Primo Levi on Weightlessness from Dante to NASA

In Granta, there is this beautiful peice.

From this persistent dream of weightlessness, my mind returns to a well-known rendition of the Geryon episode in the seventeenth canto of th Inferno. The ‘wild beast’, reconstructed by Dante from classical sources and also from word-of-mouth accounts of the medieval bestiaries, is imaginary and at the same time splendidly real. It eludes the burden of weight. Waiting for its two strange passengers, only one of whom is subject to the laws of gravity, the wild beast rests on the bank with its forelegs, but its deadly tail floats ‘in the void’ like the stern-end of a Zeppelin moored to its pylon. At first, Dante was frightened by the creature, but then that magical descent to Malebolge captured the attention of the poet-scientist, paradoxically absorbed in the naturalistic study of his fictional beast whose monstrous and symbolic form he describes with precision. The brief description of the journey on the back of the beast is singularly accurate, down to the details as confirmed by the pilots of modern hang-gliders: the silent, gliding flight, where the passenger’s perception of speed is not informed by the rhythm or the noise of the wings but only by the sensation of the air which is ‘on their face and from below’. Perhaps Dante, too, was reproducing here unconsciously the universal dream of weightless flight, to which psychoanalysts attribute problematical and immodest significance.

The ease with which man adapts to weightlessness is a fascinating mystery. Considering that for many people travel by sea or even by car can cause bouts of nausea, one can’t help feeling perplexed. During month-long spells in space the astronauts complained only of passing discomforts, and doctors who examined them afterwards discovered a light decalcification of the bones and a transitory atrophy of the heart muscles: the same effects, in other words, produced by a period of confinement to bed. Yet nothing in our long history of evolution could have prepared us for a condition as unnatural as non-gravity.

Thus we have vast and unforeseen margins of safety: the visionary idea of humanity migrating from star to star on vessels with huge sails driven by stellar light might have limits, but not that of weightlessness: our poor body, so vulnerable to swords, to guns and to viruses, is space-proof.

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