Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interplanetary Travel

Astronomers atop Mt Athos, BL24189, f. 15
Possibilities are speeding up. We're in the liminal breath-catching week of spring break, and then six more weeks of hurtling forth, and then Kalamazoo, and then summer.  There's a pull now to stories of travel, really far away travel.  I think of Mandeville's astronomers to our left here and their calculations and their measurements and I wonder about what they desired. There's infinite interest in their instruments and groupings and the sticks (alignments?) they're poking at the illuminated letters of a cryptic language upon the ground. Images of astronomers studying the planets show up regularly in the treatises of late medieval moral education I've been studying.  It would be easy and tempting to fold their presence into a desire for universal conquest bestowed upon the princes meant to read these treatises, but I wonder about taking their presence at face value for a little bit: about considering the morality of interplanetary (any?) travel.

Mercury et al. BNMS143, f. 26v
Goodness knows the planets themselves were moralized. Here, with the author wishing them good luck, Mercury sets out with Juno, Minerva and Venus to help the Lover negotiate an inter-planetary chess game, through which he will learn much about the human condition. The planets were given names and adventures and motives, all within an allegorical framework now seen as (wow, almost literally) window-dressing to the physics and astronomy through which we experience planets today. But what if these planets really did have a morality? Never mind what if we saw them that way. What if there was a character to Jupiter that wasn't just gasses and mass? What if Venus really is the only planet that resonates with the feminine? Oh wait, it would mean that nature has morality, too, and Darwin took care of that (thank goodness).  As ever, there's no nostalgia in these wonderings, more of a curiosity about how these medieval frameworks still shimmer beneath our own every once in a while (and why they do). 

Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1917
Take the film John Carter (and the 1917 Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars Barsoom series along with it) - universally, it seems, rejected by the public, adored by myself, my family and those we love.  Who wouldn't want to see how machines on Mars were imagined in 1917 and illustrated in 2012?  Why wouldn't it make a marvelous kind of sense that an American Civil War veteran would wind up in the midst of another civil war on Mars?  Interesting to me in all this, is the kiss of death: what didn't capture audiences. Was it the inter-planetary romance? (apparently, that's a sub-genre of science fiction which I find inexplicably delightful) Was it the confusion of the civil war itself? (human creatures (but with blue blood instead of our red!) fight each other, while skinny green tusked creatures watch and try to choose a side) Was it, could it be, that whatever racial politics motivated Burroughs to write the Tarzan series are present here and unappealing to modern audiences?  Is it the pseudo-science as too thin a veneer for skin-tight outfits and the weird, disturbing sexiness we so often ascribe to aliens?  When Mandeville writes about peoples beyond the realm of the imagination in the 14th century, it's their kinship structures he describes in detail. For us post-Freudians, we always have to know the sex lives of others.  I should take the time to figure out why we loved it, but the end of my time alone here draws nigh - it wasn't plot or character, it was watching the future  back then now. Some love of the gesture of making a 2012 film of a 1917 imagining of a Mars-in-1917 reality. That can't be why Oliver and Iris loved it, so I'll need to ask them more.

Because it was so easy to get the kids to come to Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance at DePauw of Gustav Holst's The Planets, premiered in (hello!) 1918.  "Mars" had both girls clutching my arm, and "Neptune" left the entire 1400-seat hall suspended in his mystic web - followed up during the applause by Oliver literally gasping for air at how awesome that had been.  A father of a dearest friend of ours who came with us intimated that had the pieces not been named after planets, the orchestral suite by itself would never have become famous.  Quite perhaps so.  But therein lies the power of our imaginings of the persona, and necessarily then morality, of the planets.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful little planetary adventure! I am just catching up on my blog reading after having been at a conference in Orlando, where one of the best presentations I saw was given by a sci writer / rocket designer on the history of imagining that planets are PLACES you can travel to and explore rather than dots in the sky or allegories. In his account Kepler was the first to imagine a trip to the moon. I can't think of a medieval parallel to that! An uncanny phenomenon that emerged from his documenting of imagined space travel is that science and reality merely followed where texts went forst, so much so that the shape and weight of ships -- and sometimes even their names -- were predicted by literature long before science could build these things.

    1. oh wow - the move from persons to places for planets: that is terrific! I always think of Vermeer's _Astronomer_ painting in connection with Kepler, especially his wonderful gesture touching that _celestial_ globe - i know that it's a common configuration, but imagining the universe itself as a globe trips me up every time. (this is a rich, wonderful place to experience the painting:

      Congrats on the Orlando conference - fantastic indeed!