This Year I Rewrite My Novel–Part XII, “People hunger for this.”

When you open a novel–and I mean of course the real thing–you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul. Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this. (Saul Bellow, “The Distracted Public”)

Last Sunday, a house party featured a chanteuse, Elena Stewart, who in her one-woman show, “What Remains of Our Love?” performed lively and bare renditions of chanson–Piaf, Barbara, Brels.

Recorded musings on both the ecstasy and the illness of love framed each song as the artist changed wardrobe–flicking on and off a pair of satin gloves, donning and removing a long white tassled shawl from her shoulders, putting on different felt hats. In the corner of my friend’s living room, she stood in front of a microphone and stared into the lights, hardly blinking her large kohl-rimmed eyes, hands shaking as she sang, her voice unearthing the agony and the beauty of the streets and their song.

For about an hour, I sat there (charmed as a snake) completely transfixed by the voice and the eyes. Her emotional and vocal range, the expressiveness of her hands and eyes and mouth and brows. It was the intensity but also the details of her that seemed to express a private unflinching intelligence.

Talk about voice!

I used to work at a literary journal and for a while part of my life consisted of wading through the fiction slush, the maybe over 500 submissions, to find it.

What is it?

Most stories, I can’t even finish; I can’t even get past page one. But when the voice picks me up and makes me read it, I feel hopelessly overcome, transfixed by not just a series of events, but a world view, a wisdom that commands me to not just look but to keep looking.

It says that if I keep looking, I will find something there–maybe redemption, maybe heartbreak, maybe despair.

(Don’t we all want to find something?)

Saul Bellow said, “If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss.”

What is this bliss and what is the relation between distraction and disbelief? Is reality a state of disbelieving and fiction a suspension of that state, a suspension and surrender to implausibility based on a faith in the voice, a faith in something behind the eyes, behind the brows, behind the shaking hands, the satin gloves, that could be accessed if one could just sit and listen? And if the voice was not just tolerable but preferable, preferable to the “unrest” that is, yes, “distressing,” but also everyday?

In the context of having the pleasure of watching a World Cup game here and there, this idea of the voice as “the emergence from distraction” reminds me of a film I watched a couple years ago, Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait, video artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Pareno’s hypnotic and indulgent portrait of French superstar Zinedine Zidane that uses 17 cameras to track Zidane (and only Zidane) during a single match.

The cameras meditate on Zidane, anthropologically, with the occasional subtitle that quotes meaningfully-elusive observations of his, including the individual sounds he manages to hear within the cacophony of the crowd’s spectatorship. What is apparent to me throughout the film is not just Zidane’s athleticism but the way in which the body and the movement produce a voice, compelling enough for 90 minutes of film and subtle electronic music. The steadiness of the cameras which never flinch from the object, Zidane himself, is not just a gaze, but a pair of ears hoping to find something amidst the distraction, some sort of salvation of recognition, some truth that is not expressed in the everyday.

If “people hunger for this,” the intimacy and the voice that issues “from beneath the breastbone,” how does it, the “aesthetic bliss” enter the body but through the ears, the eyes, the skin?

??a lui rentre dans la peau
Par le bas, par le haut
Elle a envie pleurer c’est physique
Tout son ??tre est tendu
Son souffle est suspendu
C’est une vraie tordue de la musique
(Michel Emer, “L’ Accordeoniste”)