Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I had planned to capture my day of the total solar eclipse through its genres, but I realized something in the middle of the day
When an event occurs but once in a lifetime, there’s no recurrence to establish genres.
There’s no recurrence to establish eclipse genres.
As a genre-watcher, I’m used to noticing the things we do in conventional ways—not just because they’re expected but because those ways make sense rhetorically. Weddings include invitations, gift registries, and vows. You say I have to give a wedding toast? I’ve never given one before, but lots of other people have. So I look at what others have done in response to similar situations.
But a total eclipse? There’s no pattern, no expected response, no conventions.
At the community center in the small Kansas town I went to, in the path of totality, we heard a talk from a professor/astronomy buff on the eclipse. (There’s a recurring genre for you, though not one particular to the eclipse.) In this talk, I learned that a solar eclipse happens, if I remember right, about four times a year somewhere. But a total solar eclipse across the width of the US? Once in a lifetime.
So how do we respond to such a one-in-a-lifetime experience?
I don’t know of any typical response to an eclipse. I mean, c’mon, who gets to see multiple total eclipses? Even the eclipse fans who travel the world to experience them see only a handful.
Last week, I wrote about the genres that do get used for the eclipse—maps, certifications, safety warnings, and such. And my day did include those, along with the lecture, a bake sale, and some toasts.
But even small talk differed from the usual. We didn’t chat about where we’re from/what we do for a living as much as we talked about the eclipse. Some of us were recording the temperature every ten minutes, asking whether anyone was hearing birds, gauging the wind speed and direction. I reported when the cicadas started singing ten minutes before totality—not something they do every day; not something I do every day.
We talked about what we were hoping for, dreading—lots of talk about the weather and use of weather apps and predictions. We shared optimism and promises from the weather experts, followed by rain predictions and dashed hopes. Our location got solid cloud cover at the minutes of totality.
But we did see the sun peek through during the eclipse, and that rare occurrence brought strangers hollering to each other, “It’s out! It’s out!” and others rushing to get glasses in place and huge smiles. Not a typical everyday action.
And we saw the shadow approach us over the hill and the entire horizon glow with sunset. And we pointed and called out to each other.
And we saw then the dark drape over us suddenly, to total night, in a way none of us had experienced before. And we were quiet, without words.
Then the dark lifted back up, almost as quickly. And we looked at the retreating shadow. And at each other.
And we applauded.
Not your typical performance.
Some experiences don’t recur, and we don’t even perceive them as recurring. I remember going outside to experience a solar eclipse once before in my lifetime, but not a total eclipse. If I’m ever fortunate again to be in the path of a total solar eclipse, I’ll know to hope for clear skies, check the certification on my eclipse glasses, and watch for the 360-degree sunset. But I hope I’ll never think of an eclipse—of any kind—as anything other than a unique and special event. One to experience with as few expectations as possible, and as much unconventional presence in the moment as possible.
I might even recommend such a response to any important event, even ones where conventions are well established. Like weddings, which might recur in our culture but happen just once for any individual (we hope).
I hope your eclipse experience was memorable, wherever you were, however much cloud cover you had, and however far out of the path you were.
And may we all have many moments in our lives that merit our unique attention, our silence, and applause.
For those of you hoping I would publish on the genres of the apocalypse (since the eclipse has been associated with so many superstitions and rituals), here are some links to the material I've been reading with some fascination:
How eclipses were regarded as omens in the ancient world
How ancient cultures explained eclipses