Just before 5 a.m. the moon set, and it was finally dark, just before the dawn…which this morning brought to mind the saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
And perhaps because at that moment that saying had no significance to me whatsoever (that is, I didn’t need its intended reassurance in any way) , what struck me was what a banal and in fact judgement-laden (or at best preference-laden) bromide it really is, not to mention a not-always-factually-true one.
Examined at face value (without the cliché of its significance, I mean), it is nothing more than a self-evident observation of phenomena. Of course it is always darkest before the dawn (except when it’s not, like when a late, bright moonrise complicates the picture): that’s what dawn is: the light that comes after the dark. Night comes, getting dark, then darker, and keeps getting darker until it starts to get light again, which light we call “dawn.” One might just as well say, “It’s alway’s lightest just before it starts to get dark,” which is also stating the obvious: that light arrives, peaks and begins to fade into darkness, which then deepens and is eventually overtaken by light. So to take that moment of peak darkness and invoke it as significant— as the “bad thing” (dark) that is overcome by the “good thing” (light)— is to make the dark about light, somehow, like the villain and the good guy in a story which ends with the good guy saving the day. Whew, the light is here, finally! It was not looking like things were going to end well…
Making the dark the complication and tension in the plot, the “light” its denouement.
Which brings to mind an essay (“The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum”) by the late, great Ursula Le Guin (which can be found in her 2017 collection of short reflections on many things, No Time to Spare) on the difference (and the significance of the difference) between “story” and “plot.” The novelist E.M. Forster, whom she as having had “had a low opinion of story,” is said to have characterized the difference between the two this way: “‘Story’ is ‘The queen died and then the king died,’ while ‘plot’ is ‘The queen died and then the king died of grief.’” In the first, she says, there is “succession without connection,” (bad, to Forster), while the second, by deliberately introducing causality, plot is introduced to make sense of the story for us. “Story goes,” writes LeGuin, and “Plot elaborates the going.”
LeGuin then goes on the make a case for the plotless story, pointing out that narrative itself has, by definition, movement…and that a narrative cannot be told without choices made by the narrator (what to include, what to leave out), which choices themselves are inherently meaningful.
Situation: a woman and a man are taking a walk from here to there. Notice that I myself just made a choice with that introduction —one had to be made— to begin the description with “a woman and a man,” and not “a man an a woman,” or “two people,” each one of which inherently resonates with a different significance when we read it, doesn’t it? Right from the get-go. Then, there’s the choice of whether the story of the walk from here to there will be told from the perspective of (or privilege the point of view of) the woman, or of the man? All those choices (and many more) and their inherent significance are going on in the story, even without any introduced complications of plot.
And what I would argue is that that we have become (in the west at least) dangerously dependent on the structured arc of “plot” (situation, complication, tension, catalyst, resolution) as a lens through which to understand and to make meaning of our lives. And when the only stories we tell and read provide this, they in effect continue to train us to expect it, and to look for it: for everything that happens to contribute to some ultimately satisfying (i.e. existential anxiety-lowering) making-of-sense which reassures us that everything is meaningfully about us, whether for good (in the plot sense) or for ill.
The problem with this is that it encourages us only to see that which fits into those patterns (or which seems to). Which involves in turn rejecting all that doesn’t “make sense to us,” leaving us no more able than we were as children to tolerate pain and tension without needing to make it go away, nor to become any more capable of exploring questions and complications without seeking certainty (a position, an opinion, a judgement).
But most of what occurs in the world does not, in fact, “make sense,” so to the extent we relate to phenomena and experience by way of our ideas of how things are “supposed to be” and “supposed to go,” we are not actually engaging to any significant degree at all with the Mystery of Being. And there is terror there, yes, but there is also (and nowhere short of there) awe, and —ultimately— freedom. And we can enter and explore the Mystery of Being in all its mysteriousness only to the degree that we are willing to relinquish the need for “meaning,” in the sense of needing it to be about us. That we are willing to be curious, that is, not about what experience and phenomena mean, but about what they are.
A question often invoked in couples therapy with partners in conflict is “Would you rather be right, or be close? Because you don’t get to have both.” And I love that saying for the way it is as true about how we choose to engage in our relationship with All that Is as it is true for our intimate personal relationships. We can be “right” (decide how things are and how things should be, and live primarily in relationship with that) or we can be “close,” which begins to happen as soon as we drop our notions of how things are and/or should be…including ideas of what they should mean. To us.
So, to simply observe, then, that “Light comes and then dark comes and then light comes and then dark comes and then light comes […]” is to recognize and acknowledge something more profound (and un-self-centered) than the reassurance that “It’s always darkest before the dawn” offers to our discomfort with pain: it is to observe and acknowledge instead the nature of impermanence: of how things simply are in themselves, and of how they change, without seeing in them a metaphor for our own personal dramas.
An Afterthought: For these very reasons, I am more and more drawn to reading the kinds of stories that take me into a deep experience of a character’s experience, without the story necessarily ending in any kind of satisfying sense of closure, with respect to its plot. In particular, stories which take me into the experience of what it is to be someone very different from me, living a life very different from mine. The kind of person who, in life, I might be more inclined to judge and avoid instead of seek to empathize with. The kind of person, for instance, who might join an armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Which is the kind of character Maxim Loskutoff (who is currently at Playa finishing the draft of a new book) writes about in his short story collection, Come West And See (to be released in May by Norton). I love these stories, which I find richly, empathetically disturbing in the way stories are which take the reader up-close-and-personal with a difficult character’s experience, without providing the easy exits that judgement, irony or sentimentally offer. I’ve already pre-ordered; for a preview, you can access links to many of the stories which have been previously published elsewhere (many of them in the Cimarron Review) through Max’s website: http://maximtloskutoff.com/books