Windbags and Skinsongs

Windbags and Skinsongs

Steven Connor

This was written as a chapter for my The Book of Skin (London: Reaktion 2004) but expanded to such a size that there was no room for it. This is part 1 of 9 parts. Some of the material from it was given as a lecture entitled Seeing to Sound: The Displaying of Marsyas, at the University of Nottingham, 16 October, 2002. Section 8: With the Help of Your Good Hands has been separately published in the The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2003), pp. 67-76. When another version of the material was given as a lecture at the Skin: Texture/Textuality/Word/Image conference at the University of London Institute of English Studies, 14 May 2004, it was introduced by this preface:

The skin has been on at me, and I have been about it, for some 7 or 8 years, but there was a time, hard though it may be to conceive, when the very idea of thinking and writing so sustainedly and singlemindedly about such a subject seemed outlandish, implausible and in every way enticingly ill-advised. Even so, I can distinctly remember, when I was still at the beginning of my tether with the skin, and the subject lay all before me, feeling a distinct gust of dismay, as I realised how perfectly and providentially the skin could be, and surely would be made to function as the bearer for our relentlessly intracurricular thinking in the humanities, allowing us to carry on all our clamorous commotions about identity, difference, race, gender, inscription, power, trauma, otherness and other such prepossessions, especially the last, in all the clammy narcissism that permits us to speak at such length about the otherness of the skin, without mentioning the name of a single (other) animal. I should have known then, and in a way did, that there was no prospect of this frail, fickle, silly familiar of ours bearing up against all this discursive duress, and that the skin was for it. But I spilled my 140,000 words nevertheless, trying first of all to write the skin into this curriculum, and then, catching from its success, secession, to write it out, digging secret passages and scooping places for my skin and I to hide out from the hue and cry.

What follows are some exfoliations from what is by far the longest chapter I wrote for my book, The Book of Skin, and my favourite chapter from it. ‘From’ is the right preposition though, because the thing is, the chapter is not actually in The Book of Skin, since Michael Leaman gently floated it off from the final manuscript, saying rightly that it seemed to belong to a different book, something I was happy to go along with, precisely because it was my favourite and I wasn’t ready for it to leave home. And maybe the real reason it was my favourite is because it represented such a obvious and protracted byblow, a sort of defection from a book that in any case had come more and more to be made up of diversions. It is a chapter about the sounds of the skin and particularly those sounds that arise from the skin’s intriguings with the air. For the fact is that the skin, or the living skin at any rate, always has air on either side of it, and is therefore truly a mid-air matter. The chapter is borne on this notion, which also, I now see, initiated the enquiry I have been inching into ever since, into the air.

So I am preparing to go back on the skin by way of a piece of thinking or writing that got me out of it. Or so I say. For, thinking about this talk, which I promise I will in a moment, in the end, begin giving, I suddenly remembered yesterday what it was that first made me think it might be possible to go in for the skin in a serious way in the first place. It wasn’t a bruise, or a scar, or a tattoo, and it wasn’t Kafka or Beckett or Stelarc or Princess Di or any of the other needleworkers and razor artists. It was the sight of my three-year old son rapt by the light, rasping tautness of a balloon, and then his shocked awe at what the ruined engine of air could shrink to, a sudden red shred in his little fist. So expatiating about windbags gets me out of the skin by going back to what got me into it. Now isn’t that the skin all over for you?

When our cheek burneth or eare tingleth, we usually say that some body is talking of us, which is an ancient conceit… hardly to be made out without the concession of a signifying Genius, or universall Mercury; conducting sounds unto their distant subjects, and teaching us to hear by touch. (Browne 1964, 2.385)

Like the skin, which both feels and is felt, the eardrum is a reciprocal organ; it both receives and reproduces sound, just as a drum, when struck (as the eardrum is struck by sound) produces and reproduces sound. The skin, in other words, is an audiophonic aggregate, both a kind of mouth, or sounding board, and also a kind of ear. The automated production of sound and the production of amplified sound has moved away from strings, as in the hurdy-gurdy, and horns, in megaphones, speaking tubes and other kinds of enhancement of the windpipe, to the use of diaphragms and membranes. In the newly-invented telephone, one spoke into a diaphragm in the mouthpiece that seemed almost identical to the diaphragm in the earpiece. Held just inches from the mouth and up against the outer ear, the telephone seemed to link together sound production and sound reception in a single connective tissue. The whole, vastly extended network of wires was thinned to this fantasy of a single vibrating membrane, on either side of which the interlocutors spoke and listened in turn. The membrane of the loudspeaker is still characterised by its reversibility; when one sees a vast bass speaker visibly pulsing, it resembles nothing so much as a vast ear. Though they do not collect and broadcast sound, satellite dishes preserve a fantasy of the transponding ear, as an elastic skin, which gathers, harbours and re-radiates sound.

