Like most unhappy young men, in my teenage years I went to war with the moon. Stumbling drunk out of boring parties late at night, I’d feel the thing glaring at me from its smug and lofty seat, indifferent and implacable, a faint sneer etched into its face. Looking into the moon means looking into the vertiginous hugeness of history: It’s the same lump of rock seen by kings and heroes for all those thousands of years; they all died, and you will too, but the moon carries on. Wolves howl; I ranted. Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me? The moon doesn’t care; it’s just a mirror, and in its surface we all look very small.
I wasn’t alone in my loathing of the moon. In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed secret plans for an unprovoked nuclear strike against it.
Both operations—probably because of the cosmic sacrilege involved—were disguised with unassuming alphanumeric codenames instead of the usual mythological references or bombastic national abstractions: Project E-4 for the Soviet plan, Project A119 for the American (along with the euphemistic title “A study of lunar research flights”). In each case the idea was to transport an atomic weapon to the moon’s terminator, the twilight-line along its surface where lunar day meets night, and detonate it just after sunset on Earth. First a flash would spread across the dark lunar surface, briefly lighting up the contours of its craters; then an immense cloud of atomic fire and lunar dust would rise. In the absence of an atmosphere, there would be no mushroom cloud. Instead the explosion would have formed a slowly expanding sphere, catching the light of the sun as it grew, and providing an entertaining spectacle and a dire warning clearly visible to friends and enemies on Earth.
The two projects were carried out in such secrecy that the American and Soviet teams could plausibly have both selected the same night for their detonations. Viewers on Earth might have been treated to the grand farce of two atomic fires burning on the Moon while mission commands scrambled to find out which one was theirs. It’s possible to read all this in two ways. The first, most commonly accepted explanation, is that the paranoia and insanity of the Cold War had reached such a pitch that sane men (and they were overwhelmingly men) could meet together and decide that it was necessary to project this struggle onto the surface of our planet’s oldest companion, to desecrate its timelessness as a show of political force. It’s a good story—fear and hubris running wild, and the terrible consequences that could have resulted—but it’s not the only interpretation. Forget the ideology, and what you have is a simultaneous effort by the two superpowers to do the exact same thing. They’d cooperated before, in the war against Nazi Germany; it’s possible that, a decade later, they repeated this pact without even knowing it, banding together to plot the joint destruction of our oldest foe.
There’s a secret history of the moon, a long tradition in which Earth’s largest satellite has been viewed as an object of fear, hate, and distrust. The Soviet-American nuclear plot might be its grandest expression, but the hidden war has been going for millennia. Every society has constructed some kind of astrological system for itself, in which the sub-lunar world is influenced by cosmic events—but in the case of the moon, there’s the worry that it might actually work. In the early modern witch-hunts, an emerging capitalism’s great war against its women, the nexus of the witch’s unbearable powers was held to lie somewhere in the web of connections between the body, the menstrual cycle, and the moon above us. The Malleus Maleficarum, the great and hideous Catholic treatise against witchcraft, insists that demonic powers are “deeply affected by certain phases of the Moon.” And in most of Mediterranean traditions that congealed into the ideologies of the west, lunar deities tend to be female. (One bizarre charge against Islam from some fundamentalist Christians is that its god is actually a moon god, as evidenced by the crescent moon symbol, and therefore evil, a Satanic opponent to the resolutely solar god of Abraham and Moses.) And the identification works both ways: The qualities of the moon—its radiance, its mutability, its sly influence and keening distance—are imposed on a socially constructed femininity. It’s no surprise that a patriarchal society would come into conflict with the great mother in the sky.
The moon rules the night, and its gleam only gives definition to the darkness. No horror film can do without its brief shot of an engorged moon floating predatory over the horizon. Lunatic, of course, derives from the Latin luna; the Romans believed that madness takes place under some lunar spell, and they weren’t alone. “It is the very error of the moon,” Shakespeare’s Othello declares. “She comes nearer earth than she was wont, and makes men mad.” Under a full moon the mad are inflamed, the epileptics frenzied, the werewolves and vampires summoned. The solar powers of law and order are weakened.
Pliny the Elder even went so far as to attempt a naturalistic explanation for the lunar effect: because dew comes from the moon, a full moon leads to an overabundance of dew in the brain, leaving it “unnaturally moist and choked with phlegm.” And while most people no longer believe in the humoral theory, the belief in lunar madness still remains. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence linking lunar cycles with madness or criminality, police departments in Britain and the United States step up their street patrols during a full moon, and while 43 percent of Americans believe that the moon has some effect on psychological wellbeing, that number rises to 81 percent among mental-health workers.
