Air Travel: From Majesty to Drudgery in 100 Years
From Saint-Exupéry to DeLillo, the Way We Write About Flight
If you want to observe the advancing rigor mortis of American capitalism, you could do worse than take a flight. This is not news. In Dr. David Dao, dragged so violently from that United flight, we even have an icon for the familiar, dehumanizing onslaught of corporate contempt.
It wasn’t always this way. “It is too much that with all those pedestrian centuries behind us we should, in a few decades, have learned to fly; it is too heady a thought, too proud a boast,” wrote the aviator and adventurer Beryl Markham, the first person to fly east to west across the Atlantic, in her 1942 memoir West with the Night. Between then and now, between Markham and Dao, writing about flight has a lot to tell us about this past century, the people who’ve lived it, and how. Here’s a whistlestop tour of that literature, on the eve of National Aviation Day.
Humanity took its first tentative step into the new frontier with the Wright brothers in 1903, and in the early decades of flight few but pilots made it into the sky. And they wrote in awe, not least because the early history of flight is inseparable from the story of two world wars.
“And now a wonder seized him,” wrote pilot-author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry of the doomed pilot Fabien in his second novel Night Flight (1931). Fabien has just risen to the stars, above a storm he has no chance of surviving:
Fabien was drifting now in the vast splendor of a sea of clouds, but under him there lay eternity. Among the constellations still he had his being, their only denizen. For yet a while he held the universe in his hand, weighed it at his breast.
This sense of divinity runs through early accounts of flight; these pilots were, after all, the first humans since Icarus to come so close to the seat of the gods—and at a time when the idea of gods still meant something to most people, too.
Just 35 years after Beryl Markham’s “too heady a thought, too proud a boast,” a woman on a flight “begins to yawn, almost compulsively, a mild attack of something.” She’s a character in Don DeLillo’s fifth novel, Players (1977), and: “She yawns on planes just as she used to yawn (adolescence) seconds before getting on a roller coaster, or (young womanhood) when she was dialing her father’s phone number.”
In the dire, dizzying days of 2017, it’s hard to fathom how bored so many among us were for much of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Were there any stories left to tell? Was there anything worth living for? Players is a novel about death by affluence; about boredom, bureaucracy, terrorism, and arbitrary violence: a quintessentially DeLillian bouquet introduced—encapsulated, even—by an opening set piece on an airplane. Travelers, among them this yawning woman, sit in a piano bar on board a plane, headset-lessly watching a movie about terrorists attacking golfers, to the wry accompaniment of a boy-faced pianist’s tinkling. Family, entertainment, the near-immediate accessibility of any destination on the planet: yawn, yawn, yawn.
For a certain kind of writer of the late 20th century, flight encapsulated the era’s nihilism, and that nihilism drove the era’s postmodernism. The strange nonspaces of planes and airports, the annihilation of space by time, the collapsing of cultures on top of each other—it all seemed to destabilize the planet, sending the affluent, the frequent flyers, into a detached, defensive crouch against meaninglessness.
I am a thing made up of time lag, culture shock, zone shift. Human beings simply weren’t meant to fly around like this. Scorched throat, pimpled vision, memory wipes—nothing new to me, but it’s all much worse these days, now that I ride the planet shuttle.
This is John Self, the willfully blind protagonist of Martin Amis’s Money (1984). “Addicted to the 20th century,” Self fills himself with whole pharmacies’ worth of drugs and, on flights, curtains himself off: he’s not interested in looking at his life from any angle, least of all above; he’s certainly not interested in “the vast splendor of a sea of clouds.” He pingpongs across the Atlantic seeking fame and fortune, in a story that is in fact a hoax hatched—where else?—on a plane.
In the heyday of Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and the pursuit of individualism at all costs, flight no longer inspired reverence. Little did.
But as we now know all too well, the late 20th century was not, in fact, the end of history.
Even while Amis and DeLillo sent out their field notes from the void of Western capitalist democracy, other writers were engaged in a different kind of storytelling, one that embraced the possibilities of flight.
“Those bastards down there won’t know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God… What an entrance, yaar. I swear: splat,” yells Gibreel Farishta in the opening pages of The Satanic Verses (1988), while falling 30,000 feet from an exploded plane into the English Channel with fellow traveler Saladin Chamcha. Splat, but not before transforming.
By the time they reach the ground, Farishta and Chamcha have become, respectively, the archangel Gabriel and the devil. Rushdie is sure to point out that the mutation, fermented in the prolonged violence of colonialism, is catalyzed by air travel and the way it’s changed the globe:
Yessir, but not random. Up there in air-space, in that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic—because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible.
