ART / A giant leap for mankind, a tiny step for art: The moon inspired artists for centuries, but then, 25 years ago today, man went and put his foot in it.
Thursday 21 July 1994
Today, 25 years after the 'one priceless moment in the whole history of man' (thus Richard Nixon in the White House to Neil Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquility), the artistic response to the moon landings remains, at best, patchy. The great literature of lunar exploration is still solidly pre-NASA. There has been no major poem, novel, play or film on the subject since 1969; no memorable opera (though John Adams' Nixon in China has moving asides); not even an outstanding essay, since the strongest contender, Norman Mailer's A Fire on the Moon (1970) is too mired in narcissism (Mailer refers to himself in the third person throughout as 'Aquarius' - hey, it was the late Sixties), cod metaphysics and sheer guff to stand up to re-reading.
In place of the torrent of latter- day War and Peaces, Birth of a Nations and Gotterdammerungs on the great theme of Apollo 11, we have had. . . a few metaphors. A few metaphors, a few allusions and a sullen chorus of gripes. When America's two most famous poets of the day turned on their sets for the landing, they both turned up their noses. Allen Ginsberg's occasional poem 'In a Moonlit Hermit's Cabin' was no Whitmanesque rhapsody about the wonders of voyagers faring forth, but a list of sceptical gags about the jingoism and commercialism of the event: 'TV mentioned America as much as Man - Brillo offers you free moon-map - 2 labels. . . '
Ginsberg also compared Armstrong's giant step for mankind to that least beglamoured of all lunar exploration fantasies, the moment in Melies's Le Voyage dans la Lune when the rocket smacks the outraged moon squarely in the eye. (The same Melies joke seems to be half-recalled in the passage from Paul Auster's novel Moon Palace in which the narrator remembers watching the initial moonwalk on television: 'I saw the two padded figures take their first steps in that airless world, bouncing like toys over the landscape, driving a golf cart through the dust, planting a flag in the eye (my italics) of what had once been the goddess of love and lunacy. . .')
Robert Lowell's sonnet 'Moon- Landings', collected in his long sequence History (1973), was even gloomier than Ginsberg, calling the moon a 'lunatic's pill with poisonous side-effects' and 'the disenchantress'. One of its images - 'it goes from month to month / bleeding us dry' - sourly conflated the ancient folk wisdom about the moon's effect on menstruation with the modern-day cost of the space programme on the American taxpayer.
But neither Ginsberg's nor Lowell's poem has made its way into the late 20-century canon, and most of the other Apollonian odes are even more obscure. Cast around for examples in different arts, and you are soon reduced to such oddities as the moon-landing allusions in Beeban Kidron's movie Used People, or to pop songs such as The Police's 'Walking on the Moon' (which is not really about the moon) or REM's 'Man on the Moon' (which is almost wholly inscrutable).
What accounts for this strange neglect of an event that stirred so many millions of souls? To those of a Robert Graves-ish, White Goddess-y turn of mind, there will be no mystery here. The moon may belong to everyone (as a pop song of an earlier generation, 'The Best Things in Life are Free', maintained in 1927, long before the Stars and Stripes was posted there), but three special interest groups had the best claims to its lease: lunatics, lovers and, especially, poets. Just about every English bard has been moonstruck at some time, and many poets have regarded her - for she is always female - as a pale, virgin goddess.
Take Ben Jonson's exquisite lyric to the goddess Diana from Cynthia's Revels:
Queene, and Huntresse, chaste, and faire,
Now the Sunne is laid to sleepe,
Seated, in thy silver chaire,
State in wonted manner keepe:
HESPERUS intreats thy light,
Goddesse, excellently bright.
For Diana-worshippers, the moon-landing was not a mild jab in the eye but brutal rape; small wonder if her minions should have refused to countenance such violation, and turned their backs on the whole sordid episode. To be sure, there can't be many crackpots around who believe that the moon truly is Diana, but many imaginative people did seem to feel that there was something impious and despoiling about Armstrong's corrugated boot. Even the macho Mailer conceded that 'there was pain in the thought of the moon - so private a body to the poet buried in every poke of a head - the moon being now invaded. . .'
And the heroine of Tom Stoppard's philoso-farce Jumpers (1972), a stage star whose job consists of singing rhyme-words of the June and spoon and croon order, finds herself shocked songless at the sight of the astronauts bouncing around on her Blue / Harvest /
Silvery / Prairie moon: 'When they first landed, it was as though I'd seen a unicorn on the television news. . . It was very interesting, of course. But it certainly spoiled unicorns.'
More prosaic reasons for the dearth of lunar art are not far to seek: sibling rivalry between science and art; political reservations about the hidden agendas of the space race; the astonishingly rapid loss of public interest in the moon shots - their swift decline from miracle to routine; the apparent banality of the individual astronauts' characters, and the colourless bureaucratese they spoke; the intractability of material that is simply too familiar. . .
And it may be that a mere quarter-century is simply too brief a period for the cultural implications of the moon landing to have sunk in. An Apolloiad might prove to be the mature masterpiece of a poet who is still in nappies today. In the meantime, the Apollo missions have, in fact, left one distinct and powerful cultural heritage: those haunting photographs of the earth, which have been pinned to a million walls, inspired countless Green sentiments and even prompted one or two fine poems. Clive Wilmer's 'The Earth Rising', for example, from his recent collection Of Earthly Paradise:
The men who first set foot on the bleached waste
That is the moon saw rising near in space
A plantary oasis that surpassed
The homesick longings of their voyaging race:
Emerald and ultramarine through a white haze
Like a torn veil - as if no sand or dust
Or stain of spilt blood or invading rust
Corrupted it with reds, browns, yellows, greys.
So visionaries have seen it: to design
Transparent, luminous and, as if new-made,
Cut from surrounding darkness. Praise the Lord,
For Heaven and earth (the psalmist sang) are thine;
The foundations of the round world thou hast laid,
And all that therein is. And plague and sword.
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