Alone on the plane, I had the same thought that I always do: “we could crash and my life might end at any time.” As always, images of the moments before death subsumed me. I imagined the faces of my fellow passengers contorted in horror. I heard the weeping, the screaming, the voices futilely attempting to leave last messages for their loved ones on their cellphones, all to no avail.
My fantasy was real enough that amidst a banal announcement about expected turbulence, I came close to tears as I thought of never seeing my wife or son again and went on to consider the weight of the collective losses of all the souls on the plane.
But, in this case, what used to be a source of physical anxiety gave way to a feeling of absolute groundlessness.
There is something liberating about anonymity and the small pleasure of being unrecognized in the odd womblike environment of a passenger jet. You can, for what it’s worth, escape yourself and all the baggage that comes with the identity you have handed to you in your official “life,” however briefly.
But with this lack of recognition comes the reality that you are no one to everyone there. And you have no connection the other souls all around you other than your shared role as paid passengers, who will surely receive what Melville called “the universal thump” despite your privileged status as the recipients of free snacks delivered to you by the harried flight attendants as they manically push the cart up and down the aisle dishing out drinks and hermetically-sealed treats or boxed breakfasts and then reverse course to collect trash before coming back with yet another generic item for your consumption.
I was struck by the utter meaninglessness of the ritual that was well beyond alienation. It was life emptied out and performed over and over again, purgatorially. I wanted to squirm out of my skin, jump through the emergency door, but I just sat there forgetting why anything I had ever done mattered, why anything mattered, for that matter.
It was all a nothing we all know too well despite our protestations.
Indeed, for a moment in time somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, my identity shattered and was subsumed by something else, so much so that that thing which I call “me” was close to disappearing entirely.
It was a sense that I could very well lose control of everything. And this feeling went to the root of me in a way that might have evoked terror or despair but, during this instance, I was simply aware of an unraveling. I became my dissolution and sat in my cramped seat next to the businessman on his laptop and the nondescript woman sleeping under her shawl, becoming no one.
“What is this?” I asked myself. “What is this thing I call myself?”
I held close to the heart of that quivering instant and rode with it, feeling the contours of this strange state of being while I observed people on their devices, playing games, watching movies, distracting themselves with whatever they could amidst the low hum of the jet engines. All the while I was there but not there, inside and outside of myself at the same time.
I thought about the space of an hour detached from place, floating in the air, felt time randomly slow down and speed up as if on a whim.
My thought was: “I am a man sitting on a plane unsuccessfully trying to read a book by an author from Norway while eating a packaged meal and occasionally looking out the window at the pale blue sky.”
As I held tightly to an image of myself as a man on a plane going somewhere, the sense of disintegration eased, and I came back to a feeling of solidity and the idea that I was someone who reads novels on airplanes and thinks too much.
I got up and peed in the claustrophobic bathroom and washed by hands carefully while avoiding the reflection of my face in the mirror. On the way back to my seat, I looked at the bland visages of my fellow passengers and took some comfort in the thought that all of us were lost between time zones, hurtling through space toward a given destination.
We would again be someplace soon.
About The Summer Chronicles: In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds incomparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless, the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer, I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form.