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‘From this new culture of the air we finally see’: ‘Groundmindedness’ in the 1930s

Recorded on 11 February 2021

Speaker: Luke Seaber (UCL)

The (stereo)typical view of 1930s ‘airmindedness’ is that it is a manifestation of the zeitgeist where we have an interest in, or even obsession with, flying and airmen – Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome, Day Lewis’s apostrophizing Auden as ‘lone flyer, birdman’; the (classic) examples are legion, and may be found in Valentine Cunningham’s great sounding of ’30s culture, British Writers of the Thirties.  It is a phenomenon that has at its heart the earthbound viewer admiring the soaring plane; it is exemplified by the moment in Auden’s The Dance of Death (1933) where the Dancer becomes the Pilot, ‘the one/To teach us how to fly from the alone to the Alone’.

This paper will argue that this view of ‘airmindedness’ is incomplete, and suggest that of at least equal importance is what it will call ‘groundmindedness’.  This gives an importance to flying that lies not just in itself, not just in symbolic airmen and technological modernity, but in what flying made possible: the landscape as seen from the sky.  This view of the Earth’s surface is a vertical view that is quite different from that from mountains (that other ’30s symbolic height), quite literally a new way of looking at the world, one that combines movement and distance.  It will begin examining T.H. White’s England Have My Bones(1936), where there is a remarkable long passage describing his first flight as a passenger rather than as a pupil, before analysing a locus classicusof interwar prose descriptions of flying, Ginger and Nina’s honeymoon flight inVile Bodies, where the comparison between the sordid visual reality and Shakespeare’s nobler but imagined bird’s-eye view is a view of modernity made possible by modernity – but the gaze is looking away from the air, and the modern lies as much (or rather more)  in what is being viewed rather than where it is being viewed from.  We shall then examine the unexplored presence in Auden’s poetry of groundminded imagery such as ‘Far off like floating seeds the ships’ (‘On This Island’, 1935) or ‘She climbs the European sky,/Churches and power-stations lie/Alike among earth’s fixtures’ (‘A Summer Night’ 1933), where what matters is the phenomenon of seeing from a distant height.  Auden is a key figure here, as groundmindedness gives him a whole new reservoir of images on which to draw.  Furthermore, the source of the idea of the Pilot as ‘the one/To teach us how to fly from the alone to the Alone’ will be traced back not as it usually is to Plotinus but instead to Charles Williams’s 1931 novel The Place of the Lion, where it is associated with groundminded rather than airminded imagery.   

The history of literature over the centuries has, of course, seen the emergence of countless new themes mediated through countless new sensibilities: nature has been discovered, childhood, courtly love, modernity… the examples are perhaps endless.  Hugely rarer, however, is the phenomenon of which the advent of ‘groundmindedness’ is an example: the introduction to literature of a new visual subject; the birth of something that had never before been seen in that way, the birth through technological change and advances in aviation technology of a whole new of seeing and thus describing the world.    

IHR Seminar Series: Transport & Mobility History