I was listening to CBC radio today and one of the talking voices was going on about what would happen if Chinese factory workers started getting paid decently – she suggested the jobs might be sent to “some benighted African country.”
My second thought was, Mmm, benighted. I’ve been meaning to taste that word for some time.
But my first thought was, I wonder if someone is going to send in a complaint about her saying that. The implication, after all, is that there is a set of countries in Africa that are benighted. It’s a vague slur, but it’s nonetheless condescending. And reeks of the colonial worldview and first-world hegemonism.
Oh, yes, benighted has that taste. That taste of arrogance, condescension, imputation of moral and intellectual darkness. I’ve used the word myself, but always to refer to specific persons whose particular character or political theories I find distasteful, or to specific objects that seem to be possessed by the prince of darkness. But there was a time when it was ordinary to see not just princes but kings and their kingdoms descibed as being in darkness. After all, you are probably familiar with the phrase deepest, darkest Africa. Do you suppose that the speakers really thought the sun doesn’t shine there? Or simply that these poor souls were as yet unacquainted with the shining sun of civilization and enlightenment? Oh, how soon shall the white reign be nigh? My, oh, my.
Do you think that this was just a view held by the nastier sorts of colonialists? Not something you would hear from a free-thinking poet? Try on this passage from Walt Whitman’s universal embrace of the dignity of all peoples, “Salut au monde,” from Leaves of Grass:
You Hottentot with clicking palate! You woolly-hair’d hordes!
You own’d persons, dropping sweat-drops or blood-drops!
You human forms with the fathomless ever-impressive countenances of brutes!
I dare not refuse you—the scope of the world, and of time and space, are upon me.
You poor koboo whom the meanest of the rest look down upon, for all your glimmering language and spirituality!
You low expiring aborigines of the hills of Utah, Oregon, California!
You dwarf’d Kamtschatkan, Greenlander, Lapp!
You Austral negro, naked, red, sooty, with protrusive lip, grovelling, seeking your food!
You Caffre, Berber, Soudanese!
You haggard, uncouth, untutor’d, Bedowee!
You plague-swarms in Madras, Nankin, Kaubul, Cairo!
You bather bathing in the Ganges!
You benighted roamer of Amazonia! you Patagonian! you Fejee-man!
You peon of Mexico! you slave of Carolina, Texas, Tennessee!
I do not prefer others so very much before you either;
I do not say one word against you, away back there, where you stand;
(You will come forward in due time to my side.)
My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth;
I have look’d for equals and lovers, and found them ready for me in all lands;
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.
This poem is about Whitman’s ideal of human brotherhood, of democratic equality. And yet he might as well be saying, “We’re all alike, even the little, insignificant, stupid people.”
The word benighted is not, of course, intrinsically racist; it can certainly be used in non-racist ways. Anyone, including oneself, can be described as wallowing in intellectual or moral night. (I’ll stick to using night in its usual negative figurative way, even though I actually quite like night – because I live in a big city, and that’s when a lot of the most fun things happen. I must concede that, growing up in a large house at the foot of a mountain surrounded by trees and wild things, I was rather less fond of the night.) Consider this line from Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady: “‘Do you know you are the first lord I have ever seen?’ she said, very promptly, to her neighbour. ‘I suppose you think I am awfully benighted.’” Or this line from David Copperfield by Dickens: “The poor, benighted innocent had never seen such a man. He was made of sweetness.”
For that matter, it has an original literal sense too. You will see it in, for instance, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: “How far might I have been on my way by this time! I am made to tread those steps thrice over, which I needed not to have trod but once; yea now also I am like to be benighted, for the day is almost spent.” It was used in this sense into the 19th century: “overtaken by darkness where no bed is nigh” – a real concern in previous times, when one might be forced to ride a road after dark or to bed down in a field. These days we just wait for a Motel 8 to show up in our headlights…
But in the literal sense, the original condition is daylight, and the darkness – temporary, even if threatening – overtakes, whereas in the figurative sense the people have not yet been in light; they are still in a primordial darkness, awaiting the delivery of lux by fiat from those who will bring it to them. That’s in spite of the be prefix, which, when attaching to a noun to make a verb, signifies addition, entering into, or overtaking by: bespeckle, beguile, bewitch…
Benighted, in spite of its general negativity, does have a certain loveliness; although the gh is silent, it always seems to me to insert a breathy sigh in the sight of the word. The whole word suggests the shape of a bed with a foot and a head the b and d; the sheets are rumpled and hanging loose in the middle, ight. But the word also has much potential for other words to find in its letters: bed, bend, bight, end, thin, thing, hinged bet, the big end…
The big end: is it bright, or is it dark? Does darkness overtake us, or do we emerge from it? Or, in thinking we bring the light, do we ourselves bring darkness? In wanting to be knights in shining armour, are we not benign but benighted and benighting?