Years ago, when I was fourteen, I began to erase the morning. Even at this young age I was already suffering morning’s burdens. Then one day (of course it never happens like this, but let’s say it did) it occurred to me I could escape morning entirely. Morning would pass over my house and I could stay hidden inside.
To erase the morning, I had to stretch the night. I stayed awake into the early am, until just before sunrise, when I allowed myself to sleep. I slept for a few hours and woke at noon, and, in this way, when I opened my eyes I was immediately in the pm hours, the time most people think of as “day,” the efficient, practical, useful hours. The pm hours are the worldly hours, but when I was a teenager, the time between roughly 10:00 pm and 6:00 am became my true day. I felt most awake at that time. The yard behind my house in Las Vegas and the desert beyond were more vivid than in the busy light of day. If you’ve seen the desert at night then you know that this is true. The desert, so blinding under the sun, is, when lit up by stars and moon, easier to see. Stars lighted the yard behind my house and I was lit by the television screen that flickered as long as the stars did. Between ten and six I kept myself in a state of sleeplessness not to uncover the mystery of night’s puzzles, but to find out what really happens in the liminal space that is the passage from night to day. I was nighttime’s watcher.
In the sprawling ranch house on University Circle ten minutes from the Las Vegas Strip that I had lived in all my life—with its chocolate-brown, wall-to-wall carpet and long hallway—I would finish my dinner and put my dishes in the sink. At 10:00 pm, my father went to bed. At 10:00 pm, I sat in the fat, tan recliner that faced the television and turned the TV on. The television played continuously at a low volume; it was the only light in the house. This room, the family room, had become, by that time, the emptiest room of all. I kept a stack of library books beside me on a wooden tray, along with a multi-volume encyclopedia with illustrations of countries that no longer existed, my Third Edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, and a notebook. I had stopped going to school, and so a good number of my daytime hours were spent in the libraries of Las Vegas, lingering especially in the sections where the heavy art books were kept. In the company of this manmade beauty, stacked high and low around me, my young life gained a lofty, transported quality that was matched only in later years by wandering cast-aside rooms in the museums of New York City, or around the city’s streets, or driving without purpose through American towns. For the next seven hours the television ran through its cycle of reruns and commercials. Most of the programs played at these hours were well past their due dates, variety shows with performers I never heard of and sitcoms with anachronistic jokes; movies with flickering dust particles and dancing and singing; movies I should not have been watching; and many, many documentaries. Early am television was a rest home for lost, rejected culture. I watched these shows intently. I watched the actors’ facial gestures and learned old-time references. I learned the old songs and dances, and I learned about longstanding resentments and wars. My mind in these hours was porous and calm. I was rarely interrupted. If I thought I heard my father, I would mute the sound on the television until I was sure he had gone back to bed. But there were plenty of weeks he wasn’t there, and I was in the house alone. Looking back, it seems impossible to me that I could have been awake for so long, every night for years. But time then, as I remember it, never passed slowly.
A hundred years ago, the philosopher Evelyn Underhill wrote a story called The Grey World. It is a story about a little boy who dies. In the underworld, the boy confronts an overarching gray. He sees the living world through this gray veil—people are gray, things are gray, everything is gray. Yet the boy is not meant to die, and comes back from the world of the dead. Nonetheless, the world of the living, for the boy, remains gray. In one scene, the boy, standing at a window in his home, looks onto his street through the closed slats of the venetian blinds. The indifference of the houses there seems monstrous to him. In trying to shake free from the overwhelming power of the gray world, the boy has the sudden and alarming impression that the living world is mostly dead, and that life is a rare and confusing accident. In the dark hours of pre-dawn, I, too, imagined that the whole city was dead except for me. The world was dead and life, my life, was a rare and confusing accident that could only be met in solitude.
I was especially drawn to the dead artists that I read about and saw on TV because they seemed to be part of a tale that went on and on. Only the dead know the whole story. It’s the dead who sleep with me and get up with me in the morning. Rilke asked, what if the dead don’t need us like we need them? But I say, how could they not? We are how the story continues. We are how the dead dream.
