Words Lined with Flesh

At times, I try to write as I speak — em dashes, colons, and commas punctuating the rhythm of my speech across the page. 

But written words are not transcriptions of spoken words. Nor are words prompts for the speaker, the writer a ventriloquist making his dummy speak. Neither writing nor speaking came first; neither is primary. They are two registers of language that overlap in multiple ways while enjoying their respective modes of making sense.

Where does the written word take place? The eyes, of course, literally choreographing their movement from left to right (in English); affect, as our moods and sensations ebb and flow, shift and permute; our understanding, as new ideas and insights come forth. And, sometimes, these written words make the mouth speak, the lips move, sound and air emerge.

But there is someplace else, someplace stranger. It is on the tongue and in the throat — and yet these words are not spoken. The tongue does not move; no air passes the wind pipes. Still, there is an almost-whisper of the words across the palate. This is "language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophany: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language" (Roland Barthes).

I am not talking about the pure sensuality of language — although I am also talking about the sensuality of language. I am talking about the location of this sensuality, the words reverberating in the throat, almost as if they were spoken. But these words not only are not spoken: they don't want to be spoken. They insist on the page. This is the place where they reside: this spectral space between writing and speaking, between body and sensation — the sensation, the silent reverberation, of words in the body.

Nabokov is, to me, the most obvious practitioner of what Barthes calls "writing aloud." There are no doubt sections of Nabokov that ask to be read out loud. But, usually, his words want to stay on the page — they are distinctly written. And yet they articulate the body in sumptuous ways.  To wit:

"Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small grey hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day" (Ada, or Ardor).

This can be read aloud. But it's awkward — the sentences are long, the rhythm difficult. The lips stumble as we read it aloud; we confuse b's and d's; we lisp. No, these words resist being spoken.  And yet they are so corporeal, so sensual: they play in our throats even if our throats can't speak them.

Of course, there are many written words that don't want to be spoken because, well, they are not corporeal. They are formal, dead, or awkward due to poor thinking and even poorer operation of grammar. These words are zombies looking to feed on living flesh; to speak them is to die a little.

And so when I was teaching people to write — something I did for 10 years at UC Berkeley — I'd ask them to hear their own voice, to mimic its rhythms in prose. My goal was to try to get their bodies into their writing to make it more sensual, more rhythmic, more alive. I didn't want to read zombie papers.

However, were I to continue teaching them how to write, I would tell them something else: Now, don't write as you speak. Articulate the body but don't be a ventriloquist: don't make the body speak. Rather, make the words speak in the body — loud but silent. 

This writing exists in an incredible space, a spectral space, undulating between the visibility of the written word and the invisible, silent sensuality of the body. 

1 comment:

drwatson said...

This is interesting and I don't have a very firm position. I often pick on the text book my students have to buy - we have to adopt texts departmentally. And in the textbook I'm always pointing out that this was never meant to be read outloud. It's just awful prose.

So it would be writing without the body.

However, I also tell my students that if you actually write dialogue in the manner you speak, nobody will buy it. It won't feel real. Most conversations are too broken - too in-the-moment- to be reproduced word-for-word.

Which is also writing without the body - but in a really different sense.

I guess the over-used word in the discussion is verisimilitude. The words need to "feel" real. Whatever that means.

My favorite short story is "The School" by Donald Barthelme. That story begs to be read outloud. However, other great writers I love - David Foster Wallace, for example, often writes wonderful prose that doesn't always lead itself to be read outloud. I would say both Barthelme and DFW write with the body, but in divergent ways.

Interesting to think about.