MOVE over, Kirsty. Desert islands are for wimps. If you really
want to know what your celebrities are made of, lock them up in an
anechoic chamber, and switch off all the lights. That is what Sian
Williams did with her guests last week in The Thought
Chamber (Radio 4, weekdays). It is a room so silent and so
dark that your ears and eyes start making things up, and coloured
shapes and pulsating clouds fill the emptiness.
For the space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, it was like
floating through the Milky Way. Grayson Perry, who suffers from
tinnitus, was in the countryside, a chilly dusk teeming with
starlings. None of the five victims seemed overcome by the
experience, and there was none of the disintegration of persona
that we might have been hoping for.
Perhaps the problem was that these were five people quite
content with the sound of their own voice. They were hardly
discomfited by the fact that there was nobody to converse with. In
particular, June Brown, whose EastEnders avatar Dot Cotton
is currently enduring a dark night of the soul, seemed entirely at
home. Mind you, this is the character who famously took up an
entire 30- minute episode with a monologue to her dead husband; so
this will have been a breeze.
For us mortals, the anechoic chamber can be a torture; but,
although his characters are racked by psychological torture, it
would be too crude for the imagination of Franz Kafka - quite the
opposite, Karen Leeder said in The Essay: In the shadow of
Kafka (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week).
Her contribution spoke of the multiple meanings in Kafka's work.
The novels and stories teem with messages, en route from
one bureaucrat to another - messages full of ambiguity, and which
are rarely delivered. His is "the poetics of non-arrival".
This year marks a Kafka anniversary of sorts: his story The
Metamorphosis was published in 1915, and the excuse is enough
for a flurry of Kafka-themed programming. Much of it is driven by a
search for meaning, just as with the author's characters. But, as
Leeder explained, the meaning lies in the unfulfilled nature of the
message. For those of us flummoxed and intrigued by Kafka, it is a
reassuring point of view.
Of course, meaning operates in different semantic registers:
thus language can be lexical or expressive. The call of the gibbon
or the song of the nightingale are both meaningful, but in a way
rather different from the language of humans. In What the
Songbird Said (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Angela Saini
picked through some of the research into animal communication, and
discovered that there was more to it than merely training your
budgie to tweet compliments at you.
The crucial question is whether birdsong contains structures
that can be abstracted and recombined: in other words, a working
grammar. This is what makes human communication apparently unique;
but, if other species can be shown to have it, then we must rethink
the whole question of language evolution. We might even try putting
Cotton and a gibbon together in a darkened room, to see how they