Ten years ago, or maybe fifteen, a family friend who belonged to a sacred Jewish burial society told me of a body he had recently attended. In Jewish tradition, a dead body must be cared for. It can’t just be discarded in a morgue. It must be cleaned and dressed and cannot be left alone for even a moment, not even at night, not even if you want to sleep. Someone must watch over the dead and say blessings for them until the dead can be buried the next day, because the soul of a person who has just died is in turmoil, and its body is a foreclosed home. In Jewish law, a person who has died and is not yet buried is like a crying baby. Just as babies need solace until they can get used to their new state of being, so the dead need comfort too. Babies are souls trying to fit into their bodies; the dead are souls who no longer have the comfort of the bodies they spent a lifetime getting used to.
This family friend told me that he and the members of his burial society were strangers to the dead they tended. Their job was to bear the responsibility of keeping the dead person safe so that the family of the dead could grieve. At a dinner one evening, at my mother’s house, years after I had left Las Vegas and then returned for a visit, the family friend described to me how, the night before, he and his burial society cleaned the body of a man they had never met when the man was alive. They poured water over him, said the family friend, from head to toe, a long stream of flowing water, and wrapped the dead man’s body in a shroud. Then, in the hours between midnight and sunrise, the society took turns watching. How grateful I was, said the family friend, when it was my turn to stand over the stranger, to stand by him and sing for him a cycle of psalms, singing for a man he had never known, and who would never be able to thank him.
A lot of years have passed since I experienced my morningless mornings. But I’ve since realized that I, too, was keeping vigil back then. The space between night and day is the time for waking and for watching. As all my city slept, I kept a sort of vigil, a vigil over a stranger.
How many stories there are about shadows trying to get back to their origins, about people trying to ditch their shadows, about shadows getting deliberately lost from their people, putting on fancy clothes just to spite, dominate, and eventually become people too. You’ve read these stories. Under the hot light of the desert morning, my shadow and my self were separated. I could see my shadow well in the morning, spreading out from my feet, but it didn’t feel like it belonged to me. I carried this shadow around as the day went on—this flimsy, stretched-out reflection. At the peak of day, the sun would be so high it would blot out my shadow completely. You can’t get rid of your shadow in such a light, and you can’t get to know it either. But in the dark, the shadow and I were together. I couldn’t see it but I knew it was there. I didn’t have to worry about it dominating me and stealing my clothes and taking over my life. Perhaps, at night, inside, I was mostly shadow. I didn’t yet understand this shadow self but I could feel it. Away from the sun and the pressure of daylight, my shadow was safe.
Sleeplessness was my great discovery, my deliverance from morning. Darkness was my perfect world. In those years of sleepless nights, I took a keen interest in Jacques Cousteau and his underwater encroachments. In one episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, Cousteau called the deep ocean “a world without sun.” The ocean is a world within the world that seems especially fortified against us. It is fathomless, like hell, and reigns over most of the Earth. For me, the undersea world was all the more alluring for being so present and yet so far away. To be in the desert is to dream of water. In the desert, you can’t go down. What lies at the desert’s depths? You would not want to know.
I especially liked the moment in each episode when the Cousteau team piled into their self-contained pods—turtles of glass and steel—and cast the pods into the sea. You could never be sure whether the pods would hold, and what would be down there, down in the sunless realm. Jacques Cousteau adored Jules Verne. They say that Cousteau was a sickly, bedridden child who was never lonely because of his books, that he would take adventures in his head. You could say that Jacques Cousteau’s whole life was a realization of the books he read as a child. In his essay about Jules Verne, Roland Barthes discusses Verne’s fascination with ships. Did Verne, who was born on an artificial island in the middle of a river, imagine the island of his childhood unmooring itself from France and floating off and away? Jules Verne wrote many adventures but hardly adventured himself. Any time he had a chance for daring, life got in his way. There is a possibly true story about his first foiled attempt at adventure, which was naturally his most formative, in which an eleven-year-old Verne signs up to be a cabin boy on a three-masted ship headed for the Indies where he would find a coral necklace for his sister. Only, young Verne’s father caught on to the plan, and went to the ship where Verne was stowed, on the eve of what would have been his first adventure. He grabbed his son to shore, and made the boy promise to travel forevermore “only in his imagination.” Verne did buy himself a sailboat in his late thirties, I’ve read, after he had become successful enough to buy boats, a little wooden skiff he baptized Saint-Michel. Verne took the little skiff along the English coast, and when the Saint-Michel became too worn for his taste it was replaced, subsequently, by the Saint-Michel II, and then the Saint-Michel III, the last of which Verne took on his longest voyage, a grand tour around Europe, each new boat mirroring the increasing wealth and fame of the adventure-writer Jules Verne.
