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.
The Russian Suprematist Malevich took that process one stage further—into pure abstraction. “The airplane was not contrived in order to carry business letters from Berlin to Moscow,” he wrote, “but rather in obedience to the irresistible drive of this yearning for speed to take on external form.” But the external form of speed is streamlining, the smoothing down and eventual elimination of detail in the process itself. In the same way, representation dropped steadily away from Malevich’s paintings, like the earth dropping away from a climbing airplane. Somewhere behind the crosses and intermeshed oblong blocks of color in his late paintings are the outlines of aircraft, but they are purged of detail, reduced to their essence, purified by mental flight. “Our century is a huge boulder aimed with all its weight into space,” he wrote. But for Malevich in his studio, the goal he was aiming at was the clarity and remoteness of inner space.
There is a crucial difference between the imaginative apprehension of flying, and all it symbolizes, and the actual experience of flight. D’Annunzio and Marinetti went up but only as day-trippers, so all they got was the adrenalin rush. Hence their vainglory, their inflated prose, their muscle-flexing delusions of power, their contempt for the poor creeps left below. The people who really flew seldom wrote about it. They were either plane-makers, like the Wright Brothers or Blériot or De Havilland, absorbed in the technical problems of flight, or they were rich young sportsmen—the fast cars and polo gang—who took up flying for “the fun of it” (which was the title Amelia Earhart later gave her memoirs).
When the Great War came that sportsmanship survived as a kind of latter-day chivalry. The aces who did battle in the sky somehow redeemed the monotonous slaughter in the mud below. The infantry resented them, but the high command and the public loved them, and they gave journalists something stirring to write about. (An uncle of mine had flown Sopwith Camel fighter planes on the western front—in those days in itself a considerable achievement for a man called Levy—and the glamour of it clung to him until he died forty years later.) Chivalry plus the magic of flight were a powerful concoction. Yeats did justice to this “lonely impulse of delight” in his beautiful poem “An Irish Airman foresees his Death,” but readers who wanted to understand the real experience of flying—what it felt like to be up there in the open cockpit of a fragile, unreliable plane, with very few instruments and no radio—had to wait until 1931, when Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published Night Flight.
Saint-Exupéry had the same aristocratic background as the other early sportsman-fliers but no money to go with it. To judge from Stacy Schiff’s subtle, sensitive, and extraordinarily fair-minded biography, this was just one of his many contradictions. As a small child, he wrote poetry—reams of it—yet he was good with his hands and fascinated by machines. At school, he was both a literary star and a gifted mathematician, yet he couldn’t pass exams. He was pathologically disorganized and absent-minded, yet he managed to master the precise and difficult art of flying. He was, at his best, a modest man with a talent for understatement, yet he also had a Gallic weakness for abstraction and rhetoric. He was a writer who hated the literary life and the literary crowd and yearned continually for action. He adored his wife and was compulsively unfaithful to her (as she was to him). He was aviation’s first and greatest writer, yet he became internationally famous through a winsome, saccharine fairy story, Le Petit Prince. Above all, he was a spoiled fils à maman who became a national hero, “the indulged, profligate son,” Schiff calls him, “who would make a near-religious appeal for the stoic, responsible life.”
His father had died when Antoine was three and his mother, Marie, struggled for the rest of her life—not least to support her feckless elder son in his expensive habits (he always found cheap lodgings and kept them in a state of chronic chaos, but he had a taste for good restaurants and lordly gestures). Marie, Schiff writes, “was a devoted mother who would remain unceasingly compassionate, attentive, giving, and pious, all qualities her elder son would put to the test.” He was the surrogate man in a house full of women (his young brother died at the age of fifteen), the undisputed leader of a gang of siblings and local kids, dazzling them with card tricks, beating them at chess, expecting and getting praise on-demand for his dreadful verse, and, despite his snub-nosed, owlish face and shambling presence—a cross, says Schiff, between Wallace Shawn and the young Orson Welles—effortlessly charming the whole world. He left, a friend said, “permanent wounds in the hearts of those who saw him smile, even once.” All that, plus an indulgent mother and a chateau surrounded by forests, added up to one of those magical childhoods which are hard to recover from. Later, when years of flying the Sahara and South America had transformed him from aristocratic Saint-Exupéry to plebeian Saint-Ex, he wrote to his mother saying, “I am not sure I have lived since my childhood.”
