Transit of Shadow: On Eclipses

“…the attendant phenomena of eclipses, solar and lunar, from immersion to emersion, abatement of wind, transit of shadow, taciturnity of winged creatures, emergence of nocturnal or crepuscular animals, persistence of internal light, obscurity of terrestrial waters, pallor of human beings.” –James Joyce Ulysses (1922)

“We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down.” –Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” (1982)

“Leonard Nimoy: A solar eclipse. The cosmic ballet goes on.

Fellow Passenger: Does anyone want to switch seats?”

The Simpsons, “Marge vs. the Monorail” (1993)

Let’s begin with one of the most famous examples, March 1st 1504: that Genoan sailor, navigator, epistler, propagandist, colonizer, self-promoter, rapist, murderer and genius Christopher Columbus supposedly found himself in a difficult situation. Initially welcomed by the Taino of this Caribbean Eden called Jamaica, relations with the natives had soured as the Spaniards indulged their every desire upon the islanders, with no concern for either Christ or consent, thus setting the template for how this experiment called America would be marked from its earliest days. And so, the Taino Cacique rightly ordered his people to halt delivery of provisions to the Christians as punishment for the pillaging and rape which had marked Columbus’s tenure on the island. With tawny skin stretched tight across rib cages, and with sunken yellow eyes and yellow cheeks, the Spanish began to starve, here in this lush utopia that they transformed into a fetid prison ship.

But, if the accounts of the navigator’s son Ferdinand are to be believed, his father was nothing if not an ingenious man, and though he was a medieval-minded mystical visionary who imagined the world as a pear-shaped breast with paradise at the nipple, who searched for Indian gold to fund the crusaders’ war against the Saracens, and who parsed scripture for evidence of the apocalypse’s date, he was also a partisan of astrolabe and compass, and one mad enough to no longer hug the coast as he sailed to undiscovered kingdoms. And so in his time of desperation, he turned not to his beloved Revelation, which predicted wars between Gog and Magog, nor the matrices of kabbalah or the totalizing ardor of the alchemist, but rather to the German astronomer Regiomantus’ Ephemeris.

In that book of sober science he read that that very month, that veritable day, that immaculate hour the moon was to descend into the shadowy blackness of Earth’s umbra so that it would appear that the satellite itself was to disappear, after turning an inky blood red. And so, not in spite of the fact that he was girded with this empirical knowledge but because of it, Columbus, with great duplicity, affected the persona not of the learned mathematical scholar but of the prophetic magus (though both are privy to the luxuries of certainty). Embracing the new learning of the Renaissance, but masking it as magic, Columbus told the Cacique that–lest the natives reestablish their life-giving trade with the sailors–the Christian god would extinguish the moon and loose the blood-dimmed tide over this isle so full of noises. And like Prospero with his Caliban, these honey-sweetened threats were affective, for upon the lunar eclipse it was “with great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them.”

It’s a hell of a story. One of the many mythic legends about the disgraced man who found some islands off the coast of Asia and lived to see another man give his name to them. Columbus with his disappeared moon belongs to the same genre that includes stories such as Cortez being welcomed as that eastern pale-face Quetzalcoatl by a humiliated Montezuma still resplendent in panther-skin robes and feathered headdress; or the account of some unscrupulous Dutch real estate traders inaugurating a venerable New York tradition of grifting when they tricked the Lenape into parting with Manhattan for $24 and some beads. That template–of simple, naïve, child-like (yet somehow bloodthirsty) natives tricked by the cagey and treacherous (yet somehow admirable) Europeans became our favored script of first contact. Never mind the specifics of whatever actually happened that half-millennium ago on that verdant island. For after all, Columbus was a man who at several points in his letters and diaries emphasized that Taino and Carib and Arawak spoke an incomprehensible babble of tongues, and yet he could somehow discern that amongst each other they communicated the convenient message of “Come and see the men who have come from the sky. Bring them victuals and drink.”

