Winter 2008–2009

The Cosmonaut of the Erotic Future

A brief history of levitation from St. Joseph to Yuri Gagarin

Aaron Schuster

What happens to levitation, one of the great imaginative figures of art and literature, in the transition from a religious culture to the disenchanted universe of modern science? What becomes of ecstasy, rapture, ascension, transcendence, grace when these give way to “space oddity”: man enclosed in a tin can floating far above the world? Is the cosmonaut a prophet of the erotic future, avatar of man’s stellar renaissance, as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke once imagined? Or is he like Nietzsche’s madman, proclaiming as Gagarin himself was rumored to have said: “I don’t see any God up here”?

Levitation: what is it?
­The word levitation has several senses and connotations: miraculous, magical, oneiric, but also scientific and technological. Levitation is equally an affair of mystics and engineers, charlatans and poets. One thinks of the feats of the Scottish medium Daniel Dunglas Home, who on 13 December 1868 (one of the most auspicious days in the history of levitation) floated out of a third-story window and returned through the window of an adjoining room; or the ascension of Christ, archetype of all saintly air travel; or the magnetic levitation train zipping commuters between Shanghai and the Pudong International Airport at a maximum speed of 431 kilometers per hour. 

Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), The Blessed Ranieri Rasini Freeing Poor People from Prison in Florence, 1437–1444.

Levitation derives from the Latin levitas, meaning lightness. The term would appear to have been coined as the opposite of gravitation, sometime in the early seventeenth century when humanity’s conception of the cosmos was being revolutionized by Brahe, Copernicus, and Kepler. Rather than being based on qualitative “elective affinities,” the attraction of bodies became a matter of purely quantitative relations expressed by algebraic symbols. Though the ancient cosmology was effectively vanquished by the new clockwork universe, this was hardly a simple or straightforward affair. Even Sir Isaac Newton hedged his bets. While developing his theory of gravitation, Newton was also privately elaborating a highly idiosyncratic theology. According to certain obscure and, until recently, largely neglected writings, after the Apocalypse “children of the resurrection” (notably Newton himself) would be able to levitate at will, soaring “to the furthermost extremities of the universe.”[1]

Levitation is also related to levity, to the lighthearted, the frivolous, and the fun. The link between levitation, levity, and laughter was made explicit in the 1964 Walt Disney classic Mary Poppins. (As we’ll see, the 1960s was an absolutely crucial decade for levitation.) Near the end of the film, the curmudgeonly bank director miraculously ascends as he goes into hysterics at an employee’s little joke. I won’t tell you the joke—it’s not very good. Later we learn that the old man died. But he died happy from levitating laughter.

Parceling the sky
One of the great literary works of the past century dealing with levitation, combining the technology of aviation with Christian mysticism, is Blaise Cendrars’s Le lotissement du ciel (literally “The Parceling of the Sky” but translated as Sky Memoirs). Begun during World War II and published in 1949, Cendrars’s book presents a kind of literary collage. Prose poetry, exotic travelogues, personal memoirs, and found texts, including scholarly documents, are all pasted together in a complex construction. Cendrars is renowned as an adventurer, and the stories he recounts here do not disappoint: there is his trip across Siberia with a jewelry merchant, his pilgrimage to a strange Brazilian doctor obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt, his voyage from Rio to Cherbourg with 250 tropical birds (none survive the boat ride), his work as a war correspondent for British headquarters in Paris. But it is the death of his son Rémy, a pilot who perished in the early months of the war, that provides the novel’s “center of gravity.” Often Cendrars’s “parceling of the sky” is interpreted as an act of mourning. He had spoken with his son about the idea of proposing St. Joseph of Copertino, famed levitator, as the patron saint of French aviators. Though Cendrars’s plan was foiled by the American air force, which adopted St. Joseph as their own guardian angel in 1943, his fascination for the flying priest was unabated. While hiding from the Gestapo in Aix-en-Provence, he spent his time in the library immersing himself in the study of levitation, and in particular the life of St. Joseph.

Cendrars ends the first part of the book with a passionate proposal to make a film about the levitating saint: “If a producer ever feels like making this prodigious film, I—I, who have sworn never again to waste my time making films—will drop everything, give up my solitude, my tranquility, and my writing, to make this film about St. Joseph of Copertino, in memory of my son, Rémy, the pilot, and as a souvenir for his sometime girlfriend, the out-of-work baker’s girl, with whom I lost touch in wartime Paris.”[2]

left: Saint Joseph of Copertino, artist unknown; right: Yves Klein, The Leap into the Void, 1960.

