further. And we have night vision devices, but night itself, I thought, we can’t yet see. And since we can’t see it, we do our best to negate its existence, to force it to stop being a “thing.” I thought about darkness as an asylum, how with every blow of pain our immediate response is to shut our eyes, the gaze searches darkness, the body retraces and turns into its own insides as if it were a haven, like into a womb, darkness covers as if with a cloak, benefitting us. I recalled how once, on a terrible flight to Brussels which caused me to develop an atrocious fear of flights, the plane rattled awfully in the strong winds, as if it were trapped in the hand of a humongous monster. I folded my legs on the seat and shut my eyes and rolled into myself and covered my head and body with the airplane’s blanket, a sack of darkness I created for myself, until the danger had passed.
As long as the conference went on, the darkness was mostly experienced through the dim rooms, the intentionally dimmed lights, and the blankets of black air seen through the windows. For some of the presentations the lights were switched off too, only the computer screen still flickering, throwing electronic light on the face of the speaker, and the plain of ice could be seen from the big window, lit by a slight streetlight, until the entrances to the low opposite building, with snow bikes sunk deep in the snow, only half of them could be seen, covered with snow and a thin layer of ice. Sometimes a few passersby could be seen, covered from head to toe, walking in the dark. In the breaks between the presentations, the same unchanging mist of grey silent murmuring in the one hall where everyone moved by the coffee pitchers, managing to keep a tiny space devoid of touch despite the crowd, paper cups in hands and the same expression of kind understanding, necessary nods and sounds of agreement, an unfocused smile and a gaze that seemed as though sustained in midair, a distance of twenty centimeters from their complexion, not crossing the touch of the eyes, not penetrating anything. Attentive ears hear inside this murmur the most talked-about topic, the aurora, and whether there’ll be an occasion for them to see it. In fact, from the moment of their arrival they have been hunting for it, downloading to their cellphones aurora forecasting applications and complaining about their uselessness, some of them even asked from the hotel’s reception desk for an immediate notice service, even in the middle of the night the receptionist should call and wake them for any tail of a green line in the sky, though the possibility exists that, before they have covered themselves with the endless repertoire of thermic clothing, a sweater, a coat, legwarmers, wool socks, scarves, hats etc., the aurora would disappear again. And I knew that if the opportunity to watch this wonder arose it would be a glorious joy. But I decided not to chase it. In this short time I’ve already realized that I came here to see darkness, not the aurora, not light. And indeed we found out that when a few of us went for dinner in the hotel’s fancy restaurant, sitting there by the big windows, many other conference goers stayed outside and saw some slight green lights in the sky. And us who ate and drank and laughed missed that whole heavenly performance. Only the next day, on my way back from the town center to the hotel, with Ro and with Sarah, I saw a slight and green breath of air in the sky, some kind of an airy mist or a scattered little cloud, passing, a tiny remnant of a hidden aurora, almost utterly dark. And Ro stopped and insisted on taking more and more pictures, that was the most of the aurora we saw, we tarried, I wore no thermic layer underneath my pants and I felt my thighs freeze, I took advantage of the fact that the hotel was close by and left them there to go back.
