The Sun, the Shadow, and the Unselved Self: Helen Macdonald on Eclipses as an Antidote to Ideologies of Otherness and a Portal to Human Connection

Simply when you begin rueing that nothing original might potentially stay to be composed about the cosmic phenomenon of a total solar eclipse– after astronomer Maria Mitchells pioneering essay detailing the science and enchantment of the 1869 eclipse, after Virginia Woolfs jailing 1927 account of total darkness in the celestial lighthouse, after Annie Dillards 1979 classic of totality– Helen Macdonald comes along to remind you that the crossway of natures sublimity and the singular splendor of each human awareness is inexhaustibly vibrant and vast.

In the thirteenth of the forty-one altogether tremendous essays in her collection Vesper Flights (town library), simply titled “Eclipse,” Macdonald states with abashed amusement her younger notion that the ideal mode for witnessing totality needs to be romantic solitude– an idea ridiculous to anyone who has in fact savored the magnified sublimity amid a choir of gasping human consciousnesses. (Nor is it even a correctly romantic concept– even Byron, the (primarily self-appointed) queen of the Romantics, envisioned in his incredible poem “Darkness” how when “the bright sun was snuff out d,” humankind sought not isolation but community as “men were gather d round their blazing houses/ to look once again into each others face.”) Macdonalds own first experience of an overall solar eclipse in 1999– the very same eclipse, though partial, in which I too liquified as a child in Bulgaria– was rather a discovery of simply how much “an overall eclipse damaged your sense of self, on logical uniqueness”; how it effects, to obtain Iris Murdochs charming expression, “an event for unselfing.”

Overall eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelots groundbreaking huge drawings. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with earnings benefiting the undertaking to develop New York Citys first public observatory.) With her unusual gift for dilating the pinhole of a specific and subjective experience into a broad lens on a universal human tendency, Macdonald writes:

Its assuring to view the world on your own. You can gaze at a landscape and see it peopled by things– trees, clouds, hills and valleys– which have no voice except the ones you provide in your creativity; none can challenge who you are. So typically we see singular reflection as merely the right method to engage with nature.
However it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other analyses, other awareness taking on your own. Theres another way of getting away social conflict, of course, which is to make yourself part of a crowd that sees the world the very same way that you do, values the same things as you.

With an eye to the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017– a cumulative experience qualitatively various from the nationalism-tinted mass trips to see monoliths of territorial pride like the Grand Canyon or eyeglasses of nationwide triumph like the Apollo launches– Macdonald includes:

The countless tourists who flocked to the total eclipse of 2017 didnt see something time had fashioned from American rock and earth, nor something wrought of American resourcefulness, however a passing shadow cast throughout the country from celestial bodies above. Nevertheless, its fitting that this total eclipse was dubbed The Great American Eclipse, for the occasion chimed with the countrys contemporary battles in between matters of reason and unreason, uniqueness and crowd consciousness, belonging and distinction. Of all crowds the most troubling are those whose cohesion is developed from fear of and outrage against otherness and difference; theyre entities defining themselves by virtue just of what they are against. The simple truth about an eclipse crowd is that it can not operate in by doing this, for challenging something like the absolute, all our distinctions are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it born-again there can be no them, only us.

” Tendering Totality” (2017) by Maria Popova. This is the recognition at which Macdonald arrived in an embodied method, far beyond the cerebral awareness, during her own very first encounter with totality:

I fidgeted of individuals around me and still holding on to that sophomoric intuition that a discovery would only come if none of them existed. Depressingly, the sky was thick with clouds, and as the hours passed it became apparent that none of us would see anything other than darkness when totality came. When the light dimmed, the atmosphere grew electric, and the crowd ended up being a thing of overwhelming value, a palpable presence in my mind. I felt a short lived, urgent concern for the security of everyone around me as the world rolled, and the moon too, and night knocked down on us. I might hardly see a hand held in front of my face, far out throughout the sea hung clouds tinted the spooky sunset shade of faded pictures of 1950s atomic tests, and beyond them clear blue day.
And then the discovery came. It wasnt focused up there in the sky, however down here with us all, as the crowds that lined the Atlantic shore raised cams to commemorate totality, and as they flashed, a wave of particle light crashed along the dark beach and flooded across to the other side of the bay, making the whole coast a glittering field of stars. I d had but wanted a singular discovery been offered something else instead: a frustrating sense of community, and of what it is made– a host of specific lights shining briefly versus approaching darkness.

A generation earlier, as Apollo 8 was introducing into space to take the epoch-making Earthrise photo that would soon awaken our types to its eco-friendly duty, the Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi captured this singular gravitational pull of community around a shared cosmic enchantment as he contemplated how science and area expedition bind a fractured humanity back together by breaking our hypnotic trance of separateness. This hypnotic trance plays out in myriad methods and on myriad scales throughout our specific and collective presence. The regular constricting of point of view from which it emerges is not a defect but a defining feature of our awareness– the human animals main coping system for parsing the incomprehensibly vast world beyond the boundaries of our individual experience. (We spend our lives trying to determine where we end and the rest of the world begins.). This narrowing extends most possibly most perniciously to our perspective on and perception of time, which is our understanding of change. Making use of another eclipse she experienced with good friends on the Turkish coast, Macdonald writes:

As I check out Macdonalds essay, I am struck by something else– something both entirely unassociated and totally relevant. We have been concerning the ecological collapse around us– a drama human-made however not cosmic, not superb but catastrophic– with the exact same insentience to incremental change, lulled by the brains exact same inability for seeing large-scale occasions, by the very same nothing is wrong self-protective delusion.

