Flight and Fancy

Amazement on public transportation: as I was reading Primo Levi’s The Mirror Maker on the train this evening, “The Man Who Flies,” a 1986 essay on space travel and weightlessness more generally, had me experiencing the wonderfully weird sensation of reliving episodes occurring only in dreams: those involving some manner of transcending, to a degree, at least, the limitations of gravity and/or a body not constructed with the aim of engaging in self-propelled flight. Here’s the passage:

And yet, almost all of us have experienced a “simulation” of this decidedly nonterrestrial condition. We’ve experienced it in a youthful dream… All you have to do is row with the palms of your hands, and there! you take off from the floor, advance without effort…*

I could recall the sensation of, in my case, prolonged suspension in the air after having bounded up and kept myself aloft through just such a swimming motion, or via some bodily manipulation meant to extend a period of usually precarious, but definite, levitation or propelled floating. The memory of feeling was entirely vivid to me, reading this passage and the essay that goes on to wonder how it is that such dreams are nearly universal, whether the common phenomenon is due to some sort of collective memory, whether Dante’s eerily accurate depiction in the Inferno of being in a flying machine has something to do with the aggregate mental constructions of the human race.

Interesting questions, those– but for me, the exciting, enjoyable, and totally disturbing realization that I knew exactly what Levi was talking about with his depiction of gaining a dream-victory over groundedness raised a different query. If what took place was only a dream, to what degree was it “real”? I’m sure there’s a very concise explanation for how my body can remember and reexperience something my mind created– but can it be said that I ever “experienced” what I imagined at all? The demand isn’t a new one, and is in some sense unduly credulous, hearkening back to remedial explorations in empiricism– but whether it was all the effect of Levi’s terrifically evocative prose, or whether some variety of muscle memory was asserting itself, I was positively and pleasantly creeped out by the particular brand of déjà vu that had settled upon me.


* Primo Levi, “The Man Who Flies,” in The Mirror Maker, transl. Raymond Rosenthal (London: Methuen, 1990), 142.


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