How to Understand the Light on a Landscape (2005)

How to Understand the Light on a Landscape (video, 15 min., 2005) is a work that simulates a scientific documentary about light to discuss the experiential aspects of light as triggered by memory. The images and text below, taken from the video, are part of a forthcoming book published by the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, entitled Searching for Sebald.

How to Understand the Light on a Landscape

To understand is to forget about loving.

—      Fernando Pessoa

For Luis Ignacio Helguera Soiné (1926-2005)

Light is understood as the electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength that is visible

to the eye. Yet, the precise nature of light, and the way it affects matter, is one of the key

questions of modern physics.

Due to wave-particle duality, light simultaneously exhibits properties of both waves and

particles that affect a physical space. There are many sources of light. A body at a given

temperature will emit a characteristic spectrum known as black body radiation.

The conjunction of a body present in the landscape, along with the interaction of the

light in the environment, produces an effect that in modern psychology we describe as


The conjunction of a random site, the accumulated data in the body’s memory that is

linked to emotion, and the general behavior of light form experience.

Experience is triggered by light, but not exclusively by the visible light of the electromagnetic

spectrum. What the human eye is incapable to perceive is absorbed by other

sensory parts of the body, which contribute to the perception that light causes an effect

that goes beyond the merely visual.

In our life span, we witness only a few limited emission incidents of light that intersect

with spontaneous receptivity of memory in specific places. They happen selectively

and in rapid sequences, at night, when a door opens, when we are very young, when we

drop off someone at the airport. They all, however, are inscribed by the behavior of light.

As we age and our receptivity declines, our eyes and body become denser material through

which there is a reduction of the speed of light, known as a decline in the refractive index

of memory.

The extent of the breeding behavior of experiential light is determined by the amount

of cyclical phenomena we have experienced, such as the slight humidity that signals

the transition of spring into summer. The refractive index of memory is mostly marked

by the unusually happy or sad periods of our lives, and the slow decline that gradually

dominates our perception. Forgetfulness gradually inhibits the experience of light, and

cannot be reversed.

The glow of heaviness, commonly known as somber light, appears in urban solitude

and often towards the end of the day. It is a particularly cruel light to experience, as it

stimulates attractive visions, like the singing of two women on a radiant evening but it

then reveals hidden anxieties that we may have about the end of things, as Homer

describes the fatal singing of the mermaids.

home light is too familiar to be seen. It is the kind of light that we first saw when we

were born and we always recognize, but often take for granted. Home light is highly

volatile light, and it often vanishes when it is named, as a dream that ends when we

dream that we are dreaming. There is no point in explaining this light, because it is too

familiar to the owner and too alien to all others. Yet a high experiential index is evident

when it’s there, ready to envelop us when we encounter it again wherever we go. We can

only know that we all have this kind of light in ourselves, as if in our pockets, ready to

come out at a critical moment.

There is the shining of large breath, full of itself, that enters with grandeur into a landscape,

uninvited, taking over the logic of everything, promoting the conjunction of belief

and fragility. It creates mythologies, and the belief that there is something greater than

us in a time that is ungraspable or far larger than our minuscule time in this world.

There is also a glow known as ghost light that can only be seen, like some apparitions,

in photographs, especially the snapshots taken by those who went through a long

trip or extenuating circumstances in their lives, such as returning from a bloody war,

escaping hunger and threat. It expresses an image of lonely liberty, where all is in order

but there is little that can be enjoyed with that order, as if what happened before had

affected the future of it all. It functions like a Swiss clock, harmonious but predictable.

There is the light of the deathbed, that lingers on for a long time after the incident,

and often takes the appearance of a rainy day, even many years later, like the widow that

will hold on to wearing black. It is a refracting light, the light of the permanent finality

of the moment that often creates the impression of letting us know something that we

didn’t know, just like an unopened letter found after many years. Its extremely old waves

appear to have a cool breeze, as if ready to inspire a Flemish painting.

Those who once read long 19th century novels often recognize rain light. It is often

seen from a train in motion, when it is arriving to a station that is not our destination,

and yet we feel there is something we are leaving behind, as if we had indeed lived

another life, or had developed a sense of belonging to those who we see getting off.

But there is also a tired glow on a cloudy summer afternoon right before or during

lunchtime, one that emerges after strenuous work by others but that we see when we

are doing nothing, or when we are resting. It is also similar to the light of the movie

matinee that we see with the fascination of remembering that it is still daytime after

we came from darkness. It also reminds us of food we ate a long time ago and the

extinct products and fashions from the time when we were kids.

There is a protective light that reminds us of the womb, of the time where we were

completely protected. This light inspires endless nostalgic yearning to attain that

protection again. Our obsession with protective light prevents us from growing and

makes us fear change. We wish we could be like that woman in a distant small city who

was born, married, and died on the same street. It is true that no velocity and amount of

experience can compare with the accumulated placement of experience in a single spot.

But due to the impossibility of being able to replace protective light, these attempts

derive in the light of the tourist, taking the same image all around the world, seeking

comfort in every place when in reality there is no comfort to be had.

