Posts Tagged ‘Faustian quest’

Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.

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The Big Book of Flight by Rowland WhiteThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Aircraft are like birds: varied. And, like birds, the most beautiful are often the deadliest. Freight-carriers usually look like it, but even helicopters and flying-boats can look good. This book covers the lot, from the deadly XB-70 Valkyrie, a beautiful jet “designed to carry 25 tons of nuclear bombs at three times the speed of sound” (pg. 234), to the dumpy Ekranoplan, a huge flying-boat whose remains are “rusting away in a dry dock in the Russian Caspian sea-port of Kaspiysk” (pg. 269). Rowland White discusses every aspect of aviation: not just props, jets and gliders, but balloons, parachutes and rockets, plus call-signs, airport codes and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. His writing is enthusiastic and intelligent and the book has a solid and fashionably old-fashioned design, like something a flight-obsessed schoolboy might have got for Christmas in the 1950s.

If he had, he would have been pleased: The Big Book of Flight mixes text, photographs, line-drawings and Patrick Mulrey’s beautiful double-page oil-paintings, which capture the speed and steel of aircraft and the vastness and solitude of the sky. I like the “Project Cancelled” sections too, about interesting planes that never made it into service. Web-sites about flight aren’t physical, fingerful fun like this and the heft of the book underlines the paradox of flight: how does something heavier than air get up and stay there?

Take the “swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat” shown surging aloft, jets glaring, from the deck of an aircraft-carrier on page 210. If it hit the water that stretches away to the horizon, it would sink like a stone. It’s metal, after all: solid in a way birds, with their fractal feathers and hollowed bones, have never been. But it stays aloft and plays aloft, all 70,000 lb of it. This isn’t magic: it’s engineering. Metal jet-fighters obey the laws of physics just as birds and balloons do. And jet-fighters obey the laws of genetics too, because aircraft are as much products of genes as bones and feathers are. Evolution has taken many routes to flight, but before Homo sapiens arrived they were all direct ones: genes coded for wings, light bodies and fast metabolisms. That’s how birds, bats and insects got aloft. The human route was indirect: our genes coded for higher intelligence and we invented our own wings to carry bodies that were never designed to fly.

But more than intelligence was required. The early history of flight is littered with crashes and corpses:

German engineer Otto Lilienthal published his seminal Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889 at the age of 41. He flew his first glider two years later. Over the next five years he made some 2000 flights, accumulating just five flying hours. Still, the “Glider King”, as he was dubbed, had flown longer and further than anyone else in history. But on 9 August 1896, during his second flight of the day, his glider stalled. He crashed to the ground and broke his back. Two days later, like so many previous birdmen, he died from his injuries. (“Dreams of the Birdmen: Icarus and His Successors”, pg. 15)

Before he died, Lilienthal told his brother that “sacrifices have to be made”. His work and sacrifice were an inspiration for Wilbur and Orville Wright across the Atlantic in America. But their genes hadn’t evolved in America: flight was mastered by a peculiarly north-western European combination of high intelligence and daring. This book doesn’t explicitly discuss genetics, but it’s there on every page, from the German Otto Lilienthal at the beginning to the Austrian Felix Baumgartner near the end. Baumgartner claimed “Joe Kittinger’s record for the highest, fastest skyfall with a jump from 128,100 feet (24 miles)” in 2012 (pg. 236).

The American Nick Piantanida had preceded them in the 1960s. First he was a pilot, boxer and rock-climber, then he became a skydiver. His attempt to claim the freefall record killed him: he “suffered an explosive decompression at an altitude greater than any other reached by a human being”. Like Lilienthal, he survived his crash-landing but died in hospital. Success in aviation has been won by the sacrifices of the same group that sacrificed for success in mountaineering. Flight can be seen part of the same Faustian quest.

