Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ode to Speed

Can one regain innocence past? Let us return to a lost time
and see.

It is 1909 and the world is coming alive with the hum of engines. Fearsome, alluring, raw potential pushing at the edges of its own constructions. F. T. Marinetti quivers with excitement in the words of "The Futurist Manifesto": "We are going to be present at the birth of the centaur and we shall soon see the first angels fly!" He was talking about mechanized speed, and the new, improved version of happiness it would deliver to the populace. "Time and space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed."

He rails against the "gouty naturalists" who he sees as counterposed to the forward-looking embrace of the engine. But a smarter head than his--and one that knew the engine profoundly well, not just as objet with good lines--Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the poet of flight, knew that this was a false opposition. The machine brings us to a place of elemental humanness: the moment when every sense is fully engaged with time and space, and when life and death stand starkly looking at each other, right over your head. This is living--pure, animal living.

His swoon-worthy book Wind, Sand and Stars, which situates the point where man, nature, and machine meet, was published in 1939. This was five years before he disappeared in an airplane over the Mediterranean. (Is there anything more unrelievedly eerie than the lone aviator who flies over the horizon and falls off the edge of the world?) In the chapter titled "The Tool," he takes on the naysayers who carp that mechanization causes a decline in spiritual values. He puts paid to that "fictitious dichotomy" (as beautiful language in the service of beautiful thought always will): ". . . the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them."

It is not with metal that the pilot is in contact. Contrary
to the vulgar illusion, it is thanks to the metal, and by virtue
of it, that the pilot rediscovers nature.

The speeding engine compresses time, and our instincts race to keep up with it. We vibrate with the effort, but do not notice, because we are no place but fully inside the experience. There is no way to comment on it.

Therefore speed is life. It keeps us in this instant, which is the very--the only--definition of living. Here, now, fast. But do not fool yourself. About any of it; that which I only intimate.


Kevin G. said...

There are four connecting highways that form an imperfect oval surrounding the city in which I grew up. I don’t know how many times I’ve headed out on late night runs on this particular road course, over the years. Sometimes for one lap or maybe two. Always heading nowhere in particular, in record time. The list of people who prefer the joy of speed to the more sedentary past-times, has never been a short one and you don’t have to have been Sir Malcolm Campbell or even bear the last name of Fangio or Andretti to understand the compulsion. Much has been written on the topic but the second last paragraph of "Ode To Speed" contains the only explanation that one would ever need……period, Amen.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Sometimes it's laughingly referred to as "the need for speed." I think it's maybe the need to feel.

Thanks, Kevin.

ren said...

On my drive to and from work on a two-lane road, I cross a stream on a bridge that was made to be four lanes, down to the water then back up the hill. Whenever there are slow pokes ahead of me, this is where I pass them, as fast as I want to go. I also, at the same time, always have a mental conversation with the trooper who would pull me over and ask why was I going so fast? And I would always answer, Because I could.

May he not be reading this :-)

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Ah, Ren, you not only have the traveler's heart; you have the fast traveler's heart. More joy that way.

Eh, radar detector . . . ?

Charles said...

this weekend I took my 1971 Honda 350 CL Scrambler out for a ride to Alice's Restaurant in the hills above Silicon Valley. Beautiful ride, twisty roads, great views.

I came up on a pair of modern Ducatis (1098's to be specific) holding up the show. So I passed them and continued on my ride.

When they arrived, and I already had some coffee, one said to the other "It is a 350, not a 750!"

Any moron can ride a fast bike slow. It takes a special kind of fool to ride a slow bike fast.

Steve said...

I first read this and smiled at the thought of going fast. Sharpening my senses, elevating my pulse, exerting enough energy that I become aware of my breathing. And in that appreciation of propelling ourselves at velocities many times greater than we could ever achieve without machinery we have a kinship with other enthusiasts. And yet the thought of speeding along in an airplane or car simply doesn't have the same appeal. I can't imagine how another machine could become part of me the way a motorcycle does. I recognize that it is not just the speed; it is the bike that I am in love with, the machine. The lines, the metals used, the way they were made, how they sound. The way it feels when I touch it, and of course, how it works on the road (at speed :-) ).

There might be other thrills that are satisfying; if I could Giant Slalom half as well as Olympic athletes that would do it. I had to think about it for a while (and have a good ride) to articulate how motorcycles please me; speed, yes, but so much more. “…the moment when every sense is fully engaged with time and space…” Thank you, Melissa, for expressing the phenomenon in words.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Charles, we always knew you were a VERY special fool.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Steve, I had more occasion--like, 2000 miles on the slab in the past week--to contemplate this. Last night, as dark drew down and I was still buzzing along toward home, I looked up. And there they were: the stars, lying right on my helmet.

Speed feels best, and most itself, when there is nothing between our bodies and its exhilarating effects. (Except, of course, ATGATT.)