A Privileged Source of Information

Our Cloistered Flights

Charles Dantzig


Ere the bath hath flown

His cloistered flight.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth


I took a long-haul flight yesterday, and god knows, long-haul is long. I can’t think of anything more boring than flying, except maybe bad theatre. Billy Wilder, the director of Some Like it Hot, once said something I always remember when I’m on a plane. He said, “I went to see The Mastersingers of Nuremberg last night. It started at eight. Three hours later I look at my watch. It was eight fifteen.”


In the end, I don’t like being transported. I think it’s because you are not in charge of your own journey. You can’t stop just where you feel like it to wander about, or look at a tree, or things like that. I flew over Libya yesterday, and I would have loved it if the pilot had set us down and we had all gone off together into the desert, whistling, for a visit to Leptis Magna. It’s one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world, apparently. With what is called public transport you go from place to place like arrows, or atoms, or tourists on a bank holiday. You’re barely human.


So what is there to do on a plane? We can listen to the hostesses’ announcements, which, from frequent travelling, we have ended up knowing by heart. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you on board this Air France Boeing… The Captain and his crew…” It’s like being in church, that’s what, like knowing the responses at mass. I suppose it’s the pilot who has the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever.


Once that’s done we can watch a movie, but, in the final analysis, watching a film on a screen as big as a car headlight is like trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa by looking at a reproduction on a postage stamp. The only thing left to do is read. To start with, there are the maps on these same screens that show the route our enormous plane is taking over little continents, with the legends “distance travelled”; “flight time remaining”; “exterior temperature”; “estimated time of arrival”. We could make them into a poem. It would be dreary, so it would match the plane. Having given up on this idea we can move on to the in-flight magazines in the pocket in front of us with the sick bags, and, I must say… 90% of them is barely disguised advertorial. At least this is more honest than the articles in normal magazines, whose readers don’t usually guess that if they read an article singing the praises of the latest Renault on a Tuesday, it’s because Renault bought a page of advertising space on Monday.


The other thing you can read on planes is something you never come across anywhere else, the anglo-saxon financial press. Yesterday, the headline in The Economist was “How to make China even Richer”. Not happier or more beautiful, no, no: richer. In Sunday’s Financial Times you could find the most shameless newspaper supplement in the world, entitled How to Spend It. By which we are supposed to understand ‘your money’, but also ‘you who have an enormous amount of it’. So it recommends €15,000 mobile phones or €100,000 gold watches. Paris Hilton’s ideal, but then she mustn’t read too many books.


I have a writer friend who is scared of flying and has a method for occupying his mind and forgetting his fear. He brings a book, just one, which is difficult to read and demands a lot of thought. The book is Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Treating fear with boredom is a technique that psychiatrists do not use enough.

By this reckoning I must like flying because, although I’m not particularly relaxed about the whole thing, I bring books that do not need close attention. Yesterday it was Stendhal’s Walks in Rome, which reads like a private journal. Not far above Rome, I came across a passage that he wrote in 1829. He defined what he called ‘the civilisation of work’, a situation from which we have yet to emerge: “From the beginning of his life, rather than reading the poets or listening to the music of Mozart, the young man hears the voice of bitter experience that says to him, ‘Work eighteen hours a day, or tomorrow you will die of hunger in the street!’” In fact, ‘work’ is not the right word, because work is what I do, or what painters or gardeners or anyone who has a decent job does. It’s an insult to work to call the frightful system that dominates the modern world the ‘civilisation of work’ when it’s nothing but a kind of soft-edged slavery. It should have been called the civilisation of toil.


You sit in your seat on the plane, and sit, and sit, and sit, and all the while tall blond women lean over you, smiling sweetly, giving you food and drink. It’s just like being a baby in a pushchair being reassured by its mother. The ideal reading, then, must be a book of fairy stories, and, for long haul, the Thousand and One Nights.



English translation by Conor Cradden