Recalling Voice : La Muerte y la Doncella

Andrew Munro

Griffith University

  D’ailleurs, quand il m’arrive d’être plus ému du chant que des paroles chantées, j’avoue que mon péché mérite pénitence, et alors je préférerais ne pas entendre de chants.
(San Augustin, Les Confessions, 237)

De Cavallo recuerdo su voz. No creo que la pueda olvidar jamás. Una voz clara, podría llegar a ser amanerada. Era de los buenos. De los que me venían a decir: "Está todo bien, ya va a pasar. Vas a salir de acá". Media hora después venía otro a torturarte. Cavallo era mi tutor; mi responsable, no era el asesino bruto. Yo lo comparo con los tipos de la inteligencia nazi, fino, culto, con un desdoblamiento de personalidad que combina al asesino más macabro con un señor con clase.
(Testa in Relea,

The voice alone is company but not enough. Its effect on the hearer is a necessary complement. (Beckett, Company, 11)

Paulina: … te quiero en mi Schubert que voy a recuperar… (Dorfman, La Muerte y la Doncella, 66)

La manera de evitar la repetición de las grandes convulsiones no es callando su existencia.
(Dorfman, La Muerte y la Doncella, afterword)

Ya atado, la primera voz que oí fue la de alguien que dijo ser médico y me informó de la gravedad de las hemorragias en las piernas y que, por eso, no intentara ninguna resistencia. / Luego se presentó otra voz. Dijo ser El Coronel…
(Dr. Liwsky in Nunca Más, 28)

… El oído percibe lo que es propio del ojo porque ambos viven la experiencia de una misma belleza. A ésta la reconoce desde el primer momento: certeza íntima de lo nunca visto
(Adorno, Mínima moralia, 110)

[Aquel lugar transitorio] parecía un sótano, éramos 15 y, entre nosotros, reconocí la voz de Puértolas, por una entonación aguda que aún me sigue como un perro.
(Miño Retamozo in Nunca Más, 36)

… I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object.
(Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, 86)

Por la noche llegaba ‘la voz feminina’, conocido Oficial de Gendarmería que impostaba la voz y lo primero que hacía, era acariciarle a uno los testículos…
(Miño Retamozo in Nunca Más, 37)

… am I hearing voices within the voice? But isn’t it the truth of the voice to be hallucinated? Isn’t the entire space of the voice an infinite one?
(Barthes, Image Music Text, 184)

… only the lack of voice prevents one seeing the living Ambrose. (Petrarch in Baxandall, 51)

This paper is a reading, of sorts, of Ariel Dorfman’s La Muerte y la Doncella, first published in 1991. What it is not, however, is a comparison of different dramatic representations of the text, or a consideration of the generic constraints at play in constituting the filmic version of Dorfman’s work. Similarly, this paper will not concern itself with the rather mixed reactions with which renderings of La Muerte y la Doncella have met.

Nor is this piece a series of speculations on the possible pertinence of Dorfman’s text to persons in any country "[giving] itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship" (Dorfman, 1994: ii). What we will not do here is attempt somehow to assess the historical verisimilitude(s) of this particular text, or draw inferences regarding the experiential validity of the stories told in La Muerte y la Doncella—potential "symbolic and secret connexions to the larger life of the country itself, the world beyond the narrow, claustrophobic boundaries of the [woman character Paulina’s] home" (Dorfman, 1994: 71) will thus not overly nor overtly concern us here. In this paper it is, then, neither a question of vindicating nor of attributing blame or responsibility to the personae, neither an absolving nor a condemning of persons in the ambit of Dorfman’s text. Rather, La Muerte is read with a view to gaining some sort of purchase on certain prejudgments concerning signhood in lacanian psychoanalysis, as well as recalling the place of memory work. Mostly, though, La Muerte allows us to read against some premisses informing Barthes’ notion of the grain of the voice which he expounded most explicitly in Image Music Text (1977: 179-90). Reading against the grain here entrains hearing how vocality is in fact made to matter, lending an ear to the talk of the stuff of voice.

Figures of voice often subsume figures of vocality. This commodious voice figure is used catachrestically in a range of topoi – there’s the phallocratic authorial/authoritative getting of and having a voice, the advocative granting of a voice to others, the contestatory voicing of a concern and speaking one’s mind, the doxastic voice of the people, the entelechal finding of and coming to voice, the scary voice of reason, the moral voice of conscience, the anchoring mediation/dislocation of the voice-over, the replicated recorded voice, the at times troubled synchronicity of the disembodied voice-off, the diacritical dash of another voice in scripted dialogue and so on which all exceed each other and any descriptive project. In talking of a catachrestic use of voice in different topoi, though, we don’t want somehow mysteriously to posit a place outside of metaphoricity : the fetishistic figure of catachresis here evoked might more usefully be heard in the present talk as recalling a merging of voice and vocality, the discursive and the not-apparently so, the coimplication and involution of modes of production and apprehension/reception. This sea of vocality, then, this plurivalence of interpellating, interpolating voices in different degrees of embodiment is to be heard in La Muerte y la Doncella.

