Republic of the Air

By Wohl, Robert | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Republic of the Air


Wohl, Robert, The Wilson Quarterly


Not many years after the Wright Brothers took to the air in 1903, a vast popular culture of aviation took flight with them. Ranging from Mussolini to Russian Futurism to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classic Flying Down to Rio, historian Robert Wohl shows how aviation came to represent the hope of cultural and moral renewal--and how the cult was eventually brought down to earth.

As we scurry through the endless concourses of today's airports on our way to catch a plane, how many of us pause to think that we are about to undertake an essentially aesthetic and moral experience? Yet only 60 years ago Western culture, high and low, celebrated aviation in just such terms. Hollywood's big studios glamourized the miracle of flight in a spate of star-studded films. Charles Lindbergh acquired the divine sobriquet "the new Christ." And the Modernist architect and city planner Le Corbusier proclaimed the airplane the foremost symbol of the 20th century and the "vanguard of the conquering armies of the New Age."

For Le Corbusier, aviation was not only a technology that held out the promise of moving people and goods more rapidly from one place to another; it was also, and more importantly, a source of aesthetic energy and faith capable of inspiring new forms of cultural creation. Le Corbusier insisted that the flying machine and the new perspective it offered on the world, if interpreted correctly, could provide invaluable lessons for architects and urban planners. Indeed, in his unbounded enthusiasm for the new technology, Le Corbusier went so far as to claim that the airplane embodied the same spirit of imagination and "cold reason" that produced the Parthenon. The implication was that the West was on the verge of entering a new classical era of rationalism in which machine-inspired functionalism would dictate design.

But the Age of Aviation, while it left a lasting imprint on the way we live our lives, failed to realize the cultural hopes that Le Corbusier and others had placed in it. Born during the century's first decade, aviation culture reached its apogee during the 1930s and lost much of its vigor and self-confidence during the years that followed the Second World War. To review its history today is to be reminded that our century has been a voracious consumer of ideals and a relentless shatterer of dreams.

Popular enthusiasm for aviation was slow to develop. Though the Wright brothers achieved their first powered flight in December 1903, it was not until they demonstrated their flying machine under controlled conditions at Fort Myer, Virginia, and Le Mans, France, in the fall of 1908 that skeptical observers began to concede that human beings were now capable of navigating the air. Public enthusiasm for the new invention took a quantum leap the following summer when Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel in a daring flight of 36 1/2 minutes. This aerial beau geste set off massive demonstrations in France and England. To capture the public's imagination, Bleriot explained, it was necessary to risk everything by flying over water. Nothing could duplicate the sensation of seeing an airplane disappear alone into oblivion over a boundless sea. Generations of aviators would follow Bleriot's example in search of fame and fortune.

Journalists and intellectuals lost no time explaining the meaning of the new technology to their readers. What is striking is how quick they were to interpret the new invention in cultural and political terms. As the Italian man of letters Gabriele D'Annunzio confided to a French interviewer in 1910 soon after taking his first flight, aviation carried within itself "the promise of a profound metamorphosis of civic life" that would have far-reaching consequences for aesthetics as well as for war and peace. New idols would appear; new laws would have to be written; relations among nations would be transformed. High in the sky, above the clouds, customs barriers, property rights, and frontiers lost their meaning. …

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