“It was as if we had begun to turn the pocket of the universe inside out”
Norman Mailer (1)
When, in 1968, American astronauts orbited the moon, they were the first human beings to see its crater-filled landscape with the naked eye. They neither gazed through the lenses of a telescope nor looked at a camera-mediated photograph. There was nothing between them and the moon; they saw it up close as soaring birds would see it, if such could exist there.
Back home on firm ground and encircled by reporters, one of the astronauts remarked: “The moon is a cold and lifeless world of black and white and grey … I would like to know how all those poets and composers came to say so many romantic things about it.”(2)
Even people who hadn’t been up there were disturbed: “Generations of poets—from Li Tai Pe to Eichendorff—who drank to the moon as to a good friend, who praised the moon’s mild glow and silent coursing … all of them were wrong.”(3)
“Wrong?” What, then, did the poets say? Did they want to report on what it looks like up there? How come the people quoted above no longer trust themselves? Why do they deny what previously touched them on a moonlit night? That is nothing other than what the poets want to express. Is this all only fantasy?
Maybe it’s a simple matter: They once knew the moon as friendly and now, in such close proximity, it appears everything other than that. Li Tai Pe(*) drank to the moon as to an old companion. He would have ceased doing so, in their opinion, had he traveled to the moon. But isn’t it striking that he did not only experience the moon as a light-hearted companion? “When the moon stood in the sky as a narrow crescent, she was a dagger that I stabbed into my side because my life concerns would not leave me.” Who has not experienced the moon gazing cold and cruel upon them on an overly clear winter’s night of scornful light?
No wonder we recall fondly and more often the “good” moon: “The moon’s hand accompanies silently the wanderer to and fro” (Li Tai Pe). The moon can also be a cradle, but that is not a mere analogy to her crescent shape: “Sing a whispering lullaby, learned from the moon who so softly moves across the sky” (Brentano).
“Softly” she wanders, but how powerfully the moon affects us: in the period of her monthly rhythm she moves a woman’s blood and those who dwell on coasts endure the ocean’s tides with the moon’s waxing and waning. “When the moon ascends, the waters rush over the earth and my heart feels itself as an endless island” (Lorca). Disquiet overcomes the ill at full moon and drives sleepwalkers onto rooftops. She blesses lovers: “As often as the moon shines I, alone, think of you” (Brentano). And she rescues those torn asunder: “When you softly bring valley fog aglow, you release my soul once and for all” (Goethe). The moon always concerns us.
Her place is the vault of the heavens, the firmament as we see it. There the moon dwells—companion, playmate, and shepherd of clouds and stars. We might also discover the moon who descends into the boughs of a tree. So fine and spare as the rustle of leaves above; amidst the many dark leaves, one of gold. “The moon, rounded like a horn of soft metal, rings in the silence of the highest boughs” (Lorca).
Long before the first journey to the moon we could have rebuked the poets: all very nice; unfortunately, nothing but fancy; romantic, sentimental, fantastic; nothing real, this moon of the bards and musicians, the lovers and lunatics. A matter of mood swings and invention.
But we need no poems to tell us what we all know from common experience. Isn’t the moon the master of moods? Never the same, like we ourselves. She is as unpredictable as the day. When we step out of the house in the morning, we look for the moon to see if she is guarding us. We wonder how she is doing and how she finds us, an exchange of greetings with the heavenly. She answers to our questioning gaze, even scrutinizes us, encouraging or objecting. The moon is still there. She may notice us briefly, but in the next instance she is back in her own sphere again, aloof and deeply occupied with the world of the clouds, immersed in the sea of stars.
Do we take such experiences seriously and give them credence? Long before there was space travel, we had our reservations, thinking: “These feelings about the moon are all very well, but they’re not true, they are nothing but romantic fantasies, figments of the imagination, fabrications, subjective.” But wait a moment: subjective—when it is a shared experience? Fabrication—when it “comes over us?”