St. Joseph: The Movie
What might this cinema of levitation have looked like? And what genre would it be? Perhaps an action film? That would certainly fit the temperament of Cendrars, but, frankly, there is not much in the life of the seventeenth-century Italian priest to recommend such an approach. It is true that Joseph’s miraculous flights did provoked suspicion, and that he was investigated by the Inquisition at Naples for several weeks. But in the end, Joseph was released after the judges found no demonic wrongdoing. A historical drama, then? Large portions of Cendrars’s book are simply transcriptions of the classic 1928 study by Olivier Leroy titled La Lévitation: Contribution historique et critique à l’étude du merveilleux. One could imagine a Duras-style film essay with long shots of airplanes taking off and landing, perhaps an image of a tropical sun floating languidly in the sky, while the voice-over endlessly recites passages from Leroy. Personally, I like to think that it would have been a slapstick-style comedy with lots of physical gags—the unfortunate priest always being lifted off at just the wrong moment, flying away while sitting on the toilet, and so on. There are two details that speak in favor of this conception. First, Joseph was the only saint ever to have succeeded in flying backwards: retrorsum volantem. Cendrars was especially delighted by this fact. Second, Joseph was a total imbecile who (ironically) became the patron saint for candidates for the priesthood and people taking university degrees. So, what we have, in effect, is a dim-witted backwards-flying priest, a role that would have been perfect for Jerry Lewis in his prime. 

In order to envision the appropriate kitsch aesthetics for our hypothetical comedy, we need look no further than The Flying Nun, a highly eccentric television series that ran from 1967 to 1970. No history of levitation would be complete without mentioning this program. The show centered on the adventures of a group of nuns in the Convent San Tanco in Puerto Rico. Sister Bertrille could be counted on to get the nuns out of any jam by virtue of her unexplained ability to fly (perhaps it had to do with the aerodynamics of her oversized hat). Of course the storylines were limited—there are only so many situations one can devise that require the heroine to levitate—and so the show was cancelled after three seasons.

As it happens, a film was made about the life of St. Joseph. It is titled The Reluctant Saint and was released in 1962. The movie was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who is best known for The Caine Mutiny and for being one of the “Hollywood Ten.” It is very difficult to get hold of a copy of this film. I have seen it and can report that it is rather conventional and dull. Yet with Ricardo Montalban playing the suspicious Father Raspi, and the great Maximilian Schell in the role of St. Joseph, it is still definitely worth a view.

Anonymous, The Ascension of Christ, from the series Travels and Wanderings Through the Holy Land, ca. 1481.

The artist levitator
I think it would not be terribly controversial to call Yves Klein the artist-levitator of the twentieth century. Indeed, with Klein, levitation becomes a veritable revolutionary program. In his 1959 manifesto Overcoming the Problematics of Art, the artist proclaims: “We shall thus become aerial men. We shall know the forces that pull us upwards to the heavens, to space, to what is both nowhere and everywhere. The terrestrial force of attraction thus mastered, we shall literally levitate into a complete physical and spiritual freedom![3]

This ideal, which is simultaneously that of the artist, the artwork, and life itself, is embodied in Klein’s iconic photograph The Leap Into the Void; its other, lesser known title is Obsession of Levitation. The artist’s audacious plunge is that of a saint announcing the dawn of a new era,[4] an epoch of immateriality where buildings will be fashioned from air currents, color dissolved into the void, and life and art merged in blissful union. In the caption beneath the photograph, it is written: “Today the painter of space must, in fact, go into space to paint, but he must go there without trickery or deception, and not in an airplane, nor by parachute, nor in a rocket: he must go there on his own strength, using an autonomous, individual force; in short, he must be capable of levitation.”[5] With his leap, Klein both anticipates the space flight of Yuri Gagarin and outdoes him. The artist is superior to the cosmonaut in that his journey into space is made without the aid of technological gadgetry. Of course, it is ironic that The Leap Into the Void is precisely a doctored photograph, an early and masterful example of image manipulation before the days of Photoshop. As much as it may aspire to “True Life,” art, after all, remains a matter of illusion. The photograph was staged on 19 October 1960, with Klein’s judo pals holding a blue sheet to catch the levitating artist. It appeared soon after in the publication Dimanche 27 novembre. Le Journal d’un seul jour (Sunday 27 November: Newspaper of a Single Day).

