Seeing Sound: The Displaying of Marsysas
This is the text of a lecture given to mark the inauguration of the MA in Text and Image at the University of Nottingham, 16 October 2002. If you are viewing this page with Internet Explorer, you can run a slide show in parallel with the text.
It is neither accident nor surprise that in our world of recombinant media and conjugated forms, there should be such active and energetic concern with the ways in which different media and art forms converge. Convergence, which is to say, interconvertibility is all. The irritation of pedants and pedagogues like me with those who use the plural noun 'media', which we would want to reserve for reference to different mediums, as a singular, futile. For this odd, middling, singular-plural commixture of this word 'media' names the process of mediation, not just of the message to the receiver, but between the different agencies or media or mediation. Mediation, a singular and general condition of translatability, is the medium within which we live.
I want here to look at a much earlier period in the history of intermedial translation, by considering the rendering of the flaying of Marsyas, in myth, text and image. I shall consider how the story of the antagonism of the lyre and the pipe and the defeat of the latter has been played out, from Herodotus and Ovid through Raphael, Titian, Nietzsche and Frazer to contemporary rereadings of the Marsyas myth in the work of the French psychoanalyst of the skin, Didier Anzieu. Along the way, I will be considering the argument and agreement between sound and image, music and skin, cry and gesture, playing, flaying and displaying.
In his book Untwisting the Serpent, Daniel Albright uses the Apollo/Marsyas conflict to characterise two kinds of twisting or overlayering of medium. The Marsyan artist is impelled by a vision which is fundamentally premodal, or cross-modal. He has no concern with the niceties of form and the differing powers and possibilities of different modalities of expression. The spasmodic immediacy of music – music 'that cuts to the quick of the player and the listener' means that it 'naturally lends itself to intensification through other artistic media, such as singing and dancing… [and] tends to confound the distinctness of media' (Albright 2000, 19) Yet the Marsyan artist is so possessed by his vision that he can allow no possibility of alternative modes, and sees them as contaminations. The Apollonian artist, by contrast, has a much more abstract and formalised conception of what it is that he has to convey, and is thus much more tolerant of conglomerations and associations between different art forms. Because Apollo deals with distinctions and differences, his art can conceive and tolerate relations. Because for Marsyas all is intensity and originary paroxysm, in which there are no distinctions, all relation seems like betrayal.
My approach will be less abstract and schematic than Albright’s, though I will share with him the idea that the story of Apollo and Marsyas builds into a kind of allegory of its own rendering and that the relations between Apollo and Marsyas are much less simple than they seem. The defeat of Marsyas, which is a defeat of the breath, of the voice, of the the body and of the animal, is the subduing or silencing of the medium of sound by the medium of sight. As such, it is never in fact complete. The myth of the excoriated Marsyas repeatedly cries out for a picturing which cannot quite fail to repeat the clamorous violence of its act of muting. When I was a child, among the many ills to which television was heir to was a kind of tremulousness of the image caused whenever the volume rose above a certain level: the interference effect was known as ‘sound over vision’. This might be an alternative title for me, for I will be looking at the ways in which both image and text are rent and made to reverberate by sonorous intimation.
One further preliminary word. The most remarkable thing about this most savage of myths is the specific nature of the pay-off to the loser in the musical context, namely that Marsyas should be stripped of his skin. What has the skin to do with sound, and with the meeting or crossing of media?
Like many myths, the story of Apollo and Marsyas exists in no one version all together. One of the most detailed versions is that given in by Ovid in 19 concentrated but compelling lines in Book 6 of his Metamorphoses. Here we learn of the fate of the satyr Marsyas who has lost a musical competition between his rustic pipe and Apollo’s imperious lyre and has as a result been flayed. The tears of those mourning the cruel death of Marsyas soak down into the earth and gave rise to the river that came to bear his name. Other accounts of the myth provide a prelude. We learn that Athena has first formed the flute out of bones, but discarded it when she saw from her reflection in water how ridiculously puffed-out it made her face look. She has thrown it away, only for Marsyas to pick it up. The synopsis given in the Library of Apollodorus refers to the tradition that Marsyas found the pipes that Athena had thrown away (‘because they made her face ugly when she blew on them’) and adds the detail that Apollo won the competition by playing his lyre upside down and demanding that Marsyas do the same, an impossibility with a flute, which can only be blown from one end (Apollodorus 1976, 1.4.2, p. 7). Other accounts provide a musical sequel to the flaying. Herodotus alludes to the story in passing when describing the march of Xerxes’ army through the town of Celaenae in Phrygia. ‘The Catarractes rises right in the main square of Celaenae and issues into the Meander. Another feature of the Celaenae is that the skin of Marsyas the silenus is hanging there, where it was put, according to local Phrygian legend, after Marsyas had been flayed by Apollo’ (Herodotus 1998, 7.26, p. 418).
