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Drafts, Updrafts, and the Physiognomy of Air
This might have been a story about Vincent van Gogh. Might have been, I say, because most of it takes place within that very asylum where the “Mad Dutchman”—as he was remembered by the local population until recently—spent the last full year of his life. Ambling down the dark corridors of that long, two-storied, monastic edifice, one can still visit la chambre de Vincent, there where that tracked artist, denied permission—at first—to stray into the luminous landscapes beyond, would lie in bed, quietly sucking on one tube of pigment after another. He’d be chewing the very colors, swallowing the very lights he’d been prohibited—the first few months—from squeezing across his palette. Then, in so many faultless brushstrokes, deploying across his canvas.

    But, I must admit, I’m digressing already. For this isn’t a story about that masterful painter nor about the surrounding rocks, cypresses, olive groves that he rendered with such consummate skill in the very last spring of his life. Rather, it speaks of a somewhat minor episode in my own career, ten, eleven years earlier. At that time, I often went to visit a small Romanesque cloister located just alongside the establishment itself. In order to reach the cloister, one has to pass down a drive, bordered on either side by the asylum’s tall forbidding walls. The walls keep the curious from peering inward, and the demented—or simply the disturbed—from staring out.

    It was there, that winter, that I came, looking—as they say—for peace and quiet. Was there, in the rigorous harmony of its four vaulted walks, that I sought—perhaps—an asylum of my own. I’d been working rather strenuously at the time on a long discursive poem, and felt unusually tense, restless, distraught. Within the poem, words chased words in a somewhat breathless meditation on the nature of language itself. For language, over the past few years, had become the object of an intense—if somewhat vacuous—scrutiny. Become the plaything of the new scholastics, myself included. Needless to say, I’d gone astray. Got lost in the intricacies of so much empty speculation. For isn’t language, after all, nothing more than a conveyor of meaning? How, indeed, could I expect a mirror to furnish its own reflections? Provide light and shadow and the thousand vivifying details when, in fact, it was nothing more than a reflective surface?

    So there I was, pondering on such matters, pacing back and forth over the cloister’s massive soap-smooth flagstones. For hours at a time, I’d meditate, hands clasped resolutely behind my back. Happily, the edifice, by its very nature, provided a structure of sorts for all that idle rumination. The rhythm of its archways reassured, and—at the base of each—the graceful play of its colonnettes. The arches, the colonnettes, and, blossoming from their very summits, one multifoliate capital after another, all bespoke order, number, proportion. Gave, in turn, an overriding sense of coherence to my all-too-drifting speculations.

    One day (it was in February, if I remember correctly), I discovered that I had company in those sheltered corridors. An inmate from the asylum, dressed in a worn woolen bathrobe, had wandered into the cloister and begun shuffling over its flagstones with a pair of equally worn woolen pantoufles. I went on, undisturbed, with my own cogitations. Went on attempting to align the drift of one disrelated thought with another. Occasionally, too, I’d stop. I’d let my attention stray over those Romanesque capitals that seemed to have sprouted there like so many boisterous flowers from the long narrow stalks of their colonnettes. Every time I stopped, however, so would this aged inmate. He was no more than five steps behind me, and behaving—it would seem—like some kind of double. Like a shadow, say, that had come detached from its body. In this instance, however, the body happened to be mine.

    I was studying, just then, one of those capitals. It depicted—in deep chiseled relief—a mermaid, her chest distended and the long lash of her tail split into two involuted spirals. As much as the beauty of the work, I was marveling at how those anonymous craftsmen had given shape, volume, character, to the workings of their imagination. How, indeed, an entire age—the Romanesque—had articulated the draftiest regions of the human spirit. I was well into that very thought when my companion in the cloister—call him that ubiquitous double—spoke out:

    “Here,” he said. “Can I offer you one of these?” At the same moment, he raised his left arm and extended it in my direction. His hand, I remarked, was cupped but not closed. It held perfectly nothing.

    “Go ahead,” he insisted. “A cigarette, now and then, never hurt anyone. No, not in the least.” In way of coercion, he shook his hand ever so slightly as if to loosen a few cigarettes from that imaginary pack that he held out in offering.

    His eyes, I recall, were blue, remarkably blue, and his hair a helmet of cropped iron-grey bristle. With his arm outstretched and his cupped hand empty, he kept his gaze fixed—obsessively—upon mine. The distance between us, that very moment, lay broken by long slabs of sunlight, falling—in perfect intervals—through the archways.

    For fear of offending this poor creature, I stepped forward to accept—from that imaginary pack—his imaginary offering. Just as soon as I’d done so, however—simulating such a gesture as accurately as I could—he began tapping anxiously at the pockets of his bathrobe. “Damn,” he exclaimed, “there’s always something I forget, isn’t there?”

    To oblige this poor guileless individual, I found myself (much to my own surprise) producing out of my overcoat pocket yet another imaginary object: a lighter. I then proceeded to light his “cigarette,” then my own. In doing so, I realized that I’d entered into that little game of make-believe every bit as much as the inmate himself.

