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Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight

Overview

“Nobody who has not taken one can imagine the beauty of a walk through Rome by full moon,” wrote Goethe in 1787. Sadly, the imagination is all we have today: in Rome, as in every other modern city, moonlight has been banished, replaced by the twenty-four-hour glow of streetlights in a world that never sleeps. Moonlight, for most of us, is no more.

 

So James Attlee set out to find it. Nocturne is the record of that journey, a traveler’s tale that takes readers on a dazzling nighttime trek that ranges across ...

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Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight

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Overview

“Nobody who has not taken one can imagine the beauty of a walk through Rome by full moon,” wrote Goethe in 1787. Sadly, the imagination is all we have today: in Rome, as in every other modern city, moonlight has been banished, replaced by the twenty-four-hour glow of streetlights in a world that never sleeps. Moonlight, for most of us, is no more.

 

So James Attlee set out to find it. Nocturne is the record of that journey, a traveler’s tale that takes readers on a dazzling nighttime trek that ranges across continents, from prehistory to the present, and through both the physical world and the realms of art and literature. Attlee attends a Buddhist full-moon ceremony in Japan, meets a moon jellyfish on a beach in Northern France, takes a moonlit hike in the Arizona desert, and experiences a lunar eclipse on New Year’s Eve atop the snowbound Welsh hills. Each locale is illuminated not just by the moonlight he seeks, but by the culture and history that define it. We learn about Mussolini’s pathological fear of moonlight; trace the connections between Caspar David Friedrich, Rudolf Hess, and the Apollo space mission; and meet the inventors of the Moonlight Collector in the American desert, who aim to cure all kinds of ailments with concentrated lunar rays. Svevo and Blake, Whistler and Hokusai, Li Po and Marinetti are all enlisted, as foils, friends, or fellow travelers, on Attlee’s journey.

 

Pulled by the moon like the tide, Attlee is firmly in a tradition of wandering pilgrims that stretches from Bashō to Sebald; like them, he presents our familiar world anew.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
 "[R]ambling . . . charming . . . spellbinding. . . . As we reel through Attlee’s idiosyncratic investigation of his subject—with detours that discuss Mussolini, the Madonna, the Victorian painter Samuel Palmer—he provides a magpie assortment of facts. . . . Modern man, in Attlee’s view, has done his best to ignore moonlight. And man will continue to vanquish it—at least until the power runs out. Attlee makes us question such folly. His journey has no final destination, just many stops along a path that could—and should—unwind for a lifetime. In this way, Nocturne is an inspiration. It makes you want to pull a chair out into the garden and bathe in the moonlight. No questions asked.— Domionique Brown
Guardian
Attlee is a true enthusiast, and is fascinated by, indeed loves, his subject. He writes beautifully and often thrillingly about the moon in all its—her?—aspects, and it will be a dull-minded reader who comes away from this book without a new or at least renewed regard for the extraordinary, silver satellite that is our world's constant companion

— John Banville

Sunday Telegraph
One of the things that strikes you is how much pleasure Attlee, an aesthete, amateur astronomer and connoisseur, takes from simply looking. . . . Attlee has a considerable talent for capturing the thrill of historical moments. . . . But Nocturne becomes more than a series of loosely woven vignettes. Attlee's observations of the night sky take on a cumulative weight, forming a kind of guide for good living on Earth: late night walks, the pleasures of looking, the spectacular and forgotten thrills of natural phenomena, how we might find profound pleasure in the here and now we have overlooked.

— Adam O'Riordan

New�York Times�Book�Review

 "[R]ambling . . . charming . . . spellbinding. . . . As we reel through Attlee’s idiosyncratic investigation of his subject—with detours that discuss Mussolini, the Madonna, the Victorian painter Samuel Palmer—he provides a magpie assortment of facts. . . . Modern man, in Attlee’s view, has done his best to ignore moonlight. And man will continue to vanquish it—at least until the power runs out. Attlee makes us question such folly. His journey has no final destination, just many stops along a path that could—and should—unwind for a lifetime. In this way, Nocturne is an inspiration. It makes you want to pull a chair out into the garden and bathe in the moonlight. No questions asked."

— Domionique Brown

Boston�Globe
"One would be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than English writer James Attlee. On his global quest for moonlight, he has a gentle sense of humor and an even temper when clouds and rain botch his well-laid plans. Best of all, he is perpetually illuminating about what the moon has meant to humans through the centuries."

— Jan�Gardner

Boston-Globe
One would be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than English writer James Attlee. On his global quest for moonlight, he has a gentle sense of humor and an even temper when clouds and rain botch his well-laid plans. Best of all, he is perpetually illuminating about what the moon has meant to humans through the centuries.

