History Stinks (and Your Granny Didn’t Smell So Good Either)

I’ve long tried—and, you might say, failed and pretty much given up—to fill a gap in the construction of our cultural histories, most of which are entirely too preoccupied with images and their interpretation. Western culture may privilege vision over any other sense—but if you think that the past will unfold before your eyes simply by looking at graphics, photos or printed records, you’ve been led by the ear you aren’t using. It’s no use being so eye-minded as to forget all about lowbrow radio programming, for instance. After all, sound-only broadcasting had a greater influence on most folks living in the middle of the 20th-century than the press or motion pictures—certainly a greater influence than most scholars are prepared to acknowledge. Radio comforted and counseled, intimated and importuned. It brought the world home and played on our minds like no competing medium could.

Crooning, cajoling, and commanding attention, whatever talent stood at the microphone became part of a soundtrack to the everyday of millions of dial-twisters who took in or were taken in by the big bands and banter, by sermons, sportscasts, and soap operas. Radio sold products as well as ideas and ideologies. It excelled in telling stories, be they fictive, factual or false; and, if you let it, it keeps on telling them or telling you about them . . .

While I have long suspected the picture to be incomplete if we insist on looking at the past as a sequence of images, I never seriously considered that, aside from sound, there is a story, too, in the way we smelled. And yet, in my old hometown of Cologne, Germany, alone—the burg that gave us the word for all our attempts at olfactory cover-up—the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once ‘counted two and seventy stenches.’

There would have been no soap—and no soap operas—if we didn’t have trepidations about not being quite fresh, anxieties that were over-ripe for commercial exploitation. In the US, tuners-in of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s were constantly being alerted to the dangers of B-O, reminded to ‘Lux’ their ‘dainties,’ and told to gargle before putting their kissers to the test. Lest they could endure facing guilt by omission, listeners lathered up with products like White King toilet soap, the box tops of which they collected and sent in to broadcasters as ocular proof of their hygienic diligence, for which cumulative evidence they were duly awarded various prizes (or premiums).

For all the restrictions faced by press and broadcasting, advertising some sixty, seventy years ago, was certainly more in your (presumably unwashed) face than it is now. It sounds as if listeners-in back then were in far greater need of Lysol and Listerine. Could it be that our forebears required more frequent scrubbing because they were more likely to labor manually without having access to as much running water, cold and hot, than our more sedentary selves take for granted today? If so, did they really need to be reminded of their particular emanations?

Advertisers did not rest until the natural acquired the whiff of the common. The airwaves, though they were not permitted to be polluted by sounds suggesting most of the bodily functions to which we give vent in private, certainly were awash with voices alerting us of the social consequences of reeking to high heaven.

However fleeting, sound has not been an instant bygone ever since we succeeded in preserving it some 135 years ago. Granted, such records do not tell us the whole story of how people talked and what they had to say; but whatever we bottle as fragrance is even more likely to throw us off the scent in our quest for the real, something that complicates our efforts whenever we feel inclined to stick our nose into the past.

The irony that I am using a print ad to illustrate my point has not eluded me. It is an ad, no less, from a magazine catering to the radio listeners, consumers who were often told, as they waited for the advent of long-promised television, that only sight could complete the picture. It is a myth in which even radio broadcasters were complicit. Sure, the picture of the past is always incomplete; it is as much a composite as it is a construct. Still, I prefer to keep augmenting my impressions of those yesterdays by lending an ear to the ticking of our clocks. If we keep on looking, and look on only, we might well be missing what is right under our noses . . .

"Samson, made captive, blind": Milton on the Wireless

BBC Radio 3 is in the middle of a Milton season, designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the poet’s birth. This week, Milton’s works are the subject of The Essay; his views, their significance and influence, are discussed on this week’s Sunday Feature, while excerpts from his poetry are recited on Words and Music. On 14 December, a new production of Milton’s Samson Agonistes will be presented by Drama on 3.

The wireless gave birth to the career of many a Milton, from announcers Milton Cross and John Milton Kennedy to comic Milton Berle. Among its writers numbers Milton Geiger, a playwright whom Best Broadcasts anthologist Max Wylie singled out for his ability to bring “reality and movement to a property that is in every sense an allegory.” More than any of those Miltons on the air, John, the poet and essayist, is truly in his element in the so-called blind medium of radio. His struggle to combat metaphorical blindness while being afflicted with physical sightlessness—a challenge that became the subject of a radio play (previously discussed here) was frequently the theme of his poetry, from “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner Upon His Blindness” to Paradise Lost and, finally, Samson Agonistes:

“O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!” the captured Samson, blinded and bereft of his powers, laments:

Blind among enemies! O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
Inferior to the vilest now become
Of man or worm, the vilest here excel me:
They creep, yet see; I, dark in light, exposed
To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong,
Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own—
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half

As a political writer eager to get his word out, Milton might have embraced the swift spreading of ideas that wireless technology makes possible. He would have seen in broadcasting the dissemination of so much good mingled “almost inseparably” with so much evil, from which the good is “hardly to be discerned.” To him, though, discernment was not the result of a shutting out of anything potentially harmful or ostensibly bad, but of a taking in of it all and an informed judging of its qualities. He would have welcomed the chance to have his words reach the ears of the multitude in a single broadcast, and of hearing the voices of others in an open forum.

