Umbrology – Brian McNely

Author photograph

I stepped off the plane in Helsinki – airport code HEL – and found a restroom. Standing at a urinal, I heard birdsong piped through overhead speakers: odd, soothing, out of place.

The train to downtown Helsinki departs from a giant, cool tunnel many meters below street level. The platform is nearly empty. Massive faux-tapestries hang from curved concrete walls. I feel the quiet. It’s quiet on the train, too, and occasional hushed conversations in Finnish remind me of Russian lilted by an occasional Scandinavian bounciness.

Emerging into daylight at speed, outside Helsinki, I see thick forests chipped away by development. Thin, wispy, white-barked trees with full green canopies are arrows shot into the earth from above, their feathered ends swaying rhythmically into and out of one another. The late afternoon sun is darkened on the ground by thickets of these arrows, yet bare black loam is visible in between each shaft. On a thin ribbon of white asphalt winding between the trees a young woman rides a bike, away from the train, away from the city, away from me, north.

In Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners the protagonist narrator – some version of Espedal himself – is off to Helsinki, too. He writes:

Helsinki: What do you want there?

Nothing. There’s nothing I want in Helsinki. I wanted and needed to get away from Bergen, that’s all. I spent most of my time in Helsinki lying in bed in my hotel room. It’s delightful lying in a hotel room in a city you’ve never visited before. (p. 122)

I wanted something from Helsinki: Baltic light; cold, clear water; strange beer; hot saunas; a naked swim in the Yrjönkatu traditional swimming hall. Mostly I wanted to be alone in a city unknown to me, with my camera and a few euros for beer, toast, cheese.

Helsinki gave me much of what I wanted. I swam in the brisk waters of the Baltic Sea at Allas Sea Pool; I sat naked on a thin disposable towel in a sauna so hot that the lenses of my eyeballs fogged over when an old Russian man poured water on the rocks, over and over, an attempt to force out impurities and weaklings. I went back and forth from sea to sauna in the Finnish way. My first dip was quick – maybe 30 seconds. I warmed my skin in the sauna and returned – 2 minutes, the only person in the sea pool. By the fourth and fifth dips I hung suspended in the Baltic Sea water, 8° Celsius, for 10 minutes or so. In my last trip to the sauna I sat in the middle, on the highest bench, four older men in their 60s speaking Russian to my left, four younger men in their 20s speaking Finnish to my right. No one spoke to me, and the two groups stared past one another. I sat on my little butt towel, sweat pouring from my chest, down my back, off my thighs and calves and hands, fingertips pruney. I stayed until I could feel the heat in my bones.

Hotel Katajanokka is a former prison on the island of Katajanokka in Helsinki’s harbor. Established in 1837, the Helsinki County Prison held inmates until 2002. My room seems to be two former cells joined together, rough-hewn edges smoothed over, finished with lovely stone floors, an outrageous bathroom, and blackout curtains for the high, arched, cell windows cut deep into the stone wall just below the ceiling. The front desk isn’t far from my room, and there I get a liter of Karjala lager on tap and walk back to my cell to watch Belgium beat Brazil in a World Cup quarterfinal match. The sky is faintly but clearly blue at 11:15 PM. Cornflower blue. It’s so quiet. The Karjala settles and I sleep the sleep of the just.

I wake at 8:30, strong, clear light piercing through a crease in the blackout curtains. I look at my phone, check Instagram, pee, and go back to sleep. At 10:30 I hear the sounds of housekeeping on the floor above me, pull myself together, and stumble down to the prison basement to have whatever is left of the complimentary breakfast. I find thin, brown squares of fork-split bread that resemble English muffins. I toast one, then add butter, coarse salt, and slices of a stilton or blue cheese. It might be the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I pour a cup of black coffee and take it with me outside, into the bright strong light of late morning.

The prison wall – double thick brick – still stands and frames the boundaries of the hotel property. I walk the grounds like an inmate with 15 minutes to breathe fresh air, only I carry my coffee in one hand and my iPhone in the other. Along one wall, the shadow of a chapel stands stark and well-defined against the ochre bricks, hovering above a parking space, enveloping the only car parked along the wall.

Has anyone yet written an ontology of shadows?, I wonder, holding up my phone to frame a shot. In Tim Horvath’s Understories, a professor of Umbrology is a philosopher who studies shadows in the history of thought. This alone astonishes me – the articulation of something obvious, something I should have known: the history of thought is fraught with shadows – hidden by them, throwing them in every direction – elongations of possibilities tried and tested, approached and abandoned, thought but never said, said but never meant, ideas loosened that stretch out and contort and hide even as they illuminate. Horvath’s professor sees shadows everywhere, his head slightly tilted, spine askew. Printed words are shadows of material referents. “It is not what the shadow tells us about the figure but about the ground that ultimately matters,” the professor says.

