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Effets de voix

Pierre Gault

The Voice to become what I am

Joseph Mc Elroy

Note de l’éditeur

Conférence recueillie et mise en forme par Pascale Poulain, revue par l'auteur.

Texte intégral

1I am not at all confident talking about this subject, which is one reason that I defend myself with this brilliant title, "The voice to become what I am". The title implies -- with Nietszche in mind -- that whether voice is multiple or not -- in my case I suspect it is as I grope toward what it means in regard to me and what it could mean at all -- it has something to do with an evolution toward what one is already and if we're talking here about a mystery and going to talk around it with a mystery in the middle, I think it's best if I begin thus paradoxically.

2When I agreed to speak about "voice", I was relieved to be assigned a subject, because the will that stands behind the assignment takes a certain burden of invention away from you, so that it's as if someone had said: "Write a story about a pinball machine" or "Write a story about hostages." I hadn't been thinking about hostages and suddenly I'm thinking about hostages, and there's an unusual clarity and freedom as if the subject of Voice with all of its connections to me, is divorced from my own life and freed from those inevitable tendencies that any fiction writer has to connect what's being written with all of the anecdotal roots and sources and all the mess of your own life, and you want somehow to cut those lines if you can, to stand free from them in order then to use the whole repertoire of your experience, because that's the only thing you have to go on anyhow, to pick and choose and recompound, which is what invention is in the end.

3I thought this a little bit about the subject, not realistically contemplating finally facing a group of people in a room and having to talk about voice, and having to cope with the full vacancy in my mind that surrounds the notion of voice, but the idea of being assigned a subject left me with ahead of me the notion that I would be listening to my own voice speaking, or groping or probing or looking out into this mysterious subject. But then as I speak, and hearing a feeling still unsaid behind the words, yet also thinking that voice is what we receive, therefore what the writer sounds like, I am puzzled and I think: is voice -- which is obviously a metaphor since the text is silent, obviously a metaphor if it refers to the communicating of the silent text that is words on a page -- is voice not sounded at all, sounded rather in our minds, receiving the meaning or the resonance of the text like a summons? Or ί think: is it the words imagined as sounded, thus grown into an address to us, each of us, a group of us? Who? Unsure, I ask if this, the words imagined as being sounded, is why we even talk about voice. Now, I'm silent and a writer, and it's almost as if my voice is listening like some kind of sonar that extends out hoping to get some kind of response.

4Here is a word and its meaning in this usage is taken for granted where I come from, which doesn"t mean it's understood. In New York City, for example, we have an organization for teaching writing and for readings that writers give and it is called "The Writer's Voice", which means I suppose that any writer must have a voice, it would be terrible not to have a voice. If you didn't have a voice you'd be suffering from some Calvinist moral laryngitis perhaps or you'd be silent in some crucial way, but to define that crucial way you have to go back and define what voice is. And yet if we use the word so much, so commonly, whether we think of Wittgenstein or not, who always went back to the word as it is commonly used, and tried to think in a clustering familiar way of the different usages and how they change, we go back to the way it is used, and, even more than of the phrase as it occurs in that organization in New York, I think of a common phrase "finding your own voice", very common in the States and associated with not "the Voice of America", but very commonplace talk about writing, particularly talk to be heard in the hundreds and hundreds of writing workshops.

5What's your image there? Chips and shavings? Wood? Something much more abstract than that. Writing workshops. "Finding your own voice" is a buzzphrase in these writing workshops and it's sad in a way because most of these so-called creative writing workshops -- George Balanchine said: "I do not create, I assemble", I feel much more comfortable with that -- most of these creative writing workshops seem to turn out crops of poems and stories that sound alike, and yet the people who are in them constantly talk about finding their own voices.

6Now writing workshops invite communalness and frankness and even egalitarian severity and optimism, so I don't think they were ever a bad thing -- a phenomenon in American colleges and now virtually a tradition. Tradition gets made rather fast where I come from and if somebody merely leaves a room, he or she will say "I'm history"! There's a nice aura that surrounds the writing workshops where you're trying to find your own voice. It's something comfortable and at the same time challenging, and Grace Paley, wonderful short story writer, has seen these workshops as a place where people could be heard. She believes in the teaching of these workshops not as I do it, where everybody has read the manuscript the day before and we really criticize it -- but as the reading out loud of the manuscript without anybody having seen it, (except author), and that's the way she fills up the classes. I don't mostly approve of her way, but it works for her and she sees it as a way for people to extend and hear themselves, be real to others now In any case this phrase "finding your own voice" is common in these writing workshops that blanket the nation now and therefore it seems to me that there must be something in the word "voice" as it is used. I resist the word mainly because of this use, but the fact that it is used so much indicates that somewhere -- surely not in a communal vacancy -- somewhere, there are grains of feeling in people responding to this metaphor that testify to the existence of something called a voice.

7It's a dramatic use, if you think of what voice means, it's stagy, it evokes contradictorily (because it is a part) the whole person. Every time we use it whatever we mean by it, there is a unitary quality about it: a writer's voice. Wherever it comes from, even if it appears sometimes to be multiple, it seems to be some heart, center, of whatever a writer is and the fact that it has to do with the projection of sound suggests something theatrical in the writer's relation to those who-I was about to say listen-those who read.

