WE ALL carry them around with us: good voices, bad voices, the sensible, the impish. In cartoons, they are embodied as angels and demons, sitting on opposite shoulders, whispering contrary advice; but to only a few of us do these voices seem as if they are coming from a source other than our own internalised talking-shop.
In The Borders of Sanity (Radio 4, Monday of last week), we met people for whom the barriers between the internal and external are permeable; and we discovered some of the ways they cope with it.
Until the second half of the 20th century, voice-hearing was regarded as a sure sign of psychosis. The experts interviewed for Christopher Harding’s programme said that doctors rarely engaged with what the voices said: the template of the violent schizophrenic would prevail, whether patients’ voices were telling them to harm others or — more frequently — harm themselves.
We heard about a voice-hearers’ group who meet in a church in Morningside, Edinburgh; and another who went to a remote Scottish lodge to record their voices, with the help of a sound artist.
What was most impressive, though, about Harding’s piece was the sensitivity he had for the subtle ways in which he, and we, attempt to shape the voice-hearing phenomenon to fit particular agendas. These might be historical and cultural: a study comparing attitudes to voice-hearing in the United States and Ghana, for instance, has revealed fundamental differences in the way these cultures conceptualise consciousness. It might also be about what a documentary-maker wants to get from his subjects: more than once, Harding admitted that his witnesses did not say what he wanted them to say or craft their experiences into the message that he had prepared for them.
On the face of it, Free Thinking: Mystics and reality (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week) looked, for the purposes of this column, as if it was going to be the perfect accompaniment to Harding’s programme.
What might have been expected from the promised discussion with an artist, cosmologist, novelist, and historian were insights into notions of reality as mediated by different cultural media and historical periods.
But the principal reality explored during the show was book promotion; and Matthew Sweet’s playful tour around Oxford was no more than a desperate attempt to finesse a rather ordinary studio round-table.
So, instead, to Notting Hill, where “keeping it real” is causing controversy. We heard on You and Yours (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) from Janet, who still dries her laundry on a washing-line, despite complaints by the neighbours that it makes the place “look like a gypsy encampment”.
The problem is “super-gentrification”, and a professor came to explain all. The trouble is that, as she did so, her language unwittingly echoed tropes of a bygone era: the super-wealthy move into an area, buy up all the houses, and, before you know it, the whole place is sanitised. I half expected to add, “there goes the neighbourhood.”