Commentary Magazine


Of a Fire on the Moon, by Norman Mailer

Aquarius Rising

Of a Fire on the Moon.
by Norman Mailer.
Little, Brown. 472 pp. $7.95.

In a sense, this book was the inevitable next move for a writer who, having pitted himself against the likes of the late Sonny Liston, the Pentagon, Lyndon Johnson, and the mayor of Chicago, found himself running out of sufficiently testing opposition. One may imagine that part of the challenge was the fact that the landing of the first men on the moon might appear on the one hand to be too easy a subject—too well established in the public mind as a history-making event and therefore likely to be quickly relegated to history—and on the other hand too protected against searching examination by public rhetoric. In any event, it is the report on his latest safari by an established big-game hunter, this time through the Africa of space and beyond that into the heart of darkness; appropriately, therefore, it begins with a reference to that other great hunter, Hemingway, whose suicide left the author “wedded to horror” and hounded for eight years with death thoughts.

To put it this way may be to suggest that here again we have what Alfred Kazin has called “the charged-up consciousness of self that has become an insistent fact in our writing.” Certainly the standard autobiographical credentials of this consciousness are in Of a Fire on the Moon: for the author it has, been a bad decade, bracketed between the stabbing of his second wife and the failure to get decently off the launching pad in his effort to become mayor of New York City; he is in debt from his excursions into movie-making; he is not happy to be overpraised as a journalist at the expense of being undervalued as a novelist; his fourth marriage is collapsing; he is forty-six and gaining weight. Besides, it is immediately obvious that the important thing is not the moonshot but the author’s state of mind as he encounters it. Nevertheless, he is convinced that he is “detached this season from the imperial demands of his ego” and therefore “in superb shape to study the flight of Apollo 11 to the moon.” I think he is mainly right. Perhaps it is because the charged-up consciousness has this time come close to meeting its match so that the imperial ego has been driven into humility. No doubt the thought of Hemingway helped: who has not been driven by the thought of Hemingway into humility?

But craft helps too. In a Paris Review interview some years ago Mailer had hard things to say about craft, referring to it as one of those “enormous evasions” that is “fatal for somebody who has a large ambition and a chance of becoming a great writer.” No doubt this is true enough from the point of view of the imperial ego, which sees craft as lusting against it, and it is why the imperial Ahab in Moby Dick throws away the quadrant so that he must sail by dead reckoning. But you do not rocket to the moon, even on Mailer’s terms, by dead reckoning; ultimately, as he recognizes in this more humble mood, the effort to get beyond craft is self-destructive. Without this awareness the book would have failed, even as the moonshot itself would have failed without the coordination of crafts that so fascinates the author.

There is, for instance, the important but by now familiar strategy by means of which the first person assumes the disguise of the third person in order to back away from himself. So Mailer becomes Aquarius, his horoscopic alter ego (Aquarius, old Water-bearer: eccentric, unpredictable, loving to shock, advocate of brotherhood, friendship, and the higher love). It is a useful way to put down the imperial ego, to force it with humor and irony to work for, not against one. Then there is the excellent twice-over craft of the large design. We begin with the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, meet its executives, are introduced to astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins and speculate about their psychology; next move across country to Cape Kennedy to tour the installation and mingle with the midsummer festival of the launch; then return to Houston to follow the flight to and landing on the moon. At this point, history having plainly been made, we head home to Province-town, somewhat appalled to note that two thirds of a long book remains and to learn that we are about to return to the launching pad and do it all over again. But crafty Aquarius, disguised now as super-engineer, is able to bring it off, for at this point the best is yet to come.

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An important factor in Aquarius’s reporting is that he is blood-brother to Melville’s Ishmael. The first direct reference to Moby Dick occurs on page 100, after which point it is clearly indicated in only three or four more passages. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Aquarius’s mind is haunted by the memory of that greatest reporter of American moonshots. Aquarius’s inspection of the Vehicle Assembly Building and his observation that seeing the interior of a Saturn V rocket “was like looking into the abdominal cavity of a submarine or whale” recalls Ishmael’s inspection of the skeleton of the mighty whale as he finds it embowered on a South Pacific island. Aquarius pondering in a superb chapter the bond between the iron of astronauts and the magnet-compelling iron of the stars might be Ishmael bemused with the “linked analogies” that unite a Catskill eagle with a pagan harpooner. When Aquarius asks, “Who could say the ride of the Indian with whisky in his veins was not some conflagration of messages derived from the silences of the moon?” he is no less serious than Ishmael when he associates the mystic markings on the whale’s body with the hieroglyphics of the pyramids. Both assume that the true gestalt of an event is available only to the charged-up romantic imagination acting as co-creator of reality in a universe adapted more to the metaphor than the computer.

