On a human plane

A Spanish novelist’s prescription for his fear of flying: learn to love airplanes as individuals. The humanizing touch is hardly absent from the history of flight: think of Howard Hawks’ classic film Only Angels Have Wings or all those pin-up models painted onto the noses of WWII bombers. And it lives on in the work of a few contemporary writers—William Langewiesche in particular—even in the serial-number world of today’s commercial aviation.

We live in an age that tends to depersonalize even people and is, in principle, averse to anthropomorphism. Indeed, such a tendency is often criticized, erroneously and foolishly in my view, since that ‘rapprochement’ between the human and the non-human is quite natural and spontaneous, and far from being an attempt to deprive animals, plants and objects of their respective selves, it places them in the category of the ‘humanizable’, which is, for us, the highest and most respectable of categories.

I know people who talk to, question, spoil, threaten or even quarrel with their computers, saying things like: ‘Right now, you behave yourself,’ or thanking them for their help. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s perfectly understandable. In fact, given how often we travel in planes, the odd thing about our relationship with them – those complex machines endowed with movement to which we surrender ourselves and that transport us through the air – is that it isn’t more ‘personal’, or more ‘animal’, or more ‘sailor-like’, if you prefer. Perhaps those who crew them haven’t known how to communicate this to us. I’ve never seen them pat a plane, as you might pat a horse to calm or reward it; I’ve never seen planes being groomed and cleaned and tidied, except very hurriedly and impatiently; I’ve never seen them loved as Conrad’s captain loved his sunken brig; I’ve never seen air hostesses – who spend a lot of time on-board – treat them with the respect and care, at once fatherly and comradely, enjoyed by ships.


from “Airships,” by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Granta 107, Summer 2009 :: via The Morning News

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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