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  • “The Solar Eclipse on July 8th, 1842”
  • Adalbert Stifter
    Translated by Jocelyn Holland (bio)

There are things that one knows for fifty years, and then in the fifty-first marvels at the gravity and dreadfulness of their contents. This is how it was for me with the total solar eclipse we experienced in Vienna on July 8th in the earliest hours of the morning, under the most favorable skies. Because I can portray the matter pretty well on paper by drawing and calculation, and because I knew that at such and such a time the moon would step away beneath the sun, and that the earth would cut off a piece of its disk-shaped shadow, which then—because of the progression of the moon in its path and because of the rotation of the earth—would pull a black strip across the earth’s globe, which one then sees in different places at different times in such a way that a black slice seems to push into the sun, taking away more and more of it, until only a small sickle remains and finally it too disappears—on earth it becomes ever darker, until again on the other end the sun-sickle appears and grows, and light on earth gradually swells again until the complete day—all of this I knew in advance, and really so well that I thought to be able to describe a total solar eclipse beforehand as faithfully as if I had already seen it. However, now that it has really appeared, once I stood on a lookout point high above the entire town and regarded the phenomenon with my own eyes, there naturally occurred entirely other things, which I had never thought of either waking or dreaming, and about which no one thinks who has not seen this miracle.—Never, ever in my entire life was I so shaken, from terror and sublimity so shaken, as in these two minutes—it was nothing other than if God had all at once spoken a clear word and I had understood it. I climbed down from the lookout point, as Moses climbed down from the burning mountain a thousand and thousand years ago, confused and with a numbed heart. It was such a simple thing. One body illuminates a second one, which in turn throws its shadow upon a third: but the bodies stand at such distances that we no longer have a measure for them in our imagination. They are so gargantuan that they swell beyond everything that we call “large”—such a complex of phenomena is connected to this simple thing, such a moral force is imbued in this process, that it surges in our hearts to an incomprehensible miracle. Thousand upon thousands of years ago God made it so, that it will occur today at this second; into our hearts, however, he laid the fibers for feeling it. Through the writing of his stars he promised that it will occur after thousands and thousands of years, our fathers have learned to decipher this writing and they foretold the second in which it had to arrive; we, the latter-day grandchildren, direct our eyes and eye-pieces toward the sun at the intended second and behold, it comes—the understanding already triumphs for having calculated and learned from it the magnificence and order of [End Page 253] his sky—and indeed, the triumph is one of man’s most righteous—it comes, quietly it continues to grow—but behold, God also bequeathed him something for the heart which we did not know ahead of time, and which is a million times more valuable than what the understanding comprehended and calculated in advance. He gave him the word as well: “I am”—“I am not because these bodies and this phenomenon are, no, but rather because your heart tells you so with fear in this moment, and because this heart even despite its fear feels itself to be great.”—The animal has feared, man has prayed.

I will try in these lines to imitate that image for the thousand eyes that together gazed up to heaven, and hold onto that sensation for the thousand hearts...