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More Light!

The impressively named German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), perhaps best known as the author of Faust, is also famous for dying words he probably never spoke – or at least not in so few words. “More light!” he is said to have said on his deathbed. Except that he wasn’t technically on his deathbed; he was sitting up in a chair, fully clothed. But no matter. Goethe’s long fascination with light makes his final utterance particularly apropos; indeed, he wrote a scientific treatise on the subject that he regarded as his most important work. He reportedly spent the last evening of his life discussing optical phenomena with his daughter-in-law. Was the light failing him at the approach of death, or was it simply too dark in his room? The truth, apparently, is closer to the latter, rather than his making some metaphysical statement about the dying of the light. According to some accounts, his actual final words were, "Open the second shutter so that more light may come in."

We can’t help but be a little disappointed with the truth of the matter, assuming that the unedited original is any more reliable than the romanticized version commonly attributed to the Olympian Goethe. Disappointment is not too strong a word for photographers and other visual artists whose stock-in-trade is light. We might like to imagine that Goethe had ridden out on a beam of celestial light, much as he had arrived. By his own account, he was nearly stillborn through the ineptitude of a midwife. In his four-volume autobiography he wrote, “I came into the world as dead; and only after various efforts was I enabled to see the light.”

Scientific treatises aside, we are hardly more capable of comprehending light than a fish is capable of comprehending water. Of course, the world is full of light, and we are immersed in it. Everyone who sees can imagine what it is like not to see; all we have to do is close our eyes. But how would we explain light to someone who has never seen? What words can convey its essence, which has no real correspondence to anything other than itself? We know it when we see it, but that’s about all we can say.

Goethe’s abridged final words resonate with God’s first words, as set down in the biblical creation story. “Let there be light,” the Lord is said to have said in the English translation of the Book of Genesis. In Hebrew, the words were more commanding, closer to Goethe’s “More light!” – except, of course, there was no need to say “more,” since up to that point there hadn’t been any at all. Before God turned on the lights, there was not nothing; rather, “the earth was without form, and void; and·darkness was upon the face of the deep.” So the first act of creation on Day 1 was not to conjure up something out of thin air but to illuminate what was already there, even if it was still formless.

The scientific account of creation is not markedly different, all things considered. It also begins with a burst of light from what scientists call the Big Bang, an immense explosion of superheated plasma that eventually congealed into galaxies, stars and planets. However, the six days of creation described in Genesis played out over billions of years. And for most that time, there was not one single sentient being, whether here or elsewhere, that was around to see the light. Which raises this question: Does the light shine if there is no one (or nothing) to see it? Certainly, there would have been natural phenomena emitting radiation within a range that we now associate with the visible spectrum. But for all that time darkness still moved upon the face of the deep because there were no organisms equipped with even the most rudimentary photoreceptor cells to register the light.

The word “luminous” comes from the Latin lumen, meaning both “light” and “eye.” This may be our clue to whether light can shine when there is no one to see. The question is essentially meaningless, because light and the eye are synonymous. The universe may have existed in the dark for billions of years, but the world we know begins and ends with light, as it did for Goethe. The world we know is known primarily through the light that shines upon it, which may explain why we always want more.

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