“I waited two or three moments: then looked up; he was standing there petrified. With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes; as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun. It was a noble effect.”
—Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 1890
The dark of a total eclipse is nothing like night, and it isn’t like twilight or dusk, either. This kind of darkness comes without a sunset, and its shades and tones evolve over a vastly speeded-up time scale. Though I’ve seen it happen eight times, still I struggle to relate exactly what it is— this absence of light. I know I always feel enlightened, “noble,” as Mark Twain says, when the cheer goes up at first contact. Is it because I know we can predict when it will happen to the nearest second, the same feeling that caused a cadre of physicists to cheer when they finally detected gravitational waves, or the engineers in mission control to applaud when astronauts first landed on the moon? At the same time, my senses are overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of the reds and lilacs, the peach, crimson, and topaz colors of the prominences and the corona. Why should I experience any uneasiness in anticipation of something I can foretell with absolute certainty?
Expressing extraordinary sensory impressions to the nonparticipant is really a problem of language. People struggle to describe firsthand experiences of tornadoes: “it was like a train … there was this roaring sound like I never heard”; or a total eclipse of the sun: “I never saw anything like it … it was a miracle.” If nothing like it ever happened to you, where do you acquire the appropriate vocabulary to tell about it? How can you cast an entirely novel, overwhelming experience in a familiar framework?
Fear and superstition intrude on us to varying degrees once the lights go out. We are surrounded by that strange darkness, and darkness itself has long been associated with uncertainty in our minds. It’s the discontinuity, the disruption that’s so bothersome— even if it’s planned. The whole luminous affair is a mockery of the normal oscillation between light and dark that happens every day. Then there’s the aesthetic component, the feeling of something sublime. Because the darkness of the eclipse doesn’t correspond to anything we experience in lived time, some eclipse watchers choose death as a metaphor, for want of a better analogy.
So, after much thought and with apologies for any failings, these are the words I ended up choosing in my attempt to join together the objective (to understand) and the subjective (to feel) of what it’s like to witness a total eclipse. Now you must see for yourself.
Afterword to In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Total Solar Eclipses by Anthony Aveni (Yale University Press 2017). Reprinted with permission.