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In his new column, Scott Esposito will be revealing works of art—books, film, music—that can serve to remind us of the essential force of the humanities in any civilization worth saving. Today, Stig Saeterbakken helps us get through the long, dark night of the soul.
Nighttime is one of the most primal, fearsome things that we have to confront on an everyday basis. As children, most of us instinctively fear the dark and worry about monsters under the bed. Even as an adult, though I no longer believe in bogeymen waiting to get me when I go to sleep, I often find snapping awake in a pitch black room in the wee hours an unnerving, uncanny experience.
Given its universality and its potency, the idea of the long night one must suffer through is a powerful literary trope. It is as old as the Bible: Jacob’s struggle with the angel, dating from the 7th century BC, is one of the strangest and most challenging moments in all of Western literature, and it is certainly a foundational story of the Western imagination. Closer to our own era, Elie Wiesel titled his work about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald Night—the first book in a trilogy that moves from darkness to Dawn and Day as he attempts to put the Holocaust behind him.
Amid the many books invoking a long night, I would right now like to share one by a Norwegian I greatly admire named Stig Saeterbakken. His extraordinary contribution to the genre of night literature is a novel called Through the Night.
Through the Night follows the slow-motion catastrophe that a father’s life becomes after the suicide of his teenaged son. Saeterbakken, who tragically chose to end his own life, knew intimately feelings like depression, demonization, disgust, and hopelessness, and he had a rare genius for portraying such suffering on the page. In Through the Night, his evocation of the father’s “long night” is terrible—this is a book of heartbreaking emotional depth, a completely engrossing evocation of the uniquely lost, fearsome sensation that we can sometimes have when we awaken with night terrors from the blackness of deep sleep.
Saeterbakken’s book comes to a remarkable end when, ultimately, the desperate father is convinced to spend a night in a haunted house reputed to bring you face to face with the thing you most fear. This closing section, which occupies perhaps the book’s final 100 pages, is unlike anything I have ever read.
I chose to share Through the Night with you all because I know that at some point we all must experience our own long, dark night, and it is my belief that literature offers so much of importance at this moment. More than that—I believe that art and literature offer us things of unique necessity to get us through these nights. A possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Mario Vargas Llosa puts it well: “Life is a shitstorm, in which Art is our only umbrella.”
As to Saeterbakken’s shitstorm: the Norwegian was not a writer to purposelessly wallow in tragedy—to the contrary, if he shows us the absolute worst he is capable of, it is only because this is how is he able to make us feel his search for meaning, resonance, and fundamental humanity. This has made Through the Night and Saeterbakken’s other books important touchstones in my life—it is almost like receiving a scar, the experience of his books is so emotionally searing that they stick with me as though they were something I experienced, and their lessons have been all the more profound for that.
This points to one thing I have always found reassuring and immensely valuable about great literature—it helps me feel a little less alone, and it helps me put my feelings into words. To articulate a cause of suffering and to feel others may comprehend our plight, this is surely one of the first necessary steps on the journey toward making sense of our circumstances and ultimately transcending them.
I see a great beauty here: authors wresting life-altering stories from their imaginations, and then us as readers experiencing them, sharing them, discussing them, perhaps even becoming inspired by them and using them to find our way toward literary expressions. From such things come authentic feelings of community, shared values, deep and meaningful relationships, and the conviction that life is not a random series of events that we are blindly subject to but rather an ever-evolving story with epic themes, great characters, adventure, learning, enjoyment, sadness, suffering, losses, and, yes, very much meaning. Literature certainly is not the only art form to do this, but I think that by virtue of our deep and lengthy engagement with it, and by its complete reliance on words, it serves uniquely and foremost in our efforts to create such meaning.
In Through the Night I find some evidence that Saeterbakken may have shared this sentiment. Toward the very, very end of the book, once the father has experienced the haunted house, confronted his own very worst terror, and arguably gone mad, he finds a kind of solace:
Everything we do, it occurs to me, we do in order to offer encouragement to something else, something we have no control over, but which it’s in our interest to see come to fruition. We do what we can, that’s all we can contribute. We do our bit so that something might endure. If for no other reason than that our children will have a place to view the world from, before they venture out into it. A place that doesn’t resemble what they see when they look around them, out there, and for that very reason gives them the courage they need to face it.
This is the fundamental compact of the humanities, that we are not here alone on planet Earth but are rather interconnected by a duty to be that encouragement to one another, to see that these values that were born and live inside of our art continue to exist in this world. As Saeterbakken says, it instills us with a necessary courage, this perspective that only art can give us on a world that sometimes feels like one endless night.
That is my hope for this column: to let the humanities declare—by and through its own documents—its unique and essential place in a world that I often find inhumane. I think it is up to those of us who love and honor the arts to make this case loudly and clearly, particularly in days such as these. It is up to us to practice the encouragement that Saeterbakken writes about. Even if it feels a small thing, as little as sharing a treasured quote or recommending a book to a friend, even these small acts encourage us all to find the necessary perspectives that only the humanities offer. This is the only way they will ever come to light and survive in this world.
Some further literary titles invoking night:
Through the Night by Stig Saeterbakken (tr. Seán Kinsella)
Night by Elie Wiesel
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter
Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes (tr. Richard Howard)
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (tr. Chris Andrew)
Poems of the Night by Jorge Luis Borges (tr. various)
Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. Arunava Sinha)