“. . . a world between two sounds”; or, the Librarian Who Turned Up the Volume(s)

I could not have faulted anyone for brushing me off with a terse “none of your lip,” considering that my kisser had taken on the appearance of an over-boiled frankfurter abandoned during a picnic invaded by flesh-eating ants. 

Luckily, sights mattered less than sounds, and the painkillers had not entirely divested me of whatever powers of articulating my ideas I yet possess. Yesterday morning, during a meeting with administrators at the local university, interest was once again expressed in a course I had proposed a few years ago. I fancifully called it “Writing for the Ear,” which was meant to distinguish the module from more traditional classes in radio writing as they are still being taught here in Britain. 
I recently turned down an offer to teach a course in writing for the medium, since I have no experience in developing scripts aimed at those in charge of productions at the BBC. Besides, today’s technology makes it possible for anyone to have a voice in the forum, to podcast talks and engage in sonic experimentation. With these opportunities in mind, I outlined a course exploring the relationship between the spoken and the written that would make those who express themselves typographically alive of the value of sounds, the potentialities of silences.
Too much of our finest prose and poetry is being silenced. Words written hundreds of years ago are still being looked at, but they are far less frequently voiced and heard. In classroom and study, printed words are scrutinized, paraphrased, underlined, crossed out, and annotated; they are dissected like so many toads in the imaginary garden, well before they get a chance to let out a single distinctive croak.
Lending your own voice to written lines is an act of resuscitation—of breathing life into the thoughts of those who came before you, of triggering a startling echo in what was assumed to be a soundproof vault. Silences, too, speak volumes, especially when they enter into a dialogue with the spoken and the sounded.
Someone who had a lot to say on the subject of the word made sound was Archibald MacLeish, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who, from 1939 to 1944 served as Librarian of Congress. Before being appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations, MacLeish brought to radio a series of lectures titled The American Story. At a time of global conflict, the program was designed to emphasize
the experience in common of the American peoples, the story set down in the accounts of those who knew the American experience at first hand or were part of it. Whatever their race may have been, or their faith, or their language.
In other words, it took a scholarly approach to what Carmen Miranda accomplished in the conga line of duty. On this day, 18 March 1944, NBC presented “Between the Silence and the Surf,” the eighth broadcast in the series. It related the settlement of the Americas, from Plymouth (as recorded by William Bradford in the 17th century) to Brazil (as documented by Lopez Vaz in the 1580s). I recently rediscovered the program while digitizing my collection of audio tapes; the published scripts, meanwhile, have been shared online. The printed words bespeak the poet’s mission of giving voice to the lost and long unsounded, to lives shelved and shut away in our repositories of knowledge:

SOUND. A slow surf, the hush of the waves withdrawing.

NARRATOR. And the wind’s sound in the grass or in the brush or in the forests where they still must go.

SOUND. The wind in the coarse grass and the solemn trees.

NARRATOR. The world of the first settlements was the narrow world between the silence and the surf, between the water and the wilderness—between the past cut off by water and the future closed by distance and by danger—but not closed.

