The lunar tic

What’s up with us and the moon? Having ignored it for years, nay, centuries, keeping our eyes firmly to the ground, we have recently begun looking for it everywhere and anywhere. Obsessively, desperately almost. It is almost as if we suddenly grew worried that it might no longer be there. That we were afraid that the moon felt so unwanted it took off.

The moon featured prominently in the fantasy worlds of Twilight and Harry Potter, of course. But it has also been making meaningful appearances elsewhere. Indeed, it appeared in the titles of numerous films and exhibitions, such as Moon and Responding to the New Moon. It has popped up in works of art, such as Darren Almond’s Full Moon series, the staged photos of Gregory Crewdson, and Ugo Rondinone’s Moonrise cabinet. It creeps up in novels, most recently in Roberto Bolano’s Skating Rink and Haruki Murakami’s three-volume 1Q84. In the brilliant TV show Parks and Recreation, one character even temporarily turns into the moon.

Of course, each moon is different. Twilight’s New Moon, for instance, is certainly not the same moon as the moon in the art of Rondinone. They have rather disparate functions. They also belong to incomparable semantic realms. However, I do believe there are some resonances between all these moons. Firstly, and least surprisingly, they are often full. Yet they are also often incomplete. Secondly, they are at once part of our modern, Enlightened universe and the stuff of magic. And thirdly, they function both as the driving force, the narrative core, and the disruptive force that makes it impossible to distinguish between narrative centre and periphery. Let me elaborate on what I mean by this by discussing briefly three recent representations of the moon: Duncan Jones’ Moon, Almond’s Full Moon series, and Murakami’s 1Q84.

Duncan Jones’ 2009 debut science fiction drama Moon tells the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a lone astronaut working for a mining company extracting resources from the moon. Sam has worked on the moon for three years. It has been a dreadful three years, entrapped in his routine, enclosed within the walls of his space station, isolated from any human contact. As he is about to return to earth he begins to hallucinate. He sees a girl walking around his station. He sees a man standing on the surface of the moon. Eventually, he spots himself. Yet as it turns out, his double is not an illusory figure. Impossibly, he, too, exists.

I won’t spoil the film for you, but for a long time the film persuades you to consider the possibility that these odd occurrences, real and illusory, are less the reasonable result of a man losing his mind to loneliness, as a mysterious, inexplicable effect of being on the moon. That they are a feature of the moon. The film shows Sam to be in full control of the moon. He tracks all activity on his computer. He maps its space in his car. Yet at the same time, the film suggests Sam has no control over the moon at all. Plays with focus, sudden camera shifts and an ominous soundtrack imply that there is something he is missing. He has omnivision yet there is a blind spot. He knows the moon but he has no understanding of it. As the director Duncan Jones says in an interview: “the moon has this weird mythic nature to it… There is still a mystery to it. As a location, it bridges the gap between science-fiction and science fact. We have been there. It is something so close and so plausible and yet at the same time, we really don’t know that much about it.”

As the NASA is withdrawing from the moon, disappointed with how barren it turns out to be, the film asks us to return to it precisely to reconsider this desolation. Science has demythologized the moon of the folktales and the fairy stories, turning into insignificant facts once meaningful fiction. In Moon, it is fiction that remythologizes the moon of astrophysics and economics, drawing into the realms of possibility the impossible.

A similar structure is at work in Darren Almond’s Full Moon series. In the Full Moon photos, the artist uses the moonlight and extremely extended exposure to make photographs of painterly scenes by night that look as if they have been taken by day. The moon here at once functions as the light that makes these photographs possible; and the dark presence by which these pictures seem impossible. It is the rational sine qua non, and the inexplicable punctum. As the art critic Brian Dillon writes in his catalogue essay: they evoke “a kind of fog of knowing and unknowing, revealing and concealing”. In Jones and Almond, the moon is not simply the stuff of magic and part of our Enlightened universe; paradoxically, it is magic precisely because it is Enlightened.

I have discussed some of Haruki Murakami’s other work in relation to metamodernism in brief elsewhere. Novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard Boiled Wonderland are at once decidedly realistic and surreal beyond doubt. The prose is evocative of the realistic registers of Carver, Chandler, and Fitzgerald. Murakami’s sentences – or at least in the English translation – are clear and concise, at times almost journalistic. The worlds conveyed by this prose, however, are inconsistent and ambiguous, being one thing one moment, only to be something completely different the next. What makes Murakami’s work so metamodern, is that it makes the reader acutely aware of this discrepancy, while at the same making him or her accept it completely (which is different from the simple suspension of disbelief).

