The death of Little Nell, times 300 or so


As usual, I find myself indulging a cold, heartless, over-intellectualized response to the story of the moment — which ought to have, and is meant to have, every human heart on the globe beating in sympathy. At the moment, the story of the moment, buttonholing us like the Ancient Mariner and demanding our tears or else, is the missing Malaysian airplane.

Sorrow for the passengers — undoubtedly all dead, one way or another, by now — and their families, will be well, and extensively, and facilely handled by the official organs of opinion and manufacturers of mass sentiment. This is a relief; the job is in excellent professional hands, far more skilled than mine, and I can leave it to them with a clear conscience.

The murderous modern world at least gave the passengers on that unlucky flight a relatively quick quietus, or so we can reasonably hope. This sometimes seems like a not-bad alternative to other ways of extinction on the carte du jour — like, say, freezing to death in a cobbled-together cardboard shelter on the steps of the local public library or parish church, which is a fairly common and unremarkable event in my town.

Peace to their ashes. As if it weren’t bad enough to be alive on an airplane, these poor devils had to die on one. Quick, okay, but who wants to die in the kind of company you find on an airplane?

What interests me, of course — being, as I am, a cold, heartless fellow, and so on — is the cultural response to this latest aircraft horror. Conventional tropes have been deployed, but there are a few new wrinkles.

Anything involving airplanes touches us to the quick, doesn’t it? At least half the horror of Nineleven(tm) lies in the fact that it was done with airplanes. The very emblems of our globe-straddling ‘civilization’ were turned against us.

This goes back a ways. I’m old enough to remember when airplane hijackings first became a fad — though aircraft have been hijacked as long as there have been aircraft. The history of aircraft hijackings is fascinating, and well worth reading.

Though the history is so old, moral panic on the subject is more recent. The first few times I ever boarded an aircraft, nobody searched me, or put me through a metal detector, or asked me for ID. Then came the metal detectors, then the X-ray machines, and finally the ID obsession — which I always thought was promoted by the airlines themselves, in order to kibosh the secondary market in airplane tickets. The ID craze started some years before Nineleven(tm); and of course all the Nineleven hijackers had perfectly good ID.

Nowadays you have to take off your belt, and your shoes, and empty your pockets, and submit to some perv’s nude-photography kink, before you can take your seat on an airplane. (I love the nude-photography thing, by the way; I figure that a glimpse of my nude physique would cure any voyeur, if anything could.)

Surely it’s clear that this is all liturgy, apotropaic magic, a series of rites meant to preserve the Holy of Holies from contamination?

More than anything else, air travel makes us feel that we have slipped the surly bonds of earth(*). We can get on an airplane, and within hours — having propitiated the Airplane Gods with the usual self-abasements — we can be at dying Granny’s bedside, or in bed with a lissome Thai girl. Air travel makes us feel in control, and for just that reason — I think — arouses an old and well-founded fear of hubris. The hijacker, actual or potential, takes shape in our imagination as the personification of Nemesis, a venerable ancient goddess whose sway we all acknowledge, consciously or not. The suety TSA junk-groper, in his ugly ill-fitting uniform and latex gloves, is the priest who absolves us from our presumption and sends us sinless on our way.

Prominent among the official responses to the disappearance of flight 370 was a complaint that our world isn’t controlled and surveilled enough. How, we ask, can an airplane just disappear? That isn’t supposed to happen. All those satellites, all that radar — isn’t that supposed to eliminate the realm of the unknown?

Personally, I’m rather glad there are still uncharted seas, and places where something as big as an airplane might simply disappear. I have a notion that I might like to disappear myself someday.

No doubt few of the passengers on Flight 370 had disappearance in mind; but if you have to disappear, there’s a certain grandeur in disappearing without a trace.

(*) From one of the worst poems ever, even if an Irishman did write it. Quite suitably cited by that drooling old fool, Ronald Reagan, with his repertoire of two second-rate actor’s tics, and his confectionery hairdo, and his ruined rouged cheeks, on the occasion of another spectacular failure of instrumental rationality and technological presumption:

6 thoughts on “The death of Little Nell, times 300 or so

  1. i’m telling my fundy friends they were raptured. all signs point to that. only one of them was keen enough to ask, “what? the plane too?” as if the Almighty can’t rapture a plane. at a small birthday party yesterday the hostess droned on for 30 mins about every little detail. i wanted to suggest it was life imitating JJ Abrams and they are just “Lost,” but one of them had got off a flight the day before visiting a sickly parent. tongue, bitten. maybe melville was right: they are in a true place, not found on any map.

