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The Boston Globe

The Curse and Blessing of a Beautiful Sunset

THESE ARE THE WEEKS in which sunset comes later and later, and so you notice it. Through most of the busy year the fading of the light barely registers, but in the run-up to the summer solstice you find yourself idling on the deck, watching colors cross the sky. Your eyes drift to the western horizon, where a mountain of clouds glows with eagerness to cushion the fall of the golden disk. It is, as they say, ''pathetic fallacy'' to attribute human emotion to nature, and yet the melancholy glories of early summer sunsets make it impossible to believe that nature itself is detached.

How can this phenomenon be only a matter of the random movement of the spheres? You are drawn to the sunset because it has a message. How can you read what is written in the end of the day?

Think of that first human being to look up from a stick thousands of years ago, how stunned he must have been that the yellow thing in the sky was falling. The coming of darkness is routine to you, but imagine how terrifying it must have been to those who did not take the consoling cycle for granted.

Sunset in the west is tied in your mind to the sunrise that will follow in the east, but your ancient ancestors could not take that sequence for granted until they had thought it through.

Indeed, their observations of the sun's going and coming; their plotting of its shadows at noon; their sunset meditations and their songs at dawn - perhaps all of this is what set those creatures apart forever from animals for whom the setting of the sun provoked no question.

When your eye is drawn to the western sky on a June evening, in other words, you are doing more than the flower does when it turns toward the fickle light.

When the movement of the sun moves you, forcing contemplation, you are repeating the impulse that gave rise to self-consciousness in the first place, and you are reliving the primordial human discovery that self-consciousness is ambiguous. Self-consciousness is what lifts your heart, while burdening your soul.

Thus, a certain sentimental longing for a lost past - what Proust calls ''these shifting and confused gusts of memory'' - is more than mere nostalgia for your own youth, when the coming of sunset was a time, say, of catching fireflies in the backyard, of romancing the girl at the lake, of playing ball until you couldn't see, or, as for Proust himself, of watching the town steeple, solidity itself, as it disappeared. No, the brooding recollection appropriate to the end of the day, its mixture of happiness and sadness, is the emotion that ties you to the beginning of the human story.

The word nostalgia derives from two Greek words meaning homecoming and pain. The two combine in the pain of never feeling quite at home on the earth, and nothing evokes that feeling like the sight of the sun as it once again leaves you behind.

And so why shouldn't the sun have been the first recognized symbol of the other world for which humans felt they had been created? The sun, that is, first embodied the idea of God. You are wrong to condescend to sun-worshippers as mere ''pagans,'' for the religion they created was only a version of what you are doing now, trying to connect the sight of the setting sun to some meaning beyond itself. The assumption that meaning exists at all is the antidote to the anguish that prompts the search for it. The setting sun, of course, fairly screams the word mortality at you, evoking the anguish of death, which may be why, for most of the year, you find it easy to ignore.

The demise of each day is a rehearsal for your coming demise, which must be the core of your sunset contemplation. This, even more than your self-consciousness, is what sets you apart from your fellow creatures - your death consciousness.

But by now, having seen so many magnificent sunsets, you know that the curse is itself the blessing. The effect of such mortal knowledge has been wondrous, for it is the human's vivid sense of the transience of life that makes humans want to live it to the full. The sight of the sun, therefore, is what turns the human gaze back to the earth.

The setting sun inspires feeling, yes, but also thought; religion, yes, but equally it inspires science. Faith seeks understanding. Twilight longing for another world, finally, is what returns you to this world, as the only one you have. It is night that makes you seize the day.

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James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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