In Murakami’s disappointing 1Q84, the world is explicitly stated to be a multiplicity of worlds. Not necessarily parallel worlds, in the sense that one can distinguish one from the other. But multiple overlapping, interlocking worlds. In 1Q84, the world is one world, the one you live in, but also always already a number of other worlds, worlds you do not yet live in but may at any one point in time come to live in, indeed, in which some of your friends may already live, even as you’re talking to them. Yet although the world is always already multiple, it adheres to only one logic at a time (which is not to say that that logic is in itself necessarily consistent, but that is another question). In 1Q84, the protagonists Tengo and Aomame suddenly find themselves in another world. The one moment they are in 1984, the next 1Q84: a world that is almost exactly the same, except for that it has two moons instead of one.

There is a whole back-story to this doubling of the moon which I will not go into here. What interests me here is that this doubling, this mooning, indeed, functions as a vulgar way to draw the moon into the view of the characters and subsequently, the story. Until the moment the moon is two, the characters spend no time looking at the moon. But once they have noticed the moon has a sibling, they suddenly cannot take their eyes of either one of them. The novel is full with sequences describing characters looking at or thinking about the moon. On a meta-level, the moon represents two functions here: it encourages readers to look again at things they normally glance over; and it persuades readers to reflect on the impossible possibility of the novel’s fictional universe, and perhaps Murakami’s oeuvre as a whole.

In terms of the novel’s narrative, the doubling of the moon appears to function as the narrative’s driving force. It spurs the characters into action: it makes them want to find out what kind of world they have come to live in, it makes them want to do things, it makes them want to undertake, intervene, etc. However, it also figures as a disruptive element that interrupts the action: it repeatedly inspires prolonged contemplation.

In addition, the identity of the moon itself remains unclear. The novel suggests at numerous instances that the moon is a living, omnipotent and omniscient presence, watching the protagonists as they watch him. Yet at the same time the moon is merely the dead shadow of such a powerful presence. The moon is, impossibly, God and man, puppet player and marionette, switch and light bulb. Both as a narrative function and as a metaphysical presence, the moon oscillates between ontological opposites. (Which is, of course, something that the moon has been doing for centuries now).

If 1Q84’s narrative is structured around this mooning, then, it is structured around a question that cannot be answered since that question is always already something else. The novel’s central enigma will inevitably appear peripheral (since it is always just beyond reach), just as each mystery that is peripheral will come to seem central at one point (since it is continuously pulled into view). In 1Q84, the moons imbue everything with the potentiality of significance.

I think it is fair to say that Murakami’s mooning makes no sense, much like exposing one’s buttocks makes no sense. Yet it is not exactly the same as showing your buttocks. Indeed, it is the metamodernist’s take on Sloterdijk’s kynicism: it mythologises, that is, it gives direction and meaning to precisely that vulgar act that is supposed to make all meaning senseless. The mystery, if you will, of the but crack.

It seems to me to be this oscillation, between the meaningful and the senseless, that typifies – and is typified by – the return of the moon in much contemporary culture. Vulgar, inexplicable, mysterious. The moon as deadly lifeworld in Moon. The moon as nighttime daylight in Almond. The moon creeping up behind the suburban semi in Crewdson. The moon as a person in Parks and Recreation. The moon as moon.

Image: Darren Almond’s Moon Series. Via The Guardian.

There are 3 comments

  1. G. H. Rabbath

    In relation to your opening paragraph, the moon is actually pulling away gradually from Earth’s gravitation. Eventually it will no longer help the Earth maintain its axis of rotation steady, and that spells catastrophy. Luckily none of us will still be here.

  2. A. N. Grip

    So much about the lunar 90’s sensibilities (or flabby impressionability) of regressives in a stagnant post-cold-war era. When can we expect the sunrise? When will a new, solar consciousness scorch away the directionless “quirky” degeneracy, providing heat and light for something of more substance?

  3. Saskia

    Hoi T.,
    Ik kwam weer eens hier terecht :)
    Wat mij altijd opvalt in Murakami’s boeken is dat er zo vaak ‘gaten’ in voorkomen, waar mensen dan in verdwijnen, doorheen gaan of bang voor zijn om in te vallen. Ook interessant voor een essay. Überhaupt al die herhalingen in zijn werk. Het oeuvre leest als een enkel boek, telkens over ongeveer dezelfde persoon in hetzelfde soort bizarre situaties.

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