Against the Night

by Brian Patterson

Someone once said,"When you turn on the light, you walk around things that you trip over in the dark." This is true of the physical world, but it is equally true of the spiritual world. Imagine that every human soul is a light. It is a source of heat and illumination to itself and to those around it. When it is happy, when it is fulfilled, and when it is fulfilling whatever task its Creator has set for it, that light is beaming brightly. When it is unfilled and unhappy it becomes dismal and eventually turns dark. It falls asleep.

In the episode of Northern Exposure titled "Northern Lights," the souls residing in the town of Cicely are sleeping. They go to work, they eat, they speak, but they do so with dulled senses and muted passion. They are horses, once wild but now tame, lamps whose fires have gone out. Maggie, for instance, has put to bed her sex life out of fear. It is not an altogether irrational fear. Men have a habit of dying after mating with her. It is not that Maggie is sinister, just unlucky. So, although she desperately wants to sleep with Mike Connor[sic], the malady prone lawyer, she douses the flame of desire. On the other hand, Chris's artistic fire has dimmed for some unknown reason. Every year before the Solstice he creates a grand statement, a beacon to himself and to his fellow citizens to see them through the night. This time he still has the same drive, but his sculpture lacks "depth." He, in his own words, has "all this juice with no place to plug it in." Maurice's darkness is that of ignorance and fear. A homeless stranger, Lance Bristol, has wandered into Cicely and Maurice feels that Lance is a threat to the safety and harmony of the town. The soul of the town doctor, Joel Fleischman, is asleep from exhaustion. Sent to a place he did not want to go to practice medicine, his one hope of relief is the two week vacation which is rightfully his. When the vacation is denied, he closes down his practice and goes on strike, withholding his healing services from people who are depending on him, withdrawing his light from a community on which the sun is setting. With no light left in the souls of the Cicelians, the sun itself disappears, leaving the town to its Solstice.

As the darkness settles in, the citizens clamor to The Brick, a local restaurant. They are on a quest for chocolate, the wonder drug that will soften the dull despair of the Solstice. They have resigned themselves to waiting out the night, unable to defeat it. Then through the gloom steps the unwavering Lance Bristol. He refuses the chocolate anesthesia, asking instead for "something more substantial." He does not need the temporary relief because he holds, somewhere behind his shining eyes, salvation for their comatose souls. He is an unwitting apostle delivering the gospel to unconscious believers. His first miracle occurs at the foot of Chris's sculpture. Gazing up at the tower of metal "twisting, turning, rising out of the corporeal, struggling to the divine," Chris asks Lance, "Do you believe it?" Without much thought, Lance replies "Nah, not really." After Lance gives the artist a sip of his sacramental beer, Chris off-handedly asks if he is drinking Miller. "Lite," Lance responds. With that simple word, Chris's artistic vision is healed. Chris leaves, his inner light on high beam, to begin his true work. He begins collecting lamps and light bulbs from all across the town for his sculpture. At three o'clock in the morning, he is searching through Maggie's cabinets looking for her lava lamp. She emerges from the bedroom where she has been sleeping alone to confront the person who has disturbed her. When she sees Chris aglow with determination, she realizes how dark her own life has become. With that spark of recognition, she knows what to do. She goes to Mike. She suggests to him that it is better to live a short, fulfilled life than a long, unfulfilled one. As they move closer, her passion grows more intense and it engulfs them both. With the consummation of their relationship, two more lights glow bright, staving off that much more of the darkness. The souls of a few in Cicely are once again lit, and a new dawn is beginning in the middle of the night.

The spiritual world is not lit by a single celestial figure as the physical world is the sun, but rather by the collective light of a community of souls. However, the new dawn is in danger of slipping back into a blackout because of power surges in the community. Dr. Fleischman is still on strike. He refuses to give in because he feels his stand is not just important for his own good, but for the good of everyone. He sees himself as the torchbearer, the savior of the town. When his assistant Marilyn finds him during the midst of his crusade, he is living in a tent, cooking food over a fire. This martyrdom parallels that of Lance, except that Joel's mission is ultimately one of dissent. When it dawns on him that much more harm is being done by him than good, he calls off his strike and rejoins the community. He says,"A person has three choices in life. You can swim against the tide and get exhausted, or you can tread water and let the tide sweep you away, or you can swim with the tide, let it take you where it wants you to go." To preserve the harmony of the town, he chooses the latter. Maurice also feels like he is acting in the best interest of the city by trying to rid it of the "hobo" wandering through town. At the town meeting, he learns that the citizens have other things on their minds, and he will have to carry the flame of righteousness for all of them. He confronts Lance expecting to find a man with a darkened soul and a reprobate past. Instead, he finds a man quite like himself. He assumes that Lance is just down on his luck, so he takes him in, feeds him, and offers him a job. It is then that Maurice learns that Lance's priorities lie elsewhere. Lance explains his visions of the lights. After seeing them, multi-colored and dazzling, his "world turned upside down." That is why he does not worry about his next meal or where he is going to sleep, because his eyes are full of lights. Maurice confesses that he has seen lights too, but it is best to forget them. At the end of the episode, however, Lance leads Maurice back to the lights, and Maurice joins his spiritual brothers and sisters in a communion of their souls.

Chris calls for the townspeople to meet on a downtown street at the darkest moment of the Solstice. He speaks of light: the need for light, the purpose of light, and the meaning of light. He quotes Dylan Thomas saying, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." He flips the lever and suddenly the street is filled with the strange glow of a new sun. It is reflected in the faces of everyone, a light sculpture composed of spare bulbs, lamps, and neon signs. Each bulb adds its own distinctness to the light of the whole. The lights look familiar to Lance, who sees them in his mind constantly. The others are awake and receiving the spiritual illumination that he has had all along, but the light is now coming from within themselves.

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