One might even say that the sonorous capacity of the skin, which is directly related to its resilience, which is to say, its power both to suffer and to recover from sound, is equivalent to its vitality. A living skin is a tight, which is to say, resonant skin: a slack skin is mute. Traditionally, the first sound of the infant is not the vagitus, or birth cry, but the smack on the skin that induces it. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written of the importance to her life as a writer of the sonorous scenes of her childhood chastisements: ‘the two most rhythmic things that happened to me were spankings and poetry’ (Sedgwick 1987, 114).

Some myths of life preserved in skins emphasise the tautness or stretching of the revivified skin. The taut skin is upright, resistant, gathered, tense with life – and also ‘tuned’. When a dead skin is stretched across a frame, it can not only be given back the uprightness and tensile quality it had in life, but it can also be given a voice. The fantasy of the skin that talks, as well as standing up and walking, is one of the strangest allotropes of skin. It should not therefore be surprising that stories of life surviving or returning in dead bodies, especially those that have been the victims of violence, should often involve the corpse being turned into a musical instrument that is able to broadcast the story of the death and denounce the murderer – a harp, for instance, formed from a breastbone and locks of hair in versions of the ballad known as ‘The Cruel Sister’, ‘The Two Sisters’ and ‘Binnorie’. In the Grimms’ story ‘The Singing Bone’, a young man who kills his brother in order to marry a princess is undone when one of his victim’s bones is found and sings of his betrayal (Grimm 1975, 148-50). After having been silenced by having her tongue cut out, Philomela first tells her story in a tapestry and is then transformed into a bird, unspecified in Ovid, but by later tradition a nightingale. Before he became interested in prosthetics, the performance artist Stelarc specialised in hanging himself at considerable heights from hooks in his skin. I have heard that, when he did this at the Centre for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin, the wind, which blows hard in Milwaukee, could be heard thrumming and keening against his stretched skin.

A rather different and richer example of a musical survival of the skin is the story of the flaying of Marsyas. Like many such stories, it exists in no one version all together. One of the most extended versions is that given by Ovid in 19 concentrated but compelling lines in Book 6 of his Metamorphoses (Ovid 1977, 1.314-5). 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. (1.4.2; Apollodorus 1976, 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’ (7.26; Herodotus 1998, 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 (Anzieu 1989, 46-55; the nine functions are reduced to eight in the second French edition of the work, Anzieu 1995, 67-75). A later chapter focusses 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 substantiates this reading with a story from the man’s childhood:

Marsyas was left in a passive-apathetic state. After a few months it was apparent that he was not reacting normally and the maid announced that he was hard of hearing, that he was retarded. His mother, horrified by this judgement, grabbed Marsyas, shook him about, stimulated him and talked to him. (Anzieu 1989, 159)

Anzieu describes this pattern repeated in the patient’s deafness or failure to comprehend things said to him:

[H]e does not understand what I say to him. The problem was acute in the last session: he remembered nothing and did not even hear what I said to him. Moreover, if he thinks about his problems between sessions and an interesting idea occurs to him, he cannot produce it for me. He is suddenly struck dumb, empty-headed. (Anzieu 1989, 161)

At first Anzieu interprets his need as being for forms of exchange that will approximate to the stimulation that he failed to receive as a baby: ‘it is as if I were lifting and carrying him, warming him, setting him in motion, and when necessary shaking him and forcing him to react, gesture, speak’ (Anzieu 1989, 160). Later, Anzieu suggests that ‘Marsyas’ suffers from the residues of a more specifically audio-phonic disturbance: ‘his mother had spoken in hoarse, raucous tones, corresponding to her frequent, abrupt and unpredictable swings of mood: Marsyas’s relationship as a baby to the maternal melody as a source of meaning in general was therefore cut up or interrupted’ (Anzieu 1989, 161).