In the opening chapter of The Skin Ego, Didier Anzieu draws out from the myth a compendium of the nine functions that he attributes to the skin. A later chapter focuses particularly on the function he calls the ‘acoustic envelope’. One of the earliest of the many skins by which the child is surrounded, he writes, is a metaphorical skin or envelope of sound, formed by the echoing interchanges between the mother’s voice and the child’s own sounds. At this early point in the child’s development, there is no clear distinction between tactile and auditory sensations, and the sensations of being held, stroked, and patted are experienced in terms of the soothing, containing, enclosing contours of the voice, while the voice itself becomes something palpable. Anzieu’s discussion of the sound envelope is joined to a case history of a patient whom he names ‘Marsyas’, who seems to suffer from an unformed sense of an acoustic skin, which manifests itself in a kind of ‘deafness’ or unresponsiveness (Anzieu 1989, 159-61)
Anzieu’s ‘Marsyas’ is so named because he is skinless, either because the skin of his ‘acoustic envelope’ is lacerated and interrupted, or because it has never been properly formed. It might seem, then, as though the myth offers an image not just of the suffering of Marsyas, but also of the reparation offered in psychoanalysis. For we learn from the third-century anthologist of myth and anecdote Aelian of a tradition that ‘at Celaenae, if someone plays a Phrygian tune in the vicinity of the Phrygian’s skin, the skin moves. But if one plays in honour of Apollo, it is motionless and seems deaf’ (Aelian 1979, 13.21, pp. 430-1). Frazer zestfully amplifies this report in his discussion of the Marsyas myth in The Golden Bough , a discussion on which Anzieu himself appears to rely quite heavily:
At Celaenae, if we can trust tradition, the piper Marsyas, hanging in his cave, had a soul for harmony even in death; for it is said that at the sound of his native Phrygian melodies the skin of the dead satyr used to thrill, but that if the musician struck up an air in praise of Apollo it remained deaf and motionless (Frazer 1936, 289).
Aelian and Frazer make of the skin a double-sided image: a deaf, inert ‘unskin’ on the one hand, and a reborn plusquepeau or hyperskin, a sensitive membrane which, seeming to hear its own or ‘native’ sound, replies with the song of its hearing-voice.
However, in establishing his general equivalence between sound, music and the skin, Anzieu neglects what might appear to be the most important feature of the myth, namely the antagonism it charts between the specific kinds of sound produced by Apollo’s and Marsyas’s contending instruments. He therefore leaves hanging in the air the agonised question Marsyas asks in Ovid’s version: ‘Quid me mihis detrahis’ inquit: ‘a piget a non est tibia tanti’. ‘ “Why do you tear me from myself?” he cried. “Oh what pain, undeserved for such a pipe” '.
Perhaps focussing on the instruments involved, and the particular kinds of sounding bodies they represent, will help us to understand the sonorities of the skin in a more specific way. What are the instruments in question? Conventionally, and emblematically, Apollo plays the lyre, though this term really names a family of instruments, of different sizes, all of which are held, stringed instruments, which are played by being plucked. The pipe or aulos of Marysas is a wind instrument, still often described as a flute, though as a reeded instrument its timbre would have been much closer to that of a shawm, oboe, or clarinet. The story of Apollo and Marsyas encodes a more general antagonism which grew up in Greek culture between the lyre, which became the symbol of refinement, and the coarse, rustic pipe. This prejudice is preserved well into the Renaissance and beyond in Europe, in the form of a preference for stringed over wind instruments. The lyre becomes identified in medieval and Renaissance Europe with other stringed instruments, especially the lute and, through convergence with Biblical tradition, the harp. The associations of the aulos similarly pass across into a range of wind instruments. Later representations of Marsyas conflate him with the figure of Pan by giving him to play the syrinx , which Pan is said to have made from a bundle of reeds after his unsuccessful pursuit of a nymph, who has taken refuge in a reedbed. More especially, as we will see Marsyas will come to be associated with the bagpipes.( See image .)
The lyre and the pipe embody the principles of action at a distance and actions performed by direct contact about which classical and medieval philosophers argued so bitterly. It was well known from antiquity that the sound of a plucked string will cause another string in the vicinity tuned to the same pitch to vibrate in sympathy. This resonance was evoked repeatedly as an image of the relations of sympathy that bound the world together. Pythagoras had used the subdivisions of a string to demonstrate the mathematical basis of harmonic relations, and his model was generalised into a vision of a universe of shared laws and powers. At the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche offers a less conservative reading of the politics of resonance, finding in the lyre, or cithara ‘Doric architecture expressed in sound’ (Nietzsche 1956, 27). In a sense, Nietzsche seems to be saying, the music of the lyre is no longer music at all, but only the symbol of the higher, more abstract kind of music of mathematical relations. The lyre is identified with reason and measure, presumably because it includes within itself the regularly-spaced intervals of the mode, or the octave. The strings arrayed in parallel approximate to the abstract picture of music provided by the stave. The lyre stands for the possibility of metaphorical relations, in which things are both themselves and the signs of themselves. Parallelism, gapping and homology are fundamental both to the structure of the lute, and to the relations it figures. Included in this might be the parallelism of the bowstring and the string of the lute; Apollo, whose epithets are ‘the god who shoots from afar’ and ‘far-shooting lord’ in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, would frequently be shown playing viols and other bowed instruments from the mediaeval period onwards (Homeric Hymns 2001, 27). It is this parallelism and inclusion of intervals which makes possible the vision of universal relations coexisting with singularity, an ethics of responsible individuality operating within a vision of finely-tuned degree. ‘The virgins who, carrying laurel branches and singing a processional chant, move solemnly toward the temple of Apollo, retain their identities and civic names’ observes Nietzsche (Nietzsche 1956, 56). The lyre embodies the principle of this coordinated parallelism.
