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Effets de voix

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Pierre Gault

Between Style and Voice: "Annie Dillard's Hermeneutic Oscillations"

Pascale Poulain

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  • 1 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1974) p. 261. ( (...)

I had recently read that ancient Romans thought that bees were killed by echoes. It seemed a far-fetched and pleasing notion, that a spoken word or falling rock given back by cliffs --that airy nothing which nevertheless bore and spread the uncomprehended impact of something --should stun these sturdy creatures right out of the air.1

1As her narrative draws to a close, Annie Dillard seems to test the power of voice as though, fearing to miss her target, she was seeking to reassure herself as to the audibility of her own voice. This notion of the "killing voice" may thus be read as a metaphor of the enigmatic presence of the author's voice and its unfathomable resonances through the text. While bringing out the moments in Dillard's text when we can feel an overlapping of the author's voice over the narrative voice, I will then pinpoint the ways in which Annie Dillard manages to create a contract of intimacy between author and reader. In the process, my concern will be to establish how she literally "stuns" her reader, catching him unawares and making it impossible for him to escape the narrated experience unscathed.

2My starting point will be a quotation from the Boston Globe (for what it is worth) providing the epigraph to the Perennial Library edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which does not suggest the theme of the book but rather immediately asserts the literary quality of its author, Annie Dillard who was signing there her first book of prose: "One of the most distinctive voices in American letters today."

3None of the acceptations of the word given by Webster's Dictionary seems to adequately correspond to what is meant by voice here. Hence the elusive character of the notion which in turn urges us to redefine it through a direct confrontation with the text in order to establish its specificity.

  • 2 Dominique Rabaté, Vers une littérature de l'épuisement (Paris: José Corti, 1991) p. 32.

4The Boston Globe quotation seems to offer an ideal basis from which to measure the distance that separates this rather "flat" understanding of the word voice -- pointing to the overall presence of an author over his text, therefore to the somewhat fuzzy quality by which we recognize the print of an author worthy of that name, voice thus becoming a substitute word for author -- from a more organic conception of the notion as something which can be perceived within the syntagmatic development of the narrative itself, the search of voice helping to work toward a deeper comprehension of the text: "Je crois que la compréhension du texte implique de remimer, sans le maîtriser, le cheminement incertain, parfois euphorique, souvent tragique de la voix qui se fait entendre."2

5Here, my working assumption will be guided by the latter orientation of the notion, voice being something that will transpire through the textual fabric as it were, thus having to do with the intimate, unconscious quality of a text characterizing an author.

  • 3 Pierre Gault, John Hawkes: La parole coupée: Anatomie d'une écriture (Paris: Klincksieck, 1984) p. (...)

6Therefore, I will focus my attention on some passages or moments in Annie Dillard's work that will be seen to foster a close investment of the author in her narrative, in turn calling: for a similar involvement on the reader's part. For what was said about Hawkes could well apply to our author: "Hawkes ne pourrait pas parler, ne trouverait pas de voix, sans s'être assuré de la présence de l'autre, de son acquiescement préalable."3

7It seems to be a dominant trait of Annie Dillard's writing to set out from a private experience usually related to the acute observation of a scene in nature -- a flight of geese over a frozen duck pond in winter or the sucking to death of a frog by a giant water bug for instance --and, by transcending that initial event, to operate a shift from an apparently insignificant description to a more decisive perception of the world.

  • 4 Ibid., p. 5.

8What I propose to do at first is try and establish to what extent this shift in the narration can be attributable to the voice of the author and if we can at all measure this sudden surge of lyricism in the writing: "Je voudrais, au bout du compte, avoir accès à ce que j'appellerai un lyrisme intersticiel, à cette voix qui m'échappe de trop s'exhiber..."4

  • 5 PTC., p. 258-59.

Last year I saw three migrating Canada geese flying low over the frozen duck pond where I stood. I heard a heart-stopping blast of speed before I saw them; I felt the flayed air slap at my face. They thundered across the pond, and back, and back again: I swear I have never seen such speed, such single-mindedness, such flailing of wings. They froze the duck pond as they flew; they rang the air; they disappeared. I think of this now, and my brain vibrates to the blurred bastinado of feathered bone. "Our God shall come," it says in a psalm for Advent, "and shall not keep silence; there shall go before him a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest shall be stirred up round about him." It is the shock I remember. Not only does something come if you wait, but it pours over you like a waterfall, like a tidal wave. You wait in all naturalness without expectation or hope, emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you; it will shear, loose, launch, winnow, grind."5

9The frozen duck pond scene, as we will call it, constitutes an emblematic moment in the text where our author suddenly reactivates a static vision of the world through a refreshed perception of nature, asking the reader in the process to reconsider the experience along with her.

