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Let’s All Take a Break from Politics and Squint Into the Darkened Sky

Sure, staring directly at the sun will burn your eyes out. But it’s such a perfect visual metaphor for life in 2017.
Art by Noel Ransome 

We've still got more than four months to go, but I'm willing to call it: today's North American total eclipse is going to be the highlight of the year. This is both because total solar eclipses are extremely cool, and also because there is poetic beauty in having the sun blotted out across the United States right now.

As the precondition for all life on earth, the sun has historically been pretty popular. Its daily birth, death, and resurrection mirrors the cycle of the seasons and the rhythms of human life and has served as the model for many of our species' spiritual traditions. The regularity of its fire and movement for the entire history of the planet is our finest and most visible guarantor that there is some kind of natural order. The sun is the sovereign in our sky and we are all its faithful servants.


So when the sun disappears, even if it's only for a seven-minute stretch, it's pretty dramatic. This is probably why it's one of God's favourite ways to make a statement in the Bible. He is routinely blacking out the sun in the Old Testament to make a point. The Lord's penultimate plague on Egypt was three days of darkness, an event so calamitous it could only be topped by a wave of mass infanticide. (His decision to open with turning the Nile to fucking blood and then follow with "too many frogs" always struck me as a questionable game plan.) Mighty as the sun and his Pharaonic delegates may be, they're always playing second fiddle to the Creator of the universe.

Since the scientific revolution, of course, most of us have accepted that eclipses are not the result of God temporarily stealing the sun because He's mad at us. But even with the ability to predict with absolute precision exactly where and when and how an eclipse will occur years in advance, the midday vanishing of the sun remains an awe-inspiring event. Despite expressing the mathematical elegance of the cosmos, it still feels like a suspension of natural law, a moment of stellar anarchy when we can throw our covetous gaze up on the solar throne.

It is very tempting to look at the sun during an eclipse. Because the light is blocked out, it short-circuits all your eyes' instinctive and evolutionary safety mechanisms and you can stare directly at the glorious corona without pain. Unfortunately, all the radiation is still bombing your retinas, so depending on the time and length of your stare, it will burn the image of a solar ring or crescent into your vision forever as an ironic reminder that you do not fuck with the sun.

I suspect that a lot of people will probably go sun blind today. Assuming they even hear them, all these dire warnings will differ from the personal experience of staring painlessly into the eclipse. This is how things work now: a cursory Google search, a crowdsourced opinion on Reddit or Facebook, a second or third opinion from a minor YouTube celebrity, or the deceits and limits of your own direct sense perception—this is how we roll in the age of the Extremely Online. The internet has truly revolutionized pop science and mass politics.

North America has been labouring under a broader social eclipse for some time, and it is fitting that it will find its counterpart in nature today. Somewhere between the fluorescent lights of our increasingly alienating workplaces and the synthetic glare of the LED screens surrounding us, we have found ourselves enveloped in an ideological darkness that we cannot seem to banish. We are carrying supercomputers around in our pockets but we're using them to brainwash ourselves and retreat ever further into a demon-haunted world.

The darkness of a total solar eclipse is mercilessly short; too short for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Social eclipses are a different story, though. They are so subtle and so gradual that you might be looking at it 16 years before you notice you've gone blind.

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