Failing to levitate, or the art of the fall
Bruce Nauman’s photograph Failing to Levitate in the Studio appears six years later as a kind of counter-weight to Klein’s ascensional sublimation (sublimation being one of Klein’s favorite words). From the triumphant leap of the artist-levitator, always suspected of charlatanry and cheap showmanship, we are presented with the fall of the clown. (Nauman once famously transformed himself into a spitting fountain.) Later, Nauman staged a performance in which two actors were instructed to sink into the floor or, more mysteriously, let the floor rise above them.

Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966.

If the classical ideal of art is a kind of elevation, lifting up or spiritualization, one way of characterizing contemporary art is as an “art of the fall.”[6] Rather than the miraculous flight of the saint, its iconic figure is the well-timed tumble of the slapstick artist. In short: Buster Keaton in place of St. Joseph. I am thinking especially of Bas Jan Ader’s Fall films, but there are many failed levitations in recent art history. After hearing about The Leap Into the Void, Paul McCarthy reportedly jumped from his balcony—and broke a leg. There should be a name for this kind of vertiginous mimetic behavior. Perhaps after the Stendhal syndrome, we could call it the Klein syndrome.

Gianni Motti, Levitation, 1995 (in collaboration with illusionist Mister RG).
above: James Bond levitates in orbit with Holly Goodhead in Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker, 1979; below: The miracle of love as levitation in Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror, 1975.

Psychoanalyzing the cosmonaut
“The cosmonaut of the erotic future” is a phrase that occurs once, in passing, in the 14 March 1962 session of Lacan’s seminar Identification—the same year as the release of the film The Reluctant Saint, almost one year after Yuri Gagarin’s space flight aboard Vostok-1 on 12 April 1961, and approximately sixteen months after the appearance of The Leap Into The Void. In other words, a particularly propitious moment in the history of levitation.

How does the analyst interpret Gagarin’s voyage? Lacan paints a vivid portrait of the cosmonaut as living pulp implanted in a tin can, quivering flesh plugged into a complex technological apparatus. If for Freud man had already become a “prosthetic God,”[7] in the era of the cosmonaut he would seem to be relegated to a button pusher, utterly dependent on the machine that supports his life functions and extends his limited sensorium. Gagarin himself, together with Soviet psychologist Vladimir Lebedev, stated plainly: “The main function of the operator in the ‘man-machine’ system, provided it functions normally, is to take the reading of instruments.”[8]

For Lacan, the precarious situation of the cosmonaut hooked into an impenetrable mechanism is not an isolated or extreme case, but reveals the universal condition of the human subject. We are all erotic cosmonauts, split between our everyday, phenomenological life experience and the computing apparatus—what Lacan calls the “symbolic order”—that parasites our body and secretly controls our thoughts and desires. The lot of the modern subject, adrift in a universe of significations without substantial support or foundation, is perfectly encapsulated by “the experience of the cosmonaut: a body that can open and close itself weighing nothing and bearing on nothing.”[9]

Alexei Leonov, Over the Planet, 2003. Painting of the first spacewalk by the cosmonaut who accomplished it. Courtesy Alex Panchenko.

Space sex
At one point during his speculations on the cosmonaut, Lacan raises the delicate matter of the effects of anti-gravitation on sexual desire: “What happens in the state of weightlessness to the sexual drive, which usually manifests itself as going against gravity?[10] In other words, what happens to male erection in outer space? How can the phallus properly “levitate” in a gravity-free environment?[11] There have been Internet rumors circulating for some time about sexual experiments conducted by NASA and the Russians, but it was popular French science writer Pierre Kohler who first discussed them in print in La Dernière mission: Mir l’aventure humaine (The Last Mission: Mir, The Human Adventure), published in 2000. The chapter titled “Cosmic Love” (in English) begins with a precise scientific question: “Have the astronauts—or the cosmonauts—already made love in outer space? If so, how many of them … and who?” Considering the secrecy of government organizations, we may never know the answer. For the conspiracy-minded, Kohler reports that information regarding the best positions for sexual intercourse in a state of weightlessness is to be found in the NASA dossier STS-75-Experiment no. 8. At the end of the film Moonraker, James Bond floats in amorous embrace with Dr. Holly Goodhead, but this is a highly idealized picture. As Kohler informs us, zero-gravity sex is no easy proposition: best first to strap yourself to your partner.[12]

Jews in space
Compared to the Christians, levitation is not really a Jewish strong point. One can, of course, find some scattered episodes of miraculous flight in the Old Testament, but the phenomenon of levitation, especially as ecstatic experience, is largely absent from the Jewish tradition.[13]There is an important exception to this general neglect: Emmanuel Levinas’s reflections on Yuri Gagarin, contained in his short 1961 essay “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us.”

