Thomas M. Disch - On Wings of Song

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On Wings of Song


Serialised: F&SF. Feb 1979. Mar 1979. Apr 1979.
"Daniel is raised in Iowa in the last years of this century. In the Midwest, the descendants of the New Right are in power: women know their place, sex is dirty and the arts are strictly regulated. But in New York, people can fly. Their bodies are hooked up to a special apparatus, they sing, and in a moment of self-transcendence they achieve flight. They're called fairies. Daniel marries Boa, the daughter of Grandison Whiting, an influential millionaire fully capable of articulating and defending his power. The two leave for New York, a city which, by the year 2000, is a catalogue of corruption, madness and starvation. Daniel and Boa rush immediately to a flying studio. Boa flies, taking off to indulge in mystical narcissism, not to return to her body for thirteen years. Daniel, to his disappointment, remains on the ground. For several years he makes it by hustling and tending a gym, until he catches the eye of the leading castrato at the faddish bel canto house, for whom he dyes his skin black and consents to wear a chastity belt. Boa returns and tries to lure Daniel away with her, but he prefers the vile humiliations and reeking successes of New York."

A synopsis of On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch, "Taking Flight with Thomas Disch", An interview by David Galbraith and Alexander Wilson, The Body Politic December 1981.

John Shirley: With On Wings of Song did you intend to write a formal novel in the manner of, say, Jane Austen?

Tom Disch: All my novels are pretty formal, but David Copperfield was the conscious model. First I had it in the back of my mind that I was going to write a book about flying, because I'd had these great flying dreams. And one is always casting about for a big subject that you as a writer have authority to deal with, some particular area of expertise that's yours…Hemingway could write about big game hunting or bullfights, right? And I knew what it was like to fly! Because of these dreams, I had an absolutely unshakeable interior conviction that I knew what it was like to fly physically, from my body, in these dreams. And the particular overriding character of these dreams is that I knew how to fly in dazzling situations - I had a great flight through the Grand Canyon. And I had some theory of what flying dreams were representing, what they were metaphors of. So I had it in the back of my mind that someday I was going to write a good flying epic. And then I was reading John Berger's essays about painting, The Moment of Cubism, in which he quotes a poem of Apollinaire. And reading the four lines of that poem, the novel just sprang into my mind in all the basic lineaments of the plot within half an hour. I immediately started writing the novel. Usually a novel; of mine will percolate for years before I actually have the time to sit down and write it. But at this time I left everything else I was doing and started the novel, and continued on, without a break. It was the most extemporaneous novel I've ever done, in its separate sections. I felt a great confidence about what I was doing. The metaphor of flying, of "knowing" how to do it, enabled me to be writing with more novelistic freedom than I'd ever felt before. In earlier novels, like The Genocides, I had an almost chapter-by-chapter scenario as to the plot, and I never varied from that very precise scenario in the writing of the novel
"Disching It Out", John Shirley interviews Thomas M. Disch, Heavy Metal September 1982

Larry McCaffrey: You mention in your preface to "How to Fly" that after reading an Apollinaire quote about Cubism in a John Berger - "Already I hear the shrill sound of a the friend's voice to me, who walks with you in Europe while never leaving America" - you knew how you would develop the central metaphor of flying in On Wings of Song. What was it that was resonant about that passage?

Thomas M. Disch: My reaction has to be put into the context of Berger's essay, in which he's celebrating the way in which cubism had been such a liberating influence. It's a joyful celebration of certain specific modern experiences and potentials - all those things we take for granted today, like the airplane, electricity, the radio, that seemed at that early moment to be utterly vibrant , new wonderful, bright. Apollinaire's line has to be seen in that context. It's not a fancy metaphor but an attempt to state an actual, but mind-boggling, possibility: If all these things are possible, what is the furthest limit of such power? The passage also implies the antithesis of the two realms of European and American social cultural experiences that Berger deals with in his essay. The "shrill sound" has to do with the tinny sound of the telephone, but because of the timbre it also suggests the idea of sexual doubleness. And because a lot of the essay is about celebrating flight, the story that immediately came to me is implicit in that image as well. The gestalt that came together from all these things involved the possibility of flying and not being "here" when you are "here". In the most basic sense this a common daydream - out-of-body flight; but what I began to think of was a way of giving this daydream a scientific rationale. Once that was provided, the questions that immediately came to mind are: What condition is your body in when you're not in it? Would it be something like the cinema? What if you did not come back? Your body would still physically be there, but who would take care of it? I realized my story had to be that of someone looking after this physical residue. So within five minutes of reading that passage, I had conceived of the basic plot of the book, from beginning to end, and of the relationship of the hero and heroine.

