Commissar Wallander sat at a restaurant table recounting advice he had received as a young police officer.
‘He was a mentor to me when I was starting out. I used to go blundering in to these places. He’d hold up his hand and say. ‘Shut up and stand still. Absolutely still. Just listen to the room’.
To a room?
Well, obviously not to the actual room. But what it was telling you about the people who’d been there. Listen and you can hear them. And you can hear people when they’re not there. You know, you just have to listen.
Do voices from the past linger in a place? Is the hearing of such voices similar to some people’s ideas of hearing the voice of God?
Do people who speak of encounters with the divine hear plain speaking voices as you might hear voices in a restaurant room? Are the words articulated in tones and a language that people can understand? If they do, why don’t other people also hear?
In Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces, as his character contemplates carvings of the disciples in a church, he contemplates ‘hearing voices’:
Suppose that what had disappeared was the capacity to hear voice or voices of the god. Once, all those fishermen would have heard a god; now only Christ could. For early humans separated from their group – the young man, for instance, dispatched to fish upstream — the ability to hear instructions, to produce under the influence of stress or fear the voice of the absent leader or god had once been a necessary tool of survival; but as the capacity to remember and communicate through words had slowly developed, humans had lost the need for heard instruction and comment. The ability to do so had long since ceased to be important and was in fact now like the sightless eyes of bats — a vestigial ability. In this way the Bible all made sense, not as a ragbag of metaphor and myth, but as the literal story of a people crying in the wilderness; for what once had been theirs. ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. ‘What was that if not the forlorn land agonised call of the solitary human -whose once ever-present, helping voice had left him? He could picture the terrified, lone man, bent over his little bit of agriculture, looking up, craving a voice from the silent hillside.
Thomas felt quite calm as he gazed into the carving. At the beginning of the Bible, everyone – Noah, Abraham, Moses – seemed to hear God’s voice externally; then it was heard only by a minority, who became priests; then the gift became rarer, so the infant Samuel could hear but the old priest Eli could not; and then by the time of the New Testament, Christ alone — and perhaps Paul — could hear voices.
To hear actual voices, whether in a restaurant room or in a place of worship, to repeat the actual words, would invite scorn, or medication.