The history of atmosphere is recklessly slow.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier sit in the cockpit of the Aeroposta Argentina. The two explorers wear leather helmets and bomber jackets. Goggles enwrap their foreheads, securing twin pairs of round-rimmed spectacles. They are preparing for a night flight. The writer, who is not yet a writer, who is the pilot, turns to the architect, who is not yet an architect, who holds a sheaf of papers in his lap. Saint-Exupery gestures with a gloved hand, palm up: Êtes vous pret? Le Corbusier nods, his mouth a thin line. Saint-Exupery looks to the instrument panel, to an array of bobbing technicolor needles. He surveys the headwinds and air density, the temperature and lift coefficient. He winks at Le Corbusier, whose knuckles are white against the doorframe. He flicks his wrist to gun the engine.
Buenos Aires stretches beyond the ribbon of tarmac. As the plane taxis, accelerates and rises into the air, the city falls below, a bustling grid. Le Corbusier notes the configuration of opera houses and prisons, motorcars and banks and fountains lit by streetlamp orbs. He eyes the order of things, the grooves among buildings, the serendipities of color and shape. Saint-Exupery observes the ease with which the Aeroposta Argentina moves through the lithosphere to enter the star-cut sky. A sheath of clouds obscures the city, and the biplane sets into darkness.
Buenos Aires to Asunción: one thousand and forty kilometers, two hours, north through La Plata Basin along the Paraná River, past Corrientes and Posadas. When the cloudbanks clear, a countryside reveals itself as newly obscure. Each man beholds the land through the eyes of the other. Under darkness, the continent unscrolls. Modernity, thinks Saint-Exupery. A new planet, thinks Le Corbusier. For a moment, two hands brush. The writer and the architect, who are not yet writer and architect, witness the moon flitting onto open land, marking fields with silver. Two pairs of lips part. The night opens before them like canvas.
The Soft Flight
At nine thousand feet, the Aeroposta Argentina reaches stillness, and the airplane slips into quiet. The sounds of the propellers and throttle, the bluster at the viewing deck, fade to a serene hush. Antoine de Saint-Exupery prepares to relax. His wrist rests against the throttle. His eyes begin to lower. His shoulders fall slack. The sky is clear as a knife. Two hours until landing in Paraguay.
The airplane flies away from the city and through the plains. The airplane skims through the steady winds above la Plata Basin and northwards. Le Corbusier holds a sheaf of blueprints in his lap. The papers purr with the faint vibrations of the engine. The architect straightens the broad sheets, sets them against the door, and straightens them again. Veins of blue ink peek out: Ville Contempor—. Immueb—. Half-formed cruciform skyscrapers, curtained walls of glass, a city gridded by landing strips. Plan Vois—.
Le Corbusier looks out into the night. The moon twins the far strut to its shadow. In the window, his halved reflection strips him of his name. Passing over the swamped fields bordering the Río de Plata, the architect is Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, a Swiss boy at the Charterhouse of the Valley of Ema. Reflected in his eyes he sees Florentine hills, cement curving into archways, a devotee with hands at his brow.
Saint-Exupery reflects on the cities of his youth: Lyon, Remens, Le Mans, Villafrance, Paris, Toulouse, Dakar, Río de Oro, Asunción.
Saint-Exupery lowers the Aeroposta Argentina one hundred feet, two hundred feet, three hundred feet, down through the lowest scrim of clouds. In a shared reverie, the writer and the architect cool their palms against the cockpit windows, leaving traces of their lifelines on the glass. The fielded grass far below grows visible. Saint-Exupery opens the door and walks onto the wing. Silently, Le Corbusier follows. The night is velvet around them.