    • Lol. Thanks for the laugh. There I was thinking they fell down the orifice of an extinct volcano and ended up in a prehistoric land filled with dinosaurs. I never considered the possibility of being raptured, but seeing as this was a Malaysian flight, they were probably Muslims for the most part. Can Muslims be raptured, or just shot from the sky like Iran Air Flight 655?

      Then again listening to Ronnie “pained to the core” Reagan reminded me of the Columbia shuttle disaster, where an Israeli, a Hindu and a bunch of Americans were blown to pieces over Palestine, Texas on the Sabbath. The Israeli astronaut had participated in Israeli’s attack on the nuclear reactor at Osiraq, Iraq.

      If unbelievers can’t see the Hand of Allah in that then I don’t know what to say. If Allah can smite infidels in a fast moving spacecraft, I am sure he can rapture Muslims, airplane and all, if that’s His bag.

      Did I answer my own question?

    • I like the Rapture theory quite a lot. I assume the plane was Raptured as well, just to provide an easier psychological transition for the passengers. They think they’re going to arrive at Beijing, but instead they disembark at the terminal of your dreams: no customs, no immigration, nobody in uniform, nice music and edible food. Oh and the food is free. In fact everything is free.

      I gather most of the passengers on the flight were Chinese, and so probably not very religious in any way, but perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven needs some energetic, entrepreneurial types as well as the contemplative but not very practical Saints. I imagine the Chinese will be happily running the Celestial infrastructure in no time.

      • thanks Michael. Pilot Michael J. Smith said “Uh oh.” (per wiki). you seem to have made it through the challenger disaster all right. you should cash in on that in some way. i remember some years ago sitting in a planetarium with an ex. a comet went over the projected sky & the instructor asks, “who knows what that is?” my ladyfriend says “Christa McAuliffe?” i was laughing so hard i almost didn’t notice the staff with pitchforks in their eyes demanding that she leave. 7 years after the event. TOO SOON!!! if the plane crashed somewhere with survivors, how soon before someone says, “Pass the co-pilot please.” i like the Land of the Lost take, too. disaster porn are us.

  2. Gee. All that multi-billion dollar “Homeland Security” crap, but nobody thought to put unmodifiable GPS uplinks on airliners. It’s reminiscent of how they used to have cockpit doors made of cardboard. These security “experts” evidently don’t get paid to think.

    I am far more worried about the Ukraine fiasco.

    It is 90% obvious to me that Russia must invade all of Ukraine, both East and West. I think they will stay only long enough for new elections to be held. They cannot allow Ukraine to be controlled by the West, because that would allow NATO to use that whole country to station “instant kill” missile sites. They say that the systems in Poland are anti-missile, but that’s not believable: Those will mostly be offensive “instant kill” missile sites. Consider:

    Science, technology and the nuclear arms race

    “SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] flown on depressed trajectories would have short flight times, comparable to escape times of bombers and launch times of ICBMs, thus raising the possibility of short time-of-flight (STOF) nuclear attacks.”

    Depressed trajectory ground-to-ground missiles are just the same as SLBMs. They probably can reach Moscow from Poland within five minutes. Ukraine encroaches on much more Russian territory than does Poland. And I did a crude, but reasonable, map-measurement to compare the closest point in Poland and the closest point in Ukraine to Moscow. The border of Ukraine is about 2.68 times closer to Moscow than the border of Poland. So, missiles from Ukraine could reach Moscow in about 1.9 minutes. And they would be far more difficult to track and intercept. What would one take this to mean for the M.A.D. equation? It would certainly be most unhealthy for all of us.

    I think this is really the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened when I was in junior high, in reverse.

    They think Russia will let NATO control Ukraine? Really? Obviously intelligence is not part of what it takes to run an empire.

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