Finding meaning in Ohio’s solar anomalies

April’s total eclipse was followed a month later by an appearance of the Northern Lights. Matter News columnist Taylor Dorrell attempted to find some meaning in the rare occurrences.
The April 8 total solar eclipse
The April 8 total solar eclipseTaylor Dorrell

When I visited Cleveland in the spring, all of Ohio was projected to be in crisis. 

Gov. Mike DeWine signed an Executive Order to put emergency services on standby. Riverside City Council outside of Dayton declared a state of emergency. And rumors spread of the National Guard being activated. But in a part of the world where tornado warnings have become a tragically common occurrence, crisis proved relative. 

The preparation resulted in a quiet April 8 – the day of the historic total eclipse. Following the direction of officials, the hundreds of thousands of predicted visitors expected to clog the highways dispersed throughout the days before and after.

If earthly traffic numbers caused any sadistic disappointment, the astronomical event that caused it did not. The total eclipse that saw the moon completely block out the sun for more than four minutes was exceptional not just for its rarity in the region – it happens here once every 375 years – but also its intensity. The sun’s corona was visible and it approached the solar maximum phase that results in more streamers flaring off the sun. The rare, sky darkening event was followed only a month later by the Northern Lights venturing down over Ohio – the product of a geomagnetic storm. 

Observers thought of the eclipse exactly how scientists thought of the eclipse – not as a historic marker interacting with bodies and history in all their measured eccentricities, but as a programmatic spectacle, an optical observation, a visual happening. I personally haven’t got used to these programmatic activities. Instead, I chose to search for meaning in Ohio’s recent solar anomalies. 

The Lunarians

The menacing mood of meaninglessness has long been grappled with by philosophers and those concerned with the cosmic. Hegel, for example, considered the human being an empty night in which meaning moves in and eclipses the otherwise disjointed and complex reality. The true madness here is not existing in the “empty nothing of the night” – the static human existence in a natural environment – but instead striving to find symbolism in the universe and searching for meaning in the chaos.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ohio-born humorist Ambrose Bierce defines “Lunarian” as an inhabitant of the moon, “as distinguished from Lunatic, one whom the moon inhabits.” The disparity should be kept in mind when understanding the turn towards religion and conspiracy in attempts to eclipse the empty nothing of the night. 

Alex Jones claimed “Masonic rituals” were planned to usher in the “New World Order.” Others claimed that seven towns named Nineveh were in the line of totality. (There were actually only two.) Some claimed that CERN would open up a portal charged by Ohio’s serpent mound, though it was uncertain just where the portal would lead. Conspiracy theories are the most blatant manifestation of the madness of meaning – a misdirected plea for order. If the eclipse did open a portal, it was certainly one connecting the lunarians and the lunatics.

Truth without meaning

Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) follows the affair of a translator and a stockbroker in Rome. The film, which one critic described as “beautifully made, historically important, and boring as hell,” was screened the night before the eclipse at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s cinematheque. In the lengthy, mostly non-eventful movie, there’s a hectic scene where the stock market crashes. Monica Vitti’s character, Vittoria, follows a man who just lost millions. He casually sits down outside a cafe drinking mineral water and writing something. He leaves the paper at the table where Vittoria discovers its contents: a few simple flowers. 

During the 2008 financial crisis, pundits like Guy Sorman were quick to characterize the situation as being a brief speed bump, a “part of the normal cycle of creative destruction through which capitalism progresses.” Sorman and the Roman finance capitalist in L’Eclisse see capitalism as what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes as “truth without meaning.” 

Yes, millions of people would be thrown into turmoil, but this bears no significance on the reputation of capitalism. Marx argued that previous periods of history like feudalism were defined by man-made institutions with flaws and the potential to be overthrown; capitalism, however, was (and is) considered a natural phenomenon governed by the eternal laws of nature. Crisis is just a part of the system and we shouldn’t think anything of it. They see the history of capitalism as “homogeneous time,” as German philosopher Walter Benjamin called it, blurred and linear without ruptures. And so the stock market crash is looked at with the same lack of symbolism as nature; anomalies are met with a drawing of flowers, not a call for change.

Ecstatic trance

For Benjamin, the cosmic experience is a collective one, containing “knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us.” Far from being constricted to the individual striving for the best visual observation of the stars, Benjamin urges us to instead return to what “the ancients’ intercourse with the cosmos” was: an “ecstatic trance.”

“It is a dangerous error of modern men … to consign [the experience of the cosmos] to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights,” he wrote. “This means … that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally.”

His philosophy is one that challenges meaningless time purged of symbolism and narrative. Benjamin instead calls for a time seen as being imbued with “messianic power,” or the constant potential to change. Progress throughout history is a “storm blowing from Paradise.” Benjamin’s eclipse of meaning is not solely limited to symbolic significance like Hegel’s, but material change. History and the cosmic are tied to the collective human experience. 

Finding meaning in Ohio’s eclipse and flirtation with the aurora borealis can seem, if anything, difficult. I associate them with personal events – namely a tooth infection seemingly sparked by the eclipse and the losing of my health insurance seemingly sparked by the Northern Lights. To think on a level that is more than just mindless cause and effect, that is the lesson of these events. To fend off the lunatics and cynics in pursuit of the ecstatic trance of history, that is the goal.

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