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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.”)

Toward the end, a long chapter is devoted to artists of the nighttime Thames, not just Turner and Whistler​—​whose work was greatly influenced by science​—​but Abraham (“Moonlight”) Pether and his cousin William, who collaborated with Joseph Wright, another great artist of the night and one of the Lunar Men, a group that met every month on the Monday closest to the full moon. (The date was chosen to make the ride home easier.) Attlee excels at finding these tantalizing connections, and brings to the paintings discussed (especially those readers may not have seen) the necessary detail, background, and passion.

The middle of the book contains the literal journey of the subtitle, as Attlee finally hits the road. Japan allows him to address the enormous significance that the moon has had in Asian cultures. Visiting a Kyoto temple for Tsukimi (the autumn moon-viewing festival), he follows everyone else’s lead and takes a picture of the orb, moved not just by its appearance but by the attention still paid to it by some of the most technologically addicted people on earth. From Kyoto he travels south to Kagoshima to see the city’s active volcano. Some scientists, Attlee writes, believe that a full moon close to earth (“at its perigee”) can influence volcanic eruptions. A typhoon, not an eruption, threatens his stay, but not before he finds Tsukimi burgers at McDonald’s. His next stop is Naples (Kagoshima’s sister city), where he notes that nighttime paintings of the bay, with Vesuvius in the background, were so popular with travelers on the Grand Tour that they made moonlight one of the region’s “principal exports.”

From Italy he travels to the American West, starting in Las Vegas. It is his ultimate Sin City, not only deleting the night​—​what glitters up there stays up there​—​but doing the deed in the desert, night’s long inviolable province. Though the city, he discovers, has its own volcano​—​in the middle of the Strip​—​and this one, accommodatingly, erupts on the hour. In addition to whipping boy, Vegas is also his gateway to Arizona, which boasts more large telescopes than any other state. Another interesting, if not necessarily surprising, fact. Fitting into both of those categories, however, is the Interstellar Light Collector outside Tucson, “a five-story-high array of parabolic mirrors” that, its builders claim, can cure a host of ailments by amplifying and directing moonlight at participants, who are hoisted by a boom lift. Atlee’s visit nicely mixes scientific skepticism with reportorial curiosity and
human understanding.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on Germans’ relationship with the moon. Attlee takes us from the beginning of the 19th century​—​when the Romantics associated it with the “night side” of life​—​to the imprisonment of Rudolf Hess who, in solitary confinement at Spandau, eagerly followed the race to put a man there. Intrigued by stars since childhood, Hess corresponded with people at NASA, who rewarded his interest by sending him photos and pamphlets and even “a minute-by-minute timetable for the Apollo 15 mission.”

Thomas Swick is the author of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.

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