Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Folly

And here we have the tailor and inventor Franz Reichelt, on February 4, 1912, the day he leapt off the Eiffel Tower. Just looking at him, in his ridiculous homemade parachute, we already know how this will turn out; we don't have to see the newsreel footage, shot on that cold morning, which documents his fatal descent. (For the curious, the whole sorry incident is outlined at Wikipedia, and more photos are available at La piedra de Sísifo, with a brief text in Spanish.)

It's impossible not to wonder about Reichelt's state of mind that day. Did he not at least half-intuit, as he prepared to step off the tower, that he was signing his own death-warrant? Had he simply gone too far to pull back without losing face? How long did it take him, as he began to fall, to realize his miscalculation? Did his limbs desperately try to regain the safety of the tower, when it was already too late?

But we shouldn't judge him too harshly. Two years later, the great statesmen of Europe, counseled by the finest and best-informed diplomatic, political, and military minds of the day and bolstered by countless reports, cables, secret agents, alliances, and maneuverings, would collectively plunge their countries and their peoples into the abyss of the Great War. In the unimaginable carnage that ensued, millions would die, empires would fall, and a cascade of destruction, hatred, and oppression would be set in motion that would take decades to exhaust itself. How long did it take those statesmen (and they were all men, of course) to understand the consequences of their actions? Reichelt, icon of inanity that he has come to be, harmed only himself.

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