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From anchorites to zeppelins: the giddy range of Levitation

Peter Adey gives us funambulists, flying carpets, ballerinas and even drones in a book that embraces all things elevated

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

Levitation: The Science, Myth and Magic of Suspension Peter Adey

Reaktion, pp.293, £20

Levitation. We all know what it is: the ‘disregard for gravity’, as Peter Adey puts it in his new book, or as the dust jacket states, ‘the long-standing belief that we could float relatively unaided’. The cover of Levitation has an elegant lady in flowing robes apparently hovering in a bubble over New York. Who could resist a good read about a subject like that? The catch lies in the subtitle: ‘The Science, Myth and Magic of Suspension.’ Suspension: we all know what that is, and it’s not levitation.

The excitement of levitation clearly attracted Adey and his editor, but when it came to knocking out the copy, it was evidently impossible to produce an entire book. So what Adey has done is to move the goalposts so far that the whole world can have a tap-in; he has embraced elevation in its entirety.

So we get elevation whether it’s tight-rope walking, anchorites atop pillars, saints ascending, fakirs clambering up magic ropes, ballerinas leaping, ballooning, astronauts floating in space, giddy poets and even drones.

It’s a definition so loose you wonder if a chapter on the high jump is coming (and there is a name check for the basketball star Michael Jordan and his famous ‘hang time’, which Adey does, with a straight face, classify as levitation).

This open-door policy results in a stimulating mish-mash of information. Houdini, Kafka, Hobbes, Dali, Rabelais, the tutu, magic carpets and Ghostbusters are rarely lumped together. A lot of honest graft has gone into gathering all these elements and Adey does have a sophistic skill in striving to weave them all together: ‘even birth has been viewed as an event of levitation’ (admittedly by a lesser Freudian).

There are some entertaining passages. Allen Ginsberg, for example, chanting in the hope of levitating the Pentagon during a Vietnam war protest in Washington in 1967; Ginsberg didn’t succeed, and I think Adey missed a trick here in not mentioning the Yyippies’ protest at the New York Stock Exchange where they threw down dollar bills at the brokers, who greedily snapped them up. Surely reverse levitation?


Adey also draws on Norman Mailer, who was present during the attempted levitation of the Pentagon, and his rambling reflections on the police helicopters overhead (it was his Armies of the Night phase). As you would expect from someone who has written books on air and aerial life, Adey is ready with a witty quote from the poet Paul Farley, branding a police helicopter ‘the devil’s hairdryer’. Is it churlish of me to point out that helicopters, however inspiring to novelists or poets, aren’t levitation?

Adey often wanders even further from the given title with some quite fascinating digressions, such as the question of outer space copyright law in relation to the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s recording of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on the International Space Station. Fascinating, but not levitation.

The artist Takis and his claim to have ‘sent the first man into space’ six months before Yuri Gagarin by giving a beat poet a magnetic lift in Paris (only a few inches) was news to me. Arthur Koestler’s ludicrous experiments in levitation weren’t.

I was disappointed that while the cinematic version of Magneto of the X-Men gets his due, Marvel’s much-underrated supervillain the Wizard (the leader of the Frightful Four) and his anti-gravity discs aren’t mentioned. Similarly one of my favourite paintings, Egon Schiele’s ‘Levitation’, is missing.

I worry, however, when I see words like ‘discourse’, ‘rhizome’, ‘male gaze’, ‘the other’ and ‘gender politics’. These are the slumped clichés of contemporary academic life. Adey is a professor at Royal Holloway. For all the current mania for diversity, the humanities faculties at British universities display a depressing homogeneity of thought, a uniformity of cant, an enslavement to a handful of mountebanks who used to teach at Paris VIII.

Adey isn’t the worst offender I’ve come across. His prose is mainly lucid, but he does occasionally stretch his arguments to absurdity or obscurity:

The levitator is really quite other. There are moments when we might see levitation as a product of pernicious and even racist discourse and tensions that are somehow absorbed and turned back upon the very subject of its discourse.

What?

This is one of the problems that academics outside the sciences face: that maybe there’s nothing new to be said on a subject, and it’s dishonest to pretend there is.

The illustrations in the book are fantastic, a wonderful range of artworks, paintings, photos, from music-hall posters to Chagall. Sadly, I couldn’t help feeling that Levitation would have been better with more pictures and less text.

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