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Thinking Lunar

Humans by the light of the silvery moon.

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By THOMAS SWICK
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Thinking Lunar


A Journey in Search
of Moonlight

by James Attlee

Chicago, 320 pp., $26

Readers of Nocturne will probably at some point check the calendar for the next full moon. It will be at once a response to the talents of the author in making our satellite appear irresistible and a confirmation of his belief that​—​in spite of our high-wattage efforts to shut it out​—​the moon still exerts a powerful influence on us.

At the outset, Attlee pinpoints the particularity of the moon’s light. It “does not reveal,” he writes, “it transforms.” In art, this means that the moon is seen “either as a symbol or an opportunity, its presence a gateway to another visual universe.” And then we’re off on a riveting, moonlit tour of late-night illuminations, ancient mythologies, scientific discoveries, artistic achievements, foreign lands, and
personal revelations.

It has become popular in publishing to take a subject​—​cod, the AK-47,
Saturday night​—​research it extensively, and then demonstrate its previously unrecognized importance to the world. A book devoted to moonlight​—​the source of little other than inspiration​—​is a bit of a departure, the rich product of a consuming obsession with the gossamer. Attlee is an indefatigable and wide-ranging enthusiast: He shows us how Galileo constructed his spyglasses (explaining in a footnote that “the word telescopium was not coined until 1611”) and explains how the great astronomer’s finger ended up in Florence as “a holy relic,” an early example “of the modern impulse to ascribe to science the status once held by religion.”

We look with him through a neighbor’s telescope​—​“So this is the country moonlight comes from”​—​and a few pages later, we’re treated to a summary of Lucian’s Icaromenippus before being introduced to the work of a contemporary British artist who, in a complicated process involving Morse code, bounces Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 27 No. 2 (“Moonlight”) off the moon and back to earth.

To the moon, Ludwig!

One short chapter is a defense of darkness, a salvo against both our irrational fear of it and our ill-advised response to that fear, which is to banish the night with electric lights. Attlee’s point is well-taken​—​with regard to both energy consumption and constellation appreciation​—​yet even he, I think, if flying at night over the two Koreas, would choose the bright one as the more livable of the two. Attlee’s love of the Cimmerian leads him to the desert, at least in his reading and contemplation, where we learn of the importance that Islam puts on darkness. He cites the scholar Fatema Mernissi, who “has written of the distinction between the attitudes of Islamic and Western civilization towards night and darkness, suggesting that the West’s fear of Islam, and of the dark, may have its roots in a suppression of the subconscious.” And since we’re discussing the desert, the name Antoine de Saint-Exupéry pops up, and Attlee neatly slips in a passage from Wind, Sand and Stars describing the world as seen after a moonlit crash onto dunes.

Writers, unsurprisingly, have long contemplated the moon, and Attlee quotes an international assortment: Hawthorne, Svevo, Blake, Li Po (who according to legend drowned in the Yangtze while “drunkenly attempting to embrace the moon’s reflection”), Basho-, Goethe, Proust, Conrad (who described the moon’s light as having “all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery”). Essayists as well have had a go at it: Walter Benjamin (“The Moon”), Henry David Thoreau (“Night and Moonlight”), and the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who gets his own chapter, titled “Let’s Murder the Moonlight!” Nor are painters left out. Attlee “works in art publishing in London,” we are informed, and he expertly takes us from the traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary “standing on a crescent moon” to “a crucifixion attributed to Jan Van Eyck, said to contain the first accurate representation of the moon in Western culture.” (The author visits this painting at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and notes with satisfaction that the detail includes the moon’s large dark areas, known as “maria.”)

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