The violence of the interval is wonderfully displayed in Raphael's painting of the flaying. This draws on the detail found in some versions of the story that Apollo delegates a Scythian slave to do his skinning for him. As Apollo lines up his target, like a darts-player with his eye on double-top, his gesture is echoed and completed by the slave who is about to make his first surgical incision in the chest of Marsyas. The excruciation at a distance is partnered and parodied by the delicacy of the gesture whereby the bay of laurel is about to drop on Apollo's brows.
Cutting across this temperate kind of music is the ‘orgiastic flute’ (Nietzsche 1956, 44) which belonged to Dionysus, and expressed, or embodied, the principle of dissolution into unity. Nietzsche says that, where the temperate, intellectual lyre stands for an abstract unity which allows singularity to persist, the flute expresses a more primitive, protean sense of interflowing. In the Heraclitean or Dionysian commotion of sound, no relations are possible between things because there are no gaps between them, and everything is pressing up against its neighbour. In the Apollonian world, according to Nietzsche, I am a part of the cosmic order by being and remaining apart. In the Dionysian world, I am a part of everything in a much more literal sense, because I become what I touch upon, or what touches on me. Where the lyre requires an order of coordinated parallelism, the pipe procures an order of copulative commixture.
Nietzsche suggests that the defeat of the pipe by the lyre is not a victory of one kind of music over another, but a subduing of the ear by the powers of the eye. The lyre wins by silencing the pipe of Marsyas, and stripping away his richly resonant skin. The sculptor…is committed to the pure contemplation of images. The Dionysiac musician, himself imageless, is nothing but original pain and reverberation of the image’ (Nietzsche 1956, 39). Although Marsyas is not named explicitly in Nietzsche’s essay, he is implicated in the joyous suffering which characterises Dionysian excess. Indeed, his very skin seems to be figured in the fragile veils that are repeatedly evoked through the text: the ‘thin veil hiding from [Apollonian consciousness] the whole Dionysiac realm’ (Nietzsche 1956, 28) and the ‘veil of illusion’ associated with the domain of Apollo (Nietzsche 1956, 51), along with the desire of Dionysus ‘to tear asunder the veil of Maya, to sink back into the original oneness of nature’ (Nietzsche 1956, 27) and the ‘elusive rags of ancient tradition [which] have been speculatively sewn together and ripped apart’ (Nietzsche 1956, 46-7) in trying to account for the origins of Greek tragedy, as well as the dissolving ‘shudder’ (Nietzsche 1956, 27, 28) that ripples across this frail skin at the breath of Dionysian music. Dionysian ‘un-selving’ (Nietzsche 1956, 39) is, it seems, also a kind of unsleeving. Following the double logic of mythical sufferings, Dionysus is both victim and perpetrator of this unselving mutilation. Read in this way, the flaying inflicted by Apollo is in fact a victory for the tearing, dissolving powers of which Marsyas is necessarily both victim and vehicle.
More recent accounts have confirmed Nietzsche’s intuition, perhaps in part because they are formed knowingly or unknowingly in the shadow of his commanding Apollo/Dionysus dichotomy. Emanuel Winternitz finds in the Renaissance a deep and sustained ‘antinomy between the orgiastic, intoxicating ‘low’ music and temperate “ethical” music, and with it the differing symbolic characters of the kithara and the aulos, of stringed and the wind instruments’ (Wnternitz 1979, 152). Winternitz saw the saxophone as the inheritor of this rasping, orgiastic sound: had he been framing this judgement in the wailing heyday of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page in the mid 1970s, rather than ten years earlier, he might well have commented instead on the appropriation by the electric guitar of the excitingly fuzzy and dirty timbre that had always been proper to the reed (Winternitz 1979, 153).
We are perhaps far from being sensitive enough to the cultural phenomenology of musical instruments, and, more particularly, the forms of bodily fantasy they represent. Before instruments acquire their specific values and associations, they enact a primary transformation of the human body. If the two extremes of human existence are the animal or biological being of the body and the power of thought and self-representation given by language, then the realms of sound, voice and music lie between body and language. They are no longer merely body, for they are the emanations of the body, the body put forth or doubled. But neither are they yet language, in the sense of grammar, syntax, or semantics. Rather, they are the body of language, sometimes thought of as the inert mass or form out of which music will be shaped, or words selected, sometimes as an unchannelled impetus or power. An instrument, of whatever kind, is a paradoxical fixing in visible form of this possibility of bodily morphology. A tool performs work upon an object in the world, enabling it to be reshaped and re-produced. As its name suggests, an instrument also works as a mediation: it is instrumental. But the object of the work performed by an instrument is the body itself. An instrument is an image of this body transformed, or rather of its transformability, a congelation of the idea of the body’s possibility of remaking itself in sound, and, reciprocally, of the casting of sound in a bodily form.