Verne’s writing is filled with many iterations of ships. Sometimes the ships are submarines, sometimes they are balloons, and sometimes they are boats, but travel in a Jules Verne story invariably happens in some sort of vehicle, and that vehicle is usually amazing. Yet even though ships are symbols of departure, wrote Barthes, there is something more to ships than sailing. We may find our love of ships compatible with the romantic, “venturesome” part of our selves, wrote Barthes, but at a deeper level, a ship is a house; it is an emblem of enclosure. An inclination for ships, he wrote, always means the joy of perfectly enclosing oneself, of having at hand the greatest possible number of objects, and having at one’s disposal an absolutely finite space. People who like ships actually like homes, because a ship is a fully contained habitat. Like a human body, a ship is a blissful, finite cell from which one can safely gaze out upon the unfathomable. A ship is a symbol for the perfection of one’s inner humanity.
Sitting in the fat chair, with my books and things around me, the last television program would end just as the morning sun came up over the fence and into the yard and through the sliding glass door. Then, I could at last go to my room and get in bed and close my eyes before the morning turned real.
During these days of morningless mornings, I started making visits to my backyard. No one had stepped foot in the yard for years and it had grown over with desert scrub. Lounging in a desert yard during the day is a challenge. The desert does not invite us to lounge. The prophets would tell you that spending long periods in the desert is only for those who yearn to be close to death. Americans especially dislike death, and dislike even more being told where they should be, and many residents of my hometown attempted all sorts of methods to spite the desert’s dominion, just so they might triumphantly and defiantly lounge. Some Las Vegas residents drove spectacular holes into the earth, and filled the holes with bright blue water, and would stay submerged for hours, barely hidden from the bald solar rays. When I was a child, a stiff, drought-resistant grass was introduced to the city and quickly spread across suburbia. It was a grass impossible to walk on, but it thrived in the heat, and some people called it “devil’s grass.” Caring for this grass that survived on scarcity, that needed so little from people and, indeed, crowded out every other living thing in its path, was more like being a cemetery attendant than a gardener. In subsequent years, on weekends, you would see rows and rows of Las Vegas residents standing in their driveways, spraying waves of pesticide around lawn chairs that were never used. I have a vague memory of my mother when she lived in the house, tending roses along the cinderblock fence that separated our house from the neighbors’. Without regular care or the will to destroy it, the grass that had been planted over the sand behind my house when I was born was long and yellow by my teenage years. Eventually, the yard became neither sand nor lawn. The grass refused to recede and so the desert could not be restored, and yet nothing else was invited to grow there.
During the time of morningless mornings, with the television still going, I sat alone for hours on the concrete patio and watched the stars. The desert sky is a tremendous sight because it is never truly dark. In America’s East, or in the South, a hot night will ring with the singing of creatures—the crickets, the frogs, the trill of nocturnal birds—but the desert at night is still. Many holy seekers have left civilization and gone to the desert to stuff their ears with silence. But even they can’t escape the desert’s sidereal celebration. Long after midnight, the stars cast their glow on my own backyard and on the mountains that lined the city in the distance, turning everything to silhouette. The mountains lay flat on the horizon, flat as all substance flattens in the desert—eternal, ungraspable flatness. And in the space between the top of the world and the mountains was another glow: the Las Vegas Strip, with its radiant ten thousand bulbs. You could be on the Strip and hear only the Strip, be engulfed by the Dionysian roar of casino life, and fifteen minutes away, in a yard behind a house, the Strip would be mute but the lights still shining. It was like watching a party scene in a silent movie or an explosion miles away. The builders of the Strip constructed their very own galaxy. This was Edison’s vision come to pass—Thomas Edison, our own Menlo Park Prometheus, who foiled the gods with light bulbs and achieved the astonishing feat of bringing starlight to Earth. Light bulbs would give us a power over the night. They would give people everlasting day. This is a beautiful wish. But what Edison did not consider was that to kill darkness one must also kill light. Light bulbs complicated the natural balance between light and dark. They created a no-time where night and day were collapsed. In the cave of the casino, light bulbs cancel both darkness and daylight, and create, in essence, timelessness.
