Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Of a Fire on the Moon

First man, first communion

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On July 5, 1969, eleven days before the launch of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took part in an unusual press conference at the Manned Space Center in Houston. Because they were being kept in quarantine, the astronauts answered questions while seated behind a desk inside a large plastic box. One of the attendees was Norman Mailer, who describes the scene in his book Of a Fire on the Moon, which he narrates under the name Aquarius:

Behind them at the rear of the plastic booth stood an American flag; the Press actually jeered when somebody brought it onstage in advance of the astronauts. Aquarius could not remember a press conference where Old Glory had ever been mocked before, but it had no great significance, suggesting rather a splash of derision at the thought that the show was already sufficiently American enough.

When an international correspondent asked about the decision to plant an American flag on the lunar surface, Armstrong offered a characteristic answer: “Well, I suspect that if we asked all the people in the audience and all of us up here, all of us would give different ideas on what they would like to take to the moon and think should be taken, everyone within his own experience. I don’t think there is any question what our job is. Our job is to fly the spacecraft as best as we can. We never would suggest that it is our responsibility to suggest what the U.S. posture on the moon should be. That decision has been made where it should be made, namely in the Congress of this country. I wouldn’t presume to question it.”

I was reminded of Armstrong’s measured reply in light of the controversy that briefly flared up over Damien Chazelle’s upcoming biopic First Man, which apparently fails to show the moment in which the flag was raised on the moon. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t displayed at all—it seems to be prominently featured in several shots—but the absence of a scene in which the flag is explicitly planted on lunar soil has led to criticism from exactly the sort of people you might suspect. In response, Chazelle has explained: “My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon—particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours.” And it seems clear that Armstrong wasn’t particularly concerned with the flag itself. Decades later, he said to James R. Hansen, the author of the authorized biography on which the film is based:

Some people thought a United Nations flag should be there, and some people thought there should be flags of a lot of nations. In the end, it was decided by Congress that this was a United States project. We were not going to make any territorial claim, but we ought to let people know that we were here and put up a U.S. flag. My job was to get the flag there. I was less concerned about whether that was the right artifact to place. I let other, wiser minds than mine make those kinds of decisions.

This feels like Armstrong’s diplomatic way of saying that he had more pressing concerns, and the planting of the flag seems to have been less important to him in the moment than it would later be, say, to Marco Rubio.

For any event as complicated and symbolically weighted as the first moon landing, we naturally choose which details to emphasize or omit, which was true even at the time. In the book First Man, Hansen recounts a scene in the Lunar Module that wasn’t widely publicized:

Aldrin…reached into his Personal Preference Kit, or PPK, and pulled out two small packages given to him by his Presbyterian minister, Reverend Dean Woodruff, back in Houston. One package contained a vial of wine, the other a wafer. Pouring the wine into a small chalice that he also pulled from his kit, he prepared to take Holy Communion…Buzz radioed, “Houston, this is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever or whoever he may be, to contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Originally, Aldrin had hoped to read aloud from the Book of John, but NASA—evidently concerned by the threat of legal action from the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair—encouraged him to keep the ritual to himself. (Word did leak from the minister to Walter Cronkite, who informed viewers that Aldrin would have “the first communion on the moon.”) And Armstrong’s feelings on the subject were revealing. As Hansen writes:

Characteristically, Neil greeted Buzz’s religious ritual with polite silence. “He had told me he planned a little celebratory communion,” Neil recalls, “and he asked me if I had any problems with that, and I said, ‘No, go right ahead.’ I had plenty of things to keep busy with. I just let him do his own thing.”

The fact that NASA hoped to pass over the moment discreetly only reflects how much selection goes into the narratives of such events—and our sense of what matters can change from one day to the next. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer follows up his account of the jeers at the press conference with a striking anecdote from the landing itself:

When the flag was set up on the moon, the Press applauded. The applause continued, grew larger—soon they would be giving the image of the flag a standing ovation. It was perhaps a way of apologizing for the laughter before, and the laughter they knew would come again, but the experience was still out of register. A reductive society was witnessing the irreducible.

In fact, we reduce all such events sooner or later to a few simple components, which tend to confirm our own beliefs. (Aldrin later had second thoughts about his decision to take communion on the moon, noting that “we had come to space in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.” Notably, in her lawsuit against NASA, O’Hair had alleged that the agency was covering up the fact that Armstrong was an atheist. Armstrong, who described himself as a “deist,” wasn’t much concerned with the matter, as he later told Hansen: “I can’t say I was very familiar with that. I don’t remember that ever being mentioned to me until sometime in the aftermath of the mission.” And my favorite lunar urban legend is the rumor that Armstrong converted to Islam after hearing the Muslim call to prayer on the moon.) But such readings are a luxury granted only to those whose role is to observe. Throughout his career, Armstrong remained focused on the logistics of the mission, which were more than enough to keep him busy. He was content to leave the interpretation to others. And that’s a big part of the reason why he got there first.

