The Vapours

The Vapours

Steven Connor

A paper given at Queen Mary, University of London, December 11 2003.

‘Steam radio’, we say, to name a device that belongs to some comfortable, but superannuated past. Radios can run on clockwork, but steam has never, to my knowledge, been harnessed to power a radio. The joke depends upon our recognition and acceptance of a technological order of succession, in which the digital-electronic is preceded by the electric, and the electric is preceded by the steam-driven. The age of steam is both historical – the period of steamrollers and puffing billies – and primordial, in that the application of air and pneumatic force seems to have been understood and practised in many cultures from the earliest beginnings. Steam could never be wholly up-to-date because it appears to be so closely related to the operations of the breath. Steam, like breath, is powerful, but blundering and approximate, giving rise to much puffing and wheezing.

I have become interested in the surviving, never-quite-superseded life of steam and the order of the vaporous to which it belongs. I am interested in what it takes from and yields to a larger cultural imagination of air.

My work in this area is guided and provoked by a conception of what, following Gaston Bachelard, I call the ‘material imagination’. I mean by this the ways in which cultural forms and possibilities are shaped by the ways in which they entertain and enter into certain features and understandings of the material world. I am guided too by Michel Serres’s principle that every metaphysics – within which one may include all abstract conceptions of language, mind and culture – is governed by a physics, by a theory of how the physical world is made and how it acts. There is no theory of that which is nonphysical which does not have a shape and complexion imparted to it by some aspect of the physical world.

While thought bears the impress of many objects and phenomena – for it is not possible to conceive of coherence, consequence, proof, demonstration or even conceiving itself without the kind of implicit physics – air and gaseous substances have a special function in representing the substance of thought itself. Air and vapour are the favoured metaphors for the nonphysical, or that in the physical world which approaches its condition. This is as true for the human body as it is for physical bodies in general. The cotenancy of the mind and the body has often been formulated in terms of the active, permeating presence in the body of forms of air.

We may perhaps posit three broad epochs or repertoires of metaphor with regard to the body. In the first, the body is understood primarily in terms of chemical processes in which the central principle is that of coction. The theory of digestion favoured from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries conceived of the different organs of the body cooking up the blood into progressively more refined kinds of spirit, spirits which in their most attenuated form, approached and then surpassed the condition of air. The stomach reduces the food to a chewed-up, viscid mass called the chyle. This is then cooked in the liver to produce the famous four humours of blood, choler, phlegm and bile. A third digestion then takes place in the heart, which distils the blood into a much rarer and subtler substance, the vital spirit, which, spread throughout the body by means of the arteries, sustains its quickness, spring and resilience. Finally, this spirit is then itself further rarefied in the brain, to produce the animal spirits which flow through the nerves, allowing the brain to communicate with the body. Discussing angelic nutriment in Book 5 of Paradise Lost , Milton offers us a vision of the cosmos as alimentary or digestive process:

whatever was created, needs
To be sustaind and fed; of Elements
The grosser feeds the purer, Earth the Sea,
Earth and the Sea feed Air, the Air those Fires
Ethereal, and as lowest first the Moon;
Whence in her visage round those spots, unpurg’d
Vapours not yet into her substance turnd. (5, 414-10)

From the seventeenth century onwards, this conception was giving way steadily to kinetic conceptions of the body, centring, not on the transmutative operations of heat, and the production of different grades of substance, but on the application of various kinds of force, pressure, resistance and momentum. Thus, a chemical conception of the body gives way to a mechanical. In a third stage, the body begins to be conceived primarily not in terms of transmutation of substance, or application of force, but the transmission of impulses and signals. This establishes the conditions for a primarily electrical and then electrodynamic body.

Each of these conceptions centres on a particular organ or kind of organ. The chemical conception focusses on the vessels and reservoirs within which coction and fermentation might take place. The mechanical conception naturally focusses upon the rigid portions of the body, the skeleton and muscles, and reconceives the other organs in these terms, the thermodynamics of the nineteenth century blending the emphasis upon heat of the medieval period with a new emphasis on energy and force. The primary constituent of the electrodynamic body is the nervous system and the various sensory functions it governs. This period completes the evolution of the understanding of the nerves, from hollow ducts, fitted for the conveyance of animal spirits, to wires, transmitting impulses and sensations.

For us, the problems of deleterious air are confined almost entirely to the respiratory and alimentary systems. For other periods, air was much more generally diffused through and operative on the bodily frame. Perhaps the most extensive discussion of the powers of air is to be found in Jean Feyens’s de Flatibus of 1589, translated in 1676 as A New and Needful Treatise of Wind Offending Mans Body. Although air arrived or arose in the lungs and stomach, it could work its way damagingly into bones, teeth and all the organs, including the brain.

Each of these conceptions is elaborated in medical writings, but generates a cultural phenomenology to go with it. These beliefs and experiences of the body take much longer to disperse than the charting of epochs would seem to indicate. Let us take, for example, the principle of the vacuous body. Conceiving of the body in terms of coction, fermentation, distillation and other such processes brought with it a focus on the empty spaces of the body, and the airs, vapours and empty spaces that could fill it.