The Static Flight
At nine thousand feet, the sounds of the Aeroposta Argentina—thudding propellers, roaring throttle, rocking frame against headwinds—abate and fade. Above and ahead, the open sky extends, emptied of obstacles. The airplane’s short wings thread and propel along the current. The cabin holds hundreds of boxes of airmail for delivery. Due north to Paraguay. Le Corbusier thumbs his papers. Saint-Exupery adjusts the ailerons and stabilizer, calculates the drift, and breathes. The moon drapes the starboard wingtip in pearl. The biplane flies due north, and the night beyond is languid. The bodies of the two men weigh heavy against the seats of the Aeroposta Argentina. Their backs arc and slope into perfect Cs. Their elbows bend and rest against parachute straps. Le Corbusier watches land flicker into view and quickly disappear. Saint-Exupery maintains the controls of the airplane with the gentlest pressure. The airplane passes through the hours in a perpetual static. The men exchange no words. Ce est le purgatoire, thinks Le Corbusier. L‘absence de conflit. Hope and fatigue commingle with a sense of neverending night. Ascunción is a destination that they never expect to reach. The men do not hum, nor do they click their teeth, nor do they lick their lips. The men hardly move. Perhaps they are restrained by malaise. As the Aeroposta Argentina flies above the Corrientes, Saint-Exupery contemplates carnivory. Animals eating animals, a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. The Aeroposta Argentina lowers to follow the curves of the earth. A weak dawn adorns the surging land with green, and then puce, and then slate. As the airplane approaches the ground, Le Corbusier imagines raking the fields with his fingernails. Into the soiled grooves, with thumb and forefinger, he will place enormous crates of steel.
The Manifest Flight
At nine thousand feet, the Aeroposta Argentina stills. Buenos Aires fades away, draped in clouded night. From the cockpit of the mail carrier, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier peer into the darkness. Checking the dashboard, Saint-Exupery adjusts the ailerons and stabilizer, calculates the drift. The airplane will arrive in Asunción at dawn. The inagural flight of the Aeroposta Argentina is the inaugural flight of Le Corbusier. Before, our eyes did not see, the architect will later write. Today it is the question of the airplane eye.
We must sieve Le Corbusier’s writings, blueprints, and letters through the airplane’s gridded wingspan. We must trace the architect from the ground to the air, and again to the ground. We must circumscribe this material to conclude. This flight changes this man, melts and shifts him. Ornaments his Ville Contemporaine with landing strips. Brushes his Fordist assemblage with wingtips.
And Saint-Exupery? The man has been flying for years. He guides Le Corbusier into the ink, away from something and towards something else. Maybe Saint-Exupery gilds Le Corbusier’s Cartesian onanism. Maybe Saint-Exupery trades prosody for city plans. Maybe, onto the edges of the clearing sky, the two men spread a map. Maybe they save France for later. Maybe the inaugural flight of the Aeroposta Argentina pushes Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier into the molds of writer and architect. Everything before sublimity is accident.
We circumscribe this moment and navigate. We drape the morning with night’s movement. We drape belief in luck. Turn it like a prism. Turn it like a vase of anemones. Turn it like an atlas. Turn it like a mirror. Turn it like chance. The landing of an airplane calves the past and narrative present.
The Illusive Flight
A submerged shoal, the Barra del Indio, divides the brackish and saltless waters of the Río de la Plata. When pilots fly their airplanes close enough to the exact coordinates of the tidal prism, their monitors are prone to night mirage. In clear conditions, distant stationary lights are mistaken for stars. Fields appear as black holes. Short and long distances collapse, forging the illusion of a depthless flight.
As the Aeroposta Argentina flies along la Plata Basin, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier see, by the port carriage, a woman tumbling from the sky. She wears the costume of early commercial flight: a silver jacket, a square hat, a skirted tailpiece. The hat whirls from her head and strikes Le Corbusier’s passenger window. She unbuttons her jacket; this, too, whirs inches from the architect’s nose.
The woman somersaults through the black air, limbs dappled by the incidental light of stationary stars. As she wheels below the Aeroposta Argentina, legs over head over arms, scraps of cloth catch the airplane’s tail. A wan blouse flattens against the viewing platform. The woman’s laughter echoes against the airplaine’s carbonite body. If the writer and the architect were to emerge from the cockpit—if they were to peer out and down—they would see the woman’s shoulders extended, arms stretched like thin human wings.
The Utopian Flight
The Aeroposta Argentina levels at nine thousand feet, and everything mechanical goes quiet, when the pilot asks the architect about utopia.