Typically, embodied voices are figured as feminized, where the feminine is heard as the marked other, the immanent, to which is opposed the transcendence of a disembodied phallic voice of reason. The vocal and the gestural are then often conjointly construed as speaking a body language of sorts, with the embodying of voice working to construct vocality as symptomatic. Talk of the symptomatic in turn entails the relating of psychoanalytic stories—little wonder, then, that psychoanalytic paradigms are popular in the critical telling and retelling of voice tales.

However, embodied voices in Dorfman’s La Muerte are a little more problematic—close attention is certainly accorded to something like the grain of the voice but this is not really configured oppositionally—the maternal material/paternal spiritual, imaginary/symbolic, semiotic/symbolic and so forth binaries don’t quite tell the story of the place of the stuff of voice in La Muerte y la Doncella.

In fact, Dorfman’s play calls to mind an imbrication of different and differing jurisdictions, the self- and other-arrogation of authority to hear out cases and the shifting truth-speaking places thereby evoked. La Muerte figures a conjoint concern for the voice and for discourse and evokes their complicity, signals their coimplication. Barthes’ apophantic disengaging of the geno- from the pheno-text, the grain of the voice from discourse and vice versa recalls other divisions of the indivisible—the verbal and the non-verbal sign distinction subtending kinesics, for example (where actions, though speaking louder than words, leave us needing to know what the said actions say), or the interested distinctions between logos and phone or logos and melos, diction and the gesture-support, the constative and the performative or, for that matter, death and the maiden.

This dichotomizing is certainly useful for certain prescriptive descriptors. It's neat in some accounts of synaesthesia, apposite in unproblematized versions of speech-act theory and a smooth heuristic move in communications studies. Indeed, this oppositional gesture is useful generally where disciplinary definitions work to map borders and delimit inquiry. The binary Barthes reprises here is an opposing of the geno- and the pheno-text. However, this dyad suffers because and in spite of its and, its conjunction working to contrast and coimplicate, delimiting as borders do from without and within. Barthes' disengaging of the geno- from the pheno-text, then, while strategically useful, is complicated in this particular practice by a tortured body/subject -and those close to and by her- immersed in an historical fluidum and possessing a sensorial intellection, a recollection of a damaged past.

The voicing of traumatic histories and dialoguing of damaged pasts is the stuff of many a psychoanalytic scene, where curative practices presuppose the pathological positing of the patient. Talk of therapy certainly features in La Muerte y la Doncella (Dorfman, 1997: 47, 53, 64, 66). Confessional dynamics, too, are variously configured throughout the play (1997: 39, 42, 51, 57, 74). These confessional conformations are perhaps most usefully thought in relation to inflexions of the talking cure, as talk of therapy and types of confessional talk are heard in the same places. Certainly La Muerte, with its foregrounding of therapy, works to complicate any talking cure, performing it differently and to differing degrees. One instance of this problematizing is the inversion of the figure of the talking cure story which comprises the positing and coercive grounding –feminizing even- of the analysand and its correlative positioning of a distanced, omniscient analyst : in La Muerte it is in fact the ‘hysterical’ female who ‘therapeutically’ interrogates the good doctor.

La Muerte, then, plays out a problematized version, or problematized versions, of a talking cure. Dorfman too paratextually talks of classical tragedy, affirming in the afterword (1997: 91-2) that he opted to write "lo que podría llamarse una tragedia, por lo menos si atendemos a la función que le reconoció Aristóteles hace miles de años: ayudar al público a purgarse a través de la conmiseración y el terror, es decir, permitir que una comunidad se enfrentara a los temas que, de no tratarse a la dañada luz del día, podrían conducir a su ruina o menoscabo". ("I felt that Death and the Maiden touched upon a tragedy in an almost Aristotelian sense, a work of art that might help a collective to purge itself, through pity and terror, in other words to force the spectators to confront those predicaments that, if not brought into the light of day, could lead to their ruin".[Dorfman, 1994: 74])

