"AND AGAIN I HEAR": OLD TIME RADIO AND THE IMAGINATION
Notes on an ancient form of "Spoken Word"
(a script for radio)
"I enjoy old radio drama because it appeals to the imagination. I enjoy old radio drama because it forces me to use my imagination. Television gives you too much: you don't use your imagination."
Broadcast from KPFA
(April 15, 2009)
That is the kind of thing one hears often from people who have retained a fondness for old radio drama. I'm one of them—I grew up during the "golden age"—yet I do not believe that such statements are accurate, especially if one conceives of the "imagination" as the imagination, the image-making faculty.
It's curious that people don't say such things about movies—don't assert that movies, like television, stimulate their imaginations less than radio. Most people consider "film" to be a pre-eminently "imaginative" art. Yet film "gives you" as much as television. Indeed, in these days of video cassettes and DVDs, many films are seen on television. It could be argued that because film and video excite us with both visual and auditory symbols—rather than only auditory symbols—they stimulate our imaginations more than radio does. Do silent films stimulate our auditory imaginations—so that we supply them with our own personal soundtracks—the way radio is supposed to stimulate our visual imaginations?
When we watch film or TV we are not being "given" something we might just as easily "create" for ourselves. Tell that to Francis Ford Coppola. We are being bombarded by a highly stylized set of visual/auditory symbols whose purpose is to stimulate us—just as the purpose of radio's highly stylized auditory symbols is to stimulate us, to make us feel something.
I don't wish to deny the obvious—the great power of early radio drama. Yet it seems to me that the source of that power lies in something other than "forcing me to use my imagination." Father Walter J. Ong and others have pointed out that our culture tends to privilege the visual over other senses—so that a sentence like "I see what you're saying" doesn't strike anyone as paradoxical. Many people feel that for something to have value it must in some sense involve the visual. Radio obviously does not involve the visual in any literal way—so it must involve the visual in another way: it lets us "use our imaginations." But is there another explanation for the power of radio?
People who like old radio programs are not necessarily fond of new radio programs—even when those programs are attempts to recreate the conditions of the old. (The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, for instance.) The reason for that is easy enough to—see. Old radio programs did not exist in a vacuum but in a total context in which the rituals of radio listening were only one part of a fabric which included many other things as well. That context is now gone. Yet the radio shows, which were a part of the context, remain. New radio programs, however skillfully they may be done, do not provide us with a doorway to that vanished world—with the deep pleasures of self-awareness, self-consciousness. Wordsworth:
Five years have past: five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs....
It's interesting that Wordsworth's great poem begins with hearing ("again I hear"), despite the fact that so much of it is concerned with seeing: "these beauteous forms," "the picture of the mind revives again." (But a few lines later: "hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity.") Wordsworth (who is one of the sources of the modern idea of "imagination")* may be asserting a deep connection between recollection and sound, and I will want to pursue that notion a little further on. For the moment it's enough to notice that for someone who grew up with old radio—someone like me—the ancient programs are in effect the equivalent to Wordsworth's landscape: listening to Suspense, Escape, Captain Midnight, or The Jack Benny Program, one is at once aware of the child-self listening and of the abyss which exists between that child-self and one's presence; aware of the intense spiraling out of the bitter-sweet, nostalgia (by etymology, "home-sickness").
Yet of course such "homesickness" was not a part of one's original condition when the broadcasts were first heard. One was not homesick; one was—at home. But before dismissing homesickness as entirely irrelevant, we might consider the matter a little more. For after all what is homesickness but the intense awareness ofan absence? And what, finally, was "the golden age of radio" but the continual assertion of an absence?
I happen to own a wonderful recorded adaptation of James Hilton's Lost Horizon—bought when I was a child. It begins, "You are deep in the mountains of Tibet...." Radio could place the listener as easily as that, could shift scenes in a sentence. And yet such placement was in fact a recognition that one was not "deep in the mountains of Tibet," that one was in one's living room, hoping to escape for a few moments from the conditions of living in that living room. Not for nothing did the Lights Out broadcasts begin with the command to "Turn out your lights." If the objects of the living room were seen less clearly, one could concentrate better on the deep pretense that the broadcast was asking you to initiate. The opening words of Escape almost admit the duplicity involved. They name the living room ("the four walls of today") but also whisk you away from it:
Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you...Escape! Escape!...designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure.
Radio drama was in a certain sense the continual assertion of a lie, and like all lies (or fictions) it remained fundamentally ungrounded, constantly skating on the thin ice of its insubstantiality. The voices we heard were "real," but they didn't exist "deep in the mountains of Tibet": they were arising out of the nowhere of a broadcasting studio. Even the power of the radio announcer's voice—its appeal to intimacy—is a kind of lie.
