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Why was old Auden so grumpy about space exploration? (On the anniversary of the Moon Landing…)

November 14, 2014


Moon Landing – W. H. Auden

Moon Landing

It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.

A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment

the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this – our lack of decorum.

Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers

about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories, where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.

Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several

with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.

Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.

August 1969

– W. H. Auden

I’m not sure that Auden was ever middle aged.  He went from youth to old age (and strictly speaking he never made it to proper “old” old age) before anybody could really figure out what had happened to him.  Some people do this – some people leap from 30 to 60 in a single bound.  Auden went further – he went from 20 to 200 without any clear intervening stage.  And just look at that face.  It’s a meteor-scarred lunar landscape in its own right.  A young David Hockney recalls meeting this elderly Auden and exclaiming “my God – if that’s what his face looks like, what must his scrotum look like?”  And this Auden was only in his sixties.  Liam Neeson is still making action movies at the same age that Auden had already started to resemble something excavated from a Jutland peat bog.  Perhaps his hostility to Apollo 11 was informed by a fear that NASA might launch a mission to land on his face.

A very late Auden poem, these meditations on the 1969 Moon Landing  recycle various aspects of familiar Auden.  It’s eminently quotable, though its best line is itself a quote from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  The “worth seeing, not worth going to see” quote was apparently Johnson’s response to a suggestion that it would be worth seeing Giant’s Causeway.  In fact, Johnson was not averse to travel, and regarded those who explored the universe with peaceable intentions with respect.

The burden of the poem is that the moonlandings are a function of a vulgarised masculinity.  This is the kind of misandrist poem that ends up only reinforcing gendered stereotypes and expectations.   While decrying phallicised science and technology, poems like this serve the exclusionary purpose of reinforcing the notion that space exploration “would not have occurred to women”.   Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and the Moon belongs to nobody.  For sure, NASA in the 1960s was a very male outfit, and the name of Werner Von Braun is always useful as a way of poisoning the wellspring of American space age aspirations in this period.  (Tom Lehrer’s Von Braun song is a rather more acute and ‘targeted’ response to the Nazi rocketing legacy.)  I dare say some cynical respondents to this poem did point out that Auden had scarpered in advance of London’s aerial bombardment during WWII and that he is perhaps less well qualified to complain about Von Braun than his (former) compatriots.

Auden has a gloomy view of science – one that still needs work to dispel.  For Auden, the moon carries a diminished mystical potency once it has been landed upon and its composition analysed.  Would an Auden writing 300 years ago (surprisingly easy to imagine) have written complaining that Newton’s Optics had destroyed the magic of the rainbow?  William Blake was concerned about Newtonian de-mystifications but Blake never inhabited the same sort of grumpy reactionary register that Auden at the end of his life was happy to occupy.  John Keats has a melancholy reflection on the demystification on the rainbow in ‘Lamia’.

The comet chasing triumphs of a year or so ago hopefully evaded the charge of phallic posturing.  Many women from many countries have contributed to its success, including a notable contribution from my own university.  Perhaps it helps that no national flag was being planted on that comet – and the adventure felt more like hitching a ride than staking a claim.  And perhaps “Philae” and “Rosetta” (delightful names) do not project anything like phallocentric exclusivity.  Perhaps our space hardware has itself become less penile and target orientated.

I’m just happy this week to live in a world in which girls and boys whoop it up together, in which space travel occurs to women, and in which we can imagine ways in which Irreverence and Superstition are equally silenced by that peculiar and humbling version of the sublime that you get when Science is done right.


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  1. Wonderful post! I will be chuckling all day over that first paragraph 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    On the anniversary of the first moon landing…

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