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Front cover of The Swiss Alps by Kev Reynolds

The Swiss Alps, Kev Reynolds (Cicerone, World Mountain Range series, 2012)

The Matterhorn is probably the most photogenic mountain in the world. That’s why it sits on the front cover of this book, a giant fang of icy black rock biting at the blue palate of heaven. It looks fearsome and formidable, eager to kill anyone who challenges its freezing heights. But its looks are deceptive. The Swiss Alps offer much more dangerous climbs, like the Eigerwand, or north face of the Eiger:

Between August 1935 and June 1938, four separate attempts by German, Austrian and Italian climbers were made to scale the Eigerwand, resulting in no less than eight casualties. The deaths brought the mountain a savage notoriety which resulted in a decree by the Swiss government that banned all climbing on the wall. (ch. 5, sec. 8, “The Bernese Alps: Grindelwald and the Lütschental”, pg. 331-2)

The Eiger is probably the world’s third-most famous mountain, after Everest and the Matterhorn. Human beings have been gazing in awe at all three for millennia, but began trying to climb them only in the past two centuries. That’s interesting both historically and culturally. Psychologically too: it took serious courage to challenge the Eigerwand and climbers didn’t let the ban stop them trying. The first ascent was finally made by two Austrians and two Germans, who spent four days on freezing, avalanche-prone vertical rock to reach the summit on 24th July, 1938: “As Walt Unsworth says in Hold the Heights, ‘It was a breakthrough as profound as the first ascent of the Matterhorn had been or the Brenva Spur but much more wide-reaching because it became the cornerstone of all modern mountaineering.’” (pg. 332) This book is full of interesting mountain-lore and mountain-history like that, devoting more than 400 pages to almost every aspect of climbing and tramping in the Swiss Alps. That’s a lot of orology (Greek oros, mountain), but it raises an interesting question about biology (Greek bios, life). Why is climbing mountains so important to human beings? Or rather, why is it so important to white male Europeans? That group has dominated mountaineering since pioneering it in the nineteenth century.

The Englishman Edward Whymper started things with a bang in 1865, when he was the first to climb the Matterhorn. The ascent was more important psychologically than orologically: as pointed out above, the Matterhorn looks more formidable than it is. If Whymper had climbed a tougher mountain that looked easier, his feat wouldn’t have been so widely reported or been so inspiring to others. There’s a lot of mens in conquest of a mons: it’s mind over matter in a particularly spectacular and satisfying way. But that mens has had particular characteristics: it’s been overwhelmingly white, male and European. Recall that the Eigerwand was first climbed by Austrians and Germans. A year later, members of the same demonic demographic would set out on a different kind of conquest and start the Second World War. Was that a coincidence? I don’t think it was. I think there’s a connexion between war and mountaineering, because both are about power, will, and domination. Austrians, Germans, and Italians all risked death and mutilation to challenge the Eigerwand, and those races were part of the Axis during the war. So were the Japanese, another pale-skinned race with wilful and war-like traditions, and the Japanese have been important in modern mountaineering too. It’s a Faustian endeavour: climbers seek to challenge and conquer nature, to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, to win fame and glory or die in the attempt.

Even easy mountains can kill you and even the most skilful climbers can die there. You don’t just push your mind and body in climbing: you push your luck. Ropes broke a lot in the early days; rocks fall a lot nowadays:

When Whymper was here the Matterhorn still had “a cordon drawn around it, up to which one might go, but no further”. Today Zermatt [the district of the Matterhorn] is the epitome of Leslie Stephen’s Playground of Europe. And yet, despite it all, even in the height of summer it remains possible to find solitude amidst impeccable scenery, and one can still climb routes on the most popular of peaks without the fear of being bombarded by rocks dislodged by other parties above, and experience again the mystique that made the pioneers gasp in awe. Zermatt may be bursting at the seams, its slopes tunnelled through and laced with cableways, but all is not yet lost. (ch. 2, sec. 10, “The Mattertal”, pg. 157)