Of a Fyre on the Moon

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Along with much of the rest of the world, I spent last weekend looking with a kind of ashamed fascination at the disaster of the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, which went in the space of about twelve hours from a luxury event in paradise to an apocalyptic implosion of bad food, poor accommodations, and a mad dash back to the mainland. Nobody involved seems to have the slightest idea of what they were doing, but their incompetence was remarkable less in degree than in kind—and in its broad outlines, it isn’t so different from the other failed attempts at entrepreneurship that I discussed here last week. The festival was a marketing scheme destroyed by its inconvenient obligation to follow through on its promises. Like the Unicorn Frappuccino at Starbucks, it was conceived explicitly as an event to be posted on Instagram. It was thrown together by a twenty-five-year-old startup founder whose primary qualifications, to misquote what E.B. White once said about Thoreau, were that he was young, male, and well-connected. (It’s hard not to think of the writer Sarah Hagi’s serenity prayer: “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”) The primary difference between the Fyre Festival and its precursors is the fact that it wasn’t selling an app or a coffee maker, but an experience on the ground that could be documented live by customers who had shelled out thousands of dollars. Countless technology ventures have wiped out a comparable amount of time, money, and goodwill, but they’re lucky enough to do it incrementally, online, and for a smaller financial loss per user. The Fyre Festival fell apart so publicly that it reminded me of what Goethe said about the downfall of Napoleon:

[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that pulling off this kind of event is an art in itself, and the ones that succeed tend to be the handiwork of supremely well-organized hippies. As I mentioned in my post on Stewart Brand, it isn’t vision, but sheer competence, that sets such people apart—which is part of the reason why the science fiction community depends so much on professional fans, like the late Sam Moskowitz, who can will conventions into existence. By coincidence, just as the Fyre Festival was unfolding, I was researching a curious episode that provides an interesting counterexample. In 1972, Isaac Asimov was approached by a science promoter named Richard Hoagland, whom he described as “an enthusiastic young man” with “all sorts of plans and projects in mind” and “an eager spirit that was very contagious.” Hoagland delivered an enticing pitch:

He had a new project under way. This was to arrange a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to Florida to witness the launching of Apollo 17 in December. Apollo 17 was to be the last manned trip to the moon and the only night launch. I was intrigued, even though I shuddered at the thought of going as far afield as Florida. I promised to consider the possibility of going.

In the end, Hoagland and his partner, Dr. Robert Enzmann, weren’t able to land the QE2, settling instead for the ocean liner S.S. Statendam, but they managed to secure an incredible roster of attendees. Arthur C. Clarke and Wernher von Braun bowed out at the last minute, but the panelists included Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Carl Sagan, Ted Sturgeon, Frederik Pohl, Marvin Minsky, Ben Bova, Katherine Anne Porter, and Norman Mailer, with the newscaster Hugh Downs serving as master of ceremonies. The cruise departed from New York on December 4, 1972, and thanks to the presence of Porter, as Asimov noted, “all outsiders felt it incumbent upon them to refer to the cruise as ‘a ship of fools.’

The result wasn’t quite a disaster of Fyre Festival proportions, but it was far from a success. A ticket cost a thousand dollars—or about six thousand dollars in today’s money—and only a hundred paying passengers ended up on a ship with a capacity for six times that number. Also onboard were a pair of stowaways, the underground publishers Rex Weiner and Thomas King Forcade, who simply wandered up the gangplank in hopes of meeting Mailer. As Weiner recalled in an amazing reminiscence for The Paris Review:

Canceled seminars, speaker mix-ups, and a cascade of organizational snafus led to a shipboard free-for-all as the S.S. Statendam steamed southward…Rounding Cape Hatteras, the ship’s cinema was screening 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gale-force winds rose up that evening to buffet the ship, decks tilting crazily, people puking over the railings.