According to the April 1944 issue of Radio Age, MacLeish “poured an immense amount of painstaking research,” into this series; and in “addition to the laborious research and authentication,” he included the
most important fillip—his own brilliant style of the prose poem, a style which has won for him the accolades of the literary world. Each line read on the broadcast is a part of this poetic narrative style, giving each program a dramatic sweep so necessary in producing the effect desired
Yet while the poet claimed to have aimed at creating “new forms of radio expression,” rather than adhering to the formats of “conventional radio drama,” critics were not uniformly enthusiastic, arguing the productions to be “overloaded with conversation” and “self-denyingly austere.” Such gainsayings are representative of the bias toward dramatization and dialogue as opposed to lecture or oratory, no matter how many individual speakers were employed to deliver it.
In the foreword to the published scripts for the series, MacLeish defended his minimalist approach by reasoning that “radio’s unique function and unique opportunity” was simply to convey speech instead of presenting words, “artfully blended” by means of “[s]killful devices,” to “produce dramatic effects”:
Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration of speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed pages—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.
The word, to MacLeish, was the beginning and the end. As a documentarian and poet, he inhabited that “world between two sounds,” listening, recording, and readying himself to speak with force and deliberation. His American Story is the story of humanity’s struggles for survival, for voice and representation. Our daily existence, like that of the first settlers, is this “narrow world between the silence and the surf,” between the calm and the roar, between tumult and tranquility. Our lives are a string of moments waiting to be seized for having our say, periods of stillness, voluntary or imposed. We may chronicle our times and leave behind piles of documents to be poured over or neglected by future generations; but it is the sound we make now and the space we leave for listening that define the present we must fill with meaning as we rage against the silence to which we are ultimately condemned . . .

Related writings

White House Warnings, the Iran "Challenge," and the Art of Recycling Words for the Atomic Age

Only yesterday I was leafing through my dusty copy of Rogues’ Gallery: The Great Criminals of Modern Fiction. Granted, the story of pickpocket Thubway Tham (discussed in my previous journal entry) was anything but “great,” the dubious gentlemen among whom he appears in this anthology, figures like Raffles or Arsene Lupin, being far worthier of the appellation. Putting the book aside and glancing at today’s headlines, I got to thinking about those real-life acts of roguery and their perpetrators, thieves and tricksters fit for a place in that proverbial gallery.

Without being facetious, I think that most of us are eager to put certain politicians right up there with confidence men, embezzlers, and racketeers. Unlike fictional smugglers, highwayman, or cardsharpers, however, our misleading leaders rarely inspire cloak-and-dagger romances, at least not while they are still in office. Their potential to do harm to a far greater number of people than any pirate of old renders them too treacherous to be enchanting, and too powerful to be defused by mere ridicule. That we might have contributed to their ascent—either by having been taken in by their words or by having stood aside while others made what we’ve come to suspect as the “wrong” choice—only drives home that the joke, if ever it was one, is decidedly on us.
In the United States, the people’s trust in their political leaders may be reaching a new low these days, giving way to an indiscriminate, haphazard scepticism that could potentially be more hazardous than the actions that triggered it. So, hearing the latest White House warning about the Iranian nuclear program, I wonder who among us, the citizens or allies of the US, is willing to accept or heed it. Is it a danger real or imaginary, pre-existing or newly conceived in the act of pronouncing it true? What’s more, is not even a manufactured threat a concrete one nonetheless, whether as propagandist tool or diplomatic blunder?
Thinking this, I was reminded again of “Air Raid,” a verse play for radio by Archibald MacLeish, a big name in American poetry and pamphleteering. “Air Raid” is a didactic drama about an unheeded warning. Now, as I remarked when I commemorated the anniversary of the its premiere, the play was originally an appeal designed to caution US citizens against isolationism. Confronting the public with an enactment of a deadly attack on civilians, MacLeish went so far as to suggest that those who lose their lives to wartime terror are responsible for the consequences of their inaction.
However questionable his achievement, the anti-fascist cause that motivated its author was a noble one. “Air Raid” suggests that the greatest threat facing a people is not posed by foreign aggressors or domestic demagogues, but by an attitude of indifference to or ignorance of the political affairs makes the public vulnerable to acts of suppression and obliteration. Yet, like all propagandistic speech—and the melodramatic vehicles in which it hits its target audience—these words of caution were readily coopted.
On this day, 10 March, in 1956, nearly two decades after its first broadcast, “Air Raid” was restaged by the CBS Radio Workshop. The same words poured once more from the speakers—but their context had changed entirely. Now the play had the stamp of the Eisenhower years pressed upon it, the gullibility of the public being relied upon rather than challenged with the announcer’s insistence that “Mr. MacLeish’s prophesy” had become “grim reality” in an age of “guided missiles” capable of “nuclear destruction.”
“Learn what you can do to increase your chances of survival,” the program’s announcer implored listeners at the close of the broadcast: “Contact your Civil Defense Office.” As American families retreated into their picket-fenced homes—or into dreams of such—they were left with the impression that the world outside the United States was evil and that their leaders had solely their safety, rather than profits, in mind. It was thus that the lucrative armament of the cold-war years was being justified. MacLeish’s warning had become “grim reality,” all right—so much so that the public was not to appreciate his original message.
So, given that we have mostly familiar words of warning to go by once more, how can we determined the honesty or falsehood of those who utter them? Does the present truth lie in the perceived deceptions of the past? And how far should we remain willing to listen with the generosity of an open mind—instead of hiding behind the reflecting shield of satire—to keep an essentially sound and worthy political system such as democracy from falling apart?