Instruments provide precipitations in space of the many different postures and phantasms of what I have elsewhere called the ‘voice-body’ (Connor 2000). These postures are usually ecstatic, involving various forms of stretching, twisting, unbalancing or doubling of the body. Here we might note that the very word instrument (from Latin instruere, to instruct) has acquired overtones suggestive not only of enacted purpose but also of torture. The Inquisition practice of ‘showing the instruments’ to potential victims of torture, Joan of Arc and Galileo being the most famous victims, perhaps resonates with the Christian idea of the ‘instruments of the passion – the lance, nails and crown of thorns – which were depicted in icons and stained glass, and celebrated in the medieval festival of the ‘Arma Christi’. The singing bones and skins of legend and ballad retain this connection between suffering and music. When the body has become an instrument of torture to its owner, it can then become a musical instrument to preserve and recall that suffering.
One of the reasons for the discredit attaching to the pipe and other wind instruments in classical Greece is undoubtedly the ethical priority of vocal over instrumental music, and the use of the lyre as the instrument of choice to accompany the chanting or recitation of verse. As John Hollander observes, music without text was looked down upon by theorists of music (Hollander 1961, 34-5). Where one might have expected the flute to be identified with the exercise of the breath and the voice, the highest faculties of the human, it was in fact the lyre which became identified with the voice precisely by leaving it free to be exercised. By engrossing the mouth, by contrast, pipes and flutes swallowed articulate language in a flood of sound.
This flood of mindless noise is associated for the Greeks as still for us, with the deforming of the visual. This association is found in the Marsyas myth in the accounts of the laughter among the gods by the sight of Athena playing her new invention, the aulos. When she leaves the divine precincts and catches sight of her reflection in a stream, with its puffing cheeks and the ‘dreadful grimace into which the exigencies of the embouchure had twisted her face’ (Hollander 1961, 35), she immediately sees her colleagues’ point, and flings the aulos aside, with a curse for anyone who should pick it up. Athena’s transformation into a bloated gargoyle as she bends over the stream has called for little comment, aside from Didier Anzieu’s hilarious suggestion that the episode illustrates ‘what might, in contrast to penis-envy, be termed penis-horror in women. Athena, virgin and warrior, is horrified at the sight of her face transformed into a pair of buttocks with a penis hanging down or standing erect in the middle’ (Anzieu 1989, 48). The horror here may be a more general concern with what Greek called amorphia. What Athena sees is her face bloated, distorted, or drawn awry. Flowing water transforms and distorts her features, just as water will later provide an apotheosis of Marsyas’s tortured flesh.
There is another tradition about the invention of the aulos by Athena which brings this danger of losing face into much sharper focus and establishes some further intricate connections with the skin. Pindar’s 12th Pythian ode , written in 490 BC to celebrate the victory of Midas of Akragas in a flute contest, records that Athena invented the aulos after assisting Perseus to cut off the head of Medusa and in order to imitate the horrifying cries that issue from the mouth of the Medusa’s sister Euryale. Pindar specifies that she ‘wove [diaplexais', from diaplekô to plait, or interweave] the grim death chant of the cruel Gorgons into the music of the flute’. Euryale has not suffered her sister’s fate of decapitation, but it is as though her threnody were itself both mimicking and giving voice from out of the headless, faceless condition of Medusa.
As Thalia Feldman has shown, there is a close relationship between the face of the Medusa and the fearsome cry which is associated with her. The very name ‘Gorgon’ derives from the Sanskrit root garg, which, according to Feldman, signifies ‘a gurgling , guttural sound, sometimes human, sometimes animal, perhaps closest to the grr of a growling beast’. This word spawns a range of forms in various Indo-European languages, including the words gurgle , gargoyle and gorge (Feldman 1965, 487). The head of Medusa is traditionally to be found represented with mouth gaping and tongue protruding (with the tongue out, one cannot speak articulately, but only slobber and gag and grunt). The Gorgon’s name is a name for the nameless, a word for a sound that is not a word at all, but shouts words down, obliterating logos in black, annihilating noise.
This paradox of sound is matched by the visual paradox of the Medusa. The Medusa is associated not only with a terrifying cry, but with a death-dealing visage. Her face is a kind of black hole in vision, just as her cry is a kind of sonorous wound, a blind, shrieking hole gouged out in, but also of, sound. Freud famously thought that the head of the Medusa signified the female genitals, inducing a petrifying, if also in a certain sense bracing, castration-panic in men (Freud 1981, 273-4); but those less fixated upon penis fixation might find a more encompassing panic at the figuring of a face that has no figura , no form or face. As Françoise Frontiri-Ducroux points out, the Medusa is never given any of the privileges attaching to the prosopon , the social face which confers identity and acceptance, for hers is ‘the paradigm of the non-face’ (Frontiri-Ducroux 1995, 65).