Most of us continue to imagine the body as a series of empty chambers. I do of course have a sort of abstract sense of my innards, coiling, pulsating, and close-packed, an image which, even after Dr Van Hagen, is scarcely more developed than the image that might have been entertained by a medieval peasant. For I still fundamentally conceive of my body’s interior space as precisely that, as space. Indeed, it is striking how many of the plastinations in the Bodyworks exhibition catered to this demand to conceive the body as an enclosure of air, by scooping out the viscera which fill most of its interior space. I can feel the food go down about as far as the middle of my chest, and then imagine it dropping away into some delicious, welcomikng gulf before it reaches my stomach, which, like most other people, I wrongly but tenaciously imagine sits in the place that swells when I eat, namely just above my pubis. I imagine the default condition of my stomach as empty. Once filled, the stomach then transforms into a conjoined bowel and bladder whose more or less urgent needs to be emptied I must service. Somehow, this alimentary space, which is a matter of bags rather than tubes, cohabits with my interior breathing space, of which I have the dim but indefeasible notion that it occupies more or less the whole of my thoracic chamber, from neck to abdomen. When I take a breath, something like a balloon or hoover bag seems to swell to its full extent (for I have only the one lung), dissolving everything else. Interestingly, I must also report to you the existence of a secondary lung, in my brain, that also fills out like a driver’s airbag when I take a breath, and in the process ‘clears my head’. Most of the contemporary healing systems and religions of well-being centred on the breath – and they are legion – require us to imagine the body as an expandable sock or balloon. If the breath is shallow, it is feared that it will not reach far enough into the lungs, or the brain, or the fingertips, contradicting both experience and the law of the uniform expansion of gases.

In conceiving ourselves as huddling in spaces inside our bodies, rather than being coextensive with them, most of us, much of the time, must imagine an interior space of moist, dark, uterine rooms, of indeterminate volume. René Spitz suggested plausibly that the mouth was the ‘primal cavity’, and the association between stomach and mouth is sealed in English by the fact that the word ‘stomach’ actually comes from Greek stoma, which means mouth, or opening. The association between brain, mouth and stomach is also strongly secured, for example by Jean Piaget’s report of a child who said that he dreamed in his mouth. When we imagine living inside other creatures, we seem to favour those creatures, like whales, which can most easily be thought of as furnishing sizeable tenements of space.

One explanation for this phenomenology of vital vacancy is our preference for simple geometry over complex topology. The hardest features of the body to image or, so to speak, live as image are its coils and implicated structures: the intestines, the brain, the whorlings of the ear and, most importantly, the lungs, the spongy involutions of which bring the indrawn air into contact with the equivalent of a surface area of about one hundred square metres (as contrasted with the measly two square metres or so of actual body surface that we expose to the exterior air). So, in one sense, our body image is correct, for the interior of the body is indeed designed on the principle of maximising available space. It may be that, after John Lennon’s whimsy, we now know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall, but our understanding of how best to engineer that flooding of the lungs by air lags many million years behind the mathematical solution generated by evolution, which is perhaps to say, by mathematics itself. Our bodies maximise interior space not by emptying it out, but by saturating it with apertures and cavities.

Airy Nothing

The special status of air comes, of course, from its invisibility, or rather its invisible power. Gases, or, as they were known until the late eighteenth century, airs, constituted effect without form. Airs were not immaterial, but provided an imaging of the immaterial. The Stoic conception of a cosmos held together by the pneuma, a kind of vital fire, is inherited in the intense and bodily imagination of air. Air, of course, connotes purity, aspiration, the soul itself. There seem to be very few cultures in which the soul or mind is not imaged as some kind of air, breath, or vapour. Air, we might say, is the elastic body of spirit. Air approximates the final, most ethereal condition of spirit, along with the alchemical guarantee that grosser matter may be refined upwards into it. But, for this very reason, air, in the mixed form of vapour, fume or steam, represents vitiation, the capacity of air to become corrupted by admixture.

The condition known as ‘the vapours’ and its male equivalent, hypochondriasis, or ‘hypo’ flourished in the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries. Both conditions were often described as due to the effects of thickening or clogging. Ill-digested food, or overheated blood, which scorched the bile, produced fumes of similarly dense vapour. As late as 1746, John Manningham was advising that all examples of the ‘febricula’ or ‘little fever’, which he identified with spleen, hypochondria and vapours, were caused by ‘a Viscidity or Lentor induced into the Blood’ (Manningham 1746, 29), usually itself caused by ‘an Interruption of insensible Transpiration’ ((Manningham 1746, 31-2). Robert Burton, who thought that ‘Hipocondriacall or flatuous Melancholy’ was both the commonest and most grievous form of the malady (Burton 1989-2000, I, 378) followed Levinus Lemnius in advising that the worst kind of air for melancholics was ‘a thicke, cloudy, misty, foggy Ayre, or such as come from fennes, moorish grounds, lakes, muckhils, draughts, sinkes, where any filthy carcasses or carrion lies, or from whence any stinking fulsome smell comes’ (Burton 1989-2000, I, 235), though he added that ‘Some suppose, that a thicke foggy Ayre helps the memory, as in them of Pisa in Italy; & our Camden out of Plato, commends the site of Cambridge, because it is so neere the Fennes (Burton 1989-2000, I, 236).

Most thought that the way in which the brain and soul were affected by thick or clotted substance was by means of the impure fumes or vapours it produced. The melancholic’s blood is

Grosse, dull, and of fewe comfortable spirits; and plentifuly replenished with such as darken all the clernesse of those sanguineous, and ingrosse their subtilness, defile their purenesse with the fogge of that slime, and fennie substance, and shut up the hart as it were in a dungeon of obscurity (Bright 1586, 100).

Writers on the vapours and hypo regularly advised the application of aperients (literally ‘openers’ or thinners) to break down this gross matter into looser, more attenuated form. Thus, the vapours were to be dispelled by measures designed to vaporise or etherialise the thick, choking vapours that produced suffocation. One kind of clogging, humid, noxious vapour was to be insufflated by another, subtler, higher kind of air.

