Ursula Dubosarsky peers into a half-light inhabited by sadness and hope.
The forest looms dark, deep and mysterious, or so it appears to people, especially poets and painters, who enter it alone. They feel sadness and sometimes even the kind of strange fear one feels in childhood: a fear of nothing.
The Cunning Little Vixen.
Darkness is regarded generally as a curse, a loss and an absence. Darkness after all was one of the 10 plagues brought upon Egypt back when Pharaoh would not let Moses and his people go free: "And Moses stretched forth his hand towards heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days." Sounds like a rather prolonged black-out, and presumably very frightening - although in the modern world most of us react to a sudden black-out with at least a shiver of excitement as we run about looking for torches and candles and sit in our dark living rooms or look out in wonder on the dark, dark streets and then up at the sky where suddenly the stars seem so bright and the world full of mystery.
As a child I associated the excitement of darkness with going to the cinema or the theatre, that wonderful, nerve-racking moment when the lights went out. There was sudden hush and the wide room slid into darkness, lit only by the crimson glow of the EXIT sign or the bobbing torchlight of an usherette showing latecomers to their seats. It was as though we had all suddenly found ourselves in a secret cave. It was like the moment of falling asleep, of being on the brink of something else entirely, as the colours and shapes of the plush furniture, the faces of the people, the walls and the statues slowly faded, then disappeared entirely, just before the curtain whisked up to reveal the dream.
It was actually this transitional moment between reality and make-believe, the murmur, the shadows and the unknown, that excited me more than the show itself. It was the same darkness that inhabited the wings where I stood as a child acting in plays at school, waiting to go on, my nervous state heightened by stage-fright and a kind of intense alertness before stepping out into the mad, bright, surreal light of the stage. Darkness was the passage through, the in-between space that led from the material to the imaginative world.
Of course, this darkness is not the utter absence of light that the Egyptians suffered, but a "media luz" as the tango puts it, a crepuscular half-light where all sorts of sometimes transgressive activities take place.
My favourite memory of this kind of darkness is from my NSW state primary school in the 1960s. Once a week we girls were parted from the boys and made our way out to an old crumbling 19th century house at the back of the playground, known ominously as "Marshall House". There we huddled together in a shadowy room that smelt as green as a drain, straining to see the needles and threads and our little bits of useless sewing, while we told each other stories.
Unsurprisingly, these were largely ghost stories that revolved around sightings of the apparently doomed Marshalls who had lived in the house, and the various terrible ways they were said to have met their deaths. We were all very impressed, I remember, by the desperate scrawl in lead pencil that one of us discovered down near the skirting board on one of the peeling floral papered walls, "I was dead 100 years ago."
The relish of these storytelling sessions is absolutely linked with the dimness of the room - I can't imagine us discussing anything but hems and cross-stitch in a nice clean new classroom with the benefits of aluminium windows and long fluorescent bulbs.
It was the invention of the electric light, after all, that was said to have driven great populations of fairies from the British Isles in the 19th century, their natural habitat of darkness having been destroyed forever. I have been thinking about this lately while reading the strange and beautiful novella Vixen Sharp Ears, a tale on which the Czech composer Leos Janacek based his famous opera, The Cunning Little Vixen.
The original story was written by fellow-Czech Rudolf Tesnohlidek in 1920, and was first published in English in 1985 with illustrations by Maurice Sendak and a fascinating afterword by Robert T. Jones. It's set in a pre-electric world, when "mysterious darkness enveloped the landscape and the house; the forest murmured gently, softly as if whispering." The dark forest flourishes with a nocturnal life full of comic, voluptuous and sometimes frightening energy, lit by shining eyes, stars and moonlight.
Yet the creator of this wonderful forest, Tesnohlidek, was trapped in a tragic psychological darkness. Born the son of a knacker in Bohemia in 1882, and plagued from childhood by feelings of sadness and social exclusion, the first recorded disaster of his life occurred when as a teenager he stood transfixed by horror on the shore watching a friend waving for help, then disappear under the water to be drowned. A bad beginning for a person already inclined to dark moods. Yet this was nothing. At 21 he fell in love and married a young woman named Kaja, who shared his dismal outlook on life and indeed with some reason, as she was fatally ill with tuberculosis. Two months after the wedding, they went on holiday to Norway, and his bride shot herself in the heart in front of him, on the veranda of their hotel room.
Suicide, accident or murder? Unsurprisingly, suspicion fell upon the young husband, and he was brought to trial twice in Norway. Eventually acquitted, widowed and distraught, he returned to Prague, where, as his brother said later: "Darkness overtook Rudolf". He took a job on a big newspaper in the Moravian capital, Brno. This was the Lidove Noviny (People's News), a prestigious daily journal which is still in print, having been suppressed by the Czech communist government in the 1950s and reappearing as samizdat (self-published) before its legal reinstatement in 1989.
