Harvest Moon

In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 29 x 44″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1957, the first satellite was launched into orbit around the earth. A gleaming metallic sphere about two feet in diameter with four long antennae, it had the look of a robot daddy longlegs. It weighed a hundred and eighty-four pounds and sped through space at about eighteen thousand miles per hour. After three months and more than fourteen hundred spins around this planet, it reentered earth’s atmosphere, blazing into flames.

This event, positioning something manufactured by human hands into the same realm as moon and sun and stars, was “second in importance to no other,” Hannah Arendt writes. It marked the moment when humankind named the relief that we would one day be able to escape earth’s bounds. Science made real “what men anticipated in dreams.”

In dreams, they anticipated the moon. They anticipated flinging themselves away from the earth up to the glowing pearl in night space. They’d been dreaming this for a long time, who knows how long. The moon, earth’s shadowy white sister, is the ultimate dream object. Even if not dreamed of directly, the moon is dreamtime’s overseer, companion; it’s the quiet warden of the night mind. Lyndon B. Johnson watched the Russian satellite move across the sky and knew: “Second in space is second in everything.” In 1961, John F. Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” And thus, we who are earthbound began “to act as though we were dwellers of the universe,” Arendt writes. Perhaps we always have been, but now we have the tools to see.

What’s the view like from the moon? Some argue that seeing earth from moon’s vantage gives “humans a false sense of independence from this planet,” as Daisy Hildyard writes in The Second Body. She talks of Earthrise, the iconic image taken from lunar orbit in December 1968 by the astronaut William Anders, which shows the moon’s pocked and chalky surface in the foreground and the swirling blue-white dome of earth floating three quarters full in the blackness. A collective wow resulted, seeing this planet from that perspective, and an altered sense of our place in the cosmic swing of things. Fifty years after the photograph was taken, astronaut Anders said: “It really undercut my religious beliefs. The idea that things rotate around the pope and up there is a big supercomputer wondering whether Billy was a good boy yesterday? It doesn’t make any sense.” A supercomputer in the sky doesn’t make sense, no, but what does? How do we make sense of what it means to flee our home planet? What happens when technology allows us to do something before we understand what we’re doing? Way up like that, “humans look down from a distance on all other forms of life,” Hildyard writes. It can “make the human feel superhuman.” A little like a god.

One man, recently, flew 282,480 feet into the air. Another man, recently, flew 351,210 feet into the air. Both entered space. Both reached a point so far away from earth, they escaped its gravitational tug. Of the two men, Richard Branson was first to penetrate, with Virgin Galactic. Jeff Bezos went higher up. Branson’s craft looked more like a traditional plane, with a “feathering system” to ensure a smooth runway landing. Bezos built a phallus with a feather painted on it, rising up the shaft. “He’s Icarus / he’s hickory-dickerous … He’s a god now, the talk of the town. He’s got no place to go but down,” writes John Hodgen in a poem called “For the Man with the Erection Lasting More Than Four Hours.” Launch to climax to landing, tumescence to detumescence, Bezos’s flight lasted a little over ten minutes.

Blue Origin is the name of his space concern. Our blue origin, the water all life came crawling from, the churning primal scene on our Blue Planet, our Mother Earth. He traveled as far away as he could, so far he couldn’t feel her pull, to look back down upon her, it, us, the whole blue world, knowing, too, that many were looking at him, the way we look up at the moon.

New Shepard was the name of Bezos’s rocket, named for Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space. But it announces the stakes. Aren’t we meant to hear an altered echo of good shepherd? Doesn’t it nudge the mind that way, even a mind that doesn’t know much about the Bible? John 10:14: “I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The modern age began, writes Arendt, “with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven.” That supercomputer in the sky.