From “Jews in Space,” a segment in Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I, 1981.

What does space flight signify for the Jewish philosopher? The first thing that strikes the eye is the way that Levinas puts Gagarin and Heidegger back to back. Strange comparison: what do the Russian cosmonaut and the rustic thinker of Todtnauberg have to do with one another? In fact, they represent absolute antipodes: Soviet Communism and German Fascism, technological wizardry and technophobic anti-modernism, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Most importantly, for Levinas this impossible couple stands for the choice between “enlightened uprootedness” (enracinement éclairé) and “earthly attachment” (attachement terrestre). By voyaging into space, man leaves behind his mythic homeland: even further, he discovers that this hallowed place was never anything but superstition and idolatry. Levitation makes of the human being a creature of the universe. Against the philosopher of the forest clearing, Levinas defends the astral desires of technological man.

To quote Levinas’s remarkable elegy to Gagarin in full:

What is admirable about Gagarin’s feat is certainly not his magnificent Luna Park performance which impresses the crowds; it is not the sporting achievement of having gone further than the others and broken the world records for height and speed. What counts more is the probable opening up of new forms of knowledge and new technological possibilities, Gagarin’s personal courage and virtues, the science that made the feat possible, and everything which that in turn assumes in the way of abnegation and sacrifice. But what perhaps counts most of all is that he left the Place. For one hour, man existed beyond any horizon—everything around him was sky or, more exactly, everything was geometrical space. A man existed in the absolute of homogeneous space.[14]

In brief, Gagarin is the ultimate figure of exile: a man without roots in a cosmic desert without horizon or end. Mel Brooks once made a comedy sketch called “Jews in Space,” but Levinas goes even further: in the vast expanses of space, we are all wandering Jews.

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1915–1920.

Remembering how to fly
In the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Hand Surgery, there appeared an article by Dr. Samuel O. Poore examining the question of whether, through reconstructive surgery, the human arm may be transformed into a functional wing. Can man’s ancient dream of unassisted flight finally be realized through cutting-edge surgical techniques? After thoroughly detailing the medical possibilities and problems, the answer finally is no.[15] Yet as a certain literature would have it, the power to fly, far from being a vain aspiration, is a most ordinary and general human capacity. Everyone can fly. Only, we have forgotten how to do so.

The historian of levitation cannot fail to be impressed by the different ways in which levitation is posited as universal destiny. Who is the cosmonaut of the erotic future? Is he the soaring angel of ecstasy that augurs the coming of paradise on earth? Is he the machinic apparatus that parasitizes our body and controls our deepest desires? Or is he the geometric prophet of a new interstellar Diaspora? One of Eugene Ionesco’s lesser-known plays, A Stroll in the Air, first performed on 15 December 1962 (a little more than one month after the release of Dmytryk’s film on St. Joseph), suggests that salvation lies in reclaiming our innate levitative powers. When Monsieur Bérenger rises into the sky one Sunday afternoon, he explains his behavior to dubious onlookers thus: “Man has a crying need to fly. ... It’s as necessary and natural as breathing. ... Everyone knows how to fly. It’s an innate gift but everyone forgets.”[16] The same sentiment was later echoed in Paul Auster’s Mr. Vertigo. At the novel’s end, the narrator, once a vaudevillian “Wonder Boy” renowned for his gravity-defying stunts, offers the following simple instructions for levitation:

Deep down, I don’t believe it takes any special talent for a person to lift himself off the ground and hover in the air. We all have it in us—every man, woman, and child—and with enough hard work and concentration, every human being is capable of duplicating the feats I accomplished as Walt the Wonder Boy. You must learn to stop yourself. That’s where it begins, and everything else follows from that. You must let yourself evaporate. Let your muscles go limp, breathe until you feel your soul pouring out of you, and then shut your eyes. That’s how it’s done. The emptiness inside your body grows lighter than the air around you. Little by little, you begin to weigh less than nothing. You shut your eyes; you spread your arms; you let yourself evaporate. And then, little by little, you lift yourself off the ground. Like so.[17]

This essay is adapted from a talk given as part of the night program of the Berlin Biennial (“Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours”) in the Zeiss Planetarium, Berlin, on 4 May 2008.

left: Cover for edition of two plays by Eugene Ionesco; right: Poster for Steven Spielberg’s E.T., 1982.

