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Black Hole Sun

The eclipse and the end times

When I first read Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse,” I had been living in lockdown for several months, and I was in the middle of unenthusiastically writing a PhD about light pollution. In the evenings I would walk to a nearby park, look at the sky, and feel nothing. As a regular observer, it is difficult to remember the weirdness of stars and celestial objects. Even when staring at a full and unobstructed view of the Milky Way, most of us are protected by the familiarity of the night sky; the sight, as the common wisdom has it, is a tranquil one, meant to ease us into sleep. Stars are not scary things. They twinkle, they guide us home, and though there are many of them, they are so very small.

Here was Dillard, though, describing a spectacle that was able to crash through that domestication. “Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you,” she writes, “but during an eclipse it is easy.” As she witnesses totality on the peak of Mount Adams and encounters “the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt,” she temporarily loses her mind. I longed to see what she had seen. I wanted to look at the stars and not be protected from what they meant. So it was that my boyfriend and I found ourselves traveling from our home in Sydney to Arkansas this April, where I had booked us what was perhaps the last remaining motel room in the path of totality, right on the edge of it, in the city of Ozark.

Eclipse tourism, which was still something of a fledgling industry in the United States in 2017, is by now a well-rehearsed carnival, in which the sublime brushes up against the obscene. We passed through Little Rock, Hot Springs, Russellville: every downtown neighborhood had a street party; every storefront was a celestial gift shop. There were bath bombs for sale, an eclipse eau de parfum, eclipse frappes, ice creams, posters, mugs, and many, many T-shirts. “I got Mooned in Little Rock!” read one. “I blacked out in Arkansas!” read another. In Hot Springs, I bought a T-shirt for myself. On its back, a black moon dwarfed the landscape, like a hole in the fabric of space-time. The bare trees were drawn in a grayish-green and outlined with a weird pale light. I asked the woman who sold it to me if she was going to see the eclipse. She looked at me unsmilingly. “I’m ready for it,” she said.

Today, it is the far right who have been most eager to promote the idea that the eclipse might spell imminent doom; a sentiment charged more with desire than fear.

Whether or not the 2024 eclipse had “more viewers than ever” as the BBC  predicted, it certainly rivals any to occur in recent memory in the United States. An estimated 32 million people were living in the path of totality this year (more than double the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017) and many traveled into that path to see it. A total solar eclipse is, by all accounts, the closest one can get on earth to the divine or infinite. In theory, such a potent symbol should present an unprecedented opportunity for ideological recruitment, or for some sort of mass-awakening. What yet-unseen transformation has the shadow of the moon wrought on the nation? Is it possible for tens of millions of people to come face-to-face with the unfathomable, and for nothing to change at all?

Around seventy years before Dillard’s essay, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published a short story titled “Nightfall” in which the fictional planet Lagash sees the night sky for the first time, thanks to a rare celestial event in which five of its six suns set simultaneously, and the remaining sun is obscured by an eclipse. In the story, there are no records of this event taking place in the past, but there are vague rumors among members of a religious sect who the scientists call “Cultists.” The archaeological records show that Lagash has a cyclic history—each of its civilizations have been destroyed at its zenith, after which the planet starts again. While the Cultists and scientists disagree about what “stars” are and what causes them to appear, they agree that the end of each of Lagash’s cycles correspond to this astronomical event. When the eclipse comes and night falls, Lagash’s population unfailingly lose their minds and set fire to everything. The planet’s entire culture—its people, structures, records and artifacts—is burned to the ground.

Of course, both night and eclipses are regular occurrences on earth, which has only one sun—a humble yellow dwarf that happens to be both four hundred times larger than the moon and four hundred times more distant from Earth. This coincidence of scale is what makes total solar eclipses possible. About once every eighteen months, totality will be visible from some place on the earth’s surface, be that land or sea. Any single place on earth will experience a total solar eclipse approximately every four hundred years, which means that even if one does not actively seek out the experience—assuming an average life-span of eighty years—the chance of perceiving one in one’s lifetime is approximately 20 percent.

Still, the United States might be forgiven for believing there’s some cosmic reason that the nation has been visited by two total solar eclipses within ten years. All the NASA outreach efforts in the world cannot shake the lingering feeling that eclipses are more than a game of orbital hide-and-seek. And while they may bring good fortune in the form of the lucrative industry of eclipse tourism, eclipses have historically not been a favorable omen. In 2017, much was made between the old folkloric association between eclipses and dramatic shifts in power. Astrologers believe that eclipses precipitate changes that have long been already underway, resulting in dramatic moments of reckoning and confrontation. Looking at what the years between 2017 and now has produced, it’s hard to deny it.

Eclipses have long had an eschatological flavor, which makes them a good literary tool for working through the fear of annihilation. Asimov, a Russian-Jewish emigrant, was writing during the horrors of World War II, while Dillard’s essay is inflected by fears of an atomic winter and looming ecological breakdown (at one point, she describes witnessing an eclipse as “like seeing a mushroom cloud”). Today, though, it is the far right who have been most eager to promote the idea that the eclipse might spell imminent doom; a sentiment charged more with desire than fear.

