Janko Polić Kamov – Beneath the aeroplane


BENEATH THE AEROPLANE

(impressions)
Translated by Martin Mayhew

Italy is flying: in Turin, Milan, Verona, Naples, Bologna and – on page three of the newspapers. Horse, automobile and cycling races (all of these are a daily occurrence, and the cycling one has been annoying the whole peninsula for a week, or two) are interesting, but they aren’t thrilling. The ground is dust, when it isn’t muddy, even if it is asphalted. Humanity, symbolised as a reptile, is now looking for a symbol in the bird, and the 20th century is beginning to spread its energies into the air, as the 19th had spread them on the ground and beneath it.

Bleriot’s monoplane

On seeing the first aeroplane, Blériot’s elegant, light and I would say slender monoplane, which passed over the top of my head with the racket of an automobile and the ease of a white bird with spread wings – I had the impression of simplicity, harmony and naïveté. And an impression of piousness. I did not flinch not even for an instant: it would fall on my head; as I believed, when it rushed past, white, on the green grass, to take off. Faith is great, because it is young, as in those who were watching the Assumption, as the old painters particularly the mighty Titian show us. Even the scene is the same.

That man, dressed from head to foot like a diver who dives into space, gives the impression of a captain, of the greatest absolutist and a solitary autocrat on board and at sea. When he climbs into his aeroplane, the whole audience fixate their eyes on him, wondering: ‘Would we do it? Wouldn’t we? Is it the right time? Isn’t it?’ When this one man flies, everyone around flies. His ‘passion for space’, his craving now for height, for the caper, for speed, for the battle with the wind – the throng also senses it, in the eyes that are rising. And this throng of aristocrats to plebeians, of old men to little boys – is just a single child in front of the same wonder with the same emotion. And if the aeroplane cannot take off, the throng suffers just like the aviator; to us it seems: ‘we’re not able to fly – the machine has broken down and we are denied a joy’. And when the machine is damaged, everyone cries inside…

Frenchman Louis Paulhan.

It is not like that at the circus: a chilling sensation, curiosity and astonishment. In front of the birdman the audience is a child; our spirit senses the height, the clouds, space; we are elated, not irritated; something cools us down, like a midnight breeze, when we watch the stars; we are sad and glad, like when we lie on our backs, with our eyes immersed in the deep blueness: and above all: we sense the bliss of a smile, innocence, freedom.

Maybe it is because, that by looking at the aeroplane, we are looking at the sky? That because of it we have begun to observe the unspoilt beauty of space, where not even the birds leave a trace? That inside us it awakens stories about transparent fairies that emerged from the mist of Slavic fields, like a Greek goddess from the foam of the sea? Or even because it reminds us of an eagle’s flight, envied by the captive of Sarajevo, the worldly spirit Silvije Kranjčević?… Or because the aeroplane is a white traveller in the heights, like a cloud, which returns to the earth? And like a cloud it can be likened to a sigh, and sighs fly either in the sky or its reflection – the sea…

A gondola endures the most intense embrace and kiss; an automobile, as well as a train, is irritating like an animal with its rough friction, contact and throwing about; but in an aeroplane lovers will probably only have the grasp of hands, the most sublime, deepest and finest expression of love. Yet the kisses are an illusion, the embrace a moment, like lust, and eyes the more deceptive, the more beautiful they are.

II

Aerial navigation (and flight is navigation!) has spread nationwide, since international contests have been more frequent.

Today the automobile is just a servant to the aeroplane and actually performs the duty of a lackey, a male nurse, an assistant. And look, after just a few years it has become the public ‘omnibus’, vulgarised and democratised. Le Matin newspaper, which had initiated that Peking-Paris trip, will now initiate one across France, but – by aeroplane. A year or two ago the Itala and Barzini’s automobile travelogue thrilled us, but now – we’ve already forgotten about them. Centuries are becoming years and we live by the second.

Luigi Barzini and Scipione Borghese won the 1907 Peking-Paris race in an Itala automobile.