He arrived at school in Le Mans in 1909, one year too late to see Wilbur Wright’s first flights at nearby Hunaudières. But flying was already the national craze, and Saint-Ex was bitten seriously enough to haunt an airfield near the family’s chateau during the holidays. At the age of twelve and despite his mother’s veto, he managed to con a ride from one of the pilots. At that point, his obsession began in earnest, although it was another ten years before he got his pilot’s license—ten wasted years during which he failed his exams to les grandes écoles, failed his exams for the navy, and frittered time away expensively in Paris, pretending to study architecture. He finally learned to fly—privately, of course; maman paid—while doing his national service as a mechanic in the air force, but even then his vocation still eluded him. He pushed a pen as a book-keeper in Paris, he worked as a traveling salesman for a truck company, and the only flying he did was when he took paying customers up for brief tourist circuits at Le Bourget.
Then, in 1926, he landed a job with the company that eventually became Aéropostale, flying the mail, first from Toulouse to Alicante, then extending gradually south down the western edge of Africa to Casablanca and Dakar and on, by the shortest Atlantic crossing, to South America—Buenos Aires, Rio, Santiago, Asunción, and Patagonia. For Saint-Ex, joining Aéropostale was like coming home—to a home, finally, with men in it. The spoiled mother’s boy took to privation, danger, and solitude like a duck to water. Nothing fazed him: crash landings in the desert, night flights with no landmarks and a useless compass, a hurricane in Patagonia that tossed his plane around like a pingpong ball, months virtually on his own in a wooden shack—with a plank bed, a wind-up gramophone, and a deck of cards—as chief of “the most desolate airstrip in the world,” at Cape Juby, in the western Sahara.
The grimmer things got, the more he seemed to thrive. His life was full of disasters, but he took his innumerable plane crashes and injuries in stride. What brought him down was civilization and its discontents: the machinations of the literary world in pre-war Paris and of the French exiles in war-time New York; his various doomed love affairs; his constant shortage of money; above all, his dreadful marriage to his Salvadoran wife, Consuela, who was small and helpless and beautiful, but also a pathological liar and self-dramatizer, as compulsively unpunctual and quarrelsome as she was unfaithful, and elusive to the point of giddiness. Lewis Galantière, Saint-Ex’s translator, called her “Surrealism made flesh.”
Saint-Ex was more famous for his crashes than for his flying, and for a simple reason: compared to his colleagues, he was a lousy pilot—absent-minded, easily distracted, and so indifferent to risk as to be foolhardy. Describing a night flight across the Libyan desert which ended in a particularly spectacular disaster, he wrote, “I am navigating. I have on my side only the stars.” It sounds wonderful but it was true only because he had screwed up; he hadn’t bothered to take a radio. “What he demonstrated,” Schiff writes, “amounted less to grace than insouciance under pressure.”
He also demonstrated an aristocratic disdain for technical detail. In 1943, to escape his miserable exile in New York, he wangled his way back into active service with a French squadron flying Lockheed P-38s under the overall command of the Americans. By then, he was so broken by his numerous injuries that he had to be helped into the cockpit and was unable to bend down and tie his own shoelaces. He also seemed unable, or unwilling, to read the altimeter; when ordered to fly at 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) he blithely went up to 30,000 feet—without oxygen. He blamed the plane, of course, dismissing the state-of-the-art P-38 as “a sort of flying torpedo that has nothing whatever to do with flying and, with all its screens and buttons, makes of its pilot a sort of chief accountant.” Even the sympathetic Schiff calls him “the world’s greatest Luddite aviator” and he drove his American superiors wild. When he crashed a P-38 on a training flight—he forgot to pump the hydraulic brakes before landing—he was outraged by the Americans’ outrage. “Sir, I want to die for France,” he announced to the commanding officer. “I don’t give a damn if you die for France or not,” the American colonel replied, “but you’re not going to do so in one of our airplanes.”