    “Oh, that’s better,” he exclaimed. “So much better,” he sighed, exhaling—through his chapped lips—a thin illusory stream of smoke. Then, leaning towards me, he confided: “It’s not, of course, just for the pleasure of smoking, you understand.”

    “No, of course not,” I feigned to agree.

    “Nor, for instance, for the sake of holding something as foolish as a cigarette in one’s hand. Nor tapping it, say, against some ashtray. I hope,” he added, “that that’s perfectly clear.”

    “Perfectly,” I assured him.

    Squinting, his eyes as if affected by the illusory fumes that had come curling out of that illusory cigarette, he took—that very instant—a long protracted drag. With his cheeks gone hollow, now, he hesitated. Then, at a continuous rate, released all that imaginary matter, pointing—as he did—into the empty air before him.

    “There,” he declared. “It’s for that, don’t you see? For the smoke alone,” he exclaimed. “Look,” he insisted. “Look at what the smoke is doing. What it’s telling us this very instant.”

    With an index finger pointed directly before him, he began following that imaginary vapor, taking little steps and explaining, as he went, exactly what it said. What it revealed, he insisted, not about itself but about the air it drifted through.

    “People have always thought that the air was something empty. But you, a cultivated man, mustn’t listen, do you hear? Mustn’t believe all that prattle, but respect the smoke itself. What the smoke alone has to say. For it tells us …” and here, the good man brought his mouth flush against my ear, and—in a whisper—confided: “It tells us that the air is alive. Is full of muscle, sinew. Is a body continuously rippling through its own members. Look,” he indicated, turning to a patch of light a few feet away in which—he assured me—air was gathering that very moment into an ascendant column. “Yes,” he continued, “of that, I’m utterly certain. And, thanks to the smoke alone, I can calculate the exact speed at which it’s rising.” He kneeled, now, at the base of that invisible column, and began blowing—in little puffs—illusory fumes into that imaginary draft. “You see!” he cried out in triumph. “You see!”

    His revelations turned, soon enough, into a full-length discourse: a non-stop lecture on what he called the “physiognomy of air.” He even declared that he himself knew more about that lightest of elements—its properties, propensities—than any other human being alive. I, in turn, could only listen. Submit to this poor man’s uninterrupted delirium regarding the fibers—as he called them—of certain ascendant air masses. They arose, he explained, off the flanks of mountains. Not any mountain, he specified, only those lying abruptly before a dominant wind flow. And there, as the fibers rose, they’d create, in one underlying layer after another, laminated waves. It was there, just there, that he—Marie-Antoine Thoret, as he introduced himself—would float for whole hours at a time. In a borrowed aircraft with its propeller blocked and its motor cut, he’d drift blissfully, as he put it, losing all sense of time whatsoever.

    Marie-Antoine Thoret was irrepressible. There was no stopping that rush—onslaught—of words. They, too, seemed to climb, plummet, soar at an altitude quite their own. And, as they did, his eyes—I noted—grew bluer and bluer while his voice lost itself on its own inflated rhetoric. I could only listen and, listening, feel increasingly cornered. Trapped. For I’d come to the cloister in search of some lost sense of order, number, proportion. I’d hoped to find in that harmonious edifice a solution to all the dismembered sections in my own irresolute work. Yet there I was, listening to a rant. To the delirium of this aged inmate expounding on air as if air itself were composed of so much fiber, and he, someone who’d floated—for whole hours at a time—wrapped within its very fabric.

    I fumbled for an excuse, a pretext, anything that might possibly free me from this seemingly inextricable situation. Thoret, though, wouldn’t relent. He’d only begun expounding on the veritable nature of air currents, he declared. What’s more, as a “man in desperate need of instruction,” I needed to hear everything that he—and he alone—had to disclose.

    Bit by bit, I made my way backward towards the entrance, pleading as I went some sort of urgency. By the time I’d reached the outer doorway, Thoret could only yield to the evidence. Lifting his arms, shrugging his shoulders, he finally submitted. “I shouldn’t be letting you go, though,” he declared. “There are still so many things I’ve yet to tell you, and that you—young man—have yet to learn.”

    There was a small price I had to pay, however, in exchange for my liberation. Thoret wanted my address. Knowing full well that he’d never write (probably couldn’t write), I scribbled it out on the back of an envelope. This was, clearly enough, the price I had to pay for returning to a world of reason.

    “I shouldn’t be letting you go, though,” he repeated, stuffing the envelope into his worn bathrobe pocket with one hand, and bidding me goodbye with the other. “For your instruction has only begun, do you hear? Only begun.”


The first of Thoret’s letters arrived three days later. It was no less than twelve pages long and filled, not only top to bottom but sideways as well, with yet more of that same ongoing rant: that demented exposé on the veritable nature of air. I even noticed that Thoret’s handwriting, at one point, curved into a spiral: a whole convoluted subsection unto itself. By continuously turning the page like some kind of steering wheel, I was given Thoret’s own particular account of thermal currents. “They’re like spiral staircases,” he expounded. “Enough—on certain mornings—to allow one access onto those sublime currents. Those oceans of flowing air.”

