“While strolling in the garden one day…a priest said to him, ‘Father Joseph, oh, how beautiful God has made heaven!’ Then Joseph, as if he had been called to heaven, gave a loud shriek, leapt off the ground, flew through the air, and knelt down atop an olive tree, and—as witnesses declared in his beatification inquest—that branch on which he rested waved as if a bird were perched upon it, and he remained up there about half an hour” (Paolo Agelli, Vita del Beato Giuseppe di Copertino, 1753).
What kind of nonsense is this? Who is this liar quoted above? Human beings can’t fly or kneel on slender tree limbs like little birds. So, how is it that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the very era that gave birth to aggressive skepticism and empirical science—countless people swore that they had witnessed such events? And how is it that some of these sworn testimonies are legal records, archived alongside lawsuits and murder trials, from all sorts of people, not just illiterate peasants but also elites at the apex of the social, intellectual, and political hierarchy?
Reports of flying or hovering humans reached a peak at the dawn of modernity, along with reports of other phenomena also deemed impossible by many in our own day and by some doubters back then. Unlike spontaneous healing miracles, which really do occur with some frequency, levitations and bilocations are extremely rare events that are seldom taken seriously outside certain belief systems. They are but two of several physical phenomena that have been linked to mystical ecstasy in various cultures and religions around the world for thousands of years. They are also among the oddest of wonders, not just because they seem to happen infrequently but also because they appear to serve no practical purpose other than confirming the special status of the person who levitates or bilocates. In a religious context—and most accounts of levitations and bilocations have religious origins—the unseen force is usually ascribed to some higher being, but it can also be ascribed to the levitators and bilocators themselves, who are so obviously unlike most of their fellow human beings, for whom the tug of gravity within a single location is inescapable. In Christianity, that higher being could be God or the devil, and levitators could be viewed as either holy or diabolical, or, in some cases, as clever frauds. As awesome displays of raw unnatural power, the phenomena of levitation and bilocation have few equals.
But how is it possible to speak about something that can’t possibly happen? Acts of levitation or bilocation are “wild facts,” to use a term coined by William James over a century ago. As he defined it, a wild fact is any occurrence that has “no stall or pigeonhole” into which “the ordinary and critical mind” can fit it. The alterity of any such phenomenon is so extreme, said James, that it becomes “unclassifiable” as well as an unimaginable “paradoxical absurdity” that must be considered inherently untrue as well as impossible. Such wild facts puzzle scientists so much, he observed, that they “always prove more easy to ignore than to attend to.” James was intensely interested in psychic and mystical phenomena and greatly pained by the dismissive attitude his fellow scientists displayed toward these phenomena. Most of them, he quipped, thought that passing “from mystical to scientific speculations is like passing from lunacy to sanity.”
The situation James described long ago has not changed much, and in some respects has worsened for anyone who wants to take wild facts such as levitation and bilocation seriously. This leaves the historian or anyone with a critical mind in a tight spot. If wild facts are “paradoxical absurdities,” are there any facts whatsoever left to study? The answer is yes. The fact we can explore is not the act of levitation itself, the wild fact that is inaccessible to us. The fact we can deal with is the testimony. This issue is as brutally simple as it is brutally circumscribed: since we have no films or photographs to analyze for authenticity with the latest cutting-edge technology, all we have is the fact that thousands of testimonies exist in which human beings swore they saw another human being hover or fly, or suddenly materialize in some other location. Consequently, a history of the impossible is a history of testimonies about impossible events. Our dominant culture dismisses these testimonies as unbelievable and merely “anecdotal”—that is, as accounts that have no point of reference beyond themselves, no wider context, and little or no credibility. So why not call it a history of lying, a history of hallucinations, or a history of the ridiculous? Because the testimonies themselves self-consciously accept the impossible event as impossible, as well as bafflingly and utterly real—even terrifying—and of great significance. Moreover, the sheer number of such testimonies is so relatively large, so widespread across time and geographical boundaries, and so closely linked to civil and ecclesiastical institutions that they most certainly do have a broader context into which they fit. And that is a very rare and credible kind of evidence, as unique as the events confirmed by it.
Levitation is one of the best of all entry points into the history of the impossible, principally because it is an event for which we have an overabundance of testimonies, not just in Western Christianity but throughout all of world history. Yet levitation is still a subject that attracts disparagement and repels serious inquiry: the very claim that any human being can defy the laws of gravity seems way too absurd nowadays, more than two centuries after Newton, despite the existence of high-speed trains that employ magnetic levitation to hover and fly forward while suspended just a few centimeters above their tracks. Human levitation seems incompatible with seriousness. Even a crank such as Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, a Spanish historian who eagerly defended absurd notions—including the claim that Catholic orthodoxy was genetically transmitted among pure-blooded Spaniards—had no patience with levitation and other physical phenomena associated with mystical ecstasy. What this most unreasonable man had to say long ago about levitation and other related phenomena, such as stigmata, is still very much in line with prevailing thought: “Leave all these cases lying in oblivion. Let them be brought to light, in due course, by those who are researching folk customs, or those who wish to satisfy a childish sort of curiosity.”