Larry McCaffrey: One of the most striking aspects of the flying metaphor in On Wings of Song is the way you unravel so many different aspects from this central kernel: flying as a metaphor for sex, for transcendence, for death, for music.

Thomas M. Disch: How much can the artist bring to bear on one metaphor? That's the art of writing. To use a metaphor successfully in a novel you must first recognize that your central metaphor is capable of supporting an enormous amount of weight. In this case, I knew immediately that I could pile a lot onto the metaphorical scaffolding. The body/soul dichotomy has always been a powerful one for me, something that seems to trigger my deepest hopes, fears and creative impulses. I was also instantly delighted with the prospect of extensively developing the flying metaphor because it would allow me to use my own flying dreams, which are quite sensational. And it was subject that had never been dealt with except trivially - the sort of pedestrian thing you see in something like William Wharton's Birdy, which was terrible, or Superman.

Larry McCaffrey: On Wings of Song deals with gay life in more ways, and more openly than your earlier works do. Are you consciously exploring gay life in your work?

Thomas M. Disch: When I cast a novel, I always look for equal opportunity situations. What my characters do and are is governed by forces beyond my control - by what is dictated by my dramatic imagination. I've certainly consciously avoided the temptation to write about the erotic adventures of gay life. In On Wings of Song I deliberately chose not to create an erotic gay bildungsroman because these things have been done so many times that by now they seem dull.

Larry McCaffrey: Were you consciously using On Wings of Song to explore your past?

Thomas M. Disch: Very much so. I saw that I could use the flying metaphor to present the story of my life, insofar as I could make this presentation congruent with the more abstract issues I wanted to deal with. It turned out that I could make things overlap to a great extent because even when those specific events in the novel didn't literally happen to me, the correlative events had occurred, metaphorically. Such autobiographies - the kind of thing you find in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister - are much often much more revealing than literal treatments.
"Thomas M. Disch" interviewed by Larry McCaffrey (June 1986/June 1988), Across the Wounded Galaxy, ed. Larry McCaffrey, 1990

David Galbraith: There are very strong political subtexts in several of your works. Your most recent novel, On Wings of Song, addresses the social realities of Reaganite America. How do you view the relationship between On Wings of Song and the political processes that now seem to dominate American life?

Thomas M. Disch: Listen, I wrote On Wings of Song in 1975. If you want to talk about the prophetic function", I saw that coming when Carter was there. Indeed I based that book on the period from the Fifties to the Seventies. You see, I don't think science fiction is ever about the future. It's either about the present or about the historically accessible past. The plot I wanted for On Wings of Song was a bildungsroman, a novel of education about someone learning to become an artist over an historical period. In the twentieth century, you can't write about a span of twenty years and not have the historical panorama it's set against change - it just does. In my own lifetime it's changed a whole lot. So the historical pattern of On Wings of Song mirrors my growing up from 1952 to 1975, as it were, you might say in either a parodied way or in the kind of hyperbole that science fiction can bring to bear. At the same time I was perfectly aware that I was projecting a future that I could see happening out of the present. History has its cycles, and one of the basic cycles is that that alternates between liberation and oppression. So it was very easy to imagine an historical progression more exaggerated than the one that I went through, but that was basically dealing with the same issues.
Usually the problems I'm trying to write about are balanced in such a way that they don't seem to be grinding an axe. They address more general and deep-rooted problems, like the metaphor of flying in On Wings of Song. It works in so many different ways. It's not an exact counterpart of any particular thing that you could make a comparison to, yet I think it works very effectively as a metaphor for a number of things that are quite important and that we all know about.
Flying is every form of transcendence. It's all the ways in which you feel that the soul can leave the body. The Caesars of the world, the powers-that-be, try to control the possibilities for the peak ecstatic experiences because it's socially disruptive in its potential. People who experience something deeply and profoundly will no longer believe the bullshit they're handed, because they've had an experience that contradicts it. Sex is one of these transcendent moments. Clearly people who have had ecstatic sexual relationships aren't going to think sex is evil, the way the armies of oppression assert that is. Another is drugs. The issue of the Sixties is still somewhat an issue today. People have a right to control that freedom, to do what they wish with drugs. Thomas Szasz has written some good things on that subject.
Religion itself is another. What's the first big revolution that starts modern history? It's Luther. It's the insistence that I'm going to believe what my own inner voice tells me is the divine, and I won't listen to the authority of the church. That was the big revolution, and from it all the others have sprung. Nowadays the Protestants are scarcely in the vanguard of liberation, but they began it., and it was an unalterable process once it began. That's why theology plays such a part in On Wings of Song - that's where flying starts.
The fourth moment of transcendence is art. For me, it's always been the major one, and I continue to believe that art is, politically, the single greatest source of liberation that exists. That's why the Moral Majority wants to censor rock n' roll music. How do you fly? You sing. If you integrate your body, your feelings and your understanding in such a way that all of them can be united in a single burst of art, you have achieved transcendence. That's what I believe, and that's why the book is about how somebody becomes a singer. To me, becoming an artist is the task. And I think it's what everybody wants - that's why the cultural heroes of our times are rock n' roll singers, or movie stars or writers. There isn't an art that doesn't make deities of the people who succeed in it - sometimes foolishly, because often it's a con. One of the ironies of art is that part of it is technique, and that's one of the ironies of On Wings of Song: Daniel is a singer who never really gets off the ground. He learns to do art. But that's only an irony for people who want God to exist, who want to be assured that transcendence, once they've had a glimmer of it, will stay with them forever and ever. But you can't monetarize transcendental experience, you cannot put quantitative values on it. It happens when it happens, it's a gift of grace. And that's a painful truth, because there's a whole lot of people who want to be artists but who can't make it. That's the main pain that book is talking about.
"Taking Flight with Thomas Disch", David Galbraith and Alexander Wilson interview Thomas M. Disch (July 1980), The Body Politic December 1981
Elliot Atkins: Having read the recent autobiographical essay that you wrote for The Gale Research Press, there seems to me to be an autobiographical component to a number of your works, certainly in On Wings of Song.