The capture and regularising of the sound of the Gorgon in music is paralleled by the capture of her head and its incorporation into the breastplate or the aegis of Athena, on which the Medusa’s head came usually to be depicted. Like many other such magical skins, the aegis, variously represented as a cloak, or shield or breastplate that protects Athena invincibly, is not her own, but is shared, inherited or appropriated. Some myths have it that she has stripped the skin from a giant, Pallas, whom she has defeated in battle, or some other adversary, even the Medusa herself. Other accounts represent her as sharing in the aegis of Zeus, who has in turn inherited it from his mother, the goat Amaltheia, who nursed him and kept him safe from the wrath of his father. Fittingly, as Homer tells us in the Iliad, the deflective force of the aegis is such that it can even turn away the thunderbolts of Zeus himself. In some versions of the story of Perseus, it is Athena’s highly-polished shield, the double of her aegis, which enables Perseus to despatch the Medusa without meeting her gaze. In many picturings, the Medusa has been captured in Athena's shield.
Françoise Frontini-Ducroux argues that the literal unspeakability of the Medusa’s face, which is rarely described in Greek writing, produces a synaesthesic displacement of image into sound (Frontiri-Ducroux 1995, 66). But the importance of the aegis is to ensure that the opposite also takes place. For the capture of the roaring Medusa, either in the bag of skin in which Perseus will transport it, or on the magic skin of the aegis, as though in a flash photograph, also stabilises sound by displacing it into image, and specifically an image borne on the skin. The skin, which both repels and holds together in one place the terrifyingly formless image of the Medusa, parallels the sound of the flute. The stilling of the image by the skin is the equivalent to the distilling of noise into melody.
In order to be made image, the head of the gorgon must be reduced to a condition of superficiality or depthlessness. Indeed, Thalia Feldman surmises that the Gorgon began as a mask, or bodiless head, that then grew a body from which to be severed. Depthlessness is also the essential characteristic of Athena. It is as though she has inherited from her mother Metis, who was swallowed by Zeus, but, according to Chrysippus, spent her time in his belly cunningly knitting together the impermeable armour with which Athena will break out from his head, an allergy to interiority (von Arnim 1903, fr 908, pp. 256-7) Nicole Loraux goes even further, suggesting that the terror and the power of Athena come from the fact that she has no body, that she is all skin, or rather, since skin implies a living body beneath it, that she is all surface. It is ‘as if the aegis dispensed her from having a body’ (Loraux 1995, 222). More even than the capacity to block or defend, the aegis confers a kind of incorporeality: ‘Athena has an incorporeal touch, which makes javelins and arrows glance off the heroes, without any movement on her part’ (Loraux 1995, 224). This incorporeality is reinforced by the two other characteristic features of Athena, her flashing eyes, and her terrifying voice. She is, in fact, ‘nothing but a voice and semblances’.
Accounts of Zeus’s wielding of the aegis often suggest that it has a meteorological reference and nineteenth-century meteorological mythography made much of these associations. One of Zeus’s commonest epithets is ‘aegis-shaker’, suggesting a survival of Zeus’s skyey power over thunder and tempest, the aegis being the thundercloud. The shaker of the aegis is the one who causes the rumble of the thundercloud, which seems to be imagined as a kind of skin of wind. There appears to be a synaesthesic link between the ominous sound of this thunder and what is often described as the piercing cry of Athena. The conjoining of thunder and lightening, which, anticipating later discoveries, the ancient world grasped as two different aspects, sonorous and visual, of the same phenomenon, may be a conjoining of a special kind of dazzle or flashing light – a sizzling look that cooks you up – and the shivering effects of Athena’s cry. They are conjoined in the shaking of the aegis, which seems to compound the vibration of the thunder and the rapid zigzag of the lightning. This power to shake the forms and foundations of things, though irresistible and disintegrating, is nevertheless held together, in the image of the aegis. It effects a ‘convulsion’, from con-vellere, meaning to tear apart, to pull into all directions. As I have remarked in a longer discussion of the imagination of shaking ( http://www.bbk.ac.uk/eh/skc/shakes/ ), the prefix 'con' works to add the sense of pulling together; convulsion is a way of pulling yourself together, as well as being torn apart. It is the enactment of a dismemberment, the body torn into tiny pieces, that is nevertheless held in one place. Convulsion is a held-together-coming-apart.