— Jan Gardner

John R. Stilgoe

“This is a winner of a book. A luminous meditation on moon-glow and moon-glade and the sub-lunar landscape seen only by glimmer-struck savants.”—John R. Stilgoe, author of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places

NewYork TimesBookReview - Domionique Brown

 "[R]ambling . . . charming . . . spellbinding. . . . As we reel through Attlee’s idiosyncratic investigation of his subject—with detours that discuss Mussolini, the Madonna, the Victorian painter Samuel Palmer—he provides a magpie assortment of facts. . . . Modern man, in Attlee’s view, has done his best to ignore moonlight. And man will continue to vanquish it—at least until the power runs out. Attlee makes us question such folly. His journey has no final destination, just many stops along a path that could—and should—unwind for a lifetime. In this way, Nocturne is an inspiration. It makes you want to pull a chair out into the garden and bathe in the moonlight. No questions asked."
Guardian - John Banville

"Attlee is a true enthusiast, and is fascinated by, indeed loves, his subject. He writes beautifully and often thrillingly about the moon in all its--her?--aspects, and it will be a dull-minded reader who comes away from this book without a new or at least renewed regard for the extraordinary, silver satellite that is our world's constant companion"
Sunday Telegraph - Adam O'Riordan

"One of the things that strikes you is how much pleasure Attlee, an aesthete, amateur astronomer and connoisseur, takes from simply looking. . . . Attlee has a considerable talent for capturing the thrill of historical moments. . . . But Nocturne becomes more than a series of loosely woven vignettes. Attlee's observations of the night sky take on a cumulative weight, forming a kind of guide for good living on Earth: late night walks, the pleasures of looking, the spectacular and forgotten thrills of natural phenomena, how we might find profound pleasure in the here and now we have overlooked."
Boston�Globe - Jan�Gardner
"One would be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than English writer James Attlee. On his global quest for moonlight, he has a gentle sense of humor and an even temper when clouds and rain botch his well-laid plans. Best of all, he is perpetually illuminating about what the moon has meant to humans through the centuries."
A. Roger Ekirch
"Nocturne is an enchanting moonlit sojourn born of wisdom and celestial wonder."
Dave Hickey
"Nocturne is a charming book, filled with hundreds and thousands of facts and stories about the moon, not one of which we really need to know but nearly all of which are fascinating. As a result we close the book enriched, with a pocket full of change we can spend wherever we want."
Bookforum

"In twenty-five short essays, Nocturne charts Attlee's quest to rediscover the moon, not only through travel, but also through mysticism, literature, and art. . . . Nocturne is a trove of poetic descriptions."
Boston-Globe - Jan Gardner
"One would be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than English writer James Attlee. On his global quest for moonlight, he has a gentle sense of humor and an even temper when clouds and rain botch his well-laid plans. Best of all, he is perpetually illuminating about what the moon has meant to humans through the centuries."
BostonGlobe - JanGardner
"One would be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than English writer James Attlee. On his global quest for moonlight, he has a gentle sense of humor and an even temper when clouds and rain botch his well-laid plans. Best of all, he is perpetually illuminating about what the moon has meant to humans through the centuries."
Financial Times

"Attlee is a congenial writer, consistently readable, erudite yet modest. . . . Nocturne is never less than absorbing: moonlight may be tenuous stuff but there's a lot of matter here."
Irish Times

"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.'"
John R. Stilgoe

“This is a winner of a book. A luminous meditation on moon-glow and moon-glade and the sub-lunar landscape seen only by glimmer-struck savants.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226030968
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,440,683
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

James Attlee is the author of Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He works in art publishing in London.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Sky Maps and Ghost Ships....................3
A Three-Dog Night by the River....................9
A Barefoot Galileo....................14
Absorbed by Its Shadows....................22
Earthshine....................26
Eostre and a Paschal Moon....................28
A White Horse and Mammoth Bones....................30
Fear of the Dark....................36
Darkness and the Desert: An Islamic Moon....................41
Mussolini, the Madonna and Moonlight....................46
Extollagers in the Valley of Vision: Memory, Moonlight and Samuel Palmer....................56
Dark Adaption and the Eye of the Beholder....................67
The Path of Totality....................80
Adrift on the Iapetus Ocean....................84
August Beach Moon, Normandy....................88
Immaculate Conceptions and Transparent Moons....................91
Let's Murder the Moonlight! Futurists and the Moon....................95
The Agency of the Night....................100
Beyond the Gateless Gate: September Kyoto Moon....................111
Cats' Eyes and a McDonald's Moon....................132
The Alarming Mountain: Naples, Vesuvius and the Moon....................153
From Vegas to Vega: American Moon....................187
The Moon and the Standing People....................225
Raking the Shadows: A Romantic Moon....................237
Through Midnight Streets: The Thames and a London Moon....................265
Blue Moon on Stonewall Hill....................303
Acknowledgements....................310
Permissions....................311
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First Chapter

