That One Small Step Is Still Hard to Measure
By A. O. SCOTT
Ny Times Published: July 13, 2009
At the end of the first chapter of John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” the title character, a fictional Pennsylvania everyman whose given name is Harry Angstrom, tunes in, like millions of his nonfictional fellow citizens, to watch the Moon landing on television.
Even though the Apollo 11 mission casts a long metaphorical shadow over the book, the second in what would ultimately become a quartet of novels about Rabbit, Rabbit’s experience of the epochal event of July 20, 1969, is curiously equivocal and detached.
It’s not clear what’s going on. On his parents’ television, he sees that “a man in clumsy silhouette has interposed himself among these abstract shadows and glare. An Armstrong, but not Jack. He says something about ‘steps’ that a crackle keeps Rabbit from understanding.
“Electronic letters travelling sideways spell out MAN IS ON THE MOON.”
But the true significance of those words escapes poor Rabbit. “I don’t know,” he says to his ailing mother. “I know it’s happened, but I don’t feel anything yet.”
What was he meant to feel? Was this a small step or a giant step, and in what direction? Perhaps because of the Moon landing’s hybrid nature — it was at once a science project and a media spectacle, an expression of apolitical idealism and an act of national self-assertion, a fact and a symbol — this happening was both dramatic and a bit puzzling, even opaque.
Its historical scale and cultural impact were hard, especially in the moment and its immediate aftermath, to assess. Nothing like this had ever been done before, but what did it mean? What did it change?
Like much else that took place in the summer of 1969, the Moon shot felt like both an apotheosis and an anticlimax, and perhaps, even to Americans with grander imaginations than Rabbit’s, like not much at all.
The mood of the moment, as it survives in the literary and cultural record, was Utopian and apocalyptic — yes, 1969 was the year of Woodstock and “Easy Rider” and the Manson family murders, of the Days of Rage and the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial — but also weary, anxious and confused.
For Rabbit Angstrom, the summer and early autumn of ’69 (rendered by Updike, writing a year later, in present tense) represent a period of personal and domestic chaos, of wild exploration and near catastrophe. The fracture and tumult he experiences are intimations of a wider social breakdown masquerading, at times, as a cosmic rebirth.
Rabbit, like America, emerges from the ’60s neither ruined nor transformed, but rather weary and shaken. The last word of the book is a fretful question, the kind you might hear, or ask, in the wake of a terrible accident: “O.K.?”
And Rabbit was hardly alone. Norman Mailer found himself in a similar mood. Mailer, in his journalistic fantasia “Of a Fire on the Moon,” calls himself Aquarius, but this adoption of the cosmic idiom of the counterculture is more ironic than ecstatic. Instead of standing at the threshold of a New Age, Mailer, dutifully reporting on the Apollo project from the ground, feels himself to be slouching toward a historical denouement.
As the launching date approached, “Aquarius was in a depression,” Mailer wrote, “which would not lift for the rest of the summer, a curious depression full of fevers, forebodings and a general sense that the century was done — that it had ended in the summer of 1969.”
And in the book, Mailer’s hunt for celestial metaphors comes up a bit short, as the great renegade existential explorer of American letters discovers that the conquest of space is being planned and conducted by scientists, bureaucrats and other practical-minded, down-to-earth squares.
Looking at contemporary literary and cultural responses to the Moon landing, like Mailer’s and Updike’s, you find amazement accompanied — and often trumped — by disillusionment.
In “Coming Apart,” his “informal history” of the ’60s (published in 1971), William O’Neill concludes a chapter on the space program on a downbeat, deflating note. In O’Neill’s account, the great triumph of the Apollo project was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory, the consecration of “a monument to the vanity of public men and the avarice of contractors. This made it a good symbol of the sixties.”
Maybe, but of course there was more to the ’60s — and to the space program — than hollow vanity and empty spectacle. If the meaning of the Moon landing as a singular event was hard for writers and their alter egos to discern, that may be because it had already been so thoroughly anticipated, realized in a way that mere reality could not quite match.
John F. Kennedy’s vow, at the start of the decade, to put a man on the Moon by the end had unleashed not only the ambitions of contractors and technicians, but also the imaginations of filmmakers and television writers, who exploited the visionary dimensions of Kennedy’s promise even as NASA scientists and astronauts were sweating the details.
Two examples, now canonical, stand out. The first, “Star Trek,” with its Kennedyesque “final frontier” rhetoric and its spirit of earnest, can-do liberalism, has become a staple of popular culture, so frequently parodied and reinvented that its boldness is easy to forget.
But whereas the science-fiction projections of the ’50s tended to focus on the threat of alien invasion and planetary destruction, and to give expression to a panoply of cold war fears, “Star Trek” celebrated humanism, problem solving and curiosity. Not for nothing was the starship named Enterprise.
And that starship was, above all, an allegorical space, rich with meanings and lessons and food for thought. But the wonkiness of “Star Trek,” which ended its run about six weeks after Neil Armstrong’s Moon walk, was nothing compared with the tripped-out sublimity of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” released in 1968.
In that film, the human adventure beyond Earth — to the Moon and toward Jupiter — brought about a whole new stage in the evolution of consciousness, a fulfillment, transcendence and wholesale alteration of human possibility.
Which did not quite happen when the actual lunar module touched down in the dust. Nor, for that matter, did the Woodstock music festival usher in a new age of peace, love and liberation.
The tendency, endemic to the times, toward the overhyping of singular events and the drastic heightening of expectations may have made the disappointments registered by Rabbit and Aquarius inevitable. And in the years after 1969, public and governmental support for the space program waned.
But the trip to the Moon — which was after all envisioned in 1902 by Georges Méliès, in one of earliest works of cinema — would blossom as a cultural touchstone in unexpected ways. The absence of feeling, the dearth of meaning, that accompanied the widespread awe and wonder guaranteed as much.
Popular culture abhors a vacuum, and for 40 years the empty places beyond our atmosphere have been overrun with stories, fables, parodies, franchises and expressions of pure kitsch. When Neil Armstrong’s likeness became a logo for MTV, it was less the corruption of something noble than the putting to use of an available and recognizable image, and the fulfillment of a possibility that had been there all along.
When I was in grade school, a mural in my classroom spelled out consequential dates in history: Oct. 11, 1492; July 4, 1776; and July 20, 1969, just a few years before. That, a teacher explained, was when “we walked on the Moon.”
But of course, “we” didn’t walk on the Moon. “We” were, like Rabbit and Aquarius, sitting at home, scribbling in our notebooks or, most likely, watching television while something happened to us that we are still trying to figure out.