Midnight at noon in America


Midnight at noon in America

After a picnic, a Bonnie Tyler song, hours of looking up and eyes burning, MERCIA S BURGER puts a literary spin on her solar eclipse by reading some of her favourite writers' experiences of the phenomenon.

ON April 8, an 87% partial solar eclipse was visible in Washington, DC. Everyone around here was talking about the Great American Eclipse, even though it was also visible in several other countries.

People gathered in stadiums and on baseball courts, in cemeteries and rooftop restaurants advertising drinks like Obscura Solaras and Bloody Mooneys. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and Nasa took over downtown DC with children's parties, telescopes and ISO 12312-2 certified sunglasses.

We were wary of these crowds and decided to await the eclipse on our back porch, ready with thin, crinkly, sun-filter lenses in cardboard-framed glasses through which you can see pretty much nothing but the sun. Peaceful, away from the hustle and bustle of people, our own quiet moment.

The primordial brain calls

Then a strange thing happened. In my primordial brain, something started to nag, and before I knew it this thing was just too big for the small world of our house and back porch. In Vesper Flights (2021), Helen Macdonald writes how she initially considered watching the 2017 solar eclipse in “romantic solitude" but decided against it. You need “an overwhelming sense of community" when you see the sun disappear from your life, she writes.

Annie Dillard, too, usually much more comfortable on her own in a beach hut between the dunes of Provincetown, writes in her essay “Total Eclipse" how she and her husband awaited the solar eclipse of 1979 early in the morning with other people. “It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day."

And in 1927, Virginia Woolf, her husband Leonard, her mistress Vita Sackville-West and a few other Bloomsburys took an overnight train to the north of England to witness an eclipse. On a hill among grazing sheep, groups of people and a few dogs, she found a cohesion that she describes in her essay “Sun without Fish": “We were no longer in the same relation to people, houses and trees; we were related to the whole world."

We're not experienced picnic people. We hastily packed half a pack of chips and flat soda water, dusted off our camp chairs and went to look for solar eclipse people. We decided on our local Oronoco Bay Park along the Potomac River, where the people who gathered spontaneously were suddenly meteorologists, astronomers, soothsayers and friends. We believed there was no rain in the sky and the clouds were too sparse to block the sun. Dogs and children chased each other, playing until they were tired and lay down. In between, Bonnie Tyler sang about her Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

In the shadow of the moon

We kept an eye out and counted down. One would expect a deeply modulated voice, an overture, a cannon shot, Bruce Springsteen to announce that first, barely noticeable moment when the moon took a bite out of the sun. But as Dillard says, “the sun simply shaves away gradually".

As the light changed, the colours around us followed suit. I was prepared for something like load-shedding during sunrise but not for what Macdonald describes as an “extraordinary wrongness up there [...] the wrong colour, the wrong hue”. Everything gets smoky, “all new colours as if washed over and repainted”, writes Woolf. Around Dillard, the grass became a platinum colour, the sky dark blue and her hands silver. “This colour has never been seen on Earth.”

For Anne Carson, in her essay Totality: The Colour of Eclipse (read it here), colour disappears into non-colour, about which she asks the most beautiful philosophical question: “Would that be like waking from a dream in the wrong direction and finding yourself on the back side of your own mind?" Emily Dickinson says the same thing but in her deceptively simple way:

Sunset at Night — is natural —
But Sunset on the Dawn —
Reverses Nature.

Dickinson is probably referring to the solar eclipses of 1869 and/or 1878, which were visible in her hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts. Mark Twain also saw the 1869 eclipse, on which he bases A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). “It got to be pitch dark, at last, and the multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold uncanny night breezes fan through the place…"

Yes, the air becomes thin and it suddenly gets cold. “Pink faces went green, and it became colder than ever. This was the defeat of the sun," Woolf writes. Dillard feels “as if someone was standing between you and the fire". In the unnatural light, my shadow turned grey, as if I could disappear with the sun. Two ducks came ashore and began to graze. My burning eyes grew tired. Clouds reflected a strange pink and blue and there was a deep hole in the sky. It was the black circle of the moon, “an abrupt black body out of nowhere", says Dillard.

Midnight at noon

All the authors go on to describe the darkness and deadness of a full solar eclipse. It's like “a rush of gloom, a tornado, a cannonball, a loping god, the heeling over of a boat, a slug of anaesthetic up your arm", writes Carson. Woolf says: “This was the end. The flesh and the blood of the world was dead; only the skeleton was left." As always, it's short and concise for Dickinson: “Midnight's due at Noon." The corona looks to Dillard like an “old wedding band in the sky", thinly weathered from long wear. “We are forsaken by light," says Carson, and within that totality you might start asking yourself “certain questions that hang at the back of the mind". Those voices of my ancestors.

But for us in Oronoco Bay Park, the darkness wasn't total. At 87%, we remained hesitant in foggy colours — no shiny wedding ring in the sky indicating that everything was finished. You decided for yourself when it was over for you, then quietly drifted off into the background, where Bonnie was trying to make a comeback.

With a total eclipse, it's as if the sun rises for a second time that day. In Vesper Flights, Macdonald says of this moment: “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." Light and colours came back for Woolf like something that had knelt and risen again.

Sister blues

Since then, I've been standing in our garden for a moment every day wearing my battered cardboard glasses like the Blues Brothers' lost younger sister, looking directly into the sun. And every day the sun is perfectly round, exactly as it should be. At some point, I also started humming a tune, Skimme by Laurika Rauch. “Weerlose, weerlose mense…" (Defenceless, defenceless people.)

I tried to think of what was written in Afrikaans about solar eclipses — a composite collection of poetry by Fanie Olivier, Jaco Botha's Sweisbril  (1999), but I could not remember enough to write about it. The rest of the song about the defenceless people I happily still knew: “In ’n middernagland,/ Sonder grense of tyd/ En ’n ewigheid weg van die son/ En ’n ewigheid weg van die son.”

♦ VWB ♦

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