Listening to the Darkness: On Jeff Sharlet’s “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers”

By L. Benjamin RolskyApril 15, 2020

Listening to the Darkness: On Jeff Sharlet’s “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers”

This Brilliant Darkness by Jeff Sharlet

JEFF SHARLET IS UP to something in his groundbreaking work of photography and essays This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers. He listens to those on the outskirts, people who wear their questions on their sleeves, their shirts, or their pants. “Do you have any spare change?” What stories lie behind these words? How do we listen to them? And perhaps most importantly, do we even want to?

The “undesirables” of our moment populate the pages of Sharlet’s work: the homeless, the strung out, the night shifters, and even the dead. Regardless of geography or time, Sharlet’s chosen method of information gathering is the interview: however long or short it needs to be. Sometimes he writes pages upon pages on a particular topic; other times, Sharlet uses the iconicity of Instagram to convey a set of feelings typically not of the subject’s own choosing. Immersion journalism seems to fit this type of work, a radical experiment in embodied empathy. Sharlet’s method is as simple as it is provocative: he listens to the darkness.

Listening to what others have to say, even within your own family, may be perceived as a sign of weakness in these times. Conversation itself has become beholden to frustration. The willingness to simply listen to the stranger has become collateral damage of the ongoing wars of culture that have consumed the populous since the 1960s. While Sharlet’s own story around this work concerns heart attacks, both his own and his father’s, This Brilliant Darkness reminds us that the darkness, too, has a story calling for a reckoning. It, too, possesses its own inhabitants, its own practices of habitation and survival.

The conceit of Sharlet’s writing is also its motivation: “It’s the deeply democratic, or maybe even religious, notion that what I see — one person’s vision — could matter to you so much that we could see together.” This shared experience of encounter recalibrates human perception itself such that what was once thought to be impossible has now suddenly become possible. “Darkness isn’t the absence of light,” Sharlet observes, “it’s the presence of ink. The stuff from which letters and words and stories are made. Darkness moves; it flows from one letter, from one image, to the next.”

Darkness, in this sense, is anything but a description of absence. In many respects, it is the evidence of divine presence in the lives of those left to bleed, to suffer, to overdose often in solitude. From skid row to night shifts at Dunkin’ Donuts to the streets of St. Petersburg, Sharlet’s writings echo the same experiential assumptions: “I’ll supply the pieces, the fragments of the story; you’ll make it real by setting it in motion.”

While Sharlet himself seems to embody an unsettled aversion to all things religion and the religious, its familiar idioms nevertheless follow him wherever he goes. “I lack belief in the supernatural power of prayer,” Sharlet admits, “but I appreciate prayer’s resonance in the natural world. God is more than I need. I prefer things, and the people who tend them.”

This Brilliant Darkness can be understood as a record of Sharlet’s encounters with this very resonance in both US and global contexts. Sharlet’s subjects of investigation certainly include things and the people who make them, but those very people are often times the ones giving flesh to the incarnate word through their stories. In one moment, this calls for a meditation on a sculpture of two praying hands found in a trinket store along the side of a New England road. In another, an arsonist in New Hampshire sets fire to a church with children inside, on purpose. “‘Mad at God,’ he said, for making him want what he wanted. ‘Pictures, children, and flames.’”

In yet another, we meet Jared, an aide to various drug dealers, who gets hooked himself while in the military. He lives on the streets. His body, a shell of its former self, is covered in tattoos. For protection, the words of Ephesians 6:11 cascade across his body: “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The degree to which these individuals are actually protected, or not, comes through loud and clear. When hell is actually on earth, who is willing to listen? And who, exactly, is responsible? For many on Los Angeles’s Skid Row, the explanation stares back at them: “God takes the thugs.”

In these varied and diverse senses, This Brilliant Darkness illustrates how human beings make sense of their worlds through the divine and its various presences and absences. This is especially the case when it comes to prayer and the singing of hymns. “They change the way you feel time,” Sharlet describes. “There’s a word for this, kairos: a moment that returns again and again and yet is its own with every passing. A moment that is always becoming.”

This is less a book of Sharlet’s reflections on the world “out there,” and more of a living record of how Sharlet and his readers are made and remade through the stories consumed about one another, with one another, if only for a moment’s time. In many ways, Sharlet’s subject is the human heart itself and its capacity to expand beyond the confines of the physical body: human, nation-state, or otherwise. It is also about the forces and experiences that call upon the human heart to open itself up to the stranger and under what conditions. “What a heart we are,” remarks one of the inhabitants of This Brilliant Darkness. “A decaying yet evanescent heart we are.” Part biography, part autobiography, part investigative journalism, This Brilliant Darkness is nothing if not a record of human sensations across social and cultural scale.

Both Sharlet’s extended writings and his short meditations illuminate these sensations because the work of collecting them is in itself an act of sensation. “Sensation is what’s possible when seeing won’t change anything, when you don’t know enough to bear witness, when all you have is the fact of your eyes, and the fact of the camera: a record of things, seen and unseen.”

Sharlet invites us to consider what brilliant darkness arrests our own attention in both individual and collective terms in calamitous times. What pulls our eyes toward the darkness? Why are we drawn to those who remain “fugitives from God?” And how do we come to terms with the darkness? A presence both visible, and not. Such stories remain to be written.


L. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor at Monmouth University and a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University.

LARB Contributor

L. Benjamin Rolsky is an affiliated fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, and a history teacher at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey. His work has appeared in a variety of academic and popular venues, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, The Marginalia Review of Books, CNN Opinion, and the Religion and Cultural Forum at the University of Chicago. His research and teaching interests include religion and politics, popular culture, and critical theory. Rolsky’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, was published by Columbia University Press in 2019. Rolsky is currently researching a project that will explore the history of the Christian Right as an artifact of the culture wars in the recent American past.


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