The Humanity: Air Travel and A Brief History of Closeness

By Elise Walter | March 18, 2019

I have been spending a lot of time on airplanes.

Nobody (who flies economy class) loves flying, particularly long, transcontinental flights. I’ve been flying ten- and twelve-hour flights for decades, starting with twice-yearly trips to and from my expatriate life in New Delhi as a native Californian. These days, I fly to and from my student life in Edinburgh and my so-called grown-up life in Washington, DC. My family and friends are scattered across the globe. We fly the way some people walk or drive. It’s how we get around. It’s how we find our way to the people we love. So, flying is not my favorite thing—but I don’t hate it.

What one learns by spending time on planes is what it means to be human. Human in every sense of the word: the visceral, disgusting, smelly, kind, loud, and secret truth of personhood. On any flight over five hours, alliances form and enemy lines are drawn. On my last flight from DC to London, a surly adolescent seated in the aisle cast her eyes over myself and the kindly, middle-aged fellow in her row. She loudly proclaimed, ‘I don’t want to sit next to nasty strangers,’ and absconded to sit with her annoying teenage friends. At which, my stranger-gentleman friend and I high-fived and spent eight hours with our legs basically intertwined in the now-empty middle seat, sleeping peacefully. So much bonus space!

I have seen people cry on planes, cried myself, smelled a variety of bodily odors, and—I’m almost certain—caught a glimpse of a couple having sex. It is deeply unnatural for so many people to spend a literal day—eating multiple meals, using the bathroom, sleeping—crammed together in an offensively small space. But it also makes you think about the unnatural space you create around yourself in the open air.


In addition to traveling, I have spent a lot of time recently reading and thinking about early modern, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. Many scholars mark a turning point from medieval to early modern life: a shift from public, toward private, life. This boundary was blurrier than we know it to be today: communities policed and protected each other in equal measure; the domestic household was a shared living space for servants, apprentices, masters, mistresses, and children. The politics of touch were wildly different; personal space wasn’t really a thing for most people.

When I was young, my best friend lived next door. We roamed in and out of each others’ kitchens, bedrooms, backyards without hesitation. We shared clothes, homework, and chewing gum. We decided our (then infant) siblings would marry so that we could be real sisters. I think of her when I read these lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds
Had been incorporate. So we grew together
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So with two seeming bodies but one heart… (3.2.203-212)

This is how close we were—how close people can be. This is boundaries transcended by the privilege of shared experiences, shared secrets, shared affections. Helena’s speech underscores the power of friendship, of oneness, of people living and growing together—a sentiment familiar to early modern audiences.

By eighteenth century, the world had changed. The sanctity of friendship, community, and interpersonal relationships gave way to anxiety about the individual roles we perform and the bodies we inhabit. Oscar Wilde introduced us to characters consumed by affect and politesse, George Gissing and Charles Dickens wrote about crippling isolation and devastating loneliness, even on the crowded streets of London. As history progressed, the lines between self/other, public/private, inner/outer became bolder, the boundaries more political, gendered, and dangerous to cross.

In literature across the centuries, we can trace a history of increasing tension between the outside world and inner life. We observe physical space increasing between people, and a growing desire to distance ourselves from others, even those we love. Today, self-isolation via social media and technology is an absolute given, rising nearly to the level of social and cultural crisis. I wonder how my kid will see herself reflected in the world when she’s a teenager. Will she worry more about the composition of her Instagram story than running wild with her best friend, or enjoying family dinners with me and her dad?

Maybe we’ll force her to travel. Not just because new cultures, countries, and experiences are important to learn and grow at any age, but also to take her on a commercial flight—economy class—for six to twelve hours. To force closeness upon her; to force her to confront humanity in all of its sad, generous, loving, and awful reality. To increase the odds that she’ll take off her magic internet glasses, make eye contact with someone sitting across the aisle, and smile.

About Elise:
Elise Walter was born in California, and is now based in Washington DC. She has worked as a public affairs and communications professional for five years, most recently on a campaign fighting for women’s reproductive health and rights in the world’s poorest countries. She is pursuing a MSc in Literature & Society at The University of Edinburgh.

Edited by Kiefer Holland and Eva Dieteren
Artwork by Erin Rooney, Instagram: @rooneydraws

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