Hello Darkness My Old Friend

He lowers his head and looks into the emptiness with a blank stare. We are in prison, in an inmates’ common room. A small kitchen, a TV affixed to the wall, a few chairs, some sofas. He’s spent 40 years behind bars. Only last week did he get his first day pass to go on escorted outings. An external activity days or evenings with a handful of other prisoners, these outings are chaperoned by a citizen volunteer, or a chaplain.

By Colin McGregor

“You know, here,” he says, “everything is lit up all the time. It’s never dark. I hadn’t seen real darkness in a long, long time.”

He points out the window to a tall lamp 50 feet high, a gray metallic post crowned with bright floodlights.  It is daytime when he does this. But he is right, there is no night in prison.  

When the sun goes down the prison is bathed in an orange-whitish glow. At Cowansville, local parents would point to that eerie radiance over the exercise yard to warn their kids what would happen to them if they were bad.

He clears his throat, then continues: “I wasn’t really prepared for that,” he says. “When I left the van, the street was plunged in darkness. You forget what that’s like.”

He explains that he was prepared for any other emotion or situation. But not for darkness.

It is common in our culture to associate darkness with evil. In England, if someone has a sinister or shifty look about them, they say “there is something of the night about him.” And isn’t one of the Devil’s nicknames “the Prince of Darkness”?

But if you haven’t seen night for several years, you miss it. It is comforting, and regular. Like clockwork.

Brilliant Lighting

Prison is an environment dominated by light. It is constantly illuminated, like a Vegas casino.

In Vegas, nowhere is there a clock to be seen, and the casino floor is brightly lit 24 hours a day in order to disorient the gambler. The notion of time disappears like the money you wager, and lose. You lose track of what you’re doing. Seconds melt into hours.

In jail the motive for keeping things lit all night is somewhat different. But the effects are the same.

Do we lose a bit of our soul when our world is always bathed in light?  The French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of the first, during his dangerous postal flights, to fly alone at night over the dark, interminable North African desert. “At night,” he observed, “logic sleeps, and things just are.” We no longer use our reason to put what we have to do in some rational order; we stop evaluating everything around us. In the darkness, we just are.

Night

In 1960, Elie Wiesel published a short story entitled Night. He wrote it based in part on his memories as a survivor of Auschwitz. He describes the members of a Romanian-Jewish family whose lives are darkened when the Germans take control of their village, then deport them to a prisoner camp.

Darkness reigns: gripped by fear, they are transported at night in closed cattle cars.   Through gaps in the slats of their wagon they can see the crematorium flames that herald the camp’s approach. They cry out in terror.

Men and women are separated. The main character, a young devout Hassidic man named Eliezer, has a number tattooed on him: A-7713. He has been deprived of his very name, he realizes (that being said, I am prisoner 026054D: any Canadian who is fingerprinted by police gets such a number, composed of 6 digits and a letter. About one in ten Canadians has a fingerprint number).  

The whole story takes place at night. The reader loses all sense of time. As in traditional Hassidic stories, the story does not follow a regular chronological sequence, which gives it a supernatural feel.

Never Forget

But on their first night at the camp after being led off the cattle cars, Eliezer’s group is led past a ditch that serves as a mass grave, and for a moment they feel safe. They begin to chant and sing as one: “I will never forget that night, that first night at the camp…”

This is when cracks begin to form in Eliezer’s faith.  Faith in God as well as faith in the world.

These cracks grow wider as he spends more time in the camp. Indeed, all the prisoners feel abandoned. But soon Eliezer invests himself in a new faith: “I stopped accepting God’s silence” he says. “I stopped being something more than just ashes, but despite this, I felt stronger that the Almighty.”  

Some of the prisoners in Night give up; others lose all empathy for others, all sense of community, and go as far as killing just for a loaf of bread; others become workaholics, always striving at their tasks with a smile, even if it seems useless to do so.

Eliezer hangs on grimly, determined to live, to emerge from the night, refusing to see himself as broken, for as long as he has breath. And he survives.

 A Canadian prison is hardly comparable to Auschwitz. But some common points unite all those for whom illness, poverty, bad luck or our own misadventures have sent us to be quarantined from the world. In prison, there are no women who are peers, at our own level. Women are all authority figures. There are no families, no pets, no vacations. A big part of everyday life just isn’t there.

When you awaken, as my friend Rip Van Winkle reminded me, a thing like darkness holds a completely different meaning. The man who ends his long slumber and gets day passes to leave the prison sees night with serenity and understanding.

But you can never leave your long night behind you. As Eliezer puts it: “Never will I forget those moments that assassinated my God and my soul, and that reduced my dreams to dust.” As well as the dreams of others.

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