In the novel Homo Faber, the protagonist, who is an engineer, rigorously rejects any experience of this kind. After an emergency landing in a Mexican desert, he watches the moon. For his companion, the way the moon floats over the nocturnal sky is an impressive spectacle. But Homo Faber(†) doesn’t let that experience in; he objects; he is matter of fact and holds to “reality.” Moods don’t exist for him. He says to himself, “I’m an engineer and I’m used to seeing things the way they are. I see the moon over the desert, and I grant that it might look clearer than ever. It is a recognizable mass, circling around our planet due to gravitational pull. But in what way is it an ‘experience’?”(4)
He, too, is enchanted, but in his case by the moon of physics. His reaction is understandable to anyone who has thought through the steps it took to find the law of gravity and the concept of gravitational pull. But even so: why does Homo Faber no longer trust his own immediate experience as he stands there in the wilderness? It wouldn’t be hard for him to reply: your moon has no validity. It doesn’t sit in a tree, nor does it produce a tone or wander in the heavens. And there are no heavens either; what we really see when we look out in the sky is deep, endless space. We have known this for several hundred years now. The moon of the poets is a complete deception, even though it may be a deception we welcome. The moon doesn’t recognize us, knows nothing of us, cannot know anything, cannot care. Because it is nothing other than a dead ball of stone, cliffs, and dust.
Asked seriously which one of the two moons is the real one, most educated people would probably choose the physical moon, even though perhaps we would be embarrassed and hesitate to answer at first. We probably opt for the scientific moon because of the exactness of the data we have, such as distance, radius, orbit around the earth, and mass. Anyone with access to a good teacher will be able to check whether these facts are correct. We are dealing with exact objectivity here, there are no “ifs” and “buts.” Here we have a kind of precision that—once understood—delights anyone who loves clear statements. We know where we stand. We have landed in a place that gives us firm ground under our feet. But is it therefore the whole story?
We should also add that these traits of the moon are connected with all other bodily objects by virtue of their measurable features. (That’s what the engineer in the novel means when he thinks of “gravitational pull”).
We are also very impressed by the fact that it was not until physics came along that we were able to make modern machines and instruments as extensions of our senses. These machines and instruments empower us. Power impresses. But we’re not talking here about power “over nature,” as some people say so lightly, but only power over the internal mechanism of the machine, because there we conform to the findings of physics. We do so carefully, often even fearfully, whether we are dealing with rockets or reactors.
So physics is exact and—within limits—powerful in all things it brings out (the laws of nature) and brings forth (modern technology). The moon of physics, the one that has been calculated, is the same as the one the astronauts stepped on. They only confirmed the scientific moon. Their reports were no surprise to anyone familiar with natural science. The reverse is also true: only because the physicists knew almost everything—for example, how much lighter a human being is on the moon than here on the earth—could the flight be planned and succeed.
For that reason many people hope that the real, ultimate ground of the world will be found one day by the pursuit of research in physics. That’s the reason why they would like to declare that the stone ball out there, which seems to have nothing to do with us, is the true moon, while the magic moon, the one to which our inner selves lay claim, is a lovely illusion. But is it as simple as that?
Physics hasn’t always existed. In its early days, it did not have power and wasn’t received with sympathy either. One of the first men to pursue physics was the Greek Anaxagoras, about 25 centuries ago. When he had the cheek to declare that the sun was “nothing but” a fiery, glowing metal clump, people didn’t want to hear about it. For that reason he had to leave the city of Athens, because he was one “who sinned against the gods.” Today the reverse is true. If you would declare Anaxagoras’ pronouncement false, you would expose yourself to public ridicule.
How might he have arrived at his opinion, which was seen as heretical then, but is now the predominant view? Maybe he was the first, or among the first, to think in a way that comes so naturally to us today: I don’t want to ask now what the moon or the sun is to me (or to other people who are “in the mood” of the night). I want to know what the moon is “in itself,” not for us people, but “as such.” Therefore I have to put myself and all other people aside and also disregard what the moon means to me and us. I have to get hold of the moon in such a way that there can be no argument about it, and you can’t argue with measurement and number in space and time.
So people began to measure the moon, which isn’t all that difficult to do. One can calculate the moon’s distance from the earth and its orbit and determine whether it moves in front of or behind the stars or is closer than the sun or further away. Everyone can follow the thinking behind this and confirm the data personally. Everything fits nicely: thirty earths would fill the distance between earth and moon. The moon circles around us every month and travels one kilometer per second more or less. It is much closer than the sun, around 400 times, and both are immeasurably closer than the stars (except for a handful of planets). All this “fits.” Therefore we have the feeling: now we know what the moon is “for real,” not for ourselves, but in and of itself.
