Sunday, August 26, 2012

One Small Grave For a Man, One Giant Diminishment for Mankind

My semester begins tomorrow, and I'm teaching two brand-new classes (more on this soon), so I've been spending full time getting ready for the past week -- so full, in fact, that I've barely opened a newspaper (or the modern equivalent, a browser window). I've just been working, preparing my classes. One of which will include a two-day unit on the moon landing of July 20, 1969. Finally, this evening, ready as I'll ever be, I went to Garry Canavan's web site for the first time in days and days... and see his links about the death of Neil Armstrong.

Having read quite a bit about Mr. Armstrong, his achievements and their cultural impact made the impact on me all the greater, I think, but it would have been pretty great anyway. But I can say with solid grounds that the sense diminishment -- how small we, as a species, have become since that moment forty-three years, one month and six days ago. As Pamela Sargent put it (in's fun symposium of SF writers' memories of the moon landing (done for the fortieth anniversary)), "Humankind’s hopes these days are more limited and more desperate, confined to hoping that we can save our own planet from an ecological catastrophe."

I liked Esquire's obituary for Mr. Armstrong (via GC), and Charles Peirce's words at the same site too. Here's a bit of the obituary:
The idea still fills people with childlike disbelief and wonder. Once upon a time, a man walked on the moon. With Armstrong's death, we're mourning, not so much a man, as a conception of the world in which human beings believed themselves to be capable of anything....

...our technologies promise us so much less than they used to: "You can play Angry Birds any time you like" rather than "you can stand on different planets." But also, we've grown up, left behind our unrealistic optimism. The real question of our moment is whether the amazing power of engineers will destroy the planet we have rather than whether they will bring us to new ones. We have come to understand that human beings are bound to the earth. Forever. This terrestrial understanding isn't wrong. It's just smaller than the hope that motivated Armstrong.
And here's a bit of Peirce:
What he thought when he looked at, night after night, is a perspective lost to all but eight old men. Sooner or later, there will be none of them left. On that day, like today, we should mourn for what we once thought we were. From that day forward, I fear, it is all going to sound like myth and magic, and the tales that the old men told around the ancient fires.
Words of diminishment: thus words not really about Neil Armstrong at all, but about us. (But that is true of a lot of eulogies, a lot of obituaries, a lot of funerals.) About how little we have become. But, again, having read a lot on this topic very recently, this is only the most recent occasion for this sentiment, the last one being the fortieth anniversary three years ago. The next one will be at the fiftieth, perhaps, or maybe at the next death. And then, of course, we'll forget it again, until the next one. The moon landing, once a proud achievement of humankind, is now a depressing occasion for shivering in the shadow of the greatness of the past. Easier to think about other things. And there are, indeed, courses to prepare, children to raise, and blogs to write, to say nothing of apocalyptic crises to avert. So we'll wait, and not feel the diminishment again, until the calendar or the grave gives us reason to. (Or -- for my students and myself -- when the syllabus demands it.)

For one giant, leaping moment in 1969, because of what he did, humanity looked up and felt able to stride across worlds. But ever since that leap, we have all felt smaller in its shadow.

When we remember to.

Gerry Canavan headlined the news "A Thousand Years from Now They’ll Wonder If He Was Real", which put me in mind of the marvelous moment from Chapter Five of Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer, set millennia from now, in a wrecked and ruined future:
Many of these were so old and smoke-grimed that I could not discern their subjects, and there were others whose meaning I could not guess... I came upon an old man perched on a high ladder. I wanted to ask my way, but he seemed so absorbed in his work that I hesitated to disturb him.

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

The warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even what emotion it was I felt....
The man who took that picture died yesterday. Let us hope that we do not live to see his accomplishment hang as a forgotten painting in an old museum, in a painting used to train apprentices to clean because it isn't worth anything. (And even in the decaying world Wolfe portrays, the moon is green, because before we gave up it was irrigated.)

Neil Armstrong, rest in peace.

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