8There, what Wittgenstein taught us, if our language is full of maladies that need to be cured, our language or our families in clusters of languages are to be found first in how they are really used, and a teacher or some Whitman democrat in me thinks: voice, it is what you sound like, as if not exactly writing but finding what you are capable of saying, all that you are capable and only what you are capable, and ideally what only you yourself individually are capable of saying. But I am someone not only large and powerful and aggressive, but small and petty and angry, lost, and worse irritated, that is in my relation to my writing, most of which I tear up, and I think: what is it not to have a voice? To say that you don't have a voice is to say you're not a strong poet, it s to say you spent your life doing this and nobody knows who you are or nobody can read you and feel that you speak in a way different from anybody else. It's terribly important though we still haven't begun to define it. I asked a friend of mine in New York, what "voice" meant to her if I just said it to her, and she said: "My father". I thought: Oh, her father was a voice of authority she couldn't get out of her head, a sort of insidious power that Julian Jaynes speaks of in his book I brought along with me, and which I'll come back to. Then she said: "He was a singer". "Oh a singer!" I said, thinking how wrong I'd been. "His voice was the only one you could hear in the house", she said. "Singing?" I said. "Not only" she said, "He would speak and you wouldn't hear anyone else, his voice erased others" she said. So I was right after all, to have a voice in response to domination, threatened, from other voices. And if this seems like getting pretty far from novelists, let me just pause to think of what it would mean to have a big voice, where big is a metaphor the way voice is a metaphor.

9We speak of voice as a metaphor when in fact we're talking about reading, something that is read on the page, and here we speak of the bigness of a voice, we're perhaps thinking of an opera singer or we're thinking of volume, but I guess thinking about big voices, and I think of Norman Mailer and somebody else that is paired with him, about whom a dissertation has just been written by a lady I met in Yugoslavia at the end of 1990. She came up to me after a lecture that I gave and she said, "I'm writing a book on Norman Mailer and Herman Melville," and I got thinking about that. And we talked a bit more about it, but I thought about it even more since I was coming here because both are big voices and I began to think: let alone the whiteness of the whale, what is the bigness of the voice here, and what is the difference between the bigness of one voice and the bigness of another?

  • 1 Why Are We in Vietnam?, New York: Putnam's, 1967. (Pourquoi sommes-nous au Vietnam?, Grasset, 1968)

10Let me say here, because the contrast I'm about to make will sound slightly disparaging to Norman Mailer: he's meant a lot to me, as a clown, as an egotistic encourager almost, as a kind of challenger, and there are several of his books that have meant a lot to me and I feel that his problem very often is that he is impatient and feels that some uninterruptedness in the voice or some neural uninterruptedness is essential to his voice and therefore he doesn't want to be interrupted, and somehow interruptedness has to do with editing, and so very often even in a short book like Why Are We in Vietnam?1, he won't spend long enough to get the full power of his idea.

  • 2 Of a Fire on the Moon, 1971. (Bivouac sur la lune, Laffont, 1971).

11In any case I began to think about big voices and Mailer, who is a bit more than a big noise, but he is also a big noise, and Melville, and I thought about Of a Fire on the Moon2 since I spent some time down at Cape Kennedy, and I thought a good deal about the space program, the relation of the space program to how we think about thing s, which is a big subject; and Mailer tried to fill it. I began to think of the relation of that book to the bigness of the voice, or even the noise, thinking of Mailer and Melville, and I thought, moving back and forth between them, that although this is a visual metaphor it had to do with voices since if you make a big sound, one thing you want is for people to turn around and look at you, so sound and sight are connected. As I reflect on Of a Fire on the Moon, I think Mailer expects us to watch, and when I look at Moby Dick, especially the beginning, I don't feel quite the same way. The voice is very vivid, very powerful at the start, and we haven't yet spoken about the difference between the voice as it might appear in the work and some other mysterious voice that might be prior to the work or other than the work or even transcending the work. But at the beginning of Moby Dick, I think of Melville not as expecting us to watch, to turn and look at Herman, but as summoning us. Not so much in the naming: "Call me Ishmael", as in the summoning down to the edge of the sea, and the summoning to the church, to listen to that sermon, and the summoning to some great event. And thinking again of Mailer, I believe that he keeps us at a distance all through that book, except maybe in the comedy, because he's good at undercutting himself, laughing at himself, and he does it partly through naming himself, calling himself Mailer, if you remember.

12It is strangely like the way that Henry Adams calls himself Adams, refers to himself as Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams, as if he had somehow objectified himself as a character. Perhaps this would suggest that he's making up a narrative with himself as an imagined character, or more likely in the case of Adams that he is thinking of himself -- for him a painful contemplation -- as someone who had better be extended out of himself or separated from himself so that he could be looked at with any kind of clarity at all. It's terribly impressive and poignant, all through that book (as if it were the writing of a kind of personal history), that Adams does not avoid himself but doesn't present himself the way Thoreau does, as I. Mailer refers to himself as Mailer, and yet at every point it seems to have less to do with the humble heroism of Adams in that book than with some comic self-acknowledgment which at its best may be undercutting. But he's again asking us to watch, and so it seems to me that in spite of all the closely detailed scenes, the visits to people, the interviews with the astronauts and so forth, there is a sense in which Mailer's ego keeps us at a distance, even in comedy.

