Clouds fascinate me, and always have. I remember passing whole afternoons in my backyard— or, on the roof of a neighborhood synagogue— enthralled with a bunch of lumpy, soft mountains grabbing and filling the sky above me. Thunder-bringing nimbocumuluses or cumulonimbuses, many miles taller than anything on Earth, were always the most wondrous. The crowdpleasers. I would lie in the grass, with my arms back, and just let the interplay of cloud, sun, and shockblue sky send me into little raptures. I always sensed that this rapture had a very specific signification, though; that the sky was subvocalizing a secret message to me.
The clouds induced a feeling of connectivity with human history. Not all of human history. Not the bloody parts, not the embarrassments and shitty letdowns like the Hungarian uprising or Children’s Crusades. Only the Apollonian highmarks: the Aristotles, the frescoes and lazy days in the Mediterranean Sun, the Goethes and Karl Friedrich Gausses, and most of all, the skyblue sensibilities of the Age of Enlightenment. Possibly because clouds are effectively outside of Earth, unfazed by human tumult and contingency, and therefore, along with the sky and sun and moon, a universal heirloom we all inherit from the first Man. A fixture. Every man has looked up and taken in this same scenery— just the sort of universal, atemporal, shining, majestic imagery we’ve come to expect from the Apollonian impulse. But this weird rapture, sitting at the bottom of so many classical longings, seems more than just a manifestation of the Apollonian. When I look into the sky— into movements of large clouds— I feel like I can talk across time, if only they— the clouds, that is— weren’t so remote, so far out of earshot.
Airflight is the great exception. A windowside seat, when I was fourteen and coming back from Italy, afforded me my first close contact with the other realm, while we were zipping through valleys of nimbocumuli. I remember an Italian businessman spilled his whiskey and soda in my lap, and I was too enthralled to listen to his apologies. Airflight, in itself, always reveals something in the psyche. Man knows— or at least his body and his psyche know— that he’s a trespasser in the sky. Like a busload of little Icaruses. Airflight is so routine and so business-like, that we should’ve, as a race, fully adjusted by now. But we haven’t. And the pretense of routine come loose with the slightest jolt. A few engine burps or some real turbulence, and the head of Death suddenly appears to the passengers, even to people like me, who are not afraid of flying. Half the cabin mutters paternosters and their armpits reek of fear. Mothers hug children. Flights are just caricatured versions of our day-to-day suppression of the Death-head, occasionally serrated by an unexpected mementi mori.
On the way back from Argentina, flying over Brazil, the plane suddenly began to heave and drop. All the stewards and stewardesses strapped themselves in. Drinks were spilled; luggage, heaved. I hadn’t experienced true, rollercoaster turbulence for some time. You forget how much it can fuck with you. The plane pitched steeply upward, in order to escape the weather. About then, I noticed some oohs and ahhs erupting from the front rows ahead. When I opened my little port window, it looked like we were on the surface of Jupiter. Arcs of lightning. Purple and bluish clouds. We were in the middle of a vicious storm. The whole cabin— including the crew— pressed themselves against the windows, gawking and staggered. It was so beautiful and terrifying. Actually, more beautiful than terrifying. So much so that our momentary concern for turbulence and Deathheads was left aside, forgotten. From above, the monster stormcloud looked like a giant fluffy Tesla coil, illuminated by several jagged streaks at any one moment. If this is any indication, I imagine the End of the World will probably be received with more quiet awe than pandemonium.
Returning from Chicago, the orange grid of the city fighting the purple light of dawn, I’m seized by the vantage point: the transcendent, extraterrestrial— transhuman— vista of 30,000 feet. Human civilization through the eyes of a mile-high species. A shimmering fuzz on the surface of Earth. Comparable to coral or glowing lichen. We forget that the human scale— its sizes, its intensities, its adornments— is such a picky order, such a slender perspective. We are entirely couched and conditioned by it. I can peer out the porthole window, sub species aeternitatis— with a god’s eye view— then return to the human world in the cabin, to hear a retired couple, asleep in their baseball caps, snoring in unison.
The plane shimmies to a halt in Philadelphia, and a strong applause breaks out: “Thanks for saving our lives. We live yet another day.” I disembark and walk along a moving sidewalk. I am surrounded by things that would be ridiculous forty years from today in either direction. Everything is still seen through an alien lens. The same symptom probably follows those who experience great confrontations with Nature as well, minutes after stabbing your flagpole into a mountaintop or a moon. A few minutes on the regional rail, with the morning commuters, and the human eye returns.