My hat’s in the heavens,
my ears start to flap.
Get set for ascent, boys,
I’m not going back.
Having traveled here and there by air lately, I have a renewed sense of the pleasure of taking off. For some the reassuring return to the ground may be preferable, but I confess that for me simple safety cannot compare to the frisson of that first moment aloft. Much of the romance of aviation has, I fear, faded. The technically gifted have passed on to the more obscure challenges of microcircuitry, and airports, which in my childhood were among the more exciting of destinations, now seek only to emulate shopping malls. The traveler endures the myriad small annoyances of traffic and parking; removing one’s shoes in the security clearance one feels like a displaced person entering a refugee camp, likely at any moment to be sprayed for lice. Airplane food, which could never compete with the linens, the heavy crockery and silver of the old railroad dining cars, ceased any attempt at palatability years ago and has now, for the most part, vanished altogether. Though the quite marvelous ascent of metal monsters is obscured by routine, the liftoff retains for me its magic.
The whole body is caught up in the sheer physicality of the experience. Like the juvenile erotic sensations of the swing (or their intensified preadolescent amusement park roller coaster versions), like the enervation of exhaustion or the total-body involvement of the athlete, the dancer, the opera singer whose very body vibrates with the tune, the passenger takes flight.
One need not be a poet to submit to the charm of a metaphor intruding in this phenomenal world. A spring morning can be midwife to new beginnings in realms other than the vegetative, and the blues are all the bluer under overcast skies. Taking off brings one to extraordinary heights and sets one down in a new spot. That very elevation of language which has come to signify artificiality once indicated the ambition, at any rate, to soar.
This may be associated with the Holy Spirit, the soul’s ascent, the shaman’s astral wandering. According to a recent study the animals painted on palaeolithic cave walls are all airborne. Parmenides, my favorite among the pre-Socratics for riding his thought to its end unafraid, regardless of his neighbors’ notions, imagined himself in a celestial chariot. That divine craftsman Horace declares that, as a poet transformed into a swan complete with “wrinkled legs,” he will soar with “no paltry or commonplace wings.” Ovid and holy Augustine and many others besides figured their inspired perspective in terms of ascent.
The pseudo-Longinus who in the first Christian century wrote a work of criticism marked more by poetic illumination than pedantic system, called his text “On high things.” Han Shan asks “who can leap the world’s ties/ And sit with me among the white clouds?” And Pegasus flew until recently on the cover of every Poetry magazine from Chicago. Has the sensitive passenger on flight 574 from Atlanta to Newark failed to earn even some small share of participation in this mystery?
Taking off signifies catching the spoor of inspiration, as in the second of the cow-herding pictures of the Zen master Kuoan Shiyuan, “discovering the footprints” of the Truth: “these traces can no more be hidden than one’s nose, pointing skyward.”
The moment when the fog resolves ahead into the first rough outline of an idea, uncertain and shifting at first, is familiar to each at home in the life of their mind. Surely the most delicious stage of writing for most of us is that initial stage of invention, the rest being craftwork and polishing and all too often drudgework. The mind persists through memory of that moment when the spirit was borne over the waters long after it has returned to rest in the familiar wetlands of quotidian consciousness.
And that return is inevitable. As with a ball tossed into the air, or the intoxication of opium, as with sleep, sex, life, or a novel by Dickens the end of the flight must come, the essay must close, the last breath exhaled.