Space: obscure clarity

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) - Melencolia (gravure, 1514)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) - Melencolia (gravure, 1514)

Space: obscure clarity, by Annie Mollard-Desfour

The universe, space, is a place full of paradoxes, darkness and light, the metaphorical echo of a battle between black and white, darkness and brightness. Black sky, black night, black holes, dark matter, black sun… Milky Way, silver moon, « lunar flashlights »… Physicists and poets try to describe and investigate the mysteries of the cosmos, a world of antithesis and oxymorons. Corneille, in Le Cid (1682) wrote « this obscure light that falls from the stars », and more recently, Derek Jarman, in Chroma. A book of Colour (1994) affirmed: « Beyond the galaxies there is a primordial obscurity from which the stars shine »… 

The first blackness is that of night… Night that Rimbaud defined as being « pirate black, in golden skies ». The night sky appears dark between sparkling stars. « Why is the night sky dark? ». This is the question Olbers asked in 1823. And it is surprisingly poet Edgar Allan Poe who, exploring Olber’s argument that the speed of light was finite and that the stars were not immortal, explained this paradox in his long poem in prose called Eureka. Essay on the material and spiritual universe (1848): “The only way to account for the voids that our telescopes find in every direction is to assume that this invisible background is so far away that no ray of light has ever been able to reach us“. The darkness that we see in this cosmic background is filled with stars whose light has not reached the Earth. At night the sky is not black, it is very bright, but not to our eyes. We don’t see the light in the dark.This limitation of our gaze darkens the night. Our eyes make it darker, take away its luminosity. But physicists, with their tools, give the firmament back its starry brightness.

In black holes, black takes on a terrible gravity. The adjective black is no longer content with opposing light, it actually devours it: black holes, stellar masses whose concentration of matter is so intense, the density and force of attraction so elevated that they suck up the light, hence their name. They bend space-time at a specific point, a bottomless well from which nothing can emerge. An irresistible obscure abstraction and the symbol of annihilation. Black holes result from the death of the most massive stars. They are the irreversible capture of light that we believed to be elusive, free and immortal.

According to some astrophysicists, matter swallowed up by black holes blasts out; it is « spat out » elsewhere in the universe, in the space-time continuum as white holes, poetically called white fountains. The antithesis and opposite of black holes, they can be the famous active galactic nuclei called quasars, clumps of extremely bright stars, billions of light years away.

The blackness of space and the darkness of night are linked to our fear of the darkness of the unknown, a void, nothingness, death, deep inner emotions generated by Rorschach’s stain test.  « Thus when an intimately complex single black blot is revealed in its depth, that’s enough to plunge us into darkness » (Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will, 1948). Darkness is the fatal outcome. « It is the space-time of the chasm-fall. Further on, once the fall is complete the poet encounters darkness. » (Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will. Essay on the imagination of forces, 1948).

The darkness of poetry! « I am the darkness, the widowed, the inconsolable […] / My only star is dead and my star-studded lute / Carries the dark sun of melancholy »…  (Gerard de Nerval, « El Desdichado », Chimeres, 1854). It is in the depths of melancholy – which carries the darkness within: melaina chole or atra bilis, « black bile ») – in which the poet dips his pen and takes as his or her emblem the black sun, inspired by Dürer’s engraving, Melencholia I (1514), in which the sun sheds the dark glare of its dark rays. Hugo, in The Contemplations (1856) and in the poem « What the mouth from the shadow says », evokes a « frightful black sun from which shines the night » : « The Hydra Universe twists its body scaled with stars; / There, everything floats away and disappears in an obscure tumbling; / In this abyss without edges, openings, walls /  […]  And you can see right to the bottom when the eye dares to go there / Beyond life and breath and noise / A hideous black sun from which the night shines ».

 The infinity of the Universe…and we only see a tiny part of it… Scientific exploration and metaphysical ponderings, the poetic expression of this mysterious, invisible place, the obscure immensity of space and its starry nights.

« Darkness has no limits and the imagination gallops in its shadows. Palpable dreams run through the night ». (Derek Jarman, Chroma. A book of colour, 1994).

Annie Mollard-Desfour is a linguist, a semiologist at CNRS and the author of a series of dictionaries on words and expressions relating to colour, including Le Noir, 2005, 2010, with an introduction by Pierre Soulages, Le Blanc, 2008, with an introduction by Jean-Louis Etienne, published by CNRS Editions.