At one point, Asimov and Mailer served on a panel together, where the latter, who had recently published Of a Fire on the Moon, expounded at length on his theory of the thanatosphere, a zone in the upper regions of the earth’s atmosphere populated by the souls of the dead. (You can find priceless video of his speech and the rest of the cruise here.) When Mailer disembarked in the Virgin Islands, the media seemed to lose interest in the whole thing—and it’s a useful reality check for science fiction fans to realize that both the mainstream and the alternative press were far more interested in Mailer than in any of the genre writers on board. When it was time for Heinlein’s presentation, he was asked at the last second to cut it from half an hour to fifteen minutes, forcing him to rewrite it in his head on the way to the podium. Not surprisingly, Heinlein’s talk struck Asimov as “rather wandering.”

If the Statendham had set sail during the era of social media, it seems likely that it would have been dismissed as a debacle before its third day out of port, assuming that its passengers could get reception on their cell phones. It cost Holland America a quarter of a million dollars, which, when you adjust for inflation, puts its losses in the same general range as those of the Fyre Festival. Yet I would have given just about anything in the world to have been there, and I’m still writing about it more than four decades later. (The Fyre Festival, perhaps to the relief of its organizers, seems destined to become another trivia question, along the lines of DashCon, which I followed with equal avidity less than three years ago but barely remember now.) Part of the difference lies in the gap between a cynical marketing scheme and a passionate, if misguided, vision. Richard Hoagland’s career since the cruise has been a peculiar one—he became a NASA conspiracy theorist with an obsession with the Face on Mars—but there’s no questioning his commitment. And it gave us this moment, as chronicled by Weiner, just as the rocket was about to launch:

We fired up a fat joint…“Say, you want to pass some of that over here?” Mailer asked us. The joint was passed around and everyone took a toke. When it reached [Hugh] Downs, the NBC star sucked in a lungful and coughed out a plume of smoke—surely something the Today show audience had never seen.

Asimov recalled: “The rocket slowly rose and the vast red flower at its tail bloomed…We, and the ship, and all the world we could see, were suddenly under the dim copper dome of a sky from which the stars had washed out.” But what stuck with him the most was the reaction of “some young man” behind him, whom I’d like to think, but can’t prove, was either Weiner or Forcade:

“Oh shit,” he said, as his head tiled slowly upward. And then, with his tenor voice rising over all the silent heads on board, he added eloquently, “Oh shi-i-i-it.

And while I suspect that many of the attendees at the Fyre Festival said much the same thing, it was probably for different reasons.

Head of the class

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Meryl Street at the Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention was filled with striking moments, but the one that lingered in my mind the most was the speech given by Meryl Streep, which was memorable less for what she said than for what she represents. Streep is undoubtedly the most acclaimed actress of our time, maybe of all time. At the peak of her career, she could come across as artificial and mannered—Pauline Kael once quoted a friend who called her “an android”—but she almost glows these days with grace and good humor. Even if this is just another performance, it’s a virtuoso one, and she maintains it with seeming effortlessness as she continues to rack up awards and nominations. Streep, in short, doesn’t need to be jealous of anybody. But as an article in the New York Times points out, there’s at least one exception:

Meryl Streep, the most accomplished, awarded and chameleonic actress of her generation, once confessed something approaching envy for Hillary Clinton: For women of her age, Ms. Streep said, Mrs. Clinton was the yardstick by which they inevitably measured their lives—sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not.

The idea that Meryl Streep, of all people, might bite her hand a little when she thinks of Clinton made me reflect on how each generation settles on one person who serves as a benchmark for the rest. And it’s often either the first to win the presidency or the first who might have a good shot at attaining it. It’s no accident that one of the earliest biographies of Bill Clinton was titled First in His Class.

I’m at a point in my life when people my age have just reached the point of eligibility for the Oval Office, and there isn’t an obvious frontrunner. (As a friend of mine recently said at an informal college reunion: “I guess nobody we know is going to be president. By now, we’d know it.”) But it’s still something I think about. One of my favorite examples of the role that a president—or a candidate—can play in the inner life of an ambitious novelist is Norman Mailer’s obsession with John F. Kennedy. Judging from how frequently he returned to the subject, it was second only to his fascination with Marilyn Monroe, which in itself was probably an outgrowth of his interest in the Kennedys, and he revisited it in works from “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” to Harlot’s Ghost. In An American Dream, he puts Kennedy right there in the opening sentence, which is like inviting a guest into the holy of holies:

I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me…Of course Jack has gone on a bit since those days, and I have traveled up and I have voyaged down and I’ve gone up and down…The real difference between the President and myself may be that I ended up with too large an appreciation of the moon, for I looked down the abyss on the first night I killed: four men, four very separate Germans, dead under a full moon—whereas Jack, for all I know, never saw the abyss.

