In a recent (semi-)transatlantic flight, while reading the airline magazine, I stumbled upon a bit on courage and machismo, which contrasted sharply with Andre Gide’s preface to an Antoine de Saint-Exupery (you know, the guy who wrote Le Petit Prince) book I was also (re)-reading. Let me present it for you.
And there it was, in the pocket of the chair in front of me, the airline magazine and hidden within it, a two page story about the Sagas and Viking courage.
Before getting to the actual quote, I gotta tell you that I am still in convalescence after an early 2000s incident when I felt like my plane was crashing. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’m a PTSD sufferer (really!), but although the plane recovered, my fragile psyche was left somewhat traumatized.
Back then, in a fully transatlantic flight, I was seated next to a dude who was reading “Why We Love Women” by Mircea Cartarescu. We started talking and I learned that he was a surgeon in LA. I told him about my dissatisfaction with the current state of medicine and much to my surprise, not only that he shared it (or was polite enough to pretend so), but he even taught me something new. He said that while other sciences, such as physics, progressed greatly, (i.e., from Newtonian physics, to Einstein’s theory of relativity, to quantum physics and string theory) and it’s all about energy, medicine still has a Newtonian view, rejecting any talk of energy, placebo effect or Oriental influences. He even recommended I read a book by another M.D., a book with a title I can no longer remember. And just as our conversation was heating up, the plane started falling down.
There was no warning, no red flag, no seatbelt sign, no prior turbulence. All of a sudden, on sunny skies, I felt we were in free fall. I looked down the isle, to the cockpit, in dead silence, much like everybody else in the plane, waiting for a sign, for a visual cue, anything, but nothing changed. And a few long seconds later, the plane seemed to recover. We were still above the clouds, but my heart was in my shoes, which were not on, but under the seat in front of me. We laughed about it, seconds later the seat belt lights lit up, then minutes later, an announcement that we were entering a zone of turbulence.
The worst part of it was the feeling that I was a prisoner of my own fate, that there was absolutely nothing I could do to improve my chances of survival should the plane crash. Yes, I knew where the emergence exits were, I knew what the best position to adopt was, I am a trained lifeguard and I pick seats closer to the front, where chances of survival are highest, but all this increases my survivability only slightly if the plane crashes in the middle of the ocean.
Since then, I tried to figure out what exactly has happened. I learned about the Microburst, but we were high in the sky. I also learned about a study claiming that global climate change due to increased carbon levels in the atmosphere will also increase turbulence frequency and severity published in April 2013 in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Which is ironic, since aviation is proportionally one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions.
Using computer models of the atmospheric jet stream, the authors predicted the possible effects on the busy North Atlantic flight corridor, where some 600 commercial aircraft travel daily between Europe and North America.
The study revealed that the chances of aircraft encountering significant turbulence will increase between 40 percent and 170 percent. Meanwhile, the average intensity of turbulence will rise between 10 percent and 40 percent.
The study provided a grim look at the worsening flight conditions transatlantic passengers will have to face aside from the other inconveniences associated with long-distance air travel, like lost luggage and jet lag.
"Air turbulence does more than just interrupt the service of in-flight drinks," read a statement from lead study author Paul Williams, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Science, at the University of Reading. "It injures hundreds of passengers and aircrew every year -- sometimes fatally. It also causes delays and damage to planes."
"Flight paths may need to become more convoluted to avoid patches of turbulence that are stronger and more frequent, in which case journey times will lengthen and fuel consumption and emissions will increase," the authors wrote.
The study placed the total price tag of such disruptions at about £100 million ($150 million dollars) annually.
“Aviation is partly responsible for changing the climate in the first place. It is ironic that the climate looks set to exact its revenge by creating a more turbulent atmosphere for flying," Williams said.
Prior to this event I didn’t care much about the dangers of flying – at most, I was afraid of reacting violently to poor customer service. Apart from the vagaries of security theater, this new-found fear came on top of a certain tardiness propensity. I tried to temper it with some left-over protein bars I had become accustomed to during my previous long drives.
So I’m still flying, but the thrill is somewhat gone, baby. I don’t look like I’m afraid, I don’t fidget, I usually read something calmly, detached and serene and I might even comfort people around me if the situation calls for it. But deep inside, I’m peeing my pants. I am fully aware of the total and complete helplessness of my situation and how much I am at the mercy of elements and entities completely outside my control.
So I was reading the airline magazine, when I stumbled upon this small paragraph, in a segment about the old Sagas.
RG: I think most of the Viking females were [feminist], to be honest. One person we interviewed says the sagas are the Shakespeare for us, it’s our literature. We look at the Vikings as our heroes and are proud of them even though they were killing people and perhaps it’s a very strange kind of hero image.
MA: What qualities do you think they had that makes them heroes?
RG: They were brave and fearless. (…)
MA: Can you think of any misconceptions that people have about the sagas, things people think are true but aren’t?
