Now that all of the billionaires are going into space, the night sky holds a special new kind of allure. We see a little twinkle in the distance and we can think to ourselves, there they are, out there, far away, away from us.
It’s not clear whether Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk spent their childhoods looking up at the stars, fantasising fervently about joining them at some future date, or if they are now just bored. But perhaps their sense of identification and belonging in the vast night sky can be understood in another way. Humans have always told stories about the stars, and many of these myths could be relevant to the ambitions of these very wealthy men. Think of Prometheus, too smart and powerful for his own good. Or Phaeton, who thought he was strong and clever enough to drive Apollo’s chariot all by himself and ended up crashing and basically destroying the Earth.
Or perhaps they should remember Perseus, who was a ‘hero’ and very pleased with himself, but who no one especially liked as he had a habit of killing everyone around him. I particularly enjoyed the Perseus episodes of Tales of the Night Sky, a podcast that combines astronomy with the mythological tales that give shape and meaning to the constellations. Perseus’s heroic deeds are brought back to Earth, once you realise that he was a whiny, entitled brat and that his slaying of Medusa was hardly noble.
These are old stories, but well told here through a blend of interviews, narration, and drama. They are each directed and written by actor Bibi Jacob, but a varied cast of musicians, actors and theatre folk join her in the telling. There was something very soothing about hearing about a guy who lets his ambition and arrogance outrun his actual abilities and gets smacked down and turned beastly by a god.
If we make meaning out of the night, constructing stories from the stars and heavenly bodies that populate it, it is also a place where we lose meaning. A place in which we’re meant to be asleep but somehow still awake and alone with our thoughts, where we can create monsters and demons out of mere shadows. Or where we are plunged into the irrational dream space where a vision of your mother holding a cantaloupe from which a fish has just emerged can haunt you and ruin your whole day.
Nocturne is a podcast born from that dark realm. With Vanessa Lowe as its host, Nocturne turns its focus to what happens to the world when everyone is supposed to be sleeping, from reporting on the Dutch tradition of ‘Dropping’ where parents leave their children in the middle of the woods at night (insert a bad joke from every exhausted mommy blogger here), to more serious pieces on sleep deprivation and the economic and employment factors that leave many labourers with a chronic sleep deficit.
As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore would like to remind us, there are so many ways to sleep badly, and Nocturne has them all covered. From fear of being alone in the world at night because you’re made vulnerable through your gender, or because you are rowing a boat from San Francisco to Hawaii in an attempt to break the world record and falling asleep means certain death during a storm, these are stories of restlessness and exhaustion, but also wonder and delight. The episode ‘86 Days’, about Lia Ditton’s adventure across the ocean, which includes two capsizes and shark encounters and portentous omens, is highly recommended. It gives as much space to Ditton’s accomplishment as it does her reason for being out there in the first place: an attempt to come to terms with years of being stalked and harassed by a colleague.
Clearly both are best enjoyed at 4 a.m., while you debate whether to give up on sleeping and just have a brandy on the couch or if it’s possible to recapture an unconscious state. In other words, alone, in the dark, with only the moon to tell your thoughts to.