The line of flight would be the central idea of Deleuze’s essay On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature. Even before he mentioned Joseph Conrad, the “line of flight” immediately put me in mind of Heart of Darkness and then Apocalypse Now, and the anabasis represented by each (he also mentions Aguirre, Wrath of God, the historical figure, though Herzog’s film certainly fits the anabasis definition). Anabasis means “inland march,” but in these examples that inland march parallels an inward journey toward the heart of darkness inside the narrators themselves. Deleuze refers to the flight as a sort of delirium, which we certainly see in both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now – the narrators realise the line of flight might kill them, but they are driven onwards anyway, desperate to see what lies at the end of this becoming.
There is something […] demonic in a line of flight. Demons are different from gods, because gods have fixed attributes, properties and functions, territories and codes: they have to do with rails, boundaries and surveys. What demons do is jump across intervals, and from one interval to another.
When Deleuze mentions demons, he isn’t referring to anything evil, and indeed, the trickster seems like the real comparison. The demon, or trickster, is a force that might influence people to embrace something chaotic, or something that might normally be outside of their range of likely responses. Staying withing the boundaries of the rule-bound god will not help you embrace a line of flight, but by breaking out, one might find a new line. This is presented quite literally in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now – our narrators embrace the chaos of the jungle, leave behind their civilised selves (which are possibly only fiction-suits, where their true self is something they are frightened of as much as they are seduced by it) precisely because it is only by embracing a madness like Kurtz’s that they might have a chance to find and confront the man.
But there’s a lot more to the line of flight than embracing madness – indeed, I would argue that any journey or discovery would entail a line of flight, that any undertaking entered into consciously and with a strength of desire is a line of flight. It is anything that pushes one beyond one’s boundaries and into becoming. Deleuze denigrates French literature, because it represents the opposite of the line of flight – it is insular, static.
Deleuze mentions the clean break, which is an idea I would have liked him to dwell on more as he touches on it only briefly here. He quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald as saying “A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist.” I would argue that when Deleuze talks of the line of flight he’s not necessarily talking about something you can’t come back from, but rather getting yourself to a place where you do not want to return –you become something truer to yourself and would never go back. (And I think this “clean break” maybe sits at odds with the French dwelling on history and secrets that Deleuze talks about elsewhere in the essay.)
But then Deleuze speaks also of what I’ll call the dirty break: “How can one avoid the line of flight’s becoming identical with a pure and simple movement of self-destruction […]?”
Here again is where he takes issue with French literature. “They are happy to stink personally, since what they write will be all the more sublime and significant.” To my mind both these quotes connect to the bullshit romanticisation of the drug-fucked artist, the idea that self-destructive habits will make you a better writer or musician or whatever. Getting bogged down in addiction seems to me the opposite of the line of flight – how can you be a person-becoming when every waking moment is spent in communion with your drug of choice? You are instead addiction-becoming.
Deleuze argues against these secrets and degradations in favour of the power of life. He doesn’t specify precisely what he means by this term, but from context I think it’s safe to say it’s related to embracing the line of flight.
But the line of flight, the clean break, can be vulnerable: “A true break may be extended in time, […] it must constantly be protected not merely against its false imitations, but also against itself, and against the reterritorializations which lie in wait for it.” The simple metaphor for this one is the drawn-out break-up. When you know that you need to make that clean break, but you find yourself being drawn back to that old relationship and those old patterns. But then the final part, the “reterritorialisations which lie in wait for it” is something to be aware of – the diversions and mistakes that can lie in wait for you when you’re trying to make those lines of flight – when you’re focused on becoming.
And maybe this sounds too much like I’m turning this essay into Deleuze’s self-help manual, but as someone who is intent on not seeing myself as a final product but rather as a process – an ongoing becoming – this is some of what I took from the essay.
Are you on a line of flight now, or are you stuck? Are you embracing self-discovery or self-destruction?
I’m still in my early days of reading and understanding Deleuze, but one thing I’m already glad of is the absence of nihilism in his writing. There is instead a sort of joy at finding the rhizomatic connections, the reterritorialisations, and the lines of flight, a pure excitement at exploring these ideas. As someone prone to general depression and a sort of nihilism concerning our collective fate, it feels like reading Deleuze is part of a line of flight that I need…