Flying the Flight : Air travel was once an adventure enjoyed by a daring few : A PASSION FOR WINGS: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918, <i> By Robert Wohl (Yale University Press; $35; 320 pp.)</i>
In this age of routine air travel, in which getting to the airport is often more daunting than the flight between airports, we often forget that aerial navigation was once a splendid adventure enjoyed by only a privileged--and daring--few. We take jet travel for granted, as well as the telephone, television, satellites and computers. Yes, we know that these things did not always exist . . . but we no longer are amazed.
That, perhaps, is what most of us truly have forgotten: People were enthralled, excited, energized, elated and absolutely amazed when man first began to fly powered aircraft. Historians have given us rich technical detail and insights into the lives of the men and women who pioneered manned flight, but most have neglected the broader social and cultural implications of such technological progress.
At the dawn of the era of powered flight, Western poets and artists--whose imaginary craft had flown long before the Wrights'--proclaimed a “New Age” with the realization of their flying dreams. They romanticized both the machines and the aviators in an outpouring of words and pictures. The rapacious audiences that devoured this material and flocked to air shows astonished even the aviators themselves.
Intrigued by this “compulsion that people felt to transform . . . the development of the flying machine into a form of spiritual creation,” cultural historian Robert Wohl chronicles the “encounter between Western imagination and the airplane . . . that gave rise to a culture that did not exist in the West before 1908 and whose horizons extend to the present day.”
In this book, we encounter not only early aviators--Orville and Wilbur Wright, Louis Bleriot, Manfred Von Richthofen and others--but writers and artists such as H. G. Wells, Franz Kafka, Edmond Rostand, Vasily Kamensky and Robert Delaunay.
Here we see the milestones of aviation in a rich context of hopes, fears, fantasies and public perceptions. Here is Wilbur Wright in France, at first seen by the French as a simple American bicycle merchant and possibly a charlatan and a fraud, then later feted by the French as a hero. Here is Louis Bleriot, “overwhelmed, even startled” by a crowd in Paris gathered to acclaim his flight across the English Channel. Here is a 26-year-old Franz Kafka, writing in “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” of Bleriot and Glenn Curtis and of the crowd “standing below, pushed away, without existence.”
Here also are numerous illustrations of the influence of aviation and technology on painters and other artists of the era. Among the most striking are Delaunay’s abstract paintings depicting a rugby team (L’Equipe de Cardiff) into which the artist incorporates not only an airplane, a Ferris wheel and the Eiffel Tower, but several names related to aviation and the words magic and Paris.
But this is not just a collection of airplane pictures. Though it does include some of the familiar aviation classics, the book also contains reproductions of newspaper and book pages, sheet music covers, cartoons, diagrams, posters and photographs of painters and writers as well as aviators.
In addition to illustrations, Wohl uses little nuggets of poetry and excerpts from newspapers to supplement his text. From poet Gabriele D’Annunzio in 1910: “A new civilization, a new life, new skies! Where is the poet who will be capable of singing this epic?” From the London Daily Mail in 1909: “Again I felt that overpowering rush of excitement which I find almost everyone has experienced who has seen a man fly. . . .”
Although there is little here of the technical advances in flight, which are well documented in many other histories, the geographical focus is still Paris, the undisputed center for aviation development and competition early in the century. The French early on identified themselves as the “winged nation"--Paris is still is the headquarters of the International Aeronautic Federation--and it is the French who organized the first successful air competitions, aircraft exhibits and flight schools.
Wohl sees in this first decade of powered flight many antecedents to later developments in aviation and the emergence of many of aviation culture’s most enduring themes. The public image of the aviator here is a kaleidoscope that shifts from shy ascetic to artistic industrialist to daring sportsman to fearless warrior.
Western culture’s response to aviation also contains elements of conquest, violence and self-destruction. Indeed, one could gather from these anecdotes and illustrations that aviation’s impact on the public psyche was a key element of influence on the events leading up to World War I. There is no question that the science fiction of H. G. Wells and others as early as 1907 presented ominous previews of the urban aerial bombings that would occur years later during World War II.
Wohl emphasizes, however, that the dramatic achievements of aeronautical technology “acted as mere catalysts for an explosion of cultural creativity (reflected by ‘modernism’ in the arts and elsewhere) whose essential elements were already in place.”
Wohl’s mine of material is so rich that he ends his account in 1918, promising to continue his exploration of aviation and emotion in two sequels that will take us to the present. If this book is any indication, they should be well worth waiting for.
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The popular passion for aviation had little to do with public transportation or thoughts of commercial utility, present or future. Though some aviators may have looked forward to a day when people would travel by airplane, there was no reason to believe that ordinary human beings would want to forsake the comfort, safety, regularity and relative rapidity of trains for city-to-city journeys and steamships for transoceanic voyages. Vedrines’ prize-winning flight from Paris to Madrid in 1911 took three days to complete; by train, it was an easy and--for those who could afford it--luxurious overnight journey. Airships seemed more likely to provide an attractive and dependable means of transportation through the air, if only because of their size and their ability to stay aloft for long periods of time. Airplanes, on the other hand, were small, frail, at the mercy of the elements, and notoriously unreliable. A dangerous toy for daredevils rather than a trustworthy vehicle for prudent travelers.
For the handful of those who flew before 1914, of course, the danger of flying machines and their fragility were part of their charm. The risk of death was the price that had to be paid for heightened emotions--what one prewar French woman aviator called the “intoxication of flight.” Indeed, some argued that the possibility of death was ultimately what gave meaning to flight, which was nothing but a methaphor for our longing for higher forms of being. As one aviator put it, if we value things according to the stake we have in them, what greater stake was there than life itself, what greater source of value thus than flight in which we constantly risk death?
--From Robert Wohl’s “A Passion for Wings”
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