Apogee

When you are at the highest point in your ascent, before the arc that is gravity’s rainbow returns you, gently or not, to fall to earth, that point is called the apogee.

I sat across from the young man at lunch and said “when I was young there was this phrase, ‘if we can land a man on the moon, we can…’ which would be filled in with some worthy but as yet undone thing.” How many of my countrymen know that this phrase is no longer available to us, because we made the mistake of trying again to land a man on the moon, and failed, through a lack of idealism and political will? If we can land a man on the moon, surely we can balance the federal budget… No. No, we can’t do those things, not any more.

Tonight I watched several episodes of the HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon, ending the night with the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. After that I went swimming around midnight with the pool light off, and in the dark I floated for awhile, looking at the stars. They will be there as long as we are. Longer.

I am sometimes asked what the title of this blog means. That’s simple. Cavafy wrote a poem called Poseidonians. I’ve quoted it before. It goes something like this:

The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival’s end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remebered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.

There is no poet who better captures the melancholy of the Hellenistic Age, the period when what would someday be called the Golden Age was only a memory. Of course, they did not know that history would remember them as a period of decline, a hiatus between the sunburst of Athens’ best moment, and the blood and iron of Rome. What would it have been like to have lived among them knowing that?

I lived through the apogee, the period that saw us struggle for equality, reach for the stars, discover new modes of individuality, and peacefully end the twilight struggle, witnessing the liberation of millions. We did those things, but that is behind us now. As Nietzsche says, in perhaps his most beautiful aphorism, “Other birds will fly farther.” I hope they will remember more than our mistakes, will remember what it is we tried to be. All that I have tried to do is live among you all, and make a few notes, as Brodsky says, provoked by the vista opening to both my inner and my naked eye.

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