A Flicker of Insight
By a guttering lamp I go over these pitiful pages
looking for any solecisms or Pontine lapses.
The guards at the gates are supposed to fend off the raids
of the Getic brutes on our outpost. I’m on guard as well,
alert to their subtle incursions, but weary, weary…
It’s not just a conceit: out here I am Rome.
– Ovid, Tristia III
A new Chinese restaurant opened down the street. Where I live, that’s exciting news. So I went. They have these little tea light holders on the tables.
(If you can’t see the image: it’s a tiny pagoda-shaped lamp with an electric light inside.)
The ‘candle’ inside is actually a battery-powered electric bulb inside a tealight-shaped plastic enclosure. The tealight holder itself is metal and glass. Made in China. I turned the holder over to see that it had been purchased at The Christmas Tree Shops. I can’t quite place my finger on what’s strange about a Chinese-made tealight holder being sold at The Christmas Tree Shops to the owner of a Chinese restaurant, but there’s something odd in that.
I tuned the tealight on and saw that it’s manufactured to flicker periodically, even though it’s an electric light. A lot more electric candles are being manufactured to flicker, I suppose to make them look more like wax candles.
In fact, the Lain word ‘candere‘ means “to flicker”. And it makes sense that Roman-era candles would flicker, since the Romans made candles from tallow, rendered animal fat. That’s why Ovid’s lamp ‘gutters’.
Over the centuries, people have burned a variety of waxes and oils for light – spermaceti, a wax from sperm whales; beeswax; soy oil. But most candles these days are made from paraffin, which comes from oil refining and is used not only to make candles, but also Crayola crayons, coating for some cheeses, ski wax and many other things.
Using lower-grades of refined paraffin or using a low-quality wick will yield candles that flicker frequently. But here’s the thing: good quality candles, such as ones that have some (expensive) beeswax mixed in, flicker very little as long as there are no drafts to disturb the flame (such as inside a tealight holder).
In other words, the manufacturers of those electric candles have added a flickering effect to make their lights look more like real wax candles, but by doing so, have only made their lights look like low-quality wax candles.
The music recording industry is doing something similar. Some bands are intentionally adding static and distortion to their recordings to make them sound like they were recorded on lower-quality equipment. It makes me wonder if high-definition TV broadcasters will start adding static and flicker to their signals to make the images look more like broadcast television.
I guess that if people are accustomed to low-quality candles, then an electric candle that does not flicker looks like a cheap knockoff in comparison, especially when electric candles that do flicker are available. I suppose that 10 or 20 years from now, some enterprising manufacturer might make a flickerless electric candle for upscale consumers who want an electric light that looks like a high-quality beeswax candle. Or maybe, someone will make a battery-powered tallow lamp that gutters and, thanks to tiny speakers and an aroma chamber, makes popping sounds and smokes and smells. Maybe a coil of wire could be added to make the light give off heat as well. Nothing less will suffice.