Last Night’s Lunacy

I was reminded during last night’s eclipse of one of the short films included in the Taviani brothers’ anthology Kaos, “Male di Luna” or “Moon Sickness.”

A Sicilian peasant named Batà takes his new bride from her village to the humble farm where he scratches out a living. At the first full moon, the bride discovers that Batà is a lunatic, literally, made sick by the full moon, so sick, violent and crazy that she fears for her life and (at his insistence) must bar the door and lock him out of the house until dawn.

After the husband suffers a particularly violent spell of moon sickness, the frightened young bride returns to her village and her mother. The husband, still cut and bruised from his struggle against the forces of the moon, prostrates himself before the wife, even as she plots to bring her lover from the village to the farm (in the guise of a male cousin who will protect her from this lunatic). In a moment of remorse — or is it just plain compassion? — they abandon their lovemaking to comfort the farmer as he suffers under the moon’s grim influence.

Even in 1913, when Luigi Pirandello wrote the original story, lunacy was coming under the watch of the emerging field of psychology and psychoanalysis. And it has never been the same. Nowadays, lunacy is no longer a mystery; we wouldn’t even use the word to describe bouts of mental illness. (We might, instead, use it to describe someone who lashes out violently or who performs a daredevil stunt: not the world of Pirandello and the Taviani brothers, but the world of action movies and Jackass.) The word in ordinary usage has lost its connection with the phases and cycles of the moon. Our language is unmoored from its roots. We have science and pills for bipolar disorders and schizophrenia; we travel to the moon and back and know its terrain and composition.

But the moon is still a mysterious presence, or can be; or at least I wanted it to be and, for a moment or two, it seemed that way to me, as I tried to photograph last night’s full lunar eclipse while out walking my dog Friday. I didn’t have a tripod, which made it difficult to do anything without a flash; here are a few of the images I managed.

eclipse1 eclipse2
eclipse3

When I got back from the walk, I stood on the stoop and looked for a while at the moon and tried to get a few more images without the flash by using the stone stoop as an anchor. Across the street, a woman cried out: are you getting any good pictures? I looked up: a woman in a headscarf, a Muslim woman, with her daughter, a child of about 4 or 5, sitting on their stoop, covered in a white blanket, watching the moon. Two doors up from my stoop, another child came outside with her mother. She wanted to know why I was taking pictures. Just to have them, I replied. Oh, OK. Women and children: and all this interest in pictures of the moon — almost as much as in the moon itself.

When the eclipse was nearly full, at around 10:30PM, I couldn’t resist. I grabbed my camera, put on a fur hat, and ran downstairs, Friday barking in excitement (or alarm and terror?) and racing me to the door. The fur on his back was up; he was ready for whatever we faced when I opened that door. Outside, it was cold and quiet. A few people were out on their stoops looking at the eclipse; they broke the crisp night silence now and then with conversation and laughter that I heard only as sounds or fragments of sounds. Friday was clearly anxious, huddled against the door at the top of the stoop. Was this some pure, more primitive animal anxiety about the eclipse? Or was he just cold? The moon was red orange. I anchored myself against the cold stone stoop and tried to bring the moon into focus.

At that moment, a group of teenagers walked by, and one of them — a girl of about fifteen — said to her friends: oh wow, a solar eclipse. I totally saw that shit on the Science channel. Then, noticing me, she added, almost formally, or as if this was somehow the right thing to say, or as if she were in charge of the evening’s events, Thank you for taking photographs of it.

In an earlier age, an earlier time, she would have been the bride of some peasant, watching out the window of their farmhouse as the moon took on the beauty and ferocity of the eclipse. Now she had a young man on each side of her, and they were just friends, out for a walk, and there happened to be that solar eclipse thing that she saw on TV in the sky. It’s a lunar eclipse, I said; but the teenagers seemed indifferent to the distinction.

I turned back to the moon, which was now nearly in full eclipse, more Mars than Moon, more blood than rock. You will have to take my word for it: I failed to photograph it well. I was able only to capture the dimmest image of the eclipsed moon in the black sky.

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