To the Moon - Endymion and a different kind of Apollo
20th July 2019
Fifty years ago today our universe became a little less mysterious. I know because I was one of an estimated 500-million people worldwide watching TV on 20th July 1969 at the time of the first Moon landing, an amazing event that is being rightly celebrated everywhere around the world at present. The pictures were in black and white, of course, all grainy and fuzzy even by 1960’s standards. But no one minded because it was considered to be little short of a technological miracle that it was happening at all, and even more remarkable that there were pictures to accompany it.
Phew! They finally made it!
Only, not everyone was happy.
Although most folk were full of admiration and in some quarters bursting with excitement, there were a few individuals sounding a note of temperance and even - outrageously - of disappointment. They perceived the touch-down of Apollo 11 as a milestone in human endeavour beyond which nothing in the world of the imagination or the arts would ever be quite the same again. A lamentable demise of Romantic sentiments. The magic had been taken, they said. The moon of Keats and Shelley had been lost. The mystic moonshine in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or Samuel Palmer had been tarnished forever.
Look! It was all so different 200 years ago. 'Two men Contemplating the Moon' - Caspar David Friedrich - c.1819.
'Christmas, or Folding the Last Sheep' - an etching by Samuel Palmer, 1850.
Were they right, those intellectual kill-joys sitting in their ivory towers and muttering into their beards? Well, probably not entirely (and not all of them had beards anyway). But those mutterings did raise an interesting point - and one which is as relevant today as it was then.
The conquest of the moon as some called it was not really a conquest at all. Although the immensely brave and resourceful men we sent there were drawn from the military, from the ranks of test pilots of fighter jets, nobody got captured in the process; nobody was forced into servitude. We learned a little more about the composition and age of our nearest neighbour in space. And the practical achievements and spin-offs in the field of engineering and computer science pushed forward social change a little faster than would have otherwise been the case. But the public came to regard subsequent missions with increasing indifference as more and more gimmicks – playing golf on the moon – a moon buggy hurtling about on its surface, and so on – filled our newspapers and TV screens with ever more desperate attempts to keep the show (and the funding) on the road.
In taking ourselves to the moon we made our spacemen in our own image, with aspirations of a Western, middle-class urban fantasy. Golf and automobiles. What could be more 1970’s!
Home from home.
So, what now?
The manned space program ran out of ideas pretty quickly because, at bottom, going to the moon was never about ideas anyway. It was an exercise in Cold-War supremacy; about winning the so-called 'Space Race.' And once the race had been won it all began to look suspiciously like the tourist's lament: 'We've been there; seen it; got the space suit. So what do we do now?'
The Apollo project (named after the classical Greek God of the Sun, by the way) was wound up just a little over three years later, in 1972. And we have never gone back, not even for a round of golf. And though there will no doubt be a return to the luna surface sometime in the distant future, it will lack the sense of anticipation attending that first remarkable and unpredictable adventure. It will also be extremely expensive. And the argument that exploration and research can be better served through unmanned, robotic machines remains a very persuasive one.
Stainless steel plaque left attached to the ladder of the lunar Module 'Challenger' after the final moon landing in 1972. (women don't get much of a mention, do they!)
So, did those academics muttering into their beards 50 years ago have a valid point? Yes, I think they did - because, as all visitors here to Endymion well know, the moon is so much more than just a great rock in space. Our species has evolved over millions of years in the light of the moon, providing comfort during the hours of darkness, a companion to that special time when poets and dreamers (and the dreamers in us all) awaken and begin to think and to feel just a little differently.
'View of Dresden by Moonlight' - Johan Christian Dahl, 1839.
No one who gazes on the sea in the still of night with the moon illuminating the waves can fail to be altered in some sense by the experience, if only for a few moments. Guided by the soft light of the moon, we can reflect on our emotional self more easily. We can reach deep within to a special place where the human spirit is illuminated by ideas and creative thoughts.
'The Black Sea at Night' - Ivan Aivazovsky, 1879.
In our own culture, perhaps nowhere did this sentiment find physical representation as much as during the Elizabethan age. The Virgin Queen of the 16th century attracted to herself numerous associations with the classical luna goddess Selene (or Cynthia) and, by default, the sea she commanded and its associated gemstone: the pearl. Elizabethan drama and poetry - from Spencer to Raleigh to Shakespeare - is packed with luna symbolism of this kind. It is part and parcel of the complex iconography attending Elizabeth and it can be detected in many a famous portrait of the 16th Century.
The Pelican Portrait of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard - with more pearls than you can shake an Elizabethan stick at.
Thus the moon became symbolic of the artistic muse, of lovers and the Romantic spirit. And once the scholars and poets of the Renaissance had discovered the classical tales of antiquity, they were not slow in recognising themselves in the figure of the sleeping Endymion - the shepherd beloved of the passionate moon-goddess Selene who came to him every night. Endymion was the receiver of her wisdom (among other things).
A helpful Eros reveals the sleeping shepherd in this splendid painting 'Selene And Endymion' by Ubaldo Gandolfi, c. 1770.
A little later, nocturnal, moonlit landscapes were to become an abiding passion for the great artists and painters of the 18th and 19th centuries. And the poets of High Gothic Romanticism turned to it again and again – Keats, Shelley, Tennyson – they who saw their own restless, wandering sprits reflected in the ever-changing aspect of the moon. It became part of our collective psyche and remains indelibly so.
'Full Moon' - Carl Schweninger the-younger.
The irrational, inspirational part of us does not always integrate easily with the demands of the real physical world. And the arts and sciences have always appeared in contention for possession of the human intellect. But both are valid, and both are essential for our well being and balance: something we sometimes forget at our peril. And even though the astronomers have been coaxing us away from the poetic side towards a more rational perspective of the cosmos for centuries, not everyone has been willing to go quietly. Or, as Oscar Wilde declared in his 1881 poem The Garden of Eros:
‘Shall I, the last Endymion, lose all hope, Because rude eyes peer at my mistress through a telescope!’
'Um … it's that lovely Selene again, I see. Excellent.'
A good question even for us today 118 years after Wilde’s passing - because by 1969 there were not only rude eyes gazing at his mistress but men trampling all over her in spacesuits as well. Except that it wasn't quite the same moon, was it? One was the real moon, the physical place, the other was the moon of ideas. We can, if we choose, decide for ourselves which is the most relevant. Ideas are for keeps, and many of the most important of them span the fickle generations as they come and go. Our moon is one of them.
So will I be celebrating the Moon Landing today? Yes, of course. I will raise a glass to human courage, to bravery and to ingenuity. All of those qualities were represented in that epic achievement of 50 years ago. But I will not neglect the ghost of Endymion. Though the dear fellow remains sleeping, and a little more soundly at the moment than usual, he has not been entirely vanquished. Nor ever shall.
'Die Sentimentale' Johann Peter Hasenclever, c.1846
Poem fragment 'To the moon' - Percy Bysshe Shelley.