Inside and Outside Voices

Steven Connor with Enzo Manseuto

An interview with Enzo Mansueto for Rodeo magazine (Milan), marking the publication of La voce come medium. La storia culturale del ventriloquio, trans. Massimo Gezzi (Rome: Luca Sossella, 2007), Italian translation of Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. An edited version of the interview appears as ‘Le Voci Dentro e Fuori di Noi’, Rodeo, 43 (2008): 66.

- Ventriloquism as a topic for a huge volume… it could sound “eccentric” in an Italian University… How was Dumbstruck received in the British academic world?

Well, judging from the giggles that greet the announcement of the book title when I am being introduced, there are plenty in Britain who also find it somewhat eccentric. I would like to be able to tell you how the book was received in Britain, but I can’t, really. This is because I am very cowardly, and have never knowingly read a review of any of my books. Of course, people have spoken and written to me about Dumbstruck, but they always say nice things. I have not encountered anyone who didn’t like it, but then, how could I?

More seriously, I have the strong feeling that the kinds of odd or eccentric topic in which I have increasingly found myself interested are becoming much more mainstream in the UK. So much so, in fact, that it is getting increasingly hard to think of topics to research that do not turn out already to be the subject of a monograph or conference. Still I have a list that I am working through.

- Do you know any Italian researcher close to your studies or interests (I’m thinking about Gabriele Frasca, for example)?

I am certainly aware of the work of Gabriele Frasca, but have not read any of it, I am ashamed to say.  But I do remember being very impressed by Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s Filosofia dell'ascolto, which I read in the early stages of writing the book.

- “Cultural History”: in which sense could it be considered as a History of the History of x?

I was certainly greatly helped by the fact that ventriloquism has already been the subject of different kinds of history, written by different kinds of person at different times. A French mathematician and inventor, the Abbé de la Chapelle, wrote a ludicrously compendious account of ventriloquism in 1772, which does a wonderful job of gathering together all the classical accounts of the phenomenon of ventriloquism, as well as providing some invaluable contemporary narratives. Ventriloquists themselves tend to be drawn to the history of their art (the same thing is true of conjurors, in my experience). On top of this, there are lots of individual histories of the lives and adventures of particular ventriloquists. So I certainly had plenty to start from. The point seems to be that ventriloquism is always somehow out of date, or anachronistic. At whatever point in history you try to isolate and account for it, it always appears as an odd, slightly grotesque or ridiculous survival from some former time.

- Can you imagine your “ideal” reader? What do you consider to be the “proper destination” of your work?

In one sense, I cannot really imagine who could ever be as interested in all this stuff as I am. But in another sense, I imagine somebody just like me, that is, somebody who finds the academic preoccupation with the respectable, earnest, well-dressed issues (identity, ethics, violence, sexuality, gender), rather weird and wearisome, and wonders why so little attention seems to be paid to the eccentric, the incipient, the ill-assorted, the ridiculous. But the great thing about this topic, indeed, all the kinds of topic on which I have written in the last ten years or so, in the pursuit of what I have sometimes called ‘cultural phenomenology’, is that ordinary people turn out to have all kinds if unsuspected expertise in it. Right at the end of my research, after six years which had made me confident that I had read every relevant text and thought every relevant thought with regard to ventriloquism, ordinary people could still come up to me after lectures I had given and make a suggestion or a connection that had never occurred to me.

- Metaphorically speaking too: who’s the greatest living ventriloquist?

Again, I am afraid I am the wrong person to ask.  My problem is that I grew up watching ventriloquism on the TV, where the close-ups make it perfectly clear that it just can never be done as well as people want to believe it can. I am fond of a joke which illustrates this rather well. A young man entertaining his elderly aunt up in London decides to take her to a ventriloquist performance. Remembering too late that she is very deaf, he is very embarrassed, and, as they are leaving the performance, offers his apologies for being so insensitive to her infirmity. ‘Oh, that is quite all right’, she replies. ‘I enjoyed the show immensely. You forget – I can lip read’. So I am not much of a fan of contemporary ventriloquist performers. I once alleged in an interview that there can only be around half a dozen working ventriloquists left, which provoked an indignant response from all the working ventriloquists in the UK (about six of them, as it turned out). I was summoned on to radio programmes to defend my injurious claims, and had to talk penitentially to assorted ducks, monkeys and other dummy-characters (they were always invisible, in some other studio, miles away), explaining why I was trying to take away their livelihoods. That said, I do have an admiration for the work of the American ventriloquist David Strassman, who seems to me to have a shrewd understanding of the history of ventriloquism, which he plays with very knowingly in his performances.