Italy has four aerial contests at the same time, and for the duration of the international exposition, as a celebration of Italian unification, there will be a flight from Turin to Rome and back. Reading the less up to date Italian newspapers, you sense, how national megalomania or patriotism is suffering, because in Verona Cattaneo (an Italian) lags behind the Frenchman Paulhan, whilst in Bologna Vivaldi is behind the Belgian Olieslagers.

French aviator Louis Paulhan

Aviator Ugolino Vivaldi was killed in an aeroplane crash in August 1910

The Italians are feverishly moving, to reach and overtake the others, and sport generally has its largest audience there today, and La Gazzetta Sportiva has the most captivated readers. Milan will even open a school for aviators, whilst – the style poets call their poems: Aeroplani. As did the young Buzzi, a follower of Marinetti’s ‘futurism’ or Bazarov’s nihilism: ‘Let’s destroy the past!’, – which has also already given a nihilistic title to one collection of poems: Revolverate

‘Aeroplani’ and ‘Revolverate’ – click on links above to read the full editions online.

So, the author of the novel Forse che sì forse che no (Gabriele D’Annunzio) who in the aeroplane saw the Latin bicep and – imperialism and described flight, having readers with the sought after phrases, in place of a harmonious, charming and graceful impression of a Latin monoplane left the impression of an unwieldy, tasteless, German Zeppelin.

‘Forse che sì forse che no’ by Gabriele D’Annunzio, published in 1910.

However, besides the entertaining aerial literature, the Italians also have an aviator periodical (L’aviatore italiano) and as everything else aerial – disappointments. I will not mention the names, although the beginnings recall the exploits of Petrica Kerempuh.

Petrica Kerempuh had, to wit, told the Zagreb burghers, that he ‘for the highest price would jump over the steeple of the cathedral.’ Pertica, having collected the ticket money, took a run-up as the crowd looked on once, twice, thrice, but didn’t go… The burghers wanted to beat him because he had deceived them, nevertheless, Petrica had nothing but ingenuity, and so said: ‘I want to – but I cannot…’

Every piece of history starts with a story; the history of inventions, however, begins with anecdotes and jokes and King and Kaiser Wilhelm, who looked at a Zeppelin through binoculars, yet what came up close to him was a common insect – the history of contemporary aerial navigation begins. From the beginning the first audience was either the one, that was afraid, or the one, that was mocking, and today as there is already a sufficient audience, which has begun to get bored, it is the clearest sign, that man is also conquering the air. In Bologna at the last contests there was the least amount of people and – enthusiasm… Nobody was injured or killed…

Italian aviator Bartolomeo Cattaneo.

Today, for example, the winners of the contest in Verona are still amazing: the young, little Paulhan, who reached the greatest altitude of 1,260 m, and who even took a bouquet of flowers in his aeroplane to the grave of the brothers killed at Solferino for the freedom of Italy; and Efimov, that herald, the aviator of the storm, as they call him, they say he resembles Gorky in that respect, because he speaks only Russian, then Cattaneo, the pride of all Italy, who is also known abroad. Whilst here in Bologna the strong and mighty Van der Born and the other Belgian Olieslagers, who left the most pleasant impression with his flights now similar to the flight of a swallow, now that of a seagull.

Mikhail Efimov

Belgian aviator Charles Van der Born

Belgian aviator Jan Olieslagers

However, in a few decades, when the aeroplane becomes a means of transport will not the aviator become a plain chauffeur, who today is not much different from a coachman? And when shopkeepers begin to fly, smelling like a shoe shop, a barber’s and sausage maker’s, – will they not reduce the flight of the eagle to the flight of the mosquito?

Behold man: he has left his dirty and tyrannical footsteps of desecration everywhere: in the forest, on the field, in the mountains, in the earth… Now a craving is driving him into the air… But there at least he will leave no trace. The azure-fair space will remain innocent, and aerial navigation ideal.

Janko Polić Kamov, Bologna, 31st May 1910

Translation – all rights reserved © Martin Mayhew
Aviator pictures source http://www.earlyaviators.com