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  • Levitation: The Science, Myth and Magic of Suspension by Peter Adey
  • Josh Grant-Young

Josh Grant-Young, Peter Adey, Levitation, Suspension, Flying, Textuality, Critical Theory, Jane Urquhart, Lily Cove, Ken Gelder, Jane Jacobs, Literary Theory, Media Studies

peter adey. Levitation: The Science, Myth and Magic of Suspension. London: Reaktion Books, 2017. Pp. 296.

Peter Adey's latest foray into the aerial avoids some of the more troublesome mistakes when flying: carelessness in practice or trajectory. Levitation: [End Page 309] The Science, Myth and Magic of Suspension conscientiously attends to the imaginative, "ambiguous and vulnerable" practitioners of levitation (264). Tracing various practices, theological or mythic qualities, philosophical interpretations, and scientific understandings of levitation through various media, Adey's text charts various paths of flight, affording readers a pleasant survey of magical qualities and imaginative realms.

Moving from ancient times to the present with frequent illustrative digressions, Levitation offers images of sublime meditative states, distant futures of hovering metropolises, illusory tricks of the trade, and artistic dabbling. Readers in search of a neat conception of levitation might find Adey's text to be at times unwieldy in its ingathering of a diversity of practices, philosophical tensions, and imaginings, but Adey provides an agreeable response to such concerns.

If Adey's method is exploring levitation, rather than providing readers with a single uniform or tidy conception of it, he does note that such neatness is neither possible nor desirable. Rather, in his account, Levitation aims to "speak to both light and weighty matters" (264), providing no shortage of either. A strength of Levitation is its recognition of the "tension" or ambiguity of various accounts of levitation practices, as Adey crafts within the text a resistance to reducing levitation solely to the "passions of uplift" or some solemn activity (54). Levitation, in Adey's account, is rather the tension of balance, noting that one is always being torn between "poles of sentiment" (54).

There is, in Levitation's engagements with sentiment, the phenomenal, and disorientation, a dual poetic and philosophical aspect to Adey's exploration. Adey's accounts challenge even the most skeptical readers to affirm levitation and its poetic nature as a form of "knowledge" and joyful practice of philosophical contemplation, following Nicola Masciandaro's work on levitation. To engage levitation in such a manner, Adey contends, is to be swept up in a "kind of medieval possession that encourages an unknowing of our established ways of thought or writing" (54)—in short, a speculative embrace of the "phenomenal poetic zones of indistinction" intimated by Masciandaro.1 Indeed, many of the figures included within Adey's inquiry are characterized as seeking some means of realizing themselves or gaining some knowledge external to themselves within this field of tension.

Two chapters where this aspect of tension comes forward in particularly interesting ways are "Faking on Air" and "Luftmensch." Within the former, [End Page 310] a discussion of several fictional works, including Jane Urquhart's novel, Changing Heaven (1990), presents the character Arianna Ether (loosely associated with the English balloonist Lily Cove), and Sophie Blanchard (the first professional woman balloonist). Adey teases out an intriguing gendered politics at work in this book that goes beyond film or stage trick assistants. Adey is astute in analyzing the "masculine representations" of these women, ones that come to ascribe to Arianna a lightness of "the cleansed female soul," lifted in "ambivalence" above the ground in an angelic manner (84).

The accounts Adey presents illustrate the precarious space where the levitator (whether fictional, or in the case of Blanchard, an actual balloonist) is offered praise, admiration, and even some respite from a world wishing to weigh her down. Yet she is also cast in the male imagination as a touchstone for "purity," embodying some angelic or delicate quality. Further, the oppressive nature of early female balloonists' relationships with their "fiscally ill-astute and manipulative partners," or (in the case of Lily Cove), their untimely death, perhaps engineered by jealous and vengeful men, adds a darker tone to this account (81–84).

While this impressive set of narratives is delicately woven together by Adey, one might still be left wanting more solidity by the close of this chapter...


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pp. 309-312
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