'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.

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.”

Spaceflight might indeed save us in the end, but Holmes has already convinced us that ballooning is all about “middle flight”—scorned by John Milton and astronomers, perhaps, but the very elevation from which to track the vertical dreams of a horizontal species. Recalling Holmes’s evocation of Charles Green’s night flight, poised so delicately between Earth and sky, I find myself doubting the author when he writes that the “ultimate purpose” of flight is to rise “as high as possible, and then look back upon the earth and see mankind for what it really is.” In fact, the higher you go, the less you see people as they really are. The Earth may look like a beautiful blue globe from outer space, but what of its inhabitants? Think of the dots that Harry Lime, in The Third Man, points out from the top of the Vienna Ferris wheel: “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”

There is something noble in Holmes’s attempt to pilot his precarious romantic humanism into the present age. And if he cannot resist the urge to outsoar the shadow of our night, he is quick to vent air and descend. In a dazzling selection of balloon quotations from scientists, poets, and impresarios, Holmes gives the last word to a Chinese proverb: “The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.”