There was a variation on this conception. For some writers, the effect of hypo, spleen and vapours, was actually to loosen the body, almost literally to unstring it. Treatment in this case took the form of tuning the body up, stiffening the sinews, to allow the unobstructed flow of the spirits, now conceived, not as pure and open air, but as tensile: ‘For whence could such Drops proceed, but from a relaxation of the Fibres? And whence that Relaxation, but from a Deficiency of Spirits’ (Browne 1729, 97). Flatulent melancholy was`also associated with hyperactive air. Lemnius, quoted by Burton, thought that tempestuous air was also dangerous, because it pulled the frame of the senses apart, and for this reason could be hijacked by devils:

Besides 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 . (Burton 1989-2000, I, 237)

Air has always been thought of as a variable, rather than an elemental substance, even before its chemically mixed condition was understood. The variation in the density of air was governed for the classical and medieval world by height; air that was close to the ground was thought of as denser and more subject to corruption than the etherial fire of the upper air. Aristotle’s conception of the evaporative powers of the sun, as it drew vapours out of the earth, thus giving rise to the movement of the winds, encouraged the idea that as it became more elevated and refined, air also became dryer. Moistness was associated with earth, and the most corrupting vapours were those in which moisture played a part – the air of fens, bogs and swamps, for example. This vertical pattern is replicated within the individual human body, in which the animal spirits of the cerebrum are both refinements and desiccations of the humours of the lower body. Hamlet operates a celestial-corporeal analogy when he remarks that ‘it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’ (II.ii)

The upwards press of air is apparent in two contrasting poems by George Herbert. In ‘The Bunch of Grapes’, a sensation of joy is imagined as a kind of upwards fume, like the distempering vapours of melancholy, or burnt bile:

one vogue and vein,
One aire of thoughts usurps my brain.
I did toward Canaan draw; but now I am
Brought back to the Red sea, the sea of shame

The final stanza reverses this, just as Christ’s sacrifice ferments the shameful red of blood and grapes into the sweetness of grace: ‘Who of the laws sowre juice sweet wine did make,/Ev’n God himself, being pressed for my sake.’ ‘The Storm’ imagines a similar sweetening of corrupted, or stormy air. The poet’s tears and sighs are like the storms of the stars, which mount to heaven and drown out its music in their commotion:

A throbbing conscience spurred by remorse
Hath a strange force:
It quits the earth, and mounting more and more.
Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy doore

And yet, storm itself has the effect of clearing the air, just as it was believed that plague could be dispersed by gunpowder: ‘Poets have wrong’d poore storms: such dayes are best;/They purge the aire without, within the breast.’

Air is associated, not just with soul, but also with emptiness; not just with fineness, but also with vacuity. Before it was made possible to produce and experiment upon vacuums, vacuity had a fund of positive force and form. Air was the substance and press of nothing, the way in which nothingness could be conceived, experienced, almost handled. Like the zero which transformed mathematics, air was the placeholder for absence and nonbeing. There seems during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to have been a small epidemic, or at least epidemic of report about, delusions of empty bodies. Many of these focus upon what we might now process as a kind of continence anxiety about surfaces and containers; sufferers believed themselves to be made of a series of fluid, fragile or brittle substances, most notably of glass (Speak 1990). Thomas Walkington’s Optick Glass of Humors described two such delusions:

There was one, that perswaded himself, he was so light, that he got him iron shoes, lest the wind should have taken up his heels. Another ridiculous fool of Venice, verily thought his shoulders, and buttocks were made of brittle glass; wherefore he shunned all occurrents, & never durst sit down to meat, lest he should have broken his crackling hinderparts, nor ever durst walk abroad, lest the glazier should have caught hold on him, & have used him for quarniels (Walkington 1664, 139)

The most developed literary account of this delusion is to be found in Cervantes’s story of 1613, ‘The Glass Graduate’ (Redondo 1981). The salient feature of glass is that it not only encloses air, it is itself formed out of the infusion of air, through the glassmaker’s breath. If you are made of glass, then you run the risk that every blow will shatter you and let the essential air of your formation escape.

Blithering Idiots

It is for this reason that, as well as signifying the highest refinement of the mind, air is also associated with mental distemper, spiritual disorder, and folly. Words for madness often nowadays suggest broken mechanism (having a screw loose, going off the rails). But there is another, probably older current of words which suggest the vaporous or windy condition of the disturbed reason. ‘Batty’ derives from ‘bats in the belfry’. The word fool derives from Latin follis – a bellows. ‘Balmy’ or ‘barmy’ means frothy-minded, balm being a word for the products of yeast. (Leff 2000, 158). Vapour, the hopeless hero of the farce My Grandmother of 1794, has had a history of fancying himself other persons and objects. According to his valet, Souffrance, ‘when your papa die, you fancy yourself every ting, in de vorld, you vas de sexton, de clerk, de grave dig, and de coffin—den you fancy yourself de great bell, and your head de clappair, and go ba—ba—ba.’

