Sunday, March 22, 2009

`As Pelicans Swallowed Fish'

This paragraph is from “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” a story Guy Davenport published in 1970 in The Kenyon Review and included in his first fiction collection, Tatlin!, published in 1974:

“The young Orville and Wilbur [Wright] had constructed mechanical bats, Otto said, after the designs of Sir George Cayley and Penaud. For America was the land where the learning of Europe was so much speculation to be tested on an anvil. They read Octave Chanute’s Flying Machines; they built kites. The kite was the beginning, not the bird. That was da Vinci’s radical error. The kite had come from China centuries ago. It had passed through the hands of Benjamin Franklin, who caught electricity for the magician Edison, who, it was said, was soon to visit Prague. Men such as Otto Lilienthal had mounted kites and rode the wind and died like Icarus. The Wrights knew all these things. They read Samuel Pierpont Langley; they studied the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge. That was the way of Americans. They took theories as pelicans swallowed fish, pragmatically, and boldly made realities out of ideas.”

I remembered Davenport’s story on Saturday while visiting the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where a full-size working model of the Wright Brothers’ plane, the one they flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903, is on display. Their first flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. By day’s end, as the museum poster says, “Wilbur had coaxed the machine to go 852 feet (256 m.) in 59 seconds.”

Davenport’s story is a capriccio rooted in fact. In 1909, Franz Kafka and his friends Max and Otto Brod attended an air show in Italy. The story shares its title with Kafka’s newspaper account of the air show – his first published writing. As in many of Davenport’s stories, little happens in “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” which partakes of collage, poem, journalism and essay – a dense weave of images and ideas. Making cameo appearances – as they did in 1909 -- are D’Annunzio, Puccini and Glenn Curtiss. Davenport also introduces a mysterious figure who captures Kafka’s attention – Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, as Davenport explains in an essay (“Ernst Mach Max Ernst”), “might well have been there.” To prepare for writing the story, Davenport read various accounts of the air show and built a model of Louis Blériot’s Antoinette CV25.

As I took notes in front of the model of the Wright Brothers’ plane, an elderly man in a blue blazer, walking with a cane, approached and said, “Isn’t she beautiful?” He’s a retired Boeing engineer who volunteers as a guide at the museum. We talked about the designs of early airplanes, how they combined functionality with elegance, resulting in unexpected beauty. We agreed aircraft – and much else – are no longer as aesthetically pleasing as they once were. I mentioned I’m an Ohioan by birth, and had visited the Wrights’ machine shop in Dayton as a kid. As if in confirmation of Davenport’s description of the Wrights he said admiringly, “Those boys knew their math. They weren’t a couple of hicks, you know.”

1 comment:

elberry said...

As soon as you mentioned kites i was smiling to myself. Yes, you do need to be good at maths if you mess about with flying machines!