Before my first eclipse, I was always afraid of crowds; growing up watching television in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s was an education in their dangers. The ones on-screen were mostly political demonstrations, rock festivals or riots, and they were framed as things to be feared for the same reason that 19th-century scientists feared eclipses. Crowds made you forget yourself. Dissolving all individual restraint, they coursed with uncontrollable instinct and emotion. This conception of crowds as irrational and contagiously violent entities was the legacy of European theorists like Gustave Le Bon, whose own views were shaped by the political turmoil of late-19th-century France. To him, crowds were barbarous agents of destruction. All this fed into the nervousness I already felt about being in groups of people. I used to spend a lot of time out on my own in woods and fields mostly because I wanted to watch wild animals, which are hard to sneak up on as part of a crowd. But there were more troubling reasons behind my desire to be alone. It’s reassuring to view the world on your own. You can gaze at a landscape and see it peopled by things — trees, clouds, hills and valleys — that have no voice except the ones you give them in your imagination; none can challenge who you are. So often we see solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature. But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own.
Another way to escape social conflict is to make yourself part of a crowd of people who see the world the same way you do and value the same things as you. We’re familiar with the notion that America is a land of rugged individualists, but it turns out that it has a long tradition of sociability when it comes to seeking out the sublime. As the historian David Nye has argued, groups of tourists who traveled to natural sites like the Grand Canyon or to witness awe-inspiring events like space-program launches were engaged in a distinctly American form of secular pilgrimage. Their experience of the sublime supported the idea of American exceptionalism, the marveling crowds newly assured of the singular grandeur and importance of their nation. But the millions of tourists who will flock to this summer’s event won’t see something that time has fashioned from American rock and earth, or something wrought by American ingenuity, but a passing shadow cast across the nation from celestial bodies above.
The event this August has been called the Great American Eclipse, and it seems to me to chime with the country’s current struggles: between reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference. The most distressing present-day crowds are those whose politics are built from fear and outrage against otherness. They are entities that define themselves by virtue of what they are against. Yet the simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way. Confronting something like the absolute, all our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn, there can be no them, only us. In Turkey, the crowd around me changed as the eclipse progressed. At first I stood there amid a collection of strangers. Then, after first contact, as the moon began to eat away at the sun, I began to feel I was part of something resembling a religious congregation. During the gloom of second contact, I felt lost and alone, but also completely merged with the crowd that shared my experience — a contradiction rooted in the overwhelming recognition of human mortality the eclipse had provoked. Treading my way across the sand after it was over, I couldn’t stop myself grinning at everyone I passed, and several times exchanged hugs with complete strangers who no longer seemed strangers at all.
On that day, thousands of pairs of eyes had been focused upon a single point in the sky; we shared a vision that made us one. But even when the weather is poor and the sun obscured by clouds, the crowds under an eclipse can work a rare and life-changing magic. Seven years before the event in Turkey, my father and I walked onto a packed beach in Cornwall to witness the first total eclipse to cross Britain in more than 70 years. We found ourselves standing-room among milling tour guides, eclipse chasers, schoolchildren, camera crews, teenagers waving glow sticks, New Age travelers and folks in fancy dress. It was my first eclipse. I was anxious about all the people and still clinging to that sophomoric intuition that a revelation would come only if none of them were there. Depressingly, the sky was thick with clouds; I knew none of us would see anything other than darkness when totality came. But as the light dimmed after second contact, the atmosphere grew electric, and the crowd became suddenly important, a palpable presence in my mind. I felt a fleeting, urgent concern for the safety of everyone around me as the world rolled, and the moon, too, and night slammed down on us. Though I could hardly see a hand held in front of my face, far out across the sea hung clouds tinted the eerie sunset shade of faded photographs of atomic tests, and beyond them clear blue day. Shock, then, and a sense of creeping dread.
And then the revelation came. It wasn’t what I’d expected, for it wasn’t focused up there in the sky, but down here with us all, as the crowds that lined the Atlantic shore raised cameras to commemorate totality, and as they flashed a wave of particulate light crashed along the dark beach and flooded across to the other side of the bay, making the whole coast a glittering field of stars. Each fugitive point of light was a different person. I remember laughing out loud. I’d wanted a solitary revelation, but I was given something else. An overwhelming sense of humanity, and of what it is made — a host of individual lights shining briefly against the oncoming darkness.