The bauble, or bladder on a stick with which jesters were traditionally provided, seems to be linked to their function as emitters of nonsensical vacancy, or hot air. The 1509 English translation of Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff shows a fool in a horned cap playing bagpipes, with a lute and harp spurned on the ground beside him. The accompanying poem instructs us:

Of impacient Folys that wyll nat abyde correccioun
Unto our Folys Shyp let hym come hastely
Whiche in his Bagpype hath more game and sport
Than in a Harpe or Lute most swete of melody
I fynde unnumerable Folys of this sorte
Which in theyr Bable have all they hole confort
For it is oft sayd of men both yonge and olde
A fole wyll nat gyve his Babyll for any golde (Brant 1509, sig. cvii r)

The ‘bauble’ or ‘bayble’ carried by the fool was sometimes a head on a stick, sometimes a bladder full of air. The word ‘bladder’ derives from Old Teutonic blaê-drôn, from a verb stem blaê, to blow anddrôn , contrivance or instrument. This word spawns a number of words for noisy, vacuous speech, of the kind that one might imagine would issue from a bladder, like blather , blether and blither. Etymology thus attests to a strong association between air, skin and idiocy. King Lear’s fool plays constantly on the idea that he is the embodiment of this substantial kind of ‘nothing’. Kent remarks of one of the Fool’s speeches ‘This is nothing’, to which he replies ‘Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer, you gave me nothing for’t’ ( Lear 1.iv, 126-8, p. 639). The Fool’s repeated references to paring away shells and rinds – ‘Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing i’ the middle’ – (I.iv, 178-9, p. 639) seem to make reference to his bauble, establishing airy nothingness as that which is enclosed in skin. Much of the play is concerned with what happens when people are exposed to ‘the enmity o’ the air’ (II.ii, 401, p. 647), the blasts of the ‘to and fro conflicting wind’ (III.i, 11, p. 648), or who, like Edgar, voluntarily embrace the ‘unsubstantial air’ (IV.i, 7, p. 655). Air is heavy, pestilential and powerful in the play: but it is also associated with the lightness of being associated with ‘tattered clothes’ (, 160, p. 660) and other skinlike integuments. Pretending to Gloucester that he has fallen over Dover cliff, Edgar tells him ‘Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,/So many fathom down precipitating,/Thou’dst shivered like an egg’ (, 49-51, p. 659). There is no music in this play, but plenty of crying and wailing. As Lear himself notes, ‘the first time that we smell the air/We wawl and cry’ (, 175-6, p. 660).

Demonic possession, with its accompanying symptoms of ventriloquism, on the subject of which I soiled so many guiltless pages in my book Dumbstruck (2000), retains the association between devils, stink and bad air. Sufferers from possession might very well from the seventeenth century onwards be given a diagnosis of hysteria. The symptoms of abdominal distension and sensations of suffocation which were prominent in cases of possession made doctors, especially Protestant doctors in England, keen to put such cases down to wind. But, at this period, the demonic associations of air meant that this could never be as entire a deflation of magical thinking and belief as might have been intended. Not only fools but demons and witches were conceived in terms of the operations and effects of air. The occultist and magical writers of the early Christian period characterised demons as inhabitants of the middle region of the air, caught, like the Chamcha-Farishta pairing who meet and exchange beings in mid-air at the beginning of The Satanic Verses, in a permanent free fall. This habitat accorded with the theory that demons were the products of five-mile-high-club copulation between humans and angels. Though hell was thought of in the late medieval period as an underground location, it was characterised by the belching upwards from it of dark, sulphurous vapours. The sixteenth and seventeenth century was also much taken up with discussion of the powers of witches to transport themselves or be transported vast distances through the air, in a process known as transvection. In my book on the skin, I have a discussion in my The Book of Skin (2004) of the epidermal aspects of this, in the application of the various kinds of so-called ‘flying ointment’, in which the fat of boiled babies seems to have been an active ingredient. Rationalist writers thought that the alleged witches were not in fact capable of flight, but were the victims of hallucinations caused by toxic fumes either entering their bodies through their skins, or inhaled during the application of the ointment, in a kind of impious aromatherapy. Indeed, aromatherapy itself may belong to a pneumatic economy of the body which fixates upon its sensitivity to the powers of aroma.

Those who believed in witches’ power to leave their bodies, like the Neoplatonist Henry More, also stressed Satanic mastery of the air. Where writers like Weyer in Holland and Jean de Nynauld in France saw the susceptibility of melancholic witches to the fumes which corrupted their understandings, More saw the operations of a Satan who was expert in the moulding of air:

For I conceive the Devil gets into their Body, and by his subtile substance, more operative and searching than any fire or putrefying liquor, melts the yielding Compages of the Body to such a consistency, and so much of it as is fit for his purpose, and makes it pliable to his Imagination; and then it is as easie for him to work it into what shape he pleaseth, as it is to work the Aire into such forms and figures as he ordinarily doth. Nor is it any more difficulty for him to mollifie what is hard, than it is to harden what is so soft and fluid as the Aire. (More 1662, 122-3)

This pneumatic economy also centres on the operations of magical powders and forms of particulate matter. Germ theory is anticipated by some centuries in the various corpuscular and atomist theories which accounted for action at a distance by means of the movements through the air of tiny, invisible particles. Magic dusts and powders of all kinds belong to this sense of the power of air. Kenelm Digby employed the revived atomism of to justify his belief in his version of the ‘weapon-salve’, a powder applied to the instrument of a wound to cure the wound itself, even though they were separated by some considerable distance. John Evelyn draws on Digby’s ‘Doctrine of Atomical Effluvia’s and Emanations, wafted, mixed and communicated by the Aer’ to explain the pollution of London by smoke:

from the Materials of our London Fires, there results a great quantity of volatile Salts, which being very sharp and dissipated by the Smoake doth infect the Aer, and so incorporate with it, that though the very Bodies of those corrosive particles escape our perception, yet we soon find their effects, by the destruction which they induce upon all things that they do but touch; spoyling, and destroying their beautiful colours, with their fuliginous qualities: Yea, though a Chamber be never so closely locked up, Men find at their return, all things that are in it, even covered with a black thin Soot, and all the rest of the Furniture as full of it, as if it were in the house of some Miller, or a Baker’s Shop, where the Flower gets into their Cupboards, and Boxes, though never so close and accurately shut. (Evelyn 1661)