On This Day in 1938: Broadcast “Air Raid” Assaults Like Sontag’s 9/11 Tirade

Sunlight and shadows across my
copy of MacLeish’s Air Raid

Well, only yesterday I wrote about the potentialities of broadcasting and blogging as means and modes of connecting with the world. Today I am going to mark the anniversary of an execrable “disconnect” by relating it to a disturbing episode in my life, a moment of outrage in a period of confusion and despair. Ready?

On this day, 27 October, in 1938, the Columbia Workshop laid an intellectual egg of such poor taste that I sometimes felt the only proper way of connecting to it would be to hurl it right back at its author, the American poet-pamphleteer Archibald MacLeish. The play produced by and broadcast over the US radio network CBS was “Air Raid,” an exercise in propagandist verse. Like “The War of the Worlds”, which aired a few days later over the same network, “Air Raid” entered the anti-fascist debate and commented on the political tensions then mounting in Europe by exploiting and fueling the anxieties of an American public divided between battle cries and isolationism. The nation’s enemies, such plays told in the abstract language to which pre-war radio playwrights were bound to adhere, were not quite so distant as to render their attacks futile.

In “Air Raid,” MacLeish went so far as to hold civilians whose lives were threatened or lost in fascist offensives responsible for their inaction. As in the previously discussed “Fall of the City,” the audience is taken to the scene of terror, listening in as carefree women, heedless of the warnings they receive, ar e going about their daily affairs until blown to bits by machine guns fired from above. The announcer, observing the raid from a secure post, reports and comments on the execution:

There’s the signal: the dip: they’ll
Dive: they’re ready to dive:
They’re steady: they’re heading down:
They’re dead on the town: they’re nosing:
They’re easing over: they’re over:
There they go: there they—

His coverage of the event is cut short by the stammering guns and the shrieking of women and ends in a boy’s calling of my name: “Harry! Harry! Harry!” I did not require such a prompt to feel personally offended.

MacLeish intellectualizing of terror and patronizing of the terrorized is the kind of disastrous argument that reminded me of Susan Sontag’s words shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center. In an article published in the New Yorker, Sontag lamented the “disconnect” between the “monstrous dose of reality” that was 9/11 and the “self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators.”

Sontag opined that the “voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public,” a public lacking in “historical awareness” and subjected instead to the “psychotherapy” of “confidence-building and grief management.” Arguing the insistence on America’s strength to be not “entirely consoling,” Sontag concluded: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”

In retrospect, I find these words unremarkable; they have been uttered many times since. Living through the terror of those days in New York City, however, I was infuriated by such ill-timed chastising from afar (Sontag lived in Paris at the time). I sat down and cried and wrote a lengthy response to let out my anger, shared with the German friend who brought Sontag’s commentary to my attention:

Sie mag aus der Ferne spotten; sähe, fühlte, spürte sie die Stadt würde sie den New Yorkern kaum “Dummheit” vorwerfen. Wenn ich ihr aus der Ferne auch weder Feigheit noch Dummheit unterstellen will, so muss ich doch feststellen, dass Abstand auch eine Freiheit von Anstand bedeuten kann. Sontag schrieb einmal ein erfolgreiches, vielzitiertes, und feines Buch mit dem Titel Against Interpretation. Sie täte gut daran, sich gegen ihre eigenen ‘Interpretationen’ zu sträuben.