10The lyrical nature of the scene seems to derive from the abrupt juxtaposition of the anecdote ("Last year I saw three migrating Canada geese flying low over the frozen duck pond where I stood") to a piece of text drawn from the Bible ("Our God shall come," it says in a psalm for Advent, "and shall not keep silence; there shall go before him a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest shall be stirred up round about him.").

  • 6 Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) p. 116.

11The absence of commentary on the narrator's part might be viewed as a sign of the author's voice suddenly taking over, voice thereby working here as the binding agency of a loose textual fabric: "The short sentences of plain prose have a good deal of blank space around them, [...]. They erupt against a backdrop of silence."6

12Through an implicit call on the reader to reconstruct the experience, the voice of the author thus takes the form of a presence slipping within the interstitial fabric of the text to constitute the cementing substance of a paratactic form of writing. The reader is invited to recapture this unifying presence between the lines, summoned as he is to reread the anecdote by confronting it with the subsequent intertext and conversely, a double rereading process allowed by the interlocution thus installed between author and reader:

  • 7 Dominique Rabaté, Op. cit., p. 8.

L'expérience du lecteur double [...] celle de l'écrivain: elle est une quête tangentielle du point où la voix pourrait idéalement se confondre avec elle-même, un chemin vers le centre dérobé de son surgissement. Ce point évanescent que la littérature moderne depuis Kafka a pu assimiler au silence.7

The inflections of voice in discourse

13Far from solely relating the notion to any semantic content, a position which would recommend a thematical approach of the work, my understanding of voice inclines me rather to probe into the fabric of the text and, albeit in a groping fashion, to try and gather what Roland Barthes liked to call the grain of the author's voice -- the audibility of the text being measurable through the response it demands from the reader, the ruggedness of the discursive surface urging the latter to participate in the creative process. The notion of voice will then have to be analyzed in terms of semantic breaches or aporias slipping within the textual fabric and contributing to the emergence of a tension which will work toward the signifiance of the text.

14The confrontation of the anecdote with the Biblical intertext might be said to constitute an aporia in the structure of the passage which, marking the emergence of a breach of meaning in the text, signifies the necessity to adopt a non-referential reading of the scene. This breach that we can pinpoint in the structural framework corresponds to an idiosyncratic gesture in Annie Dillard to destabilize a purely referential perception of the world. Such a defamiliarizing process however can in no way be assimilated to a chaotic rendering of experience, and a close look into the unfolding of the anecdote will demonstrate that the reference to the Biblical quotation was carefully prepared.

  • 8 In Adamczewski's linguistic terms, the duality Thematic/Rhematic is defined as follows: Thematic r (...)

15Here it is worth focussing our attention for a while on the use our author makes of a pre-constructed form of syntax which conventionally corresponds to the "already known" or thematic mode of discourse.8

16The referential frame of the text is based upon a situation which the reader may have witnessed at some point in his life, should he be a complete layman in the field of bird watching. By implicitly calling upon the reader's shared memory of a similar experience in his own life, the narrator thus postulates a "knowledgeable" reader, in sympathy with nature, as the model reader of her text.

17Accordingly, the primacy of a preconstructed syntax contributes to positing the prevalence of a familiar description in the text:

I heard a heart-stopping blast of speed...
I felt the flayed air slap at my face.

18Yet, the reader is alerted by one preconstructed structure ending the descriptive part of the narrative, "...the blurred bastinado of feathered bone", which suddenly plunges the text into referential indeterminacy. The preconstructed syntax of the phrase emphasizes the gap existing between the thematic form of discourse introduced by the article the (referring to the highest degree of determination) and the undetermined semantic content which points to the rhematic order.

19To put it differently, while form and content seem to be going hand in hand at first -- a familiar event being presented in a familiar way through a preconstructed syntax -- the reader is then suddenly confronted with an unfamiliar treatment of the experience which seems to clash with the predetermined, in other words thematic syntax maintained by the narrator. Hence the unexpected mysterious dimension slipping into the simple description of a flight of geese in winter. Consequently, while the reader's reactions have been shaped by a preconstructed form of discourse (the use of epithets and compound adjectives encouraging a stereotypical response from him), he is then made to wonder about the discrepancy between the sudden unfamiliar quality of the experience and the familiar syntax, which brings some unexpected opacity to the scene.

20Reading back through the text, in order to trace, if any, the progression of this destabilizing process, one's attention is drawn to the sentence: "I felt the flayed air slap at my face."

21Offering a sign of referential instability, the preposition at contributes to fissuring the generic understanding of the familiar expression and, by forcing a literal decoding of the image, marks a process of reactivation of the set-phrase: slap somebody's face.