Fathers, sons, flight—as far as fathers go, no one would rank Daedalus as World’s #1 Dad. Why didn’t he and his son Icarus make their famous flight at night? Moonlight won’t melt wax. But I think Daedalus knew exactly what he was doing. Years before his fateful flight with Icarus, Daedalus, master craftsman, took his nephew Perdix under his wing, to teach him about inventing. The boy showed promise: He saw a fish spine on the sand and invented the saw. He joined metal arms with a hinge, Ovid explains, “and while the first stood firm—erect and central—the second moving arm described a circle.” It was all too erect and central for Daedalus; he knew his nephew would outshine him, and he couldn’t bear to be the the arm in orbit around the brighter sun. So he shoved his nephew off a high wall. Athena swept in before the boy splattered on the cobblestone and turned him to a low-flying partridge. Did Daedalus know Icarus would steer himself toward a more powerful god, the fiery sun itself? Was his sun-timed flight on wings of wax a subtler shove? A father knows his son. No goddess switched Icarus into a bird or a fish. Hickory-dickerous, Icarus, ichthus, back to the water he went, joining the ghosts in the ocean.

And anyway, had they flown by moonlight, we wouldn’t have learned of the consequences of ambition unmatched by ability. And Brueghel would not have painted the shepherds and farmers not seeing Icarus splash into the sea, and Auden would not have written “how everything turns away / quite leisurely from the disaster.”

The Icarus complex, a lesser known diagnosis in the satellite of psychological complexes, is a condition of overambition, characterized by cynosural narcissism—a craving for attention and admiration, “a desire to attract and enchant all eyes, like a star in the firmament,” as the psychiatrist Henry A. Murray, who first coined the term, put it. It’s defined, too, by ascensionism, or the wish, in Murray’s words, “to overcome gravity, to stand erect, to grow tall, to dance on tiptoe, to walk on water, to leap or swing in the air, to climb, to rise, to fly, or to float down gradually from on high and land without injury.” Maybe one was not held enough as an infant. Maybe one’s mother did not return one’s gaze. A sense of free fall results. Can’t get your mother’s attention? You might try to defy gravity itself to get everyone else’s. Maybe you know people like this. Maybe you are like this. No goal too lofty, and a back-of-brain anticipation of tumbling through space.

When Bezos landed back on earth, he and the three other joyriders dribbled from the glans of the rocket. They beamed and waved, shaky-kneed, pumped their fists, looked Smurfie in their blue suits. They’d been up to the lore-glutted spacescape and returned to tell of it, tracking a path for future deep-pocketed thrill seekers to follow. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can help ensure you’ll be woven into an unfolding mythology.

They floated down and landed without injury, unlike Icarus, and unlike Phaeton, another son cautioned by his father, the god Apollo, when he was granted access to the chariot that pulls the sun across the earth. Not too high, not too low, Apollo says, and tries to dissuade him one last time: “Let me bring light unto the world.” Fathers sometimes have a hard time giving up the reins. Phaeton takes off, doomed from moment one. He flies too close to the earth, scorching its surface, boiling the seas, so that smoke-choked earth herself pleads with Zeus. “If all three realms are ruined—sea and land and sky— / then we shall be confounded in old Chaos. / Save from the flames what’s left, if anything / can still be saved.”

Save from the flames what’s left, if anything can still be saved.

We turned away from god as Father, but should the modern age end, Arendt asks, “with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?” What a bind we’ve put ourselves in, clinging to our mother’s skirts and simultaneously lighting her skirts on fire. What a bind we’ve put ourselves in, creating technology that outpaces our ability to understand its consequences.

It takes courage to launch oneself off the known surface into someplace new, to aim oneself into the place of dreams. And there’s no extinguishing the impulse to explore. But it takes courage, too, to turn toward the disaster, to look from ground level, part of it, and ask, What can I do?

Zeus throws a lightning bolt at Phaeton and he falls in fire, burning back to earth into the river Po. The body of water doesn’t matter. Mediterranean Atlantic Mississippi Amazon. The consequences of the Icarus complex: a craving for immortality, an internalized father-son rivalry, perpetual adolescence.

“To all you kids down there,” says Branson in a video from his spaceflight, “I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship, with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful earth. To the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.” A woman with a blond ponytail floats beside him, giggling.

Old chaos is closer than we think. The risk of having a view from space: being too far away to see exactly what we’ve reaped.


Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter SolsticeSky GazingSummer SolsticeSenses of Dawn, and Novemberance.