For most of my life I’ve had an uneasy relationship with artificial light. Lamps in my home are set in odd places where they train light into corners, or on the floor, or on random spots on the ceiling, and any indoor space under my charge is more likely to invite shadows than light, which is why, even though I found the sun so oppressive when I was young, as I’ve aged I’ve become more attracted to interior spaces with breezy windows that let the sun shoot in and light up the room. Big windows let me delight in the sunshine but, more than that, release me from the burden of auto-illumination. Not that bulbs are without their charms. Recently, in the studio of a light artist, I was introduced to the magical properties of fluorescent tubes, how different gases make their own color, and how light and color can be reanimated in a bulb that has lain dormant for years. Strewn around this artist’s studio were salvaged beer signs waiting for resurrection. On a table was a row of heavy black generators and enchanted wands the artist used to shock the light back into being. This artist was the Dr. Frankenstein of neon. Never before had I truly appreciated the magnificence of artificial lighting, the subtleties of gas, how argon and neon and halogen and xenon, when brought under glass like terrariums, can create different hues and affect the way we experience space and time. When I asked the man why he had chosen to be an artist of light, he spoke of all the bulbs that he had saved over the decades, and the people he had met during his journeys with light, who would call on the artist occasionally to bring him old bulbs from vacant buildings around Cleveland, or signs from restaurants that had closed for good, and I realized that what attracted this artist most to his medium was not so much the aesthetics of fake lighting, but the sadness of light bulbs that had no one to shine upon, and the joy of saving light. Whereas the sun does not seem to need us at all, a light bulb does. Every time we switch on a light, we can be participants in a tiny Genesis; all the shadows go running.
The novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki put it very well when he wrote: Light is used not for reading or writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners. Tanizaki, who is known for his 1933 essay titled “In Praise of Shadows,” in which he discusses what was then called the “Eastern” appreciation of shadows, in contrast to what was then called the “Western” love of light, which was demonstrated not just in Westerners’ fondness for artificial bulbs and electricity, but also in their love of bright shiny surfaces: polished silver, sparkling diamonds, glass. But in tarnished tin and muddy jade and candlelight, explained Tanizaki, one lives in harmony with shadows which are, incidentally, the keepers of the Eastern past. This sheen of antiquity, wrote Tanizaki, is really just dirt, the poetry of grime. Tanizaki tells a story in his essay about visiting a restaurant in Kyoto, the Waranjiya. A main attraction of the Waranjiya, he explained, was its candlelit dining rooms. But when he arrived one spring after a long leave, all the candles had been replaced by electric lamps in the style of old-fashioned lanterns. Tanizaki, who was born in the nineteenth century but matured in the twentieth, was told by the staff that the change had taken place after several customers complained that the candlelight was too dim. However, the staff of the Waranjiya was happy to bring Tanizaki a candle stand for his table. Tanizaki accepted. By the flickering of this candle stand in the small, square room of the Waranjiya, the novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki gazed into his dinner plate. He saw in this plate, not the brilliant shimmer of the ocean in summer, like you might see in a crystal goblet on a table someplace in America, but rather the beauty of a still, dark pond.
What allowed Tanizaki to see the beauty of shadows was that he allowed himself to look. I’m certain this is why Tanizaki began his essay with a short discourse on hiding. What a great effort it is, wrote Tanizaki, to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms . . . The purist may rack his brain over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway . . . . He may bury the wires rather than hang them in the garden, hide the switches in a closet or cupboard, run the cords behind a folding screen. Yet for all his ingenuity, his efforts often impress us as nervous, fussy, excessively contrived. Beauty, wrote Tanizaki later in his essay, must always grow from the realities of life. The more we struggle to hide our electric cords behind rice paper screens, the more they demand to be known. Seen at dusk, wrote Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, as one gazes out upon the countryside from the window of a train, the lonely light of a bulb under an old-fashioned shade, shining dimly from behind the white paper shoji of a thatch-roofed farmhouse, can seem positively elegant.