13But when I think about Melville, and this right from the start and all through the book, no matter how epic it gets, how large and mysterious it gets, it remains strangely intimate. Even as with the man, so with the writing. I think Mailer is not, not really intimate; it isn't an absolute judgement, perhaps you don't need to be intimate, but I think that if we're talking about the bigness of the voice, the power of the voice, in some relation to projecting the person, the style, the meaning to an audience, there is a presence, a personal presence that's involved here, and when I think of the way in which Mailer occupies a space and makes a big sound and asks to be paid attention to, I think also of the distance which is between him and the audience that he tries to project to, and looking at Melville, I hear oratory (Father Mapple), I hear Ahab on the deck, talking to the winds, I hear grandeur, but I hear a kind of intimacy, a syntax of struggle which is part of the bigness of Melville's voice; and then I think some more of Mailer, particularly in this book Of a Fire on the Moon. I think it's a critique of something, he's very interested in trying to find out where these astronauts come from. he arrives at a kind of white anglo-saxon stereotype of them. He's got a good mind. He's examining the meaning of technology. There is a sense that the voice is not only an egotistic enlarged voice but it's a voice that tries to equal an intelligence, that tries to both encompass -- that's one image -- and penetrate -- that's another -- into a mystery: the space program.

14Is this the universe becoming conscious of itself, or is this some absolutely crazy technological venture of no more real intellectual interest than the destruction of forests in Vietnam? So Mailer as a critic trying to understand something is part of this voice, and I look back thinking of the knowledge required by critique, at Moby Dick, and again I find a difference. Because whereas the voice of Mailer in Of a Fire on the Moon insofar as it is a critique entails knowledge -- it is there a knowledge which has been quickly acquired, recently acquired, and which in this way is part of the drama, its self-acknowledgment, its honesty; (if you're on an assignment, you may be an expert, but you may not be and you have to acquire information rather rapidly, put it together, and that's in a way almost a paradigm of the pressure that Mailer has always put upon himself to do things fast; but I think it's a pressure which is convenient because he almost doesn't want certain knowledges to settle and settle and settle so that they can be fully absorbed and lived with and felt). So I find this voice associated with critique and understanding and yet entailing a knowledge which remains more superficial, and I hear it in the way he speaks.

15But when I look at Moby Dick, I think I see again an attempt to understand something, all the way through, it is an attempt to understand at a superficial level how whaling works, what it is like, what its significance might be and it is inseparable from the humble undertaking which Ishmael and not only Ishmael on the ship goes for, to understand and to be part of something which is unfamiliar to him. There is in the voice and in the authority that the voice has, it seems to me, the size, the largeness of the voice, an acceptance of the smallness of the person in relation to the ocean and the job. So there seems to be not a lack of knowledge but a great deal of knowledge, the greatness of which seems to derive from the humility with which the approach to knowledge is undertaken, and this seems to be a big difference from Of a Fire on the Moon. There's tremendous knowledge about whaling, about this enterprise, but there's also constantly the feeling not so much of a New York reporter arriving to do a quick job and very conscious that other people are conscious that he's been paid a million dollars to do the job and so forth-which is all right because it's frank, it's honest, it is American, it is Mailer accepting what he is. But in Moby Dick the approach is more respectful to this body of knowledge, to this mysterious occupation. Therefore it seems that the voice has something to do with the slow acquiring of knowledge which may remain mysterious as the project goes on, it's an experience in dimensions in a way, and the dimensions seem to multiply, the size of the undertaking seems to multiply, just as at the beginning it's a setting out on a kind of oceanic complicated venture. As you move further into the story it's a setting out into a complicated character, even perhaps a self-destructive character who is a commander but who is also inseparable from the thing that he is seeking. So there is in the largeness of Melville's voice a humility, and I don't know how I relate this to our subject here except that I guess it has to do with risk, and if what we mean by voice has to do with a power in relation to a content that one wishes to write about or to write, it must have something to do with a contrast between a humility before that power and a confidence.

16Both of those I think Melville has and in having them seems to be quite superior to Mailer, and that takes me to Time. When I look at Mailer in Of a Fire on the Moon I hear often that a revelation is coming. Before too long or at least at the end of the book something is going to be shown to us. It's in Mailer's voice, he likes to sound like something's going to be unveiled and unfolded to us. But somehow to me that revelation never quite separates itself from the career of would-be-Henry Adams-like-sounding-self-appointed voice of America. For indeed Mailer said early in his career that he wanted to change the consciousness of America, putting the cart before the horse in a way. Whatever you think of that, the revelation coming, what's the nature of this showdown at Cape Canaveral and Cape Kennedy? Norman Mailer will be the agent of its revealing, and that I think is in the voice. I speak of it not to put it down, just to identify it, but it seems so much less than what I find in Melville which is also an approach to the revealing of something, the unveiling of something, the lifting of veils, so that perhaps we can see, you know what you do see in the end, in the end you see a void, you see whiteness. You can put it in terms of Shakespearian tragedy if you want to, that makes the book clearer, but it may be that the book's precision is partly in its lack of clarity. However, you want to speak of how you judge what the book is about, I think I have to find here that the approach to the revelation has less to do with Melville presenting himself as the agent of this revelation of Ishmael if you will, rather as having something to do with a humble vision of room to grow.

  • 3 Henderson the Rain King, New York: The Viking Press, 1959. (Le Faiseur de pluie, Gallimard, 1961).
  • 4 The Victim, New York: Vanguard Press, 1947.
  • 5 Seize the Day, New York: The Viking Press, 1956.

