PSYCHOLOGY: Making Light of Darkness Visible

Article excerpt

THIS YEAR, 1995, marks the 60th anniversary of fluorescent light. I mention this only because it is one of the few events in the brief history of man's victory over darkness that A Alvarez has omitted from his wide-ranging, often intriguing accou nt of night and its meanings.

In his preface Alvarez likens his research to "pulling out a conjurer's handkerchief: one thing leads to another in an unending, outlandish chain". The analogy holds good for the book, which is constructed with considerable cunning. A history of artificial light, from the first fire-making to electric streetlamps, provokes thoughts on lighting in Caravaggio and the uses of darkness in Shakespeare. An account of the author's terror of the dark in childhood, unremarkable in itself, introduces m editationson the more general association between darkness and evil and on Bruce Chatwin's theory of Dinofelis, a predator that specialised in hunting primitive man. Alvarez's range is extremely impressive.

That holds true not only in terms of subject-matter, but also in manner. There is the autobiographical vein already noted: elsewhere he tells us how his fear of darkness has, paradoxically, been replaced by an obsession with sleep. There is tremendous literary expertise: he offers persuasive readings of Coleridge and Stevenson, who both made intensive use of dream material. He also gives us the first-person reportage familiar from his earlier non-fiction books, attending a NHS sleep clinic as an observer and then as a participant, passing sleepless nights on a mountain and in a rural cottage in Italy and going on patrol with the police.

These approaches are not much help, however, in the core of the book, which is concerned with dreaming. Dreams are both a measurable neurophysiological event and a window into the mind, packed with personal imagery. Putting aside his habitual allusiveness in favour of straightforward exposition, Alvarez uses both aspects to provide a way into a discussion of that modish area, consciousness. Rather than engineer a head-on collision between Freud, the great interpreter of dreams, and the scientific method(a stunt we have all seen too many times), Alvarez gently tries to align two extremely abstruse schools: the post-Freudian "object-relations" school of psychoanalysis and recent thinking in neurophysiology. …