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Lonely Passion

A Passion for Wings

by Robert Wohl
Yale University Press, 320 pp., $35.00

Saint-Exupéry: A Biography

by Stacy Schiff
Knopf, 525 pp., $30.00


Powered flight was the first great technological achievement of this technological century, and it developed at an astonishing pace. In 1976, just seventy-three years after the Wright Brothers’ first stuttering flights at Kitty Hawk, Concorde went into commercial service, carrying whoever could afford the fare—tycoons, grannies, babesin-arms—across great distances at supersonic speeds. More important, the passengers thought nothing of it. In the space of a single lifetime, flight had changed from an impossibly dangerous adventure, strictly for heroes and a very few heroines, to a routine.

That routine has now become so commonplace that it has made rail travel seem romantic again. To go from city center to city center in a comfortable seat, with plenty of space to move around in and a picture-window view of the passing scene, now seems infinitely preferable to the psychopathology of everyday flight: the frantic race to a distant airport, the queues, the delays, the ill-temper, the cramped journey with nothing to look at except the back of the seat in front of you or, at best, the video screen fixed to it; then, on arrival, the whole tedious process in reverse, with the added grief of mislaid luggage. Flying has become just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience.

That is not how it appeared at the start. The crowds who came to watch the first aviators coax their flimsy contraptions into the air felt they were in on a second creation. In the ancient world it was taken for granted that the gods could fly (it was just another aspect of their divinity), and in biblical heaven, of course, angels had wings (how else could they get around up there?). But the wings themselves were a source of great wonder:

And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings.

That is the prophet Ezekiel contemplating God’s seraphim. This is the young Franz Kafka, in 1909, watching Blériot fly:

One sees his straight upper body over the wings, his legs are deeply planted as if they were a part of the machinery. The sun is sinking, and under the baldachin of the grandstands, it throws its light on the soaring wings. Devotedly everyone looks up at him; there is no room in anybody’s heart for anyone else. He flies a small circle and then appears almost directly above us. And everyone looks with outstretched neck as the monoplane falters, is controlled by Blériot, and even climbs. What is happening? Here above us, there is a man twenty meters above the earth, imprisoned in a wooden frame, and defending himself against an invisible danger which he has taken on of his own free will. But we are standing below, pushed away, without existence, and looking at this man.

Ezekiel was imagining the wonders of heaven, Kafka was simply describing what he saw. What they both have in common is a kind of modesty, the modesty of artists faced with material so extraordinary that it makes them insignificant.

Robert Wohl quotes Kafka’s “The Airplanes at Brescia” in A Passion for Wings. He says that Kafka had gone to the air show deeply depressed, hoping to stimulate his imagination, and he wrote about it because his friend Max Brod had challenged him to a contest to see which of them could come up with the better description. But Kafka was just one of many creative people who was fired up by the new science of aviation.

Wohl is a cultural historian, and the thesis behind his erudite, shrewd, and beautifully illustrated book is that, for artists, aviation was an imaginative turning point, deeply implicated in the Modernist avant-garde movement. The crowds who flocked to watch the first aviators in action were not just after thrills. They were also moved by the strangeness of the enterprise, the bravery of the fliers, the plain miracle of powered flight in machines that were heavier than air. Those daring young men in their cockeyed machines, cobbled together from wood and linen and wire, somehow embodied the aspirations of the new century. According to Wohl:

Marinetti’s first Futurist manifesto was published in the direct aftermath of Wilbur Wright’s triumphant flights in France. His 1909 play, Poupées électriques, was dedicated to Wright “who knew how to raise our migrating hearts higher than the captivating mouths of women.” Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Robert and Sonia Delaunay were among the many artists, poets, and intellectuals who made their way to Issyles-Moulineaux, a field on the outskirts of Paris, to watch with astonished and admiring eyes the early airplanes fly. As Le Corbusier, a student in Paris at this time, was later to put it, modernists believed that the airplane was “the vanguard of the conquering armies of the New Age.”

Aviation belonged to the new century in part because the engineering that went into flying machines was utterly different from that of the Industrial Revolution. Nineteenth-century engineering revolved around the steam engine. It was about weight and brute power—beautifully machined heavy steel, burnished bronze, polished copper pipes, ornamental cast-iron—everything built, with no expense spared, to withstand great pressures and last any number of lifetimes. Airplane construction is the opposite of all that; it is about lightness.

