Neil Armstrong – the first man to set foot on the moon, with Buzz Aldrin right behind him and Michael Collins orbiting above – died precisely one year ago. I wrote a clumsy tribute that evening. This is it. (Recommended soundtrack: “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong.)
Neil Armstrong died today. His heart gave out.
I’m reminded of Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino. Each of the stories is narrated by some inscrutable form – a cloud of dust, a reincarnated dinosaur, a particle before the big bang. But their souls are familiar – boastful or bashful, stoic or lovelorn. The stories juxtapose the human against the cosmic, making a grand, tragic comedy of each. Salman Rushdie called it the greatest short story collection ever written.
Neil Armstrong died today, and my thoughts orbit, again and again, around those two ideas: the human and the cosmic.
I’m not sure how many humans have ever lived – 50 billion, 100 billion? I don’t know how many languages have been spoken and lost, their oral literature forgotten even as it was composed. But each of those languages, I’m sure, could name the following: man; walk; moon; and death. And so, if you could place yourself beneath any night sky in our history of one hundred millennia, you could explain to the people: “A man died today, a man who left Earth and walked on the moon.”
Or, better yet: Forget our earthly languages, our flawed organs of communication. Imagine speaking with an outsider, one of Calvino’s narrators, and tell him this:
We humans, reared in this thin envelope of air atop this great round rock; we humans, addicts of air and water, with bodies so vulnerable that they splatter after a mere hundred-foot drop; we humans built a ship and sailed it through a lifeless chasm so vast it could swallow our entire planet 30 times over; and on the other side of this chasm, a human disembarked, and ran a gloved hand over the fine lunar dust, while the earth glowed blue in the distance.
The cosmos is never so cosmic as when contrasted with our frail little bodies. And we’re never so human as when we’re facing the cosmos. The small is only humble, and the large only majestic, when set against one another.
Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong – you who did what any human could name, and what none could fathom.