17There's room to grow, and I guess this connects with my notion of voice, not only as ambiguous and multiple, but as situated in time and in becoming, something to do with change. Not only that you might hear one voice in the early part of a writer's career and another voice a little bit later. You might hear two voices, for example, in two kinds of writing that Saul Bellow has done. You might hear a freer, ampler, embracing, funny almost Henry Milleresque voice in Henderson the Rain King3. In The Victim4, in Seize the Day5 you might hear another more Jewish, more urban voice, something closer in. I'm doing something with my body, I'm speaking of those two voices as if they had physical characteristics, which I think is perfectly appropriate. What I'm saying is that one might look at (one might listen to) the work of a writer and see that the voice is one thing here and one thing here. It might be early late, it might be simultaneous but if it is early late, that might suggest that somehow what we mean by voice is a phenomenon in which we can see change.

18I feel that marvellously all the time in Moby Dick and I don't feel it in Of a Fire on the Moon. I feel that Mailer might be the agent of a revelation that is going to be shown to us and to some extent is, but I don't feel the change happening to him as I feel it pessimistically and intrepidly in The Education of Henry Adams. Only look at that word education and think of what it means. It means not only education like what goes on here but also etymologically a leading toward something. There is often in the way Adams writes, a leading toward something which will be shown which the writer is going to show us -- good of him -- or something which the writer is inseparable from. In Moby Dick there seems always this prospect that you're not going to get anywhere unless you move to some new point, that there is room to grow, through risk, that there is increase, and I think that it's partly a function of the first person but also of what that first person projects into-because isn't it almost as if the learning that Ishmael undergoes is partly Ismael and Melville's projection into Ahab who is part of Melville also, as it were Ishmael becoming Ahab almost, one character becoming another character, one voice becoming another voice, so that distant agony and command that we come to know in Ahab, that spirit which is perhaps moving toward the voice of the book which is very hard to define ultimately, is perhaps a way of saying that the bigness of Melville's voice has something to do with a capacity to reach, a capacity to grow, a capacity to become?

19If finding your own voice in an American creative writing workshop means that it's going to take time and it's going to take development, it must also mean that you are finding something that is there. Nietzsche -- is it in The Will to Power? -- has a lot to say not only about becoming what you always were but about creating what you are. He sees it paradoxically, you create from the materials that already exist something that already exists.

20Proust speaks of learning to listen to what's inside you and translating that on to the page -- thus, again, what already exists. This capacity to grow seems to me to be a function of the power of Melville's voice and to be in contrast to a certain smallness in the big noise of Mailer in his astronaut book. So I'm seeing voice as some kind of distinctness and this distinctness as having something to do with a power. Even the voice has its functions within a work, it's not going to be powerful unless it's something other than static, unless it moves, unless it's open to be taught, and there I guess I'm going back to my sonar image, of voice as a projection out somewhere maybe in order that it can bounce off something and bring something back. I guess the ideal conversation would be between two people who can talk and listen at the same time, in any case increase.

21So I think about growth. You locate what is already there, you make up what is not there, you reach for what you only guess or hope. It's axiomatic, I suppose, that a character, any clustered or plotted collection of words from which we derive the sense of a created person, a character, is part of the writer, projected and extended and reported, so I suppose that character has to be thought of as voice, at least in a partial sense. From Ahab to the Pedersen kid. I think we can't know very much about the relation between the writer and a given character. I think biographers imagine that they can know, they make the transition between what they know of the actual life of the writer and what they find in the book much too easily, never imagining, never trying to imagine what that transition entailed, whether it was magical or not.

22Let me think here of the silence that voice is -- against or out of which voice comes. I think of voice (by being this word, this noun) as separating from the rest of the person, the personality, the organism or potentiality that it's also part of. Therefore it can be placed or projected at a distance from where it originates as a character, as some synoptic total and it is heard rather than seen, and so it may haunt or have a haunting power and this separation makes me see some differences. First between voice as apart from the work and voice as in and of the work, and second between voice as beyond what is said and voice as content or what you have to say.

23George Bernard Shaw said that too much is made of style as if it were some trick or technique that was applied, and that style simply meant what you have to say. Now if voice means anything and if we're not going to just relapse into thinking of it as some metaphysical mystery, a power we know about but are content not to define, voice has to have something to do with what you say. But I believe that since voice has this acoustic metaphor built into it -- Eliot speaks of communication before understanding -- it may be hard for us to associate voice with a particular content, what a person writes about, urban jews in America, or the whaling industry. Yet even if you don't grant that voice is style, when something is being voiced or said to us we pay attention not because of some timbre or some music but because of what is said.

  • 6 St Joan, 1924, London: Penguin, 1946.

24Therefore when I think of voice as beyond what is said-and I can't get away from that --it's a resonance which comes out of the character or the heart of the writer, it's hard to define -- I'm not happy thinking of it as apart from content, so (yes) voice has to have something to do with the subject matter. Is there something, to take this in a finicky way, even further acoustically, is there something in the way a voice sounds that not only conveys confidence to the reader but is related to the actual subject matter which is spoken? I suppose at a kind of low level I could say that if a writer like Henry Roth is writing about a city and people in a city, the sound of the voice -- even if we hold on to this notion of a voice as something larger and transcendental and prior, and essential -- is going to have to do with the ethnic multiplicity of the content, so that might be a way in which we would speak of voice as having to do with content. As I say, I speak of it because it's hard for me to imagine the voice of a writer being of any importance if I subtract from it what the writer has to say. It's partly what Shaw meant -- style was simply what you had to say. It was understandable that Shaw, whom Yeats had a dream about once as a sewing-machine, would think of style as content because Shaw was so concerned to persuade. So concerned to show ideas in action, that he wrote prefaces, like the preface to St Joan6, that almost overshadow the plays. So it seems to me that it's hard to speak of voice without recklessly submitting yourself to the question of how voice might be related to what you say, that is to analogies that are in the books that the voice writes or the voice is associated with, and even the idioms that that knowledge entails. And this would take me maybe toward myself.

