When I was small – this was before iPhones, Nintendos, and the Internet – I would sometimes lie on my back in a darkened room, with my eyes shut tight, trying to imagine what the universe might have looked like before the universe began.
It was a self-defeating exercise, one that has flummoxed many a Zen Master and French Existentialist over the years, because the mind is designed to contemplate anything but the nothingness of pre-existence.
When you try to think about nothing, you wind up thinking about the fact that you are trying to think about nothing, and then your head starts to hurt and you get up and stumble into the light in search of meaning and something to eat.
But still, I can picture the void, the blank slate, the heavy, fuzzy canvas of the universe before it erupted into being. Unless it was brought into being, of course, but please, my head hurts enough already.
Anyway, today I saw that image in my mind’s eye again, only this time I wasn’t lying in the dark, I was walking in it, one unsteady step at a time, my eyes wide open, seeing nothing, guided only by the tap-tap-tap of my cane on the ground, and the calm, soothing voice of of a man who was as much at home in this world as I was lost in it.
“Move towards my voice, carefully now, and watch out for the little step,” said Hanif, our guide, who I also couldn’t see, and who couldn’t see me or anyone else in our stumbling, fumbling party of five.
He was the blind leading the blind, he told us with a laugh, through the blackened inner space of a sensory experience called Dialogue in the Dark, at the Sci-Bono Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg.
We had left our cellphones in a locker in the lobby, to keep us from instinctively reaching into our pockets to shine a light from their screens, as the door shut out the day and we wandered into deepest, darkest night.
I even had to hand my glasses in for safekeeping, and my first thought was, but how am I going to see? Which was exactly the point.
Dialogue in the Dark is an exercise in the art of seeing without seeing, of insight without sight, of focusing and sharpening the senses that are usually subordinate to vision.
We define the world by the way we see it, to the extent that we use seeing as a synonym for understanding, if you see what I mean.
So when, suddenly, we can’t see a thing, we are adrift, astray, helpless, at the mercy of our other senses and the kindness of strangers.
A few shuffling steps feels like a journey across the cosmos; a little step up or down feels like a climb up a mountain or a descent into a pit.
We tend to think of black as the absence of colour, but really it is the presence of all colour, in such heavy quantity that it seems to suck the oxygen as well as the light out of the air.
We think we know what darkness feels and looks like because we are used to the electricity going out, or because we sometimes camp out under the stars.
But even Eskom and the Milky Way leave room for pinpricks of luminescence, and the hope that we will remember this time where we left the candles and the matches.
Real darkness, real blackness, is oppressive, all-enveloping, almost audible in its molecular density, its cloaking weight of nothingess. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. You can’t see patterns, or shapes, or breaks in the landscape.
You know where “down” is, because you are walking on it, but all your spatial cues and clues are gone, and you may as well be anchored on the edge of a black hole on the outskirts of the universe.
Then, slowly, you start getting used to it, you start using your other senses to touch and feel and hear your way around, and for a little while – about 45 minutes – you learn what it is like to live in a world without sight.
You learn not just by walking, but by talking, because this is a dialogue, and the best part of it is when you find your way to what you are told is a bench, and you sit down to talk with someone you only know by voice, and who only knows the world through four out of five senses.
But Dialogue in the Dark is by no means a dark, sombre, or pedagogic experience. It is moving, exhilerating, funny, enlightening, and a little scary.
You come out of it with your eyes open, maybe properly open for the first time, and more than that, with your mind open to other worlds and other ways of living.
I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what you feel and experience and hear and touch, but I will just say there is a part of it near the end that took me back in a curious way to a famous scene from the first Star Wars movie.
Go and see for yourself, without seeing for yourself, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
*Dialogue in the Dark is on at the Sci-Bono Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg. For more information:http://dialogueinthedarksa.blogspot.com.
Our guide, Hanif Kruger, and his Golden Retriever, Orli