On The Air

On The Air

Steve Connor

A full version of the script for a feature broadcast at 21.30 on BBC Radio 3 on June 13th 2004. The programme also featured contributions from Mark Jackson, Stephen Johnson, Mary Beard and Chloe Goodchild. Listen to the programme here.

‘Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe –
‘Tis dimmer than a Lace –
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place –
Nor any voice imply it here
Or intimate it there
A spirit – how doth it accost –
What customs hath the Air? (Emily Dickinson)


Air is both ordinary and extraordinary. Invisible, only apprehensible by the shiftings and stirrings it effects, it is the necessary enabling condition to all life. Only a few seconds of air deprivation are required to remind us of our second-by-second dependence on it. But air is more than a universal physical necessity: the ideas of air and breath are diffused through the poetry, rituals and symbolism of all cultures. We not only live on air, we also subsist on the complex idea of air. This programe is about the customs of the air, the complex and changeable ways in which we live out our relations, actual and imaginary, in art, religion and science to the air.


All or Nothing

Air is, of all the four elements distinguished by ancient philosophy, the most various and the least elementary. All the other elements also present themselves under many different forms – water, as the root of many different kinds of liquid and their differing states of liquidity, earth as the collective name for all the forms of solid, shapeable, resistant matter, and fire as the name for the fusing and dissolving effects of heat. But air is larger in its scope than the other elements because it encompasses its own negation, indeed perhaps even negativity itself. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air.

You cannot, it is commonly said, ‘live on air’, because the air is traditionally used as a way of referring to what is not there. Things vanish into thin air, revert to ‘airy nothing’. The air may be next to nothing, but it is also all-powerful. In its distributions of heat and cold, it is the globe’s thermodynamic engine. The Greek philosopher Anaximenes thought that that air was the prime element, out of which everything else could be made, and to which everything else could return, a notion revived in late nineteenth-century physics in a weird theory that what we think of solid clods of matter were really just ripples and perturbations in the omnipresent ether of which the universe was fundamentally made. In the matter of air, it seems, it is all or nothing. For Salman Rushdie, air is the ‘soft, imperceptible field…the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic – because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible’.

So let us, for some forty minutes or so, take to the air, drawing in and giving vent to audible draughts of this most mutable, unruly and enduring miracle. We will meet with the elation and the pollution of air, with angels, demons and holy smokes; we will listen to musical airs and spell out the languages of the breath. Conspiring with me to keep our feet firmly off the ground will be a classicist, a medical historian, a musician and a champion of the naked voice.


Living Room

The air is where we live, and largely what we are. The air seems fully apparent and inexhaustibly abundant, the very form of givenness. Breath is the first thing we take from the world, and the last thing we return to it. And yet it is almost infinitesimally rare, for there is, it would seem, hardly any air to be found elsewhere than in our globe’s thin, accidental scarf of gases, in the hugely improbable but, so far, just-right mixture of elements that is necessary to our kind of life.

Filling space, extending all around us, the air is space itself, expanse, openness, outerness, aspiration, eminence. Living room. Latin bequeaths us a word to name this stuff that is a wide-open vault of a vowel, in which the air is minimally modified in its passage from the inside to the outside. When you say the word ‘air’, it is as though the air were articulating itself. The air’s default condition is to be pure, lucid, cool, clear, still, fresh. As actual and immediate as anything could be, it is also the form and sphere of our aspiration. Taking the air approximates to taking to the air, it is a minor version of being taken into the air, in the dream of flight, or rather floating, since air is the opposite of striving. To breathe is to be levitated, granted some of the air’s own lightness. We know that we are not made of air, but seem convinced that the part of ourselves that is most essentially us, and is most likely to persist after the dissolution of our bodies, is airy rather than substantial. The ghost in the machine is a gas.


Light Eating

The belief in the beneficence of air in the human body extends beyond the breath to the kinds of alimentary air found in effervescence. Though many religions have mistrusted the fermenting effects of leaven, fermentation has also been seen as reviving. The airiness of bread become a guarantee of its spiritually elevating qualities and the word Easter has occasionally been interpreted as formed from the word ‘yeast’. Emile Durkheim saw manifestations of religious feeling as instances of what he called ‘collective effervescence’. Some have overestimated the alimentary powers of the air. The seventeenth-century Rosicrucian John Heydon believed that eating solid food was the original sin into which Eve betrayed us. He urged his followers to rely upon the nourishment of the air, insisting that hunger pangs could be assuaged by placing a dish of cooked meat on the stomach and inhaling the aroma.


