Friday, August 18, 2017

Nick Neely: Some Phases of Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse”

1.      To preface: I am not a trained physicist or astronomer. I am an amateur who began this fleeting study with too limited a telescope and maybe the wrong lens. I think I may have burned my eyes by reading it several times, but I trust the damage isn’t forever. Wear your welding glasses—that’s my best advice—and log your own observations below.

2.      The essay begins with mournful descent and dislocation: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.” We’re immediately thrown into the valley of the shadow, a place that is, and is not, the Yakima Valley in Washington State. It sounds, justly, like a coming panic attack. At the hotel, Dillard begins to introduce all sorts of, to borrow her phrase, “complex interior junk,” most of which are head-scratchers at first. She mentions the drunk men in the lobby, a fish in its aquarium, a canary in its cage, a child’s bucket and shovel—none of it seems especially relevant, but it’s just the kind of random stuff that’s good for atmosphere when cast in a certain light. She remembers reading in the lobby about gold mines that “extend so deeply into the Earth’s crust that they are hot. The rock walls burn the miners’ hands. … When the miners return to the surface, their faces are deathly pale.” Why does she tell us this? Already she’s established a mood, a space, where she can introduce just about anything and it will seem right and ominous. But what’s most unforgettable is the vegetable clown. Dillard recalls lying in bed the night before the eclipse and seeing, on the hotel wall, a painting of “a smiling clown’s head, made out of vegetables”: “The clown was bald. Actually, he wore a clown’s tight rubber wig, painted white; this stretched over the top of his skull, which was a cabbage. His hair was bunches of baby carrots. Inset in his white clown makeup, and in his cabbage skull, were his small and laughing human eyes ….” Finishing her description of this likable “lunatic,” who is also composed of string beans, parsley, and chili peppers, she abruptly continues, “To put ourselves in the path of the total eclipse, that day we had driven five hours ….” The juxtaposition makes a clear suggestion: this clown is “ourselves,” the vegetable body with an expiration date, in which the eyes of what’s distinctly human—that is spiritual, not corporeal—shine out for a brief moment in time. And already, on page one, time begins to scramble: One has to recall the curious paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the sixteenth century Milanese painter behind the Four Seasons, each a smiling man-cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.

3.      When the eclipse hits, time and the senses are thrown into disarray. She sees the world as if it were simulacra. “The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead.  … I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages … I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.” One notes the halting repetition (throughout the essay) that produces a sense of immediacy—of thinking and its instantaneous revision—and of disbelief or trauma. This passage and much of the essay also moves by metaphor, which (as my brother smartly pointed out), is a kind of eclipse: the “real” is hidden behind the figure, and yet for a moment its size and shape are made clearer. In any case, Dillard, and all of us, are thrown both forward and back: Back to the nineteenth century, and further back to the Middle Ages. Yet forward to our own deaths. The essay takes on the feel of a choppy pool, waves rebounding off walls, past and future, to create a slack tide of time. When she reports, “My mind was going out,” she means not truly going “blank,” but to the ultimate reaches of imagination. We’re not sure where, exactly, we stand: “The grass at our feet was wild barley.” Does she mean literally at her feet, in Yakima? Seems not, for she continues: “It was the wild einkorn wheat which grew on the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, about the Euphrates Valley, above the valley of the river we called River. We harvested the grass with stone sickles, I remember. We found the grasses on the hillsides; we built our shelter beside them and cut them down.” Here is an ur-vision of life long ago in a valley like the Yakima. Maybe this is the Elysian Fields or Asphodel Meadows. It is certainly “the region of dread” she anticipates as the essay begins.

4.      “We had all started down a chute of time,” as Dillard summarizes—one she carefully orchestrates. At the start of the third section, she actualizes the essay as a space of descent and time travel (if it wasn’t already clear): “It is now that temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold has risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the strata again.” Here one begins to suspect that her eclipse experience also functions as a metaphor, an allegory, for the essayist’s process: We must face the region of dread, of drafting. We must search for a way to describe this impossible-to-describe experience. Simultaneously, some of the essay’s “interior junk,” its earlier images, begin to well up and reveal their complexity. Double-meanings accrue and eclipse one another, obscuring and highlighting. It’s a sloshing trough of metaphor. The gold mine article from the hotel returns and resonates. Now her gold might be the memory of the eclipse, that “old wedding band in the sky” (the strata might be the “cirrostratus” in which that day in 1979 began). In part, the subject of the essay becomes memory itself, the difficulty of mining it. If we’re to believe the narrator, two years have passed since the event. We might imagine Dillard took some (probably rather good) notes, or even wrote up until that point in the draft, before she fatigued and could on longer face the dread, and stuffed the essay in the proverbial drawer. But now she is ready to descend deeper into the mine/mind.

