Entering the officers' mess recently at RAF Gutersloh in Germany, I passed beneath a name inscribed in stone: Manfred von Richthofen. The removal of that inscription when the Royal Air Force took over the base from the Luftwaffe in 1945 would have been unthinkable, and there it has remained as a symbol of the international chevalerie of elite fliers, a brotherhood who shot each other down in style and then drank each other's health, their mutual respect transcending national frontiers and the distinction between war and peace. This is a deeply flawed myth, of course, yet while Robert Wohl rightly subverts the cult of the First World War "ace", he simultaneously acknowledges its enduring core of truth. This is not a criticism of his analysis, for the paradox reflects the extraordinary complexity of responses to events in the early years of heavier-than-air flight, and the dynamic stimulus given to both the utopian and the dark layers of human imagination by the new technology.
Those events are well chronicled; we know how the pure poetry of pioneering aviation turned into the "dripping death" foreseen by H. G. Wells. In this first volume of a projected trilogy, Wohl's aim - and his achievement - is to reconstruct that narrative and its associated iconography in terms of the complex cultural impact of man's realisation of a myth-fantasy as old as storytelling itself. "The conquest of the air" - a cliche Wohl restores to its proper contemporary originality - was to become both a spiritual liberation and a Faustian contract, and it all happened with a breathless rapidity that enthralled and unbalanced artists, writers, soldiers, politicians, businessmen and the gasping air-show audiences.
In covering just the ten fiercely creative, competitive and ultimately terrifying years from Wilbur Wright's first demonstration flights in France to the ruthless formation combat and strafing of ground troops that were the norm by 1918, Wohl has set himself a daunting challenge. The strands created by the Wright brothers intertwine intensely: commercial machinations and military myopia; the immediately insatiable public demand for glamourised heroes and aerial spectacle (fatal crashes increased the thrill - even the eroticism, as Jouve acknowledged - rather than discouraging attendance and investment); the reinvigoration of weary literary genres (colonialist, utopian and apocalyptic); the central role of journalists and newspaper magnates; the incorporation of flight into establishment culture, into photography and film, and into popular forms such as postcards and songs; and, above all, the vital stimulus given by aviation to the modernist avant-garde in painting, literature and architecture.
This amounts to a tough assignment, and even Wohl's final chapter is a wrestling match between narrative and synthesis. Yet if there is some sense of dislocation, again that perhaps reflects a period which resists integration. It also reflects a human experience that by its very nature resists language as practised by any less gifted pilot-poet than Saint-Exupery; Wohl was sensitive enough to the problem to take flying lessons while composing his book. At times, however, there is some discontinuity in his text, and threads are not always tied: antithetical contemporary theories about deterrence and the likely duration of wars, for example, are mentioned in isolation. Occasional compositional flaws in what is a highly readable, scholarly and richly illustrated book may arise from ruthless textual editing, for many fascinating insights are consigned to the voluminous research notes at the end.
Some odd selections have been made: should the picturesque fact that "the craggy Wright had gained 16 £ on the solid cuisine of the Sarthe" during his promotional visit to France really have more status, for example, than Adelt's analogy between flying and childbirth, or Vedrines's encounter with an eagle, or marvellous first-flight descriptions by William Randolph Hearst and Saint-Pol Roux, or British ace James McCudden's astonishment at seeing a man in what he had thought of as merely an enemy machine, or an integrated analysis of Delaunay's artistic problems?
There is an occasional infelicity or transcription error (Historie for Histoire) in Wohl's handling of sources (and even mistranslation: detonnant does not mean detonating, but describes an absence of harmony), but he adopts a suitably European perspective, emphasising for American readers the centrality of France in this story. Whatever the taciturn frontier virtues of the Wrights at Kitty Hawk, the positive and negative cultural impact of their invention began with Wilbur's flights at Le Mans in 1908.
The French took up the cause of aviation with a passion that became both national and nationalistic after Bleriot's Channel crossing in 1909, in conditions that had grounded his competitors. That fervour was naively ennobled by Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac) in his lengthy, unexceptional but popular poem, Le Cantique de L'Aile, which prepared the ground for the wartime "ace" myth by likening French flyers to Greek heroes and medieval knights.
As other countries followed suit (Britain lagging behind, to Lord Northcliffe's frustration), an increasingly bellicose patriotism infected what had been an aesthetic enthusiasm for aviation as an elegant sport, a thrills-and-spills spectacle, a continuation of poetry by other means or a form of Nietzschean self-fulfilment. Wohl charts the growth of a luridly imaginative literature of imperialistic prophecy in which wars would be won in and from the air; its practitioners (notably Emile Driant in France and the alarmingly hawkish Rudolf Martin in Germany) were ahead of the generals in anticipating the future role of air power, and they shared H. G. Wells's vision in forecasting that airborne machines of destruction and terror would abolish the distinction between soldiers and civilians.
That did not worry D'Annunzio, whose hero in Forse che s forse che no escapes from sickly decadence and the debilitating charms of women into the virile aristocracy of the skies, finding oneness with his aircraft and ascending to a glorious transfiguration through death. Nor did it worry the Italian Futurist machine-men, propelled in their headlong conquest of space and time by their new ethic of speed, power and violence, with the song of the future in the roar of their engines (the less hysterical Russian Futurists emerge with more credit). Marinetti was an ecstatic witness of the first combat use of aircraft by the Italians in Libya; his subsequent literary visions include the exquisite decapitation of thousands of pacifist women by aeroplane wings. Yet while Wohl is well aware of the Italians' absurdities he catches their energy, and (after a nod towards the Lateco re airmail company, which helped create the global village and formed the context for Saint-Exupery's classics), his book ends provocatively with the young Mussolini, in whom he identifies a condensed representation of his narrative and his themes.
More gratifying to some tastes will be the space devoted to Delaunay and Malevich. Like the poet Apollinaire, both artists responded vividly to the kaleidoscope of new visual stimuli and perspectives bursting into prewar culture, as aeroplanes (rather than pilots) retained their emotive symbolism while becoming part of everyday life. There are illuminating readings of individual paintings - notably Delaunay's L'Hommage a Bleriot and L'Equipe de Cardiff and Malevich's Aviator. Wohl is at his best in such enthusiastic analyses of specific images and texts; the weight of his overarching task is lifted from those pages, refreshing both writer and reader for the renewed effort to synthesise one of our century's most explosive cultural revolutions.
William Rees translated Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint-Exupery for Penguin 20th-Century Classics.
A Passion for Wings:: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918
Author - Robert Wohl
ISBN - 0 300 05778 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 320pp