Umbrology – not the study of umbrellas but rather the study of shadows, where the shadow tells us something of the ground as well as the figure. I learn little of the chapel from its shadow as I return with my film camera to make a proper photograph. Its tenebrous eves at odd angles, the spindly cross on its spire shrunken and squat. Within the shadow I see the wall’s mortar, the cool, shady darkness bringing forth the wall’s lighter tones, otherwise washed out in direct sun. I realize that I am part of the shadow’s ground, too, that I’m shadowed by the chapel behind me, caught in its tilted and shrunken forms. This understanding is a comfort: I can easily outpace this shadow, slip away from it. I sip my coffee, and step into the warm summer sun.

I spend the rest of the day walking Helsinki’s quiet streets looking at shadows and light. Perhaps I’m even slightly contorted, like Horvath’s professor of Umbrology, bent, peering, inquisitive on my feet. In the late afternoon and evening – at 60° north latitude, the period from, say, 5:30 PM to 10:30 PM – I’m constantly on the lookout for perfect light, and I constantly find it. The light is magical, warm, penetrating; Helsinki’s Jugendstil buildings bathe in its presence, cotton candy pastels are shades warmer in the Baltic sun and air. I think I might never tire of this light, or become used to it. I stop in a pub for a beer or two, hit the sidewalk a bit lighter, and the Helsinki sun throws its arms around me – it warms and envelops all that I see and feel. It throws long, stark shadows.


“The Discipline of Shadows,” Horvath’s story about the professor of Umbrology, takes its cues from film noir and astrophysics, Dostoevsky and Dante. I try to remember what I can of the plot as I step around corners on quiet streets to find the late light slanted along a broad avenue: a woman in blue culottes walks a dachshund on a thin lead, her shadow stretching out behind her, her shadow-legs billowy and wavy, the dachshund’s shadow a comical, conical shape somehow more comical than the shape of the dachshund itself. I cross the street, away from them, and look up at the building’s facade and crenellations – I’m just a tourist, interested in architecture, nothing to see here – and hold my camera as if to capture building, light, and sky. I pretend to be interested and wait for the woman and her dog to walk into range, strolling into the sunlight. I frame the top of the building once again, then pull my camera down to make an image at a right angle to this pair, this light, their shadows.

I turn and cross a courtyard with playground equipment, weave past swings. The professor is chair of his small department of Umbrology, I recall. He oversees only four other faculty members – one studies shadows in film but also works in the film industry and has Hollywood connections. Another specializes in shadow play, and her students create and stage elaborate exhibitions of shadow puppetry. Another studies shadows in literature. The department’s rockstar is an astrophysicist who has developed a shadow-detection algorithm that can help the Department of Defense and Homeland Security to track suspected terrorists. The narrator is a philosopher.

I turn onto a smaller street, the tops of three- and four-story apartment buildings bathed in Baltic light, the street and stoops shaded. A middle-aged woman walks along the wide sidewalk, carrying two shopping bags and – why not? – a candelabra, holding her arms away from her body, as if walking on a balance beam. She wears red slides, pea-green polyester pants, a bright floral top. Her elbows stamp tiny declivities in fleshy arms, her hair is a short brown mop. She walks away from me, up the street, the vanishing point blue and clear above the buildings. I stop and shoot – a street photography cliché, perhaps. But look closely: in Helsinki’s high summer light the world is luminous, and this happened, just so, and will never happen again. The city is quiet and proud, and from sidewalk to sky this world is full of candy-colored pastels. Walls are covered in creamsicle crust and strawberry gelato stucco! “Look closely,” says the woman. “Really see. Do you feel it, as I do? On summer evenings, I swallow mouthfuls of sweet Baltic air, I grab downspouts with my bare hands and squeeze from them brass candelabras.”

Author photograph


Back at the Hotel Katajanokka I grab a liter of Karjala lager and pull up Horvath’s Understories on my MacBook’s Kindle app. I dig into “The Discipline of Shadows.” The prof who studies film teaches only on Tuesdays; Horvath’s narrator suspects him of slipping “out between the blinds, jetting back to L.A.” for the remainder of the week. Of a former colleague, he says “Last time our eyes met, he ducked between buildings and I caught his shadow as it fluttered for a millisecond at the corner, as if hesitating. He was gone.” And it’s always shadows, plural; shadows are vernacular, shadow is magisterial. There is some controversy among umbrologists over the semantics, and each meaning comes with its own consequences. Technical terms trouble umbrologists as they do professionals in any field. Are shadows substances? Are they quantifiable? If one prefers the magisterial shadow, is it thus divisible? Are shadows transubstantial? Such questions are debated over scotch and vodka and beer in shitty hotel bars where Umbrology conferences are held. Such questions fly through the air like badminton birdies, held aloft just long enough until someone returns them or slips off, tipsy, to a room with two double beds, alone.

