On eclipses and human terror

Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse was first published in 1982 in the journal, Anteaus. It was reprinted in the same year in a collection of Dillard’s essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, which is where I read it.

One passage of Dillard’s essay in particular caught my attention:

The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. It expands at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken fifteen years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at fifty-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.

crab nebula
The Crab Nebula. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A Loll (ASU)

One of the messages of Dillard’s essay is the disjunction between intellectual knowledge of an event and its phenomenological effect on the perceiver. Knowledge that the sun is occulted by the moon is itself eclipsed by the experience of the event. “If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.” Dillard notes that her reaction could have been like the Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, who “simply died of fright on the spot.” Famous passages from the ancient world attest to a similar epistemological horror at the sight of solar eclipses. From Herodotus (7.37-38), we have the eclipse of 480 BCE which is immediately interpreted by mediterranean earth-dwellers to foreshadow a successful Persian incursion into Greece.

total solar
Total solar eclipse, 11th July 2010. Image credit: Williams College Eclipse Expedition
total lunar
Total lunar eclipse, 15th April 2014. Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center/Brian Day

In Cicero’s hexameter poem, On the Consulship (of which only 78 lines are extant, due to their embedding in his philosophical work, On Divination, 44 BCE), we hear of a lunar eclipse that took place on 3rd May 63 BCE (Div. 1.18, Ewbank p75), as well as a possible reference to a solar eclipse of 18th May 63. Of the 78 lines, these correspond to lines 19-22:

cum claram speciem concreto lumine luna
abdidit et subito stellanti nocte perempta est.
quid vero Phoebi fax, tristis nuntia belli,
quae magnum ad columen flammato ardore volabat,
praecipitis caeli partis obitusque petessens?

“…when the moon hid its clear shape with dulled light
and was suddenly removed from the starry sky.
What means the torch of Phoebus, the herald of bitter war,
which was climbing towards its zenith with blazing heat,
while longing for the western parts of heaven and its setting?” (trans. Wardle)

The “torch of Phoebus” (Phoebi fax) here can be interpreted to refer to a partial solar eclipse, a comet, or a meteor (cf. Wardle p149). Both phenomena form part of a long list of horrific astronomical and cosmological events which are pressed into service as portents of the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BCE. Alongside these terrors are listed the fact that a “citizen” was struck by lightning (lines 23-24), and ghostly shades were seen at night (lines 26-27).

Another of the focuses of Dillard’s essay is the effect of a solar eclipse on an observer; it so subverts the normal experience of human life, is so overwhelming, that it comes to lack significance. Seeing a solar eclipse is like seeing a mushroom cloud on the horizon:

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 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 its significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.

Dillard’s essay on the power of an insensate solar eclipse to instill in an observer a sense of mortal catastrophe circles around several issues that face a modern commentator on the ancient world. For one thing, we find that Dillard is careful to describe her horror at the instant of observation, and simultaneously careful to trace the impact of cosmological events on the human record: e.g. the fact that the explosion of the Crab Nebula was visible on earth in 1054, the fact that an eclipse of 840 terrified a monarch to death. We are invited to meditate upon the notion that human terror is just as iterative as the events which precipitate them, and that, despite our intellectual or technological advancement, the synchronisation of the human record of time with the cosmos, serves as a reminder of our own internal disjunction in the face of rational events which we are still not fully capable of rationalizing.

Further reading: Annie Dillard’s essay, Total Eclipse, can be read online. For Cicero’s On the Consulship, see Ewbank (1933 repr. 1997) The Poems of Cicero, for the Latin and a commentary (no translation). We owe the survival of this 78 line fragment to its embedding in Cicero’s On Divination; see the commentaries of Pease (1955) and Wardle (2006).


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