Mailer isn’t speaking as himself, but as a fictional character, but it’s hard not to interpret these lines as a conjuring of an alternate life in which he was friends with the man whom he had missed, by just a few years, at Harvard.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy and Mailer did meet briefly, and it resulted in a moment that speaks volumes about the uncanny prominence that a presidential candidate our own age can take in our thoughts. In “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer writes:

What struck me most about the interview was a passing remark whose importance was invisible on the scale of politics, but was altogether meaningful to my particular competence. As we sat down for the first time, Kennedy smiled nicely and said that he had read my books. One muttered one’s pleasure. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve read…” and then there was a short pause which did not last long enough to be embarrassing in which it was yet obvious no title came instantly to his mind, an omission one was not ready to mind altogether since a man in such a position must be obliged to carry a hundred thousand facts and names in his head, but the hesitation lasted no longer than three seconds or four, and then he said, “I’ve read The Deer Park and…the others,” which startled me for it was the first time in a hundred similar situations, talking to someone whose knowledge of my work was casual, that the sentence did not come out, “I’ve read The Naked and the Dead…and the others.” If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisers.

I like this story best for what Mailer called its significance “to my particular competence.” A favorable remark, even in passing, from the man who had ascended to a level that no writer could ever hope to achieve was one that Mailer would savor forever. And then it was over.

Most of us never get that close, but it doesn’t matter: even from a distance, a president or a candidate makes everyone’s imagination follow a similar track, like a magnet acting on iron filings. That particular mixture of envy and admiration is especially visible among products of the Ivy League. A writer for The Simpsons once noted in an audio commentary that if the writing staff loved to write presidential jokes—like the one in which Grandpa Simpson claims to have been spanked by Grover Cleveland on two nonconsecutive occasions—it’s because the ones who went to Harvard can’t quite get over the idea that they could have been president themselves. You can feel the same sense of agonizing proximity in Mailer, who attended Harvard at a time when his Jewishness made him an outsider among heirs to power, and who later channeled that need into an absurdly unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of New York. As he later wrote:

Norman was lazy, and politics would make him work hard for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his life. He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.

He concludes: “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” But the memory of Kennedy lived on. Mailer wrote these lines in Of a Fire on the Moon, which chronicled the Apollo mission that Kennedy had set in motion. Kennedy would alter the future, and Mailer would write about it, just as Streep might play Clinton someday in a movie. But we’re all writing or acting these roles in our minds as we measure ourselves against the head of the class, even if we’re not sure who it is yet.

Why novelists make bad politicians (and vice versa)

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In 1969, Norman Mailer ran for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York, with columnist Jimmy Breslin as his running mate. (This was actually Mailer’s second attempt at a run—his first, in 1960, was cut short when, after the presumptive launch party for his campaign, he stabbed his wife.) He ran on a platform of New York City seceding to form a fifty-first state, and while the press mostly treated the campaign as a joke, Mailer himself took it quite seriously. In Of a Fire on the Moon, he writes:

He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.

He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him…

Clearly, Mailer wouldn’t have made a great mayor, at least not in any city where I’d like to live. But neither would most novelists. With a few notable exceptions, like Michael Ignatieff, this isn’t a field that attracts electable politicians, for two big reasons. First, there isn’t an interesting novel in existence that couldn’t be quoted out of context to make the writer look like a psychopath, as Jim Webb discovered a few years ago. Good novels in any genre tend to focus on undesirable human behavior, and it’s easy to selectively cite a few sentences so that the author come off as ridiculous, or worse. (Slate has a nice piece on this from a while back.)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a novelist’s core skill set is markedly different from that of a politician. Novelists tend to be introverts, capable of working on a project for years with no obvious reward, and while their egos and ambitions are usually massive, they’re more interested in creating a world that doesn’t exist than influencing the world that does. (Novelists who want to change the real world usually end up writing bad novels or propaganda, or both.) This is why the track record of novels written by politicians, apart from Disraeli and a few others, is so dismal, and also why most novelists are so woefully ineffective at promoting themselves.

Obama, then, is an interesting case. He thought seriously about becoming a novelist at one point in his life, and he probably had the skills to pull it off. (If nothing else, judging from the book deal he got for his memoir, he almost certainly would have been published.) Based on his record so far, he’s contemplative, organized, and objective, all of which are useful traits for a writer, although he’s also been reluctant to reveal too much of himself, which has made him an unusual public figure. In the end, politicians and novelists have one thing in common: in both careers, the road to success is so painful and uncertain, and so full of compromise, that it’s a wonder that any  intelligent person is drawn to them in the first place. Obama, for one, clearly decided that his future lay in politics. Today, at least, I’m glad he did.

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