Athena bears such an image in the Gorgon’s face on her shield. But perhaps she also can be thought of as wearing it like a mask. This creates a striking reversal of the terms we have been employing so far. For, if the Gorgon is a mask, then it is the Gorgon who is flat and depthless. Jean-Pierre Vernant has suggested (1991) that the horror of the Gorgon’s image is in part precisely the horror of that which is image, which has no depth, and yet can swallow you up. Françoise Frontini-Ducroux similarly points out that the decapitated head of the Gorgon ‘possesses no profile, or back or volume. It is deprived of the third dimension which belongs to the world of the living…it is presented as a pure surface’ (Frontini-Ducroux 1995, 68-9). As a mask which emits a terrifying sound, a grimace that is the very shape of the horrifyingly formless sound that is the Gorgonic roar, the gorgoneion is an embodiment of the persona, the simulacrum of the person that is born though the sound that emanates from the mask. Though a mask gives the appearance of being the outside of a hidden interior, from which voice surges, gives the appearance, in other words, of being an appearance, it is really only the semblance or apparition of such appearance. The voice comes from the interior of the person behind the mask, and not from the interior of the being represented by the mask. The Gorgon is all mask, all surface, all front. It may display interiority, with its protruding tongue, gaping mouth and its deep wrinkles, not to mention the bloodied gash of the headless neck, from which Pegasus will be born, but it is the illusory superficial depth of the mirror. A glance in the mirror is necessary to regulate one’s countenance, but at the same time, the fascinating mimetic effect of the Gorgon’s means that it makes its victims into mirrors of it. And there is a link between the mimesis of the surface and the mimesis of sound. Playing the flute, which she invented in order to imitate the cries of Medusa’s sisters, Athena finds that she is unconsciously mirroring them. Her desire to keep aloof from the multiplying and perverting powers of mirrors renders her liable to mirroring mimesis. As Vernant observes, the effect of, in both senses, playing the Gorgon ‘is actually to become one – all the more so as this mimesis is not mere imitation but an authentic “mime,” a way of getting inside the skin of the character one imitates, of donning his or her mask’ (Vernant 1991, 125) ‘To play the flute’, Nicole Loraux agrees, ‘ is to make the face of the Gorgon’ (Loraux 1995, 21 n.26). The Gorgon is the double of Athena, therefore, in being nothing but voice and semblance, the semblance of a voice, the voice of semblance. She is a membrane brought into being by the passage of the sound across it, a membrane that then makes the sound possible. She is a mask that howls, a feedback loop of the surface.
As we have seen, there seems to be a memory of the Medusa in the Marsyas story, though here it is not so much the twisting of the face, as the puffing out of the cheeks that represented ugliness or the loss of decorum. In one late retelling of the myth, by the fifth century Latin anthologist Nonnus of Pamphilos, Athena’s engorged cheeks seem to carry over into Marsyas’s flayed skin. Nonnus images the skin of the flatulent flautist resounding, not like a sympathetic string to Phrygian melodies, but by being inflated by the wind.
Another Seilenos there was, fingering a proud pipe, who lifted a haughty neck and challenged a match with Phoibos; but Phoibos tied him to a tree and stript off his hairy skin, and made it a windbag. There it hung, high on a tree, and the breeze often entered, swelling it out into a shape like him, as if the shepherd could not keep silence but made his tune again. (Nonnos 1940, 19.316-29, Vol 2, 113)
What kind of instrument is it that causes the cheeks to be puffed out? Certainly not a flute. But a reeded instrument might, and especially one like a clarinet for which one can employ the technique of 'circular breathing', or employing the mouth as a reservoir of air to keep the flow of breath into the instrument steady while replenishing the lungs through the nostrils. It is not clear whether any such instrument as the bagpipe was known to the Greeks. There is a Greek word askaules which literally means bagpipe (askos , bag and aulos, pipe), but it does not appear to have been used until long after the Classical period (Landells 1999). Nevertheless, part of the Greek suspicion of wind instruments that is articulated in the story of Apollo and Marsyas is the fact that they highlight the bagginess, the bellied condition, the skinny animality of human beings which is highlighted by playing instruments such as the bagpipes. This may be confirmed by what seems to be one of the earliest references to bagpipes in the Roman world, the remark of Dio Chrysostom that Nero was able to play the pipes ‘both by means of his lips and by tucking a skin beneath his armpits, with a view to avoiding the reproach of Athena’ (Dio Chrysostom 1951, 5, 173). The connection between the bag of skin which Marsyas becomes in Nonnus’s retelling and the bagpipe has also been suggested by Bernadette Leclercq-Neveu (1989).
The reproach referred to here may be the curse that falls on anyone who picks up the pipe she has angrily discarded, or may be a more general disapproval of amorphia, or the loss of facial composure. Not that the bagpipe offers any permanent guarantee of staying in countenance. In his 1635 book on musical instruments, the philosopher of music Marin Mersenne wrote that some musicians preferred the cornemuse, which was operated by a small attached bellows, to the traditional bagpipe, ‘inasmuch as the inflation by players is the cause of facial deformities’ (Mersenne 1957, 356). The apparatus of the pipe and the bag just too reminiscent of the stomach, the womb, the bladder, the bowels and other cavities in the human (and animal) body, and the biological functions they perform: pregnancy (Athena is the most militant of virgins), digestion and excretion.
