7/6/2020 1 Comment
On darkness and light
In an essay written in 1979 Annie Dillard writes of watching an eclipse of the sun. It is a very strange essay, circling around that moment and rewriting it again and again. It is only late in the essay she describes the approach of the eclipse which she earlier in the essay wrote about as a single moment, as a strangeness of vision. In that earlier description, the world appeared as “faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages” in which she found herself standing “by some mistake,” missing her own century, the people she knew, looking at her own husband and finding him in the film, “a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life.” She looks him across an expanse of time, or non-time: “The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive.” I loved this description of a time out of time, but when she returns to that moment, or, rather, the moment before that moment, much later in the essay after she has already described the return to ordinary life, the rapid retreat from the strangeness of that vision, she describes a very different effect, not of time stopping, not of a time out of time, but of living in accelerated time: “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it.” I first read this essay in lock-down, when we had watched the virus accelerate with extraordinary rapidity, shutting down one part of the world after another, and then I read it again this week as protestors gathered to commemorate George Floyd and call for the end to police brutality, only to be met not only with police brutality in response but a President calling for dogs to be unleashed, the army brought in, tear gas to disperse a peaceful protest getting in the way of a photo opportunity. In the light of the protests, I have spent the week rewriting class lectures and setting new readings for students whose emotions are running high, whose social media feeds have no space for any other issue, whose instagram feeds have darkened with the black squares of solidarity. The speed and magnitude of the response to George Floyd’s death is dazzling, but the protests are not a darkness so much as a light, and the darkness which has so suddenly been brought to the centre of my vision has not come suddenly at all for most of the protestors whose lives have been darkened by the shadow of racism for so long. When the eclipse ended, Annie Dillard writes, everyone who had gathered to watch it hurried away, not staying to watch the sun complete its return but returning to their houses and hotels and their breakfasts and cups of coffee, hurrying to leave behind an experience that turned out to be too overwhelming to stay with. The essay, too, took a turn away from the description of the eclipse, returning to the odd, random details that travelling involves. But she keeps returning to that moment from one angle then another, and she gives the account of one young boy who recalls the “life-saver” of white light that continued to circle the darkened sun at the height of the eclipse, a life-saver of light that might be a better image for the protests than the darkness at its centre.
16/6/2020 09:24:27 pm
Leave a Reply.
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.