Humanity crosses increasing distances searching for new territory to explore. Is the distance between and within us threatening our survival?
Italo Calvino published Cosmicomics, a book of fantastic short stories in 1965. Each story was inspired by an accepted scientific theory. The first and most well known story is entitled “The Distance of the Moon”. It springs from the theory put forth by George H. Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin– yes, the one who wrote The Origin of the Species– that the moon was once closer to the Earth and is continually receding. Science has confirmed that the Moon is in fact drifting away from us at a rate of 3.8 cm per year. This doesn’t actually have much to do with Calvino’s tale, a story of masterful and colorful magic realism that betrays sinister undertones.
You can read “The Distance of the Moon” here. This English translation, made by William Weaver, won the National Book Award for Translation in 1969.
What at first reads as an absurdist tale of people climbing up to the Moon from Earth to harvest Moon milk evolves quickly into a story that delves into the dangers of exploration and the interplay between masculinity and femininity. You could easily see it as a very perceptive allegory for a love affair, but there is more here than a warning of the dangers of sexual exploration. “The Distance of the Moon” speaks of how the human race is constantly pulled between a desire to explore what is other or unknown and the desire to settle down with that which is familiar. Either option can involve exploitation.
We are at first proud to meet Qfwfq’s deaf cousin, who is such an excellent jumper and so adept at harvesting the delicious, but actually quite disgusting, Moon milk (a particularly successful metaphor for the fruit of duplicitous sexuality). Without understanding him, we admire his skills and savor his success, but there seems to be something a bit inappropriate in the way he touches the Moon, something lascivious in his desire to be alone up there. His deafness, as it turns out, is an allegory for insensitivity, which keeps him from caring or bonding with anything, including the territory which he is exploring. He is a true psychopath, unable to make relationships. All he can manage are conquests.
This cousin troubles me. I see in him a kinship with an element of humanity that has explored the Earth for centuries and now turns its attention toward the stars, seeing only profit and a means to fill appetites. Not all explorers have such dark motivation, but there is an unchecked masculinity– I say masculinity rather than maleness, because I think we all contain elements of it, regardless of gender– that will never lend itself to nurturing life. Life viewed through these eyes is seen as disposable, lacking in value.
Qfwfq has been up on the Moon as well, but he isn’t very proficient in the skills required. He frequently misfires, getting Moon milk in his eyes. It seems our friend is prone to that blindness we call “love” or, perhaps more precisely, infatuation. Unlike his cousin, he does form attachments, as we can see in his fixation on Mrs. Vhd Vhd, who could not really care less about him. There isn’t much attractive about Qfwfq. He’s randy, awkward and indecisive. When he is heroic, it’s for all the wrong reasons. But he is capable of some attachment and affection, which is more than anyone else shows in this tale.
We are given the background story of Xlthlx, a playful teenager who enjoys catching the small animals and plants floating towards the Moon. One day, she gets caught in the Moon’s pull and floats off with them. She saves herself by eating the small animals and plants until she gets heavy enough to fall out of the Moon’s attraction, although she is marked for life. This is a creative image for teen pregnancy, which compounded by social stigma, ends this young woman’s “moon” experiences and exploration.
After waffling around on the moon for a few trips, Qfwfq makes the decision to stay on the boat and put the moves on the Captain’s wife, an attractive woman who plays sweet and piercing songs on the harp, songs that no one wants to hear. Is it that her songs make the men feel guilty for all that time spent up on the Moon? He can tell by the way she’s looking at his cousin that she’s ripe for the picking, and he’s been fancying her for some time. He’s completely ready to settle for her, at least for the moment. She chooses the very same moment to exercise her freedom and go explore the surface of the Moon with his cousin. The cousin is either unaware of or uncomfortable with her pursuit and disappears into the darkest regions of the Moon alone.
Vhd Vhd is ecstatic to see his wife off to the Moon. Her infidelity and exploration free him to indulge in his own vices. He is bored with stability, tired of the respectability that has probably contributed to his station as Captain. But he also seems bored with adventure. Surely he has been up on the Moon exploring for himself, but now he lies back on the boat to feed more earthbound appetites.
Despite all this activity, it seems that the status quo will prevail, until the final actor makes her move. The Moon picks that very moment to change her orbit, drifting far from Earth and forcing everyone else to make the decision between the Earth and herself. Xlthlx and the Captain have already put distance between themselves and the Moon. Surprisingly, the deaf cousin races back to Earth as well. Perhaps he fears what will happen if the Moon becomes too familiar. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, unfamiliar with the leap back to Earth, is unable to make the transition and floats helplessly near the Moon. Qfwfq jumps out of the boat to save her, but his efforts do not bring her back to Earth, but drop them both on the Moon’s surface. At last, he has everything he wanted– unlimited time with his lover. And yet, all he can think of is home. It is no surprise that, at the next full moon, when their friends return with a long bamboo pole, he shimmies back down to Earth.
But what of Mrs. Vhd Vhd, alone on the Moon? She has no attachment to Qfwfq, nor to Earth. She has become one with the moonscape, indifferent, distant and free of masculine influence. All of his designs and efforts have only served to push her farther away.
This fable points at a crisis modern humanity is facing. Our longing for freedom and our longing for home have collided, and, unless we can learn to curb our exploitive nature, we may lose both.