One must consider twice the last sentence in order to feel a slight nudge from an obstacle that our thinking has so easily passed by. In dealing with such nudges it is always good to look at the words we use in often thoughtless ways: What does “real” mean? What do we mean by “in and of itself” or by “nothing but?” And foremost, the riddle-filled expression “there is” (such as when we say: there is only one moon!).
But can we really want to know what the moon is “in and of itself?” That is, not for us, but without us? Can a human being switch off the human being? Isn’t measuring and calculating in space and time also our capacity? And to limit ourselves to that capacity: isn’t that a choice, a decision we make ourselves?
Therefore it makes no sense to even ask what the moon (or any other thing) is “in and of itself.” We always partake, we are always involved. Granted, we are not always in the same frame of mind.
When we speak about the moon physically (astronomically), only according to measure and number, part of us clearly does not participate. We are not “fully there,” because, after all, we are not only measuring beings. When we measure, we restrict ourselves and disregard all the rest. Of course it can happen that, when we are doing measurements, say, of the crescent moon, we stray afield. Without wanting to do so, we might suddenly see the moon as a smile. We then reject that experience since we’re caught up in a measuring mode and want to be. Our unprejudiced gaze, however (and the poet in us would agree), is not caught in this way: it somehow fits, that smile. A kind of mood broke in upon us.
We might venture to say that approaching things from the physical point of view is also a mood. We could call it a very sober, factual and cool state of mind. What it brings forth is “right.” Therefore the astronauts could confirm it. All the while, what they confirm is only distance, size (curvature), gravity.
The astronauts can’t reproach the poets for the fact that they only found a wasteland up there. Even if they had landed in a garden full of flowers: the poets never meant the moon—out there—the way it would look up close.
The poets talk about the moon in the firmament the way it presents itself to us from down here when we are completely without prejudice, when we do not limit ourselves and do not exclude anything from consideration. Then the moon presents itself not as a heavenly “body,” but as a luminous form. (Kepler could still call it a “creature.”)
No rocket, no visiting astronauts can affect the moon of the poets. Their reports cannot touch it, cannot harm it. (Only if we would succeed in throwing the moon totally off course, shoot it far away or make it evaporate: yes, then the poets’ moon would of course be lost as well and both would be a thing of the past. But so would we: such an event would have terrible repercussions for the whole earth; a catastrophic flood without equal would drown us all.)
The poet is far from wanting to see the moon up close. Neither would anyone desire to see the face of a friend from a finger’s width distance or through a magnifying glass. It is something you just don’t do. We would only let a physician come that close.
When the astronaut didn’t understand the poet anymore, he was subject to the prejudice that only things forcefully brought up close give us true reality. But when we are looking at the moon as a friend—Johann Peter Hebel’s “friend of the house”—it isn’t proper to get too close.
The poet doesn’t look at the moon as an object. He looks at the moon physiognomically, as one would look at a countenance that “looks back at us,” a countenance belonging to the sky with its clouds and stars.
However, if we look at the moon in a spatial, physical or astronomical way, we have no qualms about ripping her out of the physiognomic context in which she belongs. Then the countenance dissolves. The same thing happens when we come too close to a person. A face is a countenance only from a certain distance. When we come too close, the charm is gone.
Perhaps we have one last relapse and ask naively as plain speech does, “Now which moon is the real one? The moon is the moon! There can only be one moon.” There is for us no moon without us. No power on earth can give us “a moon as such.” We are always involved.
We can set our minds in different ways, however, and therefore both moons are real, the one as well as the other, each has its advantages but also requires renunciation. We cannot prove that one of these two perspectives is the only real one, unless we cling adamantly to just one of them.
The poet’s moon reveals itself when we are able to fully embrace all possible viewpoints. Then we are open and can see everything the way it looks at us. And we won’t exclude anything from our vision. The physicist’s moon, the one that the astronomer knows, we only conquer by limiting ourselves to the measuring intellect. We are rewarded by conquest; we reach a pinnacle.
Both modes are open to us and we can enter into one as if the other doesn’t exist. But we will only be fully free when we manage, in the course of one deep breath, to switch from one point of view to the other, when we can move from one aspect and then to the other.
