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

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

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

Just when you begin rueing that nothing original could possibly remain to be written about the cosmic spectacle of a total solar eclipse — after astronomer Maria Mitchell’s pioneering essay detailing the science and enchantment of the 1869 eclipse, after Virginia Woolf’s arresting 1927 account of total darkness in the celestial lighthouse, after Annie Dillard’s 1979 classic of totalityHelen Macdonald comes along to remind you that the intersection of nature’s sublimity and the singular splendor of each human consciousness is vast and inexhaustibly vibrant.

In the thirteenth of the forty-one altogether tremendous essays in her collection Vesper Flights (public library), simply titled “Eclipse,” Macdonald recounts with abashed amusement her youthful notion that the ideal mode for beholding totality must be romantic solitude — a notion absurd to anyone who has actually savored the amplified sublimity amid a choir of gasping human consciousnesses. (Nor is it even a properly romantic notion — even Byron, the (mostly self-appointed) monarch of the Romantics, envisioned in his staggering poem “Darkness” how when “the bright sun was extinguish’d,” humanity sought not isolation but community as “men were gather’d round their blazing homes / to look once more into each other’s face.”) Macdonald’s own first experience of a total solar eclipse in 1999 — the same eclipse, though partial, in which I too dissolved as a child in Bulgaria — was instead a revelation of just how much “a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality”; how it effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

With her uncommon gift for dilating the pinhole of a specific and subjective experience into a wide lens on a universal human tendency, Macdonald writes:

It’s reassuring 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 give them in your imagination; none can challenge who you are. So often we see solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature.

But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own. There’s another way of escaping social conflict, of course, and that is to make yourself part of a crowd that sees the world the same way that you do, values the same things as you.

With an eye to the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017 — a collective experience qualitatively different from the nationalism-tinted mass pilgrimages to see monuments of territorial pride like the Grand Canyon or spectacles of national triumph like the Apollo launches — Macdonald adds:

The millions of tourists who flocked to the total eclipse of 2017 didn’t see something time had fashioned from American rock and earth, nor something wrought of American ingenuity, but a passing shadow cast across the nation from celestial bodies above. Even so, it’s fitting that this total eclipse was dubbed The Great American Eclipse, for the event chimed with the country’s contemporary struggles between matters of reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference. Of all crowds the most troubling are those whose cohesion is built from fear of and outrage against otherness and difference; they’re entities defining themselves by virtue only of what they are against. The simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way, for confronting something like the absolute, all our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn there can be no them, only us.

“Tendering Totality” (2017) by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

That selfsame recognition radiates from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot monologue — that iconic, almost unbearably tender meditation on how the cosmic perspective vanquishes our artificial lines of otherness, which inspired Maya Angelou’s stunning poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.” This is the recognition at which Macdonald arrived in an embodied way, far beyond the cerebral awareness, during her own first encounter with totality:

I was nervous of the people around me and still clinging to that sophomoric intuition that a revelation would only come if none of them were there. Depressingly, the sky was thick with clouds, and as the hours passed it became obvious that none of us would see anything other than darkness when totality came. But when the light dimmed, the atmosphere grew electric, and the crowd became a thing of overwhelming importance, a palpable presence in my mind. I felt a fleeting, urgent concern for the safety of everyone around me as the world rolled, and the moon too, and night slammed down on us. Though I could hardly see a hand held in front of my face, far out across the sea hung clouds tinted the eerie sunset shade of faded photographs of 1950s atomic tests, and beyond them clear blue day.

And then the revelation came. It wasn’t what I’d expected. It wasn’t focused up there in the sky, but down here with us all, as the crowds that lined the Atlantic shore raised cameras to commemorate totality, and as they flashed, a wave of particulate 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. Each fugitive point of light was a different person. I laughed out loud. I’d wanted a solitary revelation but had been given something else instead: an overwhelming sense of community, and of what it is made — a host of individual lights shining briefly against oncoming darkness.

