The birds who know how to improvise

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

According to the American writer Andrew Hudgins, there are some things that are “basically poetic about birds”. They are pretty, they sing and they can fly, he writes. “And if their ability to sing makes them easily emblematic of the poet, their ability to fly makes them immediate and compact symbols of the ancient, human desire to transcend our earthbound nature.”

All this is true but there is another aspect of bird behaviour that may be even more poetic and that is the ability, of some species at least, to improvise – because improvisation, a form of play and at the same time a variety of practical magic, is the basis of all our poetries.

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

The similarity does not end there, however. As in those human instances in which young children are deprived of language (the best known case being that of Genie, a brutally abused American girl who, over a period of 11 years in captivity, rarely heard normal human speech), what develops when no parent or tutor can be found is an abnormal, sometimes unrecognisable facsimile of true song.

It is painful to imagine this condition. For a bird, especially for the more musically inventive, song is the defining characteristic, the primary way by which it knows itself and is known by others. To lose its species song is to lose not just its identity but some part of its presence in the world.

Like Genie, who lived in a detached, almost ghostly silence even after she was rescued, a songless bird is a sort of local vacuum, a dropped stitch in the fabric of universal consciousness that seems, to those of us who can express ourselves, both eerie and tragic.

Having learned the basics of its species song from a tutor, each bird goes on, through practice and close listening, to perfect a version of that song. Once this has been achieved, some birds develop no further; others, however, build vast and highly inventive repertoires, incorporating musical inventions from their own and other bird species and even mimicking humanmade sounds.

Everyone is aware of the virtuosity of mockingbirds and starlings in this regard, but their repertoires of 200 or so “tunes” at most seem rather limited compared to the brown thrasher’s 2,000.

Yet repertoire is not the whole story. Indeed, as with human improvisation, real mastery comes in combining a limited range of notes in complex performances – and surely this is where the most musical songbirds prove most “poetic”.

With human beings it could be argued that all music-making is, in essence, grounded in improvisation. Whether it is Bach constructing the astonishingly lyrical and inventive Goldberg Variations from a simple original theme or John Coltrane transforming a standard such as “Bye, Bye Blackbird” into a jazz classic, we begin with a given datum or experience, draw upon a vast inner encyclopaedia of other experiences (only some of which are sounds) and arrive at something unexpected. And this applies not only to music; it is just as true for poetry, architecture or dance at their best.

This gift for improvisation, that serious discipline in which the safe ground is abandoned for the possibility of marvellous play, is arguably the one gift we share with the birds and it is only here that we can aspire to be their equals. We cannot fly and few of us are pretty enough to bear comparison with the vireos or orioles but occasionally our ability to improvise (or to recognise great improvisation when we encounter it) allows us to transcend our earthbound nature, for a while, at least.

Poetry in aerial motion: our feathered friends dazzle with variations on a theme in the same way we do. Image: Joel Micah Miller/ Gallery Stock

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
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Peter Adey's wonderfully digressive book explores the science and history of levitation

From flying carpets to rocket men, we have always dreamed of defying gravity

In the winding rooms of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans, among Dürer’s eldritch owls and Man Ray’s one-eyed metronome, is an extraordinary oil painting by the Haarlem artist Frans Post. Dated to 1648, it is notable not just for the fact that it depicts a Brazilian landscape, complete with cacti, armadillos and iguanas, but because, rising from the jungle, over those exotic flora and fauna, is a white-robed angel. The hermaphrodite being hangs there, quite matter-of-factly caught in mid-air, like a three-dimensional wisp of smoke, or a Renaissance scene reimagined by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The image is made even more enigmatic by the way that the gallery caption declines to mention the angel at all.

Who hasn’t dreamt of levitation? When I was a boy, at school Masses I prayed hard that my pious thoughts would lift me into the air in our suburban Catholic church. I would lean forward on the balls of my feet, ready to launch myself upwards, to the astonishment and admiration of my fellow pupils. Perhaps it was something about the vaulted roof and its yawning space that tempted me, or maybe the bursting filtered light of stained-glass windows hypnotised me. Perhaps I just got high on the incense. But I must have also heard of Padre Pio, the Italian mystic who, as Peter Adey observes in his brilliant book, could fly so high that during the Second World War he rose like a barrage balloon to deter Allied bombers from blowing up a munitions depot in his home city of San Giovanni Rotondo.