The podcast Eyes on the Right, for examplehosted by a woman who calls herself simply “Amy”—released an episode in the lead up to the eclipse. She recalls that 2017 was referred to as the “Seven Salem Eclipse” for the fact that it passed through seven towns named Salem. Occurring seven years later, this year’s eclipse passes through seven towns named Nineveh (actually, it passes through eight towns called Nineveh, but as one falls over the Canadian border, she decides to disregard it). This is “really interesting,” she says, because it was the citizens of Nineveh who Jonah reprimanded for their wickedness. There’s something about Jonah restoring a border, which she connects to the Texas-Mexico border that falls within the eclipse’s path, and also somehow to Beyoncé’s new album. I’d call this a feat of poetic free association if it wasn’t so politically dangerous.

The one thing that Amy seems most excited by is that the two eclipse paths make an “X” across the face of America, with the X falling over the town of Carbondale, Illinois, also known as Little Egypt. The X also can be read as the paleo-Hebrew character tav, the final character of the alphabet, while the partial solar eclipse that crossed the country last October adds a third line, creating a shape that supposedly resembles aleph, the first character. Aleph and Tav, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end—in other words, an apocalypse and a fresh start. “We are at this crossroads,” she says breathlessly. “What are we going to do as a nation? Just like the nation of Israel left Egypt . . . Are we going to leave our sin and the world behind and enter in to a time of repentance with the lord?”

For the most part, the proselytizing I encountered in the path of the eclipse was not this convoluted. I was handed a series of pamphlets—in Hot Springs, in Little Rock—riffing on the great battle between “light and darkness” that was about to take place, in the sky as on earth. “Nothing can hide the son,” read one bearing an image of the glorious corona flaring out from behind the face of the moon. Meanwhile, one of our Airbnb hosts informed me that he’d be staying inside for the event. Why? I asked, genuinely sad for him. “I’ve been receiving some intel that the government’s going to use the state of emergency to try something,” he told me, “like another Y2K.” Several days earlier Alex Jones—who had also been spouting the aleph/tav end-times theory on X—claimed that the solar eclipse was a “dress rehearsal” for martial law. Why else, he reasoned, would so many federal, state, and local agencies be preparing for the event with so much gusto?

Unsurprisingly, the 2024 eclipse took on all the scattered myths and fault lines of the moment, just as the 2017 eclipse did before it. Despite this, NASA persisted with a massive outreach effort revolving around the narrative that eclipses and other astronomical events should be unifying experiences for the country. At an eclipse street festival in Russellville, a NASA presentation ended with a rousing video made up of impossible footage. A voice-over implored that the nation’s shared contemplation of the cosmos be a point of unity, but by that point, the audience was already dispersing to sample a different attraction. The lines for the mobile planetarium, taco truck and U.S. Air Force immersive VR experience were all equally long. As is the case in most carnival settings, no single voice seemed to stand out amid the cacophony.

The 2017 eclipse was the first of its magnitude to occur in the social media age, but the 2024 eclipse was the first to actually make good on the internet’s promise. In its wake came a wave of shaky, amateur footage that revealed more about what eclipses feel like then what they look like: people scream, cry and generally seem to lose control of themselves. If you combine this flood of new content with the fact that many people who have seen one eclipse become addicted to the rush, it’s possible that eclipse tourism—for better or for worse—is on the brink of becoming as lucrative as, say, Northern Lights tourism, or trips to Antarctica. In a heat map of Airbnb bookings for April 8 that was doing the rounds on the internet, the path of totality was spelled out in a dense, purple band. Hotels hiked their prices, while camping spots went for as much as $500 a night. Atlas Obscura was selling day tickets to its eclipse festival just outside Hot Springs. In Russellville, a festival called “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was selling spots to a mass wedding ceremony called Elope at the Eclipse, during which couples who were in love “to the moon and back” would be able to tie the knot beneath the “huge wedding ring in the sky.”

You would think that all this commodification would take away from the experience, but somehow the eclipse resists being totally subsumed by its commercial aspects, just as it resists being totally subsumed by a single narrative. And while it’s possible to sell tickets to an eclipse that happens at sea, the beauty of an eclipse passing over a landmass is that one can absolutely choose to opt out of the circus. Many will see a total solar eclipse by accident. People pause while doing the washing up to watch eclipses and resume their work a second later. We watch eclipses from backyards, highways, and school playgrounds. We are struck dumb in the street, rendered senseless at our windows, undone and remade at the entrances to grocery stores.