Washington Irving, who was as responsible as any for constructing the enduring legend of Columbus (including the fallacy that he was the first to demonstrate the sphericalness of the Earth), wrote that the Indians regarded Columbus “with awe and reverence, as a man in the peculiar favor and confidence of the Deity, since he knew upon earth what was passing in the heavens.” Sleight of hand and chicanery; confidence man, medicine man, bullshit artist: Americans have always loved these sort of stories about Columbus, for though he was a mystical-minded Catholic visionary, this Protestant country has seemingly never had much of an issue with its name being an Italian one which ends in a vowel (true whether it’s America or Columbia).

Mark Twain, in his own act of jingoistic trickery, converted Columbus into a sober and rational New England engineer, and the Indians into ancient Britons, in his 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. There, Henry Morgan of Hartford tricks Merlin, Arthur, and the rest of the assembled court by performed a trick identical to the one Columbus pulled on the Jamaicans. Twain writes that, “the eclipse had scared the British world almost to death; that while it lasted the whole country, from one end to the other, was in a pitiable state of panic, and the churches, hermitages, and monkeries overflowed with praying and weeping poor creatures,” and so Samuel Clemens performed that alchemy which transformed Arawak into Anglo-Saxon, a nice little bit of confidence trickery in its own right, even more fully conflating our first discovery with the United States’ independence from a barbaric Old World.

This Columbus, and his myth as constructed by Irving, or Twain, or New England epic poet Joel Barlow, or for that matter two centuries of American public education, casts the explorer not as the representative of those most sovereign Catholic royals Ferdinand and Isabella, but rather as a stolid advocate for republican values, where the eclipse legend is just one more example of Columbus’s Yankee ingenuity, before there were Yankees. But that Columbus, or Morgan, used an eclipse to befuddle the primitives who threatened them is not incidental. In both stories, whether truth or fiction, accurate or exaggerated, the eclipse is itself centrally important precisely because it is an eclipse. That is because within the eclipse’s shadow there is the uncomfortable union of science and superstition, reason and magic, the discord between what we intellectually understand and what we experientially know.

For the astronomer, little is more certain than an eclipse, a matter of mathematical regularity. And yet what could seem more terrifying in its apocalyptic imagery than the literal devouring of the sun, the extinguishment of light, the banishment of the day? That they are regular and (to us) a completely explicable phenomenon drains these events of none of their power and significance. Eclipses are themselves generally mundane, between two and seven a year, if rare over populated areas; they are explained through the almost heroically simple to understand movement of either the Earth or moon directly in front of the sun. And yet the eclipse itself becomes a potent occasion. For though the physics of the whole thing are basic enough to explain to an elementary school student with a basketball, a baseball, and a flashlight, there is strange prophetic majesty implicit in viewing the event itself, as when that old cynic Twain writes, “In the stillness and the darkness, realization soon began to supplement knowledge. The mere knowledge of a fact is pale; but when you come to realize your fact, it takes on color.” The tension in those old accounts is between the “mere knowledge” held by the superior intelligence of the interloper, when placed in contrast to “realization.”

What dwells in the shadow of the penumbra is predictability wed to the remarkable, for eclipses are remarkable not in spite of their predictability, but in part because of them. The narrative thrust of all such accounts as those I’ve mentioned is the disjunction between those who can predict and those who can’t – but the universal existential incongruity of a disappearing sun is that which makes the narrative possible. Facts are pale, experience has color, and if an almanac is a straightforward book it can sometimes take on the feeling of kabbalah. The navigator, or Connecticut engineer, can manipulate using their astronomy tables, but their success is predicated on the drama of the spectacle itself. Literal knowledge of when the eclipse is going to happen only takes Columbus so far, for the whole gambit to work is implicit in the undeniable drama of the thing itself. Mathematics can give us the pale fact of when and how an eclipse is to occur, but our own eyes imbue the event with that terrifying sense of the sacred, when in the sixth hour “there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent.”

One shouldn’t think, however, that tricking the locals with a light show that you yourself didn’t actually produce is limited only to Spanish colonists and Hartford time travellers. Implicit in those sorts of stories is the arrogance of modernity, the preposition that just a little bit of star-gazing knowledge makes someone capable of flummoxing the rubes with some conveniently timed astronomical phenomena. But these sorts of stories actually go back deep into history, for one shouldn’t forget that though the Chaldeans are synonymous with magic, they dotted the lush fields of Babylon with observatories as well. Say what you will about their errors in modeling the solar system, if the ancients were capable of anything it was predicting the motion of those celestial spheres with a surprising accuracy. Indeed, it is precisely because of a similar trick, if done for more noble reasons, that we’re able to know the earliest exact date in human history: May 28, 585 B.C.E.

