March 28, 2017

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By David Pascoe

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PORTS-AVIATION Scattered in villages around Paris, the aerodromes Proust visited were uniformly unprepossessing in terms of clientele and appearance. ’38 In January 1911, Jacques Lartigue, one of France’s most distinguished photographers, had been recording images of aircraft in flight at Issy-les-Moulineaux, a famous airfield formerly used by the army for training. To his trained eye, it looked like nothing other than a ploughed-up plain, ‘immense and deserted … On one side, a few small houses; on the other, the fortifications with 45 trees and the railway track of the little commuter train by which I arrive’.

16 What this meant for the past emerged periodically in Proust’s life’s work especially when he considered familiar places of transition, such as ports and harbours. Consider his account of the vista from the windows of the dining room at the Grand Hotel in Balbec, the fictionalized version of Cabourg: Alas for that sea-wind … it seemed cruel for my grandmother not to be able to feel its life-giving breath on her cheek, because of the glass partition, transparent but closed, which, like the front of a glass case in a museum, separated us from the beach while permitting us to look out upon its entirety, and into which the sky fitted completely so that its azure had the effect of being the colour of the windows and its white clouds the many flaws in the glass.

Even in 1909, he was beginning to sense that a world enthralled by the plane was somehow diminished, and would soon be under threat. As they watch Blériot fly 70 feet above the ground, imprisoned in a wooden frame, and defending himself against an invisible danger, the spectators standing below are ‘pushed away, without existence’ [‘wesenlos’]. This is an amazingly prescient account of the modern airspace, with Kafka perceiving (and being perplexed by) a profoundly inhuman space which shatters and effaces the individual.

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