“What does it look like?” the pilot asks.
The architect traces the ellipses of his blueprint cities. He bites his lower lip.
“A fractal,” says the architect. “Perfectly symmetrical. And at the center, an engineer.”
The Historical Flight
The Aeroposta Argentina carries Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier through the twentieth century. From an airplane, you can see everything. Well, some of everything. As the plane takes off, its wings trail coal dust, steam, and canary feathers. Kaya is laughing at Wounded Knee and then she is not. Otto Von Bismarck combs his moustache. Princess Sayyida Al-Busaid gets married. Homer Plessy goes to jail. Nigeria is carved into two. Samoa is carved into two. Major Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams alphebetizes concentration camps in his Rollodex. Czar Nicholas II visits France. John Findlay Wallace gifts the Panama Canal to John Frank Stevens. Theodore Roosevelt says, “the country is unquestionably on the verge of a timber famine.” People learn French in Mauritania and forget Soninke and become clerks. President Lázaro Cárdenas redestributes 45,000,000 acres of land. The Lusitania sinks. Gavrilo Princip shoots Franz Ferdidand. Baghdad falls. Vladimir Lenin returns to Petrograd. Marshal Foch signs an armistice and says, “I’d like to get on one of those little horse-drawn canal boats in southern France and lie in the sun the rest of my life.” Kaiser Wilhelm II moves to Holland. Gold on the naked body, Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste write, Narcissists who stain themselves. Howard Hyde Russell celebrates Prohibition. William Henry Waddington signs the Treaty of Berlin. Walther Rathenau and M. Tchitcherin sign the Treaty of Rapallo. John Edgar Hoover eats a sausage. Paul von Hindenberg eats bratwurst. Paul Joseph Goebbels brings pollock to the first meeting of Der Angriff. The Pact of Paris outlaws war. Hermann Göring buys five hundred grams of morphine. André Maginot draws a line. The night is clear.
The Experimental Flight
Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier are conducting an experiment in the cockpit of the Aeroposta Argentina. They are testing a theory: a love theory. And they are the subjects.
At nine thousand feet, the sounds of the airplane fall to a hush. Saint-Exupery rests his hand on the throttle and relaxes in his seat. Le Corbusier lets his head fall back. Each man turns to face the other. Saint-Exupery sets a stop-watch for four minutes.
“Begin,” Saint-Exupery says.
The writer and the architect lock gazes.
The Manned Flight
Eros and Thanatos co-pilot the Aeroposta Argentina. The airplane is last seen flying over Patagonia.
The Other Experimental Flight
Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier are conducting another experiment in the cockpit of the Aeroposta Argentina. The writer and the architect are measuring ‘the colonial impulse.’ Required materials are an airplane, a landscape, a set of seeing eyes, and an array of Petri dishes.
The pilot predicts that ‘the colonial impulse’ will oscillate from Buenos Aires to Asunción. As he prepares for takeoff, he arranges the Petri dishes in a row along the edge of the cabin. Each Petri dish is given a small seatbelt. As he arranges the materials, he reflects on a statement by Charles Baudelaire. I will always be happy in the place where I am not. Le Corbusier is invested in this experiment, and has joined Saint-Exupery for the observation period. The two men don their bomber jackets and helmets, goggles and flight miens, and clamber into the airmail carrier.
The experiment is best carried out at night, when everybody in the world is asleep.
Saint-Exupery places his wrist on the throttle and Le Corbusier buckles himself in. The writer and the architect rise above Buenos Aires, chins raised. They look out across the landscape and they each feel a respective sense of hunger. Do I want this, the men think to themselves. Do I want it for myself. Each man places his sense of hunger in a Petri dish, and he leaves it in the cabin to culture.
The Aeroposta Argentina rises, catches a trade wind, and rises more. The two men assess their hunger from above. Do I want to eat this city, each man asks. Do I want it inside of me. The writer again places his answer in a Petri dish, as does the architect. Each man waits patiently for his desire to manifest. They rise further into the clouded night.
