An Attempt to Summarize
How was it, and how did you hear it? The above analysis is based on fairly simple interpretations. Against a background of an outline of the epoch, inscribed with its political and social features, I have cast a few characters that are somewhat unique in the sparse testimonies and who are atypical inhabitants of a city like Bucharest, whose population at the time was on average younger and less educated, less experienced, and mostly enduring the political regime. The selected characters are notable (as well as available to the researcher) as a result of their extensive and conserved notes, memoirs and testimonies about everyday life. From these writings, I extracted examples related to sound – their experiences of auditory sensations. The adopted method has clear weaknesses. First, it makes a fairly quick transition from broad descriptions of a place and epoch to momentary and affective experiences of specific people. I have interpreted these experiences by referring both to the entirety of these people’s writings and to the wider, well-known historical context.
Another peculiarity of the adopted method may be characteristic of sensory history research. In writing about sound, I do not refer to actual sounds nor to recordings (I am not aware of any such recordings from the era relevant to this topic) but to “sound images,” that is, descriptive accounts of sounds and written experiences by actors in the social sphere. However, the weakness of this method may also be its strength. The sounds as documented in the testimonies are not essential in themselves but are a written expression of the mental experiences of their listeners. These experiences lend themselves to historical analyses because they require knowledge about the fields of individual and social psychology, mechanisms of remembering, and reactions to trauma. Research into emotions and feelings has already been developed into a school along these lines (Smith 1998; Jütte 2005: 8-18). However, each historian engaging with this kind of memory must individually confront the records of these experiences and feelings, which are simultaneously fleeting and universal.
As stated above, the sound layer of history, when extracted from various testimonies, allows us to notice the contours of mental contact with social and political spaces. The most interesting – and at the same time the most difficult for a researcher – are the individual experiences: a body immersed in society and reacting to physical stimuli, namely sound vibrations in this particular study (Trower 2012). The sensitivity of a person’s hearing and, at the same time the social and political awareness in their minds that responds to these stimuli, constitutes a complex psychophysical response. In the case of the sources collected here, the key experience is the feeling of a drastic reduction of agency, associated with existential anxiety and material deprivation. This affects the perception of sounds, especially the tone of the voice. The control of one’s own voice (e.g., speaking in a whisper) serves to delineate the personal, intimate sphere in space where control over the individual has been taken (indirectly by the state apparatus) and people inhibit themselves out of concern for denunciation (by roommates in a shared apartment or other people who might overhear the conversation).
Tone of voice becomes one of the key regulators of relations, particularly when perceived as an instrument of domination, such as when a worker in a tram raises her voice to castigate another woman whose appearance and tone of voice the worker associates with the former elites, the bourgeoisie. In this moment, the two women engage in an emotional clash against a background of systemic violence and the mechanics of a societal reorganization. Colloquial sounds can be heard in the context of such a situation when described in the category of oppression (aggression in public places, loudspeakers in the streets) or relief and escapism (sounds of nature, the silence of the night, children playing in the snow). This is an audible result of the confiscation of the public sphere, as the domain of the free exchange of ideas, news, and goods was replaced by an official sphere controlled by a monopoly of power. The clearest symbol of this power was the ubiquitous loudspeaker, which pronounced domination and intruded into the private space. This intrusion gave even stronger impulses to maintain a sense of privacy, as can be read in the testimonies. The most meaningful sign of privacy was the hush into silence like an escape of oneself into the body, cutting off the external reality, and undoubtedly also a kind of depression.
The pressure of the “great public life” manifested itself most clearly during public holidays when mass celebrations, full of singing and chanting, were meant to mobilize individuals as much as forcing them to conform by placing them in a crowd as part of a greater whole. This enforced not only the need for passive submission (withstanding the sounds) but also for active participation (singing and chanting). Sound in this case functioned like a control mechanism, with the whole experience working in opposition to one’s need to escape into the body while simultaneously increasing this urge toward escapism.
Sounds define the spaces of both domination and escape, while the inherent pressure of the system expands this field of antagonistic sound, which threatens the existence of the private sphere (loudspeakers outside the window, the limited radio cable network). Simultaneously, the most individual escapism or inhibition (whisper, silence) reflects this shrinking personal sphere. In the writings, one can notice the emergence of a substitute public sphere, created however in private spaces (meetings in apartments) or manifesting itself suggestively in the frame of high culture (classical music concerts), a customary space for the former city elite to confirm their identity. Listening to radio programs is of similar importance, allowing not only escapism but also – in one of the very few ways – contact with the outside world.
The influence of the radio refers to the concept of modernity. Bucharest of the described epoch appears to be a modern city for the time, saturated with cables and devices for recording and transmitting sound. One of the key issues in research on totalitarianism is the relationship between modernity, domination, and violence. This subject has been developed in academic works, especially in connection with the experience of World War II, with the classic works of Friedrich Georg Jünger or Zygmunt Bauman as two core examples. These authors are interested in the mechanics of large-scale phenomena – mass repression or forced migration – as indicated by David Hoffmann’s work (2011) on the violent emergence of a “new man” in the USSR. In the case of sound, state violence encounters resistance thanks to the technology of sound transmission: resistance is achieved through listening to foreign radio broadcasts, which also affects cultural activity, such as the absorption of music patterns that are absent in the local, controlled message. The emotions associated with these listening practices – fear, but also a sense of freedom – are clear in the sources cited throughout.
Modernity also manifests itself from a different side when considering the continuity of social perceptions. The representatives of the city’s former elite mentioned here undoubtedly cultivated modern ideas about the private sphere, trying to protect it in the face of oppression. The notion of noise is one of the hallmarks of modernity, as well as the growing need for intimate spaces. The interwar criticism of the big city refers to the ubiquitous noise that poisoned the lives of its inhabitants. However, in the sources quoted here, we do not find an image of a great modern city, full of noise and hustle and bustle; on the contrary, they present an image of an empty, silent, and car-free Bucharest, though we do find noise of a different kind, namely the constant sound of street loudspeakers, from which it is difficult to hide. One could see in this criticism a bourgeois desire to escape from the noise (like in the earlies times of the barrel organ!), but it seems that the meaning of “noise” as a social phenomenon requires a rethinking in the context of the totalitarian variant of modernity. This variant constitutes a broad interpretive background, about which there are fractional and scattered testimonies relating to the intimate space of a flat or the public space of the city conquered by the state apparatus. A similar broad background is the idea of urban culture, preserved in domestic and external messages, where the competences of a cultural historian or anthropologist are needed rather than a psychologist or social psychologist. In this essay, I have tried to find some clues from the sources suggesting what the sounds of the city meant for people coming from outside the city (the French officer de Courson or the English writer Sitwell) and those living within. The experiences of those coming from outside the city are doubly important, as they not only allow us to infer the inhabitant’s messages (especially from the references to silence that reflect a change in the everyday culture of the city) but also in how they relate to the role of the researchers themselves as “newcomers” to the described world of emotions based on sounds.