PHILADELPHIA -- The conventional myths of technological progress tell us that we are ever more modern than our predecessors; after all, we abandoned eight-track tape players and typewriters. So how do we explain candles?
A 1924 home design manual already noted their obsolescence: "Modern requirements have made it necessary to eliminate to a great extent anything that causes extra labor that may be saved. It is for this reason that while lighted candles are the most decorative of dining-table illuminants they must be dispensed with in the home."
Why are open flames maintained in our homes despite cleaner, cheaper and more efficient devices that provide better light with greater comfort and control?
The success of historic preservation and other kinds of conservation draw much of their energy from despair about the consequences of industrialization: the increased pace of life, its homogenization and its banality. From that perspective, we might ask whether such simple acts really could provide a form of resistance to industrialized life?
Does the lighting of a candle have sufficient power to counter such forces, to transform everyday life, or is it a hollow token of nostalgia and status?
Recent research on household technology has shown the unintended social consequences of even the simplest household improvement. The progressive refinement of household tools and devices are generally explained according to the pursuit of comfort and the release from drudgery. Devices like the automatic heater, the electric range and the electric light promised to replace the work of people with the work of machines.
Paradoxically, these achievements often produce more work for moms, who no longer wring clothes out by hand but must ferry the children from one location to another, operate countless pieces of household equipment and probably work at an outside job.
This leads to the most troubling question about the modern technological household: What do people do with the time that has been made free? For the most part, they watch television, and we must wonder how the candle at the table operates in that context?
To understand whether candles and open fires can only offer nostalgic recollections or might provide some greater form of resistance, we must ask about the nature of modern leisure.
It is not merely a question of time spent not working or merely resting for more work, but of a time not defined by work or by the clock. That kind of transformation is most often accorded to art and to aesthetics, an effect of the candle described by the authors of "Tomorrow's House" in 1945:
"Light for the table is not merely illumination: let us remember that the one place in the modern home where the candle still has any functional justification is on the dinner table, where the flickering light and warm color do an excellent job of glamorizing the food, the tableware and the diners."
Glamorization may seem like a weak form of resistance to the stresses of the digital life.
A related, and in some ways more common, criteria of the American aspirations for leisure would be health. We are a nation obsessed with tallying the unhealthy consequences of coffee, cholesterol and smoking. Products are marketed with almost any promise of healthful consequences, and those promises offer something very like the expectations for candles.
While health is a central concern of doctors, and now a regulated product of the HMO, our experience of healthiness belongs to a much broader set of social and cultural conditions.
As Ivan Illich, author of "Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health," observed, healthy can be used as an adjective to describe any number of activities, and our underlying aspiration for the lighting of candles at the table might best be described in those terms. In the generic sense, health is an index of comfort, happiness, or relief from suffering and, like aesthetics or leisure, opposes the reduction of the human condition to needs that can be satisfied by work. I have heard two doctors express the same urge, to somehow write prescriptions for their patients that provided a change of life, something more than a vacation.
Can the candle at the table really provide a healthy means of achieving leisure in modern life or a more leisurely approach to health?
Attention to such acts of resistance does not suggest that the dictates of life lived according to the progressive and linear time of the clock can be arrested simply by lighting a candle at the dinner table. But as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed, the gentle, moving flame of the candle offers the one kind of light into which you can gaze, which gives a place for your mind to wander. Neither the electric light nor the television allow for that kind of attention or create that kind of time.
So light the candle.
William Braham is on the architecture faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun