something and nothing in ‘Night’

How do we make the distinction between something and nothing? Is nothing simply a vessel for a something? Or are we trying to measure the difference between History and wind?

Etel Adnan’s Night reflects upon a litany of paired concepts whose relationships to one another are less dichotomous or binaristic, and more parallel or dialectic. Constituents of each pair are born of one of two fields–dark/nature vs light/reason–which the reader finds appear together as an almost completely overlapping venn diagram or mutual superimposition. Poetry vs philosophy, reason vs mystery/negative capability, sleep vs waking, reality vs representation, immaterial vs, material, presence vs absence, life vs death–the list goes on. Adnan refuses the admission of a hierarchy between the two realms, instead considering their implicit, if threatening, porousness and their necessity to one another. Memory becomes a useful signifier of the necessity of human intervention on “reality,” encompassing the violence (“refraction and destruction” p 22) of human perception on what we could call the mystery of experience. The reader might expect the speaker to condemn this impression of compulsive human making-order-out-of-chaos so to speak as violating and unRomantic. Instead, she uses Memory to forgive us our impulse toward light, allowing that without it, well, we would have nothing. “Light imposes a limit, or reveals it,” (p. 20) Without knowledge of a limit, night’s effluence would become paralytic.

The first section of Night seems to simultaneously employ and subvert a philosophical structure. The prosaic and dialectic nature of the work recall Western philosophical texts, delineating a series of postulates/conceits and breaking them apart as a means of elucidation. However, rather than illuminating each of her propositions, Adnan seems to abstract and diffuse them until all that we are left with are elemental signifiers of nature–water, sky, wind, and archetypal human gestures toward truth–Love, Being, History. This is the “refraction and destruction;” the folding back into dark. Adnan blurs the lines between the human and the natural world, not because they do not have discrete qualities, but because as a human being, their discreteness is mute, spectral. Just as the dark is a prerequisite of night, mystery is a prerequisite of reason, nature a prerequisite of humanity. We have to live with both.

The relationship between poetry and philosophy in the poem is complicated and again–a venn diagram that looks suspiciously like a circle. Both are a means of applying language to reach toward truth–which is to say, both lunge at true things. Adnan seems to present the two disciplines on a continuum, one with a linguistic tide that rushes back and forth between extremes. Philosophy has little capacity for negative capability, in fact it floods in noisily to fill the silence of enigma. Poetry has a more copacetic relationship to mystery, but has less room for thinking.

Rather than having distinctive boundaries, Night’s entities operate on the condition of “non-” or noumenal. Everything touches, but some things, like the night or the self, have an “inner” sphere that suggests a pure core, uncorrupted by the overflowing of the co-habitating elements that share its soft membrane. Everything bleeds into something or everything else–but everything bleeds from somewhere.

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One Response to something and nothing in ‘Night’

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Super great engagement with the difficulty and abstraction of this text. I would love to see you extend your engagement to the formal elements of the text as constitutive elements of the movements you describe… Especially as you talk about the membraneous and porousness of the refusal of binary hierarchy and opposition.


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