A generation earlier, as Apollo 8 was launching into space to take the epoch-making Earthrise photograph that would soon awaken our species to its ecological responsibility, 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 space exploration bind a fractured humanity back together by breaking our trance of separateness. This trance plays out in myriad ways and on myriad scales across our individual and collective existence. The habitual narrowing of perspective from which it arises is not a defect but a defining feature of our consciousness — the human animal’s central coping mechanism for parsing the incomprehensibly vast world beyond the boundaries of our individual experience. (We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.). This narrowing extends most perhaps most perniciously to our perspective on and perception of time, which is our perception of change. Drawing on another eclipse she witnessed with friends on the Turkish coast, Macdonald writes:

It takes a long while between first and second contact — that is, when the sun is completely covered by the moon; it’s a long, steady diminution in the amount of light reaching the world. For a long while my brain tricks me. It has a vested interest in reassurance: Nothing is wrong, it says. It tells me I must be wearing reactive sunglasses, which is why I’m seeing the world changing through tinted glass. Why everything, the luggage-strap leaves of dune grass under my toes, the broken walls, bay trees, the sea in front, the mountains behind, everything’s still darkly fine. Then I remember I’m not wearing sunglasses, which hits me with the bad-dream force of an arm brought down hard across a piano keyboard, the psychological equivalent of that discordant crash as I have a fraught little struggle with my brain. Then I shiver. Surely it was absurdly hot here an hour ago? There’s a horrible old chestnut about boiling a frog to death. Put a frog in a pan of cold water and put it on the stove, and apparently the blithe amphibian will fail to notice the incremental rise in temperature until it’s dead. There’s something of that story’s creeping dread in what is now going on. I feel a strong need to warn people, to somehow jump out of the pan. Everything is changing, but our brains aren’t equipped to notice things on this scale.

As I read Macdonald’s essay, I am struck by something else — something both entirely unrelated and entirely relevant. (That, of course, is what an excellent essay is supposed to do — explode your comprehension with a fractal burst of quickenings fanning out to myriad elsewheres.) We have been regarding the environmental collapse around us — a drama not cosmic but human-made, not sublime but catastrophic — with the same insentience to incremental change, lulled by the brain’s same incapacity for noticing large-scale events, by the same nothing is wrong self-protective delusion. We are the amphibian in the seething cauldron. But we are also larger and more luminous, better capable of transcending the limitations of our minds by the force of our spirit — that, at least, is my hope.

“Casting Crescents” (2017) by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask, with proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Awakened from the trance, Macdonald begins noticing the otherworldly strangeness that totality brings:

On the ground, right by our feet, even stranger things are happening. Where I expect to see sun-dappled shadow cast on the sand through branches — as confidently as I expect any other unacknowledged constant of the world — I am confounded: amid the shade are a perfect host of tiny crescents, hundreds of them, all moving against the sand as a wind that has come out of nowhere pushes at branches.

Out of that noticing — that sudden wakefulness to the absolute strangeness of it all, the soul’s sudden cry of Everything is wrong over the brain’s lulling deception — arises a profound, humbling awareness of one’s own existence as both inseparable from and inconsequential to a larger cosmic inter-belonging with all other existences:

The backs of the swallows tracing their sinuous hunting flights over the ruins are no longer iridescent blue in the sun, but a deep indigo. They’re calling in alarm. A sparrowhawk is flying over, slipping down the sky, losing height, stymied in its search for thermals to soar upon. They’re all disappearing in the rapidly cooling air. The hawk shrugs its way north-west, falling all the while. I check the sun, 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, up to the right. And then, with a chorus of cheers and whistles and applause, I stare 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 you’ve ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples across the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Goodbye, intellectual apprehension. Hello, something else entirely. Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect cannot grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars, just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is barely contained terror. I’m tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, intensely private experience. But there are no human words fit to express all this. Opposites? Yes! Let’s conjure big binary oppositions and grand narratives, break everything and mend it at the 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 precious and disposable, makes the inclinations of the world incomprehensible.


And then something else happens, a thing that still makes my heart rise in my chest and eyes blur, even in recollection. For it turns out there’s something even more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out of it. Here I am, sitting on the beach in the underworld, with all of the standing dead. It is cold, and a loose wind blows through the darkness. But then, from the lower edge of the blank, black disc of the dead sun, bursts a perfect point of brilliance. It leaps and burns. It’s unthinkably fierce, unbearably bright, something (I blush to say it, but here it comes) like a word. And thus begins the world again. Instantly. Joy, relief, gratitude; an avalanche of emotion. Is all made to rights, now? Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a moment ago, a spectacled bulbul calls a greeting to the new dawn.

Complement this slender fragment of the transcendent totality that is Vesper Flights with Coleridge on the dissolution of the self in a terrifying storm and Mabel Loomis Todd’s poetic 19th-century primer on the science of eclipses, with help from Emily Dickinson, then revisit Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir of what a hawk taught her about love, loss, control, and surrender.