Up, up, up, and away

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Once on a trip to Venice I wandered into a square of San Barnaba, where a scene from one of the Indiana Jones movies had been shot. I was overjoyed to find out that at that time San Barnaba’s church was housing an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines, which had been built using his sketches and designs.

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I must say, however, that I was more awe inspired by his sketches than by the actual machines. Is this because I am more inspired by the fact that he thought these grand thoughts well ahead of his time, or maybe because his sketches are so beautiful, mysterious and “sfumato,” i.e. “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane,” as da Vinci himself explained his painting technique? The sketches occupied the space between a smoky dream and hard reality, while the actual machines were just, well, actual, not imaginary any more. The most inspiring for me were the sketches of wings and the flying machines. Humans took to air much, much later than da Vinci imagined it: the first manned flight in a hot air balloon did not take place until long after his death. Here’s a replica of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon. It is really beautiful and it featured images of Zodiac signs and suns.

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The first balloon launch

Recently, I was filled with joy and hot air after reading a light-hearted review of a book about a history of balloon flying. The book reviewed is called Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air and was written by Richard Holmes. I’ve read an enthusiastic review by Graham Robb in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. The article really stirred my imagination and put me in a lighthearted, Sagittarian, mood, much welcome after a month of Scorpionic darkness. My mind wandered back to my childhood when I used to avidly read books by Jules Verne. These tales of fanciful travels took my breath away. I was not surprised to read that the first balloonists could barely contain their enthusiasm. Seeing the earth from the air for the first time made them lose their senses and common sense: they were intoxicated as their world had inflated and their consciousness had expanded. They were daring and mischievous, possessed by the archetypes of the trickster and the explorer. They were perceived as eccentric and daring, and they did eccentric and daring things. They often behaved “like irresponsible superior beings.” The review is full of delightful passages, such as this one:

 “On a dark November night in 1836, the English balloonist Charles Green, accompanied by an Irish musician and a member of the British Parliament, was floating invisibly over ‘the unearthy flare of the fiery foundries’ of Belgium, close enough to hear the coughing and swearing of the foundry workers. He lowered a Bengal light on a rope until its dazzling flare was skimming over the workers’ head. Then he urged one of his companions to shout in French and German through a speaking trumpet ‘as if some supernatural power was visiting them from on high.’ He imagined the ‘honest artizans’ trembling like a primitive tribe…’”

The first years of ballooning were characterized by craze without thinking of practicalities. To this day, in fact, balloons do not have any real practical purpose, though I have read on Wikipedia they may be useful in space exploration. This is fitting, as balloons are very outlandish, indeed.

 “Like a wonderful hallucinogenic cloud, the balloon was capable of generating seemingly endless novelties.”

Floating in an air balloon is not unlike floating on a magic carpet. Earthbound rules do not apply to balloons: a balloonist can leave an inhospitable spot in an instant and with style and grace:

  “Once he [i.e. Holmes, author of the book] landed in a field of ‘distinctly inhospitable’ pigs…; on another occasion, he was a passenger in a balloon whose pilots attended to land ‘on the trim lawns of the National Parliament building’ in Canberra, ‘until waved away by a genial security officer who threatened to give us a parking ticket.’

I had to chuckle when I read that the most important cargo in every balloon, was, champagne, preferably a few bottles:

“While hydrogen expanded the envelope of the balloon, babbles of champagne had a similar effect on the pilots’ brains.”

“Exploring the nameless shores of the aerial ocean” in a bubbly state of intoxication surely feeds to my imagination. I am reminded of the childlike innocence of Peter Pan and his words about dying, which will be just another awfully great adventure. Holmes called the feeling of balloon flying “falling upwards,” which involved releasing the concept of direction and control and embracing the ever changing vistas and wonderful surprises. The first balloonists were awfully nonchalant about dying; they were fearless while travelling in these floating symbols of wholeness that balloons are:

“There is some haunting analogy between the silken skin of a balloon … and the thin atmospheric skin of our whole, beautiful planet as it floats in space.”

Carl Jung would call these feelings of joy and immortality “psychic inflation,” but he himself had a vision of floating in space while he was in hospital recovering from a heart attack. He described the vision in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

“It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India. My field of vision did not include the whole earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light. In many places the globe seemed colored, or spotted dark green like oxydized silver. Far away to the left lay a broad expanse the reddish-yellow desert of Arabia; it was as though the silver of the earth had there assumed a reddish-gold hue. Then came the Red Sea, and far, far back as if in the upper left of a map I could just make out a bit of the Mediterranean. My gaze was directed chiefly toward that. Everything else appeared indistinct. I could also see the snow-covered Himalayas, but in that direction it was foggy or cloudy. I did not look to the right at all. I knew that I was on the point of departing from the earth. Later I discovered how high in space one would have to be to have so extensive a view approximately a thousand miles! The sight of the earth from this height was the most glorious tiling I had ever seen.”

We are all floating in space, much like in paintings by Marc Chagall.

