“But the moon, what a lovely thing.”

From Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (pp. 55-57):

Alessandro turned to the east. His cane clattered down upon the rock as he caught sight of a tiny orange dome, rising coolly, unlike the molten sunrise, from behind the farthest line of hills.

The arc rapidly turned into a silent half circle, spying upon them with its old and tired face. It had about it the air of being intensely busy, as if its occupation with the task of floating in perfect orbits had made it justly self-absorbed.

“The whole world stops as this stunning dancer rises,” Alessandro said, “and its beauty puts to shame all our doubts.”

It is like a dancer, Nicolò thought, as the perfectly round moon began to float airily above the silhouetted hills it had begun to illumine. “So smooth,” he said.

“Without saying anything, it says so much,” Alessandro continued. “In that sense, it’s better than the sun, which is always holding forth, and butting at you like a ram.”

Because of Alessandro’s spectacles, Nicolò was able to see that the moon had mountains and seas. His sudden apprehension of the moon, so close and full, riding over them like a huge airship, endeared it to him forever. For perhaps the first time in his life he was lifted entirely outside himself and separated from his wants. As he contemplated the huge smoldering disc he was easily able to suspend time and the sensation of gravity, and a sort of internal electricity overflowed within him. It came in waves, and grew stronger and stronger as the moon glided from orange and amber to pearl and white. And then, after only a few minutes, the soul that had taken flight returned to a body in which the heart was pounding like the heart of a bird that has just alighted from a long fast flight.

“What happened to me?” he asked, with a convulsive shudder.

“When I was your age,” Alessandro said, “I had already learned to compress what you just experienced into bolts of pure lightning.”

Nicolò didn’t know what to think, so he stared ahead.

“When a great sight comes to sweep you down, fight it. It will take you, for sure, but keep your eyes open, and you can beat it, like molten steel, into beams of light.

“I used to take long walks in the city, and when I was able to immerse myself in a cross-fire of beautiful images I would ignite just as you did. It has many names, and is one of the prime forces of history, and yet it keeps itself hidden, as if it were shy.

“A favorite trick of mine, that I have since abandoned, was to concentrate the overflow upon the horses of the carabinieri to make them rear up on their hind legs and whinny. They’re very sensitive to human feelings, and when they know that you are greatly moved they will often react in sympathetic fashion.”

“How did you do that?”

“It wasn’t hard. I had to be all worked up, but when I was young I was like a perpetual lightning storm. I would concentrate upon the horse as if he were the emblem and paradigm of every horse that ever was or ever will be, and then throw the current across the gap.

“The horse would turn his head to me and draw it back, widening his eyes. Then he’d shudder as if a sudden chill had come over him. At that point I’d open the gates to let the power sweep out all at once, and he’d rear and cry out the way horses do, with a sound that seems able to pierce through all things.

“I’ll never forget the surprise of the carbinieri, the fall of their coats, and the banging of their swords as they stood rigidly in the stirrups so as not to be thrown. They were never angry. After the horses had expressed themselves so completely, they and their riders always seemed to regard each other with awe. More often than not, as I passed I would hear the rider saying to his agitated mount, ‘What got into you? What has moved you?’ You could see them patting the horses’ necks to calm them down.

“I don’t do it anymore. I’m not sure I could.

“But the moon, what a lovely thing. To see it makes me very happy. My wife’s face, especially when she was young, would have been perfect–in the sense that she could have been a star in films–had her eyes not been so full of love. When she smiled,” he said, indicating the cool glow that had begun to climb steeply into the sky, “it was as lovely as that.”

“This is how you’ve never left her,” Nicolò said.

Alessandro made a curt bow, closing his eyes for an instant. “In this and in many other ways, but they are not enough. My symbols, my parallels, my discoveries, cannot even begin to do her justice and cannot bring her back. The most I can do is to make the memory of her shine. So I touch lightly, ever so lightly, seeking after gentle things, for she was gentle.”

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon

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