3 December 2019

The Lasting Breath

Inhaling and Exhaling One Another

Mairead Small Staid

On display at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan—amid the lacquered black metal of Model Ts and the hanging flanks of the first planes to fly over the poles, just feet from Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House and the bus seat made famous by Rosa Parks, mere yards from the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was shot and the limousine in which John Fitzgerald Kennedy was also, yes, shot—is a small, clear, and seemingly empty test tube, once rumored to contain the last breath of Thomas Edison.

This rumor has, largely, been put to rest. When the object was discovered among the late Henry Ford’s belongings in 1950, curators speculated that Ford’s interest in spiritualism may have spurred him to try to capture the soul of his mentor. An early placard attached to the museum’s display read: “It is alleged that Henry Ford asked Thomas A. Edison’s son, Charles, to collect an exhaled breath from the lungs of Ford’s dying hero and friend.” That placard has since been replaced with a more modest explanation: “During Edison’s final illness, this test tube was close to his bedside. Upon his death, it was sealed with paraffin wax.” According to a letter written by Charles Edison, an array of eight tubes, in fact, stood near his father’s deathbed—a symbol, the son says, of his love of chemistry—and all were promptly sealed upon Edison’s death. The last breath sent to Ford and now displayed in his museum has seven hidden twins.

If this seems fraudulent, implausible, or logically unsound—eight sealed-off pseudo-breaths, each with an equal claim to be the great inventor’s last?—perhaps we need to reassess our conception of breath itself. A breath is singular only from the perspective of we who gasp and rattle; to the universe at large, each breath is a semi-ruly mob of molecules, some inclined to cling together and some eager to disperse. The average exhalation releases more than ten sextillion molecules, made up of more than a hundred gases: while mostly nitrogen (78%) and its more celebrated cousin, oxygen (21%), the air we breathe also contains a smattering of hydrogen, helium, argon, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and ozone, not to mention trace amounts of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, acetylene, and ethanol. Give or take, that is: the air Edison breathed would have been slightly but significantly different from that we do, altered in no small part by the industries in which he and his protégé Ford played such large roles.

As soon as each breath leaves us, it grows multiple. Or, as Edison himself wrote to a friend: “I think as you do that death ends all, yet I do not feel certain, because there are many facts that seem to show that the real units of life are not the animal mechanism itself but groups of millions of small entities living in the visible cells—the animal being their mechanism for navigating their environment. And when the mechanism fails to function, i.e. dies, the groups go out into space to go through another cycle.”

Given this tendency toward dissolution, given our mechanism’s inevitable failure to function, perhaps the most surprising thing about the simple test tube on display at the Ford Museum is that there aren’t more objects like it. Relics tend to be cumbrous or brittle or both—Einstein’s brain sloshes in its preserving fluid, Galileo’s pointing finger threatens to wobble and fall—so why not bottle what we can? Why not grasp at that which needs nothing but a container to take its shape? Why don’t we keep small jars beside the urns on our mantles, crystal vessels buried along with the coffin? Why aren’t we reaching, in those final moments, for whatever’s at hand: a drained water bottle, a paper bag, a vase set by the bedside and its dead flowers easy to dump out on the floor?

We don’t, and the test tube at the Ford Museum remains a rarity. Its closest counterpart can be found not in the halls of history or science or mourning, but in a different kind of exhibition. The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds Marcel Duchamp’s 50 cc of Paris Air, a glass ampoule that appears devoid of content. Duchamp bought the vessel in Paris in 1919, emptied it of its original contents, refilled it (so the artist said) with a fraction of atmosphere from the City of Light, and sent it to a friend.

As a gift, the ampoule is a paradox: to breathe the restorative Parisian air within would be to lose it, to loose it into the lesser, presumably non-Parisian air of the breather’s surroundings. One-use-only, the label might read, much like life. As a work of art, the piece—like so many of Duchamp’s readymades—tells several jokes. The ampoule has a volume decidedly larger than fifty cubic centimeters, for one thing; it was broken in 1949, and since has been repaired. No part of the title, 50 cc of Paris Air, is true, if it ever was. (Except the of—the of rings true.)

But the jokes belie a seriousness that can look like sorrow. Like Edison’s test tube, Duchamp’s ampoule takes something as ubiquitous as air-on-Earth and makes it seem a miracle. Elevated to the state of art or relic, how improbable grows the combination of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, etc., by which we exist. How worthy of the display case, the dedicated light, the accompanying placard. Air is more essential to human life than food or water, is omnipresent and yet easy to ignore. We take so many breaths in our lifetimes, and we notice so few. Standing before the museum’s display, we’re tempted to say there’s nothing there.

Edison’s test tube and Duchamp’s ampoule speak to control, containment, and preservation in the face of what cannot be controlled, contained, or preserved. That the last breath might not be spent, that the fresh air of a lovely day might be rebreathed—an impossible dream. Breathing in always entails its counterpart: we can’t take a breath without giving it back, can’t take it in and keep it. He took his last breath, we say, knowing he also let it out. He took his last breath: that ultimate euphemism turns the act of death into one more act of life. The last breath is the body’s final note, the last will and testament of involuntary muscles. What was once so easy as to be automatic becomes impossible. It takes great effort not to breathe, until it doesn’t.

Yet perhaps the dream is not entirely impossible. Edison’s millions of small entities live on, after all; each of our exhalation’s ten sextillion molecules will find their way into other mouths. Every day, we breathe in the last breaths of a million others, our bodies like display cases of a different kind. We are each other’s test tubes, each other’s ampoules, broken and repaired, broken and repaired.

Mairead Small Staid is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, and Phillips Exeter Academy, where she was the 2017–2018 George Bennett Fellow. Her essays can be found in The Believer, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.