If you visit Costa Rica’s Marino Ballena National Park late in the afternoon and see a couple walking down the beach into the blazing light of a setting sun, you might take a picture. Later, in looking at the picture, you might decide you like how it could lead one to ask, “Is this couple on a remote beach and all alone, or are they part of a long line of others who are traveling the same road (as evidenced by the footprints)?” What you really like about the photograph, however, is the way it illustrates the problem of extremism.
When I looked toward the violent light, it was absolutely blinding. It made balanced seeing impossible, for it obliterated part of the sky and sand. My eyes cowered before it, and my mind tried to make sense of how a fair chunk of the landscape was simply blown out, gone. When I turned away from the scene and opened my eyes fully again, everything appeared spotted and discolored. Several minutes passed before my vision fully recovered.
There is something attractive about extremes, including the extreme light of a late afternoon sun. Extremes are definitive and bold. They push out nuance and complexity. They burn with awesome simplicity and confidence. But through this act of marked over (or sometimes under) exposure, they also — and here’s my point — declare that parts of a landscape are not worth seeing. And so while I love a strong sunset, I’m glad that the sun isn’t always setting, because I don’t want to see just part of a landscape. I want to be where light, because it is spread across the spectrum rather than slammed to one end, elucidates rather than obscures. And I want this not just at the beach but also in Pakistani politics, in American churches, in Israeli and Palestinian ways of thinking about history and each other. I want it in Congress and on Wall Street, in presidential campaigns, and when I’m talking with my friends. I want it in literature, in my writing, and in what I see on the news.
In Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there is a scene in which two characters, Franz and Sabina, are making love. A lamp is on near the bed, but Franz prefers to keep his eyes closed, especially as the pleasure builds, because doing so allows him to dissolve “into the infinity of his darkness, himself becoming infinite.” Sabina, however, is repulsed by this, and finding the sight of a closed-eyes Franz distasteful, she closes her own. Instead of infinity, darkness for her meant “a disagreement with what she saw, the negation of what was seen, the refusal to see.” Kundera continues:
Living for Sabina meant seeing. Seeing is limited by two borders: strong light, which blinds, and total darkness. Perhaps that was what motivated Sabina’s distaste for all extremism. Extremes mean borders beyond which life ends, and a passion for extremism, in art and in politics, is a veiled longing for death.