The squire’s coverall is shiny with grease. His shoes are made of wood. His dark eyes are sunken and shadowed.
Standing between him and the slender knight he serves is a piece of high folk art: a coat of arms elaborated to teach Catholic France what its knights of the air live for. In the artwork, the body of one of France’s enemies has been brought back to earth, mockingly flattened out beneath a cross, and dropped between altar candles and the sign of the danse macabre. All around this composition the artist has drawn the sign of a heart, perhaps to signify that he lives on in control over the vanquished dead. But if this icon is a sacred heart, it is a lighthearted one.
Mais qu’il est jeune! qu’il est droit! comme il tient fièrement sa lance!
Qu’il fait de plaisir à voir dans le soleil, plein de menaces et d’élégance,
Tel que le bon écuyer qui soutient son maître face-à-face,
L’Ange . . . !
Paul Claudel, “Strasbourg” (1913)
One level up, mounted on a wing above the companions, is the Lady they live to serve: a Lewis machine gun like the one that Jay Gatsby once told his squire Nick about. But this has arrived in the airy zone from outside the angelic order. As her image teaches you, Lewis the mitrailleuse — American-designed, British-made — is sole black steel. She is spectrally far from the rose comme une fiancée of Claudel’s cathedral stone.
But through her solitude she lives. Here in her prose she still is: as sun-touched on the photographic record now as she was then, in about 1916, when a curtain was drawn to open her dark closet for men to see. Age after age, libraries’ worth of history have burned to the muddy ground of Europe, but the opening to returning light always restores gleam to the ruins and their dead.
Compare the expressions of the man at the controls and the woman being controlled.
Then imagine the Marquis de Sade in a state of meditative connoisseurship, contemplating Srta. Riviero’s calves as she rises into the air, lashed. Her knotted binding may be a bridal garment at its symbolic work of standing for. The conception comes to the marquis. Ever after, the white symbol may stand for control. Ever after, it may inflict.
Of the muscles: now bunching and heaping at the shoulders.
Of mud: for the first time in fashion history, jumping in thick drops as wind’s new mode blows it free from the ground.
Of light: reflecting instantaneously from smooth leather lowering itself into two dark cockpits.
And on a wing, a fingerprint. This is the witness’s mark of a pre-literate history. It is to be interpreted as attesting that a camera attached to someone’s body has recorded a new mode of seeing the body. Until that instant there had never been a fashion plate representing an air full of the preparation for flight. Not until then had there been a need for a word meaning, “Last moment before two bodies drop heavily into something that mind has made and then rise free of body.” But such a word is what is expressing itself through you now.
For those soon to receive death from the air, a rubber body has lifted itself and begun to float in a medium formulated from air and the idea of air. It is free already from the earth that we its destined victims plod, and soon the doors of its cathedral-lighted matrix will swing open and deliver it to the sky over our poor heads.
The celebrant of the opening has already started delivering his text. It promises to those who believe:
His name is Mark Anthony, this is his picture with the rubber body behind him and a gas implement in his hand,
and the face you see might serve as an icon of one of the Christian saints called Doctors of the Church: those whose teachings have become doctrine. By command and in experimental fact, the teaching that emanates from this shining body will have to be taken as true. In only a short time from now, the venous vessels connecting it to earth will be clamped off and released, the pains of its emergence through the doors into the light will begin, and the shadow it casts from heaven for the first time will be seen to be everlasting.