Who breathes?

My breath is me. And yet for most of the time, I do not know I am breathing or how I am going about it. Ventilators can do your breathing for you, but then your breathing anyway does your breathing for you. Breath is my without-which-nothing, and breathing is an absolute requirement for my continuing life; but I am not required for it. So who or what breathes?



The innermost, ownmost, selfmost part of us is of a piece with what surrounds us and extends so far beyond our reach. To be thus intrinsic with that in which we are immersed makes the air we are loaned, on so short a lease, the least owned thing about us.

Could it be the unownability of the air of which we feel we must consist that explains why the air features so strongly in anxieties and delusions in which the self is invaded, irradiated, permeated, melted away? One of the earliest documented cases of paranoid delusion is that of James Tilly Matthews, who, in the early 1800s, became convinced that a gang of French Jacobins working from a basement near London Wall were using what he called an ‘air-loom’ to capture and scramble his thoughts. Among the vaporous preparations he believed they employed was seminal fluid (male and female), effluvia of dogs, gas from the anus of the horse and a mysterious substance called ‘Egyptian snuff’. The air-loom gang wrought awful tortures upon him: sending airborne magnetic impregnations ‘to lift into the brain some particular idea, which floats and undulates in the intellect for hours together’, sucking out his vital gas from the tubes and cavities of his body, and pumping in in instead inflammable vapours, which they then ignited by means of an electric battery, causing internal conflagration. The cronies and confederates of the air-loom gang are still powerfully at work among the distressed and deluded, though nowadays employing sophisticated electronics rather than pneumatic means. But all of these imaginary assailants have in common the power to come at us through the ether, and render us thereby weak and leaky as air. For us, the air is, once again, as it was for the late classical and medieval worlds, teeming with menace and presence.


Enmity of the Air

Perhaps the beauty and bliss of air are why, of all the elements, the air seems most perfidious when it is polluted, when fair is foul and foul is fair. Angels have their abode in air, and spirits are shaped of it, but the air is also the haunt of demons, who have the space there to multiply. In fact, early Christians thought that demons were the product of mid-air copulations between angels, the denizens of the upper air, and landlubbery humans. For us, air signifies rarefaction and solitude. But this notion of ‘thin air’ is newer than we think. For previous ages, less in thrall to what the subtracting eye supplies, the air was thronged with stinks and spirits, entities, influences and powers. ‘Everyone among us has a thousand demons on his left hand and ten thousand at his right’ said Rabbi Hunan. Milton imagined his fallen devils clustered as thickly as leaves; but it is as swarms of flies, which both atomise the air and sow confusion thickly in it, that devils have most commonly been imagined. No wonder then that the chief of Satan’s confederates has long been thought to be Beelzebul, whose buzzing name means ‘lord of the flies’. This vulnerability of the air to impurity and vitiating commixture is why our implication with air can flip so easy into a sense of what Shakespeare calls ‘the enmity of the air’.



Certain winds have often been mistrusted for the galls, agues and fevers they bring with them. The East wind has long been thought particularly ominous, though the compass of evaluation can veer surprisingly over time. Vitruvius advised never building theatres that faced south, for fear of the plague-ridden corruption that came from that quarter, and this advice is being repeated long into the seventeenth century. Persons of melancholic disposition were advised to stay indoors when the atmosphere was heavy and turbid, for fear of accentuating the effects of the delusive, putrefying fumes with which they were already impregnated. The disturbed air of storms gave particular opportunities to devils and spirits. The seventeenth-century alarmist Levinus Lemnius warned that ‘the divell many times takes the opportunity of such stormes, and when the humours by the Aire bee stirred, he goes in with them, exagitates our spirits, and vexeth our Soules; as the sea waves, so are the spirits and humours in our bodies, tossed with tempestuous windes and stormes’. Thunderstorms were thought to be caused by thick air, and church bells were recklessly rung during thunderstorms in the hope that their consecrated clangings would pulverise the thunderous atmosphere into a sweeter, clearer condition. Air is never more perilous than when it is compressed. If air means openness, the nourishing interchange between inner and outer, the stoppage or blockage of the air has often been thought to lead to dire consequences, as in this 1608 warning:

Greate harms haue growne, & Maladies exceeding,
By keeping in a little blast of wind,
So Cramps, & Dropsies, Collicks haue their breeding,
And Mazed Braines for want of vent behind.

