This review of Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight by James Attlee appeared recently in the Irish Times.
‘LOOK AT THE MOON! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb.” Thus Oscar Wilde, in the opening scene of his overheated Salomé , a play so dazzled by the symbolic powers of moonlight that nobody – Herod, princess, doomed prophet or the page who utters these lines – is quite sure what they’re looking at. The moon is a woman, but the pale body of Salomé is a moon, and so too is the severed head of John the Baptist, eerily aglow at the bloody climax.
Moonlight does fervid things to the poetic mind: its “pale fire”, as Shakespeare puts it, outlines the world in morbid or magical near-abstraction. From Caspar David Friedrich to the setting of Waiting for Godot that his paintings inspired, the moon has long shown the way to heightened states of aesthetic experience.
And yet it’s also hard to think of an artistic trope so hackneyed and washed out as moonlight. Early on inNocturne , a vagrant, erudite and frequently comical study of the moon and its very special effects, James Attlee admits the problem. Moonlight is surely “too kitsch, debased and sentimental to be worthy of serious consideration”; it is the silvery stuff of romantic cliche and faux-spiritual flummery.
In part Nocturne is Attlee’s effort to rescue moonlight from its soppy reputation, to restore the element of wonder that first seized him in, of all places, a dentist’s chair, when he was staring up at an image of Earth at night that was meant to calm the patient’s nerves. Instead it got him thinking about what was missing from the picture, and from modern urban life, but was eerily present in painting, poetry and (still, despite the sodium glow in which we’re all now bathed) certain secluded spots around the globe.
Attlee is brilliant on the artistic uses of moonlight. It seems to have functioned for the Romantic painters of the 18th century much in the way that drugs would do for their poetic descendants. (The light-stoned conduit would be Coleridge, spotlit in his lime-tree bower.) Many of these artists, Friedrich included, were inspired in their nocturnal reveries by Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts , with its image of a “conscious moon through every distant age has held a lamp to wisdom”. The lessons it illumined were often melancholy ones; picture, for example, Friedrich’s solitaries gazing at moonlit ruins. Despite the Futurists’ excitable injunction to “murder the moon” in favour of electric light, such visions had not faded by the 20th century. Paul Nash painted wrecked aircraft by moonlight, and in recent years the artist Darren Almond has photographed sublime landscapes by night with hour-long exposures, so that moonlight turns to bizarre milky daylight.
Nocturne is constantly enriched by such cultural references, from Thoreau’s amazement at oak leaves drenched in liquid light to Walter Benjamin’s childhood horror at being woken by the moon at his window. But the book is also a seriously engaging lunar travelogue, with Attlee jetting off hopefully around the world to immerse himself in famously moonlit (or moon-starved) scenes.
He’s often disappointed. He fetches up on the rim of Vesuvius – a favourite night haunt of painters, and later of writers such as Dickens – only to get lost in mist. In Japan, from where he provides an extended and fascinating history of moon-viewing festivals, he has to contend with loudspeakers playing the Moonlight Sonata and disturbing his reflections. He escapes the blizzard of light that is Las Vegas for the desert and finds that he has chosen the one cloudy night of the season.
Among all these night-time excursions Attlee discovers some truly odd anecdotes. Mussolini, it seems, fell as a youth under the influence of an old local woman who schooled him in moon lore. Italian peasants believed, for example, that the moon could turn one’s skin black, and such stories ensured that the fascist dictator remained deeply suspicious of Earth’s satellite for the rest of his life and was terrified of it shining on him as he slept.
Stranger still is the story of the Nazi Rudolf Hess, an enthusiastic astronomer as a child in Alexandria. His crazed moonlit flight to Scotland in 1941 led to his long incarceration at Spandau, where he later became obsessed by the race to the moon. He frequently corresponded with Nasa, to the extent that American scientists provided him with special updates on the Apollo missions. Attlee reproduces a film still that shows Hess glowering at the camera in front of a large photograph of the moon.
Such tales of lunar obsession are testament to the moon’s abiding imaginative force. As Attlee puts it, “moonlight does not reveal , in the straight-ahead visual sense; it transforms, changing colours and contours in its shape-shifting light”. Attlee’s writing has something of the same potency. As readers of his 2007 book, Isolarion (a whole volume devoted to one road in Oxford), will know, he’s a stylist of amazing wit and skill. He’s as capable of beautifully condensed images, spotting a heron “with the gait of a preoccupied parson”, as of exploding with rage at New Age wind chimes in the desert: “Why aren’t we ever content to just shut the f**k up ?”
Nocturne is a compendious, moving and impassioned guide to the heavenly body that its author calls, in a perfect metaphor, the “Garbo of the skies”.