Memoirs

A Natural History of Disturbance: Time and the Solar Eclipse

Description
In special edition of Configurations 23.2 (Spring 2015).
Categories
Published
of 20
All materials on our website are shared by users. If you have any questions about copyright issues, please report us to resolve them. We are always happy to assist you.
Related Documents
Share
Transcript
              Configurations, Volume 23, Number 2, Spring 2015, pp. 215-233 (Article)       DOI: 10.1353/con.2015.0016  For additional information about this article  Access provided by University of California , Santa Barbara (4 Mar 2016 17:13 GMT) http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/con/summary/v023/23.2.holland01.html  ABSTRACT: Drawing on accounts of two total solar eclipses from 1842 and 1851, this essay reads the visual phenomena associated with them—the effects of light and darkness—in terms of narrated time. Whereas the first part of the essay investigates the time of the eclipse as it is integrated into a framework of prediction and anticipation, the second part is more concerned with how the experience of the eclipse’s duration is recorded. The final section then considers the problem of the eclipse’s darkness as a signifier that refuses comparison to prior experiences of time. Even though the eclipse presents an epis-temological problem of how to integrate the newness of rare phenom-ena into familiar frameworks, it also creates an aesthetic one: namely, how to put sensory impressions into language. The essay shows how the darkness of an eclipse is linked to an experience of time defined by discontinuity, raising the question what aesthetic principles can ac-count for or respond to such an experience. To that end, the essay will conclude by examining a peculiar proposal made by Adalbert Stifter, for whom the sense-driven aesthetics of the eclipse is also, ultimately, a problem of artistic media. “How is it now to be explained, namely, what several observers re-port during the eclipse of 1706, that the darkness at the time of the total occultation of the sun compares neither to night nor to dusk, but rather is of a particular kind? What is this particular kind?”—Jacob Lehmann, The Eclipse of July 8, 1842 215 A Natural History of Disturbance: Time and the Solar Eclipse Jocelyn Holland University of California, Santa Barbara Configurations, 2015, 23:215–233 © 2015 by Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.  216 CONFIGURATIONS According to the philosopher Hans Blumenberg, the European his-tory of theory begins at the moment when Thales predicts the occur-rence of a solar eclipse in 585 BCE . 1  It is open to discussion whether Blumenberg’s claim refers in this case to a new use of language to ac-count for future events based on scientific theory, to the prediction’s instrumental value in the particular cultural context of the Battle of Halas, 2  or to a transition from religious to secular frameworks of un-derstanding. One thing is certain, however: ever since Thales’ time, predictions of eclipses have operated at the intersection of scien-tific theory and cultural practices. As natural occurrences, eclipses are objects of scientific study that have been explained through increasingly sophisticated mathematical and astronomical models, allowing future eclipses to be predicted with precision and histori-cal events to be dated even more exactly with reference to eclipses past. Yet, it is also true that throughout history eclipses have been perceived as the most supernatural of events, permitting supersti-tion and fear to intrude, along with the strange darkness that dis-turbs the otherwise familiar oscillation of day and night. As a result, eclipses have frequently been used across cultures—in particular, by the community of scientists and scholars—as an index of “enlight-enment.” Thus, the astronomers of the nineteenth century, an ep-och that witnessed several mathematical advances in the calculation of solar and lunar eclipses, as exemplified in the work of Friedrich Bessel, are able to look back at prior centuries with scorn, mocking the irrational fears of times past. 3  A text published shortly before a total eclipse in 1851, for example, points out with some smug-ness that scarcely 200 years ago in Germany, “the majority of the population threw itself upon its knees in desperation during a total eclipse,” and that the composure with which the next eclipse will be greeted is “the most certain proof how only science is able to 1. Hans Blumenberg,  Die Vollzähligkeit der Sterne  (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997), p. 232. All translations from the German are mine unless otherwise noted. 2. In book 1, chapter 74 of the  Histories , Herodotus writes about the critical role played by a solar eclipse after five years of war between the Lydians and the Medes, where each fought the other “with about equal success, when a battle broke out during which the day suddenly turned into night. The Ionians received a prediction of this eclipse from Thales of Miletus, who had determined that this was the year in which an eclipse would occur. The Lydians and the Medes, however, were astonished when they saw the onset of night during the day. They stopped fighting, and both sides became eager to have peace.” See The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories , trans. Andrea L. Purvis, ed. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Random House, 2007), pp. 545–547.3. Bessel is often credited with being the first to use parallax to calculate interstellar distances, and he also devised a method of predicting the trajectory of the shadow on earth during solar eclipses.  Holland / A Natural History of Disturbance 217 conquer prejudices and superstition which prior centuries have gone through.” 