22This rejection of the transitive order usually governing the expression signals the emergence of a rhetoric of deviation, inscribed in the text, contrasting with a normative use of language. Departing from a purely descriptive evocation of the event, the narrator thus instils within the text some elements of turmoil forbidding a univocal interpretation of the experience. This hinting at her direct physical involvement in the scene signifies a breach in the familiar order prevailing so far in our reading; the narrator intimating, through the reactivating presence of at, that she was the object (the victim?) of a deliberate action exerted directly or indirectly against her by the flight of geese.

  • 9 According to Joseph McElroy, in the course of a lecture he gave at Orléans, on January 25th, 1992 (...)

23The disruptive dimension of intransitivity brought by the preposition at in itself bespeaks the essentially "physical" character of Annie Dillard's writing --the physical involvement of the narrator in the scene iconically transpiring through an equally physical manipulation of the syntax: "[...] the sentence is always physical; it would seem to me to have a lot to do with the voice (the way it is composed, the elements it is composed of)..."9.

  • 10 I am referring here to the syntactical "asperities" which may also be viewed as aporias or holes ( (...)

24Here, the texture of the sentence seems to impart the extreme violence of the experience as if the "bumps and holes" of syntax were mimetic of the erosion of the narrator's corporeal integrity.10

25By the same token, the progressive dismantlement of the preconstructed figure, the frozen duck pond relates to a "material" conception of syntax, the author sculpting into the organic material of her text to produce meaning and attain the essence of the experience.

26Belonging to the diegetic frame installed from the outset in the narrative, the frozen duck pond stands as a quasi-stereotypical feature in a scene depicting a flight of geese in winter, through a literally "frozen" syntax; it does not need redescribing for it refers to a stable place of common experience. Pointing to a generic apprehension of the world, the expression acquires the status of a set-figure, which contributes to inscribing the experience in the "already known".

27In the course of the description though, the set-phrase will be reactivated through a disrupting process which is instrumental in pulling the syntax to pieces as it were. The adjective, frozen becomes the verb of action, froze, and the three migrating Canada geese -- having the status of objects in the first sentence -- are turned into agents of the process, they: "They froze the duck pond as they flew".

  • 11 Roland Barthes, Le grain de la voix: Entretiens 1962-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 1981) p. 176.

28A strictly referential reading of the narrative would evidently fail to recognize the significance of this reactivating process whose effect is to modify the original sense of the set-phrase, causing the word frozen to resound with new, denser meaning. The unsaturated character of the description coupled with the unexpected use of to freeze seems to favor a greater range of interpretation, thus leading on to the signifiance of the experience rather than to its immediate signification; "[...] il nous faudra apprendre à écouter le texte de la voix, sa signifiance, tout ce, qui, en elle, déborde la signification."11

  • 12 Throughout this work, thematical will be used in the sense of "relating to, or constituting a them (...)

29The denotation of to freeze, thus the signified, referential order of discourse is being questioned through the process of reactivation, while the frozen structure at work in the frozen duck pond is, so to speak, submitted to an "unfreezing" process. Here it is almost as if the frozen duck pond was in itself a metaphor of preconstructed form of syntax; the set-figure being literally represented by the evocation of "three geese on a frozen duck pond" in the referential framework. Hence the iconic relationship that can be traced between the syntax and the thematical structure of the scene12; the latter then resounds as a metaphoric redefinition a "frozen" perception of the world, the flight of geese suddenly offering a transcendental reconsideration of nature through the reactivation of a common winter figure in the natural landscape.

30This process whereby the geese are seen reactivating the landscape urges us therefore to question the stability of our vision of "the real". What apparently seemed to offer a guarantee of stability soon proves to be the site of a disquieting vision of the world -- the passage of the geese suddenly becoming the trace of a decisive questioning gesture, through the intimate relationship of the observing subject with nature.

31Furthermore, an organic utilization of syntax allows the narrator to withdraw behind the constitutive elements of her text and, while ruling out the need for any explicit form of commentary on her part, to give precedence to the author's voice as orchestrating agency of the text.

  • 13 Umberto Eco, L'Œuvre ouverte (Paris: Seuil, 1965) p. 80. (my emphasis).

32The elliptic figure, the blurred bastinado of feathered bone, thus conveys a violent reconstruction of the experience -- without any sign of a transition with the purely descriptive part -- which to me constitutes a tangible trace of Annie Dillard's voice in the text: a figure of junction between the anecdote and the Biblical intertext, it allows for the passage from a mainly referential discourse to a clearly metaphoric reading of the scene while initiating a marked dramatization of the experience. It also appears as a synthetic combination of Life and Death where, surprisingly enough, the former turns out to be the incongruous order (an interpretation suggested by the alliterative pattern of the phrase). This vision of death as the prevailing order interrupted by the fleeting passage of life contributes -- through a disturbing poetic effect -- to the building of emotion in the scene: "Le verbe poétique [...] est celui qui unit les phrases de manière inusuelle, communiquant ainsi [...] une émotion insolite -- au point que l'émotion naît alors même que la signification n'est pas immédiatement saisie."13

