The Spectator

In Defense of Incandescence

Congress bans beauty as an environmental hazard.

Let us now praise incandescence—and, while we’re at it, let’s damn fluorescence.

Last year a woman compiling a unique kind of anthology asked me for a contribution. She was getting a number of writers to do essays about one word, their single favorite word.

An intriguing assignment. But months went by, and whenever I thought of it I just couldn’t make up my mind. I couldn’t commit myself to a single word (spare me the psychologizing, please). I missed the deadline.

I felt bad about not delivering on a promise, but I didn’t want to be seen consorting, so to speak, with a word that I didn’t think lived up to the glorious singularity I would be bestowing on it. Now at last I’ve found it. I’ve found my word!


Let us now praise incandescence. Not just the word but the phenomenon, the warm radiance of glowing coals, the soft flare of tungsten filament fire.

Let us praise it because its beauty is suddenly under siege. For certain grimly utilitarian environmentalists, aesthetic beauty is not an especially important environmental value. Beauty’s glass slipper can’t compete with the environmentalists’ tiny carbon footprint. 

Yes, the idiots in Congress, too torpid and ineffectual to pass a health-care bill for children, have busy-bodied themselves in a bumbling way with the way you light up your world. In December, they passed legislation that will, in practice, outlaw incandescent bulbs because they won’t be able to meet the new law’s strict energy-efficiency standards. The result: Between 2012 and 2014, incandescent bulbs will be driven from the market. Replaced by the ugly plasticine Dairy Queen swirl of compact fluorescent lights.

From a purely environmental perspective, this move is shortsighted. CFLs do use less energy, which is good. But they also often contain mercury, one of the most damaging—and lasting—environmental toxins. Not a ton of mercury, but still: A whole new CFL recycling structure will be required to prevent us from releasing deadly neurotoxins into the water table. CFLs: coming soon to sushi near you.

Failing to properly recycle your CFLs won’t be the same as putting an Evian bottle in the wrong slot. It’ll be genuinely hazardous, particularly dangerous to children. Way to go, congressional dimbulbs! 

And God forbid you break a bulb. If you do, you are advised by some experts to evacuate the room for 15 minutes to escape the release of mercury vapor, then scrub the area as though there’d been a plutonium spill, virtually wearing a hazmat suit as you dispose of the glass shards. 

Good luck. But the greater crime of the new bulbs is not environmental but aesthetic. Think of the ugly glare of fluorescence, the light of prisons, sterile cubicle farms, precinct stations, emergency rooms, motor vehicle bureaus, tenement hallways—remember Tom Wolfe’s phrase for the grim, flickering hallway lights in New York tenements: “landlords’ haloes”?—and, of course, morgues. Fluorescents seem specially designed to drain life and beauty from the world. Don’t kid yourself if you hope Hell is lit by fire. More likely fluorescents.

Yes, fluorescents. Buzzing, flickering, able to cause epileptic seizures in the susceptible, in addition to headaches and other neurological symptoms. Let’s smash all the incandescent lights and replace their glowing beauty with the harsh anatomizing light of fluorescence. The flickering tinny corpse light of bureaucracies and penal institutions. 

Not fair!, say the CFL advocates. Our new fluorescent technology is not your father’s fluorescence, it doesn’t drain blood from complexions like a vampire, it doesn’t buzz and flicker the way the old ones did.

I’ve tried the new CFLs, and they are a genuine improvement—they don’t flicker perceptibly, or buzz, or make your skin look green. There is a difference, and I’d be in favor of replacing all current fluorescent bulbs with CFLs. But even CFLs glare and blare—they don’t have that inimitable incandescent glow. So don’t let them take lamplight away. Don’t let them ban beauty.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a plea for Ye Olde Times, for gaslight and quill pens. It’s just a plea not to take for granted the way we illuminate our world. Not all change is improvement. Why do I put such a premium on incandescence? For one thing, I am a bit romantic about it. A lamp fitted with an incandescent bulb and dim translucent shades casts a lovely, painterly glow on human faces, while the light of fluorescents recalls a meat locker.