A painter who draws the crescent moon, seeing it nestled in the crown of a tree, shining and winking, does not need to ask how the shape of the sickle comes about—a luminous form created by the sun shining on a dark ball. But if he so chooses, he can also turn to this aspect and understand it. In so doing, he may momentarily forget the painterly moon in the tree. But that doesn’t mean he needs to split himself in two. He lives suspended between different aspects, different ways to grasp nature.
If you really want to have a “one and only true” moon, you have to, by means of an authoritarian inner decision, arbitrarily suppress one viewpoint with the other. That amounts to “appointing” one viewpoint and such a declaration cannot be binding for anyone else. If you choose the moon of the poets, you will be blind to the physical side of reality and close yourself off from understanding modern science and technology. If, like our engineer, you choose the moon of physics (which in reality he hardly achieves), you will find your power of observation wilting as you surrender yourself to the frame of mind, even as you gain the empowerment through it. But then again: why should the more powerful approach be the one that alone allows us to grasp the truth? This belief (superstition) is clearly not an insight but a choice, even though it is an obvious one for our time. It is a decision to rest content with a way of understanding things that gives us power over nature but it also remains silent about so much else. To be sure, a limited conception can lead to big successes, but they are one-sided and therefore harbor dangers that often only manifest later. In our time, those dangers have become obvious enough.
The pinnacle of this form of self mutilation is reached (and it does occur) when we not only deny our own moods and those of others and pronounce them imaginary, but go even further and brand even the colors red and green as illusions, brought forth “by the alone real wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation.” This is akin to our Homo Faber resting on his knowledge of “gravitational pull.”
We don’t need to resign ourselves to either of these decisions. The moon of physics cannot harm the moon of the poets, nor should it correct it. After all, physics isn’t there to correct nature either. It doesn’t even correct the geocentric view of the universe. Heisenberg once remarked in a lecture, that the geocentric view doesn’t stand in contradiction with modern physics, since the Michelson experiment and the theory of relativity also allow us to assume the earth as resting: “Once one has realized that the concepts (“rest” and “movement”) are not absolute and are about the relationship between two bodies, it is a matter of choice whether one views the sun or the earth as being at rest or in movement. For that reason there is all the less need to change the old worldview.” Strictly speaking, therefore, we do not need the relief of relativity. Both classical and modern physics are physics. With regard to each of them we can feel free to give credit to the nonphysical and the physiognomic worldview of the “earth under the canopy of the sky.” Going from this worldview to physics isn’t a step that conquers the former or puts it straight. Rather, it leads us to a conception of nature that is real in a different way, exact but narrow.
All this does not only apply to the moon. We have recently also come to know Venus in two different versions. For millennia we knew Venus only as the evening or morning star that encircles the sun and lights up every time as the brightest of all stars, only to become inconspicuous again after that. Now our flying registration machines have come close to it and frighten us, not with bare deserts and craters as on the moon or Mars, but with hellish hot clouds.
But let us stay with the moon. It only serves as an example, be it one that is closest to us in every way: all children know the moon. Let us not waiver in our faithfulness to its magic. After all, the moon has been the ancient companion of our nights, for us and for our ancestors since hundreds of thousands of years. If in addition we are lucky enough to rightly understand the physical side of the moon we will feel enriched rather than corrected or sobered.
So there is an approach to nature that complements the approach of physics and is therefore also a way of turning to the heavens that lets no instruments interfere and doesn’t require us to limit ourselves. Now we can freely look up with unarmed eyes, neither sharp nor dissecting. We’ll be ready to receive knowledge that is not a “science” about nature but rather a way of becoming conversant with nature that “demands the undivided powers of man.”(5)
In our schools there are two moons, which appear in different classrooms. The one is hard and naked, the other soft and veiled, and they are introduced by two different subject teachers. There is no discussion about the relationship between the one moon and the other. Where will one find a teacher of literature, who discusses a poem about the moon and also has the splendor of the Newtonian moon calculations in mind (in which the quiet, luminous wanderer of the constellations is not revealed but reduced to the relentlessly fast and constantly moving ball of rock)? Can one imagine a physics teacher, who by way of an introduction to this moon calculation reads the following incomparable sentences written by Johann Peter Hebel to his students, who have been robbed of the horizon because the smog barriers of the towns block their view?