25I think also of a contrast between voice as single -- the very word, the sound of the word, suggests that, and the aura around it is that you finally managed to say things in a way that is unmistakably yours, so you saved your life and now you can die -- and voice as multiple. Perhaps it has been implicit in what I've said already that if we talk of voice as that of a writer who writes novels and since characters speak, it would follow that voice has something to do with the projection of the writer's personality into a character. And if, unlike T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party where the characters all talk alike, if character has something to do with a distinctive way of speaking, then the writer will have splintered in some way what he has to splinter, himself, his experience, into these different voices.

26Now, if these voices are important and if they reflect or evoke the writer, then each of those characters is an objectification of that voice, and this would suggest that voice in a work of fiction, in its association with character, would be bound to be multiple. Long before I read Dos Passos with those wonderful collages of different modes, newspaper, dialogue, many different kinds of writing modes juxtaposed, long before I read Dos Passos or Bakhtin -- the latter being interested in the partly idiomatic crossing of voices, the multiplying of voices, voices as a crowd -- I think I heard both the power in me and the weakness as multiple voices. It's not schizophrenic in my case, I'm obviously the same person, I've got a grip on things, most of the time. It's not schizophrenic but it is multiple in a way which is not easy and which might be messy, and hazardous.

27Let me outline just for a moment voice with a kind of manyness in mind. As I said, the notion follows naturally from the voices of characters, of personae that derive from the author. Thoreau in Waiden, which I think is a book about writing, about the weight of the word--I think that can be demonstrated-about finding how a testament can be written with words that have full weight and precise weight. Thoreau's I in Waiden is a way of speaking, of saying and it's not equal to Thoreau, it's a projection, it's unquestionably a voice and hence inseparable from the sentences that he writes, those rather involved sentences which are also coming to a frankness at the end, almost always. So I think of that as a singleness of voice, but a singleness which is obviously a made-up voice, an invented voice, like a character. I think of Dos Passos as I have said, all parts of him and his books seeming to express USA, that is to say a multiplicity of voices ultimately aiming to be communal, to be a community. Later in his career, and I guess in an appropriate persona not at all left or center politically, he began to sound different, he began to sound a right-wing populist. Most fiction writer are many voiced simply as character creators as I say, you make it up somewhat out of what you know according to Hemingway. He's oversimplifying voice but I think that writers are also ventriloquists with very good hearing like Dickens, whom Chesterton called a mob, or Dostoïevski, whom I associate with a "russianness" -- this is an American speaking, oversimplifying of course -- but with a russianness of passionate outpourings because of the tragic and more often comic noise that many people make.

28A Smuggler's Bible by someone called Joseph Mc Elroy is in some way a parody of the first novel, not a parody in any kind of laughing Ha-Ha way, but a parody in the sense that it's a compendious imitation of how you would go about speech after a long silence, or speech after long growing up, putting into a first book too much, which is what I think often happens with first novels. But I think of it here because in the second chapter at the end there's a babble of voices which the reader will be able to pick out and know, because earlier in the chapter the people who are speaking at the end have been fairly fully identified so that at the end of the chapter without ascription, we really should be able to tell who is speaking.

29I think of A Smuggler's Bible also because there is between the chapters and the interstices of the chapters a tension between two voices. When I came to this, I had a feeling that it was coming also to me, which is all right in that collaborative sense you have between active and passive. I think you have to have it. I felt that I was choosing to do something but I felt also that I couldn't help it.

30In the interstices of the eight chapters, there appears a voice which is manic, overloaded, endless, irritating in relation to the main personality of the narrator of the book or the principal person who is conveyed in the third person. This voice in the interstices is almost homosexual -- homo-erotic, possessive -- it calls itself homogeneous (homo-genius), it's a voice trying to pull things together that cannot be pulled together. Without getting off into the question of discontinuity which has to do with images in my work and my interest in science and so forth, there is nonetheless a pressure here which somehow is connected to voice.

31Voice is unitary, life is multiple. Voice maybe is a means of holding in the mass. In this voice between the chapters proper of A Smuggler's Bible -- a voice intended to be taken and explicitly shown by me that it is intended to be taken as being within the person, the personality, the character of the main character, his name is David Brooke--in this erratic voice which flickers out and back, appears and disappears, is some desperate effort to both irritate and connect. It's almost I suppose like a voice, I won't say in you because I don't know what you're like, I only can guess, but it's like a voice in some people, certainly me, that is disruptive, self-destructive, free in all senses of the word including "loose". Within the main character who is offered to us primarily in the third person in the main chapters of the book, there is this other voice which has to be absorbed if there's to be integration in the character and integration in the voice.

32But I think I felt, as I felt in my later work, that many voices or two voices becoming one was not really what I wanted. What I wanted was to maintain a tension between different voices, between voices that would be contrasted. If the two voices of A Smuggler's Bible are a function of a young and large and chaotic, sometimes, endearing first novel almost embodying how to put everything into a first novel, these back and forth voices see voice as a multiple thing, a thing; in motion -- thus, as I said, a reaching -- and voice as a submission to some learning process. As if the difference between the two voices, like the difference between two people, was the defining thing about them.