It’s tempting to say something trite here, like we all live under the same sun, or the sky is the last remaining commons. But that’s not really the case. People incarcerated in New York weren’t permitted to see the eclipse that passed right above their heads, with all state prisons implementing a state of lockdown for the duration of totality—a baffling decision that seems to stem from the old, lingering paranoia that eclipses inspire social revolt and spell disaster for those in power. Six men in at the state prison in Woodbourne fought the decision and won, gaining permission to witness the event from the prison’s main yard. The appeal was led by Jeremy Zielinski, an atheist, but the group included a Baptist, a Muslim, a Seventh Day Adventist, and two practitioners of Santería. They won the case on religious grounds.

The morning of the eclipse, Keanu and I woke up at 6 a.m. to drive to Petit Jean before parking filled up. The state park was near the center line of the moon’s shadow, where totality would be four minutes and fifteen seconds long. Local radio stations were capitalizing on the fact that suns and moons and light and darkness are common enough themes in pop music. “It seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind,” sang Elton John, as we passed a Sonic drive-through advertising a Solar Eclipse Blackout Slush Float for $3.99.

Despite some early storm forecasts, it was a perfect blue day. The amateur astronomers had their expensive telescopes set up and were allowing any passerby to peek at the yet-unadulterated face of the sun, which was adorned with a huge dark spot, like an awful melanoma. “Everyone looks so happy,” a park official said as we walked past her for a second time wearing our stupid eclipse T-shirts. There were a few outlooks and rocky mounds where people had gathered, but mostly people had installed their picnic sets and beer coolers and camera equipment right where they parked. We marveled at their ease: How does one decide where to have a life-altering experience?

With only forty minutes until totality, we settled at the visitor’s center, overlooking a valley to the west through which the moon’s shadow was scheduled to come barreling toward us at precisely 1:50 p.m. The sun was half its usual size. Forty or so of us sat there half-listening to each other’s conversations, which were reduced to tiny, impatient snippets. It all felt celebratory and benign until the light changed. Then things got weird.

I’ve read and heard many descriptions of what the light looks like right before a total solar eclipse. Grey, silver and yellow are colors that come up a lot, as well as the words weird, otherworldy, and alien. To me, it looked like a steely red; like cold fire. The dappled light on the ground had turned to perfect half crescents. The moon’s shadow was a thick indigo mist in the distance. It was upon us before we knew, so suddenly that it was like we’d all been trapped by an enormous bell jar. The horizon was on fire on all sides, and then we were sinking into a darkness that somehow felt like a spotlight.

You would think that all this commodification would take away from the experience, but somehow the eclipse resists being totally subsumed by its commercial aspects.

I won’t try to explain exactly what I went through in those four minutes because I’d only be writing in the shadow of Annie Dillard’s essay. I will say this: I had expected our home star to shrink to insignificance, as Dillard told me it would. Instead, there it shone, enormous and resplendent, revealed in its true form at the very moment it was supposed to be disappearing. It’s possible that no two eclipses are the same, and this one was occurring at a peak in solar activity. This was nothing like the sun you’ve seen in ordinary close-up pictures; that big, bubbling orange mess of gas that looks like would give off a stench if you got too close. It was so precise, so eerily serene—the moon as a clean hole, flat and empty as Vantablack, the deep indigo of that weird night, and those white tendrils of light. It felt like insight, not spectacle, to see all that raw energy caught in the act of simply being.

Around us, people screamed, then went quiet. A child hid behind their mother’s legs. One woman got out her pencil and began furiously sketching. A park ranger told us to look out of the “double diamond ring,” but we were barely listening. Keanu was weeping. I was gawking. Then the bell jar was lifted, and the light was speeding back into the world. Everyone clapped and cheered and took their last pictures. The crowds dispersed. By the time we got back to Ozark, the electronic billboards had already returned to usual programming. I felt a weird pang of betrayal to see that the dentist was no longer babbling about “teeth going dark” or “smiles brighter than the sun.” Instead, they were advertising fillings.

How can something be so deeply affecting on an individual level and yet leave a cultural ripple that disperses so rapidly? Most people who have witnessed totality their lives agree that one is never quite the same afterward, but the nature of that change remains elusive. In Petit Jean, I overheard one woman telling her friend that she struggled to recall the last eclipse she had seen because she was too overwhelmed to “take a full mental picture.” It is like a dream you don’t remember that colors the mood of your day.

It makes sense, then, that no single program of thought has ever truly succeeded in harnessing the passion that totality arouses. “The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination,” wrote Dillard. “It obliterated meaning itself.” Over a month has passed since the eclipse, and as of yet there has been no great ecological awakening stimulated by the realization that we are trapped on a spinning ball in space. America has not found “unity” through astronomy. Nor has there been an episode of mass hysteria like the one Asimov imagined, in which all our artifacts and institutions are razed. The evangelists have not yet seen the judgement day they desire, nor has the far right succeeded in turning conspiracy theories about the government’s eclipse plans into another coup.

Nevertheless, millions more people are now walking around on earth, going about their normal lives, having glimpsed the true face of the sun. While it is beyond me to imagine what that means, I do not think that it is inconsequential.