Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight

Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight BY James Attlee. University Of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.

The cover of Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight

In our zeal for artificial light, we have forgotten the consolation of darkness—we have whitewashed the night, erased the Milky Way, and forsaken the moon. When British author James Attlee envisioned a book about moonlight, his inspiration “was not the moon at all but an absence of moon,” he writes. In twenty-five short essays, Nocturne charts Attlee’s quest to rediscover the moon, not only through travel—he visits Europe, America, and Japan—but also through mysticism, literature, and art. Our lunar companion, “the silent satellite that controls the tides, linked in the human mind for centuries with love, melancholy and madness,” has shouldered eons of our hopes and fears. We have worshipped moonbeams for their healing touch and recoiled from their licentious powers. Mussolini refused to sleep with moonlight on his face.

Attlee accepts the challenge of treating light itself as a descriptive subject as tangible and specific as any landscape. We follow the moon through every mood and incarnation, from a new moon, “its comma making a pause in the evening sky,” to a crescent moon “as thin and sharp as a fingernail,” to a complete orb, embraced by green and turquoise rings, emitting “the kind of light one might see through the wall of a crevasse in a glacier, or glinting on an iceberg.” The task demands an imagination that thrives on the transformation of the prosaic. Describing the familiar phenomenon of earthshine, when the shadowed portion of the moon is dimly illuminated by the earth’s reflected light, Attlee writes: “The new moon is ‘carrying the old moon in its arms’. It is as though a kohl-painted siren was partly opening one heavy-lidded, gleaming eye to gaze coquettishly down at the earth.”

Nocturne is a trove of poetic descriptions, but you long for a little absurdity or mischief to be interspersed with its earnest reverence. At times, Attlee lacks faith in his readers. He painstakingly escorts every idea back to the moon, as if we were not generous enough to abide any digressions. In his chapters on Italy, we learn that a city in Tuscany is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and that she is often portrayed in Western art on a crescent moon. That a sickle is a “moon-shaped” blade. That Giacomo Leopardi’s death mask looks like the moon. When Attlee lands at Galileo Galilei Airport, we’re reminded that Galileo’s telescope “brought the moon within reach.” And that Antal Szerb mentions Siena in his novel Journey by Moonlight. I, for one, am happy to let my mind wander through silvery Naples with fewer emphatic reminders of Attlee’s topic.

For Attlee, the power of moonlight is not so much what it allows us to see as what it allows us to look away from. Sunlight urges us to gaze outward, to judge by appearances; moonlight commands introspection. When we undermine the dominance of sight, we remember how to feel our way through the world and encounter a lost intuition.

At last, finding the moon subsisting incongruously over his bustling English city, Oxford, Attlee decides that the forgiving heavens will not demand much before taking us back. Not a giant leap, not even a small step. Just the occasional glance upward.