The colonel was wrong. Despite his objections, Saint-Ex went on flying reconnaissance missions, often not over the areas he had been assigned, reading as he flew, scribbling notes to himself, oblivious to enemy aircraft and gunfire, “trafficking,” says Schiff, “in miracles.” On July 31st, 1944, one month after his forty-fourth birthday, he ran out of miracles. He took off from Corsica for a mission over Lyons and was never seen again. He may have been shot down, he may have made one idiot mistake too many, or he may simply have been so weary and depressed that he no longer cared what happened to him and so didn’t bother to attend to the tedious technical routines necessary for survival. Whatever the reason, his plane vanished and no traces of it were ever found.
Yet it was precisely his limitations as a pilot that made his books so convincing. He came to flying from writing, not vice versa, and he wrote about it wonderfully because it was a skill he had acquired by hard work. A natural flier would have simply got on with the job without noticing what was involved, whereas Saint-Ex was constantly aware of the details: the sound of the engine, the shifting stresses on the wings, the way the stars appear and vanish on cloudy nights, the moonlight like “polar snow” on the clouds. The cockpits of the planes he flew were regularly littered with balled-up scraps of paper covered with notes and sketches which, even on test flights, usually had little to do with the technical behavior of the aircraft. But they had everything to do with the experience of flight, with what it felt like up there, what he saw, what he thought about. Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras are the great books of aviation because the narrative is embedded in detail.
Flight to Arras, for example, describes a pointless reconnaissance mission during the fall of France, which Saint-Ex was too old, too battered, and far too famous ever to have undertaken. Because of all that, he was open to everything—to the beauty of the evening and the fading landscape, of the tracer bullets arching towards him and the anti-aircraft shells exploding all around. Everything takes on a terrible poignancy and clarity, as though he were seeing it all for the last time—which he surely must have thought he was. He has too much to do to think about death, yet he thinks a great deal about his delectable childhood. Although the book dribbles away into a maundering soliloquy on the meaning of life—rhetoric and sentimentality were always his fatal Cleopatras—his description of the mission itself is incomparable.
There was something else keeping Saint-Ex paradoxically down to earth when he wrote about flying: his constant awareness of the shadowy presence of the company he kept professionally, as a pilot. He was uneasy around other writers and distrusted literature as an end in itself. “One needs to live in order to write,” he said. “One needs to have something to say.” He also wrote in a letter, “Café society never taught me anything. I like people who have been tied more closely to life by the need to eat, to feed their children, and to survive until the end of the month. They are wiser.” A character in Southern Mail, eavesdropping on a group of pilots, puts it more tersely: “Ils font un métier. J’aime ces hommes.” (“They’re doing a job. I like these men.”) Saint-Ex’s fellow flyers at Aéropostale had the most demanding of jobs to do and they didn’t give a damn about literature. (Most of them objected to his early books, and those who didn’t were embarrassed by them.) Their disabused view of his—to them—moonlighting second job as a writer acted as a restraint on his rhetoric. Although he sounded off about the meaning of life, he was scrupulously modest on the subject of bravery. According to the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, Saint-Ex was a man who found himself “to the extent to which he runs into danger.” That was also true of his prose. He knew that heroism exists only in the eye of the beholder, the outsider, and courage is simply a matter of getting on with what has to be done and attending to details in difficult situations. Hence the vividness of his best writing, its solidity and precision. Language, he said, was like “a sophisticated machine, very scientific, where one word too many—like a grain of sand or the slightest clumsiness, like an incorrect maneuver—could result in a crash.”
He watched himself as a writer because he knew that out there, beyond the literary world and his admiring readership, was another audience whose good opinion he passionately desired, an audience of flyers like himself, who really understood what was at stake and would not be fobbed off with histrionics. So he tried to write as unfussily and as naturally as they flew, to write as he would like to have flown—without crashing. He wrote about what he knew and he happened to have lived an adventurous life, but his canonization as a national hero would have struck him as absurd. Although he liked coping with dangerous situations, danger itself was no more important to him than his hopes of winning the national lottery: “Like a broken heart, it keeps you busy.” What mattered most to him was that he had a métier, and he wanted to get it right.
February 2, 1995