It's 5 o'clock and the night is already drawing her cloak around me, dimming the city into a twilight world. Despite the chill, it's still my favourite time of the day, when shops and bars are warm, welcoming shelters and rows of appartment windows offer glimpses into the previously invisible. Despite the setting of the sun, it's still a world of luminosity, of street lamps and Christmas lights. Later though, as the evening slides into night, the lights become harsh and intense and the city residents pull curtains or shutters across their intimity. It should be a time to dim lights and put the city to sleep but in the streets the candles are still burning strongly. At this time of the year when the nights are longer than the days, it may seem incongruous to ask the question, but is there anywhere in Paris that offers true darkness anymore? Paris remains the 'City of Light', but is it a city of too many lights today?
Walking through this city at night, an Auden poem pops into my head.
“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell”
But where are the stars? Are they up there burning with a passion for us that we do not want to return? A group of French urban agitators known as the "Clan de Neon" think so. They believe that our way of returning that passion would be to simply switch off the city lights so that we’ll once again be able to see the stars burning for us. According to the manifesto on their website:
"Les néons engendrent (…) une double pollution, celle pour produire l’électricité mais aussi celle, lumineuse, qui nous empêche de voir les étoiles" (Neon lights have a double pollutive effect – they waste electricity, and through their luminosity, they prevent us from seeing the stars)
They do not deny the utility of certain lights, but simply believe that "trop de néons tuent le néon utile!" In other words, the advertising street signs and lit up shop fronts prevent us from seeing the hospital. They want Paris to remain the city of lights (arts and ideas), but want to prevent it from becoming another city of neon in the image of Las Vegas. To see how they and their followers go about doing this, watch the video below (who knew that it would be so simple?).
When street lights began to appear in cities around 1820 we can imagine that they were welcomed by the inhabitants, but in fact it seems that they brought fear. In times preceeding their introduction, the city was controlled by the provision of light. When the primitive lighting was extinguished, the inhabitants retired to the safety of their houses and beds, and when they were illuminated again in the early morning, the inhabitants knew it was time to get up for work. Very few people would venture out into a pitch-black city, but the introduction of street lights provided the luminosity required by many of the city’s unsavoury characters to prey on their victims. Today we may avoid dimly lit areas, but would we not be safer in a darkened city? Certain areas in the UK have begun trials, swithcing off lights at midnight in order to save on electricity bills and meet envronmental targets, and it seems to be provoking quite a debate!
Leave the city and wander out to the countryside and it's another world and a different space. A series of maps has been produced by an organisation known as Avex showing the major light pollution zones of Europs, but whilst Paris is a glowing hotspot, it remains true that much of France still offers us the chance to admire the stars. In these rural areas, you sometimes literally cannot see your hand in front of your face in the dead of night. When we look up at the thousands of tiny pinpricks in these pockets of blackness, we feel minimised by the sheer size of the sky and the weight of the stars and planets that surround us, and realise just how small and insignificant we are.
Come back to the city though, and the night sky seems to be an entity that exists only as patches of hazy orangeness in the gaps between buildings. Are there even some city dwellers who have never seen a star? When the path ahead of us is always lit and the sky is no longer something we use to navigate or be fearful of, do we get an inflated sense of our own importance? Do the people of the city need stars or are they perfectly content with their neon glow? I’ll leave the last words to Auden:
"Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark (orange glow!) sublime
Though this might take me a little time"