The Great American Eclipse of 2017 had all the trappings of a national revival. In a time of heightened uncertainty, acrimony, and fear, millions flocked to seek solace and possibly redemption before a celestial altar, gathered at the edge of immanence. Viewers along the path of totality (a category to which I sadly do not belong) were rewarded with a vision of exquisite splendor. They described feeling ecstatic and overwhelmed, spiritually moved and immobilized at the same time. It was as if the perfect alignment of three gravitationally bound spheres revealed something far greater and more sublime than the sun it temporarily obscured.
Facing what was for many an unprecedented occlusion of the familiar by the strange, people knew to expect the unexpected. Even as prophecies of doom and gloom no longer summon the urgency or legitimacy of ages past, the equation of total solar eclipses with extraordinary or catastrophic events (including traffic jams) is never far from public imagination. Nor are the questions—both existential and scientific—that such rarities pose: Is there more to what I see than meets my eye? Is there something that lies beyond the beyond?
The groundswell of metaphysical reflection normally brought on by an eclipse is amplified by its brevity. Eclipses are as ephemeral as they are beautiful. More than just moments in time, they are metaphors of time: fleeting, cherished, and perishable. They remind us of our mortality, if only by the knowledge that we may never see one again. No wonder people who witness totalities describe them as passing in seconds, even when they last a few minutes. No wonder globetrotting bands of eclipse addicts pursue the moon’s shadow as though the forward movement of their lives depended on it.
Of course, astronomical visions are nothing if not steeped in wonder. And wonder, as poets, mystics, and philosophers have long understood, is a complex thing. It cannot be reduced to any one emotion or state of mind, but is an assemblage of sensations and energies that leave us surprised, inspired, baffled, and disturbed in equal measures. Just as wonder sets us on paths of discovery and transformation, it can stop us dead in our tracks, scratching our heads, wondering what just happened or what happens next. So we keep on gazing slack-jawed at the cosmos, expecting to find meaning in shiny things—constellations, comets, eclipses, even double rainbows—always sensing that some epiphanies are only there to keep us gazing at them more.
Take the planet Saturn. While researching amateur astronomy in public spaces of New York City, I have found there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of showing someone Saturn in a telescope for the first time, of pointing to a sandy grain of light in the summer sky and revealing its identity to giddy, uninitiated eyes. Entire careers in astrophysics, cosmology, science fiction, and space exploration have been launched because of what happens when one is introduced to Saturn through the “live” medium of light.
Oddly enough, most people do not even realize it is there for the looking, dangling right above our heads a mere 800 million miles away. New Yorkers have an especially hard time believing that Saturn, or any celestial object for that matter other than the sun and moon, is ever likely to be visible amidst the mushrooming high-rises that engulf us. In a city where the luminous skyline washes the night sky virtually clean of its gems, the idea that there are actual planets up there waiting for their close-ups seems as far-fetched as finding an affordable one-bedroom with storage space and exposure to natural light.
Among so-called sidewalk astronomers—amateur stargazers who invite strangers to look through their telescopes in urban parks and on street corners—Saturn always gets top billing. As celestial sights go, what Saturn lacks in the brilliance of the moon or the elegance of Jupiter and its waltzing Galilean satellites, it makes up for in sheer, mind-boggling quirkiness. Even in small portable telescopes, the ringed planet’s unique profile is unmistakable. Watching how people react to the image for the first time, as I have witnessed on numerous occasions, is like seeing it for the first time again and again.
Yet characterizing their reactions as unmitigated joy would be something of an oversimplification, an incomplete account at best. The clearest response to Saturn from behind a telescope is exhilarated surprise (“Whoa! That’s amaaazing!”), often accompanied by shades of disbelief (“That’s Saturn? No it isn’t . . . Are you serious? . . . Oh my god, it looks fake.”). Some newcomers go so far as to accuse their astronomical guides of playing a trick on them. They think they are actually seeing a drawing or a “sticker,” like one of those tiny glow-in-the-dark Saturns you find in a child’s room or college dorm, stuck onto the inside of the telescope. Even if they believe their eyes, they have trouble accepting the immediacy of the image itself, and presumably the intentions of the mediator. It is as if when something so inconceivably distant becomes suddenly so accessible, so compactly real, our natural intuition is to chalk it up to illusion.
Such suspicions rarely amount to more than a passing skepticism, easily dispelled by our capacity to revel in cosmic delights; but they are indicative nonetheless. The image of Saturn is so oddly affecting because it comes across simultaneously as familiar and strange. Surely the gas giant’s iconic status precedes it. (“My goodness, that’s totally Saturn.”) As photos of planets and galaxies grace desktop screens and social media at every turn, courtesy of technological wonders like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini spacecraft, Saturn is even more recognizable today than it was back when we saw it only in textbooks, or orbiting around the concussed heads of hapless cartoon characters.
That sense of familiarity takes a puzzling turn, however, when observers compare Saturn’s image to other things, including smaller, more delicate things normally seen up close (those glowy stickers, for example). On a recent night in Brooklyn, a young woman seeing Saturn for the first time looked up from the eyepiece at her friend and said, “It literally looks like a piece of jewelry I have.” She was not particularly enthralled, but she clearly dwelled in the irony of the moment, as if asking herself, “Why does this object I’m seeing remind me of something it shouldn’t? What was it I expected to see?”
That is what happens when another world stares back at you. It is what astronomical visions do when we come upon them in the intimacy of earthbound peepholes and filters. They manifest peculiar juxtapositions. They impress us with contradictions in scale, and impossible resolutions of distance as proximity. They demonstrate that what we perceive as uncanny not only alters the mundane but conforms and succumbs to it. The relief is that such paradoxes need not last any longer than the time it takes to avert one’s gaze. The cosmos is a medium of infinite revelations; it is also a space in which to lose ourselves, suspended between fields of perception and intangibility.
Astronomy today is more than a scientific discipline. It is a part of our public culture that owes much of its enduring popularity to a host of technical and aesthetic practices tailored by our longings to be absorbed in marvelous things. Such longings are often attributed to the search for meaning and purpose in a disenchanted world. They are taken as expressions of an inherently modern if not intuitively human desire to get “more out of life” than the prospects of a precarious, hypermediated existence; or as evidence of our preoccupations with futurity (again, distinctly modern) and utopian visions of what humanity can achieve by looking beyond ourselves and our earthly constraints.
On some levels all that is true, but we conflicted moderns are complicated in our desires. It is not just that we want more out of life, or from the world to come. We want to want more. And so we are drawn to the ineffable and secrets only partially revealed, to objects that instill a curiosity that can be prolonged, a hunger we can stand. In an age of extremes, when everything, even truth itself, seems defined either by excess or deprivation, we value wondrous encounters that present us with a special kind of abundance, an abundance we literally cannot get enough of.