When the sun rises early in its quiet majesty, he knows not whence it comes and when at night it sets, he knows not where it goes and where it hides its light throughout the night, nor on what secret mountain path it finds its way back up again. Or when the moon, now pale and thin, now round and full, wanders through the night, again he knows not whence it comes.
Hebel’s Betrachtungen über das Weltgebäude (Reflections On the World Edifice) in fact lead to the Copernican system as “whence it comes.” Heidegger writes that Hebel “shows how nature can also be scientifically calculated. But he doesn’t lose himself in this conception of nature.”(6) Our educational system has lost itself long ago in it. We have recently become more emancipated, however, and we are less dependent on the Copernican worldview due to the fact that physics has subjected itself to self-analysis in the 20th century. Even within physics the Copernican worldview can be seen as a human construct having the benefit of simplicity, not as a deeper reality.
Our textbooks, presumptuous as they are, tend to speak of the “apparent” vault of the heavens and the “apparent” movement of the planets.(7) It is obvious what they mean. But for the child that word “apparent” negates realities that physics, the Copernican system, astronomy, and photographs taken by astronauts in fact cannot touch.(8) What the vault of the heavens can tell us isn’t just an appearance. At one moment it speaks to us as sky with wild clouds obscuring the moon, at another as the high sky of summer. When we perceive this way, we are simply not in the mode of physics.
A child should never have a bad conscience in school when she “still” sees the moon traveling the span of sky as the friend of the clouds or of herself, bewildered as she might be by learned pronouncements that such things would be “just appearance.” There shouldn’t be a trace of that feeling, not even subconsciously. Suppose a child follows astronomical conclusions and demonstrations of astronauts, but is lucky enough that she cannot resist opening herself to experiences, intimations, or poems in which the moon is not experienced as a sphere with mass m, or the earth as a ball. Such a child should never feel split in two. Let us help children understand that they don’t live in a world of illusions in more poetical moments, but rather in a fuller and less restricted reality than the one the onlooker consciousness reveals, indirectly experienced through instruments or transmitted by astronomical calculations or reports from astronauts. The original reality thus gained may not be “objective,” but it is also not strictly private, because it always allows us to build connections between our separate selves and even to communicate such experiences to others by means of art. It is that reality which makes it possible for us to say: “here,” on the “earth under the canopy of the sky,” we are “at home.” For this particular “here” there are no coordinates, and for this being “at home,” there is a duration that cannot be clocked. “Earth” and “sky” are not limited by the measuring intellect here but are being taken in by soul organs in the fullest possible way. And so we do not distance ourselves from things, but identify ourselves with them. This creates the kind of approach, or rather connection, which is as real as any you could wish to have. A person who has no knowledge of astronomy may be poor in terms of science, but can feel at home and be happier and more mature than someone who “knows” the wrong way: confused, disconnected, split. But if you know that there are limits to the knowledge gained in physics or astronomy, you do not need to lose any shelter and can gain much wonder.
It is said that the truth lies between two opposing opinions. Not at all! We are concerned with what lies in between; invisible, eternally active life, quietly contemplated. (Goethe)(9)
Among the Greek gods (who are “not ‘personifications’, but rather open our eyes to essential and true forces.”(10)), Artemis, the goddess of the moon, is the “unsteady queen of loneliness, magical and wild, unapproachable and eternally pure.” But she also demands human sacrifices and “overwhelms human dwellings with uncanny power. With her soft projectiles she painlessly does away with those she hits.”
This physiognomic conception of nature is one of strong empathy and borders on the unconscious. In present-day civilization, we hardly dare admit that we still are able to enter into it. It harks back to the natural religion of older civilizations. Today, a few “primitive,” “less-developed” tribes are still able to enter into this immediate relationship with nature. It is something we know very little about.