33Thus favoring a rhetoric of surprise in the reading process, Annie Dillard urges us to reconsider what was thought to belong to the thematic, already known order, triggering therefore a crucial debate concerning our perception of the world as a whole -- the author's voice percolating through her reiterated invitation to call into question the clichés of discourse. Hence our author's propensity to create some set-figures of her own working as so many clues to the reader to extend this reactivating process to the whole field of human experience; some pseudo set-figures in truth, which signify the irruption of the unknow within the familiar order of syntax and thus function as a dramatization of the abrupt emergence of a hermeneutic crisis within the most familiar experience -- the blurred bastinado of feathered bone resounding in fact as a rhematic, inventive reformulation of emotion, through a reactivation of heart-stopping ("I heard a heart-stopping blast of speed before I saw them").

  • 14 This tension can best be measured through the distance that separates the introduction of the earl (...)

34Resulting from this study, there seems to be a sense in which voice in Annie Dillard's text will have to be sought for in the interval between the apparently insignificant order of the world and the decisive reflection that it may generate -- the author's voice reorienting the seemingly insignificant nature of the experience, by means of a covert theorizing process emerging from the narrator's ingrained necessity to linger over the narrated event.14

35Hence a to and fro movement between the so called insignificant way of the world and the narrator's dramatization of her presence within that world, here finding its expression in the observer's acute awareness of literally being caught within one great theme of the natural order, namely the mysterious migrating movement of birds.

  • 15 Roland Barthes, Op. cit., p. 176.

36Through that wish of the narrator to account for the living presence of a quasi-primal scene on her mind, the reader is given direct access to the working of perception -- the intensity of the; description stemming in truth from the narrator's ability to reproduce the fragmented perception which was hers at the time (I heard; I felt), by carefully reconstructing the sequential development of the scene. This prevalence of a rhematic perception in the narrative world contributes to sealing the contract of intimacy installed between author and reader -- the absence of any form of additional comment on the narrator's part giving precedence to the voice of the author in the writing: "Le grain d'une voix [...] implique un certain rapport érotique entre la voix et celui qui l'écoute."15

A celebration of interlocution in narrative discourse

37There can be no better illustration of this intimate, personal exchange between author and reader than in one of the later scenes in the book where, through the narrator's "reenactment" of the previous Frog scene, the author calls for a similar involvement on the part of the reader. I am referring here to what I will call the Knuckles scene in which the narrator appears to be literally reenacting the experience that she recounted earlier in the narrative:

  • 16 PTC., p. 263.

Downstream at the island's tip where the giant water bug clasped and ate the living frog, I sat and sucked at my own dry knuckles. It was the way that frog's eyes crumpled.16

  • 17 Michael Stephens, The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction (Southern Illinois UP, 1986) p. (...)

38The elliptic nature of the text derives from the juxtaposition of utterances unmediated by the orchestrating presence of the narrator-indeed, what possible connection can there be between the narrator's gesture of mimicking the bug's embrace and the very disintegration of frog's eyes? The reader is entitled to ask himself this question, I would even say that his puzzlement is required as one decisive working element of the text, the author's voice emerging through the organic necessity for the reader to bridge the semantic gap prevailing in the juxtaposition of two seemingly incoherent sentences: "There are ellipses, pauses, and silences, between which often the very substance of voice, if not language and words, is manifested."17

39The reader's active collaboration is therefore needed in order to overcome the partial illegibility of the passage, a crucial step for him to understand the connection that can exist between dead eyes and the fact of sucking one's knuckles.

  • 18 See the translation which underscores this ambivalence: "En aval, à la pointe de l'île où la nèpe (...)

40By the same token, the stressed reference to her knuckles by the narrator (my own dry knuckles), apparently stemming from a scrupulous wish to clarify her discourse, in fact achieves the reverse effect since it implicitly posits the possessing process in ambivalent terms. The careful reader should accordingly ask himself the following question: But whose knuckles would or could she be alluding to, if not her own? (beyond the fact that she is applying to herself the treatment undergone by the frog).18

41How then can we account for the extra-determination expressed by my own, which strikes as a redundant piece of information hardly justified by the referential context? For we should not forget the referential circumstances of the scene: the last chapter is one in which the narrator takes stock of her experience at Tinker Creek; here (as she reminds the reader only a few lines above) she revisits the tear-shaped island "where in horror (she) had watched a green frog sucked to a skin and sunk." So it is a solitary character, in full introspection, that appears to the reader. How could the latter then not be surprised at the unnecessary precision given by the narrator, knowing full well that she is the only character present in the scene, so that if she describes herself in the act of sucking her knuckles, how could a doubt possibly emerge in the reader's mind as to whose knuckles are being referred to!

