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  • Many FacesReimagining the Moon
  • Sundar Sarukkai

The first bit of poetry that I wrote as a young teenager, or at least remember writing, was about the moon. I was only doing what many teenagers did when they wrote poetry: They looked to the moon. Unlike the sun, we can look at the moon and take it in fully—its silver haze, the rabbit or hare on its face, the circle that is perfect one day and deformed the next, the distance and the darkness between and the beacon that it is, a beacon of imagination. The moon is a comfortable god for atheist teenagers, a god who can be with you even when you surreptitiously read that philosopher for teenagers, Nietzsche.

The moon is the first image, the first syllable, of imagination. The moon is a dream, but a dream that you can look at through a telescope and find disarmingly close. The good thing about imagination is that you cannot really grasp it but only move toward it. As Husserl well understood, imagination is essentially about the possible. Once the possible becomes the actual, all the fun in imagination evaporates. The moon becomes a sticker with a smile, a photograph, a place that really has rocks and minerals, and now, god forbid, even bottle-able water!

Distance is needed for imagination, and the closer we get to what we imagine, the farther we move from the image. Our landing on the moon has been about the worst thing to happen to our imagination, for now the moon is no longer that distant dreamer, a wandering lover, a moody rock, the conductor of loony tunes. It no longer can hold the stories of mythological creatures running on its bare backside but is now something on which humans have left their footprints, never mind that they are of oversized soles. It is no longer the favorite uncle who tells stories, Chandamama (literally meaning Moon-uncle and for years the most popular magazine for children in India). It is now a piece of rock, just another moon that, we are told, goes around the Earth even as the Earth goes around the sun. Sigh. How old we have suddenly grown, and how aged imagination has now become. As T.S. Eliot so poetically wrote, "I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled," we now have to write an ode to the moon by saying, "We are old … We are old … We wear the bottoms of our imagination rolled."

The moon has stopped singing to us, for its songs are now in digital pictures, in JPEG files, in moon-rock museums, in science classrooms, and not in folksongs by the fireside on a full-moon day or on a beach on a dark-mooned night. The moon is lost from the calendars that were defined by its waxing and waning—waxing, alas, is now only a private activity of women. Time too is now independent of the moon, has actually become independent of the imagination. We now live time in too-real terms.

Early traditions of Greek thought were, in general, suspicious of imagination—for good reason, since the problem was with images, particularly images of gods or with the possibility that humans could imagine themselves as gods. Since imagination makes, as for Augustine, "everything other than it is," it is necessary to be wary of its powers. There is on the other hand in the modern Western philosophical traditions a recognition that imagination is somehow the positive act of bringing the absent into presence as much as it makes the present absent. Some early Indian philosophers believed that imagination (kalpanā) is needed to put sense-data together into the object of perception. And some, like the Buddhists, connect imagination to the act of relating words to objects. In many of these views, the ancient Indian [End Page 216] and modern Western, the role of the imagination is in bringing forth the real world—as we imagine it!

What then is the role of imagination after the real has been brought forth? This question is what distinguishes imagination in science and art. Scientific imagination is...


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pp. 216-217
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