November 20th, 2011
In Nocturne, James Attlee really pleasingly tells the stories of his various moon-focused journeys. He’s interested in exploring the role of moonlight in art/culture/life, both historically and now, in a time when light pollution means people in general see less of the moon and are probably less aware of the moon than in the past. He goes to Japan for the autumn moon-viewing festival of Tsukimi; he goes to Italy and writes about Vesuvius and painters of the volcano and the moonlit Bay of Naples; he goes to Las Vegas (all neon and artificial everything, all the time, and hence not much moonlight) and to the Arizona desert.
Throughout, he blends his own experiences and observations with bits of art and history and literature, with a particular focus on the visual arts. (Attlee works in art publishing, and presumably has an art-history background.) His writing about visual depictions of moonlight is smart and interesting, whether he’s talking about Italian paintings or Japanese woodblock prints. I loved the moment when he talks about a print in which a pair of palanquin bearers carry an empty litter, “its green curtains pulled back so that they are effectively carrying a moving frame for the landscape beyond” (141).
There are so many good bits and pieces in this book. Attlee quotes bits of Goethe, Thoreau, and Ruskin on how moonlight transforms a landscape, or a room; he talks about optics and the way we actually see in moonlight. I learned about the fact that as light fades, “the eye’s sensitivity to greens and blues is enhanced, while its sensitivity to red decreases, a reversal of daylight vision known as the Purkinje shift” (71). I learned about Ginkaku-ji, a Japanese temple with a white and grey sand-garden meant to be seen by moonlight, and about Joseph Wright, an English painter who worked in Italy, and his position “on the periphery of the group of inventors, industrialists, poets and philosophers known as the Lunar Men” (159), which reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read Jenny Uglow’s book about the Lunar Men for a while now. I learned about a British artist named Katie Paterson, who translated Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into Morse code and bounced it off the moon and back to earth.
Attlee’s writing is both graceful and good-humoured. Setting out to see the moon means having to contend with weather-related disappointments, which he manages to take in good stride without pretending they didn’t happen. Setting out to see the moon also involves a certain amount of openness to serendipity: I loved an episode in which Attlee is cycling home from work and passes a table by the side of the road that’s selling goggles for the next day’s partial lunar eclipse, which he hadn’t been aware of. He buys a pair and plans to stop to see the eclipse partway through his commute to work the next day. When he’s talking about an impromptu moonlit trip to see the Uffington White Horse on a Sunday evening, Attlee writes that he is “a great believer in impulsive behaviour, as a way of grasping experiences that otherwise would be missed,” which is true and a nice reminder (31). And as for the grace, there are passages like this:
Nothing prepares the first-time visitor for the experience of stepping through the torii, the gateway to a Shinto shrine, hung with the sacred rope of straw and zigzag flags of white paper that act as lightning conductors to attract the presence of the spirits. Having first picked up a copper or bamboo ladle and poured cool water over your hands and rinsed your mouth, there is something strangely moving about approaching the central shrine of such a place to find it empty, devoid of images, a warm breeze perhaps blowing some of the first maple leaves to fall around your feet, the bell rope hanging down and swaying gently, which you pull, after throwing a coin in the box, the bell making a small sound like an old tin kettle struck by a thrown pebble, enough merely to gain the attention of the wandering spirits, as you bow and clap your hands together twice as you have seen others do. (119-120)
I heard about this book earlier this year, in this post over on the blue hour, and I’m really glad that I went looking for it at the library. I’d already been meaning to read another book by Attlee, Isolarion, (I forget where I heard about that one), but I think the experience of reading Nocturne has pushed Isolarion higher on my (never-ending) TBR list.