“Let There Be Light” by Maria Eklind, Malmö, Sweden, Dec. 5, 2021.
Maria Eklind, “Let There Be Light,” CC BY-SA 2.0.
Tomorrow, we’ll experience the fall equinox, which will bring a change in the quantity and quality of light.
In the Northern Hemisphere, days will shrink, shadowed at the edges, until in Berlin, where I live, only about six hours can be called daylight. This delicate, magical winter light feels different from summer rays in a way hard to describe. In December 2000, I cherished that light as I hopped on crutches through hospital grounds, where branches were bare but for glowing white berries.
Among the senses, taste and smell are best known for stirring emotion and memory, but light can evoke emotion, too. Like smells and tastes, types of light can challenge language’s descriptive powers. People (such as lightbulb manufacturers) trying to describe kinds of light use metaphors like “warm,” “cool,” “harsh,” or “soft,” which suggest how light would feel if experienced through touch. In human physiology, sensations perceived by the body slip quickly into emotions shared by the body and mind.
Fiction writers take advantage of light’s emotional work to draw readers into their characters’ physical and mental worlds. Years ago, novelist Jim Grimsley advised me to pay attention to the way light plays over surfaces I’m imagining.
“We don’t see objects; we see light falling on objects,” novelist Janet Fitch told students in her workshop “Writing from the Senses.” Fitch thinks that “we need to develop a vocabulary of light,” and she recommends using verbs that show light actively doing things to the objects it strikes.
Possibly, people pay close attention to light because it is transient. Human sensory systems have evolved to detect change. A feature of our surroundings that could alter at any moment tends to keep bodily systems engaged.
In fiction, describing the light in a scene provides stage directions for the mind. Literary scholar Elaine Scarry has shown how fiction writers and poets have depicted light and shadows passing over surfaces for millennia to help readers imagine a scene as if they were perceiving it.
In the first paragraph of the novel Desperate Characters (1970), Paula Fox uses three kinds of light to reveal her characters’ living space. She starts with the table in Sophie and Otto’s Brooklyn apartment, where they are sitting down to a lunch of French bread, chicken livers, tomatoes, and risotto: “A strong light, somewhat softened by the stained glass of a Tiffany shade, fell upon this repast.”
Readers may have fun picturing colored light on the livers, but Fox quickly gives them other work to do. She tells them that “an oblong of white, the reflection from a fluorescent tube over a stainless-steel sink, lay upon the floor in front of the entrance to the kitchen,” helping readers picture the space near the table and the room to which it leads.
Fox nudges readers to send their imaginations the opposite way by telling them that Sophie and Otto “could glance” toward the living room, where “a standing lamp with a shade like half a white sphere was always lit.” Fox invites readers to follow its light, which illuminates Sophie and Otto’s prized books and desk.
Like a painter, Fox creates her scene by emphasizing its sources of light. She encourages readers to imagine each light’s quality based on its source’s color and shape. If readers do the work to conjure the light, they may also map the space that reflects these desperate characters’ psyches.
Readers who consciously form mental images (which not all readers do) rely not just on language but on the perceiving minds of fictional characters or narrators. A vivid description can reveal as much about the perceiver as about the scene perceived, making depictions of people and their surroundings psychological studies.
In Rachel Cusk’s recent story, The Stuntman (2023), the painter D observes his wife when they visit his father in assisted living:
The hard winter light filled the hot room. … It was darker [in the small kitchenette] and her form glimmered strangely among the slashing diagonals of light that reached it from the window. The winter sun was low and the petrifying white lines laid themselves over the cupboards and walls so that she was rayed like a zebra where she stood.
This description of light slashing a woman’s body comes not just through D but through a narrating character who is imagining D’s and his wife’s lives. This narrator tells readers that D feels crippled by his wife’s “partial and malformed” freedom, which has blocked her self-realization without subjecting her fully to his control.
The “slashing diagonals” D sees bring to mind the misogynistic stabs of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Frustrated by his relationship with his wife, D has painted her ugly, naked, and upside down. The dehumanizing zebra stripes that D perceives suggest the anger he feels toward her and his domineering father.
Light can summon the past, and Marcel Proust, famous for illustrating the powers of taste and smell, also portrayed the emotional work of light. When Proust’s narrating protagonist nearly imprisons his beloved Albertine in his Parisian home, he realizes how a unique light is affecting him:
The windows of our respective bathrooms, so that their occupants might not be visible from without, were not smooth and transparent but crinkled with an artificial and old-fashioned hoarfrost. All of a sudden, the sun would color this muslin glass, gild it, and, gently disclosing in my person an earlier young man whom habit had long concealed, would intoxicate me with memories as though I were in the heart of the country amidst golden foliage in which even a bird was not lacking.
Because Proust’s character grew up in this house, the dazzling gold he perceives in the present brings to mind his younger selves who saw the same light. Increasingly aware of the difference between his boyhood loves and his jealous, controlling feelings toward Albertine, he experiences the light of an opaque window as a node connecting the present and past.
Describing light well matters to more of us than fiction writers, since so much depends on our ability to make listeners imagine a scene. Convincing a doctor that one is depressed, showing how climate change is transforming a landscape, or explaining why a technical solution won’t work can be a matter of life and death.
All three cases call on listeners to create videos in their minds. The listeners won’t necessarily agree, but the more vividly one can describe a scene, the more likely listeners will be to pay attention. Referring to light can help readers or listeners visualize a situation one is depicting.
In many cultures, light has been associated with reason, but it can also convey emotion. In descriptions, the emotion evoked by light can make listeners care about what one is saying.