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 excoriation 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’ (13.21; Aelian 1997, 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, 5.289)

Aelian and Frazer make of the skin a double-sided image: a deaf, inert ‘unskin’ on the one side, and a reborn plusquepeau or hyperskin on the other, 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 mihi detrahis?” Inquit; “a! piget, a! non est” clamabat “tibia tanti” ’. ‘ “Why do you tear me from myself?” he cried. “Oh, what pain! All this, for a pipe?” ’ (VI.385-6; Ovid 1977, 314-5). What follows will attempt to provide Marsyas with some kind of answer, by considering the claims and characteristics of the contending instruments. 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 richly 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 Marsyas 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.

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 vigorously. 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 (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 (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 of Marsyas. 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 drawing and quartering 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, which involves ‘projecting oneself outside oneself and then acting as though one had really entered another body’ (Nietzsche 1956, 55). In contrast to the Apollonian procession of passported persons, the dithyrambic chorus is ‘a chorus of the transformed, who have forgotten their civic past and social rank’ (Nietzsche 1956, 56).

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 seems 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 ego-annihilating 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’ (Winternitz 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). Nico Staiti’s extensive review of the representation of stringed and wind instruments in Italian painting from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries similarly finds in the symbolic confrontation of stringed and wind instruments ‘the inflexible opposition of the Dionysiac – the orgiastic realm of the body and the earth, of the corybantic mania and the carnival… to the sublimity of the Apollonian order, the universe of the spirit and of reason’ (Staiti 1990, 71).

Edith Wyss keeps a more prudent distance from the modern obsession with the antagonism of Apollo and Dionysus, pointing out that the aulos was also associated with the worship of Apollo until it fell into disfavour after the fifth century, just as the lyre was also associated at times with Dionysus. Nevertheless, her account of the argument between the lyre and the pipe works within the conventional opposition between reason and passion. Resisting the modern identification with the suffering Marsyas, as it begins to appear for example in late nineteenth-century poetic treatments of the myth by Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1884), or John Davidson 1908), for example, Wyss emphasises the degree to which Renaissance appropriations of the Marsyas myth made out from it the lesson that the forces of instinct and sottish sensuality must be chastened by the powers of reason. During the Counter-Reformation in particular, the punishment of the satyr was evoked repeatedly as an image of the just punishment of those who set themselves up against the will of God (Wyss 1996, 121). One of the most remarkable readings of the myth as purification is its evocation at the beginning of Dante’sParadiso, where the poet calls on Apollo for divine inspiration:

Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsïa traesti
de la vagina de le membre sue

Enter into my breast and breathe there
As when you drew Marsyas
From the sheath of his limbs (Canto 1.19-21; Dante 1975, 4-5).

There are a number of remarkable features of these lines. One is the emphasis on the drawing out of Marsyas. Dante uses the same word as Ovid – ‘trahire’/‘trarre’, to draw or drag – but where Ovid emphasises the way in which Marsyas is torn apart from himself, Dante uses the word to suggest that Marsyas’s real, spiritual self is being drawn out of the shell or carapace of his bodily being. The other is that Apollo is imagined as performing this purification not by an act of plucking, or drawing with a bow, as might be appropriate to a stringed instrument, but by the action of his breath. We need not go as far as H.D. Austin, who argued many years ago that this is evidence that the contest between Apollo and Marsyas might have been thought of as one between rival pipers, despite the apparently striking corroboration of his argument in the fact that Chaucer makes reference in The House of Fame to ‘Marcia’, a female Marsyas ‘that loste her skyn,/Bothe in face, body, and chyn,/For that she wolde envien, loo,/To pipen bet than Appolloo’ (Chaucer 1988, 363, ll.1229-32; Austin 1934, 314-6). Flaying is imagined in terms of the musical exercise of the breath: it consists of entering the skin of another’s being, as Apollo was thought to enter the body of the Pythia at Delphi, and then drawing out the spirit from it, perhaps as a drawn breath is exhaled from the body. But even if Apollo is not to be thought of as literally a piper, the fact that the purification of Marsyas is achieved by means of an apotheosis of his own musical means is worth noting.