Lunar Lunacy: The Moon and Its Role in Cognitive Estrangement

By Joseph Collins

1024px great moon hoax 1835 new york sun lithograph 298px

Image Credit: The New York Sun, 1835. Lithograph. Public Domain

"It seems almost a presumptious[sic] assumption of powers denied to us by divine will, when man, in the pride and confidence of his skill, steps forth, far beyond the apparently natural boundary of his privileges, and demands the secrets and familiar fellowship of other worlds" (Hoax 1835, Day 1). Mankind is always looking to the stars and dreaming of understanding their vast mysteries. This desire is so strong that art and literature often step in when science progresses too slowly. In the second century AD, Lucian of Samosata wrote A True Story, an admittedly fictitious account which included a journey to and description of the Moon and its people. A True Story is considered to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction, if not the first[1]. In 1835, more than 1600 years later, The New York Sun published a series of six articles about fantastic scientific discoveries, now known as "The Great Moon Hoax," which were later found to be completely fabricated. A True Story and "The Great Moon Hoax," two self-aware fictions involving the Moon, share remarkable similarities and show how the Moon is a powerful tool for the creation of cognitive estrangement.

Cognitive estrangement is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction as "the effect brought on by the reader's realization that the setting of a text (film, etc.) differs from that of the reader's reality, especially where the difference is based on scientific extrapolation, as opposed to supernatural or fantastic phenomena" (23). This idea is central to many modern definitions of science fiction; Darko Suvin, a major literary critic and historian, argues that it is "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment" (Wolfe 18). A True Story and "The Great Moon Hoax" each take different approaches to the truth. A True Story asks the reader to suspend his disbelief and see the underlying truth of its parody while "The Great Moon Hoax" presents itself as truth and goes to great lengths to convince readers of its false veracity. However, both fictions use the Moon as an imaginative framework alternative to the author's reality. The cognitive estrangement in these tales becomes evident as the reader must convince himself that the "truths" before him are actually lies.

Lucian of Samosata set out to challenge his readers by writing a plausible story that was, in fact, entirely a lie, writing "[The readers] will find it enticing not only for the novelty of its subject, for the humour of its plan and because I tell all kinds of lies in a plausible and specious way…" (Harmon 2). He hoped that his readers would learn to question the veracity of works without dismissing the value of the story. To accomplish this goal, he had to write fantastic stories that fell in line with other literary works that were accepted as truthful at the time, most obviously the Odyssey of Homer.[2]

Since cognitive estrangement hinges on making the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar, Lucian chose an object with which his audience had no firsthand experience and yet was still familiar: the Moon. At the time (~160 AD) Lucian wrote A True Story, Ptolemy and Plutarch both had recently published works concerning the universe and the movement of the heavens.[3] Plutarch, especially, focused on the Moon in his work On the Face That Can Be Seen in the Lunar Disk. He "upheld the plurality of worlds, and upset the whole theory of natural place" (Duhem 479). The plurality of worlds, also known as cosmic pluralism, is the philosophical belief in the existence of other worlds which contain alien life. This concept would have been familiar to the more educated classes who would have had access to Lucian's story.

In order to comply with the expectations of his readers, Lucian peopled the Moon. He populated it with something slightly different than humans, the Moonites, and had them engage in a very typical behavior, territorial warfare, in a very atypical fashion. The Moonites are not described immediately; this delay allows the reader to make his own assumptions about their appearance and culture. Those assumptions are quickly dismissed when the narrator finally says, "they are not born of women but of men: they marry men and do not even know the word woman at all!" (Harmon 8). The description continues, allowing that they give birth through sacs in their thighs or by harvesting the fruit of trees grown from severed genital glands. They eat the smoke of frogs and do not die, but evaporate. Hairlessness is a sign of beauty, and they have cabbage tails (Harmon 8-9). By making the Moonites have such an absurd appearance and culture, Lucian is pushing the reader towards recognizing severe differences between his own reality and the fictional one – giving rise to cognitive estrangement. The world of the Moon meets basic expectations, but, admittedly, is an absurd lie!

War was integral to the cultures of the Mediterranean during Lucian's time. At the beginning of the second century, the Roman Empire had reached its largest boundaries and most of the Mediterranean had been conquered and inundated with Roman culture. Lucian, an Assyrian who wrote in Greek, would have been familiar with the military legacy of both Greece and Rome. As such, before he finishes the second paragraph about the Moon, his narrator volunteers to join the fight between the Moon and Sun. The ensuing battle is outrageous: giants with mushroom shields and asparagus spears fight against archers who ride the backs of giant fleas (Harmon 5-6). Each combatant listed is more ridiculous than the next. The size of the armies is outrageous, far more than any ever established on Earth. The ludicrous nature of the combat once again forces the reader to acknowledge the difference between his concept of war and the farce of war detailed by Lucian.

The fact that Lucian chose the Moon to be his otherworldly foil is of utmost importance. The Moon provided him with a perfect combination of expectations and limited information. A reader could not immediately dismiss the world Lucian had created, because it fit the expectations of the time; nor could the reader fully accept that world, because it was incredibly absurd and Lucian himself stated it was not real. This paradox is what forces the reader into a state of cognitive estrangement, and is how A True Story achieves its goal of making the reader question his blind faith in the truth-value of other works, such as the Odyssey.

