Reviews — From the January 2014 issue

Flights of Fancy

A history of ballooning

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Published in 2009, Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science is a thrilling survey of how the Romantics saw the relationship between science and the literary imagination. Beauty combined with terror was the definition of the Romantic notion of the sublime, which wedded aesthetic pleasure to fear, the darkness of unreason, and the power of mysterious forces. There was no Two Cultures problem: poets and novelists embraced and were moved by the scientific imagination. In science itself, the sublime flowed from new understandings of electricity, magnetism, gases, and telescopically revealed nebulae; in science fiction, the pattern of the sublime was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; in painting it was represented by the brooding landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich and the light-storms of J.M.W. Turner; and in poetry it was Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”:

Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened . . .

And what could shake off the weight of earthiness, inspire awe, and instill terror better than a balloon ascent? The pleasure is in the birdlike leap into the air, the peaceful silence, and the grandeur of the aspect. The terror lurks above and below. An uncontrolled ascent means frostbite, asphyxia, and death in the deep purple of the stratosphere; an uncontrolled return shatters bones and ruptures organs.

We’ve always aspired to up-ness: up is virtuous, good, ennobling. Spirits are lifted; hopes are raised; imagination soars; ideas get off the ground; the sky’s the limit (unless you reach for the stars). To excel is to rise above others. Levity is, after all, opposed to gravity, and you don’t want your hopes dashed, your dreams deflated, or your imagination brought down to earth.

In 1783, the French inventor and scientist Jacques Alexandre Charles wrote of the ballooning experience as if the envelope were filled not with hydrogen but with laughing gas: “Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. . . . It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical rapture.” You go up and you get light-headed. “The first impression [on ascent] is a novel sensation of well-being or contentment,” the French astronomer and balloonist Camille Flammarion wrote. Guy de Maupassant took a ride in a balloon in 1887 and reported that a “profound and hitherto unknown sense of well-being flooded through me . . . a feeling of utter carelessness, infinite repose.” It’s just right that a remarkable proportion of early balloonists seem to have packed champagne, with the bonus that the empties could be thrown out to reduce weight. Levels of Life, Julian Barnes’s moving meditation on grief, casts the aspirations of early ballooning, like the flight of Icarus, as a tragicomedy of human limits and the yearning to transcend them.

In the beginning, birds flew, and God made the birds. Angels flew, and God made the angels. Men and women had long legs and empty backs, and God had made them like that for a reason. To mess with flight was to mess with God. It was to prove a long struggle, full of instructive legends.

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