‘A Work of Art Designed by the Devil’

Dispatched by Life magazine to cover the Apollo 11 mission, Norman Mailer saw the lunar landing not as a triumph for mankind but as evidence of our hubris.

Katie Martin

“It was the event of his lifetime, and yet it had been a dull event. The language which now would sing of this extraordinary vault promised to be as flat as an unstrung harp.” In such terms did Norman Mailer, 50 years ago, frame the first landing of men on the moon. And in such terms did he also frame himself, the shaky, earthbound Homer who had to write about it. Mailer was in a funk. Low-grade depression had unstrung his harp. His marriage was going down the tubes; his just-concluded campaign for mayor of New York City (he came in fourth in a five-man race) had left him with “a huge boredom about himself”; he felt fat. Now Life magazine had given him a heavyweight assignment: Go to Houston and then Cape Kennedy to cover the Apollo 11 mission. Mailer on the moonshot: loads of words, loads of money. A big deal for Life magazine. And for Mailer? Grim opportunism. Out of tune, bardically bereft, plucking (as it were) flaccid strands of sheep’s gut, he was ripe for anticlimax. But he needed the cash.

And so the character he devised, stepping into this gig, was a new one. No longer “Norman Mailer,” the raving, ballooning subjectivity at the center of 1968’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Armies of the Night, he was now “Aquarius” (his astrological sign): gentle Water Bearer, “detached this season from the imperial demands of his ego.” He would not swagger; he would not orate. He would not drizzle bourbon onto the flames of self. He would move about mildly, discreetly, in the pomp of his modesty, sympathies softened by melancholy, sniffing out the story and doing his homework.

Well, he did sniff out the story—or a story—and he did do his homework, but Of a Fire on the Moon, the cosmically sprawling monograph into which the three mega-installments of his Life report were collected, is an utterly idiosyncratic take on the moon landing. It’s Mailer through and through, Mailer all over: quite as bonkers and deliriously tasteless as An American Dream, more bloated with prophetic wind than Advertisements for Myself, exceeded only by Ancient Evenings in its level of numbing physical detail. These are all compliments, incidentally. Because as always in the Mailer-verse, the dross and the gold are whirled together. They are, God bless him, the same.

The historical impulse, and the human one, was to kneel before Apollo 11. Why not? The event had the glare of sunlight on metal. The Saturn V was on the launchpad, pure potentiality, blank and terrible, with dragon fumes idling in its nostrils. Up it rose on its slow cushion of fire, up it went into invisibility; unconsciousness rippled as it was penetrated by Mind. Then, as it headed for the moon, the rocket shed now-obsolete parts—it was all getting smaller, more essential, like an idea refining itself; from Columbia, the command module, into the Eagle, the lunar module. Then two men were on the moon—the moon!—speaking blunt astronaut poetry, doing the buoyant plod of reduced gravity (one-sixth of the Earth’s, which Buzz Aldrin later said he found “less lonesome” than the weightlessness of Columbia), making their crude and mind-blowing little YouTube video. And then … then they didn’t die up there, the star men—they didn’t get hexed or dismembered by space ghosts—but came back jolly and intact, descending with reddening cheeks into our common oxygen and splashing down at last on the great sea-bosom. Home.

A triumph. A magnificent projection of American adventurism. The power of the launch astonished Aquarius. But he was full of misgivings. His hairs were prickling. What if this whole thing was “a work of art designed by the Devil”? The multi-tiered technocracy of Houston offended him; the astronauts themselves, with their “personalities of unequaled banality and apocalyptic dignity,” he found unreadable. To know space, to dominate space, to print the steps of men upon that tidal magnet and ancient mistress of madness, the moon—surely it was the sheerest hubris. It was White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism run mad. And Aquarius hated WASPs. They used too much deodorant. “They had divorced themselves from odor in order to dominate time, and thereby see if they were able to deliver themselves from death! No less!”

That last rim shot is a bit of a giveaway: Mailer/Aquarius knew he was being daft. But still he feared it, the infernal odorlessness of the WASP. Landing on the moon was a violation, a defilement. The moon was magic and metaphor—and machines, the goddamn machines of NASA, don’t do metaphor. Machines are literal-minded. Who could know the consequences? Souls in transit might find their passage to the afterlife obstructed; curses would surely follow. Chappaquiddick happened while the men were in space, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne subsumed into political doom for Ted Kennedy, and it occurred to Mailer to feel vindicated. “Dead was the young lady who had been driving with him. How subtle was the voice of the moon.” And how indelicate a soothsayer was Aquarius. He wasn’t above blaming NASA for the bad vibes in his own house: “Sometimes his wife seemed as if deranged by Apollo’s usurpation of the moon.”

And yet, whatever else was going on, he was always a brilliant reporter, animally attuned to fluctuations in mood, undercurrents antagonistic or erotic, tremors of status, etc. His descriptions of the action are superb. On the moon itself, Aquarius saw comedy: Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, moving around on the lunar surface, resemble “heavy elderly gentlemen dancing with verve.” But the Earth, the silent blue-and-white ball seen through a telescope inside the Eagle, stares back at Armstrong “like the eye of a victim just murdered.”

This is the glory of Of a Fire on the Moon—the fidelity of Aquarius to his apprehensions; his space-operatic heebie-jeebies; his perverse, obsessive sense that under the achievement, something is dying. Plenty of people regarded the moonshot as a monstrous misallocation of resources. Aquarius alone—or alone in mass-market magazines—was ready to declare it a metaphysical catastrophe. In his stagy rhetoric, his mangled-by-moonbeams prose, he laments the lunar trespass by “strange, plasticized, half-communicating Americans,” and what it portends down here on Earth. Apollo’s success, he declares, “set electronic engineers and computer programs to dreaming of ways to attack the problems of society as well as they had attacked the problems of putting men on the moon.”

Horrific prospect. Midway through his dispatches, Aquarius has a sleepless night in Houston. The abyss gapes. Futuristic vistas assail him; by the witch’s light of insomnia he sees an America “gassed by the smog of computer logic,” where reason has become a higher insanity, and irrationalism a sanctuary. “Legally accepted drugs would become a necessity for accelerated cerebration, there would be inchings toward nuclear installation, a monotony of architectures, a pollution of nature …” Is he about to see us, the performance-enhanced, empty-inside people of 2019? You can feel a zombie horde of current problems— our technologies, our atavisms—moaning and twitching toward the edge of his consciousness.

Of a Fire on the Moon closes, as it has to, with a diminuendo. Ethereal disruptions do not occur in the wake of the Apollo 11 mission, or not detectably, and Aquarius—his dreads unrealized—limps home, to his pissed-off wife in Provincetown, to his now-unsalvageable marriage. (At least something has gone wrong.) But moon madness goes deep, and it has its own schedule. And only Mailer, standing athwart the current with his bandy boxer’s legs and his pressing financial needs, was prepared to think about it. His book sits there, lodged in 1969 like a probe—awkward, driven below the surface, blinking its signal into the future.

This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “Mailer on the Moon.”