A True Story tells a truth it wants readers to discover is a lie, but "The Great Moon Hoax" tells a lie it wants to convince readers is the truth. The early 1800s saw large improvements in lens quality and the power of magnifying devices. A primary contributor to those advances, Sir William Hershel, became something of a celebrity after creating his own revolutionary telescope and using it to discover the planet Uranus. His son, Sir John Hershel, followed in his footsteps, taking up his work upon his death (Britannica). The existence of Hershel's son, known but not yet entirely famous, provided the author of "The Great Moon Hoax" a perfect person to use as the center of his elaborate ruse.[4]

The articles begin by praising the brilliance of a soon-to-be-announced discovery. Grandiose language and praise of the not-yet-revealed astronomer prime the reader to expect an incredible discovery that will change science forever: "He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscientious pre-eminence above every individual of his species who then lives, or who had lived in the generations that are passed away" (Hoax 1835, Day 1). This would have been familiar to the reader as science was progressing rapidly and newspapers would have been the most accessible way for a layman to keep up with new discoveries.

The next article seeks to fully establish the younger Hershel's supposed methods in order to gain credibility and appear more authentic. This takes the author's advancement of science in a probable, yet untrue, direction. The author gives background to the technical difficulty in observing the Moon by stating, "The limits of discovery in the planetary bodies, and in this one especially, thus seemed to be immutably fixed; and no expectation was elevated for a period of several years" (Hoax 1835, Day 1). This statement is followed by a tale of how Sir Hershel and a Dr. Brewster discovered a way to give artificial light to amplified images and break the threshold mentioned above. The story is devised so it appears probable, even to scientists familiar with the material.[5] This is where the reader begins to accept a false reality, leading to the acceptance of the even stranger and greater untruths that follow.

As the story continues, lunar discoveries are given piecemeal in a supposed first-hand account by an assisting scientist.[6] The discoveries begin with that of a "dark red flower, "precisely similar … to the Papaver Rhoeas, or rose-poppy of our sublunary cornfields; and this was the first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men" (Hoax 1835, Day 2). This is followed by the discovery of lunar trees, varying quadrupeds, further animal life, structures, and eventually, "flocks of large winged creatures, wholly unlike any kind of birds … like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified" (Hoax 1835, Day 4). These humans had features similar to bats: soft fur covering most of their bodies and membrane wings. The scientists continued to find other groups of these humanoids, even some who "were of infinitely greater personal beauty, and appeared in our eyes scarcely less lovely than the general representations of angels by the more imaginative schools of painters" (Hoax 1835, Day 6). This group of superior Vaspertilio-Homo even produced fine art.[7]

Interspersed throughout the six articles are conflicting details: scientific comparisons that support the lunar reality, alongside descriptions of unrealistic creatures that come straight from fairytales. On one hand, a good portion of text is dedicated to matching known lunar geography to discovered valleys or oceans. On the other, discoveries of the first quadrupeds include a bluish antelope-like creature with a singular horn, identified later as a unicorn (Hoax 1835, Day 2).

The discovery of animal life and bat-like humanoids captured the public's imagination, prompting some churches to consider collecting money to find a way to send bibles to the Moon. While widespread belief was centered in New York and other large distribution cities, academia was not exempt, as, according to many firsthand accounts, Yale had more supporters than naysayers (Hoax 1).

One of the more interesting outcomes of the Hoax is what occurred once the public discovered that the entire thing was in fact untrue. In the moment a reader accepted that the lunar discoveries were simply stories, he or she experienced cognitive estrangement. Realizing that his reality was different from the plausible reality suggested by The New York Sun gave the reader a unique perspective: a conflicting view of the possible and the impossible, the probable and the improbable, the real and the unreal.

Society does not usually react well to being duped. Politicians fall and celebrities are abandoned when severe lies are uncovered. However, this did not happen to The New York Sun; in fact, little anger was harbored towards the paper by the public, and it seems the distribution actually increased (History).[8] This subversion of normal response hints at the effect and purpose of the cognitive estrangement. The public had learned that fiction could change human perspective and the idea of one's own place in the world, regardless of the veracity of the work. This echoes the pedagogical intent of A True Story: to make readers acknowledge that literary lies can contain deep truths about human nature and values.

These two works, even if written at different times and in different contexts, create cognitive estrangement through similar methods. The reader is forced to develop a sense of suspended disbelief and to experience cognitive estrangement as he navigates the absurd true-yet-untrue world of A True Story, while readers of "The Great Moon Hoax" experience cognitive estrangement after they have fully accepted the work as true and then discover the deception. Both instances of cognitive estrangement suggest that the reader compare his own world with the fictitious lunar world. This estrangement sheds light on the role of the Moon in fiction: it acts as a mirror in which we can see the truths of our reality reflected and superimposed against the lies of a created artificial reality. This mirror-effect exposes flaws, highlights strengths, and gives new perspectives on objects and ideas which are often glanced over in everyday life.

[1] A fact argued at length by S.C. Fredericks in "Lucian's True History as SF."

[2] A True Story is primarily a parody of works such as the Odyssey, ancient histories, and outrageous philosophy.

[3] Ptolemy's work, Almagest, dealt primarily with the structure of the solar system and the movement of heavenly bodies.

[4] The author of the articles is highly suspected to be Richard Adams Locke, but that fact cannot be confirmed.

[5] The article goes into detail about materials, size, and process for the creation of new lenses. The author had taken time to make sure his math was plausible.

[6] Each article is also accompanied by sketches of the plants and animals mentioned in the text as well of detailed maps of the lunar surface.

[7] Vespertilio-Homo comes from the Latin for "bat" and "man".

[8] While many first-hand accounts mention an increase in distribution, little evidence exists to corroborate this fact.