Aristotelian katharsis, with its proairetic privileging of action and peripeteia over character, can itself be turned on its head here or at least accommodate an abreactive reading of the play. Some common interpretive ground here might be found by invoking an accomodating anagnorisis, a recognition of sorts although it is not this paper's brief to speculate on the experiential pertinence to different audiences of Dorfman’s text. Suffice it to say, then, in relation to La Muerte, that although the audience(s) may be positioned differently when compared with their situating in psychoanalytic stories, it is perhaps worth recalling the privileged place of theatre within freudian narratives and mentioning that we are maybe not talking here about an entirely other scene. Individual audiences, plainly, both find themselves in and find themselves impelled to heed the concerns voiced in internal scenes; there’s likewise a certain coercion in the call, an insistence in the interpellation, no halt either here or elsewhere to hermeneutical hearing nor any absenting oneself to some privileged extraterritorial place.

Notions of plenitude and loss, too, are certainly present in Dorfman’s work—however, they are likewise inflected a little differently, mediated via a gendered and politicized past. The en-gendering of Paulina’s subjectivity is to a degree overdetermined, predictable in the context of voicework in the play—Paulina is variously configured as mad hysterical woman (Dorfman, 1997: 32, 42, 53, 56, 57, 80). Throughout the construction of Paulina as mad woman and her domestication (1997: 9, 30, 56, 80), it could be useful to keep in mind hysteria’s spectacular complicating of interiority/exteriority, mind/body and similarly analogized binaries.

Likewise, vocality in La Muerte is corporeally situated—a voice-in-discourse is at some significant point a voice-in-body which in turn implies a body-in-spacetime, a body-in-place, a voice heard here in an intersubjective dynamic of recognition informed by a past. The instances of voice in La Muerte y la Doncella are articulated in and from a corporeal mnemonic place – something approaching the grain of the voice, where grain is akin to "the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue" or "the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs" (Barthes, 1977: 182, 188) is certainly heard here but in being heard here is equally heard historically, vocalization and audition working retro- and prospectively. For Paulina, the quality of Roberto’s voice stands in relation to a particular past, an enduring meaning—a long suffering indeed—inheres in the tone, the timbre and the pitch of his voice. Questions of irrefutable recognition, and voice recognition in particular, are thus foregrounded thoughout the work (Dorfman, 1997: 32, 48, 50, 54).

Indeed, voice concerns resound in La Muerte y la Doncella. Voicework similarly subtends Barthes’ notion of the grain of the voice and its correlate, signifiance. Barthes qualifies signifiance as "meaning in its potential voluptuousness" and "the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and nowise the message)" (Barthes, 1977: 184-5). If, as Barthes appears to affirm when he then associates signifiance with the escaping of the tyranny of meaning, language may perhaps be exceeded in vocal signifiance, then La Muerte y la Doncella concretely shows and tells how significance is not yet thereby elided, unless some strange elision of the experienced listener is put to work. Such an omission would merit the attributive ‘strange’ given the interrelation of vocalization and situated audition—the paronomastic proximity of the oral and the aural here points to how utterance situates the speaker as simultaneous listener, the identities of speaking subjects being both autonomously and heteronomously constructed, self- and other-consistence working to ensure signifiance’s recuperation as significance. The stuff of the voice, then, as made to make subjects made to make sense.

The experienced listener may thus be heard here as that body/subject audience which reacts more or less overdeterminedly to specific vocal stimuli—it need not entail any particular reflexivity. It is not the validity of Paulina’s resolve with regard to Roberto nor his possible responsibility that matters here so much as the fact that his embodied voice elicits from her a doubly determined response. Similarly, it is not so much the degree to which hearing the voice as already heard might comprise an apperceptive apprehension but rather that sensorial and mnemonic inferencing translates to other perceptive action, which constitutes the experienced listener as a subject who responds, re-acts.

The voice then in La Muerte y la Doncella matters irrevocably, where the irrevocable speaks as irreducibly sensible and intelligible, irreplaceable, the unlocalized supplementary space in which Paulina moves, the process of vocality in part at least giving place to her as subject. Giving place to or inventing Paulina’s subjectivity even, if invention can be taken as an argumenting, a seating of the subject. If the heuristic can be heard as diffuse discovery, then vocality helps found and find Paulina’s subjectivity, where finding is taken as intersubjective and nonsuasive and where invention focuses minimally on argument as a place of and for programmatic agency.