42This overdetermination seems in truth to indicate that the seemingly "innocent" expression, I sat and sucked at my own dry knuckles, should perhaps not be taken in strict literal terms, for it probably contains some extra meaning that it is for the reader to bring to light. Of course, the gesture of sucking one's knuckles could be interpreted as an expressionistic sign of anxiety, a referential indication of the character's uneasiness at being back on the site of a traumatic scene, but here my own is what gives the gesture an unusual dimension and compels the reader to ponder over the scene described.

  • 19 Gérard Genette, Nouveau discours du récit (Paris: Seuil, 1983) p. 102. (emphasis added).

43It is crucial to emphasize at this stage that only a scrupulous study of the two initial clauses will enable the reader to decipher the actual presence of the author over the narrative voice -- the author as it were staging her physical presence in the scene by focussing the reader's attention on the narrator's gesture, thus constructing within the text a hermeneutic type of reader whose interpretative cooperation occupies a dominant position in the narrative: "Il y a dans le récit, ou plutôt derrière ou devant lui, quelqu'un qui raconte, c'est le narrateur. Au-delà du narrateur, il y a quelqu'un qui écrit, et qui est responsable de tout son en-deçà. Celui-là, grande nouvelle, c'est l'auteur (tout court)."19

44The fact of the matter is that my own appears as the visible trace of an anaphoric reference to something which has not been named but remains concealed beneath the narrative surface. Bearing the signs of an anaphoric correction, the function of the possessive adjective then consists in filling a gap which, however, it is for the reader to identify. By thus sowing the seeds of turmoil in the reader's mind -- through the emergence of an aporia again signalled by the preposition at -- the author poses reflective reading as an essential means of access to textual comprehension, therefore encouraging the reader to call into question the referential univocity of the syntagmatic order.

  • 20 The interlocking of the two initial sentences is, for that matter, mimetically pointing to this re (...)

45In other words, one possible reason for the use of my own might be to assume that a doubt has emerged in the reader's mind, so that my own would be a way for the narrator to correct that doubt. Hence the interplay of two complementary readings that may guide our reception of the text: while describing a conventional sign of anxiety, the narrator is also marking a breach in the reading through an incongruous precision forcing the reader to establish a relationship between the narrator's gesture and the obsessive Frog scene. The reader is now able to understand that what simply appeared as a conventional gesture of anxiety is in fact coupled with a symbolic meaning positing the inscription of death in oneself as the veritable source of anxiety. The narrator's gesture would thereby uncounsciously become a "reenactment" of the experience of death by proxy, or to put it differently the trace of a ritual presenting the gesture as equivalent to the experience of death.20

46Thus while in the Frog scene the narrator pictured herself as a mere observer, here the experience is more intrinsically related to the person of the narrator who places herself in a position to "re-enact" the scene. The possessive adjective my own constitutes the triggering element of this re-enacting process; it resounds as an implicit invitation to the reader to perform the same gesture, namely to "suck at his own knuckles". In fact, the scene has to be literally "internalized" by the actual reader if he is to make sense of the text.

47Indeed the reader won't be able to understand what is at stake here, nor will he grasp the ritualized value of the gesture, unless he has sucked his knuckles himself and, by actually looking at his own hands, realized that knuckles do resemble frog's eyes!

  • 21 See David Crystal's definition of Cataphora: "A term used [...] for the process or result of a lin (...)

48In this regard, a linguistic study of the text seems to support the necessity for the reader to equate the narrator's knuckles with the frog's eyes. A close examination of the following sentence, "It was the way that frog's eyes crumpled", allows us to posit my own as posteriorly determined by the pronoun that which, through its cataphoric21 position, comes to reaffirm the obsessive presence of the Frog scene in the sensuous gesture described by the narrator. That furthermore confirms that my own came to rectify a breach of meaning which was part of the unsaid level of discourse. As opposed to this which would signal a focussing operation on the object described, the cataphoric pronoun that functions as a filling element of discourse, meant to make up the semantic gap displayed in my own.

49Through this gesture, Annie Dillard is in effect signalling her invitation to embark on a search for meaning that has to do with the signifiance of the text. In the same way as the narrator is urged to reenact the Frog scene, so is the reader subtly made to perform the same fundamental gesture, thus redoubling the hermeneutic process in the narrative and positing the presence of a "living reader" inside the text. For it is an invitation to the real reader that is being voiced here, the reader actually sitting and reading the book, which to me contributes to the emotional impact of the scene.

  • 22 Giorgio Agamben, Le Langage et la mort (Paris: Bourgois, 1991) p. 70. On several occasions in PTC, (...)