33Let me jump to a big book of mine called Women and Men which came out in 1987. Because there the need to be voiced, to acknowledge this in the narration of fiction coincides with my need to accept multiplicity in a radical, risky way. And again interstices: which become more than marginal or between -- they really take over the book, it's as if between chapters you got interested in something else entirely and here at the interstice it suddenly overwhelms the book. The voice there, which I m sure is a voice that is my way of groping toward becoming the voice that I am, is a multiple, often a "We", voice. In certain large sections that are called breathers I suppose partly because you think of voice as having to do with breath, as the use of breath to project sound, for often I have come back to writing as physical -- as voice is.

34Voice is not only to be heard, and often overheard, it is an acoustical phenomenon projected out of the body. And my notion in these breathers which have additional titles was that somehow a first person plural voice, a we voice would be not only commenting upon activities elsewhere in the book but would somehow sum up at least American experience in the seventies. But more particularly because I didn't want this voice, this We voice, just to be floating around, more particularly that We voice is a voice of angels. I'm not sure I believe in angels but I made up a kind of angels in this book that made sense to me, the way I also made up a simultaneous reincarnation that made sense to me (most reincarnations don't make any). And these first person plural voices we hear and overhear are an attempt to encompass, multiply, what is threatening to get out of control, they are voices of angels who are trying to change their lives.

35This was the watchword of the seventies in New York: "Change your life", "Go to an encounter session and change your life", which was profound, important, but said so much like finding your own voice that it becomes a cliché that one smiles at. And the angels that are this We voice are imagining that they might become human. We think of angels as beyond human, we think of them as transhuman, we think of them as having powers that we can't imitate, but the angels in those we voices of the breathers, in that large novel, are in part angels trying to take human form, and trying, since angels should have some kind of choice, to become less. We think of "becoming" as a becoming more -- we think of growth as a becoming more -- of course we do -- but if growth has something to do with an improvement, why should it not emanate from an absolute choice of some kind, an imaginative choice, and these angels as I imagined them in the breathers are trying to become less than themselves, maybe almost to prove that they can do it, but to become less than themselves in order to become human. And so it begins to dawn upon the reader that the breathers -- what is happening in these breathers, in these long long sections juxtaposed with very very short sections -- are trying to become the characters in the. book and to some extent I think they do.

36If I can just step to one side of the dynamic of angels and characters and speak only of voice, I think what was going on there was that some source in an acoustical metaphor if you want, but some source of energy coming out of a reservoir that might ultimately have been unitary -- it might ultimately have been single -- was being evoked, used, sounded as a source from which plots and characters and stories might be drawn, which is not to say that the breathers are showing us the paraphernalia of novel writing. Rather, the breathers in Women and Men are suggesting that any being that you have, any existence that you have involves some kind of interchange between a reservoir possibility and a limitation that you arrive at that might be like a clear contour that can be seen as opposed to a whole bunch of dots in a field. So that process which was maybe the riskiest, risking chaos I think, the riskiest that I ever embarked upon was one, is one, sounds like a, process that envisions and hears voice as multiple, trying to maybe funnel down to individual characters that can be understood. And so I guess voice there, and the voice is very much heard, the voice of those angels (and then becoming little anecdotal parts that are connected to actual characters in the book) voice there seems to be associated with creative springs, and creative sources.

37Let me put side by side two notions of voice. I think of the advantage of first person, that is to say being first person. It seems to establish a direct connection with the reader in a way that a third person voice doesn't and yet we would never say that a writer who writes in the third person like Hemingway doesn't have a voice. We think we know what we mean, although when we try to pin ourselves down as to what we mean by voice, we may be talking about style, we may be talking about the atmosphere that seems to come from the writer's handling of a subject, what the writer means somehow. But the first person voice has a peculiar confessional power, an appearance of being in a direct connection with the reader in a kind of intimacy, in a kind of revealing of self that is what Henry James meant when he spoke of the terrible fluidity of the first person. He resisted it, he almost never used it and it may be that James felt in that word fluidity not only that, since its first person is a confessional pouring out that gets out of control -- look at Whitman's fifteen thousand line poem -- but maybe James felt the first person could lead to a violation of that objective completion which he felt, like Flaubert, all fiction ought to have. And somehow it would reestablish, or it would not successfully break a personal or autobiographical connection between himself and what he created. But there's no question that, as with Thoreau's Waiden and lots of other first person narratives, if the work is successful you never necessarily identify that first person voice with the author.

  • 7 Born in 1930 in Illinois, Harold Brodkey is the author of: First Love and Other Sorrows, 1957. (Pre (...)

38I spoke of Brodkey before. I think he's a great American writer. Unfortunately he has contributed to a certain fame by waiting and waiting and waiting to publish this book of his which is now beginning to appear, and the first part of it called The Runaway Soul has just appeared7. This is that familiar first-person, coming-of-age novel but what Brodkey has done is to turn away not only from the; naturalistic and the realistic habit of American novel, to turn away almost completely from the notion that experience is rendered in fiction by being concrete, that is to say that you should somehow depict what you mean, and he has tried to make the book carry itself with its rhetoric. You've got a guy talking, he's referring to people you may not know but he's almost never building up a scene or building up a character as a sculptor or dramatist might. He's almost never setting out a dossier of details which persuades you that the writer has been there, which gives you confidence in the voice. Instead he goes on and on and instead he finds a rhetoric which embodies the jumps and hunts or vagaries of consciousness as it corrects itself and says: "No, I didn't mean that at all, this is what I mean", it goes on and on and on. And a peculiar thing happens: the voice becomes so powerful, so persuasive that the book seems to fail; it's as if the voice of the book which is not necessarily the writer's voice, although it seems to come very close to a kind of congruence, it's as if the voice overwhelms something that we mean by a book which has a beginning and an end, and which might in the case of fiction, mean a narrative that moves in a certain contour and develops and shows a life, until finally -- and it is fascinating, though it leaves us with a sense of a book that's open-ended -- finally the voice swamps the book and we have only the voice like a personal field. I speak of it because it's an audible book, and it demands a response from the reader, from someone. One of the problems with first person writing is that you feel that you haven't made that separation between the controlling source of the writing and the product that you're trying to make. What Brodkey has tried to do is to, by making his character a writer, accept the fact that the writer is talking to a reader, a future reader. You listen to a first-person narrative and you may sometimes wonder who this first-person narrator is talking to and it can sometimes not quite work if it's a bit artificial. What Brodkey's trying to do is to address the reader. He's going to find a way through all of the thickets of his weaknesses and the terrible pen of life and so it's a direct address voiced to the reader as a voice that demands attention irritatingly, upsettingly, like the man himself.