Why do you think there is such artistry to so many lampshades? They are the lingerie of light.

Admit it, there is romance to incandescence. The flare of a match lighting a cigarette in a film noir, the sparks that fly up from the glowing coals of a fireplace. The auroral glow of sunrise and the amorous blush of sunset. We “carry a torch” for someone, not a flickering tube. (At least one hopes so.)

But the appeal of incandescence is not just a matter of romance. I suspect there are also answers to be found in the physics and linguistics of incandescence.

I’d speculate that it has something to do with the different ways light is created by incandescents and fluorescents. Incandescent light is created by heat, by the way an electric current turns a thin metal filament (usually tungsten) red then white hot in a transparent or translucent globe filled with an inert gas that prevents the filament from burning up, allowing it to give off a steady glow.

(That explains the warmth: The fact that incandescence emanates from heat creates warmth, distinguishes it from the cold creepiness of fluorescence.)

Fluorescent light bulbs, on the other hand, are coated inside with chemical material that lights up as energy reaches the tubes. (It’s a bit more complicated than this, but that’s the general idea.) Fluorescents sometimes appear to flicker because alternating current brings that energy to the bulbs in pulses, rather than steadily. In incandescents, the hot filament stays hot—and therefore bright—despite alternations in current; it can’t cool fast enough to dim or flicker.

The new CFLs pulse faster than their ancestors, so the flickering is less perceptible, but at some level, it’s still there. CFL manufacturers may be right that the new bulbs are an improvement, but there is still something discontinuous, digital, something chillingly one-and-zero about fluorescence, while incandescent lights offer the reassurance of continuity rather than an alternation of being and nothingness. If I remember correctly, the line from genesis was “Let there be light,” not “Let there be flickering.”

Yes, it’s more metaphorical than scientific, but I’d argue that there’s a big difference between light that is essentially switched on and off and light that is a warm continuous glow. There is an argument among philosophers and physicists about the continuity or discontinuity of time, about whether the universe exists continuously or whether the flickering of discrete instants of time simply gives the illusion of continuity, the way the sprocketed discrete frames of a film do. Incandescents give us the illusion, if not the proof, of the continuity of existence.

And then there’s the word incandescence itself. It almost embodies, doesn’t it, the ascent from ignition to illumination. In-can-Des-cence—the flare-up and settling into warmth is captured by the sound. 

Was it an accident that, even in its endorsement of Hillary Clinton, the august New York Times editorial board called Barack Obama “incandescent,” a word that’s somehow appropriate because, to my mind, he ignites something with his words.

But don’t take my word for it. The most poetic defense of the tungsten filament lies in a remarkably imaginative, literally incandescent version of the afterlife found in (surprise!) Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a book that derives its title from the reflected glow of moonlight, specifically a line in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “[T]he moon’s an arrant thief,/ and her pale fire she snatches from the sun.”

Even those who haven’t read Pale Fire—and what’s your excuse? It’s perhaps the greatest English-language novel of the past century, and it’s hilarious—are probably aware that it takes the form of a madman’s commentary on a 999-line poem called “Pale Fire.” But there’s another poem in Pale Fire that’s rarely referred to, one that exists unfairly in the pale shadow of the “Pale Fire.”

It’s a poem about the spirits of the dead inhabiting the tungsten filaments of incandescent bulbs. Seriously! 

According to Charles Kinbote, the madly unreliable narrator of Pale Fire, John Shade, the author of the poem “Pale Fire,” wrote another, shorter poem called “The Nature of Electricity.” It’s an incandescent poetic theory of the afterlife, of the fate of dead souls, and it begins like this: 

“The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide.
And on my bedside table glows
Another man’s departed bride.
And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.
Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

It’s a jest yes, in part, but a gesture too, toward the deathless beauty of incandescent lights and a kind of life—or afterlife—they glow with that no corpse light florescent, however well-disguised, can capture. Because incandescents are about continuity, light after death if not life after death.

Save the incandescent bulb. If only for the sake of the dead souls glowing within.