    Thoret’s letters kept coming. Three, four times a week, those fat bulging envelopes arrived like a relentless reminded of some insolvable debt. How, indeed, could I possibly respond? How, for that matter, could anyone? Soon enough, my sense of indebtedness turned into one of guilt, and guilt—in a matter of weeks—to one of anger. By then, I no longer took the trouble to open, let alone read, Thoret’s letters. I let them accumulate in a stack of their own at the far corner of my desk. There, as if in quarantine, they no only grew from week to week but increasingly disturbed, turning—bit by bit—into something perfectly insufferable. Quarantine, I came to realize, wasn’t enough. One winter day, in a moment of total exasperation, I took the whole ungainly collection and pitched it into a blazing fireplace. Doing so, I felt immediate relief.

     It came at a time in my own creative life when I’d reached an impasse. More and more, those immense spaces I’d been exploring in one poetic text after another had come to represent something alien, perilous. With “words chasing words” in a highly abstract meditation of my own making, didn’t I risk falling into the very same delirium as Thoret himself? Hallucinating on updrafts, thermal currents, on so many oceans of flowing air? Wandering, that is, off the very edge of reason itself?

    It was just then—in those very weeks—that I decided to abandon poetry altogether. To abandon poetry and begin writing stories, novels: narratives grounded in a close sense of day-to-day reality, possessing—at every given instant—their own material underpinnings. Thoret’s letters, in the meanwhile, grew more and more infrequent. They’d arrive, now, like the very last drops trickling from a house pipe or the terminal heartbeats in the life of some condemned organism. Then, one day, they stopped altogether. A full month passed, at the end of which I could at last testify to the fact: Thoret had yielded. Given up. The trickle had been checked; those last sporadic heartbeats, arrested. Poor Thoret, had he really expected a response? Or had he simply attempted to lure me into those “oceans of air?” Those “fibers” on which he claimed to have floated for whole mornings—whole days—at a time? As for myself, I’d already begun writing prose, and felt—at long last—untroubled by so much arbitrary speculation: my own, that is, as much as Thoret’s. I’d come, as they say, down to earth.

    And so it might have remained if, over ten years later, I hadn’t taken my children, one Sunday, to a small glider field on the very outskirts of St. Rémy. By then, of course, I’d long since forgotten Thoret. Forgotten—I should quickly add—poetry, as well. All things considered, hadn’t I made quite a success for myself with one novel after another? What’s more, hadn’t those novels been acclaimed for their very “rootedness?” For my power to evoke in the “most palpable, immediate terms, the underlying realities of the human condition?”

    Upon arriving at the airfield, my children rushed off to see a glider being catapulted—that very moment—into the air. While they did, I wandered along the edge of the grass runway, musing on the plot of yet another earthbound narrative. It was just there, just then, that—quite by chance—I saw it. For somewhere between the runway itself and a dirt service road stood a rather stout limestone memorial, commemorating the founder of both the airfield and a school—“The School of Air Currents”—for would-be glider pilots. It went on to read that this same Marie-Antoine Thoret had flown from this very airport, assisted by nothing more than the air currents themselves: 

For the duration of nine hours and four minutes, on the twenty-fourth of August, 1924, in an Henriot 14; 

For the duration of nine hours and thirty minutes, on the ninth of June, 1936, in a Morane 315; 

For the duration of nine hours and thirty-seven minutes, on the third of August, 1936, in yet another Morane 315.

He was also remembered, according to this inscription, for his seminal writings on air currents. They’d pioneered the way, it indicated, to a whole new world in power-free aviation.

    Thoret. Marie-Antoine Thoret. I stood there, reading the inscription over and over, mumbling his name in a mantra of sheer amazement as, just overhead, the thin whistling of gliders scissored the air. Standing there, in a state of total astonishment, I felt myself—for the very first time in my life—dissolve. Vanish. From one instant to the next, the identity I’d given myself—based, essentially, on the body of work I’d produced and the reputation I’d managed to establish as a gifted prose writer—had, in a matter of moments, evaporated. I stood there, at the edge of that grass runway, insensitive to everything both within and about me except, occasionally, the whistling sound, overhead, of those wings. Those gliders. Those near-weightless devices that rose upon the very fibers Thoret had not only discovered, explored, then interpreted in so many published works, but actually seen. Seen their “muscles,” their “sinews.” Seen that “body continuously rippling through its own members,” as he’d described it, ten years earlier, his eyes—that day—gone blue as the bright incandescent Provençal sky itself.

    Later, much later, I’d think of Thoret for long stretches of time. I’d think, too, of his illustrious predecessor at that same asylum. He who’d made, out of pigments alone, much the same discoveries. Who’d perceived the air—of the very universe—as something intrinsically alive. As a living organism endowed with the exact same tissues as those of the human spirit itself.

    Just then, however, I thought of nothing. Numb, at an utter loss, I stood there as if encircled by those thin incisive whistles. Sometimes, too, a hoot would add itself to all that random orchestration as air came rushing down the full length of one of those wafted mechanisms. Stunned, it would take me some time, that day, before I came to the ineluctable realization that I’d yet to write my first meaningful word.

Gustaf Sobin is the author of Ladder of Shadows (Imperatore Press) and The Places as Preludes (Talisman House).