Once We Went to the Moon
Buzz Aldrin on the moon, 1969. Photograph by Neil Armstrong via NASA (cc)
by Ed Simon
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
During the Tang Dynasty, one of the poets known as the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup because of their almost transcendent embrace of living life in the moment, imagined an intoxicated vision of the moon. In his lyric “Drinking Alone Under the Moon,” the eighth-century classical Chinese poet Li Bai writes “I drank alone. There was no one with me – /Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon/To bring me my shadow and make us three.” In a translation by the American poet Witter Bynner, Li Bai envisions his lonely narrator toasting the moon, so that “I sang. /The moon encouraged me. /I danced. My shadow tumbled after. /As long as I knew, we were boon companions.” Something archetypal about a full moon; something elemental. Drunk Li Bai encouraged to ecstasy by rice wine and the moon; part drunkenness, part lunar madness. But as with all intoxication, there are dangers and illusions in too much transcendence. “And then I was drunk, and we lost one another,” Li Bai frets, “Shall goodwill ever be secure?”
I’ve no idea if Neil Armstrong had ever read or heard of Li Bai when he uttered his far more famous “That’s one small step for [a] man, that’s one giant leap for mankind” when he hobbled out of the Apollo 11 module onto the fine grey dust of Mare Tranquillitatis fifty years ago today on July 20th, 1969. No clue if Buzz Aldrin had ever contemplated “Drinking Alone Under the Moon,” or if President John F. Kennedy considered how Li Bai’s “shadow tagged me vacantly… [as I] watched the long road of the River of Stars” when he promised before Congress in September of 1962 that “We choose to go the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” I haven’t any idea if those men thought of Li Bai as Apollo slung itself from Cape Canaveral to the lunar surface, but there’s something worth considering in the poet a half-century after Armstrong first left his footprint in the moon’s dust. Something to remember in Li Bao’s warning that the moon begets a type of lunar madness.
The moon, you see, is ambivalent; she is ambiguous. Much depends on the moon, but she has always signified an occasional insanity, an unsettling, a mythic import. The Apollo mission was read before, during, and after as a symbol of American triumphalism; a significance that such a body which had dominated humanity’s dreams and poetry, myths and legends, was touched by an American foot as casually as one getting out of a bathtub. Such chauvinism inculcated an understandable fear, expressed by C.S. Lewis writing in 1963 that the “moon of the myths, the poets, the lovers will have been taken from us forever… He who first reaches it steals something from us all.”
Lewis wasn’t wrong to castigate that technocratic impulse which sees the moon as another frontier, a conveniently empty lacunae on which to impose a morally pristine American colonialism for the space age. But he was wrong in seeing no poetry in the imagined future moon landing, for Armstrong’s step could no more deprive the moon of its poetry than a tablespoon could drain the ocean of all of its water. There is poetry in the moon, and in the moon landing, and if anything defines verse it’s a familiarity with ambiguity, as indeed we must admit such a quality defines our own relationship to the Apollo mission five decades later. Both in 1969 and today there is a desire to polish the Apollo mission of any of its rough spots, to give the illusion of smoothness just as the pocked and cratered lunar surface looks like a grey spotlight in the black night.
Drinking Alone Under the Moon. Image via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
Our culture has always had ambiguous feelings about the moon; both the celestial orb that lights our way home and a furnace of madness that causes lycanthropy and marks the witches’ sabbath.
John Milton writes in the 17th century’s Paradise Lost that “the Moon,/Rising in clouded majesty, at length,/Apparent queen, unveil’d her peerless light,/And o’er the dark her silver mantle threw,” but Lord Byron would write in the early nineteenth-century that “The devil’s in the moon for mischief.” The moon is the chariot of Artemis, goddess of the wilderness; to land a module on her surface and walk around for 23 hours can’t help but seem like a violation of sorts, an Icarian act of technological hubris. Ambivalence about the moon meant ambivalence about the moon landing even during Apollo’s halcyon years; five days before the mission launched and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” has the musician singing in his first hit that “Ground Control to Major Tom/Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong,” and two years later in 1970 the singer and poet Gil Scott Heron would reject all of the new frontier language of the program when he looked about at the tremendous economic and racial disparities which marked American society and mocked “whitey on the moon.” As Ross Anderson writes in The Atlantic, we must “resist the seductions of universalist rhetoric, even when we discuss the exploration of the universe. Apollo 11 means different things to different people.”
Any marking of the Apollo mission must admit the contradictions of a society which could marshal so much of its technological know-how to landing on the moon while the nation was domestically polarized and engaged in war in southeast Asia. In 1966 Martin Luther King would predict that “in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay and turbulence.” King made a potent and important point about the ways in which the Apollo mission was a useful amnesiac for Americans who wished to avoid grappling with the darker legacies of our history, as well as being a palliative for those wished to pretend that the nation was more unified than it actually was. A plaque left by the astronauts on the moon reads “We came in peace for all mankind,” and President Richard Nixon’s signature was reproduced below it. During the month of the moon landing, 537 Americans died in combat in Vietnam. Over the course of that entire war, which Nixon oversaw an escalation of, over a million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians would die.
Nixon may have said in a presidential address that “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one,” and as much of a lie as that may have been, there is a nobility in such a claim, at least as a mythic sentiment. Maybe the Apollo mission didn’t exactly come in peace for all mankind, rather the mission being in large part a display of military strength against the Soviet Union made accomplished with filched Nazi rocket technology, but could one even imagine our current president being able to utter a sentence similar to Nixon’s? Scoundrel and crook though Nixon may have been, the current administration can’t even force itself to mouth pacific platitudes. Nonetheless, they’re obsessed with a return to space signaling a return to greatness, but if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, risible calls for a sixth branch of the military called “Space Force” and proposals for a mission to Mars which all of us know will never happen (at least as accomplished by our government as currently constituted) are less farce than flatulence.
For as divided as the United States and the world may have been in 1969, our current situation seems even more perilous. Neo-fascism is on the offensive in Europe, Russia, South America and the United States; the global consensus which minimized nationalism while promoting democracy (even as hypocritical as that project may have been) is in collapse. Our society seems perennially on the verge of some kind of civil war, world war, or both. If the Apollo mission supplied a certain grand narrative, one which ascribed a transcendent meaning to the moon by fusing both poetry and science, we’ve become incapable of such a story today. The space program’s rhetoric was always enmeshed in fantasies of American exceptionalism, of virginal frontiers unexplored and waiting to be penetrated with our national aeronautical greatness. But to only read such history cynically is also a disservice, for it can obscure just how much has been lost in a sense of mission and enchantment when we consider the almost comical impossibility of imagining women and men moved by the sublimity of humans walking on the moon in 2019.
Because when we look to the moon, remember that somebody walked there once. An incontrovertible truth if humanity should go extinct in a century, a decade, or a year. Humans once walked upon that grey surface that Australopithecus looked at near the Olduvai gorge, that Babylonians marked their calendar by, that Polynesians navigated by, that Galileo espied from his telescope. A font of dreams and myths, of poetry; for millennia women and men had imagined what it would mean to walk across that marked grey surface, and for a little less than a day in 1969 we actually did so. Envisioning such a voyage in his 1638 The Man in the Moone, Francis Godwin said that such a pilgrimage would “fill the world with the Fame of Glory and Renown.” Should the waters rise and overtake the land, should our cities cease to be habitable, should civilization itself crumble and our descendants huddle looking upward at a satellite that we were once able to walk on, even should the science be forgotten, so shall the glory and the renown of that myth still exist. That, at least, is worth commemorating.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.