If one thinks back to some of the great moments of radio they are not moments of seeing ("radio forces me to use my imagination") but moments of absence, of blindness, of the inability to see anything: Captain Midnight, indeed, but also The Shadow (with the "power to cloud men's minds so they cannot see him"); the great Suspense drama, Lucille Fletcher's "Sorry, Wrong Number" (with an invalid protagonist whose activities center around two men she cannot see but whose voices she hears on the telephone); the squeaking of the door on Inner Sanctum and the never-seen, never-described "inner sanctum" itself; the silences of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds—a program which terrified an extraordinary number of Americans; the silence of Jack Benny considering the offer of "Your money or your life." And so on and so on. Radio was powerful partly because it recognized that I could not "use my imagination," that whatever visual cues I might receive were at best flimsy and vague. What it asserted instead was a kind of blindness. Have you ever met people who dislike talking on the telephone because they are uncomfortable with "disembodied voices"? Radio was nothing but disembodied voices.
Indeed, "The Shadow" was explicitly a disembodied voice. But so in fact was his supposedly visible alter-ego "Lamont Cranston": the actor playing The Shadow had to speak through a special filter which changed his voice so that the audience would know when he was invisible! Every week Lamont Cranston would "transform" himself into the invisible Shadow and The Shadow would frighten everyone—particularly the villains. The program offered us, in addition to the pleasure of drama, the pleasure of feeling superior to people who are frightened by disembodied voices—a pleasure which was made all the more delightful by our semi-conscious realization that, under other circumstances, we might be as frightened as they. The Shadow of the pulp magazines was a creature of the darkness, but he was not invisible: it was only when he became a radio character that that feature was added. He became more frightening when he was not able to be seen at all.
I am not arguing that there were no visual cues involved with radio drama—and of course some people are psychologically more inclined to generate visual images than others. I am only arguing that the visual cues generated by old radio were not central and powerful. One remembers Blue Coal and The Green Hornet, but one remembers them partly because one had no other details to distract from them. Marshall McLuhan (among many others) speaks of radio's forcing you to "fill in" the senses which are not being appealed to. I don't think McLuhan is correct in this formulation. Does one "fill in" the sense of touch or taste when one is watching a film or a play? Does one "feel" the kiss that a movie actor delivers to the lips of his co-star (however much that kiss may make us long to be kissed ourselves)? McLuhan's idea seems to me quite wrong as a formulation about radio but admirable as a defense against the sense of blindness which radio does communicate. We do not "fill in" senses not being appealed to: we cling to the audio. It is interesting that the central character of Dylan Thomas's "play for voices," Under Milk Wood, is a blind man: Captain Cat. We are, these days, used to seeing innumerable images of our favorite stars. In the context of old radio, that was far less true: there was considerable curiosity about exactly what the radio star looked like, and the fan magazines (and, at times, films) did what they could to supply the lack. If we were busily creating mental pictures of the stars as we listened to the shows, why would we have such curiosity? Wouldn't we "already know"?
And yet, if all this is so, why is it that so many people say that radio made them use their imaginations, that they could in some sense "see" the characters they heard? Having said exactly that, a friend of mine added, honestly, that he would be hard-pressed to be specific about such seeing: he could not really tell me the color of Margot Lane's hair, for example. Yet the sensation that he was seeing something was strong.
It seems to me that despite the many attempts to mute the listener's condition, to reassure her/him by music and soft words and by avoiding "dead air" (radio silence)—despite all this, the blindness which radio asserted was essentially painful. People are quite right to be disturbed by "disembodied voices." We cling to sound because our other senses are left in an abyss. The pain is assuaged, however, by a peculiar stratagem. Encouraged by the nature of the medium itself, with its tendency towards a kind of "lying," the listener is able to assuage his pain by participating in the creation of a fiction. He is able to deny his blindness, to say, "I am not blind, I am seeing more clearly than ever: I am using my imagination." And in one sense, of course, he is quite right. If the "imagination" means, not the ability to "see" an image but the ability to create the self-deception of a fiction, then that is precisely what he is doing. His self-deception is precisely his belief that he is "really" seeing something.
But there is more to it than that. I mentioned a moment ago that I would pursue the relationship between recollection and sounds; these remarks are limited to the particular sounds we call "voices." Here, in a passage from "On Narcissism: An Introduction," is Freud on the genesis of conscience. Note that Freud insists that voices "speak" to the paranoic and that "the influence of parental criticism" is "conveyed…by the medium of the voice":
Recognition of [the institution of conscience] enables us to understand the so-called "delusions of observation" or, more correctly, of being watched, which are such striking symptoms in the paranoid diseases and may perhaps also occur as an isolated form of illness…Patients of this sort complain that all their thoughts are known and their actions watched and overlooked; they are informed of the function of this mental institution by voices which characteristically speak to them in the third person ("Now she is thinking of that again"..."now he is going out"). This complaint is justified—it describes the truth; a power of this kind, watching, discovering and criticizing all our intentions, does really exist; indeed, it exists with every one of us in normal life. The delusion of being watched presents it in a regressive form, thereby revealing the genesis of this function and the reason why the patient is in revolt against it.
For that which prompted the person to form an ego-ideal, over which his conscience keeps guard, was the influence of parental criticism (conveyed to him by the medium of the voice), reinforced, as time went on, by those who trained and taught the child and by all the other persons of his environment—an indefinite host, too numerous to reckon (fellow-men, public opinion)...
The institution of conscience was at bottom an embodiment, first of parental criticism, and subsequently of that of society...
The lament of the paranoic shows…that at bottom the self-criticism of conscience is identical with, and based upon, self-observation. That activity of the mind which took over the function of conscience has also enlisted itself in the service of introspection, which furnishes philosophy with the material for its intellectual operations...[We are describing a] critically watching faculty, which becomes heightened into conscience and philosophic introspection.
It is into such half-forgotten areas of ancient psychic events that radio drama—the hearing of voices—is able to penetrate. This, it seems to me, is the genuine source of its power. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan remarks, accurately I think, that
Radio is provided with its cloak of invisibility, like any other medium. It comes to us ostensibly with person-to-person directness that is private and intimate, while in more urgent fact, it is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords...Radio [is] a reviver of archaism and ancient memories....
One wonders to what extent the Catholic institution of Confession—which is definitely related to the conscience—depends upon the hearing of "disembodied voices." We do not see the priest any more than the priest sees us.
For Freud, the conscience is deeply involved with the hearing of voices—indeed, with the hearing of disembodied voices—and it shows itself through a sickness which is almost a play: "Now she is thinking of that again"..."now he is going out." One thinks of the famous opening words of The Shadow, whose central character is nothing but the fierce embodiment of a fierce conscience: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows." We tend to forget that, as figures of conscience, many early superheroes were scarcely distinguishable from the bogeyman. The Lone Ranger was regularly referred to as "the masked man"—and a mask is usually worn by a criminal. The mask, like The Shadow's invisibility, was still another indication of the radio listener's inability to see something, of the absence at the heart of the form. Indeed, the Ranger's association with a Native American was less an example of multiculturalism than it was an indication of his connection to the wild, the savage, the dangerous. Modern survivals seem to have lost this dark (and sometimes violent) aspect. Over the past several years there have been films dealing with Superman, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, and Popeye. These films have tended to be origins-of films and—with the exception of The Shadow—the central figures in them have been nostalgic emblems of individualism rather than dark avengers. Such emblems are of course offered at a time when individualism seems most in doubt.
Further: Many of the most effective radio programs were frightening, mirrors of the anxiety of conscience—what we sometimes refer to as "paranoia"; these shows were often self-reflective, first-person singular, a character remembering something, telling us the story of his life. Sam Spade used to regularly report on a "caper" to his secretary, Effie. Such "voice-over" narration, which was also often a feature of films at the time, was a kind of introspection—in Freud's phrase, a "critically watching faculty."
This idea of a connection between conscience and voices is further strengthened by a passage in Erwin W. Straus's article, "Phenomenology of Hallucinations." "The schizophrenic hears voices, not persons," writes Straus; "Voice and speaker remain separate":
Sound detached from the sounding body is something; yet it is not a thing one can manipulate like the piano which produces the sound; it is not a thing, but neither is it no-thing. Sound is somewhere between thing and no-thing. It does not belong to the category of objects which we can handle. In hearing, we have already heard. We cannot escape from a sound in the manner by which we escape from visible things at their distant place; we lend our ear to the words which come toward us and claim us. A voice calls and orders. No wonder, therefore, that, in many languages--in Greek and Latin, Hebrew, French and German, and Russian--the words "hearing" and "obeying" are derived from the same root. English makes no exception; for the verb "to obey" stems from the Latin obaudire (literally, to listen from below), a relation more clearly preserved in the noun "obedience."
Struck by the irresistible power of voices, the schizophrenic feels no need to test the reality of his experience.
Straus's last sentence might well pertain to the radio listener who, like the schizophrenic, gets caught up in "the irresistible power of voices" and so feels "no need to test the reality of his experience." The radio performer's voice also hovers "between thing and no-thing," and this ambiguous status—neither something nor nothing—might well suggest why people should be somewhat uneasy when confronted with disembodied voices. Finally, Straus's pointing to linguistic evidence of a connection between hearing and obeying is very powerful. We do speak, after all, of the "voice" of conscience.
Straus's distinction between voice and speaker was once made by my son when he was a very young child. I play the guitar a little, and when I happened upon a song I thought a friend would enjoy, I recorded it on a cassette. My young son was very interested in what I was doing and asked to hear the song. I played the cassette for him, and he liked it very much. After playing it a few times more, I put it in an envelope and mailed it. The next day my son asked to hear the song again. I got out the guitar and began to play. "No, no," he said, shaking his head at me and pointing to the speakers: "Wadio daddy! Wadio daddy!" My son didn't want me: he wanted what had come out of that speaker.
In his brilliant foreword to Pedro Lain Entralgo's Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity, Father Walter J. Ong writes of "the new orality of our electronic era, where the telephone, loudspeaker, radio, and television give voice a new kind of currency." Father Ong's point is accurate and well-taken. But the power of old radio drama is one indication of an enormously important difference between the "new" and the "old" orality. In the Renaissance one could at least see the preacher who was preaching the sermon; it was possible to touch him, even to answer back. When the human voice becomes in point of fact disembodied, when it issues forth out of a box we call (the word has an extraordinary number of implications) a "speaker," it is then able to take on an intimacy and a power which is quite different from the power it has when the "speaker" is standing directly in front of us. If a human being is standing in front of us speaking, "voice" and "speaker" are not "separate"; but they are in the experience of radio or, for that matter, in the experience of reading.
Radio is a device for disseminating the human voice, for making it available to vast numbers of people who would be unable to hear it were the device not operative. But, like all technologies, radio changes the nature of the thing it projects. If Freud is correct in his description of the birth of conscience, the power of the disembodied voice is related to ancient awarenesses going back to the depths of childhood. Such awarenesses, moving as they are, tend to alienate and exile us from the immediacy of our situations, to remove us from the boundless facts of our physical existence. Old radio dramas were instruments (mirrors) of alienation, but at the same time instruments of spiritual growth.
Of course both psychoanalysis and the confessional are testimony to the power of the word not only to deceive but to heal—what Father Ong calls "logotherapy." Such power is the shining of a two-edged sword, though I admit that I hardly thought so when, long years ago, I sat in the darkness, listening. I was not blind; I was seeing more clearly than ever; I was using my imagination.
I would like to end this show with a brief experiment. I am going to say absolutely nothing for just a brief period. There is nothing wrong with your radios. There is nothing wrong with your ears. This is just radio silence. How does it feel?
* It's worthwhile to note that Wordsworth did not regard "the imagination" as something everyone possesses and which can be "used": "use your imagination." Rather, it is a dread "power" which seizes the poet violently and removes him from his immediate circumstances. If it is ultimately positive, it is initially negative: a "usurpation." And instead of allowing him to "see" anything, it gives him a sense of the "invisible" world: "I was lost as in a cloud." This is the Simplon Pass section from The Prelude (Book Six):
Imagination!—lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my song
Like an unfathered vapour, here that power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me. I was lost as in a cloud,
Halted without a struggle to break through,
And now, recovering, to my soul I say
"I recognise thy glory." In such strength
Of usurpation, in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shewn to us
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours whether we be young or old.
Our destiny, our nature, and our home,
Is with infinitude—and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
The mind beneath such banners militant
Thinks not of spoils or trophies, nor of aught
That may attest its prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward—
Strong in itself and in the access of joy
Which hides it like the overflowing Nile.
About Jack Foley
Jack Foley is a poet and critic living in the San Francisco Bay area. His poetry books include Letters/Lights—Words for Adelle; Gershwin; Exiles; Adrift (nominated for a Bay Area Book Reviewers Award); and Greatest Hits 1974-2003.
His books of criticism include the companion volumes, O Powerful Western Star (winner of the Artists Embassy Literary/Cultural Award 1998-2000) and Foley’s Books: California Rebels, Beats, and Radicals as well as The Dancer and the Dance: A Book of Distinctions.
Foley’s radio show, Cover to Cover, is heard every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. west coast time on Berkeley station KPFA and is available at the KPFA web site; his column, "Foley’s Books," appears in the online magazine, The Alsop Review. He is well known for his poetry performances with his wife Adelle, also a poet.
For more information, please visit the Wikipedia entry on Jack Foley.
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