50Here I want to emphasize one of the most original peculiarities of our author's voice, which consists in positing as an essential reading gesture (a very constraining one too!), the imperative necessity for the reader to suck at his own knuckles -- the latter being invited to recognize in his own body the eyes of the dying frog! This intimate participation of the reader in the character's gesture therefore goes way beyond a mere process of identification: it is a re-enactment which, in effect, will give him access to the narrator's intuition of death even before she herself can take the full measure of it. The reader's sensuous experience thus precedes the moment of comprehension of the scene, which to my mind could illustrate Giorgio Agamben's definition of voice: "La voix [...] se révèle dès lors pure intention de signifier, pur vouloir-dire, où quelque chose se donne à comprendre sans qu'il ne se produise encore aucun événement de signification déterminé."22

51The emotion seizing the reader at this point is then intimately linked to the sudden intervention of an auctorial voice revealing an unconscious dimension of the text; the author's presence transpiring through a strange duplication of the narrator's knuckles -- a process which, by correcting the narration, results in a troubling intensification of the experience. For we are dealing with the unconscious sphere of the text here: the redundant effect of my own is such indeed that it could be likened to a slip of the pen on the narrator's part, one that would bear upon the emergence of a voice working beyond the narration -- we know that in psychoanalytic terms, the "lapsus" (whether it be "lapsus calami" or "lapsus linguae") can be characterized by the emergence of a voice interfering with discourse, thus revealing the discourse of the unconscious.

52By forcing the reader to re-enact the gesture, thereby giving him access to comprehension, the lapsus of the narrator has a significant effect upon our reception of the scene. Clearly, this subtle invitation to connect knuckles with eyes by means of a hermeneutic gesture, is a sollicitation addressed to the reader which, as such, marks some form of didacticism. But then, how can we sustain the validity of the notion here in the face of such a possible contradiction, voice being non-didactic by essence? Indeed the question arises whether we are dealing with a stylistic effect, therefore a didactic utilization of the lapsus, or with a lapsus proper on Annie Dillard's part?

Between style and voice

  • 23 "The Deer at Providencia", Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper (...)

53At this stage, I would like to look at another instance where the narrator makes a similar use of the adjective own, applied this time in reference to a deer agonizing before her very eyes. While the narrative seems totally deprived of any sign of emotion, some trace of a shift then occurs: "Trying to paw itself free of the rope, the deer had scratched its own neck with its hooves".23

  • 24 In an article on "minimalist writing", John Barth lists as one characteristic of this style of wri (...)

54This redundant use of own again may be identified with a lapsus on the narrator's part, the first sign of a rectification in discourse which would indicate the possibility of a doubt in the reader (the latter thinking that the narrator might be referring to "some other neck"...?). Such hesistation would then suddenly denote, within the narrator's discourse, an unconscious process of identification between the suffering witnessed by the character and her own suffering, therefore signalling in a subtle manner the narrator's organic empathy with the deer. So while we seemed to get a neutral rendering of the animal's ordeal at first, the narrator's identification turns out to be inscribed through minimal signs -- own being the trace of her emotional involvement in the scene.24

55Similarly, by literally confusing her knuckles with the dying frog's eyes, the narrator is prodding us into the awareness that the death of the frog is in fact our own -- which, by liberating the pathetic dimension of the scene, allows the reader to give vent to his capacity for emotion.

  • 25 PTC., p. 6. A repetition of the earlier, "At last I knelt on the island's winterkilled grass", whi (...)

56Furthermore, it is the presence of the character in the scene that is foregrounded by this recurrent use of own, which might be likened to the narrator's concluding words in the Frog scene: "I had been kneeling on the island grass", whereby she was restating her presence as witnessing subject of the great order of Nature.25

  • 26 See An American Childhood (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) p. 160. There our author explains why she (...)

57One last example (among many others in Annie Dillard's text) will testify to this need of the narrator to underscore her witnessing position in nature. At some point in the narrative, she remembers yet another traumatic scene that she saw as a child: that of a "freshly hatched Polyphemus moth crippled because its mason jar was too small".26 As she reminisces about the event all her immediate surroundings vanish to give way to a confrontation between her "own pale, astonished face" and the crippled moth ("hoping to catch the hatch", she has been tying some praying mantis egg cases into the hedge in front of her house):

  • 27 PTC., p. 59. (emphasis added).

The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; [...] It is as present as this blue desk and brazen lamp, as this blackened window before me in which I can no longer see even the white string that binds the egg case to the hedge, but only my own pale, astonished face.27

  • 28 PTC., p. 188. (my emphasis).

