Spring, 2020. A worldwide forced exodus, emptying public spheres. Buildings abandoned and squares escaped. Out of fear. Out of order. Hurriedly walking the dog, chop-chop, sniffing the eeriness, all ears to the absence, the familiar faded fast. Illness drove us back into our homes, mansions for many, bunkers for most. We deflated our worlds until they fit within the walls. The threshold, crossed and hermetically sealed, wraps up anger and boredom, doubt and disease. Rooms rumble a lethargic litany, and when a cough escapes the oral cavity, it is muffled by curtains and dulled by discomfiture. Keep it in. Keep it in. Keep it in.
This forced retreat from the public arena back into our dwellings seems to mark and amplify the opposition between outside and inside. We stare at the doorstep and now, more than ever, see a margin, an edge, an end. This inward motion unsettles our sense of self.
As a migraineur, I am drawn towards this opposition between outside and inside because my perception of these concepts is strongly influenced by the chronic condition I suffer from. I have become familiar with this turn into isolation. I flee, often multiple times a week, from the public spheres and retreat into the darkened cave of my bedroom. All sounds, noises, smells, and lights become intolerable due to a hypersensitivity of the senses. I carefully close all doors and curtains, shut out the world and hide from all traces of society, shielding myself from any signs of existence. A violent, one-sided headache accompanies a constant flux of vomit, reducing me to an immobile lump of misery, an asexual blob of non-being. I am not really "there," or it at least it has become difficult to define what "being there" actually means under these extreme circumstances. A clear spatial division has been made: “outside” is for the living, “inside” for the non-being. This spatial opposition and my sense of self, have become intimately connected.
Sequestered, I bend to keep an ear on the ground of this floor and listen to the discord of the situation. Phonophobia has driven me into isolation. This hyperacusis causes everyday noises to be perceived as overwhelmingly loud and painful (Sacks 1985: 27). Aversion to sounds is the first sign of my troubles. Migraine announces itself by fanatically ringing my doorbell and aggressively banging at my door. Even the softest of sounds are exuberantly amplified. So, I carefully lock the doors and shut the windows and curtains, hoping to keep out the slightest hint of outside life and eliminate even the smallest possibility that its blaring cacophony erupts at the side of my bed. Even so, when the tram passes my window, screeching and squeaking, it splits my feeble skull. Domestic noises also became intolerable, their familiarity faded and melted into the abstract. So, when the house sings its private anthem, I hear only senseless noises from the abysses of hell. Phonophobia marks the migraine experience, and sound is no longer perceived as a neutral soundtrack to a daily routine. It has become a thread. With volumes pushed to the limits (even the tap dripping becomes a vile assault), it operates as a disproportionate announcement or warning to the pain that will follow its very occurrence. The accompanying impact of the auditory on the sufferer’s sense of self is significant: it pushes her across the boundary separating inside and outside. At the same time, migraine manages to wreak phenomenological havoc on this clear distinction. As the attack worsens, the migraineur enters a synesthetic in-between. Her senses merge. Lights, smells, sounds, and feelings all become equally deafening and these “modern western sensory categories” (Pink 2009: 127), although always interwoven and interdependent, now truly start to fuse. This distorted sensory perception surrounds the sufferer in an all-encompassing haze of hypersensitivity, enveloping both external stimuli and internal impulses.
In The Poetics of Space (2014, originally published in 1958) the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard devotes a chapter to the dialectics of outside and inside. He argues that the interplay of these concepts is much more complex than the usual geographical distinction implies. When we strip them of all literal implications and introduce them into phenomenological spheres, we learn that outside and inside go beyond simple opposition and are actually in constant exchange. And indeed, I nod my troubled head softly in agreement with these assertions; as migraine continues its repetitive cycle, it imposes a sense of derealization and temporal distortion, and my perception of “outside” and “inside” slowly begins to shift. For the umpteenth time, bedridden in my bunker, the clear distinction between body and room, space and self, collapses with a thunderous noise.
So indeed, we should not limit ourselves more than necessary by clinging exclusively to the “lazy certainties of geometric intuitions” (Bachelard 2014: 235). In his writings, Bachelard pursues a “study of being” (229) through a phenomenological understanding of outside and inside. To this end, he searches for poetic images that relate to this spatial division and are “new in its nuance of being” (232). Using these images, he proposes several new dialectic models that overturn the apparent opposition. Bachelard turns to poetry because “language bears within itself the dialectics of open and closed. Through meaning it encloses, while through poetic expression, it opens up” (237).
Interestingly, Bachelard almost exclusively chooses poems that mention sounds (senseless noise, sonorous echoes, rumblings, and buzzes) and silences (quietude and stillness) to describe a being’s ever-shifting perception of outside and inside. Throughout the discourse of his essay, the aural takes a central role. Bachelard explains this preoccupation with sound as follows: “sight says too many things at one time. Being does not see itself. Perhaps it listens to itself. It does not stand out, it is not bordered by nothingness” (230). In other words, he seeks to determine being by listening to the inner-spatial shifts.
As an artist, working with sound, I am drawn to Bachelard’s aural approach. For this reason, I turn to his writings as a theoretical and compositional framework for the creation of A Sonic Study of Being through Illness and Isolation. As a singer and sound artist, I aim to capture the friction between the self and the space and portray their constantly-shifting displacements. This piece takes aural notice of how my perception of being changes in accordance with my relationship to the room. Using the poems proposed by Bachelard as a textual outline, I turn to my voice as a vessel through which the self reverberates. Sounds from in and around the house provide the sonic segments for my attempt to unite the materiality of the room with the materiality of the voice. This audio piece is made in part while migraining in order to establish a dialogue between the sick-self, the recovered-self, and the space in which they suffer.