Writers on hypochondria and vapours in the high point of the these conjoined maladies sometimes emphasise the grotesque, involuntary music produced by sufferers from the vapours. Along with all the other effects attributed to hysteria, hypochondria and spleen, those afflicted with the vapours became involuntarily sonorous bodies, full of grumblings and growlings, and subject to intemperate eruptions either from the anus or the mouth. John Purcell described the onset of an attack of the vapours in his Treatise of Vapours of 1702:

Those who are troubled with Vapours generally perceive them approach in the following manner; first, they feel a Heaviness upon their Breast; a Grumbling in their Belly; they Belch up, and sometimes Vomit, Sowr, Sharp, Insipid, or Bitter Humours; They have a Difficulty in breathing; they think they feel something that comes up into their Throat, which is ready to Choak them; they struggle; cry out; make odd and inarticulate sounds, or mutterings… Some moreover have their Bellies swell’d and stretch’d like a Drum; their Hypochondria’s distended; and they fancy they feel some part within them rowl from place to place. (Purcell 1702, 3-4)

The sufferers’ loss of self-possession is signalled by the fact that they do not speak from their mouths or vocal apparatus, but through the noisy reverberations of their skins, either tightly-stretched like a booming tympanum, or borborygmically churning – to resuscitate the onomatopoeic word coined to imitate just this process. It should not be a complete surprise therefore that a condition conceived in such sonorous terms should have suggested musical cures such as those proposed by Richard Browne in his Medicina Musica of 1729.

Sufferers from the vapours were therefore turned into instruments, and, more specifically, wind instruments. What does it mean to represent the victim of folly as made over to the condition of a wind instrument? Understanding this requires us to recall the long history of discredit attaching to wind instruments as opposed to stringed instruments. Stringed instruments derive their authority from Apollo’s lyre, while wind instruments have associations with animality, sexuality and frenzy. Ultimately this distinction may derive from the distaste in classical Greece, where nonvocal music seems to have been very rare, for any instrument which monopolised the mouth, and thereby prevented the free exercise of the voice.

There is a particular story which encodes this dichotomy between the plucked, or bowed, and the blown, that of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas, which ends up with the satyr losing both his bet to outplay the god on his pipe or flute and his skin into the bargain. I do not have space to enlarge on all the different manifestations of this story as it was retold from the late medieval period onwards, but the curious can find it told in more detail in my Seeing Sound: The Displaying of Marsyas. Here, drawing on some of the analysis in that essay, I focus on what it means to conceive of the body as a sonorous bag of air. Stripping Marsyas of his skin enables him literally to be represented as the boastful windbag he has seemed to be in life. With the focus on his flayed skin, Marsyas is reduced to the condition of a wind instrument. In his sickeningly explicit evocation of the flaying process, Ovid draws out an alternative logic. Focussing as Ovid does (and uniquely) on the suffering residue of Marsyas’s body, the quivering nerves, sinews and veins exposed by the flaying, makes him the very image of Apollo’s victorious lyre. This is how Golding renders Ovid’s lines:

For all his crying ore his eares quight pulled was his skin.
Nought else he was than one whole wounde. The griesly bloud did spin
From every part, the sinewes lay discovered to the eye,
The quivering veynes without a skin lay beating nakedly.
The panting bowels in his bulke ye might have numbred well,
And in his brest the shere small strings a man might easly tell. (Ovid 1567, f. 74r)

Beneath the surface of the skin, Ovid reveals is a latticework of different kinds of string. The punishment therefore seems to take the form of a grotesque act of vengeful predication. ‘You claim the priority of the pipe over the string’, the flaying seems to say, ‘but your piping is as empty and puffed up as a bag of skin. Rip off that lying, vacuous bag and your own body testifies that underneath you are all lyre.’

Ovid’s vision anticipates an argument about the relationship between bodies and instruments to be found in a treatise on music written between the first and third centuries (but probably in the late third or early fourth) by Aristides Quintilianus. In chapters 18-20 of his On Music, Aristides sets out to account for the effect of music upon the human soul. The first answer he offers is the Pythagorean doctrine that the soul, like music, is made up of mathematical ratios and proportions. The second focusses on the physical nature of the soul. The soul is constituted in a fall from its proper domain in the pure empyrean, which lies in a circle outside the stars and planets. In this condition, it is constituted of pure geometrical relations, of surfaces, circles and lines, and is coextensive with the whole of the Great Soul. As it falls through the different levels of creation, it loses its etherial constitution, and becomes progressively more material, which has effects on its three constitutive geometrical dimensions, of plane, line and circle. As it approaches the airy and humid region of the moon, which makes ‘much and vehement whistling because of its natural motion’, the soul

exchanges its surfaces, which are in accord with luminous and ethereal matter, for a membranaceous figure; and it turns its lines, which are reduced around the empyrean and tinged by the yellowness of the fire, into the semblance of sinews; and then it adds wet breath from the things of earth, so that this, for the first time, is a certain natural body for the soul, welded together from some membranaceous surfaces, sinuouslike lines, and breath. (Aristides 1983, 152)

The analogy between music and the soul is a consequence of the fact that the body is formed out of the same materials as musical instruments, in the three categories of string, wind and percussion distinguished in the classical world and after. Although all the basic elements of musical instruments derive from the declension of the soul into humid, airy matter, Aristides also sees the sinews, and the musical strings to which they are analogous, as closer in nature to the ethereal region from which the soul has descended.