On the flight back from Longyearbyen via Tromsø the air was black, but I saw in the horizon a very thin strip of grey light on top of a thin purple line, with dull blue and then very dark blue on top of that, the night sky. While we waited for the flight in the small and too bright room I listened when Janike talked with the rest, she said that sometimes the aurora can be seen from the airplane window, you should pay attention, glue your face to the windowpane and try to block with your hands the penetrating light. Ever since that short conversation about Norwegian literature that we had at the Fruene café in the town center, on the first day of the conference, Janike’s eyes glanced over me every time, as if we’ve never spoken, as if I was made of air. Although during that conversation she was kind and attentive. I told myself maybe it’s a Norwegian thing, respect expressed by keeping a measured, indifferent distance, and maybe it was me, a crudeness that I emanate involuntarily that discourages and distances others, without me seeing how it happens. You never know. In the café I detailed for her the names of most of the Norwegian books I had read, she raised her eyebrow in wonder, never thinking that someone from another country, with no connection and without ever even visiting Norway, would immerse herself so much in it, she asked what attracts me so much to this literature, suddenly I realized that I’ve never really thought about it before, I haven’t articulated to myself what charms me so much there beside the known attraction to the different landscapes and the sharp difference of culture and character. I had no ready-made reply and I just mumbled, without thinking and without explaining, it’s the cold. Only later I thought that it was the inherent strangeness even within the most intimate relations, most familiar landscapes, starting from Askildsen, the first Norwegian writer I read, and ending with Hanne Ørstavik who I read during the flight here, even the first page of Dag Solstad, which I read in the bookstore in the Oslo airport and bought. A few words are enough and immediately this feeling of being a stranger inside the most common and familiar environment arises, among the people close to you most, inside yourself, inside your body, that same feeling of unexplained encumbrance and distance between yourself and the things outside and inside you that generates a completely different treatment of the material, which turns painfully tangible. Per Petterson writes about a man walking in a shopping center, approaching an unfamiliar woman who has been waiting to him:
“While I walked I passed my hand on the upper part, the one glistening from use, of the banister looking at the hall downstairs, as I used to do as a boy, when everything pierced inside through the skin, and now the smooth metal stroked my hand, cold and pleasant, and with every meter I felt the nails hitting my fingers like connecting dots in an orbit passing the clothing stores, bag stores and stores in which untasteful things are sold and moving forward to the café (I Refuse, translated from the Hebrew translation for this essay).” And it was good to see that there are still some people who are sealed to themselves and permeable to everything else until the world becomes dark and alive at the same time, unfamiliar, question raising, forever in need of an ungiven explanation.
I closed my eyes on the airplane seat in order to listen again to the sound of snow flattened underneath the legs, that soft crunch in treading, like a delicate, delicate shattering that you can only hear in a certain frequency, as if each flake and flake were crushed separately. In order to see again the flat droughts of snow running in front of the bus wheels, in the bus’s high beams. The frozen pointed peaks rising in the dark, you can see that they’re white but you can’t see the white itself. Things I could not take pictures of. The pictures came out dark and bad and pretty quickly I stopped trying, I knew I won’t be able to capture the shadow of the serrated ridges that surrounded the town, the shadow that has been sketched in the darkness in front of me. On the last day I went alone down the road from the hotel to the town center, I wore regular socks and thermic socks on top of them, thermic tights, then jeans, snow boots, thermic undershirt, a thin knit, a thick wool sweater, ear warmers, ski gloves, a padded wool hat, and on top of everything a thick padded coat and a wool scarf rolled several times around the neck, chin, mouth, and face. I felt like I was inside an outer space uniform or some kind of a capsule, a small bubble of relative heat, resonant space inside which I could hear my breaths howl from the deep and reverberate through the lungs and above them. Silence all around me, only the sound of steps trampling in the snow. On the right and left and below, the building’s decks are dimly lit between surfaces of ice, everything is dark brown and white, dark black brown and white, very dim white because of the lack of lighting, and darkness on top of darkness all around, smoke rising from the roofs, I stepped slowly inside the freeze like on the moon, like in a dream. I thought, from here it is simpler to imagine the small sphere inside the big darkness, spinning on its axis more and more, again and again, a spinning top in its orbit, no intention, no purpose. Spinning. Billions of years, empty or filled with life, with creatures, with people, it’s all the same for it. Nothing is aimed at our experience of life.