On that particular Ionian spring day, an armistice was reached between the Medes and Lydians, who until that hour had been embroiled in furious conflict for five bloody years. Thales of Miletus, the first of the pre-Socratic philosophers, and, as that tribe was apt to be, remembered for his aphoristic pronouncements, which have the strange quality of being literally wrong while also somehow completely correct (in Thales’s case this was his contention: that all of reality was made of water) used those famed Babylonian star charts to predict the exact hour at which a solar eclipse was to occur. The Medes and Lydians ignored foolish aquaphilic Thales with his Chaldean charts, until on that predicted May 28,th when Herodotus recorded that “during the battle the day was suddenly turned to night. Thales of Miletus had foretold this loss of daylight to the Ionians,” and so the philosopher was celebrated as one who, through casting darkness, was able paradoxically to bring peace, as the sons of both Media and Lydia could once again live as brothers under the specter of a dark sun. But as miraculous as that blessed moment of peace may have been, what’s even more incredible is that Thales was forever able to mark this specific May 28th as the first day in our human calendar that we can know and identify with any exactitude. There is no range of dates on which the ceasefire could have occurred, it did not happen on the 27th, nor the 29th – the disappearing sun ensures that it only could have been on the day that Thales said it would be. Exact dates of any event before that Greek spring must be forever unknown, as for that matter must the majority of significant dates after that May 28th, at least until relatively recently. We can never know what the exact date was on which Ashurbanipal first oversaw the foundations of Nineveh, or when Siddhartha sat up from the Bodhi tree, or when young Alexander pressed stylus to wax at the side of Aristotle in the Lyceum, or for that matter when Christ screamed out his last moment of doubt (even if the Gospels tell us that the son’s darkness rose a darkened sun).

But because the spheres move in their orderly ellipticals, with epicycle within epicycle, and all retrograde motion carefully circumscribed by immutable and elegant physics from Copernicus, to Kepler, to Einstein, we know with exact certainty that date a half-millennia before Christ when those soldiers cast aside their swords. Laplace’s demon set that clock billions of years ago, and whether you’re an adherent of Calvin or Newton the result is the same: the sun had no choice but to disappear that May 28th, and because Thales knew that, we can forever remember that first date with as much certainty as one knows a birthday, or an anniversary, or the day a loved one died, or the day someone put down the bottle, or the day of a graduation, or a first kiss. Only the date of our individual death is forever unknown to us, but all eclipses are forever inscribed and certain, both those that have come before and those yet to occlude. Thales, by the measurement of eclipse, started human history by giving us certainty; through the myth of the swallowed sun he initiated the recording of fact. The date of that sacred armistice is as immutable and certain as April 15th, 1865, or December 7th 1941, or November 22nd, 1963, or September 11th, 2001. That exact hour from the Peloponnesian War was the first such moment that could be definite in the same way as those other dates; because Thales knew of that eclipse, and so we know of Thales.

But just as that first definite date merely preceded the multitude of the rest, that Greek eclipse was only one of many which so starkly intervened within human history (and not even the first). Eclipses’ shadows are cast across history, across myth, and across literature – as with all things human, these categories are much more permeable and interrelated than might be first assumed. There was an eclipse in 1302 BCE where a Chinese inscription painted on the back of a turtle shell records that “flames ate the sun,” a 763 BCE eclipse which coincided with an uprising in the Assyrian city of Ashur (with a tablet indicating that the two events were conflated); there was one which lasted a little under five minutes in 1133 and marked the death of Henry I of England and was experienced as “hideous darkness,” and the lunar eclipse of May 22, 1453, when the Ottomans were battering down the walls of Constantinople, a blood moon marking the final demise of the great Byzantium.