58Here, my own bespeaks the narrator's stupefaction at the fact that she could have witnessed such a "searing sight"; for in Dillard's work the greatest turmoil of all is to be allowed to verify the extreme manifestations of nature such as described in entomological books: "I actually saw this, I thought -- I actually saw a dragonfly laying her eggs not five feet away."28

59From this brief study attesting to the variety of effects created by own in the text, we may now return to our original point of debate and read my own in I sat and sucked at my own dry knuckles as oscillating between a rhetorical use of the "lapsus" -- close to an "eyewitness" type of rhetoric -- and the lapsus proper; in which case we would be unable to decide whether we are presented with a deliberate construction of the lapsus, thereby pointing to our author's duplicity in the process, or with a slip of the pen on the part of Annie Dillard herself (after all, the sollicitation addressed to the reader may well go unheeded, which could not be so if it were purely didactic).

60To that extent, our approach of voice will have to take this indecision into account for it points to a crucial area of the text where we seem to be on the borderline between the conscious and the unconscious, thus between style and voice:

  • 29 Voir l'interview qui précède.

Style is something that it much more conscious: it's the writer who's honing images, reworking the sentences, finding a text [...]. The voice is something that's much more basic, it's much more primitive [...]. (It) isn't conscious, it's a kind of shriek, it's a kind of scream, it's much more primal.29

  • 30 See Noelle Batt's suggestion: "La voix, c'est le travail du critique!"

61Whether it be conscious or unconscious, the fact remains that an effect is being created upon the reader, which functions as a key to the latter's reception of the whole scene. Therefore voice addresses itself to the reader: another way of putting it would be to present voice as the effect of style upon the reader.30

62However, if we are to ever grasp the grain of Annie Dillard's voice, we must note that this effect on the reader is not achieved by any artificial means, but secreted through the writing itself, thanks to the intimate relationship installed between narrator and reader from the very first page of the narrative:

  • 31 PTC., p. 1.

I used to have a cat, an old fighting torn, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I'd half-awaken. He'd stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood.31

  • 32 Dillard's reader soon becomes familiar with the chatty tone of her introductions which are charact (...)

63From the very first words, Annie Dillard carries her reader into a world of her own. Contributing to the remarkable tonality of the narrative, the introduction sets the scene in a quasi-intemporal past: "I used to have a cat, an old fighting torn, who would jump through the open window..."32

64From the outset, the reader senses the intimate quality of Annie Dillard's writing: a rhetoric of ritualization is installed within the writing itself (through a series of would forms) even before the ritual is named as such: "The cat and our rites are gone..."

  • 33 Jerome Charyn, Op. Cit.

65By the same token, while the interpretation of the experience oscillates between love and death, the initial presentation of the cat combines the two components of the ritual in an oxymoronic fashion (an old fighting torn). Therefore, the reader soon realizes that what is explicitly presented in oppositional terms by the narrator -- "The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain -- does in fact acquire unity through the texture of the text, by virtue of some paronomastic associations which, in a sense, celebrate the appeasing process of writing. So that, while meaning may be elusive at this stage of the narrative (hence the narrator's cryptic questions on the threshold of her apprenticeship), the reader perceives "a kind of tonality that's like a stream of language" conveying the sound of the author's voice to the reader, an embodiment of the "undersong", the "underlining music" of the text suggested by Jerome Charyn.33

66Won by the musical texture of the narrative ("He'd stick his skull, stinking of urine and blood"), the reader himself becomes a recipient of the narrator's ritual of initiation, undergoing a similar impregnation to the order of nature. Thus initiated to the intimacy of Annie Dillard's text, he "wake(s) expectant", hoping to share in the narrator's experience. Guided as he is by the personal inflections of the author's voice "tak(ing him) into the text", the reader therefore awakens to Annie Dillard's world, and as though in response to Jerome Charyn, merges with her words:

  • 34 Ibid. See Raymond Carver's possible definition of voice: "[...] It's akin to style, what I'm talki (...)

I would say the voice can only be personal [...] there's no distance between you and the page, and at that point the voice is ultimate, the voice takes over.34

Notes

1 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1974) p. 261. (abbr. PTC). All references are to this edition.

2 Dominique Rabaté, Vers une littérature de l'épuisement (Paris: José Corti, 1991) p. 32.

3 Pierre Gault, John Hawkes: La parole coupée: Anatomie d'une écriture (Paris: Klincksieck, 1984) p. 4.

4 Ibid., p. 5.

5 PTC., p. 258-59.

6 Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) p. 116.

7 Dominique Rabaté, Op. cit., p. 8.

8 In Adamczewski's linguistic terms, the duality Thematic/Rhematic is defined as follows: Thematic refers to the supposedly known form of discourse (pointing to something which has already been mentioned or is part of a supposedly common referential knowledge) as opposed to Rhematic which conveys some new information in the discursive process. (I will not be making a systematic use of these terms but I think they have the merit of designating with accuracy a crucial area of the text centering around these notions).

9 According to Joseph McElroy, in the course of a lecture he gave at Orléans, on January 25th, 1992 -- where he was asked by the group Lolita to talk about voice.