Another source of satisfaction is the working light that signals many events that take

place on an everyday basis, like business lunches in city cafeterias, like going to the post

office, like all the activity proper of the midday urban sprawl, a dynamic, powerful light,

with the enthusiasm and perhaps strange mixture of happiness and melancholy we

used to feel in school when we were finally off for vacations but we would not get to see

our high school crush for the rest of the summer. We will know how to recognize this

sunlight when we see it slowly crawl through the walls until it disappears completely.

There is of course the artificial light. It is a light for waiting, a transitory light that

creates the impression that the actual moment doesn’t exist but rather a joining of

procedures that take us from one place to another, which we call the obligations of life.

artificial light crawls into our lives, and we tend to also see it on the outdoors, sometimes

exchanging it mentally for real sunlight. It makes us feel that every place is the

same to us because we are the same. Under artificial light, the strangers that we see in

the street soon start looking eerily familiar to us.

This is the light of the truly blind, where unreality is a perfectly kept lawn, an

undisturbed peace, and an organized tour to an exotic location where nothing happens.

This light constructed by official human communication is an empty airport, a constant

waiting room full of scheduled departures with no one in the planes and plenty of

flight simulations.

There is the light of adolescence, a blinding light that is similar to the one we feel

when we are asleep facing the sun and we feel its warmth but don’t see it directly.

Sometimes it marks the unplace, perhaps the commonality of all places or perhaps, for

those who are pessimists, the unplaceness of every location.

There is a sunday light, profoundly euphoric and unsettling, both because it reminds us

of leisure but also of Monday’s obligations; it is the one we used to read comic strips

with, while eating pancakes outdoors, or go to the store to buy coffee or watch the sports

on TV, a trustworthy companion light that seems to last, creating clear shadows and

warmth as well as a confident sense of the present — it is the only light that we enjoy

regardless of our age and never want it to ever go away.

There is a hotel light, of transitory nature, that generates unexpected and intense

responses especially to those whose happier memories have taken place at the garden or

swimming pool of a hotel. It often talks of fantasy worlds that are real just because we

let ourselves fall into the fantasy they offer, parentheses of light that can well be

captured in a snapshot.

Sometimes we experience the light of the last day, a kind of light that takes form

during farewells or moments of consciousness when we know that what we are looking

at that moment shall never be repeated, and that years from now we will be recalling

that moment. Moments of memory that are memories even in the moments when we

live them.

There is used light, light that has been lived by others, and we are always left with the

impression that we missed something important, like listening only to the very end

of a certain conversation, our constant expectation of a phone call that never arrived, or

the obsessive possibilities of an unrequited love.

Or the narrated light, the one that we only know by description and think that we

recognize it when we see it when it may always be an impossibility to get a glimpse of

its wilderness. It is a light of induced learning, as when we inherit memories from others

to the point of believing that they are memories of our own.

And it is in this light where that which is the farthest can suddenly appear very familiar,

even if we are in a medieval museum entering into the least observed gallery, when we

feel that we share a private life with the people from that time and we see them in our

dreams as hybrid beings of flesh and the corroded wood of a sculpted saint.

With this light we can also recall the thousands of pictures taken by our grandparents

during their honeymoon in Europe, landscapes and sunsets accumulated in tin boxes for

half a century.

Few are able to perceive transparent light, a light that hurts for unknown reasons,

perhaps because it is so clear that it allows us to see too much or because it stings our

consciousness, awakening images that we may prefer to forget.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there is the after light, a light of the past, which

are echoes from past experiences so intense that they sometimes appear in front of us in

the form of unexpected shadows. They hide on clear days under the roofs of houses. It is

believed to be the same light seen by people we knew many years ago that survives like

a message in a bottle, but always in a precarious way and often vanishes into thin air.

Light likes to introduce trouble and ask questions, forcing us to reconcile our thoughts

and decide how we feel — our mind makes photosynthesis out of its particles and we feel

we grow or diminish with it, going to sleep when there is no light, waking up when the

light comes back.

But ultimately, and given that our perception is generally faulty and dependent on

random associations, it is useless to try to categorize the different species of light on

the basis of personal experience as we do here, or to speak about a zoology of light that

results from the conjunction of landscapes and moving observers.

The intersection of our body with the light and the landscape and the coded form of

language that we have to construct by ourselves and explain to ourselves is our daily

ordeal, and we are free to choose to ignore and live without it, because there is nothing

we can do with this language other than talking to ourselves. There is no point in trying

to explain it to others because it is not designed to be this way, other than remaining

a remote, if equivalent, language.

Some for that reason prefer to construct empty spaces with nondescript imagery, and

thus be free of the seductive and nostalgic undecipherability of the landscape and

the light.

Or we may choose to openly embrace the darkness of light, and thus let ourselves

through the great gates of placehood, where we can finally accept the unexplainable

concreteness of our moments for what they are. There is no spirit, but rather a weak

string of perceptions, a line of coded language that writes a book to be read only by

ourselves, and be given meaning by ourselves and to ourselves.

When we know that we can’t truly speak about what we experience, we now arrive to

the edge of our understanding and the edge of our meanings. While on the other side

we may encounter others to talk to, they are much farther than we think, while we

are firmly set in here, holding on perhaps to one single image of which we may only

continue to hope to decode its meaning up the very last day when our memory serves

our mind, and our mind serves our feelings.