'Our Place Is in the Sky'

Balloons, though they fly low, inspire dangerous dreams of escape.
Dr. Alexander Charles receiving a wreath from Apollo, in an engraving by E. A. Tilly (Library of Congress)

“I can’t come back,” cries the Wizard, shouting down to Dorothy from the basket of his runaway balloon. “I don’t know how it works!” Ever since childhood, I’d heard those words as the final humiliation of a failed wizard. But now that I’ve read Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, I know that Oz isn’t a failure at all—he is a balloonist.

Richard Holmes’s spellbinding history of ballooning is filled with scientists, entertainers, and adventurers who can’t come back—like the American aeronaut John Wise, last seen in 1879 blowing in bad weather over Lake Michigan. Or Sophie Blanchard—Napoleon’s official balloonist—who was terrified of life on the ground but in the air became “a provoking exhibitionist, daring to the point of recklessness.” She fell to her death in 1819 when one of her legendary pyrotechnic displays ignited her balloon’s hydrogen (it wasn’t called “inflammable air” for nothing).

If this makes ballooning sound like extravagant folly, it’s useful to realize that Holmes, in addition to being one of the great living biographers, is a balloonist himself. How We Took to the Air has a cheerful double meaning that suggests not only our discovery of flight but our natural predilection for it. The subtitle blithely echoes the words of Alexander Charles, a French physician who, while soaring above Paris in 1783, turned to his assistant engineer and declared: “I’m finished with the Earth. From now on our place is in the sky!”

But metaphysical storms can be as potent as meteorological ones. Immediately after his exuberant two-man flight over Paris, Charles made the first solo ascent in history. The flight was also his last—a fact I learned not from Falling Upwards but from Holmes’s previous book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. That magisterial investigation, which includes a chapter on the early days of “ballomania,” quotes the Frenchman’s recollection of going up alone: “Never has a man felt so solitary, so sublime—and so utterly terrified.” Holmes then adds a single astonishing sentence: “Dr. Charles never flew again.”

In Falling Upwards, mention is made of Charles’s solo ascent but not of its consequences; in fact the reference is followed by Charles’s own description of his earlier two-man triumph—the one where he bid cheerful adieu to the Earth. Through authorial sleight of hand, Falling Upwards (the very title announces an inverted world) leaves the Frenchman with his head in the clouds, experiencing euphoria without terror and declaring: “What fool could wish to hold back the progress of science!”

What fool indeed? Thinking about airplanes in the aftermath of World War I, Freud called us prosthetic gods who mistake our technological innovations for our living selves, only to get dashed, like Icarus, back to reality. Holmes alludes to Icarus but counters that tale of doomed flight with a lesser-known Ovid story about Perdix, the brilliant 12-year-old nephew of Daedalus. Hurled by his jealous uncle off the sacred hill of Minerva, Perdix does not die but instead is transformed into a partridge by Minerva herself. Perdix—unlike Daedalus’s hubristic son, Icarus—is offered salvation and transformation through flight, but there’s a catch. Partridges are low-flying birds. Stay away from Olympus and the sun, the story implies; remain close to the ground, and the gods will reward you. In short, be a balloonist.

“Never has a man felt so solitary, so sublime—and so utterly terrified.”

However free they felt, balloonists were the ones who discovered how low the ceiling of the world really is. Five miles up, you enter the “death zone.” It turns out “the sky’s the limit” isn’t saying much. The very awkwardness of balloons—inflating and deflating like lungs, bumping against the limit of the breathable world, subject to the vagaries of weather—is unlikely to convince people in a basket that they’ve become gods.

But Falling Upwards exhibits a longing for transcendence that tugs at its historical moorings. You can glimpse this after John Wise has been swallowed by his Midwestern storm, and the author observes: “Perhaps it was the heroic conclusion that he desired.” Or when he informs us in the epilogue that in fact Falling Upwards “is not really about balloons at all” but about “the spirit of discovery itself.” Or when he describes the quixotic 2008 flight of a Brazilian priest who attached himself to 1,000 party balloons, only to turn up as a shark-ravaged torso three months later. Here, surely, the reader thinks, lies Icarus. But Holmes gives the man a push into heaven, telling us he was brave, daring, “and possibly even a saint.”

Falling Upwards is itself most affecting when it flies low. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for the biographer’s art than Holmes’s haunting description of Charles Green’s 1836 balloon flight over Liège at night. Green floats high enough to see the unearthly sweep of industrial fires that have transformed the once-pastoral landscape along the Meuse River, but low enough to the ground to hear the voices of the workmen, the pounding of hammers, the shouts and laughter in the dark, humanizing even in their strangeness.

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