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Marc Chagall, The Dream

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25 Responses to Up, up, up, and away

  1. Fascinating post, I have always wanted to explore high up in a balloon, I have been up in one which remained tethered to the ground, And the view was stunning, but what a feeling to be free as a bird.. Lovely pictures too 🙂 xxx

  2. renatembell says:

    “Seeing the earth from the air for the first time made them lose their senses and common sense: they were intoxicated as their world had inflated and their consciousness had expanded.”…
    This made me think of the Wizard of Oz and L. Frank Baum’s use of the balloon- to move his characters from place to place, to escape, to return Dorothy home. Your post has opened new possibilities to explore why the author chose this vehicle and not something else! Your posts are always thought-provoking, Monika. Wonderful.

  3. shreejacob says:

    Ha! You took balloon flying and made a great post out of it! 😀

  4. ptero9 says:

    “Seeing the earth from the air for the first time made them lose their senses and common sense: they were intoxicated as their world had inflated and their consciousness had expanded.”
    Years ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a Leonardo pop-up book that contained replica’s or his drawings alongside pop-ups of his inventions.
    I have yet to float in a hot air balloon, although they are very popular in the Willamatte Valley of Oregon where I live.
    I have a certain amount of fear about heights as I never quite feel that I was not meant to fly, which leaves me a bit nervous about heights. Maybe it’s the long ago connection we have with birds that is bred in the bone, that I believe may common to many of us.
    The feeling I get when hiking up a mountain is intoxicating and it still amazes me how inspiring it is. Not just the beauty, but thoughts and ideas seem to race through me when I am high on a mountain, especially in more open spaces where the perspective of up and down becomes a bit distorted.
    Wonderful post!

    • I think the analogy with the mountains is excellent. I am also tremendously inspired while hiking up in the clouds, it’s a feeling like no other. But I still want to try a balloon flight for sure. Also I think you are right about the mysterious affinity between humans and birds, which comes from prehistoric times. Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. Monika, I love your playful mood, and the obvious joy you had in writing today. To hear you talk about coming out of a month of the heavies under the Scorpio sign— it amazes me. I can hear it in your words, yet it is pretty far from my own shifting moods (bi-polar, remember..), and my constitutional “heaviness”… even depression, which I realize you do not experience as I do. I’m joyed that something as conventional as a history of ballooning can draw your imagination out, and your excited mood from it’s month slumber. Not sure where I am going with this… I gain strength in observing you natural flowing movement between psychic feeling states, because in my reality, my varying moods are episodic, seem to have their own time-table, and often triggered by traumas, or by nothing at all. You have such a wonderfully receptive temperament!

    PS: Lovelovelove Marc Chagall. Cannot hear him referenced, or view his paintings enough (=

    • Dear Jim, thank you so much for this very touching comment. I know exactly where you are going with this and I really appreciate your kindness. Writing is very healing for me – it can work like magic. I tried to lift myself up today and I did. You are also right that I have some psychic tendencies also in relation to collective moods. I think this weekend possibly gave us all some lighter respite, with some individual exceptions, though. I hope you are feeling good and doing well now.
      I totally agree about Chagall!

      • The full moon a few days ago was when I finally broke from a powerful funk. Not saying it was the moon though… in fact, I believe a little bit of reading I did on Friday, of a few of the beat poets, broke a complex distortion field… I saw that there were no limits to what was permissible to write, and also realized I was being unforgivably punitive on myself. Full moon, a few realizations, and bam! The significant fact here is that I am living without the mood medications I was on since 2004. It is mood by natural means, on life’s terms. Jeesh… I must really need to talk the way I am rambling!

      • That is very significant that you are able to live without the meds. You are not rambling – I understand you. 🙂

      • (: Thank you Monika. http://youtu.be/GRHPHwfjwpk <—as regards my episode last May, I found this fellow. This video was quite demystifying, and allowed me find a perspective where I neither anointed nor feared what happened. Also, as it turned out, the Summer reading I participated in was quite clear and illuminating concerning the particular 'phases' I would go through (love, blocks, battles, etc), if not fuzzy on the timing by which it played out. My initial interpretation of the players involved, however, was fairly inaccurate…no matter. A wonderful experience!

      • You mean the reading with Kelsey? I’ll watch that video – the title is already interesting.

      • Yes. Kelsey’s project was the only reading I ever had done. omg was I nervous! (: Enjoy the video, Monika. Ah, the world is so very large, and complex!

      • I really enjoyed that video, it is great!

      • It rings true to me. ♫

  6. Don says:

    I also had the privilege of going to an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches and notes at the National Gallery in London. I found them to be absolutely mesmerizing. Loved the post Monika. Thank you.

  7. Fascinating, Monika. I wonder about flying while watching birds take flight, yet have a fear of heights, so no balloon rides for me, except perhaps in my dream-state. It does not surprise me that great thinkers/creators like DaVinci are so ahead of their time.They dwell in the realms of possibility. Wonder if he had any significant Uranian placements? too lazy to look myself at the moment 🙂

  8. archecotech says:

    I just had to leave a comment, you mentioned that ballooning had no practical purposes in the beginnings of their use. History tells us that balloons where used to track the movements of troops during wartime, which gave the party using them the advantage.The first decisive use of a balloon for aerial observation was performed by the French Aerostatic Corps using the aerostat l’Entreprenant (“The enterprising one”) at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. But the post was very interesting and a enjoyable read. Thank you.

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