On ‘The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars’

When celebrated neuropsychologist Paul Broks’s wife died of cancer, it sparked a journey of grief and reflection that traced a lifelong attempt to understand how the brain gives rise to the soul. The result of that journey. ‘The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars’, is a gorgeous, evocative meditation on fate, death, consciousness, and what it means to be human.

In this correspondence Paul Broks discusses the production of this book with Garry Kennard, its illustrator.

Paul Broks: I was putting the finishing touches to my first book, Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology when my wife, Sonja, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I put off submitting the manuscript in order to support her through the difficult first stages of treatment but I also used the time to write an additional chapter dealing with our response to her diagnosis. In that final chapter I recount the true story of a conversation we’d had over dinner in which I’d presented the following scenario (borrowed from a Milan Kundera novel). A kindly visitor from an advanced alien civilisation brings the good news that death is not the end and that she will be moving on to another life. But there’s a choice to be made. Does she want to commit to having me with her in that future life, or would she rather go it alone? She said she’d go it alone. One lifetime was enough, however much you loved someone. So I’d better make the most of it. We had another eight years together, more than twice as long as expected from the original, rather grim, prognosis.

Into the Silent Land ends with Sonja’s cancer diagnosis and The Darker the Night begins with her death. That Stoic injunction – Just the one life; better make the most of it – finds an echo in the first few pages. Close to the end she said to me, You don’t know how precious life is. You think you do, but you don’t, and those words, effectively an encapsulation of the Stoic message of Marcus Aurelius, resonate through the pages of the book. Both Into the Silent Land and The Darker the Night contain neurological case stories and autobiographical strands. They both make excursions into philosophy and fiction. But The Darker the Night is more layered and has a more discernible narrative arc. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if at times the narrative thread that leads you through the journey dissolves into fictional digressions and the retelling of stories from Greek mythology from time to time. I know I’m asking a lot from readers. And it’s a bookseller’s nightmare with its mix of genres. It ends with me entering a new relationship and an encounter with a self-proclaimed archangel at the top of Glastonbury Tor who presents me with a difficult dilemma. It’s a happy ending, I think, or at least a wistful one.

The idea of interspersing images with text occurred to me quite late on. I aim to counterbalance darkness and viscerality in my writing with humour and sheer wonder at the mystery of the world. There’s a similar chemistry in some of your work, I think, and you were the first person I considered approaching.

Garry Kennard: I had read Into the Silent Land some years before I founded the Art and Mind festivals and had been extremely impressed. I admired the way you blended the science, philosophy and a personal feel for the world via marvellous writing into a satisfying and moving work of art. It was exactly this kind of melding that I was looking for in the festivals. As director I was in the fortunate position of being able to invite anyone I liked to take part and you were the obvious first choice. Apart from a few more appearances at my events, that was the extent of our acquaintance.

That was that until I received your email asking if I would be interested in illustrating your new book. This was an amazing surprise – and a flattering offer. I wasn’t even aware that you had seen any of my work.

I had made a rule for myself, born of long experience, that I would always refuse commissions. I had realised that when I did, it was guaranteed I would produce awful work. The idea of someone looking over my shoulder, waiting expectantly for the masterwork, made me falter and stutter.

So I demurred to begin with. But after you had sent me some chapters to read, it began to dawn on me that I could do something. I was still very doubtful about it but the feeling grew that this would offer me the opportunity of trying something new, although I had to get over the problem of too close a collaboration spoiling the thing. I remember saying that I would have a go at this, but it would be under certain conditions. One was that I would not discuss the images with you. I would not send you sketches for you to comment on. I would not directly illustrate the book. I would read the text closely and then let my hand and brain semi-improvise the images and see what emerged. I would send you the finished pictures. If you didn’t like them or didn’t think them appropriate you could ditch them.  I would continue to produce images to replace those you didn’t like. When you agreed to this, I started.

I had no idea of what you expected. You had said nothing about what you hoped for, no rules that you wanted me to adhere to. That left me an opening to start work without constraints – the only way I could do anything. I managed five or six pictures, sent them to you and waited for your reaction.

PB: I had no more than vague intuitions as to what to expect but didn’t at any stage envisage the pictures as mere ‘illustration’. I was more interested in seeing what might come of a more loosely imaginative – subconscious, even – reaction to the text. That wouldn’t work if you’d felt in any way obliged to produce images to order. Actually, I think there’s some similarity in the way I produced the text and the way you produced the pictures. Although my writing sometimes involves quite hard deliberation (over how to frame a philosophical argument, say) I think it works best when I don’t think too much and just leave it to my subconscious ‘brownies’ to do the creative legwork. I’m usually just noodling around with a notebook and pen and suddenly a phrase or image presents itself and sets off a train of thought and I think, where the hell did that come from? Nothing to do with me! I sense something similar was happening with your semi-improvised pictures. Parts of the book are, in fact, explicitly concerned with the unconscious, semi-autonomous machineries of ‘imaginal reality’, and it also chimes with the non-linear, “knights move” progression of the essays and stories, so it’s all quite apt.

We had a bit of to-ing a fro-ing over a couple of the images, I recall, and you made your own unprompted revisions here and there, but, for the most part, I was pretty much blown away by the “first takes”. By the way, I happened to be in the thick of a children’s birthday party when those first dark, still, mysterious images came through on my phone. It was exquisitely incongruous! I knew straight away they were going to work.

GK: In the past most of my paintings and drawings have been carefully worked out. They were designed to discombobulate the viewer by presenting two different modes of perception on the same plain – one highly realistic, the other of suggestive abstractions. Now, with the opportunity to free myself from this and to semi-improvise the images, I could explore a new way of reaching the same destination. Of waiting for the image itself to disarm me as it grew.

