The arc of history

Only in the tropics — that is, only in the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn — there are two days a year when the sun is directly overhead at noon and a vertical object, such as a flagpole, will cast no shadow. In Hawaii, where I live, one of those days occurs in May, when the sun is headed north to its summer solstice rendezvous with the Tropic of Cancer, and the other occurs in July, when the sun is headed back south to its winter solstice date with the Tropic of Capricorn. The astronomical term for the phenomenon is zenith passage.

Watch the shadow swing around its still point this year at

If you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to have seen, speed up the effect by sliding the cursor along the timeline and watching the shadow grow shorter and shorter on the west side of the foot of the stemware, then disappear, then reappear on the east side. The music is Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, movement 4, allegro molto. Seiji Ozawa, Berlin Philharmonic.

In the cloud of vog, for a moment,

a thin black line line becomes apparent. Cutting its way through gray and brown, it shapes itself into the appearance of something recognizable by cultural memory as an artwork, the kind named profile. Named, the work becomes instantly, intimately known. The gray and the brown now appear always to have been part of a work in purposive progress. They take on the additional definitions of fur and shadow, and in that two-word lexicon there is no order of priority. It is, and it seems never not to have been, a single meaning of gray and brown.


Of course, as Aristotle teaches, that particular meaning is intelligible only within its outline of silhouetting fur. Outside outline there can be nothing but the endless: the void prior to beginning.

Haydn Creation Chaos

But when vog modulates light, it reveals a furry penumbra where light lingers for what we realize is a next-to-last time. We become aware that we have seen and named it before. Along the no longer entirely black border between a dimly glowing cloud without and a dark, momentarily beating heart within, memory creates an image.