Ongoing readers may recall the first post in this examination of the title of Leonard Cohen’s soon to be released album, “You Want It Darker.” Considering Leonard Cohen’s New Album Title: You Want It Darker – With Guest Author Apollon Maykov
The key point was this quotation:
The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!
This quotation was originally attributed, thanks to a multitude of internet references, to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Happily, Pieter Boulogne, a professor of Russian literature, came upon the post and corrected that error:
I’m afraid this quotation is falsely attributed to Dostoevsky. The Russian poet Apollon Maykov wrote the words in question (in Russian: “Чем ночь темней, тем ярче звезды, / Чем глубже скорбь, тем ближе Бог…”) in a poem in 1878, about a decade after the publication of Crime and Punishment.
After making the appropriate revisions, I began wondering about the metaphor underlying this specific quotation. I soon found this pertinent excerpt from a post at Quote Investigator
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular metaphorical expression that encourages people to maintain hope and optimism during times of unhappiness and trouble. Here are three versions:
1) Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.
2) When the night is dark enough the stars shine out.
3) Not until it gets really dark do the beautiful stars appear.
Admittedly, there is considerable ambiguity when interpreting these sayings, and the most common meanings may have shifted over time. The first version above is often attributed to the famous transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I searched a database of his complete works and was unable to find it. Would you please explore this adage?
The first portion of a long response follows:
The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the 1843 book “Past and Present” by the influential Scottish philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle. He employed an instance of the metaphor while discussing squalor, strikes, and revolts. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
As dark misery settles down on us, and our refuges of lies fall in pieces one after one, the hearts of men, now at last serious, will turn to refuges of truth. The eternal stars shine out again, so soon as it is dark enough.
Carlyle’s version predates Maykov’s poem by almost 35 years. More to the point, however, is the prevalence of this notion (see Quote Investigator for a complete account). Thus, while “darkness” and its grammatical versions (e.g., “dark,” darkest,” “darken”) are used metaphorically to connote concepts such as evil, unenlightenment, and ignorance, there is a deep-seated cultural awareness that darkness is both inevitable and necessary. As Carl Jung said,1
Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.
Info & Updates: Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker
All information available about You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen is collected and updated at Info & Updates: Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker
- From an interview with Gordon Young. Sunday Times (London), July 17, 1960 [↩]