Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Massive

The American man of letters gives guidance to writers and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Three: Massive.

This word has become one of the worst bores and nuisances of both British and American journalism, and what seems to have been its sudden and rapid emergence is a phenomenon which ought to be studied. It has no doubt been given special prestige by the declaration of Mr Dulles in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations of 12 January 1954 that "Local Defence must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power", but the word had already been gaining momentum.

It is now to be found everywhere, and one even has an uneasy feeling that it may announce the presence of radioactivity. In the course of a few weeks I have been able to pick up a whole pile of examples.

Let me establish the word first in its earlier sense by some quotations from David Copperfield:

...an office that ought to have been on the ground floor of the Tower of Babel, it was so massively constructed ... sundry immense manuscript Books of Evidence taken on affidavit, strongly bound and tied together in massive sets ... His hold watch-chain was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the gold-beaters' shops.

These apply to inert materials, but you have also a human massiveness not devoid of moral implication: "There was a fine massive gravity on his face, I did not venture to disturb". The definitions of the word in the OED mostly deal with this sort of mass, though there follow examples of massive applied to "immaterial things" (massive thought, massive swellings), and to volume of sound (massive bass, massive chorus). Ruskin, it seems, spoke of clouds as "massive or striated", but added, "I cannot find a better word than massive, though it is not a good one, for I mean it only to signify it is not a good one, for I mean it only to signify a fleecy arrangement in which no lines are visible". Note Ruskin's apology for extending the meaning.

Now, the single use of massive among the recent examples I have gathered which comes under the first of the old definitions occurs in an article by S J Perelman in the New Yorker of 7 June. He speaks of "a massive fireplace"; but this is probably to be explained by his penchant for writing parodies of various old-fashioned styles. Sir Harold Nicolson, in a review of Belloc's letters in the Observer of 18 May, just manages to remain within the old definition when he writes of Belloc's "querulousness - so distressing in a massive, mighty man"; and T S Eliot, in his introduction to a volume of selections from Joyce, Introducing James Joyce, is also just within the old defition when he refers to Finnegans Wake as "that massive work". Finnegans Wake is not massive by reason of bulk - a novel by Dickens is much longer - but its density does perhaps make it massive. The Times Literary Supplement of 23 May provides another example of massive applied to books: "All these biographies are monumental in a sense beyond the merely massive and the physically weighty"; and Pamela Hansford Johnson, in the book already mentioned, applied the word to style: "He informed her, in a style as steady and massive as Cicero's".

But isn't Nicolson stretching it a little when he speaks, in a review in the New York Times Book Review of 18 March, of "the fourth volume of Winston Churchill's massive History of the English-Speaking Peoples"; and, in the Sunday Times of 6 July, of de Tocqueville's "massive studies of the ancien régime in France or the development of young America"? Maybe not: it is a matter of relative scale. But what adjective have you left for Gibbon? In a second use of massive in the Churchill review, this writer does, however, depart from the older uses of the word: the American Civil War, he says, was "a cosmic clash between strong men and massive principles". (I do not care for 'cosmic' here either. I have always regarded this loose use of cosmic as a particularly undesirable Americanism.)

The tendency to make massive a substitute not merely for enormous, immense and huge but even for large and extensive as applying to all sorts of phenomena, social, financial, political and psychological, is illustrated by the following examples.

It is easy and proper for the American Ambassador to Canada ... and for Canadian economists to argue that massive American investment, at this stage, is essential to Canada's growth. (An article in Harper's Magazine on 'Why Canadians Are Turning Anti-American'.)

The Marxists claim, of course, that colonialism invariably represented a massive and cruel exploitation of the colonial peoples. . . It is small wonder that it has all added up to a massive anti-Western complex. (George Kennan: Russia, the Atom and the West.)

No one, certainly not Lord Altrincham, we feel, would decry the massive difficulties confronting the young woman who is called upon to combine the personal and institutional qualities demanded of the Monarch today. (Lord Altrincham and Others: Is The Monarchy Perfect?)

... for several minutes the three of us waited with bowed heads ... while he built up a massive edifice of bad language. (John Wain: The Con-tenders.) (The use of massive here is possible under the old definition but provides another example of the fashionable addiction to the word.)

He could then argue that the Russians with their massive conventional forces and their interior lines cannot be contained without nuclear weapons. (Walter Lippmann.)

... he felt that his work was misunderstood on a massive scale. (Adventures of a Pacifist in the New Yorker, 22 March). In around a thousand pages, Max Lerner ... has undertaken ... a massive attempt to describe the main characteristics and currents of American life and thought ... (Review in New Yorker, 22 March).

Instead of the weekly issue of Punch or the New Yorker, subscribers will receive a small phial (wrapped, of course, in massive quantities of advertising matter), with instructions on how and when to inject its contents, thereby giving rise to fits of healthy, invigorating laughter. (Malcolm Muggeridge in April Esquire.)

There was a massive creation, consumption, and disposal of goods. (Dan Jacobson in June Encounter.)

Here are a number of examples - all from recent issues of the New York Times - that have been obviously inspired by Dulles:

A massive wave of Soviet, Chinese Communist and East European criticism has been directed at Yugoslavia ... Under Virginia's so-called "mas-sive resistance" laws, no Negro has been integrated in a public school. ... While somewhat inconclusive, the first report of the United Nations observers in Lebanon failed to support the Lebanese Government's charges of massive intervention. ... The United States Embassy here an-nounced early today that "a massive airlift" of petroleum products for Jordan would be started within the next few hours. ... Dr Malik replied a few days later that "massive intervention" was continuing. ...

You find also now a frequent use of the adverb: in the Times Literary Supplement editorial already quoted above, for example, "the realism of massively accumulated detail", and in the novel by John Wain, "'I've had my breakfast,' I said, bringing his organizing power massively into play". In a notice of a volume of reporting pieces in the Times Literary Supplement, the anonymous reviewer writes, "individually, they are massively observant". In Inside Russia Today, John Gunther says of Marx that he "was massively influenced by several French thinkers". (The May issue of Vogue referred to this volume as "a massive book".) In the Letter from Paris in the New Yorker of 31 May, one finds, "This is a call for the saviour that has not been massively heard in the Paris streets".

Some of these phrases - John Gunther's, for example - seem to me inexact, even if the meaning of massive is extended. Russia might perhaps be said to have been massively influenced by Marx; can you say that Marx's thought was massively influenced by earlier thinkers? But even when the words are properly used in the more limited old-fashioned senses, they are certainly used far too often. Massive and massively occur only four times in the whole of David Copperfield, but in short articles like the Nicolson review and the TLS editorial, the writers have slipped into using them twice.

Now, why has the word become so popular? It may be that the Marxist masses, in the sense of the working classes, has - in the last case above, for example - a little something to do with it. But what are undoubtedly most important, from the strictly material point of view, are the immense modern buildings and power plants, our machines for transportation and industry and war; and from the point of view of range or effect, our modern commercial enterprises and military operations. And there are also, of course, the great power units. Mr Dulles's "further deterrent of massive retaliatory power" is also an inexact use of the word, but it is evident that Mr Dulles was thinking both of the power of the United States and of the effect of the modern bomb. We are awed and yet stimulated by our awareness of size, weight, explosive force and expanding governmental domination, and these feelings have their expression in our use of massive.

6 September 1958.

Next up: Superb and Fabulous. Previous: Religionist.

Massive books in massive Russia. Photo: Getty.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

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