In around 1003, a man died leaping off a mosque roof with wooden wings. In 1912 a misguided fellow jumped off the Eiffel Tower trying out his new invention, the coat parachute. (The authorities: “Please use a dummy for your first experiment.” Friends, he did not use a dummy.) In 2009 a man died testing his flying taxi. You may have heard wings went wrong for Icarus. When gravity says “No, mankind, no” mankind keeps hearing “Yes, wings, yes.” Wings are one of the persistent motifs of humanity. They are the stuff of legend, of religion, of scientific experiments and of art. Wings are symbols of o’erarching ambition. Wings are, like vampires, concepts that haunt the collective consciousness: transformation into a more perfect being or a monster.
Naturally they have found a place in fantasy novels, the modern home of myth. I am second to none in my appreciation for dragons, but what interests me most is the draw in imagining wings on people, the envy inherent in the desire to acquire a feature of creatures very different from us. Far fewer of us envision people with lizard tails. (No shade, lizard tail folks.) Yet wings, in a world that has airplanes and the idea of Superman, cannot be entirely about wishing to fly. Why do we like wings so much? What do wings symbolize? What is wrong with them? And, the eternal question: what is wrong with us?