Nicholas Delbanco on Voice

From the Washington Post’s The Writing Life: “Remembering the Reys” by Nicholas Delbanco, published Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Voice. I have been trying to “throw” it all my life. Ventriloquists are few and far between, and good ones very rare indeed, and authors don’t routinely work in distant vocal registers. The process of apprenticeship, or so we tell our students, consists in large part of discovering and refining one’s private particular voice. It’s important that a writer learns what is or isn’t working in a given intonation and how to temper inflection so it’s hers or his alone. One measure of achievement is just such language-patterning; when we say, “Nobody else could write this,” we mean it mostly as praise.

But the gift of “other voices, other rooms” — in Truman Capote’s titular phrase — is in its own way crucial to articulated art. Otherwise we would repeat ourselves, saying only “I, I, I,” and could describe only what we witness or experience first-hand. All written discourse would be memoir or personal essay; the single character on stage would be a simulacrum of the playwright, and all we’d hear are monologues.

Consider William Shakespeare. Perhaps no one in history — and certainly not in the English language — has reported on a greater range of characters and social classes; from gardener to Bishop, from fool to King and “rude mechanical” to courtier, he moved with almost insouciant ease and a dramatist’s all-seeing eye. Lawyers believe him a lawyer, scholars construe him a scholar; those whose expertise is philosophy or religion or soldiering believe he must once have been trained as philosopher, cleric or soldier. His “I” is multitudes.

What this means in theatrical terms is that he could shape-shift at “will.” As John Keats observed, the dramatist was supremely possessed of the faculty of “Negative Capability” — the ability to enter a consciousness other than his own. Always, Shakespeare was able to argue both sides of a single question, inhabit warring adversaries and phrase opposing views. This is a sine qua non of the theatre, where men and women up on stage aren’t stand-ins for their author but motivated characters with conflicting needs.

The gift of the conflicted self is crucial for the novelist as well. Argument and counter-argument, two characters in opposition, plot-twists and inward-facing discourse — all the fictive strategies that bring to life a world in words — rely on our ability to modulate our voice. The empathetic alertness that caused George Eliot to enter the brown study of a clergyman or William Faulkner the unspoken language of an idiot makes of “Middlemarch” or “The Sound and the Fury” enduring works of art. We prize, and should, the distinctive rhetorics of Woolf and Joyce and Hemingway, but even these more-or-less instantly recognizable authors provided us with characters that were not self-portraits. When Flaubert said, “I am Madame Bovary,” he wasn’t describing a cross-dresser’s gambit but imagination’s reach. It’s one of the great yields of art, and one to value greatly, that we can conjure up a cockroach or a general, a great white whale or those who pursue it by the simple arrangement of letters. What better way to travel ensconced in the one chair?

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