This image of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, photographed forty years ago by his Apollo 11 spacemate Neil Armstrong, has haunted me for decades. Not so much because it’s taken on the moon, as because of the image on his helmet, a mirror image that suggests there’s nothing behind the mask, inside that cavernous helmet, except for a kind of deadly infinite blackness, a void beyond which is nothing. (Except that we are there, whatever the ‘we’ are, and not necessarily just us humans.) It’s one of those images that seeped in and triggered the growth of the budding Buddho-Lacanian in me, the one who suspects that within and between the myriad things of beauty and color and sound and joy and sadness and struggle and sorrow and loss, there is some kind of space that’s dark and calm and empty, a place of infinite rest, the Buddhists’ calm abiding and the Slavic Christian’s vichnyi spokij, but a place that’s also somehow bottomless, one of Pascal’s infinite spaces, where planting a flag will hardly make a home. Where Elton John’s rocket man burns up his fuel alone, and Ground Control’s call to Major Tom gets lost, his circuit dead for good.
As for Neil Armstrong’s walk itself, my memory of it is steeped in the hypnotic ambiance of the eerily blue screen and tinny sound of the black-and-white TV that filled up the summer cottage where we spent that part of the summer of ’69 with our extended Ukrainian family of siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, against a background of crickets and rotting wood and septic tank smells. It’s all mixed together with the distinct memory I still carry around with me of walking down the country road outside that cottage with my dad and a friend of his talking about space and the future, the space between us and the moon filling up with the weirdly vertiginous understanding that someone was up there walking on that white orb, just as we were walking down here on this earth, in some sort of bizarre mirroring between earth and space. “We came in peace for all mankind”, they said, just as Jesus did, planting flags on a flagless, lifeless, inert, and in the end perhaps futile new world.
Conspiracists continue to deny it, but according to established consensus, twelve men have walked on the moon. All have been Americans. One of them golfed there. One, Edgar Mitchell, went on to found the Institute for Noetic Sciences, write a book on psychic phenomena, and claim that “we are being visited” by extraterrestrials and have been contacted by them several times, but that governments have hidden the truth from us for over sixty years. Another, James Irwin, went on to form the High Flight Foundation, a religious organization based in Colorado Springs (the epicenter of American evangelical Christianity) to encourage people to “the Highest Flight possible with God”; Irwin has led trips in search of Noah’s Ark on Turkey’s Mount Ararat, and has said that “Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.” As for Buzz Aldrin, he reported Apollo 11’s apparent UFO encounter (later clarified to remove any suggestion of aliens), but didn’t get Ali G. (But would he get Bruno?)
If Apollo (alongside other missions) brought us the Earth as picture, a planet captured by technology, visualizable as an entity we (or our experts) can map, measure, quantify and manage — in all its boundaryless, post-nationalist glory (choose the interpretation you favor, the globalist or the planetarian), then the moonwalk — brought to us by Bill Bailey, Marcel Marceau, James Brown, David Bowie, Neil Armstrong, and most famously by Michael Jackson — gave us the Moon as dancefloor. (Both Theory Vortex and Moving Images compare the two most famous moonwalks, Neil Armstrong’s and Jackson’s.) Sun Ra, George Clinton, and other Black musicians have, of course, been traveling to outer space for decades, as John Akomfrah argues in the film The Last Angel of History. Just as Ray Bradbury displaced the American frontier to our neighboring red planet in his Martian Chronicles, lyrically evoking the disappearing native culture in the face of the incoming settlers, African Americans, whisked off and carried forcefully to new worlds, have been mapping out alien space for centuries.
How do we walk on the moon? How do we dance onto that surface that has never been danced on by one of us, and how do we shuffle forward on it, when there is neither forward nor back anymore (it’s too late for that), just a nervous tiptoeing into the blackness of a nowhere on the other side of the Cocteauian mirror of a “small step” taken, a “huge leap for mankind“? The Independent reported the other day that among the results of the Millennium Project’s 6700-page, 2700-expert, UN- and World Bank-supported State of the Future report is the recognition that climate change “will cause civilisation to collapse.” Where to, then? How do we step into that mirror? Benjamin knew what Klee’s Angel of History was saying, but we aren’t sure of anything anymore. (are we?) (take another step, slowly, feel the dirt, the sand between your toes; take off that boot, astronaut, and lift those rose-petals to your face, so soft, sweet smelling, delicate, red) (Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the antidote to Kubrick’s 2001, but even it is haunted and dark; the real antidote is life itself) (the planet I would cherish is the one that would turn our flags into roses, and it’s right here, where I’m sitting)