RG: That’s probably true of about half of the sagas. The fight scenes, for example – it’s very unlikely they were all true. You read a fight scene and one guy wins against twenty.
MA: So, in reality it probably wasn’t like that?
RG: Probably not.
LE: I added links for the Sagas. Fore more, consider reading Guardian's review, listening to the BBC's debate, watching BBC's episode by Valdimar Vilhjalmsson, Monty Python's spoof entitled Njorl's Saga and Outlaw - an Icelandic movie filmed in 1981 based on the Saga of Gisli. Today, Iceland has the highest book output and consumption per capita.
And that got me thinking: is courage such an important trait, when it always involves some implicit posturing and acting? Isn’t courage stupid when you are not aware of the risks, and fake when you are fully conscious?
It so happened that one of the books I had with me had a preface written by Andre Gide, where he seemed to reflect my thoughts while quoting de Saint-Exupery.
It pleases me here to find that selfsame “dark sense” which inspired my Prometheus to his paradox: “Man I love not; I love that which devours him.” This is the mainspring of every act of heroism. “ ‘We behave,’ thought Riviere, ‘as if there were something of higher value than human life. …But what thing?’” And again: “There is perhaps something else, something more lasting, to be saved; and perhaps it was to save this part of man that Riviere was working.” A true saying.
In an age when the idea of heroism seems likely to quit the army, since manly virtues may play no part in those future wars whose horrors are fore-shadowed by our scientists, does not aviation provide the most admirable and worthy field for the display of prowess? What would otherwise be rashness ceases to be such when it is part and parcel of an allotted task. The pilot who is forever risking his life may well smile at the current meaning we give to “courage.” I trust that Saint Exupery will permit me to quote an old letter of his dating from the time when he was flying on the Casablanca-Dakar air-route. (..)
“I have just pulled off a little exploit; spent two days and nights with eleven Moors and a mechanic, salving a plane. Alarums and excursions, varied and impressive. I heard bullets whizzing over my head for the first time. So now I know how I behave under such conditions; much more calmly than the Moors. But I also came to understand something which had always puzzled me- why Plato (Aristotle?) places courage in the last degree of virtues. It’s a concoction of feelings that are not so very admirable. A touch of anger, a spice of vanity, a lot of obstinacy and a tawdry ‘sporting’ thrill. Above all, a stimulation of one’s physical energies, which, however, is oddly out of place. One just fold one’s arms, taking deep breaths, across one’s opened shirt. Rather a pleasant feeling. When it happens at night another feeling creeps into it-of having done something immensely silly. I shall never again admire a merely brave man.”
By way of epigraph I might append to this quotation an aphorism from Quinton’s book (which, however, I cannot commend without reserve). “A man keeps, like his love, his courage dark.” Or, better still: “Brave men hide their deeds as decent folk their alms. They disguise them or make excuses for them.”
Now, I plan to write about the main trip else where, soon. For now, let me tell you how I got to visit Boston.
In any event, I’m hardly the only one to ever suffer turbulence or decry increased security. Jonathan Goldstein does it better (or does he?).
6:05 p.m. In line for airport security, my thoughts are these: As a species, we’ve grown past nomadism. We are safe from danger within our homes. We know what we are going to eat for dinner and how it will affect our digestion. What’s the point of flushing all that evolution down the toilet?
7:20 p.m. On the plane, I refute the world’s imagined rebuttals.
The world: Travel helps us get out of our comfort zone!
Me: I like my comfort zone. It’s comfortable and it smells like me.
The world: Travel reawakens us to the beauty of life!
Me: That’s what pills and poetry are for.
The world: Travel gives us a rush!
Me: That’s for adrenalin junkie feral cats sunbathing on the railroad tracks.
8:00 p.m. During turbulence, I ruminate. I am a ruiner. I ruin things. Especially my own experience. So indeed, why travel?
At the Grand Canyon, my own gloom was the black veil hanging before the sunrise. At Ayer’s Rock, the voice in my head constantly asked: Are you sure you left your passport in the hotel? Didn’t that chambermaid seem shifty? Is this the same tour bus you came on?
My ambivalence about travel probably began in childhood with our family’s summer road trips. For my father, there was always something that ruined each trip. A broken room thermostat. A sarcastic concierge. And the price of everything! Each purchase was an agony and an insult, and so to compensate — to fight back! — we would keep a quart of milk on the air conditioner overnight so we needn’t be robbed at the local diner in the morning. We’d spoon our sad corn flakes seated on the edge of the unmade bed, all in a row, my father repeating all the while, “I’m not so sure about this milk.”
And could we be sure of anything? That the effort was worth it? That we wouldn’t have all been better off — been happier — at home, in our own rooms, left to our own company?
9:00 p.m. More turbulence. Couldn’t they have just Skyped me in?
I wish I could say what the next article is about, but I don't know.
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