As if the collapse of the remainder of the eastern Roman empire and the routing of Orthodox Christianity by Mehmed II wasn’t dramatic enough, May 29th, 1919, saw an eclipse that demonstrated an even more radical reshuffling of reality. The Experimentum crucis of two observational teams deployed to both Brazil and an island off the coast of Africa used the shadow of the event to compare measurements of the deviation of light through the curvature of space, confirming Einstein’s General theory of Relativity. Constantinople becoming Istanbul may have been punctuated with that lunar eclipse of 1453, but the solar eclipse of 1919 transformed space into time (at least in our understanding of the universe), with the New York Times reporting “Light All Askew in the Heavens.” That eclipse provided the opportunity for astronomers like Arthur Eddington, making his observations on a colonial African cocoa plantation, to calculate the slight difference between where stars appeared to be in the heavens before and during the eclipse, and to thus observe the way in which light traversed through the portion of the space-time continuum more radically curved by the sun’s massive gravitational field. The Times of London’s headline was “Newtonian Ideas Overthrown,” and indeed Einstein’s was a strange theurgy, which defeated classical physics and forever-unified time and space into one unit, whose alteration was the origin of something as fundamental as gravity. Such an eclipse was the modern version of another one two millennia before, whose exact date we don’t know, but which supposedly marked the crucifixion of Christ. Like Einstein, he was a Jew who challenged a traditional order, and much as Einstein permanently combined our ideas of space and time, so the idea of Christ would unify matter and spirit (at least for those who adhere to the Nicene Creed).

Christ’s eclipse belongs as much to mythic time as it does historical, but the connection of his death upon the cross to the movements of the moon and sun demonstrates the pagan core to all faiths, which still endure even through the Abrahamic religions. Theology might be of the head, but faith must always be of the body, and the sublime wisdom of paganism–that the sun and moon, seasons and weather, animals and terrain indelibly mark how we experience both the profane and the sacred–can’t help but find a home within the great desert religions of the Axial Age. In Surah 75:7 of the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammad said of eclipses that, “These signs which Allah sends do not occur because of the life or death of somebody,” and yet tradition holds that an eclipse marked the birth of the Prophet, and some Muslims believe an eclipse will mark the arrival of the Mahdi. The rhythms of the heavens and the cycles of nature are a potent force, still providing the most majestic experience available to human sense, and we can condescend to the ancient Chinese fearing that the sun had been devoured by a dragon, or the Aztec’s Black Sun when feather-plumed Quetzalcoatl made his western exit in that passage set into the gloaming meadows of Dusk’s Kingdom, but the emotions that conflate an eclipse with the execution of God as man, or which mark the birth of the final prophet, remind us that we must be humble before our pagan ancestors as they were before the disappearing moon and sun.

I am not claiming that Christianity and Islam are as “irrational” as those archaic religions that preceded them, nor am I saying that they are all simply reducible to one another. I respect the majesty of the eclipse too much; if I observe a pagan element running through the great monotheisms as clearly as the moon runs between the Earth and sun, it’s not to denigrate Abraham’s progeny, but to note that all of us are the progeny of Adam, and he was firstly one who dwelled within the temple of nature. And as day first needed to be made distinct from night, as both the greater and lesser nights had to be distinguished from one another, the eclipse briefly confuses and comingles them, providing us a few minutes of knowing what it was like when creation had yet to be fully created.

And not just creation, but millennium as well. Creation is simply apocalypse played in reverse, and both raveling and unraveling are intimately connected as times where the order of things is upended, the world turned upside down (or more appropriately the sun extinguished). Whether Christian or Cannibal, Puritan or pagan, the disordering of nature marks both genesis and revelation, and if an eclipse gives us a view of that first day when the crystalline spheres were initially put into motion, then it also affords us a glimpse of when those planets will run off their tracks, crash into each other, and all shall be final. Supreme Protestant though he may have been, the poet John Milton understood that nature and nature’s God are more synonymous than not, and the deep-time wisdom of paganism is threaded through his verse. Indeed astronomy, though defined by objective, empirical measurement, and practiced with calculation and observation, is in some sense the most “pagan” of sciences; for like primordial religion, astronomy, perennially reminds us of the grandeur of the universe and of our own insignificance within it. Milton, perhaps because he met Galileo during his Italian tour, deeply understood that the universe’s and God’s grandeur are as equivalent, in both sublimity and terror. He was well versed in Ptolemaism, Copernicanism, diurnal theory, and conjectures on the plurality of worlds, and furthermore in his Paradise Lost he has Adam discuss such issues with the archangel Raphael.