But like any moon, the moon-as-threat, or the enemy moon assaulting the sky, takes on different shapes. In February this year, the video-games writer and Congressional candidate Brianna Wu tweeted her concerns over SpaceX announcing that it was planning to launch a crewed mission to the moon. “The moon,” she wrote, “is probably the most tactically valuable military ground for earth. Rocks dropped from there have power of 100s of nuclear bombs.” This isn’t exactly true—you can’t “drop” anything from there, because it isn’t “up”; but it does tap into a surprisingly widespread worry: that something is about to attack us from the moon.
We don’t have lunar goddesses or witchcraft any more; when deep folk metaphysics express themselves, they do so as conspiracy theory. And any sufficiently vast conspiracy theory will always end up dragging the moon into its orbit. The most famous is the idea that the moon landings were faked, which is easy enough to sympathize with. If humanity had really burst out from its terrestrial prison and set its first footsteps among the stars, then everything should be different. If we can walk on the moon, we should be free. But we’re not free; we’re all still here, living the same miserable lives and working the same tedious jobs while the moon still gloats from its impossible and distant fortress—therefore, it didn’t happen. There are others, though. Ever since the Second World War, for instance, people have been certain that esotericists within the Nazi order built secret bases on the dark side of the moon, to sporadically disgorge UFOs. The actual Nazi mystics, meanwhile, were mostly uninterested in the moon; a few of them didn’t even, strictly speaking, believe in it, thinking that we actually live inside a hollow Earth, a bubble of air set in the rock. “An infinite universe,” Nazi occultist Peter Bender wrote, “is a Jewish abstraction. A finite, rounded universe is a thoroughly Aryan conception.” Not that it matters: The image of the swastika flag on the moon is a powerful fantasy; even if you don’t believe it happened, it’s been screaming from book covers and film posters for decades.
But the grandest and strangest theories hold that the moon is itself a weapon. This notion was first put forward in 1970 by Michael Vasin and Alexander Shcherbakov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who argued that the moon is actually hollow, an artificial satellite put in our sky for reasons we can neither understand nor trust. Online, stories circulate about various ancient or distant peoples who can remember a time before the moon was towed into orbit; seven-day creation myths are meant to be a distant echo of the time when humanity saw the heavens being constructed right above them. The hollowness of the moon is supposed to be demonstrated by a episode from the 1969 Apollo 12 mission, in which the lunar module was deliberately crashed onto its surface after takeoff, and for half an hour the moon “rang like a bell.” In the cosmology of David Icke, the conspiracy theorist best known for his insistence that most world leaders and politicians are shape-shifting alien lizards, the moon is a vast artificial satellite put into orbit by alien forces, and causing something called the “Moon Matrix”: a powerful broadcast signal that blocks out humanity’s interdimensional capabilities and keeps us locked in the world of our five senses.
Why are people so afraid of the moon? Why will we declare it to be the seat of madness and witchcraft, or an alien world swarming with Nazis, or eventually resolve to nuke the thing? It might help to look at the first lie about the moon—Aristotle’s, in which the great philosopher declared it to be a perfectly smooth sphere, despite the fact that it’s quite plainly not. A lie this big usually means that there’s something being repressed. Aristotle loved unities and self-identities; he wanted to live in a rational, mathematical, and immutable universe; he believed that beyond the mess and contingency of human existence there was a perfect heavenly order to which we could aspire. The only problem is the moon. Other celestial bodies appear as perfect points of light, but the moon is clearly just an absurd ball of rock, as weary and beleaguered and broken as we are, carrying with it the scars of four billion years of astronomical senselessness. Hovering in the sky, it’s proof that we don’t really matter. The secret war against the moon is a war against imperfection, contagion, and disease; it’s the war against a universe that refuses to care about your ideas, and refuses to be understood.
But the moon also changes, transforming itself from a pointed sliver of light to a blankly accusing circle to a brooding absence and back again. Sometimes it glows an angry red, and sometimes, when its elliptical path brings it closest to the Earth, it blots out the stable masculine light of the Sun altogether. And all this transformative power doesn’t belong to mystical fire or abstract thought, but a perfectly ordinary rock. The secret of the moon is that the heavenly perfection we might mimic isn’t stasis, but a series of constant revolutions and transformations; its secret is that we could all be witches and werewolves. This is dangerous stuff for political power. No wonder patriarchal orders turned the moon into the symbol of everything they were trying to repress; no wonder moon-hate appealed to the Americans and the Soviets of the 1950s, two revolutionary societies that had ossified into a profound conservatism, terrified of chaos and paranoid about subversion. What else could they do, with a giant subversive rising over the horizon every night? Load up the rockets, and prepare to win the State’s first and oldest war once and for all.
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