Essay / Literature

Annie Dillard on a Total Eclipse

Annie DillardAnnie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse,” from the book Teaching a Stone to Talk, is a bit of a stunt. The February 26, 1979 solar eclipse lasted less than two minutes, and Dillard turns her Pulitzer-prize-winning prose loose on it for about 20 pages. If you’re in it for sheer descriptive power, there’s plenty of it here: from the bad clown painting in the hotel room the night before the eclipse, to the way the color of the grass changes, to the freaky speed of the moonshadow rushing across the face of the earth at the spectators, Dillard can let you know how things look and feel.

But there’s something more than physical description going on in this essay, something that comes from that strange land Annie Dillard’s readers expect her to take them to every ten pages or so. Dillard is a sensitive recording instrument, to say the least: a little thing like a waterbug or a snake can make the needle on her dial jump around and register profound oddness. So imagine taking a sensitive device like that and subjecting it to something as truly uncanny as a total solar eclipse. Her weirdness needle is pegged instantly, and it stays at max.

So you get paragraphs like this, about what goes away when the sun goes away:

Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart screeched. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself. If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell you.

And this, about the bottom of the bottomless pit:

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 which buoys the rest, which 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. This is given. It is not learned.

And this, which is more or less the moral of the story:

We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add –until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.

What is that? Is that metaphysics, mysticism, therapy, or just what exactly? And what does it any of it have to do with watching a solar eclipse? It’s a genre of its own, it defies classification, and I find it pretty addictive. Nobody else writes like that, because almost nobody else sees like that.

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