Flight removes the distance between cultures. If a history of colonialism has forced you to navigate multiple cultures, Rushdie seems to say, flight can change the quality of that navigation, and with it, your identity.
“I was in Africa one day; I was in Europe the next morning. It was more than travelling fast. It was like being in two places at once. I woke up in London with little bits of Africa on me,” says protagonist Salim of his gentler transformation in V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979). This novel about place, power, and nationhood might contain the century’s best writing about flight:
The aeroplane is a wonderful thing. You are still in one place when you arrive at the other. The aeroplane is faster than the heart. You arrive quickly and you leave quickly. You don’t grieve too much. And there is something else about the aeroplane. You can go back many times to the same place. And something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn’t exist in real life.
For John Self, flight destabilized places, emptied them until there was nowhere and nothing to trust. In A Bend in the River, the instability of places doesn’t empty them, it enriches them: there’s life, not death, in the ceaseless flux of identity, both personal and national.
And where are we now?
If the earliest pilots whispered about divine power, the most recent writing about flight sits at the other extreme. In flight, we seem to feel our most powerless.
In the short story “Pilot, Co-Pilot, Writer” (2014), Manuel Gonzales conjures an eternal hijack, a plane that circles above Dallas for decades, fueled by “perpetual oil.” It’s impossible, but also, it happens every day: the plane’s passengers are hijacked just as anyone can hijack themselves, lose years of life to inertia. In 20 years, there’s no attempt to overpower the pilot, to reclaim control. The affectless narrator learns that his wife has remarried, his parents have died. He tries to take notes for a novel, but they remain nothing but notes.
In 2017, the sense of powerlessness feels epidemic. But Nadine Gordimer’s short story “Safety Procedures,” from the 2007 collection Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, shows that before 11/9, 9/11 had already injected a heavy sense of impotence into life and, particularly, air travel. A frequent business flyer quarrels with his wife before a trip: she’s worried about a terrorist attack. He replies, in their couple’s telepathy: “Since when do we cower, you and I, before life as it is.”
Then it comes: the view through the window flicks from afternoon to pitch black; the plane has flown into a storm. Never mind terrorism; here is a threat they hadn’t even contemplated. “Out of nothing: this was the other power, like the opposition of Evil to Good religions tell us about on earth.” In life, we are reminded, there’s no predicting anything.
And of course, we are powerless on planes, rarely more powerless: strapped in, our lives at the mercy of machinery and other humans and the elements, no control over even our company. But if recent flight writing reflects this sense of impotence, it also suggests an antidote: connection.
In Before the Fall, Noah Hawley’s bestselling page-turner from 2016, a chance acquaintance saves a young boy’s life after a plane crash. “Everyone has their path,” Hawley writes before the crash. “The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery.” So far, so random—until the plane plunges into the ocean and the protagonist finds his sense of purpose in the lone fellow survivor, a little boy he’s never before spoken to. “He is no longer alone, no longer a solitary man engaged in an act of self-preservation. Now he is responsible for the life of another.”
And in Rachel Cusk’s Outline (2014), a throwaway line from an early flight turns out to be the key to the novel: “When the recorded voice came to the part about the oxygen masks,” says the narrator, “the hush remained unbroken: no one protested, or spoke up to disagree with this commandment that one should take care of others only after taking care of oneself. Yet I wasn’t sure it was altogether true.”
Outline is a profoundly lonely story about ostensible connections: the narrator tries, time and again, to bridge the gulf between herself and others, failing only because nobody reciprocates. The plane provides the most egregious of these mis-connections—but still the narrator tries. To the novel’s final page, she quietly subverts this first commandment of flight. The attempt doesn’t hand her back her power, but the reader suspects it might, if only someone else would join in.
How much longer will flight be possible? Already it’s an ethical dilemma, environmentally disastrous, run by a repugnant industry.
It’s also a rare privilege—one past generations dreamed of and future ones might well envy. For a hundred years, it’s been possible to travel this whole globe; to observe that no place ever stays the same; to plunge into new cultures; to be changed by them; and, while we do it, to spend time being vulnerable, or at least mortal, around strangers.
There is big resisting to do, and much of it will involve remaining earthbound, building communities, boycotting airlines and other oil-guzzling industries. But when circumstances require us to fly, small resistances are available to us: the choice to engage, to look at life from above, to remain open, to feel our identities shift in that soft, imperceptible field that made the century possible. For yet a while we hold the universe in our hands.