In the first book of that epic he equates the fall of the “dread commander” Lucifer, the “morning star,” with the disappearing sun. Cast into perdition, yet “his form had yet not lost/All her original brightness, nor appeared/Less than Archangel ruined, and the excess/Of glory obscured.” Milton compares the towering fallen angel to “when the sun new-risen/Looks through the horizontal misty air/Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon/In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds/On half the nations.” An eclipse, like the archangels exile from heaven, may be foreknown to the omniscient God; and Lucifer caste from paradise, like an eclipse, is also a terrifying vision. The eclipse signifies the union of both the regularized almanac predictability of the calendar with the terrifying spectacle of the very sun itself seeming to go extinct (if for a few minutes). Darkness falls out of light, like Lucifer cast from heaven, and for but a few minutes we experience apocalypse, even if intellectually we know it’s but the moon passing before the sun.

Twilight might shed on half the nations, but eventually she shall shed on all of them. This month it sheds on only one nation. Excitement mounts for August 21st, 2017’s Great American Eclipse, which will first be seen in Salem, Oregon at 10:15 in the morning, for close to two minutes. From the rainy green-leafed Cascades of the northwest, the path of totality will burn eastward across the badlands of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the prairies of Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, the expanses of Missouri, the hills of southern Illinois and the ancient Appalachians of Kentucky, and through the crucible of the Confederacy in Tennessee, Georgia, the pines and cedars of North Carolina, and finally the low country of South Carolina. It marks the first time a complete eclipse has been visible in a path of totality across the entire continent-sized empire of America since June 8th, 1918, when European trenches still convulsed with the wretched dying, the Bolsheviks consolidated power in Petrograd, and army infirmaries started to fill with patients stricken with the early dull ache of the Spanish influenza, when confirmation of Einstein’s alchemy of space and time through another eclipse still lay a year off. The Great American Eclipse’s path of totality will take exactly one hour, thirty-three minutes, and sixteen-point-eight seconds to diagonally burn eastward across the continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic, entering and exiting the continent like a bullet cutting through flesh.

That a total eclipse is visible in any given specific, geographic location is rare. Though a huge swath of the continental United States will be privy to August’s eclipse, most of us will only be able to view a partial one. Take, as only one example, the city of Los Angeles. Since the United States of America became a nation, the city of Los Angeles has never once been witness to a total solar eclipse. During the colonial era, the area were Los Angeles would one day spread outward was only privy to a complete solar eclipse five time; in 1557, 1623, 1632, 1679, and for the last time in 1724. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo staked a claim for Southern California by the Kingdom of Spain in 1542 (memories of Columbus’s trick perhaps still fresh in conquistador minds), but no Europeans reached that coastal basin hemmed in by those snow-capped peaks until 1769, and a permanent mission wasn’t established until 1771. That means that absolutely nobody of European, Asian, or African descent has ever seen a complete solar eclipse within what would be L.A. The city has seen colonization by the Spanish, Mexican independence, the California Republic, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the discovery of oil, the construction of the aqueduct that made the arid desert fertile, the Olympics, and the rise of Hollywood. From the eighteenth-century when the settlement was populated by some forty odd Pobladores, to the almost four million inhabitants who live in the city today, Los Angeles is a consummately American place; city as metonymy for the country’s history from squabbling colonial outposts to massive, diverse, complex, and contradictory nation. But the last time a total eclipse was viewable within the valley it was the home to only Tongva and Chumash.

If you want to see a total solar eclipse within Los Angeles city limits, you’ll have to wait until after the year 3000, as NASA’s calculator records no total eclipses for the rest of the third millennium within L.A. However, citizens should be pleased to learn they may be able to see a partial annular eclipse within the city in 2121, 2711, or 2876, at which point it’s hard to know whether there still will be a Los Angeles within which to view an eclipse (though perhaps the city will sprawl far enough out in the meantime that it will encompass regions where the phenomenon may be observable, and Angelinos will be lucky enough to see an eclipse before those predicted dates). The point remains the same however: Los Angeles (or anywhere) can be as a memento mori when placed in contrast to the long planning of the heavens, for the cosmos cares not about Spanish colonization, Mexican independence, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, oil, aqueducts, the Olympics or Hollywood – an eclipse’s schedule works on a different scale, whether we’re there to witness it or not. It’s very possible, as the vagaries of history go, that Los Angeles may have been born and pass entirely within the time frame of there being no visible total eclipses within the region it currently occupies. My hometown of Pittsburgh has never had a total eclipse in the entire history of European settlement, it will only have her first on September 12th, 2444, at which point I’ll assume that I’ll be too infirm to enjoy it. Vanity of vanities, veil of shadows, and all the rest. An eclipse hurries for no man.

