Herodotus described it plainly enough: “The sun left his place in the heaven and was invisible, though there was no gathering of clouds and the sky was perfectly clear; and instead of day it became night.”
Eclipses have preoccupied the Greeks and Romans, Chinese and Assyrians, Amos and Joel, Gilmour and Waters. They’ve signified different things in different eras: foreboding, good fortune, prefiguration. Across cultures, though, an eclipse has almost always been freighted with meaning — a sight so vivid and unsettling that it must portend something important.
Perhaps that’s still true. The total solar eclipse that will ripple across much of the U.S. on Monday — in an arc some 70 miles wide, from Oregon to South Carolina — has become a monumental happening. Millions of people are gathering, along with hopes of economic revival and fears of epic traffic jams. “Like Woodstock 200 times over,” says a NASA official.
Why such a frenzy, in these harried times, for a two-minute event?
On one level, it’s simply a great show. As the moon passes in front of the sun, the planets and stars will emerge, the solar corona will flicker overhead, temperatures will plummet, animals will freak, people may scream. For an instant, the whole mad clockwork of the universe will reveal itself. As the astronomer Jay Pasachoff once put it, an eclipse is “the perfect alignment, in solemn darkness, of the celestial bodies that mean most to us.”
Maybe something more worldly is at work, too. As you’ve no doubt noticed, these are dark days in national life — days of rage and resentment. The worst are full of passionate intensity. A communal act, unburdened by politics, has a forceful appeal amid the turmoil. As Annie Dillard wrote, of an eclipse in 1979: “It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day.”
An eclipse is just an eclipse, of course. It won’t solve America’s deepening dysfunctions. But perhaps, in drawing so many together, it can offer a reminder of common bonds long forgotten. As millions of Americans look up, if only momentarily, from their phones, maybe they can also look beyond the pettiness of so much of their politics. Among a crowd of strangers gazing at the unnerving splendor above, they might find a brief moment of grace.