Brain Pickings

How Mankind Conquered the Night and Created the 24-Hour Day

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What the world’s oldest profession has to do with light pollution.

Why do we need darkness? The twentieth century has at last triumphed over this frightening, lawless place. Night was once a time for thieves and highwaymen, grave-diggers, ghosts, and masked balls. Now it’s a place of bright lights, illuminating every part of the city. According to one of the characters in Hemingway’s story of the same name: “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing.” And Edward Gorey had his own explanation.

The City Dark, a new documentary by King Corn writer Ian Cheney, looks at the light-filled world we have created in the past hundred years or so. Humans of the twenty-first century have grown accustomed to living twenty-four hour lives, and without the night sky above us, it’s easy to forget our own place in the cosmos. (Astronomer Thomas Hockey’s recent book How We See the Sky is a revolutionary call for a return to stargazing.)

Over the past few years, there have been several wonderful books on the history of night, including Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, and Craig Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe. The academic interest in night doesn’t seem incidental: night is now something for the history books, an antique notion of a dark age.

As it turns out, the world’s oldest profession isn’t prostitution, but nightwatching. A night patrol in fifth century Rome was expected to be “the security of those who are sleeping, the protection of houses, guardian of the gates, an unseen examiner and silent judge.”

The Night Watch, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642.

There was quite a bit to be wary of: foreign armies, thieves, and most frightening of all, fire. More destructive than any crime, and cheap to inflict on others, massive fires could be an accident of a headscarf catching on a candle or a unruly stove in a bakehouse, as it was at the beginning of the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed four-fifths of the city in four days.

The gate of western London explodes in the Great Fire, Old St. Paul's is to the right.

In a pre-industrial society, work that wasn’t finished during the day simply had to be finished at night: farmers plowed into darkness, weavers worked by candlelight, shoemakers might stay up until midnight or later to meet demand. The dead were also moved at night, their graves dug; the rag-pickers collected garbage; the dust men collected the day’s ashes.

The Dentist, by Gerrit van Honhorst, 1622.

If light was God, than darkness was surely Satan, and the night was the closest to an early Hell. Demons could come to you in dreams, but also on the road or in the woods. “Never greet a stranger in the night,” says the Talmud, “for he may be a demon.”

But terrors of the night also contained the calm of reason. The moon could be measured and mapped as it traveled through the sky, the constellations named, the planets divided from the stars, all of which was useful for farmers, sailors, scientists, and even poets to understand their place in the universe. When he looked at the night sky, Goethe wrote, he was “overwhelmed by a feeling of infinite space.”

The telescope of Caroline and her brother William Herschel, who was the first astronomer to spot Uranus.

By studying the night sky for centuries, we learned of the other planets and our place in the solar system, and we set out to order the heavens. With enormous telescopes, Enlightenment-era astronomers like Caroline Herschel would sweep the sky nightly for comets, meteors and changes in the constellations. It was this kind of study, explained Carl Sagan in Cosmos, that “has led directly to our modern global civilization.”

Both The City Dark and these histories of night are reminders that for thousands of years humans have lived by a natural rhythm of night and day that has only recently been broken. By banishing the night, we have extended the hours in the day that we can work and play. We’ve given in to the urgent human desire to live more, but also to live more inwardly, turned away from the night sky. It’s a change that promises to be subtle, unseen, and profoundly lasting on the next thousand years of human life.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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