by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 6
June 2020
Weekend read
07:00

Descending into the underworld

by Mary Harrington
A solar eclipse seen in Chile, 2017. Credit: Getty

This week’s long read pick is a classic essay from Pulitzer prize-winning writer Annie Dillard. First written in 1982 and republished here in The Atlantic, it describes her experience witnessing a total solar eclipse in Washington State in February 1979.

She frames the oncoming eclipse as a kind of descent into Hades. First, to reach its path, she recounts driving through a tunnel dug through an avalanche of snow by highway services:

It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.
- Annie Dillard, The Atlantic

Once at the hotel, everything seems grotesque, like Dante’s encounters with the dead:

Beside us on an overstuffed chair, absolutely motionless, was a platinum-blonde woman in her forties wearing a black silk dress and a strand of pearls. Her long legs were crossed; she supported her head on her fist.
- Annie Dillard, The Atlantic

The next morning, it is as though these scattered representatives of the end times have become a swarming mass, as people climb the hills to view the coming apocalypse:

It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day. It looked as though we had all crawled out of spaceships and were preparing to assault the valley below. 
- Annie Dillard, The Atlantic

Then the eclipse happens, and Dillard describes an utterly overwhelming sense of everything gone wrong:

The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
- Annie Dillard, The Atlantic

It is as if Dillard and her husband have joined the ranks of the dead:

He smiled as if he saw me; the stringy crinkles around his eyes moved. The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: Yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive. 
- Annie Dillard, The Atlantic

She describes, as the final sliver of sun is eclipsed, a scream that breaks out involuntarily among the witnesses, at the sight of something so overwhelming it ‘obliterated meaning itself’:

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. 
- Annie Dillard, The Atlantic

I’ve no political point to make in recommending this essay. But nor is it exactly a respite from politics. Rather, this is a piece about the primordial abyss that lies deep beneath the push and pull of everyday human quarrels, even the frightening and chaotic sort. It’s about what it feels like to stare into that abyss, and how perhaps, it’s sometimes less an act of cowardice than wisdom to turn our gazes from it again afterwards, and return (if we can) to the human realm again.

Comment


  • June 9, 2020
    Well written, as always Read more

  • June 7, 2020
    I, like you considered Cornwall, but looking at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) plot I noticed that besides Cornwall, the eclipse also crossed the Black Forest, so headed off to the Fatherland with tribe. At the moment of maximum darkness, a group of intoxicated German hippies camped in the... Read more

  • June 7, 2020
    Thank you for that. It sounds like there may have been some ‘substance abuse’. LSD perhaps? Read more

To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, join UnHerd.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up