Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Susan Zieger reviews Levitation

Peter Adey. Levitation: The Science, Myth and Magic of Suspension. London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 296 pp.

Review by Susan Zieger

Must what goes up come down? The ethos of levitation invites us to suspend the truism, and with it, the commoner sense that tethers us to earth. The cultural imagination of hovering—a mobility distinct from flying—infuses aesthetics and science alike with whimsy, eroticism, and utter delight. Peter Adey’s new book floats in this twilit space. Here, Uncle Albert perches in the air in “I Love to Laugh” in Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964); magic carpets transport browsers to different shelves in the Alexandrian library’s ziggurat; Eadweard Muybridge’s horses’ hooves forever hover just above the ground; and Michael Jordan hangs time at the basket. The topic of levitation gently repels the heavy hand of criticism. What Adey offers us instead is a suggestive encyclopedia of levity, a collection of fantasy, spectacle, and aesthetic pleasure centered around the idea, both timeless and historical, that humans might suspend themselves in the air.

Adey’s historical account begins with classical descriptions of funambulism, or tightrope walking, a kind of aerial trespass that could appear to defy God; it ranges through representations of Christ’s ascension in twelfth-century painting, eighteenth-century ballooning, nineteenth-century spiritualist seances, and twentieth-century space missions. Shuttling between science, speculative fiction, film, visual culture, illusionism, folkways, literary representations, political theory, advertisements, psychoanalysis and religion, the book comprehensively surveys its topic while keeping its analysis brief and feather-light. Taking his cue from a relevant form of medieval possession, Adey describes his method as “unknowing,” or a kind of lightening of scholarly gravitas. Accordingly, his definition of levitation is flexible; it is a tension or balance, always political, between opposing forces. If the generality of such a formulation grates, thwarting your effort to nail down the object of inquiry, then you possess the wrong disposition to read this book. But just let it go, and see where the poetry, desire, fancy, and altered perception Adey describes might waft you.

Adey broadly sketches the political meanings of levitation, for example in Thomas Hobbes and engraver Abraham Bosse’s famous frontispiece to Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), in which the sovereign is a detached levitator floating above the earth. Michel de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life described the “voluptuous pleasure” to be had from being imaginatively lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center to look down on the streets below—a sovereign detachment if ever one there was.[1] Emmanuel Levinas counted Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the earth in 1961 as a new human existence “beyond any horizon—everything around him was sky.”[2] The structuring political converse of such fantasies of juridical and epistemic domination are figurations of migratory rootlessness, seen in the Jewish figure of the luftmensch, to which Adey devotes a chapter. The luftmensch is both an anti-Semitic figure of decorporealization and neurosis, and a Jewish figure of satirical self-criticism; its archive ranges from Marc Chagall’s paintings such as The Stroll (1918); to Franz Kafka’s satire on Zionism, “Investigations of a Dog” (1922); to Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dalí’s “jump photographs” of the 1950s. A related chapter on levitation’s subversive possibilities details the efforts of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and a mass of protestors to levitate the Pentagon in 1967, a project to which Pentagon officials surprisingly agreed—provided marchers returned it to the ground afterwards.

Two chapters celebrate illusionistic spectacles of levitation, and the skeptics and researchers who have tried to debunk them. Adey recounts the nineteenth-century personal levitations of Sheshal, the “Brahmin of the Air” (p. 58); the famous rope trick, in which a rope snakes upwards; the “Fakir of Oolu” and his levitations of his female assistant at London’s Egyptian Hall (p. 68); Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s levitations of his son through “concentrated ether” (p. 70); and Georges Méliès’ cinematic adaptation of Gustave Moreau’s floating head, The Apparition (1876) (p. 77). He assembles the full array of oddball Victoriana, from Helena Blavatsky’s theosophical teachings, in which those who could control their bodies’ polarities could float, through spiritualists Agnes Guppy-Volckman and Eusapia Palladino’s possessed levitations, and on to Arthur Koestler’s experiments with a bed-shaped machine that would record the weight loss of levitators. The image of Koestler at a party trying to convince George Orwell of the human potential to levitate amusingly throws the politics of the paranormal into relief. Such material is engaging, but Adey may demonstrate too much love for his subject when he suggests that paraphysical research “may actually demand other forms of proof” than the conventional scientific ones (p. 110).

One of the book’s more compelling motifs is levity’s eroticism: levitators are sexy. St. Teresa described her ecstatic visitations as being borne away into the clouds on eagle’s wings. The grotesque femininity of seventeenth-century witches included a sexualized mode of levitation. And when Philippe Petit, who walked on a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, was released after his arrest for disorderly conduct and criminal trespass, he immediately slept with a woman who propositioned him. Whether this act represented an earthy regrounding or a continued ecstatic flight, Adey doesn’t say. He does reference the comments of Otto Rank, who thought flying dreams expressed wishes to return to a fetal suspension in the womb, and Sigmund Freud, whose interpretations of Leonardo da Vinci’s dreams of flight suggest that levity expresses a desire for intimacy after maternal detachment.

Adey, professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, has built his expertise on all things aerial. His book Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects, sought to unify a fragmented and largely quantitative field of aviation studies through the concept of “aeromobilities,” or the lifeworlds and political changes wrought by intensified air travel. More clearly resembling Levitation, Air deconstructed its titular amorphous concept through centuries of representation, science, and aesthetics. Adey’s aerial archive is vast; his insights, compelling.[3] As one might expect from a book such as Levitation, which bears comparison with Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria (2006), the fanciful topic grounded in copious examples and references will stimulate without utterly satisfying: this reader, for example, wanted more discussion of Aubrey Beardsley’s maleficent illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1891), and less of the Ivan Reitman film Ghostbusters (1985). But such objections are trifling. The book is full of delightful discoveries such as Melchior Lorck’s 1555 charcoal Tortoise, and Separate View of a Walled, Coastal Town in the Veneto, in which a giant tortoise floats above Venice. Levitation is something all too often missing from academic publishing: a sourcebook for the imagination itself.


[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, 1984), p. 92.

[2] Emmanuel Levinas, “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us,” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand (Baltimore, 1990), p. 233.

[3] See Peter Adey, Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects (Malden, Mass., 2010) and Air: Nature and Culture (London, 2014).