- Can you remember your first experience of ventriloquism as a child?

I was terrified. I couldn’t understand what on earth was going on, but I think I sensed some terrible, nameless violence being expressed both through and towards the child-figure of the dummy, who seemed on the surface so powerful and fearless. One of the arguments of my book is that the fact that the ventriloquist dummy is so often an evil child allows for the release of hostile feelings towards children, and especially male children, that are otherwise kept (tightly and rightly) under control. I think this uneasiness is very common among children confronted with ventriloquism. They know that adults who seem to be being so childish are up to something. I was once written to by somebody who said he had had recurring dreams of crashing into an old, 1940s-style car, which had a ventriloquist dummy leering on the back seat. The person concerned had had hypnotherapy which prompted him to think that he might have been a ventriloquist in a previous life. I was able to identify the memory as matching closely the opening scene of a rather inferior 1964 horror film called Devil Doll, which shows a ventriloquist being driven in a big, black, hearse-like car with his dummy Hugo leering beside him. This is, I imagine, the closest my work has ever come to being of direct use to anybody.

- Confess it… you tried to teach your belly to talk while writing the book!

No. I am often urged to demonstrate my ventriloquial prowess (usually on the radio, where I had a better-than-average chance of getting away with it), but I have never learned how to do it, not even as a young boy, when I yearned to possess X-ray glasses, and all the other things that were advertised at the back of comics, alongside the ‘Teach Yourself Ventriloquism’  books. However, I am not unduly worried by this, since my claim in my book is that nobody has ever really been able to do ventriloquism, or not as well as we want to believe it can be done. Ventriloquism is distinguished from conjuring and other arts of illusion by the fact that we so much want to be fooled, even though we know exactly how the trick is done.

- “Ventriloquism” looks like a hidden path for reaching the open area of “voice” (and orality) studies… is it?

Yes. Making sense of this eccentric or aberrant form of voice helped me to understand how much is invested for us in the assumption and expectation that we can assign voices to their rightful places. This is bizarre, because the whole point about the voice is that, in a sense, it also exists apart from us: it is, as the psychoanalyst Guy Rosolato has memorably said, the human being’s ‘greatest power of emanation’, that which allows us to go beyond ourselves.

- Looking at the most contemporary forms of art or communication, where can be mostly recognized the effect of a technologically displaced voice?

Ventriloquism, in the technical sense of voices separated from their points of origin, is nowadays everywhere. Indeed, we may find ourselves responding to and interacting with, more disembodied voices (through radio, television, recordings, and telephone)  than embodied, here-and-now ones. The strangest thing about all of this perhaps is that we should scarcely  find it strange at all. This suggests to me that there may be something ventriloquial in all voices. Even before we have the technological capacity to separate voices from their sources, we may think of the voice as the magical power to come apart from ourselves, to be inside and outside ourselves at the same time. My voice is me, but it is also me-beside-myself.

- Will you ever write the novel “Invasion of the Voice Snatchers”?

Fortunately, I made a vow some years back, that I would never write a novel of any kind. This has proved to be a great deliverance, not only for me personally, but also for readers of fiction everywhere. I do however recommend a children’s play from 1998 by Alan Ayckbourn, called Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, which is actually about a stealer of voices, called Mr. Accousticus.

- What are you working at at the moment?

I have just finished a big book on the ways in which the air has been, and is currently imagined, in art, literature, painting, science, medicine, and so on. It has a sort of distant kinship with the ventriloquism book, in that I have quite a lot to say in it about the intense work of fantasy that attaches to the human breath, which is both demonic and divine, both flatulence and afflatus. One early theory of ventriloquism was that it was the devil’s speech, which was produced backwards (like everything the devil did), by speaking while breathing in, rather than breathing out.