An Introduction to Charles Bernstein’s “The Darkness He Called Night”
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“L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire”, Camille Flammarion, Paris, 1888
Art + Stories, Experiences

An Introduction to Charles Bernstein’s “The Darkness He Called Night”

Julia Fiedorczuk
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Charles Bernstein’s poetry is relentlessly experimental, playful, eclectic, irreverent, often humorous and sometimes uncomfortable when it is at odds with the readers’ expectations or convictions. As one of the founders of the so-called ‘Language school’ of poetry (usually spelled L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), Bernstein explores the uses of language within diverse social contexts. His work focuses on the ways we rely on words, expressions, metaphors, and on the meanings our culture attaches to its own verbal productions. Bernstein’s poetic work often mocks the jargon of politics, popular culture, advertising, corporate culture or academia. By foregrounding the hidden workings of ideology in language, Bernstein’s work defamiliarizes our deeply held beliefs and values. As Bernstein says in an interview with Bradford Senning: “I want to engage the materials of the culture, derange them as they have deranged me, sound them out, as they sound me out.”

“The Darkness He Called Night” is, of course, a reference to the Biblical act of creation – more precisely, the moment when God divided light from darkness, creating the first dichotomy. Possibly no other pair of concepts generates as many metaphors as these two, light being associated not just with daytime but also with wisdom, virtue, happiness and hope. Darkness, on the other hand, connotes evil, ignorance and danger. These associations have become so commonplace that we are hardly aware of their metaphorical character, as of the fact that both literal and metaphorical meanings of darkness and light are mutually constructive and therefore interdependent.

Virtue, one of the possible metaphorical meanings of light, is what the poem attacks with its sword of irony, uncovering its dark underpinnings. Is virtue good? Always? For whom? Clearly not for those who find themselves outside of the zone it declares as just; not for those who transgress the standards it fashions out of its narcissistic attachment to itself. Its true “passion” is “reprimand”: there is no virtue without exclusion, it relies on an otherness that must be kept out of its territory. Distrustful of virtue’s “fervently/ displayed empathies”, the poem demonstrates the intimate link between virtue (its truth) and power. Disguised as “care”, virtue is, in fact, a form of “despair”; that the two words rhyme makes the juxtaposition even more striking. The poem, as in much of Bernstein’s work, disobeys the command of virtue, or any self-congratulatory ideology. Instead, it declares loyalty to that which is pushed outside, politically, aesthetically and morally, to “miscreants”, “shams” and “malcontents” of all sorts, those who will not improve in the name of our culture’s standards of good life.

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The Darkness He Called Night
i
“L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire”, Camille Flammarion, Paris, 1888
Art + Stories, Fiction

The Darkness He Called Night

Charles Bernstein

Virtue’s a kind
of despair,
masquerading as care.
A bitter
current is for
virtue sweet.
Sublime wine sours
its mouth.
Snakes eat from
its hands.
Jackasses obey its
whim. Self-
nomination papers its
path. Method
is its M.O.,
holding tight to
a higher
love and fervently
displayed empathies.
Virtue’s sword
is truth, in
love with
itself, at odds
with others.
Celebrating standards it
fashions, virtue
jams miscreants, shams
malcontents, shaming
those abjure improvement.
The passion
of virtue is
reprimand. Nothing
is more beautiful
to virtue
than compelling justice
and shattering
dissent: slashes in
a pan
that will never
absolve aesthetics.

 

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