louise glück on the unsaid

louise-gluckI am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum. …

… It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.

— From Louise Glück, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence” in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (New York: Ecco, 1994) 74-75.

sophie hunger – broken english

There were mountains to begin with
Silence shaped in giant
My voice would reach the highest
But you cannot tell this in English

An old man’s precise and attentive
My mother’s tongue my heart only sounds
As a girl I got lost in a cloud
But you cannot tell this in English

I balance an egg in a spoon
I’m never on time, it’s too late or too soon
In the night there is always the moon
That doesn’t speak in English

mladen dolar – his master’s voice

The following essay is excerpted from Mladen Dolar’s book, A Voice and Nothing More (which I’m reading for my dissertation).

The voice did not figure as a major [western] philosophical topic until the 1960s, when Derrida and Lacan separately proposed it as a central theoretical concern. Dolar goes beyond Derrida’s idea of “phonocentrism” and revives and develops Lacan’s claim that the voice is one of the paramount embodiments of the psychoanalytic object (objet a). Dolar proposes that, apart from the two commonly understood uses of the voice as a vehicle of meaning and as a source of aesthetic admiration, there is a third level of understanding: the voice as an object that can be seen as the lever of thought. He investigates the object voice on a number of different levels–the linguistics of the voice, the metaphysics of the voice, the ethics of the voice (with the voice of conscience), the paradoxical relation between the voice and the body, the politics of the voice–and he scrutinizes the uses of the voice in Freud and Kafka. (There’s a great review by Christine Boyko-Head HERE.)

a voice and nothing morePlutarch tells the story of a man who plucked a nightingale and finding but little to eat exclaimed: “You are just a voice and nothing more.”

There is a story that goes like this: In the middle of a war, in the middle of a battle, there is a company of Italian soldiers in the trenches. And there is an Italian commander who issues the command “Soldiers, attack!” But nothing happens, nobody moves. So the commander gets angry and shouts even louder “Soldiers, attack!” At which point there is a response, a voice rising from the trenches saying Che bella voce!

This story can serve as a good entry into the problem of the voice. On the first level this is a story of a failed interpellation. The soldiers fail to recognize themselves in the appeal, the call of the other, the call of duty, and they don’t act accordingly. Surely the fact that they are Italian soldiers plays a great role in it, they do act according to their image of not the most courageous soldiers in the world, as legend has it, and the story is most certainly not a model of political correctness, it indulges in tacit chauvinism and national stereotypes. So the command fails, the addressees don’t recognize themselves in the meaning being conveyed, they concentrate instead on the medium, which is the voice. The attention paid to the voice hinders the interpellation and the transmission of a symbolic mandate, the transmission of a mission.

But on a second level another interpellation works in the place of the failed one: if the soldiers don’t recognize themselves in their mission as the soldiers in the middle of a battle, they do recognize themselves as addressees of another message, they constitute a community as a response to the call, the community of people who can appreciate the aesthetics of a beautiful voice. Who can appreciate it when it is hardly the moment, and especially when it is hardly the moment to do so? So if in one respect they act as stereotypical Italian soldiers, they also act as stereotypical Italians in this other respect, namely as opera lovers. They constitute themselves as the community of “the friends of the Italian opera” (to take the immortal line from Some Like It Hot), living up to their reputation of connoisseurs, people of refined taste who have amply trained their ears with bel canto, so they can tell a beautiful voice when they hear one, even among the canon fire.

The soldiers have done the right thing, from our biased present perspective, at least in an incipient way, when they have concentrated on the voice instead of on the message, although, to be sure, for the wrong reasons. They are seized by a sudden aesthetic interest precisely when they would have had to attack, they concentrate on the voice because they have grasped the meaning all too well. But quite apart from their feigned artistic inclination they have also bungled the voice the moment they isolated it, they immediately turned it into an object of aesthetic pleasure, an object of veneration and worship, the bearer of a meaning beyond the ordinary meanings. The aesthetic concentration on the voice loses the voice precisely by turning it into a fetish-object.

I will try to argue that there is a third level: an object voice which doesn’t go up in smoke in conveyance of meaning and which doesn’t solidify either in an object of fetish reverence, but an object which functions as a blind spot in the call and a disturbance of aesthetic appreciation. One shows fidelity to the first by running to the attack, one shows fidelity to the second by running to the opera. But fidelity to the third is far more difficult to achieve. I will try to pursue it on three different levels: linguistics, ethics and politics. Continue reading

zhou xuan – don’t sing (1947)

Gramophone recording 周璇-不要唱吧 (1947).

Bad translation:

Word you said too elegant
Turn, do not sing, do not sing!
Self-love and love
Sound they say is too nauseating
Easily and not great
Majestic and frightening
Solemn nobody loves it
Not to sing, do not sing!
Do not open so people curse
Do not open to avoid being criticized
Do not sing do not sing!