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Unlikely marriage

15 November 2013


THE popularity in recent years of going to the cinema to experience live opera relays means that, on a Saturday night, you may well find your local picture house crowded not with popcorn-eating teenagers but with a well-dressed, middle-aged cohort, cocktails in hand.

The marriage of a technology and an art-form is not always obvious; and so with the first broadcasts of classical concerts and opera - which came not through wireless radio, but down the telephone. As explained by Laurie Taylor in Electric News: The world's first radio station (Radio 4, Friday), Parisians in the 1890s might get togged up and listen to Meyerbeer or Massenet in a telephonic opera room, the music pumped down telephone wires into individual headsets.

The idea came from Hungary, from Theodore Puskas, a man who seems to have tried everything, including a deal with Thomas Edison to exploit his technology for broadcasting. His Telephone Newspaper was launched in Budapest in 1893, and featured everything from political news to music, church services, and sport. Most impressively, the whole thing was serviced by real journalists.

So why haven't we heard of Puskas and his pioneering work, Taylor asked. The answer lies in Puskas's early death in Hungary: had he emigrated and engaged with the market in the United States before wireless radio took off, the history of the relationship between telecoms and broadcast media might have been very different.

Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival continues to produce insightful programmes, not least in the Free Thinking Essay strand (weekdays), in which a "New Generation Thinker" is invited to expostulate for 15 minutes. Rebecca Steinfeld's talk "Cutting Tradition" (Thursday of last week) attempted to produce a critique of the arguments surrounding circumcision and freedom of religious expression. In Dr Steinfeld's somewhat unfortunate phrase, "one needs a thick skin to enter this fray"; and her unrevealing exposition suggested that she was unwilling to take that dangerous step.

More rewarding, I felt, was Christopher Harding's "Therapy Versus Prayer" (Friday), which dealt with a similarly contentious issue, but from the perspective of some fascinating case-histories. Central to the piece was a Japanese businessman, Yoshimoto Ishin, whose experience before the Second World War of an extreme form of ascetic prayer, known as mishirabe, led him after the war to develop a secularised form of therapy, Naikan, which he encouraged his workers to pursue.

By all accounts, he managed a contented and productive workforce, because his employees were encouraged to ask profound questions of themselves and their relationships with their colleagues.

What is the difference between prayer and therapy? Both entail processes of acceptance, and even redemption, but from where does that redemption issue, and what legitimises it? Prayer, one commentator wrote, is like a child trying to eat, attempting all the movements, but with a parent standing behind, guiding the spoon into the mouth. Who that parent is is a question that theologians and psychologists continue to ponder.

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