The word totally has grown so overused that I was struck, last week, by the power of its near cousin, totality, describing the two or three minutes, along the arc of the much-heralded solar eclipse, when the sun was blanked out except for its flaming (and dangerous to look at) corona. At first I thought the media had invented the term. But no, it has been in the astronomy lexicon for 185 years to indicate “the moment or duration of total obscuration of the sun or moon during an eclipse.”
When the eclipse happened, I was stuck in traffic along the Cross-County Parkway just outside New York City. As my car crawled forward, I saw a few people along a bridge over the highway who seemed to be watching the sky, but the sun was behind me and I couldn’t get out of the car. When the sluggish river of traffic finally reached the horrible accident that had precipitated the slow-down, I wondered briefly if the driver of the totaled car (total as a verb meaning “to damage beyond repair,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, having first been used about a car in 1954) had been trying to eclipse-watch while driving. Then the bottleneck opened up, and I was on my way.
Many pundits remarked on the healing power of last week’s eclipse, pointing out that “the movement of the heavenly bodies remains independent of Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, or any other elected official” and calling the event “a solar love-in.” Harmony was not always congruent with totality. Just about every culture, it seems, has a story about angry gods causing eclipses. A couple of ancient Chinese astrologers may have been executed for failing to predict an eclipse. When England’s King Henry I died just after the eclipse in 1133, the solar event was taken as an evil omen. In various places today, people believe that eclipses can cause miscarriage or food poisoning.
So there’s something to be said for, you know, science. It’s easy to imagine how terrifying that black-out would be if you didn’t know anything about the laws of motion causing it. As Annie Dillard points out in her classic essay, “Total Eclipse,” “You may read that the moon has something to do with eclipses. I have never seen the moon yet. You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day.” Dillard goes on:
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. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. 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. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down. … The white ring and the saturated darkness made the Earth and the sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we had remembered some sort of circular light in the sky — but only the outline. Oh, and then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overlapped the towns. If there had ever been people on Earth, nobody knew it.
I have a strong memory of an eclipse when I was at summer camp in the Ozarks, and we were only allowed to look at the sun through one of those pinhole contraptions. Looking up that event, I find it occurred on July 20, 1963, and totality was far north, in Canada. In Missouri, perhaps 70 percent of the sun was obscured. As Dillard writes, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him,” so I guess that, in terms of eclipses, I remain a virgin. I do know that it constituted one of my first intimations of mortality, as the slow diminution of the sun made me feel my own smallness, my own briefness.
It certainly would not have occurred to me then, as it has not occurred to most people throughout history, to go seeking the eclipse, like the so-called umbraphiles who chase the event around the globe. Much has changed since Carly Simon sang, “Then you flew your Lear Jet up to Nova Scotia/To see the total eclipse of the sun,” as damning evidence in “You’re So Vain.” These days, we thirst for totality rather than hiding from it. I’d like to believe that such collective longing has nothing to do with politics.
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