39So that to know the man is a problem because the book seems to imitate the man if you know the man. It helps not to know the man, and if you know the man you have to try extra hard to separate the man from the voice because the voice seems to be doing what the man tries to do. In fact they're doing quite different things, but the voice there, then, is a person making a demand of the reader to pay attention, and to pay attention in spite of the fact that the voice as a creating narrator refuses to give evidence for the conclusions which this person is constantly making about other people in his life. Instead he'll use judging language, he'll use language that appears to be abstract, he'll use language that is in fact concrete as if the shifting feelings that one has, emanated from one's body so that a peculiar new kind of concreteness appears. If you go looking the lives of people, if you go looking for how they make a living and what they look like and all that, you won't find it there. Instead what you find is the experience of someone embodied as the rhetoric of a voice which is heard and it's heard endlessly as if you were being told that you had to answer. I'm reminded by Bill Wilson of Robert Frost's poem "The Most of It". It's quite a short poem, about a man who wants an answer from the universe. (Maybe you know that experience; you don't want to have it too often but everybody has it from time to time). He wants an answer, then, that will not be a copy of his own speech. He wants an answer that will be different. Maybe this is a little bit like saying: "Don't tell me you like me, tell me something new", or: "Don't be polite, tell me what you think." In any case, this man is situated, as many of Frost's voices are, in something that we might call Nature. He's passionately upset seeking an answer from nature, some response to himself and then he hears something, he hears something in the water (because there's a lake nearby), and then he hears something coming out of the water and moving through the bushes. There's a wonderful feeling in this poem, that at least that answer is going to come, at last an answer from the universe, and through the thicket comes this great buck, this male deer, that's just shaking the water off itself, not caring about him or anything else, shaking the water, appears out of the thicket and then disappears, and that's it. Part of the meaning of the poem is this terrible need for a response. I think voice whatever it is, the essence of a writer in a work or the essence of a writer over the course of a work, I think voice is in some sense not the same as, but a function of, the effort of a writer to extend outward -- the metaphor is acoustic but it can lend itself to lots of other metaphors -- to extend outward in order to bounce off something, to extend outward in order, like some kind of boomerang, to come back but not like a boomerang in the sense that what comes back might be different.

40There's another sense of voice which, if it is an essence of the writer that you can't limit to one work, much less one character, or even to a whole œuvre, is prior to the writing. The title of my talk here is "The voice to become what I am", so presumably if I'm thinking of finding my own voice, as they say in the workshops, I must be thinking of voice as having something to do with an eventual fulfiment, something that you come to, so that for me to say that woice might be conceived of as something prior to the words might sound like something at the very very beginning, before any of this noise began, but I don't mean that.

41I guess I mean an energy which is a reservoir out of which comes the writing, but that isn't it either, that's part of it. I mean voice may be conceived of as full silence that precedes articulateness and, boy, there's a modish little paradox, a full silence: do I mean full of emptiness? No! I think what I mean more is a full heart but I don't exactly mean that either. I guess I'm saying that there is some fullness which exists inseparable from a silence which the writer may think is preferable to speech. Beckett says the function of objects is to restore silence. I think that what he means is not so much that it would be better not to speak, because Beckett spoke a lot, if you think of writing as speaking. He wrote a lot and he went on and on and on, wonderfully, and in some sense didn't look back. Beckett doesn't like flashbacks. But to say that about objects and silence is not only to say: "Shut up and just look!", which is sometimes what I feel like saying to myself. I think it's also to say that in the silence which we associate with looking and seeing, which is also the silence of full heart, maybe even letting the tank fill up, as Mark Twain said, between books, there is a sense of self which, whether it feeds the writing that is to come or not, is closer to what we might mean by voice than anything that ever gets out into the words of the text.

42Now, I wonder if all I've done here is to wind up by asking the question instead of answering it. If I have done that, at least maybe what I've done is to set out some contrasts for example between voice as seen as a unitary essence and voice as some kind of multiplicity, multiplicity seen as a variety of voices. If the writer is many people, or a variety of voices seen in many characters, that's easy to understand, or perhaps voice as plural in time, the voice looking for itself somehow, the voice one thing early, another thing later, another thing still later. That's what I would feel was closest to myself. If I think of these remarks as a little postmodern composition, then the open end which is pointing in the direction of a definition would appropriately be a list of workpoints, a list of points of departure. One of them, it seems to me, since whatever we say about the preliminal voice, the voice that is the voice before you start speaking -- and it might be crucial -- must have to do with the voice as it also sounds in the work.