4  These two sides in the cultural history of eclipses—the bright one defined by scientific observation and supported by mathematics, the dark one under the shadow of superstition or religious awe—are more closely conjoined than one might expect. Whereas scientific explanations of solar eclipses understand them from a terrestrial point of view as a rarity (although certainly no anomaly) within the laws of celestial mechanics, even in the most rigorous of scientific accounts, one finds the admission that the experience of observing the eclipse is altogether different than anticipated. It is perhaps no surprise that, despite protests to the contrary, such as the one cited above, even in the wake of the Enlightenment it is difficult to shake off less-than-rational feelings of dread and wonder—even in the face of a scientific phenomenon whose advent has been calculated to the tenth of a second. With regard to the total solar eclipse of July 8, 1842, Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter gestures toward the contra-diction inherent in these two experiences of the eclipse when he describes the phenomenon as an apparent “disturbance” to the laws of nature, which serves to make these laws evident in the first place: “Why, since all natural laws are of course miracles and creatures of God, do we notice his presence in them less than when all at once a sudden change, as it were a disturbance of them occurs, where we suddenly with terror see him standing there?” 5  Stifter suggests that the religious awe and superstitious dread that suddenly manifest during the observation of an eclipse not only play an integral role in the experience of it, they cannot be dissevered from our awareness of its lawfulness, divine or otherwise. This essay takes the tension between scientific objectivity and re-ligious awe in the accounts of Stifter and his contemporaries as its point of departure, with the premise that these elements comprise only one part of the picture. It will argue that there is another way of framing and defining the experience of the eclipse that moves beyond the easily deconstructed dichotomy of the rational and the irrational, by positioning the eclipse within a complex tempo-ral framework of continuity and discontinuity. One of the puzzles 4. August Ludwig Busch, Ueber die totale Sonnenfinsterniß am 28. Juli 1851 und die  Erscheinungen, welche dabei zu erwarten sind,  2nd ed. (Königsberg: H. L. Voigt, 1851), pp. 21–22.5. For a German edition of Stifter’s text, “Die Sonnenfinsternis am 8. Juli, 1842,” see his Gesammelte Werke , vol. 6,  Kleine Schriften  (Frankfurt am Main: Insel-Verlag, 1959). All English quotations from Stifter’s text refer to a translation published in the appendix to the present volume, which is based on this German edition of his works.  218 CONFIGURATIONS presented by the eclipse is precisely the question formulated by  Jacob Lehmann in the epigraph to this essay: What kind of dark-ness is the darkness of the eclipse? As we will see, it is more than the absence of light; rather, it is the absence of familiar coordinates that make description possible, coordinates that in many accounts are defined by an association between light and time. This is an absence that frustrates Stifter and the astronomers of his day as they try to make sense not only of the eclipse itself, but also of the experience of observing it. To that end, the following pages will frame the eclipse as a temporal problem that encompasses both expected and unex-pected affinities and discrepancies between predictions and records of the actual event. Drawing on records of two total solar eclipses of the mid-nineteenth century, from 1842 and 1851, the essay will consider these eclipses with reference to narrative invocations of the future, the present, and the past. This approach also implies that the visual phenomena that comprise the solar eclipse—the effects of light and darkness—will be read in terms of time. Whereas the first part of the essay investigates the time of the eclipse as it is integrated into a framework of prediction and anticipation, the second part is more concerned with how the experience of the eclipse’s duration is recorded, and the final section will consider the problem of the eclipse’s darkness as a signifier that refuses comparison to prior ex-periences of time. For all that the eclipse presents us with an episte-mological problem of how to integrate the newness of rare phenom-ena into familiar frameworks, it also presents us with an aesthetic one: namely, how to put sensory impressions into language. Given that one of the arguments of this essay is that the darkness of an eclipse is intrinsically linked to an experience of time defined by discontinuity, the question arises of what aesthetic principles can account for or respond to such an experience. To that end, the essay will conclude by examining a peculiar proposal made by Stifter, for whom the sense-driven aesthetics of the eclipse is also, ultimately, a problem of artistic media. Predictions When, on the early morning of July 8, 1842, the shadow of the moon cut its broad swath through Spain, central Europe, Ukraine, and beyond, its arrival both confirmed a prediction and testified to the ingenuity of those who have made it their business to follow the courses of stars and satellites visible from earth. In its simplest terms, this prediction is merely a number—a temporal coordinate given in units of time as measured in years, days, hours, and even, by the mid-nineteenth century, in minutes, seconds, and fractions
Search
Similar documents
View more...
Tags
Related Search
We Need Your Support
Thank you for visiting our website and your interest in our free products and services. We are nonprofit website to share and download documents. To the running of this website, we need your help to support us.

Thanks to everyone for your continued support.

No, Thanks