Laughing Gas

This is an unedited version of my review of Steven Connor’s The Matter of Air in the Telegraph.

Steven Connor is among the most eloquent and original cultural critics at work today. Actually, ‘cultural critic’ is too tame and stuffy a label to attach to an academic – Connor is a professor of English at Birkbeck College in London – who can apparently write about anything, no matter how mundane, and make it seem rich and strange. In recent years he’s published books on skin, ventriloquism and flies, while listeners to Radio 3 may have heard him stylishly disquisish upon such unpromising topics as the meaning of corridors and the history of smoke.

The Matter of Air is the latest emanation of Connor’s long-term project to describe the metaphoric oddity of the everyday. ‘Air is always more or less than air’, he writes, and warns readers expecting a conventional work of popular science or cultural history that they ‘may be made irritable’. It’s instead a vagrant sort of study – Connor’s anatomy of air includes essential digressions on gas lighting, séances, explosions, our tenacious but nonsensical fear of draughts and the Victorian controversy about cremation. None of which wanderings actually detract from a coherent account of the science of air. Connor is a reliable guide to the work of Robert Boyle, to the several theoretical substances (such as phlogiston and ether) that predated an accurate description of the air and to the technologies devised to corral the vacuum needed for a study of the unruly thing itself.

Connor’s real interest, though, is in the moments when science and pseudo-science breathe down the neck of culture. Boyle’s and other experiments, for example, inspired an absurd scene in Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 comedy The Virtuoso: the aspirant scientist Sir Nicholas offers guests vials of air from Bury, Newmarket and Norwich as if they were vintage wines. The Romantics later figured the imagination as airy and evanescent: a tendency not unrelated to the growing popularity of nitrous oxide parties – Connor records Southey’s encomium to his ‘air-bag’ and Coleridge’s fit of manic foot-stamping after a hit of laughing gas. Discoveries in ethereal science also inflated the rhetoric of political philosophy. Edmund Burke wrote of the French Revolution that ‘the wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose’, and The Communist Manifesto famously declared of capitalism: ‘All that is solid melts into air.’

So pervasive were the reality and imagery of pneumatics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has called this the historical era of air-conditioning. It’s in the Victorian period that ideas of environment and atmosphere start to cohere, alongside growing fears about what precisely is aloft in the air. (We might think of the Great Stink of 1858 in London or John Ruskin’s conviction that a malign ‘Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ was hovering over Europe after the Franco-Prussian War.) As Connor points out, the decades of amazing gaseous spectacle – the spread of gas lighting, the construction of the Crystal Palace in which it was said ‘the atmosphere itself’ was visible – gave way quickly to the horror of gas attacks in the First World War and the widespread certainty that any future war would be fought precisely against the enemy’s air supply.

Connor’s account of our romance with the air, or the idea of air, takes on a new levity towards the end of the book. In a chapter entitled ‘The Fizziness Business’, he tackles a curious fantasy attached to many modern foodstuffs: the notion that ingestion will make you lighter, not heavier – lighter even that the air. (Consider all those flighty women in certain TV ads, daily quivering on the point of levitation after breakfast.) This is in fact a venerable notion: some saints were reputed to live on air alone, and in its early-modern version, just as now, ‘the fantasy is of a body that is healthy when it approaches the condition of the ethereal’. In a perspicacious aside worthy of Roland Barthes, Connor notes the profusion of chocolate bars filled with holes – Aero, Wispa, Crunchie – as if these sweet little alveoli are meant to float the consumer to a land of low-calorific bliss.

Connor’s own style as thinker and writer could perhaps be accused of working a similar trick – there’s an effervescence to his historical method that constantly threatens to carry the reader away on currents of metaphor and allusion. (The literary scholar is still present: there are nuanced passages here on many writers, but especially on Modernist poetry.) In truth, this is the real value of Connor’s books: he’s an academic critic, in an age of footling over-specialization, with an almost telepathic sense of how disciplines and genres connect. In The Matter of Air, we’re always breathing the atmosphere of several types of knowledge or experience at once, and the result is properly inspiring.

Steven Connor
The Matter of Air: Science and the Art of the Ethereal
Reaktion, £24.95

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