However, some saw advantage in thick, sticky air, which was thought by analogy to encourage the operations of the memory, and for this reason commended the situation of Cambridge, close to its dank, but retentive fens.


Holy Smoke

Despite the fact that steamy, smoky or surcharged air seems so full of malignity, smoke also has great power in the magical imagination. Sometimes pestilence was driven away, not by clearing the air, but by the application of counter-smells, a memory of which lingers in the word ‘fumigation’, and of course in contemporary beliefs about the life-giving powers of certain aromas. Religious incense recalls the transformation of the animal into a sacrifice pleasing to the nostrils of the Lord – who concealed himself behind a cloud on Mount Sinai. Smoky vapours have often been associated with trance and intoxication and the spiritual enlargements they may seem to bring. The ecstasies which post-Classical writers imagined accompanied the Pythian oracle at Delphi were attributed by Diodorus Siculus to the effect of a prophetic vapour that gushed from a cleft in the earth. The pythia was placed over the cleft in order to draw in its maddening inspiration. Perhaps one might now sit in the sauna in search of a more sedately altered state. Indeed, mantic powers have sometimes been attributed to steam. American Indians practised a form of vapour bath called the sweat lodge, formed by pouring water over hot stones in a tepee, in order that the wreathing steam could assist the achievement of clairvoyant trance. No wonder that awareness of the dangers of smoking should have coexisted for so long with a determination to believe in the more positive powers of smoke. Like rippling grass and quivering leaves, smoke discloses the miraculous musculature of the air’s mobile body.



God gave life to his creation by breathing into it, an act echoed in the Catholic ritual of benediction by breath known beautifully as insufflation, as well as, more vulgarly, in the gambler’s trick of blowing on the dice for luck. But why is the creative power of breath expressed on the outbreath, when this is after all not the sound of replenishment, but of exhaustion, of expiry? We do not ordinarily want another’s breath upon us any more than we want to be the beneficiary of their coughs and sneezes. Why, then, should we think of creation as shaped from exhaust fumes?

Perhaps because exhalation is so closely married to utterance. As we speak, and sing; we shape imaginary objects out of the escaping air, smoke-rings and speech-bubbles, of words and sentences. Drawn out into arias and anthems, sonnets, sermons and symphonies, such effusions may come to seem endowed with their own independent life, to the point of seeming themselves to take breath. When we coordinate our voices, in dialogues, or choral singing, we create relays of exhalation, in which others breathe for us while we replenish our stocks of air. Perhaps the function of the human arts is to be a kind of hyperbreath, or second wind, a breath beyond breath, breath that does not need to take a breath. Proust, who suffered so badly from asthma that he could scarcely shuffle to his desk, wrote sentences that require Olympic-standard lungs to be read aloud. The undulations of the breath are to be made out across all the arts. The value given to exhalation reminds us of the unhoardability of air, which is to be had only on condition that you instantly yield it up. You suffocate on air as surely as in a vacuum.



If breathing out is auspicious, this can make breathing in suspicious. Ventriloquism, which was often in previous centuries seen as a demonic act of speech, was also thought by some to be produced by speaking while sucking in air. The mystic writer Swedenborg, who claimed to be able to subsist without breathing for long periods of time, wrote ‘ Holding back the breath is equivalent to having intercourse with the Soul; drawing it amounts to intercourse with the body ‘.

There is an exhilaration in breathlessness, in helpless laughter, for example, which drives the air from your body (and you can’t pretend to laugh convincingly unless you have nearly emptied your lungs), One wonders whether actors, singers and musicians, who have trained themselves to operate out at the frontiers of breath, do not offer us semi-socialised forms of the asphyxophilia so cherished by mystics and fetishists.


Electric Air, Electric Chair

Air has its own tempo and temporality. The necessity of breath insists on the imperious passage of time. We live, as the Irish joke has it, expecting every breath to be our next. And yet air moves in renewing circles, which seem to promise that time can be renewed, refreshed, turned back on itself. We all die in the end, though, of a kind of surfeit or overdose of air, our cells clogged with oxidation, like the rusted iron.