There’s a painting at the Tate by an Englishman, Sir Luke Fildes, that makes me think of what the Waranjiya might have looked like that night Tanizaki arrived after a long time away, staring into his dinner plate by the light of a candle, what the Waranjiya might have looked like if it were a home instead of a restaurant, if it were a place of mourning rather than fine dining. Fildes’s painting is of a room—a dim, low-ceilinged room. The room is stocked with props and there are four characters in the scene. Fildes painted two sources of light in this room, a window and a lamp under an old-fashioned shade. The room is mostly dark but the faint light coming from the lamp and the window has created a lodging for shadows. At the center of Fildes’s painting is a boy laid out across two kitchen chairs. Next to the boy, on another chair, is a doctor. The boy lies helpless on his makeshift bed but the doctor, seated between the bed and a sick table, one hand on his thigh and the other propping his chin, looks even more helpless. The doctor has clearly reached the limits of care; he can only contemplate the patient. The doctor is no longer a healer. The doctor has been reduced to watching. Nonetheless, you can see from his posture and the squint of his eyes that the doctor is still thinking, still trying to match puzzle pieces, trying with the fullest power of his mind to will some anima into the boy’s limp body.
The shade on the lamp by the doctor is bent all the way to the right, so that there is no protecting the doctor from the bare light. Lamps can be selective in what they choose to show. For every body brightened another becomes hidden. I think Fildes must have cocked the lampshade the way he did to maximize his theme of human impotence. With the shade pulled sharply to the right, the lamp beams its verdict upon the doctor and the boy and their teacup of medicine on the nightstand. The lamp makes the row of child-sized nightgowns that hang along the ceiling’s wooden beams recede into the wall. You can just make out the boy’s parents in the background, the father’s hand on the mother’s shoulder, his body turned away from hers. The father is watching the doctor. His grief is protected from the lampshade’s aim.
But on the right side of the painting, next to the parents, a trace of morning light is coming through the window. It spills over the mother, slumped on the table, onto the flowerpots someone must have put on the sill days earlier. The morning light hardly reaches the father, and it ignores the doctor altogether. And then there is the boy. The body of the boy lies suspended between the lamp of night shining on his front, and the glow of dawn behind, drawing him away from the room. The light of dawn just touches the hair of the boy. As the two light sources meet around the boy’s head, they make a little halo.
Ever since Fildes exhibited The Doctor in 1891, viewers have argued over the true subject of the painting. Is it about the painter’s own son, Phillip, who died when he was a year old? Is the real subject the parents and their despair, or is it, as the title instructs, the doctor himself? When I look at The Doctor I see a painting of the never-ending anxiety of morning. The glass lamp is the stolen light of Prometheus, the light of reason and Edison and willpower and casinos. The window is the light that belongs to the gods. It is the light we can’t control, and can’t steal. The glass lamp wants to push away the morning light, to keep the reason of nighttime going as long as it can. It wants to deny the change, whether it’s hopeful or not. It wants to burn death out of the picture. It wants to refuse the morning. The doctor, in his lamp-side vigil, is holding on to the night, certain he can find the answers. The father, between the two lights, keeps himself suspended in time for as long as he can. But by the light of dawn, the mother, the boy, and the flowerpots are forced into tomorrow.
There are two times in the day our shadows are longest: when the sun rises and when the sun sets. At these times, the sun is closest to us. Is it a coincidence that the shadow is so long in the morning? The sun moves away from us and up into the sky and the shadow becomes small and forgettable. It rests over our heads like a hat, close to our heads but far from our eyes. Then, at night, the shadow comes back. It returns to its place alongside us and grows and grows until it saturates the atmosphere, until everything is shadow.