In essence, I argued that Sontag should heed the words that formed the title of her book Against Interpretation, that she should have reserved her distant and distancing intellectualizing and her attacks on the supposedly infantile public and the media that pampered it for a period in which a bewildered public was more likely to stomach further humiliation and to respond with a kindness and dignity lacking in Sontag’s words to the unwise.

Attacking both the medium it employs and the masses it engages (that is, attempting to appeal to the latter by questioning the former), MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” like Sontag’s tirade, is a prime example of how not to connect.

On This Day in 1066 and 1939: Two Conquerors Take Language to War

Not being revisited by the nuisances of power failures and coughing fits I suffered recently, I find myself willing to rise to something amounting to a challenge. Tackling the ambiguities of Archibald MacLeish’s verse drama “The Fall of the City,” for instance. Originally broadcast on 11 April 1937, “The Fall” was again presented by the Columbia Workshop on this day, 28 September, in 1939. The world changed considerably during the time elapsed between those two productions, adding urgency to a play about . . . well, about what, really?

I’ve grappled at length with “The Fall” in my dissertation, describing the confusion and frustration of critics who sensed the play to be significant but could neither make sense of it nor find much consensus among each other. Some argued that it wasn’t even a play at all. Apparently anticipating this reception, MacLeish prefaced the published script with the following disclaimer:

“Any introduction is a confession of weakness. This one is no exception. It is written because I am anxious to persuade American poets to experiment with verse plays for radio and because I am quite certain the radio verse play I have written will not persuade them of itself.”

US poets were not too keen on having their precious wares compete with soap commercials. Others believed that their words were best spread among the few rather than being freely disseminated through channels of less-than-pure air. The horrors of WWII shook up a number of ivory towers, drawing out poets like Stephen Vincent Benét and Edna St. Vincent Millay in fighting form. In propagandist poetry, the ultimate test of language was not whether it could move listeners, but whether it could get them moving, whether it could motivate them to fight battles, buy bonds, or save kitchen fat.

While American broadcasters were training announcers (like the proud vocal-talent pictured above) to hawk the products of their corporate sponsors, Fascist Germany had been exploiting the power of the spoken word to turn open-minded individuals into a league of like-minded or mindless lemmings. “The Fall of the City” opened a debate about mass persuasion, about the media’s role in molding opinions and fabricating war. Its ambiguity is rooted in a distrust of the very medium it employed.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the play begins, “This broadcast comes to you from the city,” a town whose downfall is first announced, then actualized. It is talked into being as the figure of a radio announcer stands by to document the unfolding event. MacLeish’s announcer takes listeners to the “central plaza” of this unspecified city to become ear-witnesses to the resurrection of a recently buried woman who, for three consecutive days, appeared before a crowd of spectators, and who now utters a baffling prophesy:

The city of masterless men
Will take a master
There will be shouting then:
Blood after!

Amid the bewildered throng (some 500 people participated in creating the sound of the crowd), reporters and politicians are heard trying to interpret the oracle and to fix upon a plan of action. Is the message to be ignored? Is the prophesied attack to be countered or endured? One orator, holds that “[r]eason and truth” are the weapon of choice:

Let this conqueror come!
Show him no hindrance!
Suffer his flag and his drum!
Words . . . win!

His words are powerful enough to have people dancing in the streets—until another speaker convinces them to go into battle. While this exchange of words and changing of minds is going on, the talked-of invader—a hollow suit of armor—takes over and the masses surrender. Unlike William the Conqueror—who, on this day in 1066, made Anglo-Saxon words bow to French langue—he does not have to utter a single syllable to make a message-mangled city fall, its “masterless men” happy to have “found a master.”

