Sir William Empson, who was steeped in Buddhist learning, liked to tell the story of how Buddha once became annoyed with a congregation to whom he was trying to preach a sermon. Carried away by his eloquence, Buddha had unwittingly floated up into the air; instead of paying attention to his messages of enlightenment and detachment, his audience goggled at and gossiped about his marvellous act of levitation. There are various morals to be drawn from this story, the most obvious religious one being that too keen an interest in signs and wonders is likely to be an obstacle to spiritual development.
Buddha’s vertical takeoff does not appear in Peter Adey’s Levitation, but scores of other elevations do. Adey’s book is exhilaratingly wide-ranging and it is crammed with the sorts of beguiling oddities that would have made Buddha tut in disapproval. It begins, more or less, with Christian ideas of the Assumption and the various saints of the early Church whose holiness launched them towards the heavens, or indeed towards Heaven. It concludes, more or less, with the central European idea of the Luftmensch (the ‘air man’ – impractical and dreamy and unproductive) as manifested both in anti-Semitic propaganda and, more humanely, in the paintings of Marc Chagall and the short stories of Kafka. Adey, perhaps pushing his case a trifle too far, includes in his chapter on Luftmenschen the famous series of photographs of celebrities captured mid-jump by Philippe Halsman (one of the finest images in this book is Halsman’s 1958 ‘aerial’ portrait of the great physicist Robert Oppenheimer).
In the journey from saints and shamans to photographers and film-makers, Adey surveys such matters as the early craze for weight-watching, the pioneers of balloon flight, 19th-century stage magicians, Madame Blavatsky’s advice for would-be defiers