When I was very young, the monsters came in flames. It was 3:00 am or thereabouts, always the same hour, always the same state. 3:00 am was morning but daylight felt so far away. I don’t think there is another time when daylight feels so distant. At 3:00 am I could hear the sound of the air breaking inside the walls. I could see behind closed eyes my own house filled with flames. I would plan my escape route; I had planned this many times before. I knew I would leave through the window but I planned this again nonetheless. At 3:00 am my house was in flames and I was standing in my nightgown in the middle of my bedroom ready to crawl out the window to the safety of my yard and the roses my mother tended. Only, in my mind, I could never go because I first had to decide which of my things would come with me. In my bed, at the terrible hour, I was paralyzed with fear for my things. The objects in my room were everything to me; to imagine them burning filled me with panic. So I would mentally scan my room for tokens, for symbols, for the things that best represented my things, my beautiful things that were about to be lost in what I was sure would be the famous fire of 2025 University Circle. For an hour or more, I would assess my relationships to each of my belongings, each memento, each toy, measuring its emotional weight on a cosmic scale with me on one end and the thing on the other, to see who balanced whom. Then, at long last I would make my decision. I could sleep then, an hour or so until my mother woke me and sent me off to school. A week later, there I would be at 3:00 am, listening to the creaking in the walls, and going through the unbearable process all over again.
As I grew older, the terrible hour became more inchoate, more unreal. The voices in my head did not seem to belong to me, and what they told me I cannot repeat. Perhaps you already know. In a Brooklyn apartment, sometime in my thirties, I watched an Ingmar Bergman film that began: Johan Borg disappeared without a trace from his home on the island of Baltrum in the Frisian Islands. In that film, I finally learned the name of 3:00 am. This is the worst hour, Johan tells his wife Alma as they sit at the kitchen table in the dark. Do you know what it’s called? Johan says. No, she says, and he says, The old people used to call it the “Hour of the Wolf.” It’s the hour at which most people die and most children are born. It’s now that the nightmares come to us. And if we are awake . . . says Johan, lighting matches and watching them burn. The Hour of the Wolf is the hour of meat-eaters, says Johan, of insects, and spider men. The Hour of the Wolf is the hour of the schoolmaster, and the cast-iron cackling women.
I’ve read that three in the morning is the time when most crimes are committed, and when most fevers either break or triumph. No one knows why, but people who work in hospitals will tell you that three in the morning is a critical hour for the dying. At Wolf Time, I’ve read, the dead become suddenly awake. The demons reveal themselves. Inter canem et lupum, the medievals called it, the time between the dog and the wolf. At Wolf Time the dog seeks his rest, and the wolf seeks out his prey. There’s no other way to say this: Wolf Time is the devil’s time. The Hour of the Wolf is the nightmare that can’t be slept through. Have you ever had a nightmare like this? You can’t sleep and you don’t know if you are awake. You want to move but can’t. You can’t open your eyes. You don’t have insomnia and you aren’t dreaming either. It is a state between dreaming and waking. At this hour your thoughts are not your own; you don’t want them to belong to you. They whisper to you that nothing is real, that your path is false, that you don’t know who you are. You are not in control of your thoughts, and the more you clutch at truth the more it turns against you. At three in the morning you are abandoned and alone. You know that you have failed. Three in the morning is the hour of Judgment; maybe this is how it will be in the moments just after death. Maybe you are dead. And yet how could it be that your life is over and yet you are still alive? At three in the morning the metaphors fall away; what is left is the stark fact of nothingness. Daylight is the glue that holds belief together. In the early hours of morning, the Hour of the Wolf, belief goes to pieces. You might will yourself to get up at 3:00 am in order to break the spell. But the more conscious you are at that time the less consciousness is yours. At the Hour of the Wolf, you become lost in your own bed. Retracing the steps back to yourself only takes you farther away. The house is haunted because you are.
