Light, reflected

I’m not greatly fond of high summer, for reasons that are odd and obscure even to myself. There can be something stark and depressing about the season; time can feel sluggish, sickly somehow. It’s hard to hide away in summertime.

But it’s also the most sublime time of year in many ways, with the greatest capacity to dazzle and amaze. Where I live we get a beautiful light on summer evenings, or rather, a range of beautiful lights: from soft ochres to vivid reds, from a wash of organic colours to slashes of something so brilliant it nearly looks artificially generated.

Facing west towards the Atlantic, you can watch the sunset being played out as drama on a giant, skyscraping screen; all that’s missing are the velvet curtains rolling across as we fade to black, show’s over, time for bed.

The day dies slowly, languorously; it’s reluctant to go, it drags out the farewell, like an elemental orchestra returning with just one more refrain, one final flourish, and then another, and then just one more, and one more, and one more.

If it’s been a hot day, the sky is a bleed of orange and purple, vibrant and dramatic. If the day was a little cooler, maybe the sun is now drowning slowly, submerged in a layered sea of scarlet and tan.

Or perhaps there has been rain and shafts of warm sunlight are now breaking through the crust of cloud overhead, making the skyscape cinematic, almost painterly: off-yellows and strong shadows, a chiaroscuro of the elements.

At times like that you smile to yourself, and think: the universe likes me today.

Or maybe you just think. It’s natural to get contemplative while looking at the summer evening sun. And today (June 21st) is the solstice, the longest day of the year, the slowest, most languorous dying into night. The longest time to look and think about light. Reflections on reflections.

To remember back: reading that popular science book a while ago, last summer actually, and how a lot of it was about light, that was the central contention, how everything basically is light; the entire universe described as light evolved to different stages: matter, radiowaves, ultraviolet, that book, this thought, you. Remembering how fascinating and literally wonderful you found that.

And that brings you onto thoughts about light and looking at light, and how we can never actually see the real thing we’re looking at, the heart of matter, because the sub-atomic interaction of the object with the light changes it ever-so-slightly, alters it so minutely that only God can tell the difference but this is philosophical not practical so it still matters. You think about the fact that what you see is infinitesimally but crucially different from what it would be if you weren’t looking.

And then you dawdle along a different mental path and arrive at this realisation: we cannot see anything in the present, because everything we see is light that’s been reflected off an object a microsecond before – or more, minutes or years or millennia more, in the case of stars.

Stars and aeons, stretching across time and space. Insignificant man struggling to impose order and will on blank chaos, struggling to draw his design across the canvas. And you think about art, visual art and its relationship to light. You think about how and why artists are so fascinated with it; how light is everything in visual art because light is everything we see – we only ever see reflected light, we literally can’t see the object itself, even before it changes.

Then you notice a slight chill in the air, maybe your skin notices before your mind does, and you think about these long, light-filled days. Light as everything we see and everything we are, everything that is.

Remembering back again, to something written years ago: “There is hope in the purity of light. Light is straight, constant, unyielding. Light wrestles tachyons and reins in the wilder elemental forces. Time bends but cannot defy light. Light is simple and unconquerable. This explains the literary fascination with light, the blinding pearl, the subconscious leitmotif. e = mc2 is not a mathematical formula: it is a poem to the universe.”

Then you notice it’s dusk; the light is almost gone. The late evening air now has that eerie twilight tint, like a blue filter placed over the world to gently usher us into darkness.

You close your eyes and finally stop looking. Show’s over. Time for bed.


Previously published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section


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