43If we connect this with, inevitably, style, which is the way the work seems, or the texture, the technique of the work, it might be interesting as a work point to think of what voice has to do with syntax and sentence. I think of it here because sentences are what I write. I write a sentence and then I write another sentence, that's what I like to do. A sentence is complicated and hazardous territory and I think of an outer sentence and a developing purpose inside, like another sentence -- even if the sentence is short. It might tend to be long, they're sometimes short, but I think of an outer sentence, which is some wholeness of the fragment of the thought, and within it, although it wouldn't be necessarily a grammatical sentence, within it a correction of something inside the larger sentence, a self-contemplation which takes the form of grammatical relationships I suppose. But I think that the way you write a sentence, the way you think of the composing of a sentence, whether you write periodic sentences or loose sentences with a main clause and then a whole string of things that follow from it, sentences that are like the delta of a river, let's say, sentences that are like a retort that you give to somebody, sentences long or short, sentences in which you are aware of the breath as you are in Proust, contraction, expansion, for the sentence is always physical, the sentence would seem to me, the way it's composed, the elements it is composed of, to have a lot to do with the voice.

44We could relate voice to autobiography, we could relate voice to nationality, that's so obvious that one almost passes it by, but it's interesting, and I think here not so much of someone choosing to write as a French person or choosing to write as a Russian, or choosing to write as an American, but someone waking up one day and seeing, let's say, an American and looking at the work and saying: "hey, I'm writing like an English person, or I'm writing like a French person", or waking up one day and looking at the prose and saying: "I write like an American". Now quite apart from the need to be identified as coming coherently from a culture that you're supposed to come from, the only culture I know anything about is the United States, really, I know something about that and that's it, so that if I sound in a couple of my books as if I were a French writer more than a Henry Adams American, then something's gone wrong.

45What Americans sound like has changed, the style of Hawthorne or Thoreau or Melville, they're all different of course, has sounded to English critics earlier in this century as clotted, labyrinthine, indirect, fussy wilderness prose, unnecessarily unclear, maybe because of the impact of Hemingway, maybe for other reasons. Much more typical American prose -- mine is not that -- has come to be of more transparent texture, a simpler-seeming instrument. But if we think of the difference between density, clotting, labyrinthine complexity, wandering and so forth in the feeling of the sentences and the style of prose as being voice, and if we think of something more transparent, apparently simple as being the voice, that might be a point of departure to consider voice as well. If the voice is to be associated with complex, delaying syntax, does that mean that the voice, if we hang on to voice as something heard, something emanating from the character and the personality, is undecided, whereas if the voice comes out in an extraordinarily clear syntax of sentences, does that mean that the voice, the character, the vision of the writer is much more decisive? Therefore more trustworthy?

46I don't really believe that I'm still looking for my voice but I don't know how to characterize that voice. What I wanted to say before, I should say now: it seems to me that if you're going to talk seriously about voice as something that exists and as perhaps a key to understanding the force of a writer or the distinctiveness of a writer, you're going to have to be poetic about it, that is to say you're going to have to find the best possible words for it because it's so difficult to pin down.

47If you associate voice with style, then you have to do for voice what you would do for style. It's all very well to say this writer uses long sentences or this writer comes from New Hampshire or this writer is ethnically New York, ultimately to write about style you have to evoke it somehow, you have to find the words to get round it as if you were creating something yourself, I think that if voice means anything it has to mean creating something yourself even if you're also taking dictation, like someone requiring orders in the pre-"conscious" time of the bicameral mind that Jaynes imagines.

48But I'm interested to be asked to think about this ghostly subject voice because the text is silent, and even if I never can read anything without hearing a voice, usually my own, but sometimes somebody else's -- and therefore there's something concrete about relating a text to voice -- it is still a metaphor, quite a compendious metaphor for what writing is and where writing comes from. In fact, it's almost un French to get so interested in voice. It sounds more American; it's so hard to get hold of; it doesn't immediately feel clear and distinct at all! Yet is it technical? Compendious since it has to do with speaking to someone, isn't voice an acoustical metaphor? If so, it has to do with all the things that can happen to sound, all of that. You can't see sound, and to speak of writing in relation to voice is to grant that writing we care about has something mysterious about it, in itself and in its sources. To say that, I think, suggests a humility which is never separate from the enthusiasm with which I read and it may be that to say that is to think of the reader as constantly growing, increasing and learning.

49So I think that this metaphor is a way of referring to writing romantically, as a great act, and it certainly is a great risk, even greater than giving a talk partly made up as I go along though perhaps to be edited later -- though to sound like what?


1 Why Are We in Vietnam?, New York: Putnam's, 1967. (Pourquoi sommes-nous au Vietnam?, Grasset, 1968).

2 Of a Fire on the Moon, 1971. (Bivouac sur la lune, Laffont, 1971).

3 Henderson the Rain King, New York: The Viking Press, 1959. (Le Faiseur de pluie, Gallimard, 1961).

4 The Victim, New York: Vanguard Press, 1947.

5 Seize the Day, New York: The Viking Press, 1956.

6 St Joan, 1924, London: Penguin, 1946.

7 Born in 1930 in Illinois, Harold Brodkey is the author of: First Love and Other Sorrows, 1957. (Premier amour et autres chagrins, Grasset, 1988); Women and Angels, 1985; Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, 1988; A Party of Animals, 1989; The Runaway Soul, New York: Farrar, staus & Giroux, 1991.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1994

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