Nocturne

A Journey in Search of Moonlight
By JAMES ATTLEE

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2011 James Attlee
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03096-8


Chapter One

A Three-Dog Night by the River

The moon is said to be in syzigy when she is in conjunction or opposition with the sun. Falconer's New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1815 Edition

By afternoon it has clouded over and turned bitterly cold. The sky releases a fine drizzle that feels as if it may turn to snow. It has been a heavy week and I feel exhausted by doing simple chores; it seems enough to get to the end of a shopping list, wheeling my bike along the street from the farmers' market to the grocery store. I haven't made any special plans for observing the full moon even though it falls on a Saturday, but over the preceding days I have been aware of a subliminal sense of anticipation. Coming home in the evenings beneath the waxing moon I have looked upwards and reminded myself that I have an assignation. But now it seems that we are set to have one of those nights when the city is shut in beneath a lid of low-lying cloud that bounces the sulphurous light of the street lamps back down to us, so that we are condemned to simmer in our own electronic bouillabaisse. Mentally I have already let go of this night, written it off, resigned to spending the evening in front of a televisual window on the world rather than beneath the sky. Once our son is in bed we sit down to watch a DVD. A Chinese film, it is set in a neon-lit landscape of fast-food joints, subways, bars, sweatshops and tiny apartments, an almost entirely nocturnal world that never shows the night sky. Some of the chase scenes are filmed in a kind of jerking slow motion so that the lights blur and smear and create new colours, becoming themselves the film's primary subject. The motivation of the characters remains obscure; genres are shuffled, the sub-plot becomes the main plot and the main plot seems to evaporate. When it finishes we decide to go to bed. I am standing brushing my teeth by the glass-panelled back door when I notice that my feet are spotlit in a pool of silver. I go outside and find that the sky has almost cleared; the moon is high, shining through a thin cloud cover. The temperature has caused what astronomers call a corona to form; moonlight is being refracted through hexagonal ice crystals in the high cloud, creating a circle around the moon that glints purple and gold. The light spilling out from the house and from the houses on either side over the garden fence extends about eighteen feet along the ground; then the moonlight takes over. The garden backs on to allotments that are not lit at night, creating a shadowland where foxes prowl and screech and moonbeams are not entirely robbed of their potency. The bulk of a climbing rose is grey but the raindrops caught in its leaves sparkle, each a tiny reservoir of mercury. The small fig that grows against the windowless wall of the extension is silhouetted, its bare branches, studded with small hard fruit that failed to ripen in the miserably wet summer, casting sharply defined Japanese shadows on the wall.

I decide to take a midnight walk; I want to get away from the lights, see the moon reflected in the waters of the river, as so many artists before have done. To his surprise the family dog is roused from his basket to accompany me. Traditionally, for aboriginal Australians, the temperature of the hours of darkness is described as being a one-dog night, a two-dog night or, in particularly cold seasons, a three-dog night, depending on how many dogs would have been required to keep a man warm in the days when he would have slept outside, in the bush. For all I know this may be colder than it ever gets in Australia but all I have for company as I set out is a trembling, neurotic whippet that shies at every shadow. As soon as I step out of my front door I realize I will have to walk some distance to re-enter the moonlight. The moon has power in the garden only because it is shielded from the glare of the street lights in the lee of the house; I am now entering a world painted in an orange, sodium glow. Then I notice that in the shade of each parked car a tiny pool of moonlight remains. The street lights project from the edge of the road while the moon is directly above. Moonshine infiltrates between the patches of artificial light; yet it is diluted, robbed of its strength. Those still abroad at this late hour have their heads down, their collars turned up. It is easy to forget the presence of the moon above you when you are distanced, immunized against its touch.

I take the bridge across the river. I have never noticed before how brightly lit it is; completely empty, every inch of it is illuminated, its lights writhing in the water below like burning lanterns. The occasional car swishes by, its headlights out-dazzled. What a profligate civilization we are, burning up our resources to light streets that nobody walks down and shop-window displays that nobody sees, pouring light on the empty pavements as a ritual oblation to the god of money. This is the senseless waste of energy through which we rob the world of moonlight. Gratefully I take a path down the steep embankment and drop into the relative darkness on the riverbank. This is what I have been seeking: around a quarter of a mile of path running between the river and a water meadow where the City Council's compulsion to banish darkness and ensure public safety has been curbed.