When I was young I was assured that there were no wolves to fear, that the reign of the wolves had ended, that in America, anyway, the wolves had been killed long ago to make way for the ways of people. But later, when I was old enough to learn for myself, I read that wolves were still very much around. Wolves, I read, almost always prey on children. Children are slower, of course, and weaker, but also prone to wandering in places where adults do not dare to go and more likely to greet wolves as friends. When wolves attack adults, the adults are usually women. I suppose women are attacked by wolves when they go searching for their children, or when they wander off themselves. Wandering leads to wolves. The wolf is therefore an archetype of wandering. The wolf is neither here nor there. It is a symbol of things in transit, wrote Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men. The wolf was a twilight hunter, seen at dawn and dusk. From the common perception that his way of life bore some resemblance to that of primitive man came the idea that the wolves themselves had taken form halfway between man and other animals. As the wolves are caught between human and animal, so are we caught between wolf and self. Inter canem et lupum—between the dog and the wolf. The dog is our tamed, gentle, enlightened side. Our wolf part is savagery and unreason. The primitive wolf-self inside us that anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote about some years before Lopez, the part of us that once dwelled with the wolves in uneasy peace, is still there, hidden inside our cloak. Eiseley was writing in winter when this thought came to him. It was night and the wind shook the windows. There was Loren Eiseley working in his study with a dog asleep at his feet. On his desk was the leg bone of a fossil bison under a circle of lamplight. The hour was around midnight. All of a sudden, he heard a heavy rasping and the sound of bone on bone. Eiseley’s dog had snatched the old leg bone off the desk and now held it in his jaws. The dog had a wrath in his eyes that Eiseley did not recognize. He began to growl at Eiseley and would not return the bone. The dog’s eyes said I love you, but we are in another time now. I will not give it up, I cannot. The shadows will not permit me. With the bone in the dog’s mouth, the ancient past, wrote Eiseley, was fully alive inside him. Eiseley withdrew his hand from the growling dog and stood watching. The dog, seeing that Eiseley had backed off, dropped the bone to the floor but set his paw on top of it. Eiseley then suggested to his dog that they go for a walk in the snow. At this proposal, his dog, whose name happened to be Wolf, became a pet once more. The two ranged in the cold for a while, and when they returned Wolf pranced over to the cozy fire. He was soon asleep and dreaming. And were there no shadows in my mind? Eiseley wondered to himself. Hadn’t he, the scholar in his study, been ready as well to pounce upon a ten-thousand-year-old bone? Even to me, wrote Loren Eiseley, the shadows had whispered. It’s a disquieting idea that Eiseley poses. We are still hunted by wolves.
When you look at medieval paintings of wolves, you might notice a recurring theme of people stripping off their clothes. Clothes are a symbol of civilization. They are a fortress against the elements, those without and those within. Pliny tells a story in his Natural History about a ritual performed by the Arcadians. Every so often, wrote Pliny, a male family member of the Arcadians would be selected by lottery and taken to a lake. There, the elect would take off his clothes and hang them on a nearby oak tree. Naked, the man would wade into the lake and swim across. At the other shore he entered into the forest and there became a wolf. For nine years he lived among them. This man had to keep himself away from other human beings during his wolf-years because he would be unable to resist attacking them. Nine years passed in this way. At the end of the last year, if he had succumbed wholly to the ways of the wolves and did not try to escape, the man could return to the Arcadians. At that time, he would go back once more to the lake. He would wade in and swim across, just as he did before, back toward his family and friends. At the opposite shore the man would see his clothes hanging on the tree, just as he had left them.
In the old tales, a man sometimes becomes a wolf when he has been attacked by wolves or otherwise cursed. The werewolf then attacks humans and suffers, because he has yielded to the ways of the beast. The way Pliny tells it, Arcadians believed that the best way to hold on to one’s humanity was to voluntarily join the wolves for a time.
At the opening of Bergman’s film, during the credits, you can hear the sound of hammers. A man says, Can someone move that chair? There is laughing, and drilling, and more banging. It’s the sound of the movie crew building the set, setting the scene, preparing to tell Alma’s story, the way she has told it to the director. A scene later, Bergman puts us back in time, to a day when Johan has not yet disappeared without a trace, and he and Alma are together. Why does Bergman start the film this way, revealing the movie magic? Is it a documentary or fiction? Are we forward in time or backward or is the story just beginning? There are no answers to these questions, I’m afraid. You might as well ask if madness is artificial or real, if terror happens now or then, if morning and night and all concepts of time are vital or arbitrary.
So many repetitions of morning. Every one a mystery. How many mornings does it take to know anything at all about morning? Mornings of gray when a sliver of sunlight makes a spot on the wall. Mornings we can still see the moon. Mornings of cars going. Mornings after the first night you yielded your bed to another. Mornings your phone shows twenty missed calls and you know it’s finally done. Mornings watching birds leaving nests. Mornings of first snows. Mornings of saying this can never happen again. Mornings of standing afraid before the door. Mornings of the first white hair in the mirror. How many mornings with the windows open and how many with them sealed? How many mornings waking up in a room you won’t ever see again? How many mornings to think, I’ve lasted another day. How many mornings until you realize that, wherever you go, there, too, is morning? There are infinite iterations of morning. That morning will be is a given.