Of instruments, those fitted together of strands closely resemble the ethereal, dry, simple region of the cosmos and part of spiritual nature, being more without passion, immutable, and hostile to wetness, and displaced from their proper setting by damp air; the wind instruments closely resemble the windy, wetter, changeable region, making the hearing overly feminine, being adapted for changing from the straightforward, and taking their constitution and power by wetness. (Aristides 1983,155)

This elaborate theory of the physical relations between instruments and the constitution of the soul is clinched for Aristides by reference to the story of the flaying of Marsyas. There are, he says, two kinds of person, ‘those persons cultivating the region under the moon, which is full windy and of a wet constitution but which procures its actuality from ethereal life belong to both the mundane and the celestial spheres’, and the higher kind of persons, who aspire to the pure, celestial region. The first ‘are soothed by both kinds of instruments – wind and stranded’, but the second ‘deprecated every wind instrument as defiling the soul and dragging it down to the things here and on the other hand hymned and held in honor the kithara and lyre alone of the instruments as the purer’ (Aristides 1983, 157). Aristides recalls that Pythagoras ‘counselled his disciples who heard the aulos to cleanse their hearing as defiled by breath and to thoroughly purify the irrational impulses of the soul with righteous mele to the accompaniment of the small lyre’ (Aristides 1983, 156)

All of this enables Aristides to venture a neat reading of the final condition of Marsyas, or rather his skin, hung in the cave in which the river bearing his name rises. He is suspended between the elements of airy essence and watery corruption:

The Phrygian, having been hung over the river in Celaenae after the manner of a wineskin, happens to be in the aerial, full-windy, and dark-colored region, since he is on the one hand above the water and on the other suspended from the ether; but Apollo and his instruments happen to be in the purer and ethereal essence, and he is the leader of that essence. (Aristides 1983, 155)

Earlier on, Aristides has advanced what appears to be an original account of how the fall through matter changes the soul from its original, perfectly spherical shape. As it encounters the different forms of matter in the vicinity of the different planets, it clothes itself in more and more coverings of extraneous matter. Passing, towards the end of its descent, through the wet atmosphere beneath the moon, the bag that it has become is filled with wet, dense air, the effect of which is to stretch it out into the form of a man. The hung, strung Marsyas is an image of the body drawn downwards by humid breath. His skin, filled out by the wind and shaken by the sonorous rushing of the water beneath it, is an image of the soul in its most degenerated condition, as a mere bag of steam. But the fact that, thanks to Apollo, it is hung above the water is a reminder of its aspiration, or rather, if this breathy word seems inopportune, its straining towards what is higher and drier. The figure of Marsyas only has the man-like form it does because it is stretched between the earth and the sky – a windy lyre.

In one late retelling of the myth, by the fifth century Latin anthologist Nonnus of Pamphilos, Athena’s engorged cheeks seem to carry over into Marsyas’s flayed skin. Nonnus images the skin of the flatulent flautist resounding, not like a sympathetic string to Phrygian melodies, but by being inflated by the wind.

Another Seilenos there was, fingering a proud pipe, who lifted a haughty neck and challenged a match with Phoibos; but Phoibos tied him to a tree and stript off his hairy skin, and made it a windbag. There it hung, high on a tree, and the breeze often entered, swelling it out into a shape like him, as if the shepherd could not keep silence but made his tune again. (Nonnus 1940, 113).

What kind of instrument is it that causes the cheeks to be puffed out? Some brass instruments, which require the air to be forced through the compressed lips, produce this effect. But a flute, as the term is understood today, requires no such pressure. Indeed, it would be quite impossible to get any sound out of a flute played this way, for it requires a thin and steady stream of air to be directed transversely across the top of a hole. Anyone who has ever blown across the top of a bottle knows how carefully this has to be done. The faces of flautists are not made rotund but lemon-sucker puckered and retracted by the effort to produce this carefully-aimed and modulated stream of air. It is not clear whether any such instrument as the bagpipe was known to the Greeks. Nevertheless, part of the Greek suspicion of wind instruments that is articulated in the story of Apollo and Marsyas is the fact that they highlight the bellied, baggy animality of human beings.

The pipes and flutes associated with rustics and shepherds modulated during the sixteenth and seventeenth century into the varieties of the bagpipe, and Marsyas begins to be represented as a bagpiper. The bagpipe is associated with what might be called an inflationary body image. This is the image of a body, not knitted together as a fabric, but as a simple bag, blown up and let down, lurching between a blocked or distended condition and the sudden, intemperate trumpetings of illegitimate speech. The bagpipe is like a prosthetic lung, or belly, the inner cavity of breath slung on the outside of the body. It can easily suggest an alimentary or excretory function too; indeed this exchange of functions is embodied in the bag, which was often made of an animal’s stomach.

The Bakhtinian obesity of the body that is figured in the bagpipe is a perfect image of the sound or potential vocality of the skin. A skin that bulges or is stretched resembles a drum, but also gives promise of sonorous eruption, whether in the belch or the fart, or in the vagitus that is the immediate product of childbirth. (All children know how shiveringly full of sonorous catastrophe a balloon is.) The bag of the bagpipe alternates between the conditions of full and empty, life and death, like the lungs, the belly, the bowel, the womb. The sound that it makes is the sound of the skin emptying, passing between the conditions of cuticle and pelt. Its sound is excremental, not only in metonymic fashion, in that it is associated with the voiding of excrement, but also in the sense that it is a metaphorical excretion.

The arousing and disturbing sounds of the pipes involve a certain sonorous image of the body, a body that is able to produce sound, not because it is full of life, soul, self-presence, desire, intention, but because it is half-dead, or intermittently dead, able to be and needing to be repeatedly pumped up and deflated like a bag or a balloon. The bagpipe is the image of the pseudo-life of the body that is simply a bag of winds, a lung, or belly, or scrotum, and nothing more. Such a body is a kind of body formed of skin alone, for even the air that plumps it out is not its own, and its liable to leak away bathetically.