I had a small note book by my side all the time and I would scribble in it at the most peculiar times – while watching television or doing a crossword. The scribbles, and they grew into hundreds, gave me a feel for what might be done. I didn’t refer to these when drawing the final pictures but some of those came out very similar to the initial sketches.

The deeper I got into this the more astonished I became at what was emerging. Themes kept re-appearing – a black sun, clocks, doors opening. I felt these held the sequence together. But on a deeper level what was appearing before me became an exploration of my own psyche, almost as if I was creating my own Rorschach tests with the added device of being able to develop and strengthen those emerging images to which I found myself responding. This is obviously not a new way of doing things. Artists have always produced work like this in some way. But it was new to me and a revelation. You can see from this how my ‘method’ was very close to your own in composing the text.

Of course, the other thing which preoccupied me was your text, which I read over and over, hoping that something from it would infiltrate the pictures without me actually illustrating the words. I think that happened to a greater or lesser extent in the series.

PB: Sorry to say a couple of my favourite pictures didn’t make it onto the pages of the book owing to the publisher’s squeamishness. One is the image of the Greek god Pan standing in a doorway, proudly erect as he often is in classical depictions. This was ruled out on grounds of being ‘pornographic’. The other was the image of the gipsy woman, again a very traditional one, which was rejected for reasons of political correctness. I found this hard to accept, and protested but, regrettably, didn’t have the final say.

GK: I was quite devastated when the publisher rejected a number of the images, some of which I had been very pleased with. It made no sense to me. With some of the pictures missing the connecting themes, apparent in the whole set, disappeared. I know you tried your best to reinstate some drawings (and succeeded with a couple of them). I realise you were as disappointed as me. But – it was done and that was that.

The Complete Drawings

1. Stairway to sunlit room:
“Push, and the door will open into a sunlit room, forever sunlit, regardless of the depth of the night.”


2. Trees through the windows:
“Doors opened into unexpected rooms. Through this window, a crisp winter morning, though that, a summer afternoon.”


3. Boy at night:
“Sleep won’t come. Thoughts are running like rats through his head and a shadow on the far wall of the bedroom unsettles him.”


4. Man with dark moon:
“For a minute or two I had the sense that she was still alive. I could catch up with her and we would carry on as normal.”


5. Time Traveller at the station:
‘Mike the Time Traveller?’ No. He was just a miserable dipso on his way home from the miserable office, having a drink or nine to gird his miserable loins for miserable home.

6. Tabletops:
“The tabletops are identical in size and shape, yet the one on the left appears elongated. There’s a mismatch between mental and physical reality.”


7. Pan at the door:
“There’s a knock at the door and there he is with his hooves, his horns, his fur and, slightly worryingly, his large, erect penis.”


8. CS Lewis:
“Jack has a morbid dread of insects. ‘To my eye,’ he says, ‘they are either machines that have come to life or life degenerating into mechanism.’”


9. Pat Martino:
“With music as the golden thread, he began to weave a new version of himself. He was a genius twice over, but this time with a piece of his brain missing.”


10. The White Bull of Minos:
“Listen, the bull said to himself, nonverbally, I may be a beast of the field but I’m no mug. I’m doing this of my own conscious volition.”


11. Zombies:
“Now Lewys was telling me that zombies were real, not merely conceivable. They walk down every street.”


12. Multiplicity:
There are infinite histories to choose from with infinite variations on the theme of you and your life.


13. Tyger, tyger:
“Have moonlight if you want. There’s no sign of a tiger. Why would there be in an English forest?”


14. Spiral head figure:
“The labyrinth is a primordial image of the psyche. It symbolizes the winding, snakelike path to psychological wholeness and authenticity.”


15. Into the Labyrinth
I’ll give you a clew, he told her, but she was in no mood for games and just wanted an answer. No, this sort of clew, he said, producing a ball of thread.


16.Time and the woman:
“Stabs of absence; stabs to the brain and heart; an entering of the flesh, knowing in the flesh that she’s not here anymore.”


17. Gipsy at the door:
“So you’re in a good place, then. The gipsy told me. You’re thinking of me, she said, and you want me to find another good woman.”


18. The drunk on the bench
“Isaac Newton, he told me, was a genius but died a virgin. He was a sad fucker. I was taken aback because I’d just then been thinking about celestial mechanics.”


19. Hierarchy:
‘One day I’ll be dead’. It’s an oddly exhilarating thought. Something unimaginable – eternal nothingness – awaits us all. It sharpened my senses. Let’s not forget we’re alive.


20 Perseus and the Dead Girl:
The image of the dead girl surprised me. She bobbed in a flowing white garment, like an infant Ophelia. The sea itself was subdued. Small waves broke indifferently.


21. Sisyphus:
“The toil of Sisyphus represents the human condition, ‘…his whole being exerted towards accomplishing nothing.’ ”


22 Incubus:
The firewall between fantasy and reality collapses and all the monstrous archetypes break free: witches and goblins, demons and other strange creatures. They have the shine of sentience in their eyes.


23. Universe and beer
“All moments, all times, are equally real, equally present, including all the moments of your life, which are, from beginning to end, ‘in place’”


24. Carpet flower:
“Whenever I recall the carpet flower I have a sense of seeing, of being, for the very first time.”


25. Glastonbury Tor
“So you can, if you want, totally erase the life you’ve had. It will never have existed. Up to you, he said. I made my choice.”




All images copyright and courtesy of Garry Kennard



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