Within a couple of minutes of leaving the bridge behind, every puddle burns with its own miniature flame. Such reflections have fascinated mankind for countless centuries. Astrologers in the Middle Ages claimed they were 'scrying the moon', predicting the future by noting the position of the markings on the lunar disc's face (which of course never changed) when its image was observed in standing water. Tonight the river has become a looking glass; the trees along the opposite bank stand on their heads, their reflections photographic negatives from a pre-digital age.

Ahead of me on the path I can see a lamp post, lighting the way into the garden of a waterside pub that given the hour has long since fallen as silent as the Egyptian divinity that gives it, and this stretch of the river, its name. For the ancient Egyptians the sky itself was formed by the gracefully curved body of a female divinity, variously named Nut or Hathor, who touched the earth only with the tips of her fingers and toes and whose belly was girded with stars. This belly dance of stars seems to me a ridiculously beautiful idea. However, Nut was not without her troubles. She fell in love with her twin brother, Geb, the earth god, and married him without the permission of their father, Ra, who was so enraged that he decreed that Nut would not be able to give birth to a child on any given day of the year. According to Plutarch, however, Thoth took pity on her. Playing draughts in a long series of games with the moon, he won a seventy-second part of its light; with this as his raw material he created five extra days that did not belong to the official 360-day Egyptian calendar. Nut wasted no time, giving birth to a child on each of them: Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis and Nephthys. (It is Isis, of course, who gives her name to both the river and the pub I stand between.) I stop, reluctant to re-enter the tangerine smog the lamp emits; at the precise moment I pause, under the mournful, long-suffering gaze of the whippet, who himself has the head of an Egyptian god, it switches off. I walk up to it and watch in amazement as the glow of its orange filament dims and the dark rushes back in from under the trees. There seems to be no particular logic to explain why this lamp should be programmed to switch off at this time while those behind and ahead of me still burn. What it tells me is that every one of these lights shut down or knocked out is another few yards won back for the moonlight. And it comes to me then, in a city that retains so much of its medieval fabric and boasts its own observatory, how wonderful it would be to switch this useless light show off and regain the night sky, freeing ourselves to experience once more the silvery touch of earth's nearest neighbour. Doubtless, negotiation with the earthly powers that decree the night be lit would prove as difficult a game as any Thoth played against the moon. Could those prepared to engage in it hope to win from them some unlit nights, as Thoth won Nut her days? And what might be born when we had created such a space?

Chapter Two

A Barefoot Galileo

The nature of the moon has been a subject of conjecture for philosophers and poets from the dawn of written history. That the truth of their speculations could not be verified gave them licence to entertain widely divergent theories, some writers holding a number of apparently contradictory possibilities in balance at the same time. In Plutarch's 'On the Face that Appears in the Orb of the Moon', a cast of characters representing all fields of knowledge both report and satirize a number of 'popular notions that are in everybody's mouth' concerning the moon, whether derived from ancient sources or folk legend. They start by discussing the widely held belief that the face of a man or a maiden is discernible on the lunar disc; they decide that this notion cannot be a mere affectation of sight caused by the moon's brightness, as those with weak eyes are less able to discern its features, meaning the face-like markings have physical existence. At the same time they are under no illusion that the face itself is real. Thus the moon must be something like a shadow-puppet screen or a magic lantern in the sky. Another belief held by the ancients that they discuss and dismiss is that the full moon is a mirror, 'of all mirrors, in point of polish and of brilliancy the most beautiful and the most clear', and that its so-called face is 'only reflected images and appearances of the great sea'. This early link between the moon and water reverses a pictorial tradition later to become significant in Western art, in which water reflects the moon. In addition they mention the idea that the moon is composed of glass or ice and that the light of heaven shines through it, making the moon a lens and moonlight the projected illumination of another world. A magic lantern, a mirror or a lens; it is as though the moon from the earliest times was pointing towards the as yet undiscovered science of optics, urging men to increase the power of their limited vision, calling out look at me, discover me.