Summing up this war of words, the announcer remarks that the “people invent their oppressors: they wish to believe in them.” Are these words to be taken for the author’s? If oppressors are inventions—a notion not going over well with some of MacLeish’s contemporaries—then who is to be entrusted with the power to use or control the media capable of creating such alleged fictions?

It seems that MacLeish was apprehensive about the uniformity of thought produced by broadcast speech. It made his own attempt to invade the medium a troubling undertaking: how to convince your listeners not to take your word for it?

“A symmetry of unborn generations”: A Guernica for Radio

One of the many attractions of Madrid I will make sure not to miss is Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the most famous 20th-century painting in the Reina Sofía collection. A report from the commonplace-turned-combat zone, Guernica is a piece of anti-totalitarian propaganda commemorating the world’s first civilians-targeting air attack: the 26 April 1937 raid on the busy market town of Gernika-Lumo, masterminded by General Franco and carried out by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany.

For a long time, the painting was kept out of Spain and was mostly on display at the MoMA in New York City, where, during the Vietnam War, it became a site for vigils held by members of the peace movement, one of whom went so far as to deface it with red spray paint. It was Picasso’s wish that Guernica be returned to his homeland only after the reestablishment of democratic rule. A swiftly executed and brutally manipulative commentary on modern warfare, it invites comparisons to the three best-known American verse plays for radio, Archibald MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Murder of Lidice,” and Norman Corwin’s “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease.”

MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” in contrast to Picasso’s painting, overtly implicates the civilian population, including his radio listeners, castigating them for their supposed ignorance and inertia. As in “The Fall of the City,” MacLeish attacks those falling rather than sentimentalizing their plight. His are bold performances, but his cruel warning turns listeners eager for news into silent partners of war who are asked to “stand by” as they tune in while women and children, refusing to heed warnings of an impending blitz, are being attacked and annihilated:

You who fish the fathoms of the night
With poles on roof-tops and long loops of wire
Those of you who driving from some visit
Finger the button on the dashboard dial
Until the metal trembles like a medium in a trance
And tells you what is happening in France
Or China or in Spain or some such country
You have one thought tonight and only one:
Will there be war? Has war come?
Is Europe burning from the Tiber to the Somme?
You think you hear the sudden double thudding of the drum
You don’t though . . .
Not now . . .
But what your ears will hear with in the hour
No one living in this world would try to tell you.
We take you there to wait it for yourselves.
Stand by: we’ll try to take you through. . . .

Millay’s “Murder of Lidice” recalls the innocent lives of those slain by Richard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in Lidice. Artistically, the play is indefensible and shockingly inept in its bathos. In Millay’s Grand Guignol of Nazi terror, Heydrich the Hangman, whom the villagers have assassinated, is heard, from the beyond, planning his revenge:

He howls for a bucket of bubbly blood—
It may be man’s or it may be of woman,
But it has to be hot, and it must be human!
Oh, many’s the sweet warm throat he’ll suck.

In “They Fly Through the Air,” Corwin’s narrator goes in search of a language appropriate to the negotiation of art and propaganda. As I point out in Etherized Victorians, the play is a response to the perversion of poetic diction by the fascist cause. Viewed from above, Mussolini reportedly remarked, exploding bombs had the beauty of a “rose unfolding.” Throughout the play, metaphors are at war with plain speech, both in the service of motivating the masses:

What words can compass glories such as we have seen today?
Our language beats against its limitations [. . .].

Our rhythms jangle at the very start.
Our similes concede defeat,
For there is nothing that can be compared to that which lies beyond compare.
You see? We are reduced already to tautologies.
It’s awe does that.
The wonder of it all has set us stammering.

What is the language of war? How does it differ from the idiom of peace? And how shall war—often furious but not always futile—be rendered, recorded, and remembered in words or images? When I look at Guernica this week, I will ask myself these questions. Quite possibly, I will shiver when exposing it to the limitations of my shrinking lexicon.

