‘The Devil shouldn’t have all the best tunes’, (commonly attributed to the English evangelist Rowland Hill, 1744–1833), sums up some people’s views of the darker side in others. The 2010 movie Black Swan unleashed fresh soul searching and anguish about how the arts’ appeal to the innate darkness within most people. New York based British writer and critic Tom Shone wrote in the Sunday Times (Jan 2011): ‘Darker=deeper=good is one of our more unbreakable pop-culture shibboleths’.
He cited Darth Vader from Star Wars (1977-2005) urging the hero to ‘give yourself to the Dark Side’; the severing of his own arm by the protagonist in 127 Hours (2010); and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010+2011), ‘these are dark times, there’s no denying’. Shone said a cinema trip involves more ‘radical alienation than a season of Brecht’.
People who live through war, persecution, earthquake, famine, drought, bereavement or any cataclysm will vouch for the dark side’s reality. Most killers acknowledge their own dark sides. Shone claimed that a 24/7 effort to feel good about a TV-driven culture helped make sense of artists defining themselves by antagonism to that culture.
Dark Night in a Religious Sense
The phrase ‘dark night of the soul’ is generally regarded as a metaphor for a period in a person’s life, marked by isolation and loneliness, on the road to seeking God. It’s particularly pertinent in Christianity, although there are echoes in Buddhism and Islam. 16th Century Spanish poet, St John of the Cross, used the phrase to title a poem and later treatise.
The journey of a soul from its body to ultimate union with God, passes through a long night of difficulty via purification of the senses, then of the spirit. There are ten steps on a ladder of mystical love. It was written while he was imprisoned by his Carmelite brothers for seeking to change the Order.
St Paul of the Cross in the 18th century may have endured a dark night for over 40 years; Mother Teresa’s could have been almost as long. Jesus himself may have felt it when he cried out: ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ Doubts and confusions, not the same as abandoning faith, abound in religion. Psalms 13, 22 and 44 indicate King David experiencing confusion and abandonment.
The Mystic.org explained it in similar terms: ‘it sounds like a threatening and much to be avoided experience. Yet perhaps a quarter of the seekers on the road to higher consciousness will pass through the dark night’. To the sufferer, it can seem never-ending. In the field of higher consciousness, it’s a ‘lengthy and deep absence of light and hope. In the dark night you feel profoundly alone’.
Scottish Christian painter and Bosnian civil war artist, Aspergers’ sufferer, former alcoholic and drug addict, Peter Howson reflected much of the torture that the dark side can inflict on the human soul and mind. However, that same suffering, created innovative, haunting and compelling art. A Night That Never Ends (1995) brought together religious faith, war observation and personal agony.
The Dark Side in the Movies
It’s scarcely surprising that the darker side appeals to movie makers. The troubled loner, the evil killer, the sadistic manipulator are spawned in the Hell-fires of long, dark nights of anguish, torment and pain. Man’s inhumanity to man, animals and his environment inspire revulsion and other emotions.
1987’s The Dark Side was about a prostitute and maniac playing mind games. Hardly original from the late 20th century onwards, but the notion of interpreting ‘the dark side’ grows ever wider. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) was a documentary about the imprisonment, torture and subsequent death of an Afghan taxi driver. It made a political point about American foreign policy.
Tales from The Dark Side: The Movie (1990) was a story about a woman cooking her newspaper boy for supper that strung together three other tales: an animated mummy stalking students, an unkillable cat from hell and a man who witnessed a bizarre killing. The Dark Side of Porn (2005) was a British Channel 4 documentary investigating snuff movies. The Dark Side of the Heart (1992) was a South American film about loving a prostitute.
The Dark Side of Hollywood was a collection of film noir movies, ‘tight, raw’ and hard-boiled characters in situations deep inside the shadows of life. Hangmen Also Die (1943) about WWII paranoia and betrayal; The Long Night (1947) about pursuit by an ex-lover magician; from the same year, Railroaded, a violent revenge drama; Behind Locked Doors (1948), claustrophobic sadism, paranoia and murder; and Sudden Fear (1952) about a playwright saving her life.
A Convenient Catch-All Place
Gary Larson created cartoons under the title: The Far Side (1980-95). While there was a dark underbelly to his observations and wordplays, it was more left-field humour/stand-up comic than seriously dark side. Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (2009) was a book about the many manifestations of crime in the art world and the consequences, showing that the Dark Side is ubiquitous. The criminal underworld holds a dark fascination.
Pink Floyd called their eighth studio concept album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), and themed songs around greed, conflict, time and mental illness. In the spirit of the arts feeding off each other and nothing ever being entirely new, Dark Side of the Rainbow (also known as Dark Side of Oz or The Wizard of Floyd) saw that album coupled with the visual portion of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, producing moments where movie and album apparently dovetailed.
Contemporary film techniques, animation, graphics, 3D, reality TV conspire to suggest the dark side’s appeal in creating art will go on and on. Mae West described herself as ‘pure as the driven slush’. It’s that often rough, private, forbidden/naughty slush that we cherish in a world of increasing conformity. It’s the arts that keep it alive.
First published on Suite 101, 28 January 2011.
Photo: The Dark Night of the Soul Can Last for Years – Lesley