From time to time, you come across ingenious arguments that purport to show that the moon-landings were an elaborate hoax, which I think say more about those who advance them than they do about the veracity of lunar exploration; yet there is a sense in which man has not experienced ‘being on the moon’ any more than he has experienced being in the depths of the ocean.
What Neil Armstrong and others experienced was being in a space suit on the moon, just as deep-sea explorers experience being in a submarine vessel at great depths: they are not in immediate contact with their surroundings, as the denizens of the deep are, or as we would be, exploring somewhere on the surface of the earth – they cannot smell or touch or taste or hear, and though they see, it is only through a window of sorts.
Do not think I say this to disparage these achievements, which are admirable, but rather to point out something that has troubled me since I was a child, transported in my imagination to the depths of space or the sea – the sense that the suit or the submarine would seem claustrophobic, that the inability to reach out and actually touch would be infuriating (in an odd way, an extension of the same frustration caused by a glass case in a museum); the feeling that, though I had gone all that way, I still had not actually ‘got there’ – rather as if I had walked many days to see a famous palace or cathedral but had been barred from entering it.
Of course it will be objected that such an experience as I envisage would be, not impossible – since one could discard the suit, venture out of the submarine – but certainly ill-advised, since we could not hope to survive it, and that is perfectly true; but there is something very potent in this image of going places yet remaining fortified by our own portable version of home (a variant on the comical tourist who goes abroad with tins of baked beans in his luggage and insists on eating only British food)
This notion of the protective suit or carapace (whether mental or physical) called to mind Eliot’s line, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ (which is worth reading in its (second*) context, the opening of ‘Burnt Norton’, here ).
It is a commonplace of sociology that ‘reality is a construct’ by which is meant, I suppose, that a great deal of what we call ‘real’ is actually mere convention – we agree to see the world in such a way and this is expressed in the way we talk about it and act in it (an example would be the elaborate edifice of time that we have erected, with its minutes, hours, days and years (and its adjuncts of clocks and calendars and diaries and year-planners) that enables us to order the past and envisage the future). The corollary is that what is real – the reality humankind cannot bear very much of – is something quite other, against which our constructed ‘reality’ acts as a screen or a protection – much as the space-suit for the astronaut or the submarine for the deep-sea explorer.
Doubtless there are good reasons for that protective construct, just as there are for the space-suit or the submarine – it might well be that direct exposure to reality would indeed ‘blow our mind’ (a phrase that recalls the sixties’ fashion for using psychotropic substances to gain access to an altered vision of reality). On the other hand, we can conceive of an alternative route, not the single step of a mind-altering substance, but rather some process of acclimatisation, as pearl-divers train themselves to go deeper and deeper, and climbers to go higher and higher without supplementary oxygen.
Not that there is anything new here: the ancient practice of meditation, particularly in the East, is surely just such a kind of ‘acclimatisation’ – ‘detachment from self and from things and from persons’ to quote Eliot, again.
The renunciation of self is central to much religious teaching, and it is interesting to consider that the price of experiencing reality (of the kind that humankind cannot bear very much) might well be a loss of identity, of our sense of who and what we are (and consider here the expressions we use: ‘ecstasy’ (literally ‘standing outside (oneself)’ ‘transports of delight’ and being ‘carried away’).
I had a curious insight soon after writing the previous paragraph when I went out for a walk in our crowded, busy town. I tried to ‘unthink’ the social construct, the agreed convention – i.e. that I am such and such a person in such and such a place on a particular day at a certain date and time in a certain country with a particular history, and indeed I have my personal history which is documented both officially – birth and marriage certificates, passports, various qualifications – state exams, degree, driving licence – and privately, by things I have written, pictures and so on. All these things are, if you will, like the surrounding pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which define the unique space into which I fit: so what happens when you ‘think away’ these arbitrary things – what are you left with?
The interesting thing was that I could not do it, and I fell to wondering why. My first thought was that it must be the traffic, which seemed unusually busy, so that the constant noise and movement – to say nothing of the need to watch where I was going – was distracting me from my line of thought. Then it struck me that that was only partly true, on the surface, as it were – the real deep distraction was not just the cars, but the roads and the buildings; it was the town itself, the physical embodiment – in fact, the realisation, in a precise sense – of the very ideas I was trying to unthink.
We are inclined to overlook this necessary link between the man-made object and the idea: the object is present and actual, a tangible thing, and it arrests our attention: we do not go beyond it, to see that it is an end product [cp Plato’s Theory of Forms, which sees each actual instance of something – a table, say – as the embodiment of the ‘ideal form’ (or ‘idea’) ‘table’; or from a slightly different angle, Aristotle, whose ‘final cause’ is ‘the end to which something is directed’ – in plain words, ‘how it is meant to end up’ – which equally gives priority to the idea or concept as the starting point – you can have the idea without its realisation, but not vice versa]
In this way, every city is a witness to the idea of civilisation, not just in the narrow sense of living in cities, but all that goes with it – the idea of a settled community, of imposing control on nature, cultivating crops, harnessing rivers and all the rest – indeed, beyond the city (backing it up, as it were) is the convention of government, law and order, nations; so it is no surprise that those who wish to escape the construct and come closer to reality start by escaping the city – they seek the wilderness, the desert, the mountains or the sea – wherever man has not interposed the protective suit we have constructed to enable us to survive day-to-day contact with reality.
*interestingly, it is a line he uses twice – the first time is in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’