Barthes, in transposing kristevian dichotomous terminology, invokes a pheno-song/geno-song opposition, where the geno-song consists of something like "a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or that depth) of production where the melody really works at the language" (1977: 182). Yet perhaps this reifying of the geno-song through its decontextualization doesn’t escape the tyranny of meaning (cf. Barthes, 1977: 185); Barthes’ bodies are somehow ungrounded, floating in a manner of speaking in spite of their flesh, partly voided of presence but equally voided of past, the vehicle of a desire to engage a nonpsychologizing erotics of an individual endowed with a dispersing subjectivity—something which La Muerte more than calls to account. In "The Grain of the Voice" (Barthes, 1977: 179-90) it is frequently a question of individual thrills and of jouissance—in the context of vocality in La Muerte y la Doncella, however, such a peculiar attention to voice is shown up as a rather abstract and abstracted voluptuousness which silences the work of memory, of recall. The voice-in-music –or even the voice within and without discourse-, for all its transcending a normative functionality of language is yet a voice embodied, an emanation apprehended via our being body/subjects in time and space, via our bodies’ being recollecting bodies-in-place.

La Muerte tells the story of how floating vocal signals at once fragment and ground subjectivities, how the dependencies of vocalizer and audience, presence and retro-prospective absence, represor and reprimido, victimario and victima and death and the maiden speak themselves differentially. While other takes on the topos of the torturer-tortured imbrication include Cavani’s Portero de Noche (1974), Szeman’s The Kommandant’s Mistress (1994), to a degree Segal and later Howard’s Ransom (1956 and 1996 respectively) and certainly Young’s Extremities (1986), it is Dorfman’s work which shows and tells how vocality works and worries inside-outside subject-object relations, constituting a concrete locus of body/subjects’ linguistic and societal articulations. La Muerte y la Doncella thus provides a dialogical take on the hypokritical, explicating how the strictly phenomenological was never thus, the strictly sensual never solely so, telling of how the constitutive work of vocality is such that speaking here now is productively imbricated with both an anticipation and an anamnesis, an imaginary and/or lived recall of a speaking there then. This vocality in Dorfman’s work matters: as a constituent of meaning, it is both indicative of and impacts on the construction of subjectivities: vocality here signals and marks identities – the grain of the voice then as soma, sema and seme.

Paulina, it will be recalled, is an experienced audience, a seasoned spectator figuring intimate oral/aural certainties that constitute, contrast and conflate death and the maiden (Dorfman, 1997: 39, 48, 68). Paulina needn’t really look as she recognizes the doctor by his voice (1997: 23). This observation is not, however, to silence the coimplication of voice and vision, as is apparent in the closing concert scene (1997: 79-81) in which—together with the music—it is very much the play of the light and the gaze that matters. Perhaps a concern for a phantastic phenomenal voice motivates the reductive focus on vocality in the present paper. Then again perhaps not. Plainly, sensorial privations such as the application of a venda force the privileging here of the oral and aural. In any case the conceits of this paper listen more to the audible than to the scopic—Paulina, then, needn’t really look. She has no call to consult a spectrogram or speculate on voiceprint sheets—and in addition there is mention of corroborative smells, the scent of a skin (1997: 48). Besides the work of olfactory bulbs, though, there are contingent uses of idioms and paralinguistic idiosyncrasies, certain predilections such as a taste for Schubert (1997: 31, 68) and a citing of Nietzsche (1997: 22, 50).

However, despite these and other figures of presencing, there is yet something irreducible in the doctor’s voice, something which echoes in an infinite memorial place within and without Paulina’s head, something which matters and is hardly—or at least differently—decentering. We might add here in passing that, as with nineteenth century physical anthropologies’ thinkings through of the human body, there’s bound to be a certain interest in the inferencing and pathologizing of character effected by forensic, ethological and general psychological investments in scientistically determining the reliability of human voice recognition. Aside from figuring as a commonplace consideration in truth and justice commissions, such evidentiary questions of admissibility and reliability are also heard in civil arenae as in the Hauptmann case, for example. In La Muerte y la Doncella these concerns, variously inflected, are obviously never far from the personae’s lips. What primarily calls our attention here, however, is the way in which vocality and its recognition both construct and conflate subjectivities, working to define subject-object relations.

So it is the stuff of the good doctor’s voice which Paulina recognises (Dorfman, 1997: 32, 48, 50, 54), but what status to accord such stuff? The vocal recognition lived on Paulina’s part evokes a sensible space in which vocality signifies, in which the properties or qualities of voices come to matter—a space, in other words, in which the sounds of a voice call for a reading against a voluptuous invocation of fragmenting subjectivities, a reading against Barthes’ grain.