Flinging the Book: Archibald MacLeish, the Airwaves, and the Anniversary of Atahuallpa’s Death

Well, I thought I’d better carry on with my Spanish lessons, having discovered, upon leafing through the travel guides, that I am not merely linguistically challenged but culturally ignorant as well.

 According to one guidebook (admittedly, a someone dated volume), the citizens of Madrid—the madrileños—have a “lingering suspicion of foreigners” and are reluctant to speak English. Granted, it’s been a while since conquistadors rather than tourists filled Spain’s coffers, but the Spaniards have been known to be somewhat insensitive when it comes to other cultures. There sure is dirt under the old welcome mat.

On this day in 1533, for instance, Francisco Pizarro put an end to the Incan empire by doing away with emperor Atahuallpa. The Incas were not a chirographic people and did not appreciate having the book flung at them—especially not the good book. Intrigued by the thought that the demise of the Inca meant not only the loss of their aureate treasures but of their aural tradition, I flung my travel guides aside and tuned in again to one of the more ambitious if lesser known American radio series of the 1940s, Archibald MacLeish’s American Story.

MacLeish (above, right, in my impression of an image taken from Irving Settel’s Pictorial History of Radio), Pulitzer Prize winner for his poem Conquistador (1933), was one of the first American writers to take radio seriously and to encourage others to emerge from their ivory towers by broadcasting their choice words to the masses. After all, he remarked in the foreword to The Fall of the City, his first and most significant contribution to the aural arts, “what poet ever lived who was really satisfied with writing the thin little books to lie on the front parlor tables?”

As a Librarian of Congress, MacLeish enjoyed ready access to many an obscure document—and radio offered an opportunity of sharing this wealth of unheard words. Rather than dramatizing scenes from history books, MacLeish wanted to let ancient texts speak for themselves:

To place historical personages in historical situations and then imagine the words they must have spoken to each other is to imitate the historical dramas of the stage at the expense of radio’s unique function and unique opportunity. Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration upon the speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed page—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.

In “The Many Dead,” one of the scripts for the American Story series, MacLeish drew on the writings of Pizarro’s secretary Francisco de Xeres to recount the death of emperor Atahuallpa. In order to convey this sobering story without turning it into sensational melodrama, the poet-historian chose to deliver the “pertinent excerpts” of Xeres’s official account in the somber and matter-of-fact voice of a clerk, a newscaster of his time:

The Governor [Pizarro] asked the Father Friar Vicente if he wished to go and speak to Atahuallpa with an interpreter. He replied that he did wish it, and he advanced with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other [. . .] and [. . .] thus addressed him: “I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like matter I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book [. . .].”

Atahuallpa asked for the book that he might look at it, and the priest gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open it, and the Priest was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened [. . .]. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper, as had been shown by other Indians, he threw it away form him five or six paces . . . .

Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.
Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.

According to Xeres’s account, Pizarro and his men “fearlessly seized” Atahuallpa and the infantry of the Spaniards “made so good an assault” on the fleeing natives that “in a short time most of them were put to the sword.” Pizarro was said to have protected the emperor from the Spaniards—to give him the benefit of a proper execution—and was slightly wounded as a result. “It was a very wonderful thing,” the clerk concludes, “to see so great a lord taken prisoner in so short a time [. . .].”

The men with the books have generally proved victorious over the vocal but readily muted thinkers who spread their words without the benefit of the printing press. Atahuallpa, bereft of his voice after rejecting the book, chose death by strangulation. Even MacLeish, as Librarian of Congress, largely failed in his attempt to return written records to the air and revive the breath that gave them life. Who, after all, still listens to his American Story today?

Now, I hear that the madrileños are a noisy, boisterous people; perhaps the powerful, silencing, and not-so-good book instilled them with confidence. . . .