I did pick up The Grain of the Voice this week after Sunday’s post. The whole book is a collection of conversations with Barthes, translated into English. I opened to “The Phantoms of the Opera,” an interview with Hector Bianciotti that happens to contains the passages that explain the book’s title. Barthes starts out with an analysis of singers’ voices:
The voice has the very status of language, an object thought to be graspable only through what it transmits; however, just as we are now learning, thanks to the notion of “text,” to read the linguistic material itself, we must in the same way learn to listen to the voice’s text, its meaning, everything in the voice which overflows with meaning…
My voice teacher has a client in her 80s who consults her because she says that the elderly are treated as if they were invisible, and she wants to be seen and heard. I started taking lessons because I have always spoken—and sung—too softly, and because singing well makes me happy and helps me think.
The grain of the voice is not indescribable…but I don’t think that it can be defined scientifically, because it implies a certain erotic relationship between the voice and the listener. One can therefore describe the grain of the voice, but only through metaphors. *
Maria Callas’ is “tubular,” hollow with an off-pitch quality. Gundula Janowitz’s voice suggests to him a “milkweed acidity, of a nacreous vibration, situated at the exquisite and dangerous limit of the toneless.” I don’t really know what that means, but somehow, the very act of reading that description almost helps me hear her. A friend once described the grain of my voice as “lemon tea with rum,” which I’ve never had any interest in tasting.
I’m not interested in analyzing Barthes here. I simply love listening for the way his interviews, whether in French or English, usually manage to sound “translated,” but in a crisp, lapidary way. Even dry passages about Michelet sound nuanced and clear and suddenly whimsical, like a steady passage out of Haydn heard over the radio. Here is Barthes in conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévi (and, unwittingly, with Stein and Foppa):
I can’t manage to get excited over politics, and these days a discourse that is not impassioned can’t be heard, quite simply. There’s a decibel threshold that must be crossed for discourse to be heard. And I don’t cross it. Politics is not necessarily just talking, it can also be listening. Perhaps we lack a practice of listening and attention.
Then Lévi asks,
Did you know Gide? No, I never knew him. I saw him once, from a distance, at the restaurant Lutétia; he was eating a pear and reading a book. So I never knew him; but there were a thousand things about him that interested me, along with many other adolescents of the time as well…He was a Protestant. He played the piano. He talked about desire. He wrote.
BHL: What does being a Protestant mean to you? It’s difficult to say. Because when faith is gone, only the imprint, the image, is left. And the image belongs to other people. It’s up to them to say whether I “seem” Protestant…I might say, very cautiously, that a Protestant adolescence can provide a certain taste for or a certain perversion of inwardness, his inner language, the subject’s constant dialogue with himself.
I hear “Protestant” and remember playing the piano at church all through my childhood. I hear “Gide” and picture my graduate advisor’s dear, flatulent bulldog who wore the name well and slobbered all over my poems.
This makes me feel an impossible closeness with the bookish pear-eater.
*(Le Nouvel Observateur, 17 Dec 1973; Hill&Wang: 1985, p. 183)