These days we are blithely accustomed to being in the air. I have written part of this review 24,000 feet above the English Channel, flying without any effort, holy or otherwise, of my own. We send drones into the sky and astronauts into zero gravity; the air is a crackling conduit of communication and knowledge; the work we do on our blue screens ends up in a cloud. But in the medieval world – where images were rarer and more precious – Christian myth presented levitation as the “unburdening of human flesh and the lightness of divinity”, in Adey’s lovely phrase. Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven, after His resurrection, was depicted in illuminations in which only the Saviour’s feet were seen as his disciples looked up, theatrically, as though they might pull Him back down. Yet that scene is repeated at every Mass, as the priest holds up the Eucharist, Christ’s body incarnate.

Rising from the ground implies rising from the dead, a leaving of both gravity and mortality. The building of Gothic churches and cathedrals, whose flying buttresses allowed light to flood into holy interiors, seemed to set the scene for such miracles. In their architectural context – buildings that are already miraculous, containing the sky – levitation is both an ordinary and an extraordinary act.

There were so many levitating medieval saints that they could have earned air miles. St Teresa of Avila was positively embarrassed by her propensity to levitate without notice; not only did her fellow nuns struggle to keep her body down, but the poor woman also suffered from vertigo. And while angels were powered by God’s grace, witches, their dark opposites, rode heretically on broomsticks, and sometimes went commando. In one aside in Adey’s delightfully digressive book, a decidedly overweight witch is shot out of the sky and lands with a thud, naked and drunk on the earth.

Arguably the modern age began not with Newton – whose visions of celestial beings defied his discovery of gravity – but with the technology that enabled humans to float. During Vincenzo Lunardi’s balloon ascent from London’s Bunhill Fields in 1784, the Italian aeronaut ate cold chicken and drank wine as he surveyed, with the synoptic eye of God, the amazed populace over whom he passed. His flight was commemorated in Oxford Street’s Pantheon, under whose dome Lunardi’s balloon was suspended so that visitors could look at the painted panorama around them as if they, too, had risen to the skies. William Blake, who never shrank from the mystical, wrote his own tribute, “An Island in the Moon”, as if his poem were an in-flight magazine, while Percy Shelley sent imaginary balloons floating over Africa to survey “that unhappy country” and “annihilate slavery for ever”. These Enlightenment rides – literally “a lightening”, a leaving of the old world – “combined scientific measurement and rationality with exclamations of delight, rapture and an imagination overwhelmed by experience”, Adey writes. Their sublimity would not be matched until 200 years later, when Apollo astronauts saw Earthrise
from the Moon.

Colonialism imported another kind of levity – that of the Indian fakir. Sheshal, the “Brahmin of the Air”, was celebrated in the 1830s for touring rich houses in Madras, assuming his position behind a cloth screen that, when pulled back, revealed him sitting cross-legged in mid-air, one arm resting on a perpendicular brass bar fixed into a wooden stool. Investigators believed that Sheshal’s weight was borne by a metal frame concealed by his clothing, but so convincing was his feat that it was replicated by magicians back in London.

Notorious among them was Alfred Sylvester, the self-styled “Fakir of Oolu”, a sometime stereoscopic photographer of the 1850s who, in the exotic Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly (which housed other sensational exhibits such as a supposed mermaid and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins), floated his female assistant horizontally in the air, as if lying on a couch. Observers thought that such audiences had been tricked using mesmerism into believing they were witnessing miracles, another Victorian parlour fad.

Equally exotic, and popularised by Richard Burton’s 1885 translation of The Arabian Nights, was the notion of the flying carpet – supposedly devised to allow medieval scholars at the library of Alexandria access to manuscripts on upper shelves. Preferring to read while hovering in the air, the scholars sat on rugs powered by a special dye with “anti-magnetic properties”. The notion made its way into Victorian and Edwardian fantasy writing: E Nesbit’s children’s story The Phoenix and the Carpet and Mary Poppins, the levitating nanny who presides over Uncle Albert’s aerial tea party in the Disney adaptation of P L Travers’s book.

