A Journey in Search of Moonlight

As I was leaving for a dinner date with my “someone special” on Friday night, my eyes immediately fell upon the moon.  It was a waning gibbous (just a day or two past “full”) and it was big, bright, and simply beautiful. It seemed to illuminate the entire sky around it.   For me, like for countless others, the moon has always had a remarkable effect. When I was a young child (since the age of two or three), my grandmother would make it a point to always draw my attention to the moon.  I do that now with my daughter (she’s three and can already recognize a crescent, quarter, or gibbous moon), and I hope that she always looks up to see what beauty the night sky has to offer her.

William Blake, “I Want! I Want!” 1793, Engraving

Tonight I finished reading Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, by James Attlee. A book, that upon finishing it, had me thinking of Friday’s moon. Attlee begins with a wonderful retelling of how the book came about.  He writes,

Strange indeed are the places that give birth to the ideas that later, for better or worse, find physical form as books. I first encountered my subject lying on my back in a dentist’s chair. In an effort to distract the minds of those undergoing treatment, the dentist in question had attached a large photographic poster to the ceiling depicting the earth at night, seen from space. It is to the distant yet familiar world that his patients cast their eyes, sometimes blurred by tears, sometimes pre-naturally sharpened by the effort of ignoring their discomfort. What they learn is that much of the planet we inhabit no longer experiences ‘night’ as it was once understood.

With that, Attlee begins the fascinating tale of his journey in search of the moon and moonlight.  He travels around the world, not only exploring the places themselves, but the culture and history that have shaped our lunar perceptions. We accompany him on moonlit boat rides on the Thames, and Buddhist full-moon ceremonies in Japan.  We sit enthralled as he describes the myriad places the moon has occupied in history, and through an exploration of literature and art, Attlee reveals the enormous impact that the moon has had on our many cultures.

We have, for centuries, been enraptured and mystified by the moon.  It has served as the backdrop for lovers, for spies, for thieves, and for those in search of themselves.  In literature, writers and poets from Milton, to GoetheLi Po, and Blake, the moon has, if nothing else, been an ever-present source of inspiration.  So too with art, and even music (“Moonlight Sonata,” “Clair de Lune,” and many others).   At Attlee writes early in the book,

moonlight does not reveal. . . it transforms, changing colors and contours in its shape-shifting light.

And it is this quality of the moon as both a source of illumination and obfuscation, with its powers to both expose and hide, have given it an enduring place in our collective cultures.

Like Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, Nocturne is  a book about a journey, and the transformative powers of our experiences.  For Attlee it was a two-year journey in search of the moon through time, place, art, and in the pages of books.  Reading Nocturne has made want to head far away from the city lights to see the moon in all its bigness and brightness.  It has made me stop and remember not only Friday’s moon and the wonderful night that it brightened, but the hundreds of other moons that are tied to hundreds of other memories.  And its made me look forward to the many moons to come.

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12 thoughts on “A Journey in Search of Moonlight

  1. “What they learn is that much of the planet we inhabit no longer experiences ‘night’ as it was once understood”

    Yes, I can go out at night around here, as one can around most places, without a moon at all and walk around perfectly fine. Not so when I used to camp up in mid-Maine. No moon up there meant if you didn’t “go out” without a flashlight, then you were likely lost till the morning. The phrase pitch black is apt..

    In 1Q84 (yeah, yeah….still reading. I’ll finish it up tomorrow) there are TWO moons in the alternate universe. One big yellow one and a smaller green one.

    My favorite ‘moon’ song is Billie Holliday’s “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”. Just great.

  2. I wasn’t really thinking about “moon music” when I wrote this post but now I can’t stop thinking about it. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” is fantastic, and I also love Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” (college memories), Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and of course, CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising.” I think I know what I’ll be listening to on my way to work tomorrow.

    • Hey.
      Since the topic now includes Lunar references in music and song I will share these jewels.
      My favorite is Casta Diva (chaste goddes) from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. http://youtu.be/MBW5a77wINQ Astounding interpretation by Maria Callas.
      Song to the Moon from Rusalka, (Dvorak) sung by Anna Netrebko. Video a little ‘cheesy’ but a little cheese never hurt anyone especially with a good martini.

      In Richardd Strauss’ opera Salome based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name.

      A very curious aside with the full moon is presented in Richrd Strauss’ opera Salome based on Oscar Wildes play of the same name.
      In the opening scene a page describes the full moon as very strange that night seeming like a woman rising from the tomb.
      , a lifeless woman gliding along…. Shortly thereafter Salome comes on the scene
      and also noticing the very bright orb

      A very interesting aside with the full moon is presented in Richard Strauss’
      opera Salome based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name.
      In the opening scene a page looks up at the full moon and remarks how strage the moon looks, like a woman rising from the tomb a lifeless woman gliding along.

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  4. In most languages (cultures) that I am familiar with the moon is feminine. Even gender free languages such as English consider and ascribe female qualities to the moon. Not German!!!

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