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Recent events and sociorhetorical expatiations upon them have reaffirmed breathing as the ideal form of free and unimpeded life, that struggles against the throttlings of oppression. The root meaning of oppression, from the past participle of Latin opprimere, is to press, crush or bear down upon, and the word oppression has commonly been used to signify the feeling of the difficulty of breathing, through some constriction or pressure, as in the nocturnal attentions of the nightmare, the spirit imagined as settling suffocatingly on the chest of the sleeper. As a mare that rides rather than being ridden, the spirit is often imagined as a female succubus, though in Fuseli’s 1781 painting the mare is accompanied by a simian incubus who squats on the chest of a female sleeper, prompting these lines from Erasmus Darwin:

So on his Nightmare through the evening fog
Flits the squab Fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wilder’d maid with sleep oppress’d,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast. (Darwin 2.16)

‘Pressing’ meant the forcing of somebody into some condition or service, typically the army or navy. In oppressive weather, the clouds may seem to ‘lower’, or the humid air to cramp and confine the body.

We think of breathing as opening or release, of a piece with open windows and unbounded spaces. Human beings have brewed up fantasies for centuries of more complete modes of breathing that would overcome the constriction represented by the respiratory apparatus, exhorting themselves and each other to breathe more deeply, suffusing, not just the lungs, but the diaphragm, the head, and other items of phantasmal physiology. Indeed, the factitiously hollow spaces of the body–the head that we seek to keep ‘clear’–are the proof of the belief in the strange principle of vital vacuity, the idea that we exist most fully in empty spaces of innerness, bodily enclosures evacuated of body. Without this sense of the animating function of the breath, the body suffers the inanition of a “want of living breath in its lungs, which are full of gases but empty of spirit” (Wilkinson 78). In being taken in and given out, breath seems to commute between what Wittgenstein calls “two kinds of worlds, worlds built of different materials.” The fact that “the mental world in fact is liable to be imagined as gaseous, or rather, aethereal,” seems to Wittgenstein to be related to “the queer role which the gaseous and the aethereal play in philosophy,–when we perceive that a substantive is not used as what in general we should call the name of an object, and when therefore we can’t help saying to ourselves that it is the name of an aethereal object” (Wittgenstein 47). The conception of the soul as an afflatus, or a special kind of magic gas, which has been common among so many different peoples, suggests just this kind of aethereal object-that-is-not-one. It embodies the conviction that we are most essentially present as ourselves where we are closest to being nothing, in an out-of-body kind of body.

We breathe out–phew, originally in the seventeenth century a violent expression of disgust or emancipatory emptying, as we might nowadays plosively and purifyingly say poo–when we ‘ex-press’, as we say, our sense of being, as we also say, ‘relieved,’ from re + levare, to lift up, implying a lightening, or levitation, that approaches in imagination the condition of air itself. To ventilate is to levitate. To be relieved is to dream of remission from the clinging pressure of your own embodiment, as though you could simply emit or expel your own weight. To inhale is to prepare for stress and struggle: to exhale is to relax, to sigh into satisfaction, converting becoming momentarily to being. Exhalation is therefore the decorporizing of the body, or the corporealization of the incorporeal. But though human beings exalt imaginary emptying, as the purifying expulsion of what is evil, infective, invasive, persecutory, expiration is also death. Speech is the expressive sound formed from the impressing of exhaled breath, the dissolving openness of air given imaginary shape and duration. Expiration without any kind of constriction or channeling would be pure, empty exhaust. Only the shaping detention of larynx, tongue, cheeks, teeth, and lips makes it possible to give utterance–outer-ance, release, expression, coming-into-being–to meaningful speech.

Chief among the imaginary forms of absolute or unconstricted breath are the many forms of collective or orchestrated breathing practiced by humans. The chorality (Connor, “Choralities”) that is the exaltation or sublimation of orality for human beings, singing or chanting in synchronized or coordinated ways, may be regarded as an expression of the desire to escape into the conspiracy or breathing-together of collective breath from the otherwise oppressively inescapable constrictions of the individual breath. The amplification gained by the joining of voices, commonly described in religious terms as a ‘lifting up,’ is not only an expression of multiplied force, a kind of sonic battering ram, or orchestrated weight, but also an escape from the need that constrains every individual breathing being to alternate intake and outlet. The roaring, bawling or chanting crowd is a means of making breath dense, substantial and continuous. It is an apparatus for performing the act of what is known in the playing of certain wind instruments as ‘circular breathing,’ allowing the breath to be expelled continuously without the need to take in fresh reserves of air. The chant is the sonic translation of the Mexican wave, continuously self-augmenting. Chorality, experienced often as an inspiration, is an imaginary emancipation of those who participate in it from the need for air, where individual expiration can only ever free one into the renewed need for more air.

Political crowds, assuming there can be other kinds, can often effect striking cooperations of collective exhalation and stifled mutism. The Edvard Munch-like mime of the banner or poster, held aloft to displace the cry from the mouth, transposes it into a kind of breath-strike, the performativity spelled out in the apnoeic shriek of “I CAN’T BREATHE.” Gagging, the very word “gag,” defined by the 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum as to “streyne by þe throte: Suffoco” (138), combines the ideas of externally-imposed restraint and internal rejection, meaning that you gag in response to a gag. Gagging and masking are recurrent parts of the choreography of coercive coercedness enacted in the political demonstration, a way for the crowd collectively to hold its breath. Even when the raw enchantment of the chant is eschewed, the daubed slogan retains the force of its original usage to mean a battle cry, from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, combining sluagh host + gairm yell, shout. The blaring dumb-show of the demonstration enacts the magical omnipotence of Yeats’s “Byzantium”: “A mouth that has no moisture and no breath/Breathless mouths may summon;/I hail the superhuman” (280).

We might even associate what Roger Gomm calls the “bargaining from weakness” (Gomm) of such vehement pantomimes with the peine forte et dure, or judicial torture of ‘pressing,’ by piling weights on the body, which was employed into the eighteenth century in order to extract not a confession, but the entering of a plea, even the plea of ‘not guilty’ that would allow the subject to be put on trial. In such an ordeal, one who is “iudged mute, that is dumme by contumacie” [sic] (Smyth 78) is both punished by literal oppression and, in their continued muteness under it, corporeally asserts their freedom from it. As Andrea McKenzie suggests, the oppressive, breath-denying practice of judicial pressing opened up for its victims

a space in which they could for a time both seize the initiative (or, as historians would say, exercise “agency”) and demonstrate their resolution and courage … At the heart of such displays of bravura was the rejection of a tribunal apparently calculated to undermine or to suppress such performances. (312)

In dreaming of the unimpeded breath, we want not only what we cannot have, but what we cannot possibly even want. For breath is impediment, or is death without it, being the rhythmic, regulated alternation of impediment and release, in which pure release without impediment would be impediment itself. You can die at both ends of the see-saw of breathing, by filling your lungs then being unable to empty them, and by emptying your lungs then being unable to fill them: suffocation results equally from surfeit and starvation of air. All the dreams of untrammeled breathing are necessary denials of the fundamental ambivalence of the breath, the freedom of the rhythm that can only exist with the regular valve-like opening and closing of freedom, venting the pent, in Beckett’s phrase (131). It should be no surprise that the routines of mystical hygiene that promise to release us from the constraints of our neurotically-knotted breathing, whether through the drills of the singing coach, or the phantasmal practice of breathing in through one nostril and out through the other of the yogi, are all disciplines, delivering freedom and ‘naturalness’ through various kinds of schooled austerity.

The breath is more adapted than any other bodily action to such stately minuets of ascesis. Andrew Marvell’s Body complains in its dialogue with the Soul that “mine own precipice I go” (104): it might perfectly well have panted “mine own asphyxia I am.” Being able to breathe freely is the intimate associate of having to draw breath, from the beginning of life to the end, the vagitus to the croak. One must live, as the Irishism has it, “expecting every breath to be your next.” Being liberated from oppression means being delivered into the service, or rather, given its inescapability, the servitude, of the requirement to keep breathing.

This is why the meditational routines widely employed to put one calmingly in touch with one’s breathing follow the two-sided logic of explicitation outlined by Peter Sloterdijk through the example of Salvador Dali experiencing near-suffocation in his diving suit at the surrealism exhibition in London. To be given the gift of agency with respect to one’s breathing is to be subject to an “atmo-terrorist” assault (Sloterdijk 30) which makes one both actor and victim of one’s own breathing, and in which one’s breath can always be turned against one, in the virulently oppressive blowback of coughs, sneezes and emissions, epidemic, automobilic and industrial. I can’t breathe alternates with I must take care of my breathing. The meaning of respiration, which every symbolic fantasy of breath is designed to disavow, is the necessity for the need to breathe, and the secret horror of the hunger for freedom from the enmity of the air.

As with every solemnity, absurdity shimmers through this issueless predicament, the absurdity of the corporeal paradoxes of the Irish bull and allied forms of folk nonsense, like the bootstrap operations of the Baron Munchausen lifting himself into the air by his own hair. It is the air and the operations of commingling with it that most embodies the ludicrous bodily illogic (Connor, “Ludicrous Inbodiment”) whereby we make material the hankering to have done with our material condition. The craving for freedom we express through the imago of the ideal breath is looped into the noose of breathing itself.

Works Cited

  • Beckett, Samuel. “From an Abandoned Work.” Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980, John Calder, 1984).
  • Connor, Steven. “Choralities.” Twentieth-Century Music, vol. 13, 2016, pp. 3-23.
  • —. “Ludicrous Inbodiment.”, Steven Connor, 2017,
  • Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden: A Poem, In Two Parts; Containing, The Economy of Vegetation and The Loves of the Plants, With Philosophical Notes. Jones and Co., 1824.
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  • McKenzie, Andrea. “‘This Death Some Strong and Stout Hearted Man Doth Choose’: The Practice of Peine Forte et Dure in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England.” Law and History Review, vol. 23, 2005.
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  • Smyth, Sir Thomas. De republica Anglorum: The maner of gouernement or policie of the realme of England. London: for Gregorie Seton, 1583.
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