For the Pre-Raphaelites, levitation transcended the darkness of the Industrial Revolution. In his eerie 1870 painting Night, Edward Burne-Jones depicts a wreathed figure hovering over a nocturnal landscape, level with the clouds, her hands held parallel as if in a seance. It was no coincidence that this was the age of mediums with their flying furniture.

Most notorious of all these was Daniel Dunglas Home, who convinced Ruskin, Conan Doyle, Napoleon III and Carl Jung – among others – with his ability to levitate flowerpots, three-legged tables and himself. At one seance in imperial St Petersburg, “Mr Home presently declared that he felt himself being raised. He took, as he was lifted, a horizontal position, with his arms crossed on his breast; and in this reclining attitude was transported by invisible means into the middle of the apartment.” At another gathering in Westminster in 1868, Home was seen to fly out of one window and back in through another, like Scrooge in the hands of the spirit of Christmas Past – or like Santa Claus, another serial ascender.

It was tempting, among those dark Dickensian streets, to place faith in such transformations – although new urban myths invented the demonic, leaping Spring-heeled Jack, a kind of anti-Ariel who inhabited them. The looming industrialised wars of the 20th century would deal death from above – hence the vision of the Angels of Mons over the trenches of the Western Front, an antidote to aerial ordnance and clouds of poison gas. In his field notes, Carl Jung recorded one soldier “seeming to rise in the air in the same position he was in at the moment he was wounded… All feeling of weight is lost.” Sometimes, Jung noted: “The wounded think they are making swimming movements with their arms.”

Art echoed these shell-shocked reverberations to magical-realist effect. Marc Chagall’s paintings of the 1910s and 1920s feature the mythical Jewish figure of the luftmensch – “the man of flight… messenger of the gods” – flying over European rooftops as an airy allegory of apartness and rootlessness at a time of pogrom and Holocaust.

In the Second World War, Philippe Halsman – an American photographer with eastern European Jewish origins – would reinvent the luftmensch. Imprisoned by the Nazis before the war, Halsman had written to his girlfriend: “Tell me, do you ever dream of flying?” From 1941, he collaborated with Salvador Dalí on complex images such as Dalí Atomicus (1948), which re-created the artist’s fantasies of flying using illusions not dissimilar to those of Indian fakirs. Dalí’s dreams painted “a Renaissance portrait as familiar as a Christian Assumption,” writes Adey. “I would not at that moment have changed places with a god,” said the surrealist of his visions. In his later portraits of the 1950s, Halsman persuaded celebrities from Edward and Wallis Windsor to Marilyn Monroe and Robert Oppenheimer to leap for his camera. “When you ask a person to jump,” Halsman said, “his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”

Once again the ordinary was turned into the extraordinary. Twentieth-century science fiction relied on levitation: men flew in rocket suits, flying saucers hovered over a Cold War world, and Stanley Kubrick’s astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey bounced about to a classical soundtrack in what Adey calls “an allegory-rich set of images and sounds”. From there, the author segues to David Bowie’s Major Tom floating far above the Earth, and on to the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield singing “Space Oddity” on the International Space Station in 2013. Meanwhile, 1960s anti-war protesters had tried to levitate the Pentagon, and exponents of Transcendental Meditation (and their political wing, the Natural Law Party), as followed by the Beatles, Clint Eastwood and David Lynch, were promised that yogic flying could solve all the world’s ills.

Perhaps we need a little such levity today. With only the occasional bit of excess weight – “blurring the Parmenidean dichotomies of heavy and light” – Adey’s prose rises above academic discourse to create a phantasmagorical cultural history. He concludes that although levitation “supplies us with a record of… exploitation, inequality and even violence”, it is also an expression of “freedom, emancipation and empowerment”. As sly and strange as its subject, Adey’s book is an ambiguous, allusive and fascinating manual of unassisted flight, and I only wish I’d had it to hand when I was a ten-year-old would-be levitator.

Levitation: The Science,
Myth and Magic of Suspension
Peter Adey

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear