Sunday, October 23, 2005

Escape Velocity

They spun and danced and crisscrossed in the air. ... But there was a difference. The men flying out there did not give
that sense of effortlessness; they seemed to be expending prodigious amounts of energy to stay in the air.
They live in a mystery, these people live in a mystery.
It's joy that holds them up.
That was what mattered. It was joy that held them up, no matter if the wings grew out of their backs or were somehow held on
with buckles and clamps. ... All that profligate investment of energy to effect a splendid, momentary reversal of natural law.
That such a reversal should demand so much and last such a short time was terrible; that people would go for it anyway
was both terrible and wonderful.
(Stephen King & Peter Straub, The Talisman. New York: Berkeley, 1985.)
At escape velocity it is possible to rise above the earth, to leave its orbit, to be propelled into space and the unsilent reaches of the expanding cosmos. But escape velocity is not known only to astronauts. One may feel it at other moments when the pull of the earth's gravity is overcome, or when the forces of gravity, wind resistance, and momentum are perfectly balanced. This feeling is something more than inertia: it is something akin to flying. It is something one may experience on a bike.

On a bike it is possible to escape the plodding heaviness of walking by converting gravity into balance and forward flight. And this forward flight is your own, aided by the mechanical advantage offered by gears and wheels but propelled by your energy alone. It is possible to rise above the road, to flow and to feel, truly, your own movement against the wind, against the pull of the earth's core, against tides, currents, memory. To ride freely is to experience the true physical self in its corporeal present. To dwell in your own body, and then to be able to transcend it. This is escape velocity.

To ride freely does not necessarily mean to ride easily. Escape velocity is hard liberty. It is not achieved while pedalling along sight-seeing or trundling to market or contemplating your enlightened exercising self. It is something very different: hard work borne out on strain and sweat and an animal alertness. And its rewards are different, too: a sense of physical transformation, not only in physical space but across internal and cosmological distances.

Our culture, paradoxically, trains indifference to the body but simultaneously inculcates fear through a kind of restless coddling. A vacillation is evident: the body is seen as a tool, as something we might perfect through relentless gym visits and sufficient plastic surgery; but it is also narrated as a delicate thing, the house of our hypochondria and imagined suffering. At root this is the struggle against -- and toward -- the weight of our mortality. Our excesses -- of sex, plastic surgery, eating, exercise, overwork -- also reflect the lunging oblivion of the viscera. But the body is the husk and holder of our soul, the corporeal expression of our being. It is a creaking thing, an organic process, shedding cells, ripening, decaying, changing.

Escape velocity is not only a flight from the body, from mortality. It is a transformation of it, a recognition of the body as process, a transformation of cells into clean motion, motion that makes you conscious of the burning of energy, the motion of your limbs, the intake of air and expulsion of carbon dioxide, the swelling and distending and unstill heart. Your connection to the cosmos, the sense of expanding along with it, perhaps bursting into it like a flower filled with light and dark matter.

It is why I love flying -- the moment of take-off, when the plane achieves a lesser sort of escape velocity -- the power, the momentum, the feeling of escape, forward motion, launching into the expanding universe. Because there is nothing easy about a plane taking off, although it is certainly beautiful. Just as there is nothing easy about biking at high velocity -- at escape velocity -- although it is certainly beautiful. Because after the shuttle has breached the atmosphere, after the plane has reached altitude, after your bike has achieved sufficient speed to settle into its momentum; after all this, there is a serenity, a floating stillness, a balancing of forces.

And this is where ideas are born, here in this space where you are perfectly aware of your living and your dying and of the balance between them.

1 comment:

Bernita said...

'nuff said.