Do we need to justify pushing our limits? Doing so is at the very heart of the urge to explore, which is embedded in our species. Recently, while doing some research on Amelia Earhart, I ran across a post on Maria Popova’s extraordinary site The Marginalian, one that examines the realm of action within the context of the human spirit. Back in 2016, Popova was looking at Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), the famed journalist and commentator, who not long after Earhart’s fatal flight into the Pacific discussed the extent of her achievement and the reasons she had flown.
Here’s a passage from Lippmann’s New York Herald Tribune column, written on July 8, 1937, just six days after the aviator and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared somewhere near Howland Island between Hawaii and Australia. Lippmann asks whether such ventures must be justified by a utilitarian purpose and concludes that what is at stake here transcends simple utility and speaks to the deepest motivations of our explorations. It is a belief in a goal and the willingness to risk all. Practicality carries little weight among those who actually do the deed:
“The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart’s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.
Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighted by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.
No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.”
Image: Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E. During its modification, the aircraft had most of the cabin windows blanked out and had specially fitted fuselage fuel tanks. The round RDF loop antenna can be seen above the cockpit. This image was taken at Luke Field in Hawaii on March 20, 1937. Earhart’s final flight in this aircraft took place on July 2, 1937, taking off from Lae, New Guinea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Scanned from Lockheed Aircraft since 1913, by René Francillon. Photo credit USAF.
Lippmann’s tribute is a gorgeous piece of writing, available in The Essential Lippmann (Random House, 1963). Naturally, it makes me think of other flyers who rode those same winds, people like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Beryl Markham, who in 1936 was the first to dare a solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic from east to west. As I’ve recently re-read Markham’s elegant West With the Night (1942), she as well as Earhart has been on my mind. What a shame that Earhart didn’t live to pen a memoir as powerful, but perhaps Lippmann in some small way did it for her.