04 August, 2006

To the moon, Alice

Daniel Defoe, The Consolidator, or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705) in Henry Morley, ed. The Earlier Life and the Chief Earlier Works of Daniel Defoe (1889).

Joyce once gave a lecture on Daniel Defoe, calling him the first writer to produce a literature distinctively English—Chaucer, he said, mimicked Boccaccio, just as Malory mimicked Chrètien, Shakespeare Seneca and Petrarch, and Milton Dante. Joyce made reference to Defoe's The Storm, until recently a work so rare as to be excluded from most editions of the author's Complete Works. Ever the hunter after obscurities, I found and read it—a great work of journalism, with enjoyably preposterous levels of detail about the havoc wrought by the titular storm. Then Allen Lane did a paperback of it; I was gutted. I can't imagine that it captures the popular imagination, even now.

The Consolidator, an example of moon-voyage literature, remains obscure, despite being online here; I finally discovered it in an edition of Defoe oddities compiled by Henry Morley for the Carisbrooke Library in 1889. That edition was 20 bucks in the Columbia Bookstore, NYC, a smaller but considerably better store than the world-renowned Strand. (The Strand rare books dept. is another story, though—how I regret turning down that elusive first edition of Elizabeth Gallup's Biliteral Cypher!)

A post on lunar imagery at the remarkable Giornale Nuovo made me think about this work again. Moon-voyages became very fashionable as a species of utopia literature in the 17th century, when with Kepler and Brahe the heavens were suddenly a hot topic for investigation—examples include John Wilkins' A Voyage to the Moon, Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyage dans la Lune, and the shorter works compiled by Isaac Asimov in The Man in the Moone. The moon-voyage had been anticipated in a famous scene, 34.70, of Orlando Furioso (1516), wherein the knight Astolfo travels with St. John to the moon for the recovery of Orlando's lost wits—'Tutta la sfera varcano del fuoco / ed indi vanno al regno de la luna / Veggon per la piu parte esser quel loco / come un acciar che non ha macchia alcuna'—and the genre was still in flight by the time of Raspe's Baron Munchausen (1785)—you can see above the Baron's moon-bound galleon, illustrated by Doré, taken from my 1960 Dover edition—and going strong still with the efforts of Wells and Verne a century later, at which point the tradition was simply subsumed into the burgeoning science-fiction genre. Verne gave his From the Earth to the Moon (1865) a blackly comic finale, with the rocket winding up in orbit around the moon:
Either the attraction of the moon will end by drawing it towards her, and the travellers will reach he goal of their journey. Or the projectile, maintained in an immutable orbit, will gravitate round the lunar disc till the end of time. Observation will settle this point some day, but until now the experiment of the Gun Club has had no other result than that of providing our solar system with a new star.

Moon-voyages, like utopias, were always allegorical—yawn—whether sober or satirical, and Defoe's satire was no exception. Fantasy for fantasy's sake remains a relatively late invention. That is one disadvantage, Gawain, to the old books—that while their author is free to digress, he so often has ulterior motives. The reader may well ask, what exactly is the Consolidator? It turns out to be a means of transport—and Defoe's lunar predecessors all wrestled with the problem of how to get there—Astolfo took a hippogriff, others would use birds or catapults, later rockets, and Cyrano spins surreally on this riff for a while, even trying out bottled dew:
J'avais attaché autour de moi quantité de fioles pleines de rosée, sur lesquelles le Soleil dardait ses rayons si violemment, que la chaleur, qui les attirait, comme elle fait les plus grosses nuées, m'éleva si haut, qu'enfin je me trouvai au-dessus de la moyenne région.
(For an English translation, see here.) Otto will be pleased to note that the lucky fellow winds up in Canada. The Consolidator, called Dupekasses in the lunar language, and Apezolanthukanistes in the 'Ancient Chinese, or Tartarian', is a feathered chariot guided by fire:
But above all his Inventions for making this Voyage, I saw none more pleasant or profitable, than a certain Engine formed in the shape of a Chariot, on the Backs of two vast Bodies with extended Wings, which spread about 50 Yards in Breadth, compos'd of Feathers so nicely put together, that no Air could pass; and as the Bodies were made of Lunar Earth which would bear the Fire, the Cavities were fill'd with an Ambient Flame, which fed on a certain Spirit deposited in a proper quantity, to last out the Voyage; and this Fire so order'd as to move about such Springs and Wheels as kept the Wings in a most exact and regular Motion, always ascendant.
The chariot is a cipher for Parliament, the two vast bodies being the Houses of Commons and Lords, and each feather representing an MP; 'consolidation' referred to a process of attaching one parliamentary bill to another, just like they allegedly do in Congress these days, so as to carry through a particular piece of legislation. Scientific and political metaphors keep getting mixed up together, as with Gulliver's Travels. But allegory is the bane of literature, and I prefer to read literally, or sometimes to find my own metaphor, as if without understanding, but in fact distilling from the work its caprice and its delight. Better to go to the moon than to go to Augustan England qua moon; better a Dupekasses, I think, than a Consolidator.

