Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 18, 2024
16° Light Rainshower

Darkness Visible

The extreme Trumpite Marjorie Taylor Greene posted an apocalyptic warning on social media last week: “God is sending America strong signs to tell us to repent. Earthquakes and eclipses and many more things to come. I pray that our country listens.”

As one commentator noted, “there are about 50 earthquakes every day. In a typical year, 2-5 solar eclipses are visible somewhere on earth. They are natural phenomena that have been happening since the world began.”

Human beings have been thinking about eclipses for millennia. Long before we understood the planets and their movements, the stars and sky offered beauty, wonder, and a sense of permanence. They also put us in our place. They are utterly beyond human control. 

Understandably, when that grandeur and permanence suddenly seemed under threat by dark and terrible events, our prehistoric selves might have panicked.

Something coming out of thin air, like a comet, never mind a total eclipse of the sun, were hugely symbolic. The world doesn’t go dark in the middle of the day for no reason! Such events — eclipses, shooting stars, bolts of lightning — all were interpreted as miraculous signs from God. And before that, they were interpreted as omens or portents of terrible things to come. 

Uncontrollable things. 

The seventeenth-century poet, John Milton, was a great admirer of Galileo, who invented the telescope. Galileo was also imprisoned for finding that the sun was at the center of the solar system, not the earth. His science threatened the foundations of Christian religious orthodoxy.

Milton was fascinated by the planets revealed in Galileo’s telescope. He described his fallen angel Satan as “glory obscured,” an “archangel ruined,” as when

the sun…from behind the moon, 
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs.

The lines criticize monarchs, who ought to know better, “perplexed,” or confused, in the “disastrous twilight.” King Charles II’s birth in 1630 coincided with an eclipse. Naturally, this was interpreted as a bad omen, and as predicting —retroactively, when they happened, of course — the English Civil Wars in which his father, Charles I, was beheaded. 

Milton brought a new sense of the planets and stars and of the cosmos into poetry. His planets are three-dimensional, cast shadows, rotate on axes. All that was new. Before Milton, and Galileo, the planets figured as flat round discs. They had no girth. 

Three hundred and fifty years later, we know exactly where and when each and every eclipse will occur, far into the future. It’s a matter of math and science, astronomy and physics. 

While I understand the centuries of superstition and fear about evil portents in eclipses and comets, I do wonder why it still happens today, in the reign of Charles III.

In the lead up to last week’s eclipse, the notorious far-right troublemaker Alex Jones posted: “Masonic rituals planned worldwide to usher in New World Order.” He included detailed descriptions of how a map of the eclipse’s trajectory revealed symbolic Hebrew letters. Writing in the sky, in other words. 

If these late eclipse fearmongerers did not make this a religious event, predicting the Rapture, they mined the mundane. Turning to the way that local communities were preparing police and emergency services for the eclipse, Jones postulated that such operations revealed the “deep state,” and were designed to shut down communications networks so that the government could take over once and for all. 

Jones’s posts had millions of shares. Why? Who bothers about such nonsense?

Social media at once amplifies and disconnects. The scale and speed at which it can perform these two operations is unprecedented. In the good old days, conspiracy theories travelled much more slowly.

I remember a childhood vacation with my family in London, England. One Sunday morning we went down to Hyde Park’s “Speaker’s Corner,” a place where, for hundreds of years, people have been able to pronounce freely on anything. It was clearly something of a sport. There were many placards on display. One older man held a sign that read, “The end is upon us!” My dad asked him how long he’d had the sign. “This one, thirty-five years!” he said. 

We tend to look for explanations for the way things are that go beyond how things look. We want meaning. Things ought to happen for a reason. Random events, like good people dying young, create a sense of meaninglessness. It is much better to make things make sense, connect the dots. Lack of knowledge, darkness, obscurity — they make us anxious.

But we are also competitive, and, let’s face it, we all like to know better. If I can display my brilliance by finding the shapes of ancient letters in a map of the eclipse, so much the better. If I can find someone to believe me, well, then I have a following.

Alex Jones has turned conspiracy theory into an opportunity to create an audience. I don’t think that either he or Marjorie Taylor Greene believe the theories they promote. 

They know conspiracy theories are self-reinforcing; they create an audience ready for more. To create suspicion and skepticism about common facts gives a political advantage. A faction of followers. 

For me, the eclipse was also a social event, but in a different way. In the weeks running up to it, my friends and I talked about our plans. We joked about the weather, and worried we’d be disappointed on the big day. The day after, we compared notes. 

We were all sharing an actual experience. A recognition of the sheer immensity of the natural world. That recognition was made even more piercing by the fact that these days even the immensity of nature is under threat, and immense natural forces unleashed in highly unpredictable ways. Glaciers melt, the seas heave into tsunamis, forest fires rage summer after summer. Winter almost disappeared this time around. Will it come again?

But the stars, the planets, the sun, the moon, all still rotate on their axes. It gave a sense of majestic continuity. 

I was theoretically prepared for the gradual encroaching of the moon on the sun. For the onset of a few minutes of darkness in the middle of the day. But not for its eerie quality of “darkness visible” — it was dark here, but just across the lake, I could see the sun shining down as usual.

I was unprepared for the sudden stillness, the temperature drop. The lake without a ripple. A bat flitted out in the dark. We sat together outside. We took selfies in our eclipse glasses and watched the sky mutate and shift, a celestial Van Gogh of contrasting colours.

And I thought to myself, “this will never happen to me again. How lucky I am to be right here, right now, with these people I love.” 

There are miracles in the everyday. We don’t need conspiracy theories. Meaning is all around us.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 16 edition of The Picton Gazette
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