Artists and authors alike turn to the lighthouse as a meaningful symbol. Photo: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
Show Hide image

Sinister structures or homely beacons: why lighthouses stand firm as a cultural symbol

Though they are rarely operational these days, lighthouses remain culturally powerful and maintain a strong hold on the imagination. 

In Tomm Moore’s marvellous Oscar-nominated cartoon Song of the Sea – currently on cinema release – a widower raises his young family on the west coast of Ireland after his wife dies in childbirth. At the centre of the story is Ben and his strained relationship with his younger sister Saoirse, who is still mute years past her infancy.

The family live an isolated life on an island, which the children’s grandmother calls “awful” and their home is a lighthouse, father Ben being the keeper. For a film that is about mythical Celtic sea creatures called selkies and the sea’s enveloping embrace, the choice of location is a fairly obvious one.

Lighthouses by necessity tower over the waves, yet they are not quite of the land either – most tend to be located either on rocks or promontories, far from any neighbouring buildings. They are outcrops of dry land built to take everything the elements can throw at them.

Song of the Sea (2014)

They also appear to be favourite locations for children’s films and books – before Song of the Sea, the British version of the Eighties Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock was set in a lighthouse presided over by Fulton Mackay and his dog Sprocket (as opposed to the North American version set in a rag-and-bone shop).

Another show of the same era was The Adventures of Portland Bill, which also used a lighthouse as setting and its characters were all named after various maritime locations of the UK and Ireland. The largely forgotten 1977 Disney film Pete’s Dragon also had a lighthouse backdrop, as did one of Tove Jansson’s later Moomin novels, Moominpapa at Sea

What is it that children like about lighthouses then? Or rather, what makers of children’s film and TV believe kids to like about them? Their novelty is undoubtedly one attraction – lighthouses are by default monumental, all the more so for the fact they usually stand out starkly against a bare coastal landscape. Many of them are striped for greater visibility and they are, or at least were until quite recently functional.

It’s not hard to imagine children getting a kick out of the notion of living in a lighthouse, close to the sea, its inhabitants fulfilling a vital task and, most importantly of all, there aren’t enough lighthouses for every girl and boy, so it unlikely that your friends would be able to live in one too.

Where an adult might find the interiors of lighthouses claustrophobic and restrictive, younger people probably see them as cosier and homely. This is certainly the impression given by Song of the Sea, with its characters depicted snugly ensconced amid the spandrels and alcoves.

But children tend not to focus too much on the impracticalities of their wishes – the geopolitical implications of being a princess don’t loom too prominently in the minds of little girls – and there are few parents willing to oblige their offspring by buying a lighthouse to move into. 

Still, there are some grown-ups who fancy the life in a lighthouse. After decades of automation which vacated lighthouses of their operating residents, decommissioned towers are now being snapped up by enthusiasts for conversion into homes.

Some might be attracted by the sea, others by the lack of neighbours within any appreciable distance, there are more still who might simply be youngsters at heart. It has to be said though that there is a divergence in the attitudes towards lighthouses among children and adults – at least, that is, if their respective cultural portrayals are anything to go by.

It is not for nothing that the formative incident in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (the most famous one in literature, surely) is a child’s wish to go and visit a lighthouse while on holiday on Skye, a wish that is stymied by the overly cautious concern of his father. Resolution is only reached a decade later, after the family, the Ramseys, have experienced death and war and they finally pay the visit to the lighthouse. There is aesthetic reconciliation too, with Lily Briscoe completing her long-planned lighthouse painting (the structures are a perennial favourite of amateur painters, and quite a few professionals too).

Though the robust majesty of lighthouses features in many a seascape, from Neoclassicism through Romanticism to Impressionism, in the 19th-century lighthouses began to take on a more ambiguous cast in narrative fiction.

It all started with Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished short story, popularly known as The Light-House, which has intrigued literary scholars and writers alike, with its tantalising intimation of what might have been. The nobleman narrating the tale speaks of his increasing discomfort at the Nordic lighthouse he has just taken up residence in, noting at the end of the fragment that the structure appears to be “like chalk”.

Lighthouses tend to be far sturdier than that (it took an earthquake to destroy the great one at Pharos, and a Roman lighthouse at La Coruña, built in the 2nd century AD, is still standing and operational) but there is a clear echo of Roderick Usher and his crumbling abode in this fragment.

Ever since then writers and filmmakers have made much of the capacity for lighthouses to unsettle. Jules Verne’s posthumous novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World has a lighthouse, based on a real one on the Argentine island of Isla de los Estados near Tierra del Fuego, besieged by pirates. 

The Fog (1980)

The isolation of lighthouses is taken to its extreme here and later artists have played with the disorientation endowed by a building that exists to illuminate in the least favourable of weather conditions.

In John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), the residents of a California port are revisited by the ghosts of stricken mariners and the film deprives the lighthouse (where heroine Stevie Wayne broadcasts her radio show) of its sureness and safety. It is instead host to the frightening mysterious messages from the vengeful dead sailors and becomes engulfed in the titular fog and the terror it brings. The proto-slasher movie Tower of Evil (1973) and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) make lighthouses similarly sinister locales.

Their architecture makes them paradoxically insecure for the purposes of a film – safe and strong from the outside but once you’re in, you have very little room to wriggle, hemmed in by winding staircases and cramped alcoves. You don’t really want to get stuck in a lighthouse with a malignant force.

Tower of Evil (1973)

This ambiguous nature of lighthouses was foreshadowed by JMW Turner in his painting, The Beacon Light, which unlike most other paintings of lighthouses, reduces the structure to its light alone. Though the painting is a vigorous paean to the steadfastness of the beacon in the midst of a turbulent storm, there is also something unnerving about it. The lighthouse is scarcely visible – only the line of the clifftop and the beaming light give a clue to its whereabouts – and the tableau is a thrilling yet disquieting portrayal of the loneliness of a lighthouse battered by a tempest.

The word “beacon” naturally has overwhelmingly positive connotations, and the sight of one would have been welcomed by many a desperate sailor in distress, but the lighthouse is nonetheless a lonely, sometimes dark, place.

But handsome too and incredibly photogenic. And it is not as if lighthouses are inexorably overrun with sinister connotations, despite the efforts of artists of a gothic bent. Lighthouses are indeed skeumorphically versatile – they never fail to look recognisably like a lighthouse and they are adaptable in a near infinite proliferation of logos and used to sell everything from financial consulting to churches to beer.

The parabolic arcs the beacons describe across the dark night have a geometrical precision that is brilliantly conveyed by Song of the Sea’s animation, with its palette of two-dimensional planes and high-contrast solids (and also by the idents for Rob Reiner’s production company Castle Rock Entertainment).

Lighthouses are structures like few others and, even as technology has meant they are not quite so vital as they were in the past, there is still something about the sight of one that inspires both awe and admiration.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496