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.
At the risk of sounding like Dorothy calling for the Wizard to come back, I need to confess that the closer to our own age Holmes ventures, the more unsettling I find his cheerful balloonist’s enthusiasm. Something happens to the book when Holmes turns his attention to the Swedish engineer Salomon Andrée’s ill-fated polar expedition, which ended in death on the ice in 1897—though it was another 33 years before anyone uncovered his frozen bones or those of his two companions.
The last gasp of heroic 19th-century ballooning, Andrée’s adventure was essentially a death wish masquerading as a life force, carried forward by nationalist sentiment. It was a phenomenon that would be amplified, without the balloon, in the 20th century. Though Holmes makes it clear that Andrée was deluded in claiming that he could pilot a balloon like a boat, the author calls his inventions “brilliant,” as if he too were seduced by the charisma of the man. Andrée gets his martyr’s burial in Holmes’s beautiful prose; the last words of the book, before the epilogue, are the sentimental speculation that Andrée died looking up at a scrap of his balloon canopy, and “may even have dreamed that he was still flying.”
It may be that Andrée was down so long it looked like up to him, but the rest of us ought to know when it is really the ground rushing toward us. This is a book about Perdix that can’t stop honoring Icarus; Holmes wants to have his partridge and eat it too.
Balloons blow out of a more optimistic era—when science and art were still two sides of the same shining coin—but how do they hold up as symbols in a world where gas, far more than balloons, hangs in our imaginations, and hydrogen is not simply a light, inflammable substance but a fusible material capable of setting the world quite literally on fire? The harnessing of myth to science, so fruitful for the Romantics, has unleashed in recent memory horrors that would beggar the imagination of Mary Shelley, who followed up Frankenstein with a balloon fantasy, The Last Man.
Eighty-two years after the Montgolfier brothers sent up the first manned balloon in 1783, Victor Hugo declared that balloons had liberated mankind from the “tyranny of gravity” and predicted they would yet lead to the abolition of frontiers and war. Holmes notes the “absurd error, or perhaps the glorious naïveté of Hugo’s prophecies.” But naïveté undermines error, and Holmes hastens to add that “perhaps we are now too quick” to dismiss such prophecies. Pointing to satellites and air travel, the “sine qua non of our global civilization,” he speculates that “space flight may yet become the final means of its salvation.”