But that was a long way in the future. Now the bereaved Tesnohlidek was assigned on the Lidove Noviny to the reporting of court cases - of which he had had some personal experience - and in his spare time writing poetry of unpublishable gloom.
Frustrated by the lack of interest in these literary efforts, he changed tack and unexpectedly began to gain a reputation as a humorist, writing light verse and sometimes-melancholy children's books. It was his facility with both darkness and light that presumably led the editor of the Lidove Noviny to pass onto Tesnohlidek some drawings by artist Stanislav Lolek illustrating a rural tale about a forester and a vixen. Could Tesnohlidek write some copy to go with the sketches for the newspaper's spring supplement?
He could and he did, taking to the project with a fervent passion. The drawings and text of Vixen Sharp Ears were published twice a week as a kind of early comic strip or perhaps a graphic novel. It was at once enormously popular, combining operetta-like political satire and the cynical bite of comic realism, with a wild and moving love of the natural world and its eternal rhythms. Apart from the astute and playful heroine, the inimitable vixen herself, the animal characters included grasshoppers, mosquitoes, frogs, a badger, an owl and a grumpy little dachshund. They live parallel lives with the human characters - a forester, a schoolmaster and an elderly priest, who mumbles to himself in Greek, Memnestho aner agothos eninai ("Remember to be a good man").
Tesnohlidek wrote his tale in a loving, off-beat vernacular, the dialect spoken in Brno. This was 1920, just after the creation of the new state of Czechoslavakia. Vixen Sharp Ears celebrated the Moravian countryside and its people, finding comfort in an acceptance of love and death and the eternal cycles of nature. The story was bound to appeal to the ageing atheist genius Janacek, who lived locally, and at once saw in it a potential framework for his own creative needs. He invited Tesnohlidek to come and discuss turning it into an opera. This is how the astonished and depressive writer described his meeting with the celebrated optimist: "Leos Janacek was waiting for me in the small garden of the conservatory. He sat among the bushes, with thousands of tiny blossoms blazing around his head; that head of his was equally white and seemed the biggest of those flowers. He smiled."
Darkness and light, head to head indeed. The opera went ahead and had its acclaimed premier in 1924. Yet Tesnohlidek, despite this and other considerable successes including a state prize for literature, remained tempestuous to work with, constantly resigning from the newspaper in furies of one sort of the other. After his first bleak experience of marriage he married again, and when his second wife left him, turned to a third, a woman named Olga, who seemed more able to handle his moods. But that he continued to suffer desperate internal struggles of a personal nature was clear to everyone.
In search of some sort of relief, he turned to yet another kind of darkness - the wet darkness of the vast network of Moravian underground water caves which he took to exploring, often alone. He wrote about these trips into the underworld, of stalagmites and stalactites and black rushing rivers endlessly for the paper. To his rage, the pieces were frequently edited down, as his relentless output on the subject of caves was considered rather beyond the interest of the average reader. One of his journalist colleagues commented: "He was burying himself alive in the deadness of the earth."
Finally, he chose another way. At work in the newspaper office in the depths of winter, on January 12, 1928, Tesnohlidek completed the morning's comic verse he'd been assigned and placed it on the editor's desk. He then took a gun and shot himself in the heart, just as his first wife, Kaja, had done. He was 46. His wife Olga, on learning the news, gassed herself to death.
A terrible ending, and very different to the fictional finale he had chosen for his much-loved heroine, the vixen. Tesnohlidek left the little fox at the height of her happiness, safe in the love of her handsome husband and surrounded by a brood of healthy fox cubs, with only the slightest hint of what might be to come. "Don't be afraid, Sharp Ears," he assures her, "Your life here will be beautiful."
It was Janacek who chose to alter this gentle vision to the one we know now - in the opera, again at the height of her happiness, Vixen Sharp Ears is suddenly and shockingly shot dead by a poacher.
Janacek himself died later in the same year, 1928. By his own request, music from the final scene from The Cunning Little Vixen was played at his funeral. In this scene, the heartbroken forester, mourning the loss of both the vixen and his sweetheart, sits alone in the forest, reflecting on the inevitability of death and the same inevitability of life springing forward from the earth to eternity.
Janacek's funeral, which was a great public event, was held in the theatre at Brno, and his widow wrote of the music that "as soon as I heard the first few bars, it was if a strong stream of light shone through that eerie indistinctness which had enveloped me".
Eerie indistinctness. What a beautiful phrase for that magic, unsettling darkness - of a funeral, of a theatre, or of a forest at night. Or of an old sewing room full of little girls, whispering stories to each other, pricking their fingers in pleasurable fear. Not a total darkness, but a weird half-light, secretive, sad and yet full of possibilities.