Horvath’s narrator teaches He Walked by Night to the students in his intro to Umbrology course, one of the few times when he can sit back and watch class run itself. You can watch this film on YouTube, and I do, for a few minutes, laying in my bed, propped on my left elbow, the liter of Karjala in my right hand, dwindling. “The plot is trivial, boilerplate police procedural, so I (and the students) can focus on the shadow elements,” the philosopher says. “The black-and-white universe of the film itself dictates that shadows are more substantial than nonshadows, the latter appearing ethereal, impalpable.” I understand the logic of the comparison but bristle nonetheless. Both shadows and nonshadows may be ethereal and impalpable, substantial and formidable. It depends on the light.

I close the lid of my MacBook and step out of my cell to refresh my Karjala. The woman working the front desk, with its one tap of Karjala and its tiny cabinet of snack goods, pours me another liter. We chat about the languages that Finns learn – English, mostly, though Russian was once dominant. I have been surprised, I say, that my German hasn’t come in handy. She laughs: “German and French and Italian are electives.” “All languages are electives for Americans,” I say, “which is why we speak only English.” My lame attempt at small talk and self-deprecation/self-aggrandizement (I’m not like most silly Americans) is likely no better after a liter of lager than without. I shuffle back to my cell and spend some more time with the professor of Umbrology.

“What is the shadow you fell for first?” is apparently a topic of conversation at Umbrology conferences. This question is one of self-awareness: how many shadows have already slipped by us and when did we begin to notice the ones that didn’t? Socrates claimed he had nothing to learn from trees, but without the shade provided by a massive tree outside Athens’s city walls the Phaedrus wouldn’t exist as it does. I can’t identify the shadow I fell for, but I’m also no umbrologist. Long, long shadows, though, in the early morning sun or the waning heat of a summer evening, always give me pause. Things stretch out gloriously, ten, twenty, fifty times their length. For a few minutes we can hug the earth along its curves, following the shadow we throw in front of us down a straight street or over a country field.

Did you know, Horvath writes, about “the six-thousand-mile-thick shadow that Saturn’s razor ring casts on the planet’s surface”? It is, again, something we know but likely never acknowledge. Of course a giant band of millions of particles – ice and rock spun together and joined by inertia – casts a shadow on Saturn. A lunar eclipse is nothing but shadow play on the grandest of scales, where all shadows dissolve into the massive shadow cast by the moon passing directly in front of the sun, the vernacular succumbing for a few moments to the magisterial. Until reading “The Discipline of Shadows” I never considered the ubiquity and grandeur of this shadow play. An eclipse was something beyond my comprehension, a vague mixture, in my mind, of astrophysics and biblical doom and magic. I closed my MacBook again and fell asleep, thinking briefly about my astounding ignorance of most of existence.


I woke early, packed my bag, and headed for more blue cheese toast. Though the sky was blue until past 11:00 PM, and though the sun came up at 4 AM or so, I slept better than I’d slept in months. Espedal is right: “It’s delightful lying in a hotel room in a city you’ve never visited before.” After breakfast, I returned to my cell for the final time. I looked up at one of the high arched windows and saw a few cotton-candy clouds lolling in the pale sky. I stood on the edge of the bed and raised my camera, crouching, balancing, wobbling to find a suitable angle. My cell in shadow.

Author photograph

In fever dreams about the four corners of the earth, what matters are not the ends of all that is but the center. From Mesopotamia, four rivers flow away, cut earthen lines that define quadrants, sections, fractional fantasies. These languid lines render not edges but center. Isaiah calls the dispersed of Judah from the earth’s four corners. Gathers, takes in, brings together, binds. On Patmos John sees four angels standing at the earth’s four corners, turned away from the edges toward the center, holding back four winds, stilling the insides, a stagnant hush hangs over the middle. Plato’s cave sits in the center of things, the action there is the center of things.

I ride the train out to the Helsinki airport, stealing glances at pretty Finnish women. Two old Russian women talk incessantly the entire way. A retired British couple on holiday sit near me and talk occasionally – about the train, about Kazakhstan (him: “3,000 years of rich history“) and Pakistan (her: “I thought that was Kazakhstan“), about being nervous for his doctor’s appointment on Wednesday, about the Russian women who talk incessantly (her: “maybe they’re speaking Russian?“) about the sound of spoken Finnish (he mimics the recording of announced stops, several stops in a row).

I stare out the window as the buildings thin and the trees thicken. At an elevated suburban stop I take out my phone and shoot a video of tall thin trees shot like arrows into the earth. They dance and quiver in the wind, and on my phone. The early and late light at 60 degrees north latitude softens all corners. Katajanokka was quiet, quiet, quiet. I walked the streets in a lucid state, illuminated, summer sun warming cream-colored hues and buttery blues. Our train heads underground and I read Arctic Dreams on my Kindle. Barry Lopez writes that “the universe is oddly hinged.“ In a concourse restroom I hear birdsong. When I board my plane the sun is high overhead. From my window seat I look at the tarmac and see deep, dark shadows beneath the wing.


Brian McNely is associate professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. His work has appeared in academic journals and edited collections such as Philosophy & Rhetoric and Inventing Place: Writing Lonestar Rhetorics.

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