It takes a long while in between second and very first contact– that is, when the sun is totally covered by the moon; its a long, stable diminution in the amount of light reaching the world. It informs me I should be wearing reactive sunglasses, which is why Im seeing the world changing through tinted glass. Theres something of that storys creeping dread in what is now going on.

” Casting Crescents” (2017) by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with profits benefiting the endeavor to construct New York Citys very first public observatory.) Awakened from the trance, Macdonald begins seeing the transcendent strangeness that totality brings:

On the ground, right by our feet, even stranger things are occurring. Where I anticipate to see sun-dappled shadow cast on the sand through branches– as with confidence as I anticipate any other unacknowledged constant of the world– I am puzzled: amidst the shade are a perfect host of small crescents, hundreds of them, all moving against the sand as a wind that has come out of no place pushes at branches.

Out of that noticing– that sudden wakefulness to the outright strangeness of everything, the souls sudden cry of Everything is wrong over the brains lulling deception– occurs an extensive, humbling awareness of ones own presence as both inseparable from and irrelevant to a bigger cosmic inter-belonging with all other presences:

The millions of travelers who gathered to the total eclipse of 2017 didnt see something time had actually fashioned from American rock and earth, nor something wrought of American resourcefulness, but a passing shadow cast across the country from celestial bodies above. Even so, its fitting that this total eclipse was dubbed The Great American Eclipse, for the occasion chimed with the nations modern battles in between matters of factor and unreason, crowd and individuality awareness, belonging and distinction. A total eclipse makes history absurd, makes you feel both precious and disposable, makes the dispositions of the world incomprehensible.

The backs of the swallows tracing their sinuous searching flights over the ruins are no longer iridescent blue in the sun, but a deep indigo. Theyre hiring alarm. A sparrowhawk is flying over, slipping down the sky, losing height, stymied in its look for thermals to soar upon. Theyre all vanishing in the rapidly cooling air. The hawk shrugs its way north-west, falling all the while. I check the sun, once again, through my eclipse glasses. All that is left of it now is a bare, fingernail curve of light. The landscape is insistently alien: short, midday shadows in a saturated world. The land is orange. The sea is purple. Venus has appeared in the sky, quite high, as much as the right. And after that, with a chorus of whistles and cheers and applause, I look at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does too, and impossibly, impossibly, above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, darker than anything youve ever seen, fringed with an extremely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples throughout the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Farewell, intellectual apprehension. Hey there, something else totally. Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical action ends up being extremely evident. Your intellect can not understand any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars, just that remarkable wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The excitement is hardly contained fear. Im big and small all at when, as lonely and particular as Ive ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, extremely private experience. There are no human words fit to express all this. Opposites? Yes! Lets conjure big grand narratives and binary oppositions, break everything and heal it at the exact same moment. Sun and moon. Darkness and light. Sea and land, breath and no breath, life, death. A total eclipse makes history laughable, makes you feel both non reusable and precious, makes the dispositions of the world incomprehensible.
[…] And after that something else occurs, a thing that still makes my heart rise in my chest and eyes blur, even in recollection. For it turns out theres something even more impacting than viewing the sun disappear into a hole. Enjoying the sun climb out of it. Here I am, resting on the beach in the underworld, with all of the standing dead. It is cold, and a loose wind blows through the darkness. Then, from the lower edge of the blank, black disc of the dead sun, bursts a best point of sparkle. It burns and jumps. Its unthinkably strong, unbearably brilliant, something (I blush to say it, however here it comes) like a word. And hence begins the world once again. Instantly. Delight, relief, gratitude; an avalanche of feeling. Is all made to rights, now? Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a minute back, a spectacled bulbul calls a welcoming to the brand-new dawn.

Enhance this slim piece of the transcendent totality that is Vesper Flights with Coleridge on the dissolution of the self in a frightening storm and Mabel Loomis Todds poetic 19th-century guide on the science of eclipses, with aid from Emily Dickinson, then review Macdonalds extraordinary memoir of what a hawk taught her about love, control, loss, and surrender.

In the thirteenth of the forty-one altogether incredible essays in her collection Vesper Flights (public library), merely entitled “Eclipse,” Macdonald recounts with abashed amusement her younger notion that the ideal mode for seeing totality must be romantic solitude– a concept ridiculous to anyone who has actually enjoyed the magnified sublimity amid a choir of gasping human awareness. Macdonalds own first experience of an overall solar eclipse in 1999– the same eclipse, though partial, in which I too dissolved as a child in Bulgaria– was instead a discovery of simply how much “a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational uniqueness”; how it impacts, to obtain Iris Murdochs charming phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”