“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know.”
“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the project of literature. Often, the measure of a writer is the attentiveness with which they observe the subtlest dimensions of existence, those realms of experience imperceptible to the eye. Sometimes, it is the subtlety and nuance with which they capture the human dimensions of the most dramatic observable phenomena, the ones that arrest the eye and overwhelm the ordinary mind into a stunned silence.
A century after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell penned her enchanting and rhetorically ingenious account of the Great Eclipse of the nineteenth century, Annie Dillard — another enchantress of observation, a supremely poetic observer of phenomenology inner and outer — captured the otherworldly experience of a total solar eclipse in a stunning essay originally published in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk, then included in her indispensable recent collection The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New (public library | IndieBound).
Dillard frames the inescapable cosmic drama of this divinely disorienting experience:
What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.
Recounting her own experience of viewing the total solar eclipse of March 26, 1979, she paints the eerie landscape of sight and sense:
The sky’s blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light. Only the thin band of river held a spot of sun.
Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was saturated, deep indigo, up in the air.
With an awed and terrified eye to what Maria Mitchell called “the un-sunlike sun,” Dillard shudders at the incomprehensible strangeness of it all:
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were fine-spun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
Gary was light-years away, gesturing inside a circle of darkness, down the wrong end of the telescope. He smiled as if he saw me; the stringy crinkles around his eyes moved. The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: Yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive. I could not hear him; the wind was too loud. Behind him the sun was going. We had all started down a chute of time.
All of nature, it seemed, partook in the strangeness with the same alarmed awe:
From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began. All at once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.
Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. For the hole where the sun belongs is very small. Just a thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world… Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. The light was wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was over.
In a passage that embodies what biologist and trailblazing environmentalist Rachel Carson called “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves,” Dillard writes:
I saw a circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never once thought of the moon. (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon — if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing — then doubtless I would not have speculated much but, like Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.) It did not look like a dragon, although it looked more like a dragon than the moon. It looked like a lens cover, or the lid of a pot. It materialized out of thin air — black, and flat, and sliding, outlined in flame.
Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself… For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people; no significance. This is all I have to tell you.
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether that buoys the rest, that gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.
Indeed, the most powerful aspect of the experience is the way it unfirms the mind’s grip on meaning, on humanness, on reality itself — an eclipse, after all, is a visceral reminder of the vast cosmic scale of space and time, on which our own existence is but a speck, a blink, an ephemerality drunk on the self-defeating dream of permanence.
The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.
Further: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses — in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computer terminals printing our market prices while the world blows up — still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull. Later, under the tranquilizing influence of fried eggs, the mind can sort through all of these data.
Of course, the very point is that the mind takes in something much greater than the sum total of data in the terror and transcendence of this cosmic spectacle. Even so, Dillard observes with a kind of nihilistic buoyancy, we calibrate to everything — our triumphant resilience to the most sundering tragedies and our tragic habituation to the most joyful stimuli stem from the same root. Joy and sorrow are equally transient. Even transcendence is transient. She writes:
We were born and bored at a stroke… Enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
Every single essay in The Abundance, which was among my 16 favorite books of 2016, packs such a cosmic punch of truth and beauty. Complement it with Dillard on the two ways of seeing, choosing presence over productivity, and reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder, then revisit Maria Mitchell’s timeless tips on how to view a total solar eclipse.
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