A big part of the widespread feeling that things are getting worse is simply the slow, sad unfolding of adulthood. That is, things were what they were all along, but the more unpleasant bits were mercifully kept from us. Eventually, inevitably, one comes to pick up the newspaper. What a drag! What a mess. A layer of poisoned sludge over every inch of every surface — a thick, rank coating of the most incredible bullshit and disaster smothering everything, it’s unbelievable. As a teenager, you encounter the famous bon mot of Mohandas Gandhi, his response to a reporter who’d asked him what he thought of Western Civilization — “I think it would be a very good idea,” he replied — and you laugh darkly, knowingly.
Only Gandhi never said that, probably; some journalist made it up in 1967. The limitless new universe of your own ignorance heaves into view. Worlds upon worlds. In your most intense certainty you will be proved wrong, wrong and wrong again. You won’t even need the unending deceit of dirtbag politicians or thieving corpocrats or faithless lovers or friends in order to be proved wrong, a lot of the time, often — so often that conviction itself is an obvious liability, to be avoided whenever possible. Not until every vestige of world-weariness has been scraped from what remains of your intelligence, your critical faculties and even your emotions, and you no longer pretend to know anything at all — maybe then you return to the state of a child, who knows nothing and doesn’t want even to pretend to know, who is ready to accept every new moment as a surprise.
The Waterboys’ signature tune, “The Whole of the Moon” (1985) is a tribute to the natural majesty and radiance of a person known to the composer, Mike Scott — a close friend, maybe a colleague; Scott has never quite revealed whom it is he’s addressing. He contrasts the instinctive, innocent brilliance of this friend with his own intellectualism in this song, which seems to me to be the definitive cri de coeur of that cultural moment, long ago: “I spoke about wings/you just flew.” Scott’s elegantly quavering voice delineates a deeper message, too, extrapolating the futility of his attempts to make sense of the world through reason, intelligence — the way we’ve all been taught — out toward a broader interrogation of Enlightenment principles, the faux-basis of faux-Gandhi’s faux-Western Civ. Best of all, Scott entertains the possibility that accepting all there is to accept of the moon, rather than (with apologies to the management) quarreling with it, or attempting to understand it, might result in a better outcome; something closer to the truth of things.
Michael Collins is the astronaut who didn’t land on the moon in July of 1969, but stayed alone in orbit aboard Apollo 11’s Columbia for twenty-some hours, very much afraid that he would be returning to Earth alone. There was considerable doubt at NASA whether the engine of the Eagle lunar lander would be able to ignite on the moon, so that it could bear Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin safely back to the mothership; if it failed, Collins would have to leave them behind. Armstrong later said he’d reckoned their chances at about fifty-fifty. Collins wrote: “If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.”
Nixon had a terrible speech all ready for that eventuality — some kind of weak nonsense contrasting exploring in peace vs. resting in peace.
For forty-eight minutes of each two-hour orbit, the “lonely lifeguard” Collins lost all radio contact as his craft traversed the dark side of the moon. All the way through the darkness he sped. Charles Lindbergh would later write to him: “You have experienced an aloneness unknown to man before.” But that isn’t how Collins felt about it at all, as he explained in his 1974 memoir, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.
I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon. I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side. I feel this powerfully — not as fear or loneliness — but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars — and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is a simply a black void; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars.
One of the weirdest things about “how much worse things are getting” is that you see and gasp at all the horrors and dangers all around us from a position of boggling comfort and ease, a delicious perch whence you can call a car or order a banh mi or discover the names of every movie Hermione Gingold was ever in, and barely have to move a muscle to do it. This everyday combination of ease and terror that constitutes the chief First World Problem is just absurd, eye-crossing. Over the falls we go, in our plush canoe!
We don’t know whether the engine down there will ignite, as we speed through the void: we don’t and we won’t. The matter is out of our hands. It seems there’s no way out. And there’s not.
It depends how one is constituted, but the various balms we have, of music, love, philosophy, religion, friendship, literature and art, of all the kinds of understanding we can hope for or try to have, might serve to bring us all to the other side again. Surely one should be ready to come back into the light. Just in case.
My windows suddenly flash full of sunlight, as Columbia swings around into the dawn. The moon reappears quickly, dark gray and craggy, its surface lightening and smoothing gradually as the sun angle increases. My clock tells me that the earth is about to pop into view, and I prepare for it by positioning my parabolic antenna so that it points at the proper angle.
Photo by NASA