On Falling: By Kick and Glide

Pieter Breughel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1558

Pieter Breughel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1558

Have you ever fallen from a height? Perhaps you are one of those brave souls who has tried skydiving, or bungee jumping? How would you describe the sensation of free falling? Did it leave a lasting impression?

To fall is to be human. We fall in love, out of grace, and into traps. We fall short and then we have a falling out. We reconcile, we fall in love all over again and then we fall into bed. To fall down and skin one’s knee is a child’s right of passage. Mom may hover, but eventually, the child will fall.

So powerful is falling in the human experience that we have applied the act and the verb to our most positive feelings and our worst fears. It can be both magical, as when we fall in love, or a long drawn out disaster, as in the fall of empires.

At some intuitive level we have always been aware of the force of gravity, long before we even had a name for it. Over 1200 years ago, Bhāskara, a Hindu astronomer, postulated the force that Newton rediscovered and named. They helped formulate our collective intuition into a set of laws, which allows for this simple definition of falling: “to move to a lower position under the effect of gravity.”

I used to be a rock-climber. One of the first things you learn when taking up the sport is how to protect yourself against the risk of falling.  Eventually you will fall; it’s part of the game. The thing to be avoided is hitting the bottom — “cratering”. That’s the big no-no. Like the child learning to walk, eventually the climber falls. Now what the instruction manuals don’t cover is this, because that is not the end of it. Once you have fallen (and I’m not counting “popping off” a half metre on a top rope, I’m talking about a lead fall, what the cognoscente causally refer to as a “screamer”) you are going to have some difficulty falling asleep, at least for the first few nights. As you are drifting off, the mind behaves as if the body is falling. You spring awake in a cold sweat, heart pounding, possibly screaming. You relive the moment.

I suspect that if you make a conscious decision to jump, as in parachuting, you won’t relive the experience at the very moment you are drifting off to sleep. Jumping is a conscious act, a lead fall isn’t. You may be afraid just before you jump, but you are anticipating the act and fear is part of the buy in. Or am I being a bit naïve here?

Rock climbers are constantly assessing risk. They understand the physics of free falling objects, 9.8 metres per second squared. They know the strength and the elasticity in their rope, their own strength to weight ratio, the viability of their protection, both its engineering and its placement, the circumstances of their route, the weather, their trust in their belayer, and the length of a potential fall. But their attitude, and boy do they have attitude, is fuck gravity, I’m going up.

Which brings us to Icarus.  W. H. Auden named his poem, Musée des Beaux Arts after the place where the painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, once thought to be by Breughel, is displayed [http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/auden.html]. In the painting, no one seems to notice, or care, that the boy who flew too close to the sun, is plunging into the sea. Auden’s poem is about this detachment, about how most of humanity erects a wall of indifference to the suffering of others. Our collective response to disaster is quiet natural, if somewhat cold. We can’t bring order to a complex world, so we try to order our own imperfect lives, symbolized in the painting of the perfect furrows being turned by the ploughman. In the painting the plouhgman, fixed on his task, calmly tamps down the freshly turned sod with his left foot, causing his body to pivot away from the sea. He misses the falling boy and his simple life trudges on.

Falling is part of our evolutionary experience, deeply embedded in our unconscious. It is part of our nature, which we learn to use to survive. We fear it, yet flirt with it, suppress it, then call it up to inform some of our best art, our myths and stories, our very lives.

 

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 50-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

2 thoughts on “On Falling: By Kick and Glide

  1. Thanks for writing this reflection on falling Kick and Glide. I have been thinking about falling a lot during the past few months, though in a less philosophical fashion. I have been trying to stop my 10-month-old son from falling and hurting himself. This is a full time job. At the same time I know that he needs to fall, in order to learn about the possibilities and limits of his human body. The question is: exactly how much falling is required and how much almost falling?

    • Hello FFG, I don’t know, there are too many variables. Perhaps the answer rests along a continuum of your nerves and your child’s shins. You are both behaving exactly as nature intended and that has worked 99.9% of the time.
      I was skate skiing this week and my balance was not good. I’m worried that I am losing, what has been, one of my few dependable strengths and that I am entering a period where falling will once again become a regular occurrence.
      For me personally, “exactly how much falling is required?” Answer: None

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