Voice: A Postliterary Disintegration in Four Modern Classics

The Open Book, Juan Gris

Voice be style. Voice be play. Voice be wisdom. Voice be character. Liken a writer with no distinct voice to the grain of sand seen from a furlong above a vast desert in broad daylight—that is to say, the writings produced by this person, even when given the encomiums of an age, will in the passing of not many years blend into the textual landscape, the gazillion innocuous/venomous advertisements, the handbooks, the schoolbooks, the books upon books, so many scribbles: a grain of sand. From a mile high, the grains are of a piece, a bland blanket of nothing—there is no subversion to speak of. Assuming that Voice, above all else, is what qualifies literature, and assuming that Voice is, indeed, like a thumbprint, inimitable, a thing by which its owner can be identified, consider the following:

“Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache—we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.” 

That’s Djuna Barnes in her book Nightwood, 1936. The voice is sustained, without glitch, for a 180 pages. In this accomplishment Barnes describes herself, through a variegated host of masks, as some kind of superhuman godlike monster, for the book, taken in its whole, is a constriction of life, a gathering of life into a small space. Its difference from other works, non-literary voiceless works, works that are failed attempts at life-compression, is its flawless piecing, its abnormality, its faithfulness unto itself, unto its beginning wherein lies the genius of its possessor.

For what is voice if not a camouflage? Style, character, and wisdom are meaningless tools and abstractions. Voice is the used, the lie of the fabricator and fornicator.If voice is the mask the writer wears in the expenditure of art, then voice too is the invisible face of the heart’s first beat. In Nightwood, the invisible face of Barnes’s pulse appears in three major forms: omniscience, such as in the sentence quoted above; Dr. O’Connor, whose voice takes up a large portion of the book; and Nora Flood, her monologue, though a wet lick on a promise as compared with the doctor’s, resonant with all the import of a theme: the merciless destroying nature of desire born in love, desire a poison for the lover who possesses it but not its object. As the wise Dr. O’Connor tells Nora Flood: “For the lover, it is the night into which his lover goes.”

Nora’s Flood’s lover, who by the end of the book is ex-lover-but-still-loved to two other unfortunate characters (Felix Volkbein, a self-effacing Jew; and Jenny Pretheridge, a four-times-divorced middle-aged widow), is Robin Vote, the young lesbian described as being the “infected carrier of the past.” Vote is “a tall girl with a body of a boy” who is lively and yet compared to plant life. Her voice appears in snatches, such as, after giving birth to a male baby she does not want: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, for Christ’s sake!”

In destruction of the integrity of Nightwood, as promised by this essay’s title, be subjected to the following ventriloquization, extrapolated and projected from the novel, by me, of Robin Vote:

“I said sure. I’d never been a baroness. Besides, I knew he was a Jew. That endeared him to me, that he was ashamed of it. It made him adorable, not his learning or money, but the belief in himself. Felix was pathetic, a necessary coward. Adorable in his presentation of the lie that his life was, as if I could not see through that? Endearing. When he confessed to me that day in the park how, when he first saw me in my impossible stupor at the Hôtel Récamier, laid out on the bed like a plant in a jungle, I knew Felix had no clue, but I was impressed that he told me of Dr. O’Connor’s indiscretion, how he used my perfume and stole my hundred francs, as if he was informing me of something I didn’t already know. I said sure, and he took me from Paris to Vienna, showed me the Imperial Palace and all the sad historical places, thinking that he was educating me, and he was. I had never seen such things. Felix treated me like a student, gave me to understand the importance of the lives of the Emperor Francis Joseph and Charles One. I was disgusted. Such a waste of my time! How much better to reread Anna Karenina. Give me Joan of Arc on a weekday, or Cathy Heathcliff whose foot was mangled by a pit bull. I love Cathy, and Catherine de’ Medici, and Catherine of Russia, all the Catherines so, after I gave the baron what I knew he’d wanted all along, a son, I traveled to America without him and, at the Denckman Circus in New York, met Nora Flood.

“Nora. What can I say about Nora? Nora believed I was connected in some way to the Animal Kingdom for no other reason than that when the lions passed by, one stopped and looked at me. Nora says the lion reached out his paw to me, so ridiculous, though Nora’s nmot the only one to accuse me of it. The women I loved in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin have all said this about me, that I am not quite human, that I am partially a beast. They are taken with themselves. They think of me on hands and knees, like a beast bright red on both ends because they are stifled. In this image of bestial carnality, of the wild and untamable, they find a place for their sorrows and shame. I provide them with the only hope they are able to know. They are no less pathetic than Felix the Jewish baron. In thinking of me as an animal, on hands and knees, their impossible salvations are given a sparkle—pure idiocy. Just because I am different, because I recognize the idiocy in the rules they follow, I am irresistible, nothing more than a Chinese teacup down into which they can pour insecurities. That is why I light candles in cathedrals, in case there is any truth to what all of humanity, risen up onto a platform, has decided. Not that I am against it. I try to believe, but nuns and priests see in me something to fear. They turn me away. I feel sorry for them, too, and for Felix, and my son who I am supposed to coddle and love, and for Nora Flood whom I love, and will always love. Because I love Nora, I became Jenny’s lover, knowing that if Nora loved me, truly, she would understand. Jenny beat me. She made me bleed and was violent to me. She devoured me. I became her beast. I was Jenny’s dog, I did what Jenny asked. Jenny took me with her to America, but like all dogs, I wandered off to explore.

