Total Eclipse by Annie Dillard
She starts off talking about a painting of a clown. This is her way of leading the reader into insignificance. What I mean by that is the clown has no meaning. Dillard says, (It was a painting of sort which you do not intend to look at, and which, alas, you never forget. Some tasteless fate presses it upon you; it becomes part of the complex interior junk you carry with you wherever you go.) p.160 It’s like she is saying nobody in their right mind would care about this painting, but here I am two years later describing it better than the artist himself. It might be representing denial the beginning part of grieving.
A little bit later Dillard uses blanks, like fill in the blank. (Now the alarm was set for six. “When I was at home,” said ______, “I was in a better place.”) p161 In this one she wants a name and later in the text she is asking for a year. Another reason I feel it’s about death is because the blanks are for names and dates things you find on death certificates. I feel like she is trying to identify with the readers. Saying names and dates are not important but the significance of the memory is. In another words everyone has a name and date they could write in but only you have that memory of that person.
When she talks about the miners I felt it was the clown painting all over again. This time though it has a little more meaning to it though. She gets across that total eclipses can happen randomly and there is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for it. It’s also like insignificant memories are trying to blur her vision of dealing with her eclipse. It’s almost like she is trying to figure out the unknown and that she can’t concentrate so she is falling back on what she knows.
When Dillard says, (It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well-advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then I was out of my depth.) p.163 That is when she finally talks about the death. I like how she compares death to a public event because it really is. When you watch the news or talk to someone about a death. They usually mention dates and a place for the funeral. With the sun disappearing she is relating that to losing a loved one. She brings up partial eclipse and mentions how it’s not the same as a total eclipse. I wonder if partial eclipse might have any relation to people dying everyday. Since you don’t know them its not a total eclipse because you can’t relate to that individual’s death. Then she says, (What you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you.) p164 That’s about the point she is grieving the death. She talks about knowledge blinding you. Like during death you try to rationalize it first, but there is no rationalizing death. Then she talks about Gary and blurry visions of him. I felt like she was trying to “watch” every memory one last time, no matter how faded the film was.
Lastly she talks about the life saver. This is the point she accepts the death. She takes it for what its worth. She finally comes to grips of the unknown “losing her husband” and comes to the realization that she lost her life saver.
Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse,” from the book Teaching a Stone to Talk, is a bit of a stunt. The February 26, 1979 solar eclipse lasted less than two minutes, and Dillard turns her Pulitzer-prize-winning prose loose on it for about 20 pages. If you’re in it for sheer descriptive power, there’s plenty of it here: from the bad clown painting in the hotel room the night before the eclipse, to the way the color of the grass changes, to the freaky speed of the moonshadow rushing across the face of the earth at the spectators, Dillard can let you know how things look and feel.
But there’s something more than physical description going on in this essay, something that comes from that strange land Annie Dillard’s readers expect her to take them to every ten pages or so. Dillard is a sensitive recording instrument, to say the least: a little thing like a waterbug or a snake can make the needle on her dial jump around and register profound oddness. So imagine taking a sensitive device like that and subjecting it to something as truly uncanny as a total solar eclipse. Her weirdness needle is pegged instantly, and it stays at max.
So you get paragraphs like this, about what goes away when the sun goes away:
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 this, about the bottom of the bottomless pit:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.
And this, which is more or less the moral of the story:
We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add –until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.
What is that? Is that metaphysics, mysticism, therapy, or just what exactly? And what does it any of it have to do with watching a solar eclipse? It’s a genre of its own, it defies classification, and I find it pretty addictive. Nobody else writes like that, because almost nobody else sees like that.