10 I am referring here to the syntactical "asperities" which may also be viewed as aporias or holes (in the terminology of Barthes the latter point to the vertical dimension of a text as opposed to the horizontal, purely metonymic order, thereby opening up to the "signifiance").

11 Roland Barthes, Le grain de la voix: Entretiens 1962-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 1981) p. 176.

12 Throughout this work, thematical will be used in the sense of "relating to, or constituting a theme" (Cf Webster's Dictionary), so that no possible confusion may subsist with thematic -- that will be referred to as opposed to rhematic.

13 Umberto Eco, L'Œuvre ouverte (Paris: Seuil, 1965) p. 80. (my emphasis).

14 This tension can best be measured through the distance that separates the introduction of the earlier Frog scene: "A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water..." from the concluding sentence of that scene: "I couldn't catch my breath." (PTC., p. 5-6); in which interval the narrator insidiously tackled the subject of death behind the anecdotal content of her tale.

15 Roland Barthes, Op. cit., p. 176.

16 PTC., p. 263.

17 Michael Stephens, The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction (Southern Illinois UP, 1986) p. 5.

18 See the translation which underscores this ambivalence: "En aval, à la pointe de l'île où la nèpe géante avait serré la grenouille dans ses pattes pour la dévorer vivante, je m'assis et me mis à sucer, moi aussi, la peau sèche de mes propres jointures. C'est ainsi que s'étaient recroquevillés les yeux de cette grenouille." Pierre Gault, trans. Pèlerinage à Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (Paris: Bourgois Coll. "Fictives", 1990) p. 382 (my emphasis).

19 Gérard Genette, Nouveau discours du récit (Paris: Seuil, 1983) p. 102. (emphasis added).

20 The interlocking of the two initial sentences is, for that matter, mimetically pointing to this relation of equivalence proper to the ritual: "I sat and sucked at my own dry knuckles; It was the way that frog's eyes crumpled" -- Cf the Eucharist: "Take, eat; this is my body". "Drink ye all of it [...]; For this is my blood.." (St. Matthew, 26).

21 See David Crystal's definition of Cataphora: "A term used [...] for the process or result of a linguistic unit referring forward to another unit. 'Cataphoric reference' is one way of marking the identity between what is being expressed and what is about to be expressed.." A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 2nd ed. (Oxford, Eng: Blackwell, 1985). (my emphasis).

22 Giorgio Agamben, Le Langage et la mort (Paris: Bourgois, 1991) p. 70. On several occasions in PTC, Annie Dillard refers to "the bell" inside her body which seems to illustrate Agamben's definition of voice: "A cast-iron bell hung from the arch of my rib cage; when I stirred it rang, or it tolled, a long syllable pulsing ripples up my lungs and down the gritty sap inside my bones, and I couldn't make it out; I felt the voiced vowel like a sigh or a note but I couldn't catch the consonant that shaped it into sense." PTC., p. 261.

23 "The Deer at Providencia", Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) p. 61. (abbr. TST).

24 In an article on "minimalist writing", John Barth lists as one characteristic of this style of writing its predilection for a stripped tone eschewing emotion: "un ton dépouillé qui refuse l'émotion". See the translation of this article published in The New York Times on December 28th, 1986: Etats-Unis 1960-1990: 30 ans de littérature in Magazine Littéraire, n° 281, October 1990, p. 36.

25 PTC., p. 6. A repetition of the earlier, "At last I knelt on the island's winterkilled grass", which appears at first as a redundant statement with no great significance. But there repetition was in fact to be seen as the trace of emotion: though the narrator seemed to accentuate her presence in an exclamatory mode, her emotion was not the object of any pathetic discourse (the exclamation point underlying her statement being discreetly retained beneath the syntactical surface).

26 See An American Childhood (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) p. 160. There our author explains why she is retelling the story of the moth: "I have told this story before, and may yet tell it again, to lay the moth's ghost, for I still see it crawl down the broad black driveway, and I still see its golden wing clumps heave." Ibid., p. 161.

27 PTC., p. 59. (emphasis added).

28 PTC., p. 188. (my emphasis).

29 Voir l'interview qui précède.

30 See Noelle Batt's suggestion: "La voix, c'est le travail du critique!"

31 PTC., p. 1.

32 Dillard's reader soon becomes familiar with the chatty tone of her introductions which are characterized by a fable -- like mode of presentation: "A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water..." (PTC., p. 5); "Many years ago, walking far downstream where the land is clear, I came across one of these cows..." (TST., p. 168).

33 Jerome Charyn, Op. Cit.

34 Ibid. See Raymond Carver's possible definition of voice: "[...] It's akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone. It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other." Fires., "On Writing" (London: Pan Books, 1968) p. 22 (my emphasis).

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Université de Tours

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1994

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