Thomas M. Disch: On Wings of Song is the story of my life transposed into science fiction, and made rather more glorious [laughs]. I mean the way Hemingway idealised himself in his novels so I idealise myself in On Wings of Song.. You know Daniel Weinreb comes to New York when he's very young; he's already been in prison. I could say the same thing. And he had the job at the Majestic Theatre. I worked at the Majestic Theatre checking coats. Happily I wasn't a Faux noire [laughs]. But in a Way I was, because I was a supernumerary at the Met performing with all the best sopranos of the day - I was on stage with Margot Fonteyn, the Bolshoi Ballet, Eleanor Steber and Lisa della Casa. I was an extra in a lot of very good productions. In Spartacus I was a black slave, in body paint. And I was also a black slave, face paint only, in Don Giovanni.

Elliot Atkins: Imprisoning structures and the possibility of transcending them are strong themes in your writing> although I'm not quite sure where you stand on the latter subject. At the end of On Wings of Song for instance it's unclear whether Daniel Weinreb achieves transcendence or not.

Thomas M. Disch: In a way it doesn't make any difference, because morally he has done something. In holding faith with Boadicea for so long and in making a career of a singer (of whatever sort) he has met the two major moral challenges of his life. I think that the book does really say (I mean if you read it closely) that there's no afterlife. You can't beat the odds on the grave - everyone dies. There is only art, and that's the transcendence that's there for us in whatever form you want it. And Daniel's had that to the degree that he can. And so, no, he hasn't escaped as a fairy. He was killed before that, and he probably never would have escaped. But then do any of us? If you read it as an allegory about the limitations of our human nature then he has gracefully accepted his, lived with it and made the best bargain that he could with his life.
"New York Gothic", Elliot Atkins interviews Thomas M. Disch (September 11, 1999), Foundation #80, Autumn 2000

Scott Edelman: In your recent On Wings of Song, which I've read one reviewer claim to be a cynical book, I see a happy ending: Daniel Weinreb does get free and fly. For some reason many people prefer to see him as dying.

Thomas M. Disch: Not every ending of every story has to be construed as somehow a triumph of the spirit. The ending of On Wings of Song is positive for me but only if you interpret Daniel's end as a moral triumph according to a certain secularist view of Christianity that the book sets forward in its own pages. Daniel has a conversation with Mrs. Schiff after he's been singing a Bach cantata at Marble Collegiate Church, and that was where I planted my rationale for Daniel to be a kind of secularized figure of Christ. And in so far as he fulfills the Christian paradigm with his last great stage show and his redeeming lie, he's become a figure of the particular ironical Christ that the book has been talking about.
"An Interview with Thomas M. Disch" by Scott Edelman (August 11, 1984), Last Wave #5, Winter 1986


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