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Thoughts on an interdisciplinary symposium: Interstellar Skies: The Lunar Passage in Literature through the Ages

Dale Kedwards on the interdisciplinary symposium on the lunar passage in literature through the ages, August 4-6, 2018.

On 4th–6th August 2018, the Centre for Medieval Literature hosted an interdisciplinary symposium on the lunar passage in literature through the ages. We assembled on the Swedish island of Hven, in the Øresund, which has long been an important place in the histories of both literature and science. It was on Hven that the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had his observatory Uraniborg, a sumptuous research palace (at the time of its building, 1–4% of the Danish national budget was directed into Tycho’s research) where Tycho astronomically described – for the first time – the appearance of a new star, a nova, in the night sky. It was also on Hven that Johannes Kepler set the earthbound chapters of his novel Somnium, a detailed imaginative description of how the Earth might look when viewed from the moon. Our meeting was also timely. 2018 marked the half-centenary of Earthrise (1968), one of the earliest – and most famous – images of the Earth taken from the moon’s surface.

This interdisciplinary symposium daringly brought together specialists in literary studies, the natural sciences, and the anthropology of space exploration to think about lunar constructions in literature,and the kinds of cultural commentary they have enabled. From a diversity of disciplinary and methodological perspectives, we asked how literatures, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, have conceptualized lunar spaces, from our own moon to those of distant worlds.

The symposium was framed by two exceptional keynote addresses by speakers – neither of them medievalists – working in strikingly different disciplines. Lisa Messeri, an anthropologist of science and technology at Yale University, spoke about how planetary scientists, and a general public, make moons – including our own – into places. The view from a moon down onto the planet it orbits has, since the early orbital views of the 1960s, been instrumental in enabling us to think about distant planets not simply as astronomical data– as remotely detected formations of rock, ice, and gas – but as worlds. Messeri’s fascinating talk spanned transcripts from the Apollo 8 mission, artists’ speculative depictions of alien exoplanets from the surfaces of imaginary moons, and observations from her work watching planetary scientists. Particularly interesting for me was her observation that planetary scientists often travel to the data centres where telescopic data is processed to do their work. These centres’ attachment to the sensing apparatus that receive the data can be slight indeed: the incoming data can be electronically transmitted to and processed anywhere, and the physical data centre may, in any case, be located at the base of a mountain, two vertical kilometres away from the telescope or sensing apparatus. Messeri pointed out that visiting these places to study other ones is nonetheless crucial to some planetary scientists’ sense of their working identities. Lars Boje Mortensen and I both saw parallels in the working practices of scholars of medieval literature, who sometimes think it is in some way important to their work as philologists to inspect the original manuscripts, even when good facsimiles are available remotely. (Disclaimer: there are many good and valid reasons to inspect a manuscript instead of, or in combination with, an electronic facsimile; an anthropology of medievalists has yet, so far as I am aware, to be written…). Our second keynote was delivered by the poet Matthew Francis, known to medievalists for his acclaimed poetic retellings of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville (Mandeville, 2009) and the Mabinogi (The Mabinogi, 2017). His keynote, though, focussed on his retelling of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638), which appears in his 2013 collection Muscovy. Francis’s description of a goose-drawn ascent into the sky captured the triplicate sense of the moon – conveyed across all our papers – as an object for scientific study, as a destination, and as poetic figure. His quiet line ‘the moon became a place’ emblematised many of the themes explored – from strikingly different disciplinary and methodological perspectives – in our collective papers.

The papers assembled in this symposium traversed some canonical – and lesser known – literary works that thematise the moon and our imaginative attachments to it. How the moon was written, staged, and depicted in the 16th and 17th centuries was explored in papers by Kate McClune and Hester Bradley. McClune explored the deep cosmological substrate in Older Scots literature, beginning with John Stewart of Baldynneis’s translation of Arisoto’s Orlando furioso(1532), an Italian epic poem in which the eponymous Orlando travelled to the moon. Bradley’s wide-ranging exposition on lunar characters on the Early Modern stage illuminated many parallels with Kate’s paper in literary, intellectual and aesthetic engagement with contemporary astronomical thought, from complex character allegories, to women's clothing and headpieces.

My own paper focussed on medieval stories about Ganymede, the Trojan boy desired and abducted by Jupiter, then transformed into a star as the constellation Aquarius. In the 17th century, the newly-observed Jovian moons were named for Jupiter’s mythological lovers, including Ganymede. Nicola Thomas’s paper, on Scottish poetry written during the space race, happily developed themes stirred up in McClune’s and my own papers. Her study into the queer aesthetics of the ‘spacepoems’ of the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan included a reading of some of his poems that played with communication across the stars.

A number of our papers spoke directly to our island setting on Hven, and Kepler's Somnium, which took place there. Victoria Flood showed us how Kepler’s daemon– the supernatural entity he conjures to take his astronomer’s gaze to the moon’s surface – related to the writings of contemporary European demonologists and witch theorists. Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson, meanwhile, investigated the Icelandic identity of Kepler’s main protagonists – the young Icelandic astronomer Duracotus and his witch mother Fiolxhilde – through a study of the Icelandic scholars who trained on Hven, and the stories from Iceland they likely would have brought with them. Bertil Dorch introduced us to Syddansk Universitet’s fantastic Tycho Brahe project, which has produced online editions of Brahe’s works printed originally on Hven, including the Historia CoelestisEpistolarum Astronomicarum, and De Nova Stella.

The depth of astronomical speculation and enquiry that characterizes medieval and premodern thought was a through line of the conference, brought to the fore in papers by Divna Manolova and Tom McLeish. Manolova spoke about the lunar theory of the 14th-century Byzantine scholar Demetrios Triklinios, and his mirror-image drawings of the moon’s surface. McLeish’s paper epitomised an integrated approach to research in the sciences and the humanities in a scrupulous dissection of Alcuin’s 8th-century letter to Charlemagne about the retrograde motion of Mars.

Our collected papers traversed periodisations and historical moments, as well as disciplines, to think about the long cultural and intellectual history of our world’s companion. The experience of watching the moon, and eventually looking down on the Earth from its surface, has occasionally been co-opted into triumphalist narratives of both scientific and cultural progress, the Apollo moment of the 20th century having transformed our thinking about the Earth and its lunar companion in ways that were previously unimaginable. This symposium offered a powerful corrective to this view.

Editing was completed: 10.10.2018