“I, I have always belonged to somebody. My life before Felix is a blank, but I promise you, I have always belonged to somebody. Now I have done the unthinkable, have made myself belong to myself. I am the property of everybody, those who need to own something to know they are real. I love them and feel guilty. What they have done to themselves to exist in a world of rules I can see as heroic, but it is a heroism so common that, if anything, it deserves the disgust that I am incapable of giving. I am a dog. I wander the streets of New York like a dog, take a train into the countryside, and sleep in the woods like a dog. I wander like a lost dog trying to find his home, and find myself at the Chapel near Nora’s place. Nora’s dog finds me, and we are snarling and snapping at each other when Nora Flood slams her head against the Jamb of God’s House, for I am unbearable to her. When Nora wakes, I am beside her, faithful and ready to be pet. I tell Nora that I never stopped loving her, for love, when real, never dies. Love, when real, abides eternally in the darkness within.”

Now, onto the other three. I’ll destroy them in short order, beginning with The Enormous Room, by E. E. Cummings.  The novel begins with a sentence too long to quote here, and that is why, in its place, I provide my destroyment of the entire novel:

“Twas a roomly in the Francely warly where a young womanly woman called Celina, an ‘extraordinarily beautiful animal,’ was locked in a dungeon. Celina receivedly a cigarette and matches through a crack below her door, put flame to her mattress. To her imminent deathly by suffocationly the doorly was openedly, and Celinaly appearedly in a cloud ‘erect and tense and beautiful as an angel—her wildly shouting face framed in its huge night of disheveled hair, her deep sexual voice, hoarsely strident above the din and smoke, shouting fiercely through the darkness . . .’ She was out of control, so Black Holsterly punched herly in the mouthly and he and five other menly knocked her to the flagging and proceeded to beat her with all their might. Celina was, after all, one of those infected carriers of the past. Then it was Sunday . . .”

Thank you for listening.

The books above, the Barnes and the Cummings, are books voiced in English, but what is to be said of translations? Translated works come to us already destroyed, their integrities, to the monolingual reader, impossible to discern. Such communications reach us unadorned by linguistic style. One can do a trick of the mind and forget the obvious fact. One can move through a beginning, middle, and end of a translation under the delusion of experiencing a completed work true to its Voice. This fallacy reflects the voice of the reader, for the voice of the reader must itself be diluted should a half-voice be counted as a voice in full. The reader of dilutions, the diluted reader. As a diluted reader, one who believes that Voice can be maintained, not unlike a floor is maintained by a janitor, from one language to another, the following destroyments are tertiary destructions. I hereby triply destroy The Stranger, by Albert Camus, through the following, if you want to call it a haiku, haiku:

“Judge well my failures. Doubt not the child I was not. As the waters did.”

Thank you for listening.

I will now destroy Journey to the End of the Night, Céline’s well-known masterpiece, by saying “light,” but allow me now, after the fact, to quote the book. Céline writes on page 369, as translated from the French: “I had cast off all self-respect long ago. That sentiment had always struck me as far above my station, much too costly for my resources. I’d made that sacrifice once and for all and had no regrets whatever.”

The invisible face of the beating heart, even in translation, its Voice, seems—seeps as everything that seems does—to seep through. The cost of self-respect is what the un-Voiced puts down in currency in exchange for what? If we believe the Voice Céline shares, that What is a redemption from human waste. Money for shit? Better to have a pretend self-respect than put down your money in exchange for that. In Céline’s claim that self-respect is above the station of a writer—how could it be otherwise?—Céline shows a respect for mankind, leaving himself out of the picture. Through his own destruction he sees mankind, and has a Voice. In this he is heroic, for Voice is rare, a thing of sacrifice. A casting “off of all self-respect”? How else will a writer be able to proceed? By imagination? What might limit the imagination more than a self-respect not attained through the casting away of it? Be rid of it or you, if you write, will, like Schopenhauer’s mother, who was a famed novelist during her age, become that dreaded grain of sand in the desert, that speck as viewed from the height of a cloud—nothing. Céline, whatever became of his bones, lives today. As does Djuna Barnes, E.E. Cummings, and Albert Camus. The something, the What that remains in the ashes, let us declare, is Voice, what is imposed upon a body through what? Suffering? A preordained blessing from God? A love affair that refuses to die? An accident, a conceit? A whirling together of chance and desire? And a removal of self from which a vista of the mystery can be seen. They bumble, they bee, but every Voice needs an ear. Thank you for listening.