In such a universe there is no end to linked analogies. It follows that in both works every ascertainable fact about the particular moonshot is significant. Each has to be encyclopedic. The result in Moby Dick is that cetology (zoology of whales) so likely to bore readers who are unable to be at home in Ishmael’s world. By the same token, if the Apollo 11 moonshot has the meaning for you that it has for Theodore Roszak (see his essay in New American Review, No. 9), then Aquarius’s “cetology” may seem to be nothing more than self-indulgent virtuosity. In Aquarius’s view, however, the moonshot must be understood in engineering detail before it can be understood in any context. What he has provided, then, for those who can accept his Ishmaelean assumptions, is an incomparable guidebook for the watching of moonshots—indeed, what could turn out to be more important, for the watching of any technological process. At the same time, he has accepted the implied challenge of the Space Program, and by bringing off a superior moonshot has demonstrated a way to survive in the presence of apparently irresistible power. And since the Program communicates its moonshot with jargon and banalities (“Let us try to comprehend how man can be so bold yet inhabit such insulations of cliché”), Aquarius’s own moonshot must be a triumph of language.

An important possibility for Aquarius is that there may be a psychology of machines—a thought no more acceptable to Wernher von Braun than to Theoodore Roszak. It is hard to know what finally to make of Aquarius on this subject (though one should remember that he admits to being something of a Manichee). This much, however, is clear: machines often do act as if they had a psychology; to represent them as so acting is not only to rebuke the Pelagian hubris of technologists but to use a poet’s tactic to underline the irreducible mystery of reality; to suspect them of a psychology (Aquarius’s cunning pathetic fallacy?) is to heighten the essential drama of the astronauts’ situation. In any event, Ishmael, who could suspect not only the whale but the entire universe of a psychology, would have no problem here.

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Nor, I suspect, would he fail to understand Aquarius’s complex attitude toward the WASP, since he was himself caught up in a WASP enterprise. Aquarius’s WASP is clearly enough in the enemy camp, but here even more than in Miami and the Siege of Chicago he is aware that liberal pieties can be as crippling to a reporter as WASP banalities. Therefore “jokes at the expense of Nixon usually bored him” as did those liberals “who thought politics was equal to loathing Nixon.” Perhaps one should see a combination of honesty and craft here: the moonshot viewed from the perspective of any piety, liberal or anti-technological, may not only be predictably dull but so partial as to result in dishonest reporting. There is never, of course, any doubt about where his heart is. Hence the dramatic force of his wrathful explosion at the end of the book (he has built up to it as to the pratfall of a villain) against “himself and all the friends of his generation and the generations which have followed” who, while the WASP was moving from command of the world to command of the moon, “had used their years drinking deep into grass and all the mind illuminants beyond the grass, princelings on the trail of the hip, so avid to deliver the sexual revolution that they had virtually strained at the lips of the great gate.”

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So there is no peace for Aquarius, caught as he is between the infuriating but still loved princelings of the hip and the admired but feared princelings of Apollo 11. The recurring and structural question is “whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.” At the end he is no closer to an answer than he was at the beginning; he has simply dramatized the question in all its urgency and in the richest context he could manage. I confess I am as uneasy with-it, once I am outside the magic circle of the book, as I am with the operatic either-or’s of the radical Right. Early in his voyage he observes with irony that “ideas were what Americans cared about, and the biggest ideas were doubtless the best.” But is there not a familiar element of American megalomania in the assumption that the consequences of the Space Program must be supremely good or supremely bad? Unless we insist on such giant-size formulations, as if no other kind were worthy of us, why may not the Space Program be imagined as producing the usual mixed bag, failing no less to satisfy the hopes of Pelagian technologists than the fears of Manichean novelists?

At any rate, there is little in the book to support this unspectacular though not especially happy alternative; indeed, to have entertained it seriously might have been harmful to the book, the temper of which could hardly endure such a banal possibility. Ishmael, who works with a similar structural question—whether Ahab’s furious pursuit of the diabolized whale is heroic absolutism or appalling madness—is in the end, I believe, less confined in his choices, perhaps because he has learned to contemplate mighty opposites with some measure of what he calls the “equal eye.” Aquarius’s eye, still somewhat bloodshot from the imperial pressure, is not yet that equal.

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