Sunday, 7 November 2010

Night vision

Sometimes I see more clearly at night. It's mysteriously paradoxical that my brain often becomes more active the minute I lie down to go to sleep, suddenly churning out with terrifying efficiency and lucidity answers to problems I have been grinding away at all day. Sometimes the fiery nucleus of a thought I have mentally been orbiting at some distance from in the cold, murky darkness of my daytime mind rockets searingly into my consciousness almost as soon as I shut my eyes. In the best cases, I find a satisfying resolution to a nagging open question and drift peacefully into oblivion. In the worst cases, sleep becomes impossible as I am jolted into hypersensitive awareness of a terrifying reality that the distractions of daytime kept me from seeing clearly. For instance: these bones of mine -- these frail props for the flesh containing not just my vital organs but my very consciousness, and everything essentially me -- have to carry me through the rest of my earthly life. If they give out, I cease to be. And what paltry strength mere bones possess compared to the force of my spirit, defiantly kicking within me during these awful night awakenings more than at any other time. Nighttime is savagely honest, yet beautiful in its brutality. In the morning, the light of day and its mundane demands will sunnily obscure the vivid and real. Nighttime is worth staying up for.

Night imparts its lucid vision to all of us separately, yet to all of us the same. Listening to a podcast of the radio show "This American Life" entitled "Fear of Sleep a few weeks ago, I realized that even my most intimate nighttime terrors were not unique. One interviewee recounted a long history of chilling waking realizations that she was going to die. The sheer fact of it would burst upon her with breath-catching force suddenly in the night, and she would find herself crying from sadness and powerlessness. Alone in the dark, facts are facts, and the bald fact of our mortality asserts itself as supremely and solely relevant.

In St. Augustine's De Ordine, which I've been studying over the past few weeks, one of Augustine's young students has a less terrifying but equally powerful nighttime revelation. After spending his days oppressed by relentless Socratic-style interrogation on perplexing philosophical questions, feeling constantly in the spotlight and paralyzingly accountable for every word he uttered, this young man, Licentius, finally converts to the ways of philosophy during an ecstastic epiphany in the dark of the wee hours. He's alone in bed, (briefly) unobserved, and he finally has the freedom to let his mind go.

For Licentius in this dialogue, as for all of us, when daylight dawns, it brings not illumination, but obfuscation. Night vision, clear and true and real, comes gratuitously and fleetingly. Sometimes rising and rejoining the colorful, crowded daytime world feels like a blessing; other times, it is disingenuous distraction from the strange and brilliant truth only the mind can see.

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