Flight Map

As if the view out the window were not abstract enough, lakes as pocket mirrors, mountains as sugar-dusted alligator spines, tiny towns as constellations, cities as circuitry, we watch the screens on the seat backs in front of us, the shifting map taken from the wall of a kindergarten classroom tracking the slow progress of a toy plane made of felt or paper moving as if along an invisible wire and drawing a red line behind it, a two-dimensional white plane with resolute outspread inflexible wings, a plane as long as some of the smaller states it passes over, bigger than islands. The names of cities and towns and geographical features spread out across the section of the globe captured in the screen in a primitive palette of green or tan land, light or dark blue water, white ice or snow. Suddenly the name of some place most people will never visit and many have never heard of appears, triggered by the plane’s proximity – Goose Bay, Godthab, Valledupar – we are not stopping there. The names are longer than the plane, sticking out past the place they name, shouting in large white letters We exist! We exist! then shifting left, out of view. There is no point in even beginning to list all the places in their infinite specificity this moving picture doesn’t remotely try to represent, which we cannot see either through the real window on the actual earth miles below through thin air or layers and layers of clouds.

Alternating on the screen with the shifting map are updates: outside temperature (how many minutes would it take to freeze to death), ground speed (the speechless ground that barely appears to move at all, nor do we, except when another plane zips by in the window in a matter of seconds or a wisp of a cloud vanishes over the wing almost before we see it), time at point of departure (already a vague Cubist memory of a few faces and airport furniture), time at destination (a vague anticipation of a few faces and streets), most valuable for the sense they give us of how much longer we have to endure our voluntary confinement to this moderately uncomfortable sensory deprivation chamber.

The toy plane intersects city-dots, and out the window there are heavenly views of spectacular landscapes of glowing clouds at dusk, the boundary between light and dark. We are not on the earth we must return to, we are in heaven.


Marit MacArthur is Associate Professor of English at California State University Bakersfield, and is working on a book about perception and the literature of flight. Her article, “One World? The Poetics of Passenger Flight and the Perception of the Global,” will appear in the March 2012 issue of PMLA.

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