Bernard de Fontenelle alludes to the moon voyages, then at the crest of their vogue, in his Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (1684), a pop-astronomy handbook as dialogue between a philosopher and his host the Marquise, out walking among the bowers at dusk (I adapt Hargreaves' 1990 translation to suit):
On commence déjà à voler un peu; plusieurs personnes différentes ont trouvé le secret de s'ajuster des ailes qui les soutiennent en l'air, de leur donner du mouvement, et de passer par-dessus des rivieres. . . L'art de voler ne fait encore que de naitre; il se perfectionnera, et quelque jour on ira jusqu'à la lune. Prétendons-nous avoir découvert toutes choses?

We're beginning to fly a little now; a number of different people have found the secret of strapping on wings that hold them up in the air, and making them move, and crossing over rivers. . . The art of flying has only just been born; it will be perfected, and some day we'll go to the Moon. Do we presume to have discovered all things?
Such hit-guided optimism! In his general outlook, it so happens that Fontenelle was a man after Gawain's heart: according to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, he 'balanced his penchant for universal critical thought with liberal doses of. . . praise to the appropriate individuals in aristocratic society.' Perhaps Gawain's society is not so much aristocratic as philosophicocratic, and not so much a society as a Republic of Letters—he makes frequent reference to Café Gawain, which is merely an anagram of coffee-house culture. If Fontenelle could make Kepler and Descartes exciting, so can Gawain popularise evolutionary psychology. I quote here two further passages purely for G's pleasure:
Je ne jurerois pourtant pas que cela fût vrai; mais je le tiens pour vrai, parce qu'il me fait plaisir à croire. C'est une idée qui me plait, et qui s'est placée dans mon esprit d'une maniere riante. Selon moi, il n'y a pas jusqu'aux verités à qui l'agrément ne soit nécessaire.

I wouldn't swear that it was true, but I take it as such because it pleases me to think so. It's an idea that pleases me, and puts me into a delighted frame of mind. As I see it, this delight is necessary to all truths.
Have today's thinkers lost this delight, this maniere riante, which is really a laughing manner? Could it be a truth-criterion? Here is a gay science which finds itself suffused with a Platonic light in the face of truth, or at least in the face of an idée of sufficient grandeur. The Marquise having insisted that the narrator explain his philosophical theories to her, he replies:
"Non, il ne me sera point reproché que dans un bois, à dix heures du soir, j'aie parlé de philosophie à la plus aimable personne que je connoisse. Cherchez ailleurs vos philosophes."

"No, it will never be said of me that in an arbour, at ten o'clock in the evening, I talked of philosophy to the most lovely woman I know. Seek elsewhere your philosophers."
I quote, incidentally, the yummy 1800 sestodecimo I picked up a couple of years ago in the Quartier Latin, Paris—just a stone's throw from La Dame et La Licorne, and from the boutique where I purchased as a birthday gift for my future wife a divine pair of earrings, pendant clusters of lazuli grapes set in silver, rather lunar, le clair sur la Seine, voltigant—that last word from the last line of Les Lauriers sont Coupés, which is not at all about the moon—it is a part of the world full of memories, zenzizenzizenzical—yes, an edition which contains this celestial centrefold:

They say the moon has no light, but only reflects the light of the sun. My moon has all her own light, like a child, voltigant, celestial centrefold, consolidatrix.

Update: more on Fontenelle at The Nonist.

1 comment:

A Little Thought said...

please, don't stop writing!

Your irrelevance is a beacon of light to us poor souls who must write topically for fear of not being heard.