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Pleasures of Voicing: Oral Intermittences in Two Films by Alain Resnais Keith Cohen C OMMENTING ON JOHN KEATS’S LAM IA, Lionel Trilling boldly advances a theory of the “ dialectics of pleasure,” locating in Keats’s poem an early recognition “that there is something per­ verse and self-negating in the erotic life, that it is quite in the course of nature that we should feel ‘Pleasure . . . turning to Poison as the beemouth sips.’ ” 1The story of a man who falls in love with a woman, who turns out to be a serpent in disguise, makes of erotic pleasure the para­ digm, if not the originating principle, of the way pleasure operates all the time—i.e., “ the desire for pleasure denies itself and produces the very opposite of itself” (ibid.). It is this negating capacity that Freud designates as an integral part of his “ pleasure principle.” For Freud, erotic pleasure produces the very opposite of itself. It reveals the work of the pleasure principle, a mecha­ nism which, rather than adding anything, in fact subtracts. Since its business is to free the mental apparatus from excitation or to keep such excitation as low as possible, it functions to vie with other impulses in such a way as to limit sensory stimulation.2Thus, dreams are pleasurable precisely because they prevent the disturbance of sleep by unpleasurable thoughts (26). There are two ways in which sound conditions the pleasure one takes in the cinematic signifier. First, from a psychoanalytic perspective, as Mary Ann Doane has shown, the experiential “ wrap” provided by the sonorous envelope of the movie theatre rekindles the archaic desire of the infant: Memories of the first experiences of the voice, of the hallucinatory satisfaction it offered, circumscribe the pleasure of hearing and ground its relation to the fantasmatic body. . . . Space, for the child, is defined initially in terms of the audible, not the visible. . . . [T]he voice has a greater command over space than the look—one can hear around corners, through walls. Thus, for the child the voice, even before language, is the instrument of demand.3 Sound opens the possibility for the narcissistic regression to a virtually prenatal experience of union with the mother. 58 S u m m e r 1990 C ohen Secondly, from the perspective of film history, sound “ smooths out” our sense of the body, rendering it homogeneous and, paradoxically, less material. In a perceptive analysis of the development of sound, Stephen Heath backgrounds the modern attempts, in the work of such film­ makers as Duras, Godard, and Straub-Huillet, “ to hear the voice against the orders of cinema.” Sound becomes “ the repressed” of cinema: the development of sound in the commercial cinema generally was as support for a certain visible presence of the body, a certain regime of people in films: from the standardizations of the sound-track to dubbing and to the very fact of the script with its definition of dia­ logue scenes, what are given are so many means of keeping check of the voice, of pacifying it into film.4 From a more global historical perspective, moreover, sound suffered a gradual suppression that corresponded to the molding of the individ­ ual’s thought process within the sequential lines of black marks on a page during the Renaissance. Whether these discursive strings reflected the kinds of things they were used to saying or hearing in speech, the new print generations were quietly being deprived of their oral intelligence.5 Elemental somatic sensations and basic psychic processes integral to oral culture were gradually dulled, then erased, and replaced by a radically new means of discursive and logical organization through writing and print. From both historical and psychoanalytic perspectives, then, sound is wedded to image in order to complete the viewing experience and to “ return” the perceiver to an experience of wholeness, or undifferen­ tiated connectedness. By yoking sound and image, as we know, cinema presumes to reconstitute the basic elements of the “ real” phenomenal world. But since this yoking is accomplished by separating elements onto two tracks, the cinematic signifier is open at any moment to dissolution or subversion. My theory of sound pleasure thus rests on the following...


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