I did see it, the totality. The weather being what it is, we decided to build the trip around location instead of event. We headed to a national forest in the NC mountains that we’d long wished to visit and we hiked its trails to huge, old-growth trees. We took pictures and lingered, but still, long before 2:10 p.m. we’d finished with the location. We considered hiking back up to a bridge on one of the trails. We considered simply walking to the nearest highway and planting ourselves on its shoulder. We wondered about heading back toward the Parkway. But in the end, we decided to take a “no outlet” road that angled up the mountain, just to see what we could see. What we saw was a small gaggle of humans milling on the edge of a lookout over a distant mountain lake. We stayed.
Much of the chit-chat between us strangers was about sight: watch for the cars, look at the clouds, don’t look at the sun until the totality, look at the light, I’ve never seen anything like this! Does your telescope work, may I see that picture, can you see the moon shadow? We eclipse-viewers are an educated bunch, I guess, and like all modern students, we have been trained over a lifetime to correlate and connect sight with knowledge.
Consider the tired assumptions of James Frazer’s 1922 account of an eclipse:
“To us, familiar as we are with the conception of the uniformity and regularity with which the great cosmic phenomena succeed each other, there seems little ground for apprehension that the causes which produce these effects will cease to operate, at least within the near future. But this confidence in the stability of nature is bred only by the experience which comes of wide observation and long tradition; and the savage, with his narrow sphere of observation and his short-lived tradition, lacks the very elements of that experience which alone could set his mind at rest in face of the ever-changing and often menacing aspects of nature. No wonder, therefore, that he is thrown into a panic by an eclipse, and thinks that the sun or the moon would surely perish, if he did not raise a clamour and shoot his puny shafts into the air to defend the luminaries from the monster who threatens to devour them” (The Golden Bough, 288a).
Frazer loops his reader into the universal “we” of modern man [sic]. “Our” cool, controlled rationality is born of wide observation and long tradition, and Frazer opposes this rationality to the savage’s [sic] panic, churned up by the latter’s narrow sphere of observation and short-lived tradition. The lethal race and gender dynamics that support(ed) British (white) political and intellectual supremacy are on full display here. I want to press against these dynamics by pointing to the particular way Frazer names affect as denigration (“panic”) and how he offers this denigrated affect as the explanation for the “savage’s” kooky responses. “No wonder” the “savage” resorts to such inane responses, Frazer posits, when his mind is fevered with the runaway rollercoaster of panic and confusion.
But if Frazer’s reader recalls (with his cool rationality?) earlier descriptions of those indigenous responses to an eclipse, they hardly seem panicked or confused:
“At an eclipse the Ojebways used to imagine that the sun was being extinguished. So they shot fire-tipped arrows in the air, hoping thus to rekindle his expiring light. The Sencis of Peru also shot burning arrows at the sun during an eclipse, but apparently they did this not so much to relight his lamp as to drive away a savage beast with which they supposed him to be struggling. Conversely during an eclipse of the moon some tribes of the Orinoco used to bury lighted brands in the ground; because, said they, if the moon were to be extinguished, all fire on earth would be extinguished with her, except such as was hidden from her sight. During an eclipse of the sun the Kamtchatkans were wont to bring out fire from their huts and pray the great luminary to shine as before. But the prayer addressed to the sun shows that this ceremony was religious rather than magical. Purely magical, on the other hand, was the ceremony observed on similar occasions by the Chilcotin Indians. Men and women tucked up their robes, as they do in travelling, and then leaning on staves, as if they were heavy laden, they continued to walk in a circle till the eclipse was over. Apparently they thought thus to support the failing steps of the sun as he trod his weary round in the sky. Similarly in ancient Egypt the king, as the representative of the sun, walked solemnly round the walls of a temple in order to ensure that the sun should perform his daily journey round the sky without the interruption of an eclipse or other mishap” (The Golden Bough, 77b).
These indigenous responses seem quite logical and practical, actually, and they seem to arise from discernable affective orientations of empathy, compassion, military bravery, and mimetic identification (perhaps all of these are simply different modalities of empathy). The difference is striking. Indigenous knowledge as presented by Frazer comes in the form of actions arising out of a story, but the point is not the action or story (or some Aesopian moral) so much as the threading of story and communal action as a way of acknowledging, channeling, and reorienting affective responses to the world. Far from indicating a narrow sphere of observation or short-lived tradition, Frazer’s summary words suggest a communal, affective interconnection. The indigenous here are acutely, minutely aware of the natural and cosmological worlds surrounding them, and they care so deeply about those worlds that they act arduously to enact an appropriate (ethical) response.
This is what a friend of mine, Randall Johnson, might call an aesthesiological knowledge, or an aesthesiological ethic, because it is instituted and sustained by aesthesis, or sensation/ feeling.
On that mountain overlook last Monday, the eclipse was not, for me, simply what I saw, but what I felt. I felt the temperature drop about ten degrees. I felt the light dim so that it seemed like I had filters between my eyes and the world. I felt a stillness drop down over the mountainside as the moon shadowed the sun and the birds and bees and no-see-ums disappeared. The light became eerie, surreal, and I felt eerie, surreal, along with it. I felt stunned by the beauty and oddity of the two-minute totality, and I stared at the black-covered sun like it was an alien spaceship or a god or a portal to another galaxy. Most inexplicably, it felt good being with this group of strangers, better (so I said to my partner) than if we’d watched the eclipse alone on that trail-bridge. The collective experience was not at all about knowledge–or at any rate not the knowledge of cool rationality. It was the felt knowledge, the epistemaesthesis, of shared excitement, shared attunement, and shared attention, even if we–this motley “we” of humans and canines from NY, PA, VA, NC, and TN–never see each other again.
The eclipse, an eclipse, is not about seeing. Or at least: it is not about seeing and knowing, but about seeing and feeling. It’s about turning our hearts and bodies away from the daily obligations that demand attention, sap energy, and divide us into ideologically-driven isolation cells and turning toward events that remind us–no, that make us feel– how ridiculously small and finite and trivial, how shockingly joyful and connected and compassionate and capable, we all are. And by “we”, I mean every single living thing.