Monday, July 2, 2012

Five things I learned from reading Craig Koslofsky's Evening's Empire

  1. When the heliocentric revolution swept through Europe, one of the unintended metaphysical results was the realization that the heavens were not sky-blue, but were instead the blackness of the void. And that that meant the universe went on a lot further than merely to the Empyrean. Blaise Pascal, in the midst of his theological and philosophical anxiety in the Pensées, specifically in the section concerning his famous wager, considers the infinite void and concludes, "Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie."1 The night, formerly a short period of time where we do not see the face of God's heaven, is now permanent, endless, ontologically frightening.
  2. People in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance used to sleep in two periods. Not just the monks and nuns whose hours of prayer demanded wakefulness in the middle of the night, but also country farmers and urban craftspeople. In the short period of wakefulness, according to Koslofsky, there was time for "prayer, reflection, conversation, intimacy, or activities ranging from housework to petty theft." (Koslofsky 6). Research has shown that this tendency toward two sleeping periods might be a more natural state for humans; Koslofsky spends much of the book demonstrating that urban  "colonization" of night-time in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries started the process of killing this method of sleeping and that the Industrial Revolution finally finished it off for good.

  3. Jacob Böhme. I had only been slightly familiar with this Reformation mystic before this book, and now I want to read everything I can about him. Specifically, Böhme's mystic imagery of light and darkness runs counter to the long-held belief in the night as belonging to evil and the day as belonging to God. Böhme resurrects the ancient idea that nothing can exist or have meaning without its opposite, and applies it to the daytime and the nighttime. Both day and night come from God, Böhme says, who was stirred to thought and action by the same anxiety heliocentrism triggered in Pascal ("Als mir aber dieses gar manchen harten Stoß gegeben hat..."2). Böhme's quasi-Gnosticism and his frequent use of alchemical metaphors in his mystic writings resulted in his being a spiritual godfather for the Rosicrucians.

    At left: Louis the youthful life-giving sun. At right: Louis the crazed sun-faced Inquisitor/supervillain.

  4. Why was Louis XIV dubbed le roi soleil? Did it have something to do with all this new thinking about the nighttime? Certainly, it was Louis's court among all the 17th century royal households that really perfected the idea of institutionalized nighttime entertainment for the courtiers (Koslofsky 93-103). Louis's "debut" as Sun King was at a ballet in which he performed at the age of 14, resplendent in a costume where he played the solar role. Posing as the sun wasn't just a reminder of Louis's power in arranging nocturnal entertainments that would shine out in the infinite darkness; it was meant as a recapitulation of divine right of kings; so self-evident was it now that the sun was the sole source of light and life for all things on Earth, that so too is Louis's right to rule. In a Dutch Protestant broadside cartoon of the late 17th century, Louis's solar aspect takes on a sinister tinge; he wears a hood and wields a torch like an Inquisitor, and the statement, attributed to the Holy League, says: "Mon soleil par sa force eclaira l'heretique/Il chassa tout d'un coup les brouillards de Calvin/Non pas par un Zele divin/Mais á fin de cacher ma fine Politique."3
  5. Purgatory and Night. Obviously, the idea of Purgatory itself had to be rigorously purged from Protestant theology. It made no sense in the terms of a divine grace that predestines one's fate or by hoping that repentance in an afterlife will make up for poor deeds when deeds are irrelevant to one's salvation. But the folk belief in ghosts was popular and long-lived; among Catholics such visitations urged the living to pray for the dead more fervently. Therefore, in the counter-Reformation era, it became incumbent among Protestant theologian-demonologists like Ludwig Lavater to make clear that any ghost a good Protestant came across was not a shade of the unquiet dead but instead an illusion made by demons in order to lead good Christians into perdition. But even so, belief in ghosts could not be successfully eliminated, and as the Age of Reason commenced, the fight over spectral hauntings shifted to a battle between those who believed in ghosts and fed the nascent Spiritualist movement, and those who did not and courted the title of "atheist" in their role as debunker, as "Gespenst-Stürmer"... or "ghost-buster." (Koslofsky 241-2).

1 "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."
2 "As this [realization] gave me many a hard blow..."
3 "My sun with his power lit up the heretic/he all of a sudden drove forth the fog of Calvin/Not by a divine zeal/But by my fine policy at last they hide." 


  1. I've been wanting to read this book. I read somewhere that one study showed that people will naturally slip back into the two four-hour sleeping blocks after a few days if they are removed from external signals, like work, television, etc.

    There's a great book about moonlight called Nocturne that you should check out.

    Funny, you've answered a question I've had for some time. I'm always interested in sleep studies and meditations on nighttime since I'm a night owl who feels out of place in the world. I wondered if a morning person would develop the same interest. Are you still a morning person?

    1. Still a morning person, and I've continued to have sleep issues, mostly early-waking insomnia, for the past 10 years or so. During certain times of year I slip into the "2 periods of 4 hours" sleep pattern too. Never gone in for a sleep study, though.