Almost from its inception, the bagpipe has been thought of as the most copulative of instruments. In the most elementary of metaphorical systems, the tube of the pipe connects together two equivalent organisms, both of them made up of pipes and bags: the body of the player and the body of the instrument. Both player and instrument have intake and outlet, both are receptacles that rhythmically fill and drain. The fact that the bagpipe is so like an external lung or bladder means that the possibility of inversion or blowback is always there: given sufficient pressure, the bag can inflate the blower. The many images of bagpipe monsters in psalters and Books of Hours, such as the Luttrell Psalter, play elaborately with this possibility. The bagpipe suggests a body made up, not of parallel structures, but of mutually-encapsulated skins, and therefore provides opportunities for topological fantasies of literally conflated bodies. These inversions only superficially resemble the reversibility of Apollo’s lyre. For the bagpipe is entropically inversive; at each exchange of breath, energy is being depleted, and the taut life of the bag is collapsing. The animal origins of the bagpipe, which has customarily been made form the stomach or skin of an animal, and the conspicuous orality of its manner of playing can suggest that a nutritive function is conjoined with a musical one. (‘The dog who eats a bagpipe has meat and music at once’, as a bizarre Gaelic proverb has it.). The baby-like wail of the pipes also seems appropriate for the one playing the instrument can indeed appear to be at suck upon it. Of course, it is the bag that is nourished by the breath of the player, and so is an image of a Kleinian ‘bad breast’.

The sound of a bagpipe suggests simple and involuntary venting, the noise made by the friction of air and skin and that escapes from one during the performance of animal functions, such as eating, sleeping, excreting, copulating and dying: the kind of vocal noises, of howling, sighing, coughing, grunting, sneezing, snoring or roaring, that Aristotle, in Book 2.8 of his De Anima , said were ‘unensouled’ voice (Aristotle 1993, 32-3.). The bagpipe is the perfect image of the profane ‘bellyspeaking’ of which the history of ventriloquism is so full. According to the Christian mythographer Fulgentius, writing in the late fifth century, the ‘swollen cheeks’ [tumentes buccas ] or ‘inflamed cheeks’ [buccarum inflamina ] which the flute causes in Athena go along with the dirtiness of the flute’s sound:

It was according to the art of music that Minerva discovered her double flute, which anyone skilled in music despises for the poverty of its sounds. They are said to have laughed at her puffed out cheeks because the flute has a windy sound in the music it makes [ventose in musicis sonet] and no particular character in the tones specific to it (idiomatum ). It hisses [sibilet] rather than clearly enunciates its matter Thus anyone at all skilled laughs at her harsh blowing. (Fulgentius 1971, 94-5; translation adjusted)

As we have already seen, the nobility of the lyre comes largely from the fact that it allows simultaneous speech or song. This seems to be in accordance with the principle of the coordinated parallelism of bodies with which stringed instruments are associated. But wind instruments do not simply monopolise the organs of speech, for they can also suggest the mimicry or mongrelising of speech by musical sound, in accordance with the principle of copulative commixture that animates them. Certainly the bagpipe has often been thought of as a sort of dissociated voice, either prophetic or profane. Aristotle does not mention farting as among those sounds produced by ensouled creatures which do not have soul in them but he might well have, for the fart is the concentrated image of the body’s profane, involuntary utterance, a little death which darkly anticipates and perhaps also comically defends against the final grating passage of the spirit through its collapsing walls of flesh in the death-rattle – the ‘crack’ (a common term in English for the sound of a fart until the nineteenth century) matching the croak. Playing the preposterous pipes turns you arsy-versy.

There is a long tradition associating the bagpipe and the fart. The lust and gluttony of Chaucer’s Miller are roundly suggested by the fact that he is an accomplished bagpiper, as well as a monumental farter. A sixteenth century German engraving shows a devil playing a bagpipe the bag of which is constituted by a monk’s head, while a second, leering face bulges out of the devil’s belly, its nose a penis and the navel furnishing its single eye. The suggestion is that devils speak from the lower portions of the body rather than from the upper.

The bagpipe is the substantial embodiment of a more general tradition associating farting with musical performance. It is a mild, but pleasant shock to find in St. Augustine’s City of God the report that there are those ‘who can at will, and without any odour, produce such a variety of sounds from their anus that they seem to be singing in that part’ (Augustine 1998, 626-7) and, buried in William Camden’s vast geographical and historical survey of Britain of 1586 is the following record of the unusual form of land lease held by one Baldwin in Suffolk:

Baldwin le Pettour (marke his name well) held certaine lands, by Serjeanty, (the words I have out of an old booke) for which on Christmasse day, every yeere before our soveraigne Lord the King of England he should perform one Saltius , one Sufflatus, and one Bumbulus …as we read elsewhere, his tenour was, per salsum , sufflum and pettum, that is, if I understand these tearmes aright, That hee should daunce, puff up his cheekes making therewith a sound, and besides let a cracke downeward. Such was the plaine and jolly mirth of those times. (Camden 1637, 464)

The corruption of speech represented in bellyspeaking parallels the murky vitiation of the clear eye of reason represented by the fumes of unreason. The vapours are operative in both forms of spoiling or perversion.