The pipes and flutes associated with rustics and shepherds modulated during the sixteenth and seventeenth century into the varieties of the bagpipe, and Marsyas begins to be represented as a bagpiper. The pipe is therefore associated with what might be called an inflationary body image. This is the image of a body, not strung together as a fabric, but as a simple bag, blown up and let down, lurching intemperately between distension and the sudden trumpetings of illegitimate speech. The bagpipe is like a prosthetic lung, or belly, the inner cavity of breath slung on the outside of the body. Indeed, the player of the bagpipe appears to wear the organs of respiration on the outside of his body, organs which can easily be thought to have alimentary and excretory function; indeed this exchange of functions is embodied in the bag, which was often made of an animal’s stomach.
Almost from its inception, the bagpipe has been thought of as the most copulative of instruments. In the most elementary of metaphorical systems, the tube of the pipe connects together two equivalent organisms, both of them made up of pipes and bags: the body of the player and the body of the instrument. Both player and instrument have intake and outlet, both are receptacles that rhythmically fill and drain. The instrument can appear grotesquely like the player’s own viscera, externalised for the purposes of excreting music, or other sonorous matter. The fact that the bagpipe is so like an external lung or bladder means that the possibility of inversion or blowback is always there: given sufficient pressure, the bag can inflate the blower. The many images of bagpipe monsters in psalters such as the Luttrell Psalter and books of hours play with this possibility. The bagpipe suggests a body made up, not of parallel structures, but of mutually-encapsulated skins, and therefore provides opportunities for topological fantasies of literally conflated bodies. The animal origins of the bagpipe, which has customarily been made form the stomach or skin of an animal, and the conspicuous orality of its manner of playing can suggest that a nutritive function is conjoined with a musical one. (‘The dog who eats a bagpipe has meat and music at once’, as a bizarre Gaelic proverb has it.). The baby-like wail of the pipes also seems appropriate for the one playing the instrument can indeed appear to be at suck upon it. Of course, it is the bag which is nourished by the breath of the player, and so is an image of a Kleinian ‘bad breast’.
Fools, whose dress emphasised their skinny nature, were also associated with wind instruments. The bauble, or bladder on a stick with which jesters were traditionally provided, seems to be linked to their function as emitters of nonsensical vacancy, or hot air. This link seems to have made the bagpipe a natural instrument for the fool. The 1509 English translation of Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff shows a fool in a horned cap playing bagpipes, with a lute and harp spurned on the ground beside him. The accompanying poem instructs us:
Of impacient Folys that wyll nat abyde correccioun
Unto our Folys Shyp let hym come hastely
Whiche in his Bagpype hath more game and sport
Than in a Harpe or Lute most swete of melody
I fynde unnumer)able Folys of this sorte
Which in theyr Bable have all they hole confort
For it is oft sayd of men both yonge and olde
A fole wyll nat gyve his Babyll for any golde (Brant 1509, cviir)
The ‘bauble’ or ‘bayble’ carried by the fool was sometimes a head on a stick, sometimes a bladder full of air. The word ‘bladder’ derives from Old Teutonic blaê-drôn , from a verb stem blaê, to blow and drôn, contrivance or instrument. This word spawns a number of words for noisy, vacuous speech, of the kind that one might imagine would issue from a bladder, like blather, blether and blither, the last most familiar perhaps in the phrase, ‘blithering idiot’, common from the late nineteenth century onwards. Etymology thus attests to a strong association between air, skin and idiocy. Perhaps the pied piper in his airy motley is a descendant of the foolish Marsyas.
The improvised and compounded windbag bodies which wheeze and whine soundlessly at the margins of these texts and in places of more respectable song, are the blebs and blisters of sound bursting through the flat scenography of the page. They are not images of sound, but sound-images.
But is not gurgle, rasp, blather or blither that makes itself seen and heard in most of the later renderings of the flaying of Marsyas in Renaissance and Baroque painting. Rather, it is the animal howl of anguish. Stripping Marsyas of his skin enables him literally to be represented as the boastful windbag he has seemed to be in life. In his sickeningly explicit evocation of the flaying process, Ovid draws out an alternative logic. With the focus on his flayed skin, Marsyas is reduced to the condition of a wind instrument. But when Ovid (uniquely) focuses instead on the suffering residue of Marsyas’s body, the quivering nerves, sinews and veins exposed by the flaying, then he becomes the very image of Apollo’s victorious lyre. This is how Golding renders Ovid’s lines:
For all his crying ore his eares quight pulled was his skin.
Nought else he was than one whole wounde. The griesly bloud did spin
From every part, the sinewes lay discovered to the eye,
The quivering veynes without a skin lay beating nakedly.
The panting bowels in his bulke ye might have numbred well,
And in his brest the shere small strings a man might easly tell.
Ovid reveals that beneath the surface of the skin is a latticework of different kinds of string. Apollo's punishment therefore seems to take the form of a grotesque act of vengeful predication. ‘You claim the priority of the pipe over the string’, the flaying seems to say, ‘but your piping is as empty and puffed up as a bag of skin. Rip off that lying, vacuous bag and your own body testifies that underneath you are all lyre.’ The hanging and stretching of Marsyas that became a standard feature of representations of his fate from late classical times turns him similarly into a quivering string. In Renaissance depictions of the flaying, it became conventional also to show Marsyas suspended upside down, as he is, for example in Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas . This detail seems to be an ironic doubling of the tactic employed by Apollo to win the contest, namely that he turns his lyre upside down and continues to play it: Marsyas is unable to play the flute in a reversed condition. Suspending Marsyas in this way, and taking his skin off starts to look like a grotesque parody of the action of plucking music from the lyre.
