THE SHADOW: Light’s Companion by Madeleine L’Engle

Light's Companion by Madeleine L'Engle

From Parabola

In A Child’s Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson writes, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me / and what can be the use of him is more than I can see.”  Those lines baffled me as a child.  I didn’t regard my shadow as being useful, but as being essential.  I read everything I could get hold of, and somewhere I had read that if you did not cast a shadow you didn’t exist.  Ghosts had no shadows.  I’m not sure about werewolves.  But to be a real human being, you had to cast a shadow.  I lived in New York City, and when I walked to the park I was moderately careful to walk around people’s shadows so that I didn’t step on them; I didn’t want anybody to step on mine.

My shadow was part of me, and it was the connection between the world of light and the world of dark.  The world of dark was the world of imagination, of fairies and goblins and gods and goddesses, of talking animals and heroic deeds.  The world of light was the world of reason where I learned arithmetic so that I could go to a secondhand bookstore with my allowance and buy a book, where I was expected to go to bed at a certain time, to get up at a certain time, and to eat my oatmeal without sugar.

It took me a long time to realize the importance of the shadow in keeping things in creative balance.  During the brilliance of a January day in Antarctica, we sought shadows to keep the light from blinding our eyes.  In Egypt, I learned why the women drew black lines of kohl around their eyes: to produce shadow, to protect their eyes from the fierceness of the sun.  We see because of the sun, but if there were no shadows that light would quickly blind us.  We need the shadows of buildings to protect us at least a little from heat.

It has only recently struck me that we need our shadow-casters, metaphorically as well as physically.  What in me casts shadows, and what kind?

The most exciting come when my intuition and intellect work together and cast a shadow that turns into a novel or a poem or a story.  This is the heart of my life.  My work and my vocation are one and the same.  The work casts a shadow.  It is alive.

The great artists – Bach, Shakespeare – cast the longest, longest-lasting shadows.  They were willing to put themselves and their work in the full light of the sun.  If I try to protect myself, say less than I believe, I weaken my shadow.  I am less alive.

Occasionally I read a book which casts a negative shadow, and this is frightening, because I am getting the negative shadow of the person who wrote the book.  Are there evil shadows?  Yes, and no.  Perhaps it depends on how we interpret them.  The shadows of war, for example: if we heeded the shadow, could we avoid war?  Is it that we have lost the balance of shadow and light?

If there is no light, there is no shadow.  On a night of heavy clouds when no shadows are cast I am often afraid, fearful of the loss of balance.  Everything is out of proportion.  What happens to life when there is no shadow?  Sometimes the universe seems to be holding its breath.

In our dreams, balances shift.  Sometimes dreams are dark, sometimes luminous.  The dead walk in our dreams, alive again.  In my dreams I have not thought to check: is there a shadow?  Light and shadow work together, except in nightmares where one or the other tries to take over.  In “good” dreams sometimes the light will illuminate something we haven’t noticed before.  Or sometimes the shadow will soften something sharp and painful.  There is a feeling of balance.  All is well.  There is enough light to make a good shadow.  All is alive.

One night there in New York City I walked my dog in Riverside Park.  A friend was with me, and while we were walking home she pointed out the shadows of a tree on the light walls of an apartment building.  It was like an oriental painting, delicate, and, although it was a shadow, luminous.  Sometimes I am dazzled, not knowing which is light and which is shadow.  At night when I am in the country and walk outdoors under the stars, I know that the stars are raging atomic furnaces, great bursts of flame so distant that they appear as sparkling.  The light has come from so far that the shadows it casts are faint, but they are there, an affirmation of life.

If there is not light in my mind I will not be able to enter the shadow worlds of imagination, the sometimes strange but utterly real places in which my characters move and talk.  My characters are often willing to reveal their shadows, and so they are alive.


A long time ago, when I was writing my first novel, I learned that if you look into the pupil of someone’s eye, you will see your own reflection, tiny but clear.  We tried it, amazed to see ourselves in someone else’s eye.  Something we were happy not to be able to test was that a dead person’s eye will give back no reflection.

No life, no reflection.

No life, no shadow.

No life, no time.

We tell time by measuring the length of the shadow on the sundial, long at evening, small and almost invisible at high noon.  No shadow, no time.  Is that why a dark night seems to stretch on and on, and a bright day whizzes past?

Intellect and intuition.  In the Western world we have become overdependent on the intellect, burdening ourselves with the need for scientific proof, and suffering great imbalance when we forget that fact and truth are not the same thing.  We trivialize the world of art by pretending that it is not real, that Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is only story, that Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a random jumble of notes, that Renoir’s painting is daubs of color with little to tell us about the people on the canvas.  We want only the light of reason, forgetting that where there is only light, with no shadow, there is no life.

Usually in a society where story and myth are important, so is shadow.  Do not step on my shadow!  To step on someone’s shadow is to put that person in your power.  In Western culture, we walk casually over people’s shadows as though they don’t matter.  We bind ourselves and each other.

In the heat of the sun we shelter under the shade of a great tree.  But if lightning comes, that place of shade becomes dangerous.  In our own lives of light and shadow, there is always the danger of lightning.  We must learn when to step out of the shelter of the shadow or we may go mad as some great artists have done.  The tension is too great.

But for most of us, we seek and find balance.  It’s all right to be clumsy.  The greatest ballet dancers are clumsy when they are not in dancing shoes.

I’m not a dancer, but I love their world.  In their interpretations of life and love they remind me that the shadow world is not to be feared.  A surface reading of Freud indicates that that world is full of nastiness, repressed sex, and all kinds of ugliness; all that is there, but so is poetry and prayer and love and beauty.  Art starts in the shadows before offering its insight to the light of the mind.

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me.  On the sunny days when the shadow is actually darkest, I think of Apollo driving the chariot of the sun across the sky, and the blazing world of the intellect.  On the dark days, I go with Persephone to the underworld where intuition rules, and the imagination holds both light and dark.  The old myths help me to balance my heart and mind.

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