Rocks also fall because of “glacial recession”: the famous White Spider, an arachnoid snow-patch near the top of the Eigerwand, disappeared in “the hot summer of 2003… and the ice-fields were reduced to gravel, making it even more dangerous than normal” (pg. 332). Global warming is at work in the Alps, you see, but that may be another way white male Europeans have made their mark on the world. Mountaineering is connected, sometimes literally, to their invention of and continuing domination of science and technology, with strong support from other pale-skinned, highly intelligent groups like the Chinese and Japanese. While white males like Edward Whymper were climbing literal peaks in the nineteenth century, white males like Faraday and Darwin were climbing metaphorical ones, seeking to conquer nature through observation and reason. It’s all connected and it’s no coincidence that the first human being to set foot on the moon was a white male. After scaling the heights of the earth and plumbing the depths of the ocean, white males needed a new challenge and found it in outer space. This book isn’t a conscious celebration of the white male’s Faustian quest, but the evil-intentioned can certainly read it that way. But decent people will enjoy it too. There’s not just orology, hydrology, and climatology here: you’ll also find linguistics and Swiss history:

Valle di Bosco is shorter than its neighbour, and at 1503m its only true village, Bosco Gurin, is the highest in Ticino. Settled in the 13th century by German-speaking Walsters from the upper Rhône valley, the inhabitants today still speak a form of Schwyzerdütsch [Swiss German], rather than Italian. (ch. 3, sec. 6, “Lepontine and Adula Alps: Valle Maggia and Its Tributaries”, pg. 211)

If you write about the Swiss Alps, you also have to write about Switzerland, and Switzerland is an interesting place. One interesting thing is its demographics, which means that its genetics will be interesting too. Living among mountains has effects on the body and brain, so Swiss geography has been written into Swiss genomes, as genetics is now discovering. But it’s interesting that the Swiss didn’t pioneer climbing in the Swiss Alps. Brits did, and Britain isn’t rich in mountains. Brits had to seek them out, first in Europe, later in the Himalayas, where you can find the most dangerous climbs and the most awe-inspiring landscapes. But Switzerland can sound Himalayan too:

Rising steeply from a riot of sub-tropical vegetation, where ferns grow as high as man’s shoulder, to a headwall of granite teeth, soaring slab walls and a necklace of scree and glacial moraine, Bondasca’s reputation is assured. The “flamelike” Scioras, Pizzi Gemelli, Cengalo and Badile are compelling features in Christian Klucker’s famous “land of granite”, where several chapters of Alpine history were written: the unhappy but productive partnership in the 1890s of Klucker and the Russian Anton von Rydzewski; the inspired leadership of Riccardo Cassin on the first tragic ascent of Piz Badile’s NE face over three days in 1937; Rébuffet’s account (in Starlight and Storm) of the second ascent of the wall 11 years later; and Herman Buhl’s astonishing 4½hr solo climb of the same route in 1951 – all these have given the valley a romantic appeal, and made it a magnet not only for climbers of ambition, but for all who love wild and uncompromising landscapes. (ch. 4, sec. 3, “Bernina, Bregaglia and Albula Alps: Val Bregaglia”, pg. 261)

This book should be a magnet for anyone interested in men, minds, and mountains. It’s got an interesting text, attractive photographs, and easy-to-follow maps. And, as a further recommendation, it’s published by a small company called Cicerone based in Milnethorpe in Cumbria. Cicerone is Italian for “tourist-guide” and is derived from Cicero, the Latin orator who wrote about the Faustian feats of ancient Rome. Two millennia later, Kev Reynolds is another white male writing about further Faustian feats. There’s a satisfying symmetry there, as there is in the location of the publisher: Milnethorpe is a small place, Switzerland is a small country. There’s a satisfying a-symmetry in mountains, but their visual appeal is still mathematical. Like the clouds that float above them and the trees (and ferns) that grow on them, mountains are fractals, or shapes in which the parts reflect the whole. You don’t have to see the maths to savour books like this, but I think it helps. Maths is inseparable from mountains, whether you recognize it or not. So are white men. Vivant Alpes, vivant Albi!

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