The Wright brothers started out making bicycles, which were all the rage at the turn of the century (Wohl calls the bicycle “la petite reine of finde-siècle France”). They knew about thin-wall steel tubes, wire-spoked wheels, chain drives, and whatever else it took to construct efficient machines that weighed as little as possible. In effect, they were practical engineers at the cheap end of the market, but they happened to be fascinated by flight. “When not soaring or working on the gliders,” Wohl writes, “Wilbur [Wright] spent his time studying the flight of vultures, eagles, ospreys, and hawks, trying to discover the secret of their ability to maneuver with their wings in unstable air. To those who later asked him how he learned to fly, he loved to reply through his scarcely opened lips: ‘Like a bird.”’

This is the point at which engineering intersects with the imagination, with mankind’s ancient dream of freeing himself from gravity. Until the first fliers got to work, the body was earth-bound but it enclosed a soul that flew—in meditation, in poetry, and, as Andrew Marvell showed, sometimes spectacularly in both:

Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There, like a Bird, it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

At the beginning of this century, the new light engineering that allowed man to fly seemed to the uninitiated a kind of poetry. Wohl quotes a writer in the Atlantic Monthly, in 1913, who claimed that “machinery is our new art form” and praised “the engineers whose poetry is too deep to look poetic” and whose gifts “have swung their souls free…like gods.” The French were particularly susceptible to this style of hyperbole. François Peyrey, one of Wilbur Wright’s most eloquent admirers, called him a poet and compared him to one of “those monks of Asia Minor who live perched on the tops of inaccessible mountain peaks. The soul of Wilbur Wright is just as high and faraway.” Wrong, says Wohl. Wright was, in fact, “deeply middle-class and unheroic,” but the French were obsessed with the glamour of flight, so they pretended not to notice his limitations.

Wohl has trawled the backwaters of the first literature of flight—and seems to have had a great time doing so—but what he comes up with is mostly rhetoric, doom, and triumphalism: a turgid epic by Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, glorifying a new race of air-borne heroes; H. G. Wells’s The War in the Air, in which a fleet of German zeppelins destroys New York; the works of Emile Driant, a disaffected army officer and disciple of Jules Verne, who foresaw the military uses of airplanes and wrote boys’ adventure stories in which perfidious Orientals and blackamoors are outwitted and overawed by magnificent white men in their flying machines. (That colonial myth survived a long time and was pictured in a New Yorker cartoon which showed a cannibal warrior, festooned in bones, saying to his king, “They landed in one of those new twin-engine, single-rotor Sikorsky helicopters—claim to be some sort of gods.”)

Further upmarket, the rhetoric was turgid in a different way. Kafka had seen D’Annunzio strutting among the gentry at the air show at Brescia but, unlike Kafka, D’Annunzio managed to hitch a ride with one of the fliers. This prompted an outpouring of enthusiasm for this new arena for heroes, and a novel, Forse che sì, forse che no (Perhaps Yes, Perhaps No), in which the aviator is seen as a new form of superman, a “celestial helmsman,” “the messenger of a vaster life,” scornful of the poor folk down there on earth, and of women and foreigners in particular. Although the novel’s purple prose and operatic plot seem absurd now, it was vastly successful at the time and was greeted as an “incomparable poem in prose about our modernity.”

Aviation, in fact, seems to have inspired the Italians to a particularly ferocious style of heroic modernism that would have baffled practical men like the Wright brothers and Blériot. Marinetti was as besotted by flying as D’Annunzio, but chiefly as a brandnew godlike means of destruction, starting with—who else?—his literary enemies, then proceeding to his other pet aversions—romantic love, monogamy, the Pope, the “vast clamor of messy women” who can’t understand the grandeur and necessity of war—and ending with a wild slaughter of Italy’s current archenemy, the Austrians.

Maybe this frantic note had something to do with the new cult of speed, which had begun with the automobile, then literally took off with the first powered flights; but it sounds like a failure of literary imagination. The truth is, in the early days writers responded to aviation in the tritest ways—as a new heroism, a new mythology, a new freedom, a new apocalypse—in other words, as a new source of bombast into which to channel the fierce nationalism and war fever of the period. Apart from a few journalists, only Kafka seemed content to report scrupulously what he saw and so, strictly by implication, to convey the strangeness of what was happening. It was left to the painters to explore the aesthetic possibilities of flight.

Robert Delaunay had a passion for wings and was a regular pilgrim to air shows, but what fascinated him, says Wohl, “was not so much the airplane as an object or the new view it offered of the world [as] the inspiration it provided to experiment with form, color, and light: not the machine as such but the symbol of modernity.” In the notes he made on his famous composition of blazing suns and revolving propellers, L’Hommage à Blériot, Delaunay wrote: “Simultaneous solar disk. Forms. Creation of the constructive disk. Solar fireworks. Depth and life of the sun. Constructive mobility of the solar spectrum: birth, flame, flight of airplanes.” The point was not to paint flight but to make flight painterly.

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