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Annie Dillard on What a Stunt Pilot Knows About Impermanence, Creativity, and the Meaning of Life

“Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?”

“Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow,” Virginia Woolf observed in her timeless meditation on language and impermanence, “But words, if properly used, seem able to live for ever.” “I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth,” Henry Miller reflected. And yet our notion of creativity is very much linked to the visible, the tangible, the audible — in other words, the palpable and lasting. But if we were to take Brian Eno’s advice — “Stop thinking about art works as objects,” he urged, “and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” — what, exactly, would that mean? How would those creative experiences manifest?

From The Writing Life (public library) by Annie Dillard — the same gem of a book that gave us Dillard on presence over productivity and an altogether indispensable addition to the collected wisdom of beloved writers — Dillard adds to history’s finest definitions of art through the story of a stunt pilot she befriended and the unrelenting dedication with which he pursued an art that is purely ephemeral, exemplary of precisely such a “trigger for experience”:

The air show announcer hushed. He had been squawking all day, and now he quit. The crowd stilled. Even the children watched dumbstruck as the slow, black biplane buzzed its way around the air. Rahm made beauty with his whole body; it was pure pattern, and you could watch it happen. The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arch its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side’s wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him.

Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure 8’s, snap rolls, and hammerheads. He did pirouettes on the plane’s tail. The other pilots could do these stunts, too, skillfully, one at a time. But Rahm used the plane inexhaustibly, like a brush marking thin air.

His was pure energy and naked spirit. I have thought about it for years. Rahm’s line unrolled in time. Like music, it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried out the present. We watchers waited for the split-second curve of beauty in the present to reveal itself. The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.

Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out.

The oddest, most exhilarating and exhausting thing was this: he never quit. The music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease. Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?

Dave Rahm

Rahm applied this same wabi-sabi disposition of embracing impermanence not only to his art, but also to his life, straddling both sides of the mortality paradox. Dillard recalls a conversation with a young crop-duster pilot, an occupation so dangerous — “They fly too low. They hit buildings and power lines. They have no space to fly out of trouble, and no space to recover from a stall.” — that the average life expectancy of a pilot is five years, then reflects on Rahm’s bittersweet choice:

Over breakfast I asked him how long he had been dusting crops. “Four years,” he said, and the figure stalled in the air between us for a moment. “You know you’re going to die at it someday,” he added. “We all know it. We accept that; it’s part of it.” I think now that, since the crop duster was in his twenties, he accepted only that he had to say such stuff; privately he counted on skewing the curve. I suppose Rahm knew the fact, too. I do not know how he felt about it. “It’s worth it,” said the early French aviator Mermoz. He was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s friend. “It’s worth the final smashup.” Rahm smashed up in front of King Hussein, in Jordan, during a performance. The plane spun down and never came out of it; it nosedived into the ground and exploded.

Amidst a cultural sensibility where we use tangible art to anchor ourselves to the present, to ourselves, to life, Dillard — in her signature habit of gently, pointedly pulling at the loose threads of which the meaning of life is woven — pulls some of our core assumptions into question, at once uncomfortable and beautifully liberating:

“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. It is hard to imagine a deeper penetration into the universe than Rahm’s last dive in his plane, or than his inexpressible wordless selfless line’s inscribing the air and dissolving. Any other art may be permanent. I cannot recall one Rahm sequence. He improvised. If Christo wraps a building or dyes a harbor, we join his poignant and fierce awareness that the work will be gone in days. Rahm’s plane shed a ribbon in space, a ribbon whose end unraveled in memory while its beginning unfurled as surprise. He may have acknowledged that what he did could be called art, but it would have been, I think, only in the common misusage, which holds art to be the last extreme of skill. Rahm rode the point of the line to the possible; he discovered it and wound it down to show. He made his dazzling probe on the run. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “To see this is to be made free.”

No words can be written to articulate just how fantastic — how necessaryThe Writing Life is in its entirety. Complement it with Dillard on the two ways of seeing and how to reclaim our capacity for wonder.

Published June 24, 2013




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