Ovid's account of the flaying anticipates the unflinching realism that will characterise later renderings of the myth, a realism that seems to acknowledge the fact that the smooth, silent patina of beauty that paintings share with Apollo's white and marmorial flesh is contradicted by the grisly surgery that is required to teach Apollo's lesson to the animal, the foreigner. Only Titian seems to have allowed the surface of his painting to be agitated and interrupted by the 'sound over vision' of the violent scene it depicts. The Marsyas story therefore becomes readable as the defeat – or ‘purification’ of music by the surgery of harmony and metre. But the tragedy of Marsyas only produces more music: the music of the liquid cries which emerge as the clear-running water of the river which inherits the name of Marsyas. In fact the instrument formed in the cave is a compound assemblage. Marsyas’s skin is a kind of bag, or bellows, filled by the sound of the gushing water. Or perhaps it is in part a drum, made taut by its responsiveness to sound.
Imaged not just as plane, screen or surface, but as a sounding bag, the skin portends the complex topology of contemporary intermedial relations. Since the work of Marshal McLuhan in the 1960s, the struggles and relations between different media or technologies have been seen in terms of the different sense modalities. According to this model, the senses are mapped on to the different media: the hand with the pen, stylus and keyboard, the ear with the telephone, phonograph and radio and the eye with the camera and the screen. Thus the history of technologies and media which is currently being so energetically undertaken in so many areas is accompanied by an investigation of the cultural history of the senses. We tend to think of these different media either opposing each other, or complementing or completing each other, as though one piece of equipment were being bolted on to another, or one piece of territory being added to another. In either case, the sense, or medium, or technology in question is regarded as inhabiting its own demarcated area in space, as though there were soe common ground or substrate upon which they rested.. However, at times of convergence or general aggregation such as ours, new, more dynamic relationships began to become visible, not only in our present, but in the past.
Media and mediation suggest that which comes between or moves across spaces and places. But what is the location in or at which the meeting of the spatial media of the eye – the image and the text – and the nonspatial media of the ear, composed not of shape and space but of duration and intensity – take place? On whose ground does the meeting or mediation of eye and ear, or, come to that, ear, nose and throat, take place, that of the eye, or that of the ear? I will propose that the skin, which is not wholly in the grip of the eye, the ear, or even the hand, is often recruited to this role: that it is the skin which provides what Michel Serres has called the ' milieu ' in which the mingled body of the intermedial is shaped.
The skin can provide
this topological repertoire, as well as the idea of a plane projection because,
as has often been noted, it is the most mingled or intersensory organ. The
skin is that of us which is presented to the eye, and our picturings of ourselves
and of the world have often been borne and borne out too on one or another
kind of skin. But the skin also includes, scooped or coiled within it, all
the other organs of sense. The skin is both surface and depth. If skins are
the favoured surfaces for inscription of text and image, a kind of primal
bodily correlate for every kind of page, canvas or screen, then skins, membranes
and diaphragms have also been the favoured forms in which sound has been
both gathered and transmitted. Since the inauguration of the era of stored
and reproducible sound in the late nineteenth century, it has been various
kinds of sensitive surface which have furnished the mnemonic supports for
sounds – in tinfoil cylinders, shellac or vinyl disks, ribbons of magnetic
and, latterly, digitally inscribed tape, and the exquisitely untouchable surfaces
of the CD. Of course, digitisation may appear to have dispensed with the
need for this kind of sensitive skin as a carrier of sound, for sound can
now be encoded as a string of integers. But touch is liable to linger and
make unexpected returns in the imagination of sound. Laurie Anderson introduced
in her cycle of songs inspired by Moby-Dick a 'sound-stick', which
was part crutch, part harpoon, and part fiddle-bow. A process that she calls
'granulation' allowed different pitches and timbres to be as it were distributed
over the surfaces of the stick, so that sounds could be drawn out by the
friction of her hands, as though a violin were to play its bow. The effect
resembled that conveyed by other apparently virtual or bodiless instruments,
such as the theremin, which the performer plays by generating sound waves
by movements of his hands in the air, and the hypercello, which one can similarly
play by sawing at thin air. These may be thought of as reversals of the Aeolian
harp, that favourite Romantic instrument, which consists of strings designed
to be played by the air. In the theremin and the hypercello, it is the air
itself which seems to be being played. Perhaps behind all these actual and
imaginary membranes of sound is the thought of the delicate tympanum of the
ear, which vibrates to the impact of sound-waves and also transmits them
inwards: the thought of a sounding ear, intimated to a resonating eye.
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| Steve Connor | School of English and Humanities | Birkbeck |