5.      She struggles to capture the eclipse: It doesn’t look like a dragon, but it does look like a “lens cover, or the lid of a pot.” “It obliterated meaning itself,” Dillard concedes. Like a mushroom cloud, “what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking.” “The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array [of an eclipse] than language can cover the breath and simultaneity of internal experience.” She feels, in essence, defeated. “It [the eclipsed sun] was as useless a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow and wretched as memory.” The essayist’s means and materials—language and memory—feel inadequate and isolating. What finally surfaces is a portrait, a paragraph, that describes something of an awful Resurrection—dead spectators standing on the hills not just misremembering their lives, but having “forgotten those they had loved.” What could be a worse fate? Maybe this is not Resurrection, but purgatory. Here is darkness visible, rock bottom—not the thrilling sublime one might anticipate from an eclipse event, but something tipped too far into terror. If the trajectory of the essay describes, or mimics, the phases of an eclipse (of course, it must), we are in totality.

6.      Then the bright bead of the sun at the edge. Dillard forces us to visit the worst, a nihilistic landscape where “we cared for nothing,” where memory falters, so that she can ask us to realize what we have. The fourth section begins: “We teach our children one thing only, as we are taught: to wake up.” This is forever Annie Dillard’s project, to jar us from complacency and engage with the world, the present, while we still can. It might seem a pedantic project in this essay if she didn’t paint her own melancholic descent into “the deeps” as, potentially, a symptom of that complacency. She finds herself jarred at breakfast at a diner after the eclipse: “A college student, a boy in a blue parka who carried a Hasselblad, said to us, ‘Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.’ … He was a walking alarm clock.” Her timing is impeccable: At this point in the essay, we all needed this reality check (of course, Dillard can’t then resist turning this Life Saver, a mint candy, breath-freshening O, into a life saver buoy, which brings her the surface). This kid’s thought is as valid or true as her own heavy sifting through the metaphysical strata of past and future. In part, this assertion feels a tad disingenuous: She’s aware of her powers. She obviously relishes her mode. For my part, she distinguishes too strongly between mind and body: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses, in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computers terminals printing out market prices while the world blows up, still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull.” But these details, she admits, are important. All those things for which we have no words are lost,” she writes. I take this to mean: Describe your eclipse any old way that occurs to you. Remember that when you try to write your own essay about Monday’s two minutes of totality. Salvation is through a simple thought likeLife Saver.”  The main thing is to continue to dive, to mine …  “ The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel,” writes Dillard. “… With these we try to save our very lives.”

7.      One last observation: She writes of the moon’s shadow that races 1,800 miles an hour across the landscape, “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like car out of control on a turn.” What sheer madness that these huge masses—one that we call home, one that we call the moon, one the we call the sun—are in something of a stable orbit. The whole arrangement is so unlikely, incredible, incomprehensible. This fragile clockwork of loose spheres, in Dillard’s arrangement, also refers to an individual life, to a relationship, to memory in general, but it ultimately refers to the art of the essay. Reading “Total Eclipse,” I feel this bodily: The unlikely images hurtling past each other, the abrupt and leaping pivots, the confusion of time and space—what are the chances that it could all adhere, all harmonize. And yet it does. The props from the hotel, including the child’s shovel and bucket, finally come whirling in to cast their full metaphoric shadow. Even the vegetable clown returns to illuminate: You might drown in your own spittle, God knows, at any time; you might wake up dead in a small hotel, a cabbage head watching TV while snows pile up in passes, watching TV while the chili peppers smile and the moon passes over the sun and nothing changes and nothing is learned because you have lost your bucket and shovel and no longer care.” It’s good to remember that an eclipse, and a metaphor, is just an artful coincidence. But it still might mean everything. Go chase the eclipse, whatever that means to you, and then try with all your might to do it justice—dig yourself out of that grave.

Nick Neely's first book of essays, Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge, was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing and CLMP's Firecracker Award for creative nonfiction. He is also the author of the essay chapbook Chiton, and Other Creatures, from New Michigan Press. His nonfiction has appeared in journals such as Orion, Kenyon Review, and The Georgia Review. He lives in Hailey, Idaho with his wife, the painter Sarah Bird.