Those of us who love reading know the sense of exhilaration in coming across, for the first time, the work a writer who makes you feel, once again, the beauty of brilliance you were not fully aware of before. It is this feeling that struck me when reading some of the essays by the Pulitzer winner, Annie Dillard (b. 1945) from her collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.
The tradition of the essay in America, especially in the last 150 years, has been blessed with quite a few wonderful examples of essayists who write about nature; Wendell Berry, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and E.B. White are just some of them. Perhaps, the vastness of the landscape and the peculiarly American notion of the frontier (being always in between ‘culture’ and what is perceived by those on the side of culture as the ‘wilderness’) are at the root of this tradition.
Dillard’s essay, ‘Total Eclipse’ may be understood in this context, and it brings out some of the qualities and strengths of Dillard’s writing, including the robustness of her elegant style and her ability to look, unflinchingly, at both the beauty and horror of our relation to nature and the universe.
‘Total Eclipse’ is a narrative essay – Dillard is well-known for this specific sub-genre of the essay – in which Dillard recounts and reflects on a trip that she and her husband undertake to watch a total (not the much more common, partial) eclipse of the sun from a mountain in the Cascades range in Washington in 1979.
Dillard’s essay is a masterpiece of description not only of a landscape that plunges, for some time, into an eerie darkness, but of the way this rare phenomenon affects her and other human beings around her. The whole experience turns out to be much more than a simple observation of a spectacular sight, as Dillard is taken from a familiar world of the living, a world of manners and routines, to what she depicts, hauntingly, almost as a parallel world of the dead.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. 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.
I looked at Gary. He was in the film. Everything was lost. He was a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life. I saw on his skull the darkness of night mixed with the colors of day. My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way galaxies recede to the rim of space. Gary was lightyears away, gesturing inside a circle of darkness, down the wrong end of a telescope. 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. I could not hear him; the wind was too loud. Behind him the sun was going. We had all started down a chute of time. At first it was pleasant; now there was no stopping it. Gary was chuting away across space, moving and talking and catching my eye, chuting down the long corridor of separation. The skin on his face moved like thin bronze plating that would peel.
What happens to us when we come face to face with the immense power of the universe, and when our everyday beliefs and behavior no longer seem to apply? The eclipse covering her world in a momentary darkness makes Dillard confront something quite deep in herself as she becomes aware of how fragile the meaning we ascribe to the world around us is:
Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart screeched. 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 that 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 significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell you.
And then the return. Dillard’s essay takes us into Hades, but she also pulls us out in her final paragraphs of the essay. And when we come back, we are changed. Wiser, possibly. Relieved, more likely:
We never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed – a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.