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It's Nelly's World

Ode to Speed

alec vanderboom

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.