Flights of Fancy

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

Flights of Fancy

I TOOK JUST ENOUGH PHYSICS in school to master one significant fact: human beings cannot fly. Here’s a principle that always holds. If it flies, it isn’t human. Birds fly. Bats fly. Insects sometimes fly. Certain squirrels and fish sail for a bit and seem to fly. Humans? Thirty-two feet per second squared. Same as bowling balls. If you drop me and a bowling ball off the Tower of Pisa (and please don’t) at the same time, the bowling ball won’t go splat. Otherwise we’re the same.


No doubt about it, airplanes and blimps and helicopters and autogiros have changed the way we perceive flight, but for almost all of human history, we’ve been earthbound.

Meaning what?

Meaning that when we see a person suspended in the air, even briefly, he is one or more of the following:

1) a superhero

2) a ski jumper

3) crazy (redundant if also number 2)

4) fictional

5) a circus act, departing a cannon

6) suspended on wires

7) an angel

8) heavily symbolic

Of course, just because we can’t fly doesn’t mean we don’t dream of it. We chafe at laws, particularly when we feel they’re unfair or inhibiting or both, as with the law of gravity. The steady winner in magic acts, since most magicians can’t afford an elephant for the vanishing act, is levitation. British imperialists in the nineteenth century came back from the Eastern realms with tales of swamis who had mastered the art of hovering above the ground. Our comic book superheroes defy gravity in various ways, whether through flight directly (Superman), tethers (Spider-Man), or gadgets (Batman).

Culturally and literarily, we have toyed with the idea of flight since earliest times. Few stories from Greek mythology capture the imagination like that of Daedalus and Icarus: the ingenious father’s attempt to save his son from a tyrant as well as from his own invention (the labyrinth) by coming up with an even more marvelous creation; the solemn parental warning ignored in a burst of youthful exuberance; the fall from a great height; a father’s terrible grief and guilt. Flight alone is a wonder; with these other elements, a complete and compelling myth. Other cultures share this fascination. Toni Morrison has spoken of the myth of the flying Africans. The Aztecs saw a particularly important god, Quetzalcoatl, as a snake with feathered wings. Christian popular belief often sees new arrivals in heaven decked out with wings and a harp—emblems of flight and music which are natural properties of the birds but denied humans. Scripturally, flight is one of the temptations of Christ: Satan asks him to demonstrate his divinity by launching himself from the promontory. Perhaps it is that episode that has associated witchcraft with flight through so much of our history, or perhaps it is merely that our misplaced desire for flight has turned to envy.

So what does it mean when literary characters fly? Take, for example, Morrison’s Song of Solomon and its highly ambiguous airborne ending, with Milkman suspended in mid-leap toward Guitar, each of them knowing only one can survive. Morrison’s use of the myth of the flying Africans introduces a specific historical and racial reference that is outside the experience of most readers, but we recognize various implications. Milkman’s great-grandfather, Solomon, flew off to Africa but couldn’t hold on to his youngest child, Jake, dropping him back to earth and slavery. Flying off, in this instance, suggests casting off the chains of slavery on one level and returning “home” (Africa for Solomon, Virginia for Milkman) on another. In general, flying is freedom, we might say, freedom not only from specific circumstances but from those more general burdens that tie us down. It’s escape, the flight of imagination. All of this is very good. Well then, what about Pilate, Milkman’s unfortunately named aunt? After she dies, a bird swoops down, grabs the earring box containing a slip of paper with her name on it, and flies away. Milkman suddenly realizes that of all the people he’s ever known, Pilate alone had the power of flight, even though she never left the ground. What does it mean to say that someone who remains physically earthbound has been able to fly? It’s spiritual, we might conclude. Her soul could soar, which you can’t say about anybody else in the novel. She is the character of spirit and love; her last utterance is a wish that she could have known more people so she could have loved them all. Such a character is not anchored at all. She’s flying in a way we don’t need to know the underlying myth of the flying Africans to comprehend.

So freedom, escape, return home, largeness of spirit, love. That’s a lot for just one work to do with flying. What about others? What about E.T.? When those bicycles leave the street in the Steven Spielberg classic, what’s the situation? The adults of the community, representing conformity, hostility to anything new, xenophobia, suspicion, a lack of imagination, are bearing down on our young heroes. They’ve even set up a roadblock. At just the moment when things look worst, the bicycles leave the earth and, with it, the earthbound grown-ups. Escape? Certainly. Freedom? You bet. Wonder, magic? Absolutely.

It’s really pretty straightforward: flight is freedom.

