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.