“Mother wasn't afraid of the sky in the day so much, but it was the night stars that she wanted to turn off, and sometimes I could almost see her reaching for a switch in her mind, but never finding it.” Ray Bradbury, The Rocket Man
“Imagine a missile one hears only after it explodes” is the thought experiment upon which Thomas Pynchon writes his 1973 masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow. The expanse of the silence invites fear and paranoia, building anticipation for a death that may or may not happen.
“A screaming comes across the sky.” Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
If you hear the explosion, you survived. Silence is where the invisible hides. What Rudolf Otto taught us in The Idea of the Holy is that silence anticipates the numinous. While we often associate anticipation with building excitement, it often has the reverse effect. There is a fine line between anticipation and discontent and I suspect it has everything to do with how we apprehend space.
In John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, Ethan experiences the feeling of Weltschmerz, translated world pain. This pain is a kind of melancholic realization that this world will never satisfy our deepest desires.
This is the existential angst that rises to the surface in Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story, The Rocket Man. Anthologized in the collection titled, The Illustrated Man, and written 19 years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Ray Bradbury likens the Rocket Man in this story to a soldier leaving for battle. The haunting reality, though, is that the sense of duty associated with one’s country is absent. Despite his deep love for his wife and son, the Rocket Man leaves again and again, as though gravity is pulling him back to the unknown adventure in the sky.
There is something deeper to the sense of discontent the reader recognizes. Somehow we realize the world as we know it will never satisfy the Rocket Man. We witness layers of discontent build brick by brick as the Rocket Man becomes more and more isolated with each trip to the sky. This is not merely a season of discontent, though. It is a life lived and passed down from one generation to the next.
The Rocket Man’s son Doug admires his dad with curiosity and intrigue. Each time his father returns, Doug sneaks his briefcase into his room. He studies it carefully to explore any sign of space. Readers witness a son desperately trying to get close to his father. It is from Doug’s perspective that we witness the story unfold.
Even before tragedy strikes, the reader intuits a haunting reality: without physical proximity, the family unit crumbles. After all, every time the rocket man enters uncharted territory to explore space with wonder, he does so alone.
In his 1997 book, Open Sky, Paul Virilio relays the feeling of Weltschmerz that Wubbo J. Ockels, a Dutch physicist and astronaut, felt after joining American Astronauts in orbit.
“What I felt personally was like going back to, or having a vision of, the village where you were born. You don’t want to live there anymore because you’ve grown up and moved away and now you’d rather live the life of the city. But it moves you as “Mother Earth”; you just know you wouldn’t want to go back and live with her.”
Not only do we witness discontent on the part of the Rocket Man that is similar to this Dutch astronaut, we also see the Rocket Man’s reality degrade to the point of death when life is punctuated by separation.
The Rocket Man’s wife stays on earth regarding her husband’s absence as a kind of betrayal. If the loyalty of friendship leads to life, then each act of betrayal his wife feels when he leaves is another death.
This coping mechanism might be read several ways. She might anticipate a future tragedy that such a dangerous career promises. I suspect this is how her actions are typically read.
I wonder, though, if she is simply dealing with the present act of betrayal she feels every time he leaves. To simplify the tragedy, she counts her husband dead the first time he deploys to space. Each time he returns, she experiences his living presence like a memory.
What is strange is the way Ray Bradbury articulates memories as coordinates that form interlocking points on the grid of reality. An idea that echoes the phenomenology of perception as described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty:
“Memory is established, step by step, upon the continuous passage from one instant to another, and upon the interlocking of each one, along with its entire horizon, within the thickness of the one that follows.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The key word here is continuous. The closely woven fabric that Maurice Merleau-Ponty says makes up reality is violently ripped every time the rocket man leaves. It is no wonder that when the Rocket Man returns from a trip, he can’t even bring himself to look at the sky, even though it stares at him as he furiously tries to keep his feet on the ground.
Doug, the narrator, loses his father every few months to outer space escapades. For the Rocket Man, it is not enough to search for greener grass in his neighbor’s yard. He must search beyond his horizon.
Sadly, he is not alone in his discontent.
This sense of discontent comes from a problematic orientation to space. When Martin Heidegger says language is the house of being, it would be a mistake to regard his notion of architecture as anything other than a house with walls that pulse, breathe, and grow.
When some readers consider Heidegger’s comments on language as the house of being, they reject the static, claustrophobic associations that accompany the metaphor.
Yet it is Heidegger who teaches us how to apprehend these walls with an appreciation for the freedom they invoke in his essay, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”:
“A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.” Martin Heidegger
The horizon is not something to transgress but something to celebrate as the container for our presence. Walls and edges are not fixed – the world is not static. The lesson we learn from the Rocket Man is not one of stasis.
The real lesson is an existential one: we must experience every space as a lived presence. That means space is where life is shared and love is given. Unless we learn to experience space with a radical sense of lived presence the silence will continue to haunt us. The sky will continue to seduce us and eventually swallow us whole.