It doesn’t always work out that way, but the basic principle is pretty sound. Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) offers a comparative rarity, a fictional character who actually possesses wings. Carter’s heroine, Fevvers (whose name paradoxically suggests both “feathers” and “tethers”), is a woman whose flying act has made her the toast of circuses and music halls across Europe. It has also set her apart. She is not like other people, cannot comfortably fit into normal human life. Carter’s use of flight differs from Morrison’s in that it does not emphasize freedom and escape. Like Franz Kafka’s Hunger Artist, Fevvers has a gift that places her in a cage: her flights are contained indoors, her world is a stage where even the fourth wall is a barrier, since she is so different from her audience that she cannot freely join them. There are a couple of points that should be made here. First, as I have intimated several times before and will discuss later, irony trumps everything. But irony typically depends on an established pattern on which it can work its inversions. All of Carter’s irony here, naturally enough, builds on a foundation of expectations having to do with flying and wings. If flying is freedom, and if Fevvers’s flying represents a kind of counterfreedom, then we have an inversion that creates significance: she’s trapped by the ability most symbolic of freedom. Without our expectations about the meaning of flight, Fevvers is simply an oddity on a stage. The second point has to do with different kinds of freedom: just as Morrison’s Pilate can fly without ever leaving the ground, so Fevvers can find freedom even within the limitations of her fishbowl world. Her act frees her to express her sexuality in ways not available to other women in the novel’s highly restricted late-Victorian society. She can dress, speak, and act in a manner that would be deeply shocking in other contexts. Her freedom, like her “imprisonment,” is paradoxical. Carter uses Fevvers, with her mix of earthy sexuality and avian ability, to comment on the situation of women in English society; it’s a strategy that is perfectly normal for Carter, whose novels typically, and comically, undercut assumptions about masculine and feminine roles, holding up our received notions for scrutiny and occasional ridicule. Social criticism is the outcome of this subversive strategy, flight the device by which Carter sets up her ironic notions of freedom and imprisonment.

Characters like Fevvers who possess wings are particularly interesting to us. And why not? How many of your friends and neighbors sport feathers? In truth, stories with winged characters make up a pretty small genre, but those few stories hold a special fascination. Gabriel García Márquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (1968) features a nameless old man who falls from the sky during a monsoonal rain. His wings are indeed enormous. Some of the poor people in the coastal Colombian town where he lands take him to be an angel, but if he is, he’s a very odd one. He’s dirty and smelly, and his ragged wings harbor parasites. It is true that shortly after he plops down in the yard of Pelayo and Elisenda, their child recovers from a life-threatening fever, but his other “miracles,” if he has anything to do with them, don’t work exactly right. One character fails to recover health but nearly wins the lottery, while another, although not cured of leprosy, sprouts sunflowers from his sores. Still, the residents are fascinated by this new arrival, so much so that the peasant couple constructs a cage and puts him on display. Although the old man does nothing remarkable, so many people come and pay the small admission fee that Pelayo and Elisenda become wealthy. We never know what the old man is, and speculation among the townspeople is hilarious as well as occasionally bizarre (his green eyes suggest to one character that he’s a Norwegian sailor), but his hapless, shabby appearance and long-suffering silence clearly benefit the family in a nearly miraculous fashion. In the way of those who receive miraculous aid, they are unappreciative and even a little resentful at having to provide for the old man. Eventually the old man regains his strength and, seen only by the wife, flaps away, his ungainly flight recalling a rather disreputable vulture more than any angel. Like Carter, García Márquez plays on our notions of wings and flight to explore the situation’s ironic possibilities. In fact, he goes even further in some ways. His winged character is literally caged; moreover, he’s dirty and unkempt and bug-ridden, not at all what we expect from potential angels. On one level, the story asks us if we would recognize the Second Coming if it occurred, and perhaps it reminds us that the Messiah was not generally acknowledged when he did come. The angel doesn’t look like an angel, just as the King didn’t look like a king, certainly not like the sort of military ruler the Hebrews had expected. Does the old man choose not to fly? Has he been reduced in power and appearance purposely? The story never says, and in its silence it poses many questions.

Of course, his mode of arrival poses another question for us.