Friends in Central America, who live in close contact with simple farmers—the “campesinos” of Native American origin—describe:
For the farmers here, the moon is an incomprehensible, almost divine being. They’re afraid to even say “dear moon.” They have no dreamy or romantic notions about the moon. To them, she is neither “lovely” as she is for Li Tai Pe, nor a “drinking buddy,” as she is for Orff, but neither is she cold or cruel. Therefore our farmers are much further removed from us than we—you and I—are from the moon. For the technically minded person, their moon is more foreign than it is for our farmers, who have known it since childhood as an inscrutable sign of divine presence. The reality of such a soul mood can only be recognized when we have already overcome our knowledge of the physical relations. Only then does the moon become the domain of poets, lovers, or the sick. Yet for our farmers the shock at the thought of people trampling on the moon is much more devastating than it is for lovers and poets. Once our farmers have accepted that people have, out of vanity and arrogance, trampled on the moon, their grief will seek a pathway such as the one it takes when they face the vastness of the ocean: even though the farmer sees that the sea is being sailed on, that people even travel under its surface, that it is sliced and polluted, he doesn’t doubt that it has a power and a will of its own, against which even men of science and technology are powerless.
“In that long ago of prairie spaces when the wind was the message of America, Indians had lived beneath the moon, stared at the moon, lived in greater intimacy with the moon than any Europeans.”
* Translators’ note: Li Tai Pe is also known as Li Bai or Li Po; he was a renowned Chinese poet who lived from 701 to 762.
† Translators’ note: homo faber means man the maker.
1. Mailer, Norman (1970). Of a Fire on the Moon. New York: The New American Library (Signet), p. 128.
2. This quote is from astronaut James Lovell, who spoke at a press conference in December of 1968, soon after he had returned from orbiting the moon. [The translators were unable to find the original quotation.]
3. Bach, Werner (1969). “Wie farbig ist das All?” Retina, vol.1/69, pp. 24–28; quote on p. 28.
4. Frisch, Max (1977). Homo Faber. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, p. 23 (italics added). [Translators’ note: the English translation by Michael Bullock bears the same title.]
5. Humboldt, W. von (1963). Werke, Bd. 3: Schriften zur Sprachphilosophie, 3rd edition. Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchges., p. 22. This phrase is quoted here because of the unusual and therefore illuminating concept “undivided powers,” thus formulated in order to distinguish that way of seeing from isolating forms of cognition. Humboldt turns against the narrow rationalistic viewpoint according to which the words of a language would be nothing but arbitrary signs, which would be therefore meaningless in themselves. This is the linguistic parallel to the scientific reduction of the moon to a matter of gravitational pull. (See further S. Mumm, “Zur Propaedeutik der Linguistik: Wort und Zeichen” in Germanistische Linguistik 1/2, 1977. Marburg: Forschungsinstitut für deutsche Sprache.)
6. Heidegger, M. (1991). Hebel: Der Hausfreund, 3rd edition. Neske: Pfullingen, p. 20 f.
7. The following lightly revised passage has been taken from my essay “Die Erfahrungen des Erdballs,” published in Ursprüngliches Verstehen und Exaktes Denken, Bd. II. Stuttgart: Klett, 1970, pp. 55 ff.
8. Compare Rumpf, Horst (1979). “Inoffizielle Weltversionen - über die subjektive Bedeutung von Lehrinhalten” Zeitschrift für Paedagogik, vol.2/1979, p. 209.
9. Goethe, J. W. von (1949). Goethe: Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, Beutler, E. (Ed.) Vol. 9, p. 580. Goethe is being quoted respectfully here, even though he himself was unable to recognize his own and Newton’s theory of color as two views that are not mutually exclusive. A sign that shows how hard it is.
10. Otto, Walter F. (1956). Theophania. Hamburg: Deutsche Enzyklopaedie (Rowohlt), vol. 15, p. 93ff. See also: Seghers, Anna (1956). Sagen von Artemis—Gesammelte Werke in Einzelausgaben, vol. VII. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, pp. 70 ff..
11. See also Wagenschein, M. (1977). “Lehren mit Respekt” Scheidewege, vol. 2/1979.
12. Mailer, Norman (1970). Of a Fire on the Moon. New York: The New American Libray (Signet), p. 77.
Translation by Jan Kees Saltet and Craig Holdrege; to read a shortened version, click here.
Martin Wagenschein wrote the essay “Die beiden Monde” in 1979; it was published in the journal Scheidewege, 1979, vol. 9 (4), pp. 463-475. This translation has been approved by the Wagenschein literary heirs and is based on the text that is available online at the Wagenschein archive: http://www.martin-wagenschein.de/Archiv/W-209.htm.
Copyright 2007 The Nature Institute