Art, like life, relies on communication. What happens when empathy fails and we are struck by how unintelligible we are? Sometimes it seems that the only thing we can share is loneliness itself.
One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, “We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life. ––Ray Bradbury, The Fog Horn
Ray Bradbury’s The Fog Horn is a short story which takes place in a remote lighthouse. Simply told, and yet rich in metaphor, this story has mesmerized readers for more than six decades with its eerie tale of a lonely and unknowable creature drawn to the light and the foghorn. If you aren’t familiar with it, or if you would like to read it again, please do so here.
A foggy sea, dangerous and wild, shares a border with a rocky coast miles from human habitation, reachable by a long and lonely stretch of highway. Two men work in a lighthouse there: old McDunn, who has experience with the mysteries of the sea, and our narrator, who is fascinated by the workings of the lighthouse and the movement of the ocean. This evening the old man initiates the younger man into the mystery of the lighthouse. There is something out there in the great deep, something alive and otherworldly, something ancient.
Even without analysis, this story pulls at us, reeling us in like the monster itself. What is it that resonates here? We can take flashlights and go out by the coast to look, but you may find yourself staring into your own darkness, looking at a glimmer of reflected light.
Lighthouses stand on the border between solid ground and the ocean or other large body of water. Borders are places of danger, conflict, exploration and growth. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to suppose that the solid ground symbolizes the conscious and the sea the unconscious. Both are necessary parts of our world that operate in profoundly different ways. One can imagine a full scale storm here would be terrifying, blending together realities designed to coexist but not to mingle. The fog already obscures the boundary between them. In this particularly lonely and mysterious place, humanity has erected a lighthouse, designed to warn of the dangerous rocks that lie between one realm and another and to keep boats from ramming into the shore. No one ever expected it would provoke a response from the sea itself.
McDunn has been on the edge here a very long time, and the mystery of the sea has gotten into his psyche and blood. At first we may think him a bit dotty and superstitious, but as we see and experience the strange creature he speaks of, we realize that he is on to something. Either that, or he has talked us into seeing what he sees. His intuition guides us into belief in things we don’t understand, things that seem impossible. The world is ancient, he tells us, and it is modern man and his consciousness that fail to make sense in the context of time.
Our narrator is one of those modern men, new enough to the lighthouse that he has never experienced a visit from the creature. He enjoys the company of McDunn, who is a “good talker” and tells great stories. There is curiosity here and a scientific mind. Most of the time, weird things happen while this fellow is out, but tonight the creature will manifest itself not only for the believer’s intuition, but for the skeptic’s rationality, sending the roof crashing down upon both of them.
This brings us to the lonely monster, surfacing from the depths where human history is unknown and unexperienced. Primal and lonely, it responds to the flashing lights and the maddeningly sorrowful voice of the lighthouse, mistaking the building for another being of its own kind. It too is made of light and voice. Unfortunately, the beast expects too much from a world unequipped to understand and empathize. Tonight it will be disappointed to find that the lighthouse is unable to return its attention. How can it when it isn’t even alive?