Spring 2017

Sentences / A Ritual Feat

Eclipsing description

Brian Dillon

“Sentences” is a new column by Brian Dillon each installment of which examines the mechanics and style of a single sentence chosen by the author.

This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.
—Annie Dillard

On February 26, 1979, the shadow of the moon passed over Greenland, parts of Canada, and the states of North Dakota, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Elsewhere in North America, the skies merely dimmed appreciably and portions of varying size—from nail clipping to rocker knife or mezzaluna—were seen (do not look directly!) to be excised from the solar disc. But at the pencil point where the moon’s cone of darkness met the earth’s surface, all went black. It was the last total eclipse to be seen in the United States in the twentieth century, and TV anchormen counted the hours, minutes, and seconds to totality as if awaiting a moonshot or election result. A certain portentousness entered their language: an ABC announcer spoke of the “ritual feat” by which crowds sought the best vantage points, and addressed himself to viewers of the next total eclipse visible in the United States, on August 21, 2017: “May the shadow of the moon fall on a world in peace.”

Annie Dillard published her essay “Total Eclipse” in the Spring/Summer 1982 issue of the literary quarterly Antaeus, and again later that year in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass”—the piece begins with the first of several descents, the first inkling that looking at the spectacle in the sky might also demand a glimpse within, a journey down “into the region of dread.” The writer and her husband, Gary, are in a hotel near Yakima, Washington, and some unease about the very act of seeing is already in the air. Dillard lies in bed and tries not to look at a picture on the hotel-room wall: “It was a print of a detailed and lifelike painting of a smiling clown’s head, made out of vegetables.” In the two years that have passed between the eclipse and the writing of the essay, Dillard has forgotten many things, but not it seems this face, this Arcimboldo manqué, “or its lunatic setting in the old hotel.”

The question is, in “Total Eclipse”: Does Dillard know what she’s looking at? A gulf opens, long before the moment of totality, between seeing and understanding: a void into which the author is pitched and must come up clutching—what? Images that might be real or might be metaphors, pictures composed of odd comparisons, efforts in prose not to end up missing the event, botching its description and placing on the page the written equivalent of a clown face made of vegetables. Attaining the top of a hill from which she’ll view the eclipse, Dillard remarks that the valley below looks “like a thickness or sediment at the bottom of the sky.” The air darkens without warning, like a race with no starter gun. The grass on the hill turns to platinum. The scene starts to resemble a photograph from the nineteenth century. Gary is in the photograph, and he seems to be speeding away, “down a chute of time.” The moon heaves into position—“It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black.” People start to scream.

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