April 12, 2024

Theory of Eclipse

Nathan Brown

John Senex and Thomas Wright’s 1737 General Construction of a Solar Eclipse.

A sign is needed
Nothing else, plain and simple, wherein Sun
and Moon are borne in mind, indivisible,
And go forth, Day as well as Night, and
The heavenly ones feel one another’s warmth.

Ein Zieichen braucht es
Nichts anderes, schlecht und recht, damit es Sonn
Und Mond trag’ im Gemüth, untrennbar,
Und fortgeh, Tag and Nacht auch, und
Die Himmlischen warm sich fühlen aneinander.

—Hölderlin, “Der Ister”

But this was a cold sovereign. Approaching, it imposed a somber atmosphere, not of dread, but of strict sobriety. A leaden silence, charged with elemental pallor. However expected, something in excess of expectation was taking place, where “taking place” is the precise term: the advent of totality (here the term is likewise exact) will be an alignment, a locking in of perspectival focus, a stern determination of the field of the gaze, a siting of the terrestrial subject. From my balcony, where I have looked out through these branches day after day, night after night, year after year, the fact that this celestial alignment was about to take place directly through those same branches conveyed an eerie inevitability, as if the place itself had been awaiting the event, as if the event itself were striking the place, unselected.

The approach was not continuous, but discrete: shades of gradual darkening, yes, but also three “steps,” sudden drops of light and temperature experienced not so much visually or by mere “feeling” but as a kind of total somatic registration, with the force of a blow. Like a plane dropping amid turbulence. As if gravity had given way, as if the earth were falling out of or into itself in pulses. Something grave was happening, was about to befall us. Something was coming to pass, but its incipient advent was nothing: a descent of darkness, silence, void, the chill of subtraction portending a subtracted sun.

The thing itself was not an aesthetic experience. What transpired was neither beautiful nor sublime. There was no lingering within a feeling of life, no free play of the faculties. Rather: a radical seizure of the body, a shuddering, overwhelming sense of being somatically gripped. There was, to be sure, a default of imagination, but no totalizing power of reason stepped in to overcome the failure of synthesis. Thought—abolished for a determinate duration. A quaking of the core of one’s being, an intersection of being and existence as the time of the abyssal zenith, Chronos traversed by Aeon. Consummation shorn of schema.

Amid the facticity of its transmission, such an experience shatters the subject through an abrupt dispersion of meaning. I have never had an experience so replete with an absence of conceptual significance, so resolutely somatic. Again: celestial alignment fixes the terrestrial subject; pinned, that subject trembles within the determinacy of its site. For a duration, that trembling subsumes the division of interiority and exteriority, folding the concomitance of being and existence into a planetary shudder in which one is included as sentience, from which one is excluded as sapience.

Yet we can understand, retroactively and with some precision, why that might be. The signifier polarizes the given: this is its daunting power, its implacable force. Sun and Moon. Day and Night. Amid the givenness of experience there are gradations of light, there are objects, there are stimuli. There “is no such thing” as “Day” and “Night.” The order of the symbolic strikes these gradations with opposition, presses objects into a field of contradiction, resonating with empirically impossible significance. The symbolic is the domain of the impossible and the necessary: doesn’t stop not being written; doesn’t stop being written. What is not, is. What is must be. The relay between these is the event, contingency: stops not being written. The event is a creature of the symbolic, which dwells within the catacombs of contradiction. Somber. Unfamiliar. Expectant. Invasive.

Oh Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

In the advent of totality, objects replete with the significance of symbolic contradiction, yet located within the field of the imaginary—indeed, enabling and determining its degrees of givenness—transmit a collapse of the polarizing function of the signifier. It is “the real” itself which is given by such a collapse, which steps forth by day as the night in which all cows are black. Formula of the eclipse: polarization of the symbolic collapses in the imaginary, transmitting the real. This is the event.

Such an event entails an occlusion of symbolizing referentiality which itself seems (the occlusion) to speak, to step forward, to present itself as a total somatic registration indifferent to both meaning and phenomenality, though it occurs amid the phenomena. It appears as a correlate, but the correlate invades the psyche on the level of its physical extension (“Psyche ist ausgedehnt, weiss nichts davon”)—i.e., it transpires not as unconscious, but as the unconscious.


Beauty seems to have died, for Hölderlin, by a fig tree in Bordeaux. Its dying seems to have been the inscription of something more somber, a new sobriety. On the way back to a country to which he no longer belonged, from a country to which he never belonged, he is said to have been struck by Apollo, intersected by truth—by the return of an echo from, within, and as the wilderness of the sign.

A sign we are, without interpretation,
Without pain we are and have almost
Lost our language in the foreign.

Ein Zeichen sind wir, deutungslos,
Schmerzlos sind wir und haben fast
Die Sprache in der Fremde verloren.

The foreign is what cannot be subsumed by the familiar. Here it nearly, but not quite, conquers speech. When the foreign itself speaks amid our silence, the severity of its echo seizes us and shakes us out of thought. What was wholly inadequate was either preparation or lack of preparation. What remains is not so much memory, but debt.

—April 8, 2024

Poetry, Outer Space, The Cosmos

Nathan Brown is Professor of English and Canada Research Chair in Poetics at Concordia University, Montreal, where he directs the Centre for Expanded Poetics. He is the author of Rationalist Empiricism: A Theory of Speculative Critique (2021) and The Limits of Fabrication: Materials Science, Materialist Poetics (2017), as well as Baudelaire’s Shadow: An Essay on Poetic Determination (2021). His translation of The Flowers of Evil (MaMa 2021) will be published in a new edition by Verso in the fall of 2024.


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