A Passion for Wings
Saint-Exupéry: A Biography
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.