Times are dark, thoughts are dim. The current tense celebrity of some shady figures tempts many to ebriety in hopes of managing at least some glow in the turbidity to match the afterglow of retreating brightness. How may we frame the situation? How do we see ourselves in this tenebrity, overshadowed, benighted? Are we left to pray in the dark hours?
That might seem suitable; tenebrae is the name of a Christian service held in the dark hours before the last three days before Easter. It is marked by the extinguishing of candles, leaving the congregation in the gathering gloom. But tenebrity refers not specifically to this but to darkness more generally, not only of the earth and firmament but of the mind and mood and spirit and heart. Its Latin etymon is tenebræ, but in Latin that just means ‘darkness’.
But what is darkness? Are you now, as you read this, in darkness? If not, is there anywhere that is brighter? If you are inside, you are not in the brightest circumstance you could be in; step outside into daylight and you may squint at first. If it is after dusk and before dawn, however bright your surroundings, they are still too dim for high-quality photos from many a camera. If you are in darkness, how do you read this? The glow from your screen is bright, yes? But if it is like my computer or my phone, the screen adjusts its brightness according to context. Sit where there is light on the screen but not on the camera and the screen will seem excessively dim. The truth of tenebrity is that there is almost nowhere that brightness is ten out of ten. We simply adapt our eyes to the dimness. It’s all a matter of how you frame it.
Consider the photo above, taken by the elevators in the building where I live. I am in the dark, little light reflecting off my face, my eyes almost vanishing in the well of shadow. If it were not for the glowing frames of the repeating mirrors, there would be nothing at all. And yet that’s true anyway: without a light source, whatever wherever, we can’t see – our eyes don’t reach out and grab objects to perceive; they await the light, and they adjust to its level.
And sometimes they adjust too well. And sometimes we adjust our view too much to try to bring the truly bright down to an acceptable level so we can see its contours better. When I am standing at those mirrors, I can see the surfaces of the lights and yet I can also see myself well: the hallway is not dim but quite acceptably bright. But when I point my camera at the mirror, it adjusts its narrower dynamic range to the brightness; my face, quite clearly lit to the eye, shows in the image as badly overshadowed.
Tenebrity is relative. What light level is shadow in one place is a bright spot in another. Likewise in our minds and our lives: we know tenebrity by contrast. If we adapt too much to the brightest lights, all else will seem unduly dim. The truly dark will always seem dark, but there is much else that could be bright if we would let it.