  1. Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 102. I also draw here on Joel D. Black, “Levana: Levitation in Jean Paul and Thomas de Quincey,” Comparative Literature, vol. 32, no. 1 (Winter 1980), pp. 44–45.
  2. Blaise Cendrars, Sky Memoirs, trans. Nina Rootes (New York: Paragon House, 1992), p. 148. The other great writer of the twentieth century fascinated with St. Joseph was Italian playwright and actor Carmelo Bene, who wrote a whole play about the flying priest. For Bene, the most interesting characteristic of St. Joseph was his imbecility—he quips that Joseph was so stupid he didn’t even know the law of gravity.
  3. Yves Klein, “Overcoming the Problematics of Art,” in Overcoming the Problematics of Art, trans. Klaus Ottmann (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 2007), p. 64. Translation modified.
  4. The suspended pose of the self-defenestrating artist might best be described with the paradoxical expression of an “upwards fall.” As Cendrars writes: “The saint who falls into ecstasy falls into the abyss, floats On High, levitates, gyrates in a transport, breaks out, and is no longer in possession of himself. At the most, he lets out a cry or a last sigh. Then he lets himself go and plummets into the very depths of the Word of God. He soars…” See Cendrars, Sky Memoirs, p. 135.
  5. Klein, “Selections from ‘Dimanche,’” in Overcoming the Problematics of Art, p. 106.
  6. See Gérard Wajcman, “Desublimation: An Art of What Falls,” Lacanian Ink, no. 29 (Spring 2007).
  7. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1955) vol. 21, pp. 91–92.
  8. Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Lebedev, Psychology and Space, trans. Boris Belitsky (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2003), p. 259.
  9. Jacques Lacan, “Merleau-Ponty: In Memoriam,” in Merleau-Ponty and Psychology, ed. Keith Hoeller, trans. Wilfried Ver Eecke and Dirk de Schutter (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993), p. 74. Translation modified.
  10. Lacan, Seminar IX, L’Identification, session of 28 February 1962 (unpublished).
  11. For the father of psychoanalysis, the paradigmatic levitating object is the phallus. “The remarkable phenomenon of erection,” Freud writes, “around which the human imagination has constantly played, cannot fail to be impressive, involving as it does an apparent suspension of the laws of gravity.” The Interpretation of Dreams, in Standard Edition, vol. 5, p. 394. Freud’s colleague Victor Tausk adds that erection is first experienced as “an exceptional and mysterious feat,” something “independent of the ego, a part of the outer world not completely mastered,” and even a kind of “machine subordinated to a foreign will.” See “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia,” in Sexuality, War, and Schizophrenia: Collected Psychoanalytic Papers, ed. Paul Roazen (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1991), pp. 213–214.
  12. In contrast, in the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, levitation always occurs in place of the sexual act. By virtue of its unreal, miraculous character, levitation is apt to convey the miracle of love, which, according to Tarkovsky, is completely obscured by images of copulating bodies. Incidentally, it was another Soviet filmmaker, Pavel Klushantsev, who first filmed zero-gravity space scenes.
  13. One should not forget, however, the mystical tradition of Judaism, which includes flying rabbis; see, for example, the floating Jews in Cynthia Ozick’s short story “Levitation,” or scenes of flight in the paintings of Marc Chagall. Like Judaism, official Islam also de-emphasizes levitation. One of the most interesting treatments of levitation in the Islamic tradition is found in the work of Avicenna, who, some six centuries prior to Descartes, proposed a radical thought experiment to demonstrate the nature of self-consciousness. This experiment, in which a man is imagined deprived of sense data, floating in a void, was later dubbed the “Flying Man.”
  14. Emmanuel Levinas, “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 233.
  15. Samuel O. Poore, “The Morphological Basis of the Arm-to-Wing Transition,” The Journal of Hand Surgery, vol. 33 (February 2008). I thank Darius Miksys for this reference.
  16. Eugene Ionesco, “A Stroll in the Air,” in Plays, vol. 6, trans. Donald Watson (London: John Calder, 1965), pp. 46–47.
  17. Paul Auster, Mr. Vertigo (New York: Penguin, 1994), p. 293.

Aaron Schuster is a writer based in Brussels. He has lectured and published widely on psychoanalysis and contemporary philosophy, and his writings on art have appeared in Frieze, Frog, Metropolis M, and De Witte Raaf. He coauthored the libretto for Cellar Door: An Opera in Almost One Act (JRP Ringier, 2008), and his Cosmonaut of the Erotic Future: A Brief History of Levitation from St. Joseph to Yuri Gargarin will appear as a book in 2009.

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