Air has longer time-scales, too. We live in an age that believes it has passed from the dominion of gas and steam to that of electricity. Gas was slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy. We think of electricity as fast, clean, instant, absolute, and abstract. Gas lighting is mysterious, impulsive, erotic; it belongs to what Bachelard calls the ‘igneous time’ of replenishment and exhaustion (the gasometers that survive across London used conspicuously to respire, rising and falling as reservoirs of gas changed). Electric lighting is rational and unwavering, abolishing time and crime. Electricity does not pause for breath. The contrast between the allegedly quick and humane electric chair, that guillotine of the twentieth century, and what many regarded as the barbarism of the gas chamber also embodies this contrast between the newness of the electrical and the archaism of the gaseous. The position of poison gas in twentieth-century warfare, at once biochemical state-of-the-art and atavistic throwback, belongs to this pattern of thought.

And yet, after a brief period in which electricity was condensed and channelled, in wires, batteries and networks, electricity has itself taken to the air again. Our wireless devices operate through the air. We worry about the stripping away of the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, even as we seem to surround and immerse ourselves in an ever denser and more turbid bath of signals, messages, radiations, emanations.



When people first heard voices on the telephone, they marvelled, not at their intelligibility, but at the perfect fidelity with which the instrument conveyed the noise of the breath, the accidental wheezes and whispers and whistlings, all those things that Aristotle said were alien, unensouled elements within the voice, but which precisely seemed to harbour in them the living presence of the speaker. Technicians strive to clean out these sounds of the breath; listeners strain their ears for it. The telephone and the gramophone are humid technologies; the voices they preserve are desiccated by distance, yet warm and damp with the breath that lingers and trembles in them.


Into Thin Air

The air is translucent, complementary and necessary to vision. Without air, without clear space, the eye is helpless; where the air is corrupted, vision dims. And yet this accessory to vision has something in it that unsettles or escapes the authority of the eye. Why else should we speak of that which vanishes ‘into thin air’, or delight in the conjuror who pulls coins and cards out of the air, unless we also thought the air a kind of obscurity, a veil, a deception, or a depth into which one could vanish? What could there possibly be behind or inside the air? And yet the air has come to be strongly associated with the invisible, with the ineffably small, of the unreachably remote. This is another reason why it might seem right to think of our contemporary condition as airy. To be of the air, is to be parted and permeated by what passes through it. It is to become a medium, a membrane, rather than a reservoir or resting-place.


Beyond The Veil

Philip Pullman’s ‘subtle knife’ is an implement that allows you to cut incisions in the air, so that one may cross between worlds. The idea of parallel worlds requires from us the paradoxical doubling of two conceptions: on the one hand, worlds that abut on each other, separated only by the thickness of a skin; on the other, the idea of a medium in which worlds cross, and interpenetrate and inhabit each other’s space: tessellation, and interpermeation. One conception, of a world of forms and spaces with sides and edges and surfaces, draws on, and in, a solid geometry; the other, of a world of ceaselessly shifting and collapsing borders, is gaseous and topological. We can say, perhaps, that the idea of a skin – a skin in the air, an air that keeps forming itself into skin, smokily, connects and communicates between the two conceptions.


Mid-Air Collisions

The air has always been thought of as the empty space through which we move: but now we are beginning to think of the air as our habitat. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of an air ‘that’s fairly mixed/With, riddles, and is rife/In every least thing’s life’. But in mixing with us, the air, mixes us up to. It has been suggested that the circulatory power of the winds is such that every square metre of the earth’s surface contains at least one particle from every other square metre. This conception of a maximally interfused universe is a revival of the principle of Anaxagoras (500-428 BC), a pre-Socratic follower of Anaximenes, for whom the air was the primary element, that every part of the cosmos has every other part inside it.


Dawn Chorus

‘Brightness falls from the air’, wrote Thomas Nashe. During the last century in which we have taken possession of the air, we have come rather to expect agony or terror from that quarter. But need we feel only the air’s persecution? Need we shrink back into the bubble of universal allergy?

Perhaps we have got into this fix because, though we have more and more taken to the air, we have not let enough air into our rationality, which is still governed by our attraction for punctual, here-and-now words like in, on, at and under. Perhaps a way of thinking invigilated instead by words like through, between, across, among, along, about and amid might also be possible, a fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines. The dawn chorus, which at once sunders and multiplies the air, gives us one intimation of this orchestral architecture. We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.