Yet was there ever such a forum on the air? As he did in his Areopagitica, Milton would have objected to the licensing and censorship that threaten and curtail the freedom of speech. Commercial broadcasting, he might have argued, is not unlike Samson, betrayed, imprisoned and abused: “in power of others, never in [its] own,” a “moving grave” awaiting death by television. Even when it was still capable of bringing down the house, radio, like Samson, went down in the process before ever entirely convincing anyone of the power and virtue of sightless vision.

So, if Samson is Radio, who is his Delilah? Would it be television, the sponsors, radio executives, or, perhaps, the Philistine public at large?

Audiophile, My Eye!

Has my ear been giving me the evil eye? For weeks now, I have been sightseeing and snapping pictures. I have seen a few shows (to be reviewed here in whatever the fullness of time might be), caught up with old friends I hadn’t laid eyes on in years, or simply watched the world coming to New York go by—all the while ignoring what I set out to do in this journal; that is, to insist on equal opportunity for the ear as channel through which to take in dramatic performances so often thought of requiring visuals. When I came across this surrealistic message at the Whitney Museum, my mind’s eye kept rereading what seems to be such a common phrase.

“As far as the eye can see.” It is the article that began to overshadow the empty nest below the dead eye of the cyclopean window in the austere façade, features that might well be to some what Roland Barthes referred to as the punctum—the point(s) to which the eye is drawn, the point(s) that end up in the question mark we make of art that engages us.

What might that be, “the eye”? Are we to assume that one eye looks out into the world as any other, that the act of seeing is objective, divorced from outlook, range and perspective? Does “the eye”—untrained or jaundiced or unfocused—invariably begin to see things as it seeks what lies beyond perceiving, such as an imaginary bird returning to the nest of our senses?

A few days ago, I suffered an eye infection (come to think of it, the second one since my arrival here in late May), which brought the above picture back to mind. I am not sure just how it happened, but my right eye became alarmingly inflamed, my lid swelled up and my cornea buckled. It is still pounding now, even though there no longer exists any ocular proof of my discomfort. Perhaps, my eyes are aching for a break upon which they now begin to insist.

A day after the incident I ran into a former neighbor of mine. I had seen him only a few days earlier. This time around, he was wearing an eye patch. As I later learned, he had just lost his sight in one eye, yet too distressed to explain or share his grief. What would I do without my vision, imperfect as it has become over the years? I could not help pondering. Suddenly, my insistence on rooting for the ear as a sensory underdog began to sound rather hollow. I want to keep going out in public and see the world before I allow myself to be dragged away by the ear into the privacy of my inner visions . . .

The Eyes Have It: A Case of Overruled Aurality

Eye or ear—which sense organ do you value more? Which one would you more willingly relinquish? Do we rate or trust our perceptions according to a hierarchy of the senses? I frequently ask myself these questions as I lie there listening in the dark, as I set out to get lost in an imaginary landscape only to switch on the light once more in order to return to what is real and to focus my mind’s eye on the screen of my computer. Ours is such a visually conceived, mapped, and organized world—a world demanding and indeed dependent on “ocular proof”—that I gather most of us would rather part with our hearing than with our sight.

Our lexicon provides clear signs of how we “see” ourselves and “look” at our world; it makes plain, “at a glance,” that we have more “regard” for the icon than for the echo. We say “I hear you” when, in commiseration, we find a mirror image of our thoughts in the words of another; we say “I see what you mean” to signal that we have gained understanding, to show that we have gleaned “insight” from such communications. The ear merely confirms what the eye alone can truly demonstrate; and the ability to see clearly is of such significance to us that we tend to believe that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Were the radio listeners of the pre-TV era—audiences in the true sense of the word—more likely to give up their eyes and to lend an ear?

To be sure, in the 1930s and ’40s, radio listening was America’s favorite pastime; according to one survey, more Americans were willing to forgo moviegoing and reading than go without their radios. The ways in which Hollywood attempted to catch up with or cash in on radio—after a decade of distrust, rivalry, and neglect—seem to attest to radio’s formerly central role in American culture.

The other night I was watching Look Who’s Laughing, a 1941 trifle starring a number of well-known radio players including ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, his puppet Charlie McCarthy, Jim and Marion Jordan (of Fibber McGee and Molly fame), Harold Peary (the Great Gildersleeve), as well as radio announcer Harlow Wilcox. Although carelessly tossed together, this production proved to be RKO’s most profitable production that year.

Radio personalities sure could sell a picture. And yet, rather than showing how powerful broadcasting was at the time, films like these suggest instead how dependent on visuals American audiences truly were. Not satisfied to imagine, they wanted images of the voices on the air. They bought radio magazines, flocked to studio broadcasts, and paid money to find on the big screen what the radio promised to deliver free of charge. Radio only delivered promises. It teased listeners with messages like “if you could only see us now” or “come and get it,” titillations ideally suited to commerce: to have means to behold.

Movies turned radio performers into stars or prevented former vaudevillians like Edgar Bergen from becoming invisible. Many movie stars (like Mary Pickford, above) stepped up to the microphone and were paid handsomely to address or perform for the masses. Radio—live entertainment for the living room—kept many an actor alive during the depression; but it was screen and press exposure that assured a larger-than-life star status. Hollywood’s supplementality, its ability to augment or substitute reality, to make us see and believe, tells us much about the tyranny of vision. Now excuse me while I close my eyes . . .