It was not until the beginning of the seventeenth century that men devised the first instruments that allowed mankind to extend its vision to other worlds. The magnification power of Galileo Galilei's first refracting spyglasses, constructed variously from lead or strips of wood, covered with intricately tooled leather (for those he wished to present as gifts to potential patrons) or paper, was weak by today's standards. His first attempt, made using standard lenses purchased from spectacle-makers' workshops, gave only a magnification power of 3X. Had he chosen to turn this instrument towards the night sky, the detail he would have been able to observe of the lunar maria (large plains on the surface of the moon, visible from earth by the naked eye, formerly believed to be seas) would have been scarcely greater than that visible to the naked eye. Fortunately he did not rest with his first attempt, but strove to improve the efficiency of his 'tubes', using his knowledge of optics to grind and polish the lenses himself. By the end of the summer in 1609 he had managed to achieve a magnification of 8X or 9X, putting him ahead of the competition (instruments that could magnify 3X or 4X had already appeared for sale in Venice). The engine that drove him was not purely a love of science but the single-minded desire to advance his career. Initially, at least, the best way of doing this seemed to be to win the favour of the ruling powers of the Republic. Galileo was a man with responsibilities—he had his sisters' dowries to pay for and three children by his mistress to support, all on the limited income of a university professorship in mathematics. He offered his own instrument to the Doge of Venice as a weapon to add to his arsenal, the missile defence shield of its day. 'This is a thing of inestimable benefit for all transactions and undertakings,' he wrote in a letter to the Doge, 'maritime or terrestrial, allowing us at sea to discover at a much greater distance than usual the hulls and sails of the enemy, so that for two hours or more we can detect him before he detects us ...'

By the end of the same year Galileo had created a telescope with 20X magnification. This was the instrument with which he began his voyage of exploration into the heavens. I like to imagine the moment when he turned his improved spyglass on the moon and the silent planet swam into the watery orbit of his eye. Stripped of mystery, obfuscation and philosophical debate, naked, shivering perhaps through the transmitted trembling of his hand (although he had devised a tripod to minimize this problem), the moon was revealed to be, what? Much like the earth; its surface irregular, marked by chains of mountains and deep valleys, geographical features a man could walk among if only he could devise a way to reach it. Once and for all the Aristotelian notion that the heavens were perfect and unchangeable, while only the earth was the realm of corruption and decay, was rendered untenable. Before long, Galileo's vision had reached beyond the lunar plane and discovered four new stars. Not that these were, as he explained in his dedication to his book Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) in 1610,

of the common sort and multitude of the less notable fixed stars, but of the illustrious order of wandering stars, which, indeed, make their journeys and orbits with a marvellous speed around the star of Jupiter, the most noble of them all, with mutually different motions, like children of the same family, while meanwhile all together, in mutual harmony, complete their great revolutions every twelve years about the centre of the world, that is, about the Sun itself.

By discovering that Jupiter was orbited by its own moons, Galileo dethroned the earth from absolute rule at the centre of the spinning, singing firmament, providing compelling support for a Copernican view of the universe. At one stroke he earned himself international fame and the undying enmity of certain members of the Catholic hierarchy. He was first reported to the Inquisition in 1616 and warned to abandon his heliocentric view of the universe. In 1632 he was reported again for his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which presents the theories of Copernicus as superior to those of Ptolemy. He was condemned for 'a vehement suspicion of heresy' and had to make a dramatic recantation of his opinions before the inquisitors to save his skin.

In his old age, already blind and held under house arrest, Galileo was visited in Tuscany by another defender of regicide, the young Puritan poet John Milton. Milton himself of course would later go blind, having lost his eyes 'overplied / In liberty's defense', as he himself put it in his twenty-second sonnet, as Secretary of Foreign Tongues in Cromwell's government. The poet also found himself out of step with worldly powers; after the Restoration, a republican in a monarchical age, his books were burned in public by the hangman and he narrowly escaped execution. We have no record of the conversation between the scientist and the poet. Their meeting is immortalized in Paradise Lost in a few brief lines, in which Milton writes of Satan's shield, which

Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb Through Optic Glass the Tuscan artist views At ev'ning from the top of Fesole, Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands, Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe.

At first, verification of the worlds opened up by this new technology was limited to those in possession of rare scientific equipment; others had to rely on the accounts of these virtual explorers of the regions beyond the earth. In England, a little over a decade after Galileo's discoveries, Robert Burton, that great accumulator of all knowledge both ancient and contemporary, wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy with characteristic caution that 'they find by their glasses that maculae facie luna, [the spots on the face of the moon] the brighter parts are earth, the dusky sea, which Thales, Plutarch, and Pythagoras formerly taught; and manifestly discern hills and dales, and suchlike concavities, if we may believe and subscribe to Galileo's observations'. It did not take long, however, for Galileo's ideas to percolate through the consciousness of Europe, shifting our understanding of the universe for ever. In the land of his birth, he has made an extraordinary journey since his death, from villain to hero, from heretic to saint.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Nocturne by JAMES ATTLEE Copyright © 2011 by James Attlee. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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