The Ecstatic Flight
The first thing a pilot learns in flight school is that the soul cannot fly as fast as an airplane. Antoine de Saint-Exupery scans the instrument panel of the Aeroposta Argentina before initiating takeoff. He sets the altimeter below zero, giving each soul an early start. He blasts the propellers. The grass flattens, and the night creatures disperse. Go ahead, he whispers. The engine roars and the wheels push against their chocks.
Amid the traction, Saint-Exupery’s soul flees, and Le Corbusier’s soul follows. The pilot gazes wistfully beyond the rafters of the hangar. The passenger stares off, eyes glassy, at the blinking lights of the cityscape. The pilot’s men, sillhouetted against the tarmac, guard their ears. The Aeroposta Argentina vibrates, rattling its crates of airmail. The vein at the passenger’s temple is bulging. The pilot leans out the window to say, We’re off. His men shove away the wooden blocks holding the wheels still. The airplane launches into the air towards Paraguay.
The bodies of the pilot and the passenger are carried through the air at one hundred and twenty nautical miles per hour, due north, as the airplane flies. The souls, at odds with trade winds, are moving much more slowly. They veer starboard to visit the glaciers at Perito Moreno. They ride the thermals and find themselves gaining momentum, wending through ridges and above forests, riding their way to Uppsala. They settle in the mountains of the Scandes and build a home at the mouth of a cave. The souls learn to create fire, and they learn to forage.
The reunion of the soul and the body is, of course, dependent on weather conditions. For some time, the pilot and passenger are left hollow. Moving through the night, Buenos Aires to Asunción, the two men in the airplane are cold, and they’re not sure why, and their hearts are beating slowly in their chests. When the Aeroposta Argentina lands in Paraguay, Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier are surprised to find that they are holding hands. Their gazes meet, and they look into an empty future.
The Grim Flight
The airplane is an oracle, and the futures of the pilot and passenger are as visible and vincible as their pasts. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Le Corbusier maneuver the Aeroposta Argentina through the night, the two men view their deaths etched into the horizon. Buenos Aires through La Plata Basin, along the Paraná River, beyond Corrientes and Posadas to Asunción—the images appear in flashes. Neither the writer nor the architect can discern whose death belongs to whom:
A bracelet, floating in green water, engraved with the letter C.
A broad Corsican shoreline, an explosion beyond the mountains.
Bits of glass whirling among jagged ravines.
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning, vertical and dropping.
The writer and the architect fly toward their deaths. Le Corbusier is pleased by the composition of these images. Saint-Exupery is struck by the elegance of the color palette. Each man can imagine his death photographed, cut, and pasted onto a high-resolution print. Each man can imagine his death, adorned in sequins, spread across a baby grand in the concert hall. Each man looks to the other and congratulates him. Le Corbusier sighs and grins. Saint-Exupery opens the throttle, and the airplane jettisons across the Paraguayan border.
The images continue to appear at the edge of the dawning skyline. Dappled, naked buttocks, shifting with the Mediterranean tide. Brown hair, tangled with seaweed, caught by a fisherman’s hook. A scrap of wetsuit. Rotten, bloated skin. A pair of thin, pink lips, saying, Non domani. An empty vial. A carotid artery. Normandy from above. A bridge, opening, and beneath, circling fish. One drum bursting, then another. A broken radio. A bent swastika. Wrinkled fingertips. Ink unfurling into a mouth.
The Grimmer Flight
The oil pressure falls, the engine shivers, and the connecting rod jerks. Combusting and bursting into a million fiberglass shards, the Aeroposta Argentina drops into the sea.
The Future Flight
A writer and an architect fly an airplane from Buenos Aires to Asunción. The flight occurs at night, nearing twilight. A band of color stretches across the horizon; one moment is transitioning into the next. The plane lists towards the future. In years to come, the writer will fly reconaissance, and the architect will fly the Vichy flag. His blueprints will curdle. The movement will molt and he will catch on fire. Two hours, and one thousand and forty kilometers, the Aeroposta Argentina flies through a splinter between eras.
The earth is reassuring, the writer will write. The landing is a letdown.
Drowned in the sky, the pilot sees the earth above him fan out like a coastline, then tumble and spin—
Saint-Exupery, A Sense of Life