The Value Of Desolation

Few months ago a painter doing some interior work at our house volunteered that the earth is flat. He knew of a group that “went way up in Alaska, went to the edge, and looked over. You can see about it on the internet.” Apollo 11 took place in a Hollywood studio. Fake news.

Don’t know what is more incredible. That humans were able to get to the moon and back with the engineering done by slide rule and pencil or that all of the technology that ensued has, among much else, enabled beliefs such as the above. If it is on the internet it must be true…

Norman Mailer’s brilliant reportage of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins’ trip to the moon and back was prescient even regarding technical advance and the associated epiphenomenal states of mind that followed (NB This was 1969):

“Computers the size of a package of cigarettes would then be able to do the work of present computers the size of a trunk.”

“Because the computer was the essence of Narcissism (the computer could not conceive of its inability to correct its own mistakes) a view of (the future) suggested a technological narcissism so great that freak newspeak was its only cure.”

“So the mind could race ahead to see computers programming go-to-school routes in the nose of every kiddie car – the paranoid mind could see crystal transmitters sewn into the rump of every juvenile delinquent – doubtless, everybody would be easier to monitor.”

Impressive, huh. But the book – Of a Fire on the Moon – is much more than that. The author presents himself as the zeitgeist. An uber zeitgeist. He even calls himself ‘Aquarius” (as in “The Age of …”) a move so brazen that failure was virtually assured. But he succeeds. He succeeds by not allowing his perspicacity to overshadow his humanity.

“(The writer was) beginning to observe as if he were invisible. A danger sign. Only the very best and worst novelists can write as if they are invisible.”

Mailer is in no way here invisible. We are with him as his fourth marriage unwinds.

We are with him at the launch. In great detail he describes the physics, chemistry, and engineering of rockets and propulsion which in no way prepares us for the event:

“Then it came… Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of the combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivable louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet … an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death… Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!…”

And that’s only a snippet.

Also, it is impossible in this short bit to give any sense for the depth and breadth of knowledge Mailer is able to bring to bear.

A short example:

“(The writer) had been devoted to painting for close to thirty years; an amateur of the mysteries of form, it took him close the thirty years to comprehend why Cezanne was the father of modern art and godfather to photographs of the far side of the moon.”

And finally, his take on point of view:

“It was a terror to write if one wished to speak of important matters and did not know if one was qualified – sometimes the depressions helped to give sanction to the verdicts taken. It was not so unreasonable. The question is whether it is better to trust a judge who travels through the desolations before passing sentence, or a jurist who has a good meal, a romp with his mistress, a fine night of sleep, and a penalty of death in the morning for the highwayman.”

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