In connexion with this grain of the voice, it will be recalled that Barthes mentions an individual, erotic but in no way subjective scheme of evaluating the body in the singing voice—on page 188 (1977) he affirms that

The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings […] If I perceive the ‘grain’ in a piece of music and accord this ‘grain’ a theoretical value […], I inevitably set up a new scheme of evaluation which will certainly be individual – I am determined to listen to my relation with the body of the man or woman singing or playing and that relation is erotic – but in no way ‘subjective’ (it is not the psychological ‘subject’ in me who is listening; the climactic pleasure hoped for is not going to reinforce – to express – that subject but, on the contrary, to lose it). The climactic pleasure therein desired is not, we are assured, going to reinforce or express the subject but rather to lose it. Just how this loss is to be effected is not made clear. Barthes’ evocation of a non-subject ear would appear to lend itself to a lacanian hearing : aside from an echo of a platonic notion of music as constituting a threat of loss, of fragmentation, a disavowal of lack is here to be heard in the distance and talk of the grain could be taken as a fetishizing of the (mostly maternal) voice. Effecting this imaginary (partial) accession to the presymbolic via the supplement, surrogate voice poses a problem, though, as the very reification of the voice constitutes its audience as subject.

In any case, multiple loss and absence—as with various takes on objectivity and presencing—while irrevocably connected to vocality in and structuring La Muerte y la Doncella, are yet configured differently – the intercalated voice(s) of the cassette, for instance, cannot be accounted for in a reading of the taperecorder as generating a surrogate object : as with her Schubert, Paulina has need of this mediated and mediating voice for multiple motives none of which includes her disavowal of her own castration. Rather, the recording of Roberto’s voice works to constitute and conflate subjectivities, acting perhaps as an acoustic mirror which anamorphically reflects and mutually implicates death and the maiden. Vocality and the specular, in other words, are seen and heard to operate conjointly with the oral and aural reflecting the visual and the specular evoking vocality, working chiastically. In La Muerte y la Doncella there is both the voice and there is the mirror, the co-connotative work of a certain synaesthesia, the reflection of a self-constituting sound in an embodied voice or an intersensory hearing the other and seeing the self. Questions of the taped voice, confoundings of subjects and subjectivities and Paulina’s recuperating of voice through the reproduced speech of the other are seen to recur throughout the text, intricated with differing confessional dynamics (Dorfman, 1997: 41, 42 - another signal instance in this regard is the confessional interplay of lights and voices mediated by the taperecorder, beginning on 68). The polyvalence of vocality and the multiplicity of places—juridical, (inter)subjective, phenomenal, corporeal, passional, historical, memorial, etc.—in which voice here matters and is put to work, dissuade from listening out for some sweet grain of the voice.

Indeed, a certain uncertain nostalgia—that, perhaps, of losses imposed by the signifier, informs Barthes’ fragmenting subjectivities – maybe the grain of the voice here must be construed retroactively with a hint of a pre-symbolic, somehow strictly phenomenal past. However, it will be recalled that such talk of loss presupposes a static conception of signhood—something perhaps like a saussurean construction of the sign as a signifier/signified dyad functioning within a linguistic code and not without—which in turn facilitates the evacuation of the real and of reference. A similar construal of signhood appears to subtend the psychoanalytic project of and predication on an unmarked male (en)gendered presencing. It is this, perhaps, which enables such talk of signifiance and of imaginary vocal plenitude which is here evoked to counter static signification’s foreclosure of the ‘real.’

In his adumbrations concerning the grain of the voice, Barthes is rightly at pains to point out that he speaks "[…] not with regard to the whole of music but simply to a part of vocal music (lied or mélodie)." In concluding, he reminds us that his discussion "has been limited to ‘classical music’"(1977: 181, 189). The ideally sensual pheno-/geno-song binary subtending this talk of the grain would perhaps likewise benefit from its radical circumscription. While its extension to some song may work for Barthes, La Muerte y la Doncella shows how its confining to ‘classical music’ is rather prudent and tells why its analogizing to extramusical vocalization should perhaps be left pending.

Works Cited

Adorno, T. W. Mínima moralia. Madrid: Taurus, 1999.

Augustin, Les Confessions. Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1964.

Barthes, Roland. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1977.

Baxandall, Michael. Giotto and the Orators Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Comisión Nacional Sobre la Desaparición de Personas. Nunca Más. Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires.

Dorfman, Ariel. Death and the Maiden. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1994.

Dorfman, Ariel. La Muerte y la Doncella. Santiago de Chile: LOM Ediciones, 1997.

Lacan, J. (tr. Sheridan, A.) Ecrits. A Selection. Great Britain: Tavistock/Routledge, 1977.