Where then is our theory of the eclipse? Not the mechanism, but the grappling with the significance, not the science, but the poetry? We still fear that dragon swallowing the sun; it is primal and adrenal. Not of the mind but the endocrine gland, not of contemplation, but fear. Beautiful, majestic, and terrifying, for Apollo seems to still his axle. A reminder not that the universe can die, but that she can hide her face from us and be none the worse for wear. We can watch with our goggles and cards with pins punched in them, but an eclipse in its authenticity, and its explicable magic and its inexplicable regularized prosaicness haunts us still, with evocations of the sublime. When standing out in whatever field, or hill, or skyscraper you choose to spend your few minutes looking at the sun be devoured on the 21st, remember that from the beginning until the end, eclipses continue on and on whether we’re there to witness them or not, and that may be their most important lesson.

In what is possibly both the dawn and the dusk of the short Anthropocene, the eclipse is like a skull in a Dutch Old Master’s painting, a reminder that nature still wins, even if we can predict what nature does. We may be destroying our own “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan called the Earth, but we’re thankfully still small in contrast to the cosmos. All of our technology can’t prevent an eclipse, even if we’ve found ways to alter the very weather, to raise the sea levels and burst the banks of our rivers, even if we find it possible to erase Columbus’ Jamaica, or our Los Angeles, or any of our other places from the map. In the past, eclipses terrified because they were unpredictable, and they still terrify for they are the nature that we cannot touch, reminding us that even in the Anthropocene we are defenseless against the turning gyers of heaven. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid’s Apollo asks Phaeton: “Suppose the chariot of the sun were given you, what would you do?” Suppose indeed, thankfully it’s a question we can never answer; better to consider Nietzsche’s interrogative “What will we do as the Earth is set loose from the sun?” for we ultimately never have any real say in what heavenly bodies move in front of other heavenly bodies. A type of scientific wisdom crucial for keeping us small, a strange consolation in a world where we’ve been able to alter the very weather: there are some things of this world that we cannot alter. Leave Dyson spheres for the aliens circling around KIC 846 2852, even with our hubris and our arrogance we cannot smash the crystalline spheres, and thankfully the Anthropocene ends at the border of our atmosphere (minus some trash on the moon passing in front of the sun).

The Arawak were terrified of the eclipse because they couldn’t predict it and Columbus could; as descendants of Columbus we should be terrified precisely because of the eclipse’s predictability, because the lesson it conveys is that in our own insignificance the eclipse goes on, whether we’re here to view it or not. No magicians are controlling the eclipse, least of all ourselves, and in the scope of deep time our ability to predict the calendar of eclipses between now and the billions of years hence when the Earth is engulfed in the supernovae of that sometimes bashful sun only serves to remind us of how very small we are. The final lesson indeed is that the that eclipse was destined to happen on February 29th, 1504, whether Columbus was there to see it or not, as indeed the Los Angeles eclipses of 2121, or 2711, or 2876 are to happen, regardless of us. The final trick is that we realize the heavens turn without our intervention, and that we must be wise masters of predicting our own obsolescence.

We are not so different, the Taino and us, both penitents in a world not of our own making, whose script was written long before we were born and will continue to be acted long after we are dead; a script in which we are less than bit players, though our roles must still be ever important to us. Ultimately we must learn that simply because we can predict an eclipse we have no power before it, because in front of the incomparable majesty of the very universe we are but all standing on our Jamaican beach, mere fact no balm before the infinite sublimity of the everything which is not us.

Ed Simon is the associate editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, where he specialized in seventeenth-century religion and literature. Regularly published at a number of different sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.