Winnicott writes that every person has a kernel that never communicates with the world of perceived objects, with outside reality, that cannot be affected by it. A kernel that builds stiff defenses around it, against the threat of being found, altered, communicated with:
“At the centre of each person is an incommunicado element, and this is sacred and most worthy of preservation […]. Rape and being eaten by cannibals, these are mere bagatelles as compared with the violation of the self’s core, the alteration of the self’s central elements by communication seeping through the defenses.” (“Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites”, 1963)
The core of the self is a dark area, sealed, inaccessible, and it should remain like that. So much resistance is required in order to live in Svalbard, I thought. So much constraint, imposition, and subjugation. Tens of thousands of years after man conquered nature, until the victory that is about to bring humanity, according to the well-known dialectics, its complete surrender, its demise, like every full victory, the battle here still takes place in all its might. The outside is difficult, frozen, unprocessed. The land spits the dead, dissolves the foundation of houses, pours water into the vaults of the seed bank and endangers the genetic reservoir kept there, teasing the plans for progress and the immortalization of the human race, threatening to destroy its supremacy. Environment does whatever it can to get rid of mankind, to expel the human presence from the space that is not suited for it, for the human body, its conditions and needs, a presence that keeps on circling the necessary circadian rhythms, rhythms that have nothing to do with Svalbard. And people come and impose themselves on the environment, place huge stuffed polar bears in the souvenir shop’s display window, spreading skins and deer furs on the restaurant benches, hanging a huge stuffed deer head above the gable in the entrance, where a tourist, incidentally and innocently, orders a whale steak from the menu. Luxury hotels, with unimaginable affluence, grew in the freezing, bone-piercing cold, wild and pristine land. At Funken Lodge I looked at the polished glass lightshades, the soft leather couches, the carpets, the gleaming wooden floor, the ceramic vases and the ornaments on the beautiful shelves, I thought how everything arrived here in ships and was disassembled and placed inside this designed building, which was also built from materials that were brought here in ships. Inside it’s very warm and pleasant, the wine is poured into glasses, the dishes are refined and precise, in sharp contrast to the wildness of the stinging frost, of the surrounding serrated mountain peaks, of the Siberian husky dogs who wander around in the big paddock with their paws touching the snow. In her presentation, Janike showed pictures from a journey between the Svalbard beaches in the summer. From the ship it was possible to see the filth stains that melt the top layer of the glacier, more and more airplane fuel filth that continues to flow here almost every day, bringing more than 5,000 tourists to the island in summer, much less in the winter. But they won’t give up here the coal and natural gas deposits easily, the territory that will be revealed, and fought over by determined armies when the day comes. I thought about the miserable polar bears, the deer. I thought: we are walking here on the very lands of darkness , guessing the invisible, the natural resources hidden in the deepmost layers of the earth, concealed from us, invisible and yet existing, propelling the movement of human destruction that brought me here too. Janike said that we must stop speaking about Svalbard in terms of distance, remoteness, sublime purity, and start talking about vulnerability, fracture, pollution. She called it “the dark sublime,” to distinguish it from the sublime that is made of the distance from an unobtainable space, from the force of inaccessible and untouched nature. And indeed there is no place free from the touch of man anymore, even Svalbard is already accessible and obtainable, wired, mined, dug, used, slowly disinherited of its assets and resources. Even frozen, far away Svalbard. The dark sublime is the destruction and catastrophe that certainly awaits us with the systematic destruction of all the spaces of the glowing, lustrous sublime. From our slight, partial point of view, with the same tiny pupils that subjugate every event to the narrow scope of the human, we can only see the vengeance of the planet, pay back for the grave violation of the hidden self-core of the land of complete darkness that was damaged and defiled by the piercing beams of light. No one is allowed to come here, I thought.
This essay was originally published in Hebrew by Odot. English Translation by Maayan Eitan; all pictures by Shira Stav.
We hope you have enjoyed this article! Unlike many other publications, we do not have a paywall. In order to continue this way, and to make sure that our writers are paid fairly for their work, we are totally reliant on those who can afford to do so, and who care about the Tel Aviv Review of Books, to help support our work. Please consider making a donation. Many thanks!
Shira Stav is a scholar of Hebrew literature and a poet, translator, and literary critic. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Literature at Ben-Gurion University. She has published two collections of poetry.Read more
A comprehensive survey of Israeli-Armenian relations in the shadow of the latest Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Three new books make a persuasive case for reevaluating age-old historiographical conventions in the study of late Ottoman Palestine.
Reflections on Amos Oz's final lecture and his relationship with Germany.
Why are so many contemporary Israeli novels excruciatingly overlong?