A Conference in Cornwall at the Millennial Eclipse --

Participant Observations

From August 6-13, 1999 CMS Associate Daniel C. Noel co-led the gathering he had begun imagining twenty years earlier: an international interdisciplinary symposium in Cornwall, England, entitled "black sun, deep end--re-imagining millennium." Held at the time and place of the first landfall of the last total solar eclipse of the millennium on August 11 in the Land's End area, this was a gathering first fantasied at the total eclipse of February, 1979, in Montana.

The forty participants in Cornwall included fifteen presenters from academe, the arts, and archetypal (post-Jungian) psychotherapy. California cultural historian Hillel Schwartz (a CMS Advisory Board member), Montana religious studies scholar and fiction writer Lynda Sexson (who had co-organized a conference around the 1979 eclipse), Australian poet Diane Fahey, and philosopher Michael Grosso from New York State were featured speakers who had rich intellectual and aesthetic perspectives to share on millennial matters--in a program that also involved excursions to antiquities in the area and a play performance in an amphitheatre above the sea. John R. Turner, a Victorian Studies specialist and proprietor of Word and Image educational tours, was the symposium co-organizer.

It was an unusual gathering, in part reflecting upon millennialisms but in part perhaps also reflecting a millennial impulse itself. On the first night Dan read a letter addressed to the whole group--"Those Gathering at the End of Time and Space," as the salutation put it--from the archetypal psychologist and author Thomas Moore, an invitee who had been unable to attend. "We live in a world," wrote Moore, "that thinks it can go on without any time-outs. It prefers to live and understand entirely within the closed fabric of its own reasoning and manipulating. In that context, I consider what you are doing to be of inestimable value. You are going out farther than the Starship Enterprise has ever gone, and I hope and trust you will come back with some stories to tell that will quicken our lives." A fuller account, making a start on the storytelling Moore called for, will appear in the Salt Journal (P.O. Box N, Santa Fe, NM 87501). But Dan's report here is an attempt to touch on the main respects in which the symposium was indeed an extraordinary--yes, even a "far-out"--undertaking.

Central to the conference, and signalled in its title, were the images and emotions surrounding the eclipse itself, a deeply stirring event--despite clouds and showers totally obscuring the sun before, during, and after the two minutes of "totality"! Participants reported that the sudden onset of darkness, starting at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh morning, together with the startling light phenomena of flash bulbs as far away as St. Michael's Mount in the bay to the south, distant farmhouses lit up in the west, and fireworks above Penzance to the southwest, all seen from the summit of a six-thousand-year-old hill fort, underscored an experience of "deep end" and new beginning appropriate to understanding the millennialist imagination.

That is, the symposium goal was not only to share scholarly information on millennialist groups past and present. Rather, building on the observations scholars have made about the preoccupations of such groups, symposiasts sought to participate in them in an "imaginal" way. They aimed not simply to describe, and certainly not at all to emulate, the true-believing millennialists (the Order of the Solar Temple saw this 8/11/99 eclipse as bringing an apocalyptically earth-changing "poleshift"). But they did try to experience as well as assess the themes of dramatic closure/disclosure and revolutionary genesis--aching loss, searing insight, and vaulting hope--that these movements have literalized so disastrously.

Ritual gestures toward personal grieving, for instance, were encouraged (partly through art therapy workshops) as an attempt to connect the emotion of private memory to the leave-taking we are about to undergo as a culture. As an interruption in the accustomed sequence of our days, a death and rebirth in the sky, the eclipse echoed the calendrical interruption represented by the momentous turn from three nines to three zeroes. Participating as fully as possible in the first gave symposium-goers a deeper sense of the second, supplementing, and thus expanding, the valuable labor of millennial studies. To take it further, the fact that the eclipse path covered Europe, the Middle East, and India--it ended in the Bay of Bengal--allowed presenters and other participants to wonder, in a loosely Jungian fashion, about the "shadow" of "Indo-European Civilization," the submission of our vexed cultural heritage, with its apocalypses and its atomic bombs, to the darkness of a lunar imposition, arguably an announcement from "the feminine" after several millennia of mastery by the "solar masculine."

Climbing an Iron-Age hill fort, walking among Bronze-Age monoliths and feeling the waters from an ancient Celtic holy well, standing on the medieval ramparts of St. Michael's Mount and enjoying the outdoor performance of a seventeenth-century play, all gave symposiasts a felt sense of the Western history and culture that were to be covered by the black sun. Such physical excursions, approaching pilgrimage, complemented presentations that were, for the most part, addressed to the mind. Both sorts of planned experiences, however, were meant to be evocative at least as much as they were intended to be informative.

Does such evoking of imagining foreclose on reasoned understanding, constituting some sort of New-Age anti-intellectual experientialism? This was the dubious boundary toward which the symposium inclined at times, and deliberately so, in its effort at "re-imagining." But those who gathered under the clouds at the summit of Trencrom Hill on August 11 recount a deepening of their grasp of millennialism, not a denial of critical perspectives. To the extent that that "deep end" was indeed plumbed--our cultural and personal passage through the millennial end made less superficial for the forty attendees and those to whom they will communicate their understanding -Dan Noel believes the symposium served its purpose well and represented a species of participant observation of which millennial studies might profitably make more use.

 

Daniel C. Noel teaches at Vermont College of Norwich University in Montpelier, where he lives, and at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpenteria, California. He has produced six books and numerous articles on topics at the intersection of religious studies, psychology, and the arts. E-mail Dan at: noel@norwich.edu

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