Now America has a solar eclipse to match its dark mood.
The solar eclipse seems made to order for our current national mood. Darkness at midday? Just further proof of the gloomy times we’re living in.
Pick up any newspaper and the evidence is clear: most Americans feel pessimistic about the nation’s future. Since 2009, polls have consistently shown that over 70% of Americans worry that the country is on the wrong track. A full 65% believe the country is now “in a state of decline”. More than 40% fear an imminent terrorist attack.
Worries over race relations are at a record high. Bookstore shelves are lined with titles like The Plot to Hack America; White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.
As the moon slides in front of the sun in August, causing several minutes of total midday darkness across a wide swath of the United States, we might do well to recall other total eclipses that have occurred at other apocalyptic moments in history.
In 1927, the British writer Virginia Woolf ventured out with friends to witness a total solar eclipse, fully expecting to enjoy the freakish spectacle. Instead she found the experience gutting: “[V]ery very quickly all the colors faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over … when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct.” It was, she writes, “much worse than we expected. We had seen the world dead.”
Woolf, writing in the wake of the first world war, was deeply attuned to the vision of a cosmos where the lights had gone out. Like most of her contemporaries, Woolf understood that the war had savaged the prevailing European imperial world order and undercut the solid and seemingly unshakeable foundations of western civilization, destroying core tenets of national honor and patriotic duty.
In her great novel To The Lighthouse, written the same year as the solar eclipse, she describes the effect of the war as a creeping miasma of “immense darkness” that gradually pervaded all aspects of post-war society.
The lighthouse, with its intermittent beam like a sun fading in and out, remains the ambiguous manmade force at the heart of that novel, guiding the characters toward some final destiny – but not necessarily toward redemption.
For what does the safety of a lighthouse, or the natural warmth of the sun, mean in the wake of a global war that produced more than 38 million casualties and forever changed the course of human history?
The first world war would seem to have little to do with America’s current social and political malaise. But 100 years ago, European, African, and Middle Eastern peoples shared a similar apocalyptic sense of civilization in ruins, of the end of evolutionary ideals of progress and of the optimistic forward march of human history.
For a large part of the 20th century, America was on the rise, enjoying a sense of peace and growing prosperity denied the countries who had suffered through the first world war and its terrible aftermath. Yet if empires rise, they also fall, often with what historian Alfred McCoy has referred to as “unholy speed”.
It would take our own series of violent misadventures – in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as places like Guantanamo Bay – for a similar postwar dark mood to settle on our side of the Atlantic like a heavy shadow.
Woolf ends her essay on the solar eclipse by reflecting on the return of the light: “when as if a ball had rebounded, the cloud took color on itself again; and so the light came back … It was like recovery.” Nature spreads her own sense of order over disruptive events: the sun will always rise and set; the moon will never finally usurp the light.
The good thing about a solar eclipse is that we know it’s temporary. The analogy to the current national mood may end there. For the shadow settling over America’s sense of its own place in the sun, what our president refers to as its lost “greatness”, is not so easily overcome.
A hundred years after the end of the first world war, Americans are finally experiencing their own sense of civilization in decline. Whether we can reverse the course of things remains to be seen. The solar eclipse may be temporary; our own eclipse is an open question.