At Lapham's Quarterly, Anne Boyer on Night
“Doctor,” says Nora Flood, the protagonist of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, “I have come to ask you to tell me everything you know about the night.” In that novel night has reached its irrefutable peak. There is no question that night is night when it is three am in 1920s Paris: “French nights are those which all nations seek the world over.” Paris at the witching hour is night’s apogee, not like dusk in a roughshod midwestern American city. America is a place where, says the doctor, “the night is a skin pulled over the head of day.” Nora is fraught, betrayed by the woman she loves. The doctor, Matthew O’Connor, had been sleeping in full makeup and a long nightgown, an appropriate expression, Nora thinks, of both his priest-like nature and the “grave dilemma of his alchemy.” The doctor then asks Nora, not without irony, if she has ever thought about the night. “Thinking about something you know nothing about,” Nora says, “does not help.”
That Nora claims to know nothing about the night is appropriate to the night. Night’s mysteries are definitive. Certainties are what happens when the sun comes out. To know what the night means is to know what shrugs off being known in preference for what can be hazily remembered. The prolific Italian notebook keeper Giacomo Leopardi, in his Zibaldone, asserts that mystery lends night its poetic nature. “Notte,” he writes of the word night, “confounds objects so that the mind is only able to conceive a vague, indistinct, incomplete image, both of the night and whatever it contains.” To know the night is a lot like knowing poetry, and knowing poetry requires what Keats called “negative capability,” the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To know the night means having the clarity that some things are and should be and always will be hidden, for the night has been, or is, or should always be, the time of lovers, revolutionaries, and other conspirators. The night world is that which should be, or once always was, veiled...
The full piece at Lapham's.