So my wife and I recently observed the Feast of Tabernacles with family in the Poitou region of France. I did a bit of writing during the trip. Here’s the second of two essays I wrote thinking about the cultural and social significance of airports and airplane travel.
This essay was written in the air and on the ground.
For the most part, I’ve only ever flown on regional planes covering distances traversed within two or three hours; so my experience may be limited by the types of planes I’ve been in and their accompanying material, mechanical, and formal qualities.
But it strikes me that the constant, deafening roar of an airplane interior comprises a type of shared or collective trauma that creates good Samaritans out of the majority of a flight’s passengers. It begins as soon as the plane leaves the runway—when the micro-trauma of attitude and pitch adjustment makes it all real.
And, just as quickly, the spell obliterates as soon as the engines turn off at the gate. Then we’re all savage beasts, the native technological music of our flying metal box no longer working to calm (or at least to smother) our more self-serving instincts.
Just as strangers are drawn together by shared calamity in a rushing realization of shared humanity, the cabin roar, in suddenly rendering all passengers mostly or completely deaf, as well as scrambling our capacity for meaningful (or at least substantial) communication, compresses us into a semi-homogeneous cylinder of understanding and general kindness. The roar facilitates accustomization to the awkward proximity between persons, the cramped seats, the inopportune visits to the miniscule lavatories, the regular reminders (through signs both artificial and natural) that we could all die spectacularly at any moment; and it provides justification for the practices that go along with these realities: boiled-down messages of affirmation or negation, tolerance of physical contact, an increase in polite gestures and other phatic signals of our shared trauma: the roar.
Its constancy is perhaps the roar’s characteristic trait. It is constantlyloud. As humans do when exposed overlong to a disaster or other stressor, we come to assign normalcy (if not safety and comfort) to the regularity of the roar.
Consider that our stress increases whenever we detect a variation in the roar’s pitch—a whining down or a revving up means that something has become non-routine. The pilots have to actually do something (in the doing of which they might make a mistake, leading to the aforementioned death spectacle). Or the variance could mean that the starboard engine is failing and our deaths are not only possible, but imminent.
Such is the power of the roar.
The roar taps into a native insecurity regarding one’s transportation at the hands of someone one doesn’t know and usually, in the case of airline flight, may never even see. The roar is the reminder to not pay attention to the man (or men) quite literally behind the curtain (or, less comfortingly, the sealed bulletproof door). Simultaneously, the roar is the signal that all is as it should be: normal, routine, safe. Variance in the roar is an uncomfortable reminder that all is not routine—unless routine is handling a metal machine in a fugal call-and-response with the heavens at 30,000 feet. In which case one hardly notices, I suppose.
The phenomenon, regardless of its scientific truth, I think says something about the human power to make things normal. A great extent of human nature lies in its normative capabilities. This is how culture is made—by making certain things “normal” and, in the process, implying (and later demarcating) other things as “abnormal”—from which process arise, I would think, many of humanity’s conflicts as well as its structures. It takes us no time to come to think of something as normal (and hence normative), especially when we sense that the people around us are already doing so. In a way, then, the urge to normalize is also driven by performance (that is, striving to relate oneself to the group—either as part of it, “fitting in,” or as distinct from it, “standing out”)—which begs the question of what comes first in human nature: Is it the act of normalizing our surroundings or the act of normalizing ourselves (or being normalized)?
It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.
Meanwhile, the roar continues until the plane lands successfully, at which time the shared trauma ceases in a catharsis of short-lived fellow feeling and brief, friendly conversations driven not by trauma but by the relatively secure assumption that one will only have to keep it up for a few minutes, after which none of us will ever see each other again.
And we sigh. We unbuckle our safety belts. We gab to the strangers next to us. We call loved ones. And we create our own little roar.