Modernity Is A Flight To Nowhere

On September 20th, The New York Times, in true NYT fashion, published a non-sardonic brief:

Looking to satisfy their itch to travel, thousands of people in Brunei, Taiwan, Japan and Australia have started booking flights that start and end in the same place. Some airlines call these “scenic flights,” but others are more direct and call them “flights to nowhere.”

“I didn’t realize how much I’d missed traveling — missed flying — until the moment the captain’s voice came on the speaker with the welcome and safety announcement,” said Nadzri Harif, a passenger on Royal Brunei’s flight to nowhere.

“Modernity,” my wife Alexandra quipped, “is a flight to nowhere.”

If–somehow–we set aside the fact that it is profoundly irresponsible to be burning massive amounts of fossil fuel for no good reason, that is, if we can–somehow–look past airlines’ and passengers’ myopia about how their actions–right here–are exacerbating climate change, then what can we say about this?

It’s a perfect example of what, in my recent Mellon humanities talk, I called “surrogate conceptions of the good life“: degraded forms of life that also hide this degradation from its participants.

And which surrogate conceptions are on view here? Hedonism, to be sure, as well as the goods (note closely the s at the end of goods) life. Yet chiefly spiritual secularism.

Tragically, these flights to nowhere, which are also flights of fancy, simulate transcendence. But only religions have ever offered genuine soteriologies: that is, robust doctrines of salvation, deliverance, or liberation!

What’s the difference between simulation and the real thing? At least this: whereas simulation can only generate a state change and every state change is temporary, liberation in Buddhism–to take the example with which I’m most intimately familiar–is real and permanent.

Each flight to nowhere leaves you where it found you. You are no better off as a result, no different, in truth, from how you were before. You have not, as Paul was, been converted to a new life. What a false promise! What a dashed hope!

Yet, in the main, this is also what modernity defaults on also: it promises deliverance yet can only deliver on more forms of seduction. It is fantasy–mass as well as individual–that veils this ever-present fact from us.

To recognize, right here, with all one’s being the truth of this argument is to feel deep in one’s bones the need to begin a spiritual quest. As the saying goes, the journey starts underfoot. What is left out is the Buddhist reply: and it ends underfoot.