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The Empire of Twilight
Thinking at dusk
There is little clarity in Christopher Nolan’s deeply confused movie, Tenet, but there is one line that shines through: ‘we live in a twilight world’. This potentially captures something important about the world we find ourselves in. Between day and night, we exist in an interstitial moment. L'heure bleue. The blue hour. There is something powerful and evocative about this juncture, with properties of both while belonging to neither. And yet, the trajectory is clear and unstoppable, with dawn, day replaces night, and with dusk, darkness overwhelms the light and night arrives.
But if we are in a twilight world, is it dawn or dusk?
Another way of juxtaposing night and day can be found in René Magritte’s series, The Empire of Light. In the image it is simultaneously day and night, but neither dawn nor dusk. The challenge of Magritte’s painting comes from its successful contrasting of the sun above, the night below, together somehow. Describing his work, Magritte explained that he painted, ‘visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery.’ All there to see, but still we struggle to fully comprehend it. As Magritte put it, a ‘mystery … is unknowable.’ In this way, the composition eludes our attempts to comprehend it fully, it is not possible to master. Perhaps this is an apt image for our present predicament. And yet, turning to Magritte is too easy, the juxtaposition too clear. His empire is too harmonious and stable, it lacks the coercion and confusion we have in spades. The current moment is more Pollock than Magritte.
Returning to the question, is it dawn or dusk?
Well, you know the answer.
Dawn will come, but we are not there yet.
For now, it is the dark that is approaching, the light that is dwindling. The difficulty of such a moment is that as the light fades, it becomes more difficult to see clearly. Straining our eyes does not help much, we recognise objects less well, shadows come to life. Trying to fill in the details, we can misdescribe what is there, and what we think is there. Ambiguity, with a touch of dread.
If we are in a twilight world, trying still to grasp it all, to own it and control it, misses the point. The mistake lies in trying to clearly explain what is not clear. As RBJ Walker put it, ‘sometimes structures, processes, and events are disturbingly elusive.’ That we fail to fully understand is not a failure of understanding, it is more a reflection of the difficulty of the undertaking.
What to do then? Perhaps it is just a matter of letting our eyes adjust to the dark, accept there are limits to how well we can see, and live with the mystery.