Descending into the underworld
This week's long read pick is a classic essay from writer Annie Dillard
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:
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Once at the hotel, everything seems grotesque, like Dante’s encounters with the dead:
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:
Then the eclipse happens, and Dillard describes an utterly overwhelming sense of everything gone wrong:
It is as if Dillard and her husband have joined the ranks of the dead:
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’:
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.
Thank you for that. It sounds like there may have been some ‘substance abuse’. LSD perhaps?
Thank you Mary.
Crikey, that’s all a bit deep. We all toodled down to Cornwall for that eclipse in 1999. We stood on a cliff with a bunch of other chavs. The birds stopped singing and all became quite dark for while. Then we probably went to the pub.
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 nearby woods started a wonderful, primeval howl, reminding me back then, of the fate of Quinctilius Varus, but now, the beginning of the film Gladiator.
Conditions were rather wet and cloudy, thus enabling us to watch dying Sun without the need for the RGS goggles!
Well written, as always
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe