In March 2006, I stood on a crowded beach in Turkey and waited until, at the allotted time, with a chorus of screams and cheers and whistles and applause, the sun slid away, and impossibly, impossibly, we saw above us a stretch of black sky and in the middle of it a hole, blacker than anything I’d ever seen, fringed with a ring of soft white fire. My heart jumped up to my throat, and my eyes grew hot with tears. I fell to my knees, feeling tiny and huge, and as lonely as I’ve ever been, but also astonishingly close to the crowds around me.
Totality — that point of a solar eclipse when the sun is entirely covered by the moon — is incomprehensible. Your mind can’t grasp any of it: not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on the horizon, nor the stars; just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes toward it. I stared up at the hole in the sky and then at the figures around me, and became gripped by the conviction that my life was over; that I was kneeling in the underworld in the company of all the shades of the dead. It was bitterly cold. A loose wind blew through the darkness. But then came third contact. From the lower edge of the blank, black disk of the dead sun burst a perfect point of brilliance. It leapt and burned, unthinkably fierce and bright, something absurdly like a word. I’m not a person of faith, but even so, the sun’s reappearance as the moon drew away seemed like the first line of Genesis retold. Is it all set to rights, now? I thought. Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a moment ago, a songbird, a white-spectacled bulbul, called a greeting to the new dawn.
Long ago, when I first decided I wanted to see a total solar eclipse, I planned to do so in romantic solitude. I was in my 20s, inclined to think myself the center of the universe and imagining the eclipse to be an event in which the sun and moon — and I — would line up to provoke some deep and abiding revelation. The presence of other people would detract from the meaningfulness of it all, I thought, convinced that the best way to experience the natural world was to seek private communion with it. It’s embarrassing to recall this conviction, for in the years since, I’ve seen three total eclipses, and now the thought of watching one alone horrifies me. Only among a crowd, a band of others, can you fully experience an eclipse’s atmosphere. When totality begins, you feel a wordless solidarity with the people around you as all language is ripped away. You communicate through yells, whoops, wolf-howls, screams, wild laughter. Eclipses are properly sublime events in the philosophical sense: That is, they are an encounter with something so astonishing and terrifying that you lose all capacity for reason. Only afterward is it possible to speak lucidly of what you have seen.
When I knelt on the beach in Turkey under an incomprehensible sky, it was only the certainty that the people around me were seeing this, too, that kept me clinging to any sense of reality. Witnessing an eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality. Back in the 19th century, scientists on eclipse-viewing expeditions saw them as a test of self-control. They were beset with anxiety that they might fail to maintain their objectivity in the face of the overwhelming emotions totality would bring. As the historian Alex Soojun-Kim Pang has described, their hands shook so much that many could barely record their data, and one observer was so overwhelmed by the 1871 eclipse in India that he was forced to retreat to his room and plunge his head into water. Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Edinburgh astronomer royal, wrote in surprise that during the eclipse of 1851, it was not just the “volatile Frenchman” who was “carried away in the impulses of the moment” but also the “staid Englishman” and the “stolid German.” National stereotypes aside, his concerns point to the exquisite contradiction of solar eclipses. While their paths and timings can be predicted with astonishing mathematical accuracy, their action is always to instill the very opposite of empirical description and objective science; they provoke a flood of primal awe. I knew, down to the precise second, when the moon would obscure the sun over that Turkish beach. I did not know I would fall to my knees and weep, or hear a man behind me whispering “I can’t. . . . I can’t. . . .” over and over again.