What about characters who don’t quite fly or whose flights are interrupted? Since Icarus, we’ve had stories of those whose flights end prematurely. In general, this is a bad thing, given what is the opposite of flying. On the other hand, not all crashes end disastrously. At almost the exact same moment (the novels were published within months of each other), Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie introduced characters—two in each case—falling from great heights, from exploding airliners. In Weldon’s Hearts and Lives of Men the contested child of an ugly divorce is kidnapped, and she and her kidnapper float down to safety as the rear section of the plane, containing only the two of them, rather improbably disobeys certain laws of aerodynamics to glide gently to earth. Rushdie’s two main characters, Gibreel and Saladin, fall bodily to the ground, their landings softened by the snow-covered English beach on which they land. In each case, there is an element of rebirth in their cheating what would typically prove to be certain death. The characters are not inevitably better off in their new lives; Rushdie’s two are particularly devilish, while Weldon’s little girl loses the immense privilege of her previous existence for a very long time, gaining instead the sort of life Dickens would invent for one of his waifs. Nevertheless, the act of falling from vast heights and surviving is as miraculous, and as symbolically meaningful, as the act of flight itself. As thrilled as we are by the prospect of flying, we are also frightened at the prospect of falling, and anything that seems to defy the inevitability of a plummeting demise sets our imaginations working overtime. The survival of these characters demands that we consider the implications. What does it mean to survive certain death, and how does such survival alter one’s relationship to the world? Do the characters’ responsibilities to themselves, to life itself, change? Is the survivor even the same person any longer? Rushdie asks outright if birth inevitably involves a fall, while Weldon poses questions that are equally suggestive.

If our consideration of flying were limited to those works where characters literally fly, we’d have a pretty thin discussion. These examples of actual flight, necessary as they are, remain valuable chiefly for the instruction they give us in interpreting figurative flight. There’s an Irish novel about a little boy growing up to become a writer. As he matures, he finds that in order to acquire the experience and vision he needs to become a writer, he’ll have to leave home. Problem: home is an island. The only way he’s going to be able to leave is to cross a body of water, which is the most dramatic and final sort of home-leaving one can take (and he is a young man with a fear of water). Fortunately, he has the right name to help him out: Dedalus. Not a very Irish name for a young man from Dublin, nor is it the first name he tried for young Stephen, but it’s the one James Joyce settled on for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Stephen feels hemmed in by the strictures of Irish life, by family and politics and education and religion and narrow-mindedness; as we know by now, the antidote to limitations and shackles is freedom. The latter parts of the novel are filled with images of birds, feathers, and flying, all of which, while not referring to literal flight, evoke thoughts of metaphorical flight, of escape. Stephen has an epiphany, a Joycean religio-aesthetic word for an awakening, of a wading girl, in which moment he experiences the sensation of beauty and harmony and radiance that convinces him he must be an artist. The girl is neither singularly beautiful nor memorable in herself. Rather, the scene is beautiful in its totality, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say in his perception of its totality. In this moment the narration describes her as a bird, from the feathery edges of her drawers to her breast like that of some “dark-plumaged bird.” Subsequent to this epiphany, Stephen begins to ruminate on his namesake, the crafter of wings for escape from a different island, whom he comes to think of as “hawklike.” Finally he announces that he must fly past the nets he sees as set to trap him into the conventionality and smallness that is every Dubliner’s inheritance. His understanding of flight is purely symbolic, yet his need for escape is no less real for that. In order for him to become a creator, his spirit must soar; he must be free.

Indeed, often in literature the freeing of the spirit is seen in terms of flight. In his poetry, William Butler Yeats often contrasts the freedom of birds with the earthbound cares and woes of humans. In his great “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1917), for instance, he watches the beautiful birds rise and wheel, forever young, while he, a middle-aged man, feels the pull of gravity more heavily with each passing year. He makes much of Zeus taking the swan’s form to ravish Leda and beget Helen (of Troy) on her, and he sees the archangel’s appearance to the Virgin Mary in terms of wings and birds as well.

Similarly, we speak of the soul as taking wing. Seamus Heaney has several poems where the souls of the departed are said to flutter away from the body, and in this he is far from alone. The notion that the disembodied soul is capable of flight is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, and I suspect in many others as well, although it is not universal. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, such a concept was problematic, since the souls of blessed and damned alike went to an underground realm, but the belief in a celestial heaven leads much of later Western culture to a sense of the soul’s lightness. In “Birches” Robert Frost imagines climbing the supple birches up toward heaven, then being lightly set back on the ground, and he declares that both going and coming back would be good (even without wings). When Claudius, Hamlet’s villainous uncle, tries to pray, he fails, saying, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.” The spirit cannot rise up, Shakespeare suggests, when weighed down by the guilt of an unconfessed murder. When Hamlet lies dead at the play’s end, his friend Horatio mourns him, saying, “Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” As we all know by now, if Shakespeare said it, it must be true.

These flights of fancy allow us, as readers, to take off, to let our imaginations take flight. We can sail off with characters, freed of the limitations of our tuition payments and mortgage rates; we can soar into interpretation and speculation.

Happy landings.