Change of Air

We saw earlier on that to have the vapours or to be vapourish is to be two, quite contrasting kinds of thing. On the one hand, someone suffering from the vapours was assailed by paradoxically thick air, and so was sluggish, lethargic and fixated. The brain afflicted by the dry vapours of unnatural melancholy was stiff and unyielding in texture, and so it was correspondingly hard to shift from it deluded conceptions. It was necessary in such cases to dissolve, aerate and open the body. The air that had thickened into gross vapour must be restored to its soft, or changeable condition.

On the other hand, mutability was also a feature of the melancholy resulting from the disordering of vapour. Indeed, this is part of the strange attractiveness, the wittiness of melancholics, that they held securely to no fixed conceptions, least of all of their own bodies. Shakespeare’s lovesick Antony exemplifies this:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water…
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave. (IV.14)

The most remarkable chapter of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy offers a vast, literally cosmic digression on the nature of air, and is operation in the case of melancholy. In his digression on air, Burton wonders eloquently and at length why there is such diversity in nature, and, abandoning his quest for answers, nevertheless comes down to a statement of the necessity for diversity in air.

As the Aire is, so are the inhabitants, dull, heavy, witty, subtill, neat, cleanly, clownish, sicke, and sound… He therefore that loves his health, if his ability will give him leave, must often shift places, and make choice of such as are wholesome, pleasant, and convenient: there is nothing better than change of Aire in this malady (Burton 1989-2000, II, 59)

The best cure for melancholy is movement and mutability, even the contemplation of a crowd in street:

Out of a pleasant window into some thorough-fare street to behold a continuall concourse, a promiscuous rout, coming and going, or a multitude of spectators at a Theater, a Maske, or some such like shew. But I rove: the summe is this, that variety of actions, objects, ayre, places, are excellent good in this infirmity and all others (Burton 1989-2000, II, 66)

The reining in action of that ‘I rove’ in fact only confirms the excursively mutable nature of air. The extraordinary, crazy, infirm variability of Burton’s own habit of mind and writing, which for him was the cure for his vaporous melancholy, takes its image from the air itself. Air as change, digression, instability is the redemption of air distorted into formula and idée fixe.

The fact that ‘the vapours’ became a synonym for hysteria, hypochondria and spleen means that one finds descriptions of its nature and effects mostly as a subsidiary part of histories of ‘early psychology’, or of melancholy or of hysteria. Historians of hysteria tend to tell a story about this mysterious complaint that extends backwards to and unbrokenly forwards from Hippocratic conceptions of the vagrant womb. In fact what gets homogenised as ‘hysteria’ seems to have had a number of quite distinct phases, among which we must certainly distingish its pneumatic and its neurasthenic phases. From the very beginning, the alleged vagrancy of the womb was thought of as, if not itself pneumatic, then at least controllable by air and odour. Hippocratic medicine prescribes the application of foul odours to the nose to drive the unhooked womb downwards, while the presentation of sweet smells to the vagina was supposed to lure it in the same direction. The talk at the Sâlpetrière was all of the electro-neurological body. But, without exactly knowing it, these patients obediently acted out a repertoire of symptoms, including the famous lifting of the stomach to form the hysterical arch, which recapitulate a much older, wheezier conception of the body as a pneumatic thing, enacting the idea that to be possessed by a demon is to be assailed by a nothing that had taken substantial form, and that has corrupted you by making you a thing of wind, a bladder, or blister. But the idea of the vapours actually forms a kind of pneumatic preoccupation, a periodic cloud, clotting or congelation of collective imagination. It would be just as true to say that there is a discourse of air out of which the notion of hysteria condenses, as to say that a concern with air is a subsidiary part of a discourse of hysteria. In fact, I am not very content with the term ‘discourse of air’. Melancholics and medics were together compact in a structured kind of material delusion, a complex of half-formed beliefs and apprehensions in which air is not so much the subject as a metaphorical engine. It is a kind of shared imagination of air, which itself seems, like Antony’s clouds, or Burton’s digression, vaporous, intermittent, unfixed, which is no more to be confined to one place and purpose than the air itself. One cannot expect consistency of such a topic or form of thought, since the questions of consistency – density, texture, tenuity – is precisely what it enables to be thought.

I began by saying that the pneumatic was archaic. We can often set our technological clock by the delusions of the mad. Early nineteenth-century paranoia could still centre on the fantasy of persecutory wind-machines. A century later, Daniel Paul Schrber’s delusions all concerned wires, as he transformed the universe into a vast persecutory telephone exchange, in which all the calls were for him. And yet, in 1903, when his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness was published the possibility of wireless transmission of messages through what was already becoming casualy known as the ther, was already eight years old. Steam had attained, by way of wires, to rayguns and radio. Indeed, Michel Serres, with whom I began, has proposed that, if there is a single element or state of matter which may be said to characterise and govern our disembodied, dispersed world, it would be airy or gaseous. He has powerful supporters in the Marx and Engels who, in the Communist Manifesto, spoke so influentially of a modernity in which ‘all that is solid…melts into air.’

We currently strive to lay hold of a world of processes rather than fixed forms, of atmospheres rather than terrains, of infiltrations and permeations rather than intervals and confrontations, or patterns of perturbation rather than settled contours or regular cycles, of fluctations and floating capital and fuzzy logic. (The inflationary metaphor has been at work in capital for longer than we may think. In 1721, one Sir John Midriff wrote a not entirely unserious medical work which construed the vapours as the cause and outcome of that ebullition of financial fantasy, the South Sea Bubble.) All the while we double our thought in a kind of electromagnetic flux, or aurora borealis of signs, messages and transmissions, whose vapour trails are our occupation. In making the world we are making assimilable to thought, we may once again, though, like the air, differently from before, from just then, just now, take the air to be accomplice, as we are its accomplishment.


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