Afterthoughts: Week 8

What’s so surprising about Othello is not the ongoing differentiation of the idioms of the characters—but a stronger sense than we’ve ever had before, I think, that the idioms may come loose. In particular, we hear Othello lose his particular mastery (though he regains it at moments, poignantly); we hear Iago’s jagged, insidiously flexible idiolect of jabs and tests and sallies and oaths take hold of his general. Repetition becomes both instrument and object of the play’s inquiries, from Othello’s generous rehearsal of Desdemona’s praise to the rhyming couplets she exchanges with Iago to the compulsive and contagious iteration of words like “honest” to the refrain of the willow song. That has a lot to do with the ways that critics have heard the play’s music, beginning with L. C. Knight (“The Othello Music”).

I thought Maddy’s phonetic diagrams—based on Bruce Smith’s chart of phoneme volume—were a fascinating exercise, right there on the boundary between what we can hear (or at least hear as pattern) and what we cannot (yet). The choreography of O-sounds toward and away from that dismal word “whore” was persuasively part of the passage’s power, something you could really hear once it was pointed out to you. (And so much criticism works that way, helping you hear something you might have missed by using a metalanguage to direct attention there.) Whitney’s diagrams of vowel tones functioned much the same way. I think it’s a very interesting question, whether one could write toward those effects in the way one writes toward metrical expectations. It doesn’t seem like such a stretch to imagine a culture that prized such patterns; and indeed, with a little statistical restraint, it seems possible we might discover orchestrations already present in works we admire.

I thought Jessica’s scene was brilliantly chosen, as a limit case of the damage that Iago does to the language of the play—so fragmentary, violent, scattered across the stage, hard to realize. Imagine writing it! And also, as she pointed out, it is at risk of being funny, ridiculous; and maybe that is true of more of the play, as its repetitions accumulate a kind of Bergsonian obsessive familiarity. The awful noise that accumulates (I loved John’s static for that) is maybe not so far from the rude noise of laughter. Important, too, that the scene is played out in the dark, as is so much of the play. Even if that is only a notional darkness, it does seem to make the dependence on sound the stronger.

There are ways in which the question of the play’s sound entails the kind of pulling back from the particular lines that a structuralist critic might accomplish in thinking about structure or shape—a visual abstraction, sacrificing detail for a more general clarity. As we discussed, the capacity of sound (independent of language) for abstraction is severely limited. Nonetheless, we have a sense that sound changes in some gross and significant ways across the play—something like Bruce Smith’s pitch diagrams, as they show how a scene might move up and down the musical staff and the human larynx. I think Dolar can help us with the way voices contribute to that sound, as something between the cri pur and articulation. But voice is not the only contributor. There is also that damned bell. When we say something sounds like something else, are we invoking that middle register of sonic abstraction? Blurring the details to get a big sound picture (sound image, sound scape)? Though perhaps it is exactly a repeated detail that provokes a sense of likeness.

Yan returned us to Othello’s final speech, where that old music of isocolon and suspension comes back, and he makes friends with his meter again; even though that return to self-control is close to the play’s tragic maximum. (The true maximum is surely the death of Ophelia: it occurs to me only now how the play’s interest in sound may also culminate in a voice stifled by a pillow—has the play’s undoing of articulation been headed there; or is that its most grievous symptom?)

I was so wonderstruck by the exercises. I will not try to comment on them any further here, except to say that I saw a few interestingly different kinds. There were 1) settings, with Yan’s and Mary’s both giving beautiful readings of the affective energies of their texts. I wonder, could one use music effectively to analyze other properties—motifs that might track interpretive interests, for example? Sarah and Maddy both rewrote the text as they set it; who knew, in Maddy’s bluegrass version, that there might be a ballad hidden in Othello’s report of winning Desdemona? A very interesting species of generic criticism. There were also 2) homophonic translations, from Will and Scott, which controlled for the sound by proposing (funny and ingenious) strings of sonically equivalent words. The difference between Scott’s approach and Will’s, the latter more concerned with the vowels, was interesting. Eli’s beautiful, visual sound-abstractions probably fall more or less in this category too. Who can say if one could learn to read such phoneme-maps as representative of artistic effects? But they were striking to look at and made me want to try. Then there were 3) non-linguistic visual diagrams of sonic phenomena, from Jeewon and Whitney and Maddy, all of which I thought were fascinating and rather beautiful; and all of which might just feed back into creative procedures. Then a couple, each in a class on one: 4) Andrew’s allegorical sound-map, and 5) John’s radio-static attention map, if map it could be called; perhaps the most explicit attempt (settings aside) to represent sound by another sound. Really resourceful.

Coming up, after Measure for Measure, two weeks on movement and music, before our final omnibus session on The Winter’s Tale. As the end of the semester nears I’d like to work on bringing what we’ve learned to far together, and with that in mind I’d like to begin each of the next three classes with a ten-minute exercise a little like the sortes vergilianae (that old procedure of sticking your finger arbitrarily into the Aeneid and taking as counsel whatever you find there). In our case, we’ll choose a passage at random, take a few moments to think, then each of us say something by way of making a total sketch of its language—drawing on our resources of prosody, rhetoric, figuration, language history, sound, and of course all those tropes and schemes we have been hoarding up. Very much like the sort of synthetic exercise one might undertake in a (foreign) language class, keeping new knowledge ready at our fingertips.


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