Speaking of Sound

September 13, 2011 § 8 Comments

I’ve lately been reading, as slowly as possible, William Gass’ On Being Blue. While I hate the all-too-easy puns that can be made on his name–“Gass is a gas!” etc.–I find myself regularly resorting to sentiments that sneak clumsily ever so close not only to pun but also cliché. Namely: it is all really quite breathtaking. Of course, it isn’t literally; or if it is, it’s polite enough to give the breath back quickly & kindly enough. More appropriate, I suppose, though again not as literal as one might like, would be to say that much of it, this tiny book, causes me to squeal with an unseemly delight.  Take, as an example, the following. A single sentence, made great not merely because it is long but because it does precisely what it describes, and what it describes is nothing short of grand.

“So sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned, or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved; nevertheless, the lines in [Wallace] Stevens or the sentences of [James] Joyce or [Henry] James, pressed by one another into being as though the words before and the words after were those reverent hands both Rilke and Rodin have celebrated, clay calling to clay like mating birds, concept responding to concept the way passionate flesh congests, every note a nipple on the breast, at once a triumphant pinnacle and perfect conclusion, like pelted water, I think I said, yet at the same time only another anonymous cell, and selfless in its service to the shaping skin as lost forgotten matter is in all walls; these lines, these sentences, are not quite uttered, not quite mentioned, peculiarly employed, strangely listed, oddly used, as though a shadow were the leaves, limbs, trunk of a new tree, and the shade itself were thrust like a dark torch into the grassy air in the same slow and forceful way as its own roots, entering the earth, roughen the darkness there till all its freshly shattered facets shine against themselves as teeth do in the clenched jaw; for Rabelais was wrong, blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turning inward out of sigh like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly–there! climbing down clauses and passing through ‘and’ as it opens–there–there–we’re here! . . . in time for tea and tantrums; such are the sentences we should like to love–the ones which love us and themselves as well–incestuous sentences–sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified; not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech . . . ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, imagined, and mindful Sublime.”

Upon first reading this, I called somebody I merely knew but who was not a close friend, and without conversational preamble or introductory nicety, asked if I might read it to him. He’s single, I figured, so what chance that he’d be in bed at 2 a.m. As I thought about it, though, I found myself profoundly envious of him if this was not the case–to be awoken by a sentence so wonderful. Rudely accosted, to be sure, but that’s the way wonder works. He (the person I called) didn’t seem particularly upset by the call, so fortunately I don’t now have cause to regret not thinking of this rationalization until the morning after.

All this is finally to say what is probably obvious: I love the sound of words. That sounds so facile, I realize, almost embarrassingly so. In the wrong hands and coming from the wrong lips, maybe even mine, it could even be pretentious. In the scheme of things, though, this is no great risk. History has worse monsters. Language, when it is spoken correctly, and sometimes even when it is not, spoken well, that is, holds almost–no, make that, holds without reserve–a certain unavoidable erotic quality. By this, I hope it is obvious I’m not referring to all that flesh and fluid language is surely adequate enough to describe and/or call forth, all the naughty bits and pieces, those depicted dicks and metaphoric mounds, that bring blushes, give giggles, & solicit those stirrings of an unspoken but decisively acted upon sort. Language can, of course, have all this as its object, but mine at the moment is that of the the erotic movements of its speaking, as in the rise & fall of a musical score, or, yes, that of a tongue. Some words, they hum; others moan; a few scream; and, on occasion, the select choose to sing. Though I like to think it’s all singing, badly or not. Because not all are beautiful. Like somebody, I forget who, said, it takes very little imagination to love the beautiful.

E.g., The other day I found myself replaying, like a song I heard somebody humming, the following overly alliterative sentence that came to me out of nowhere: “A fallen fawn on the fallow field, too, feels the fading fright of a well-fed fate’s finality.” Reading that quickly, without also speaking it, makes me visibly grimace. But I can’t deny that reading it out loud these many days later conjures the sort of pleasures of the tongue normally accompanied by a kiss or a quaff. I often try to describe this, technically and poetically, conversationally sometimes, and each time I feel inadequate to the cause. But maybe that’s inevitable with these things.

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§ 8 Responses to Speaking of Sound

  • dylan says:

    I think Kafka finds a great sentence that expresses something similar to what you’re saying and at the same time making the meaning diverge from the words by way of an image that grows. As he does so often in my eyes to startling effect.
    From the start of his Diaries:
    “If he should forever ahsk me.” The ah, released from the sentence, flew off like a ball on the meadow.”

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Dylan, yes, that is splendid. I’ve never read Kafka’s Diaries. Have you made it all the way through.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Incidentally, I just came across this quote via the blog 50 Watts. (I would post it on the main page, but I’ve already cribbed a quote from them for the day.) Plus, it speaks very closely to this particular post. It is from Blaise Cendrars’ 1966 interview with Paris Review.

    Interviewer: What have you discovered since? What do you read at present?

    Cendrars: The latest book I’ve discovered is the great dictionary of the Customs Administration that we owe to an edict of Vincent Auriol, then Minister of Finance. It is entitled Repertoire general du tarif and appeared in 1937. Two volumes quarto. Weight fifty kilos. I take them every place with me because I’m going to need them some day soon when I begin to write La Carissima, the mystical life of Mary Magdalene, the only woman who made Christ weep.

    Interviewer: You need the customs tariffs in order to write that book?

    Cendrars: My dear sir, it’s a matter of language. For several years, each time that I prepare to write a book, I first arrange the vocabulary I am going to employ. Thus, for L’Homme Foudroyé [The Astonished Man, available again from Peter Owen], I had a list of three thousand words arranged in advance, and I used all of them. That saved me a lot of time and gave a certain lightness to my work. It was the first time I used that system. I don’t know how I happened onto it…. It’s a question of language. Language is a thing that seduced me. Language is a thing that perverted me. Language is a thing that formed me. Language is a thing that deformed me. That’s why I am a poet, probably because I am very sensitive to language — correct or incorrect, I wink at that. I ignore and despise grammar which is at the point of death, but I am a great reader of dictionaries and if my spelling is none too sure it’s because I am too attentive to the pronunciation, this idiosyncrasy of the living language. In the beginning was not the word, but the phrase, a modulation. Listen to the songs of birds!

  • dylan says:

    No I have only read fragments of the Diaries. But a lot of wonderful stuff in those bits.
    Wonderful interview! This book on Magdalene via the Customs Administration dictionary sounds so good.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Dylan, I have to say, I’m very happy you made your way over here. I did not know of your site before you commented here, but am now very eagerly going through all your postings now. Wonderful stuff here.

  • dylan says:

    Cheers Brad. Really enjoying your posts here too. I always thought I’d have a natural worldwide audience of about 5 so to find potentially one of those is good:)

  • tom clark says:

    “Falling upon a fleeing fawn in fallow field, he felt afraid.

    “He looked down and saw the blood on his hands.

    “The word ‘fatal transmogrification’ occurred to him, and he wrote them down in his diary.

    “Franz kept coming up with one verbal idea after another, poor pretexts for never wanting to marry Milena.”

    Perhaps it would be pleasant to write Franz’s Diaries for him.

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