Well, the afternoon is about as lively as a cancelled séance whose medium walked out due to death in the family. For the past few days, picking up where I left off a long time ago, I’ve been flicking through two sets of an English literature anthology. Rather than tossing out the old for the new, something I’d be happy to do with a pair of shoes, I’ve been comparing the volumes, pondering the expulsion or demotion of canonical authors whose once prominent works have been removed from subsequent editions. One such author now represented by fewer works is Victorian poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Now, reading Tennyson on a gloomy day does little to brighten the mood; but the following lines, from “In the Valley of Cauteretz” (1864), seem worth reviving, if only to remind me of my present state of mind.
The speaker of the poem, whom we may or may not take to be Tennyson himself, returns to a stream he once visited with a friend, now dead:
Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,
And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,
The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.
Tennyson may have been revisited by the memories of his dead friend Arthur Hallam; but to me these lines somehow echo my own noisy yet quiet present, conjuring up my life among the voices of the past, my dwelling and revelling in recorded speech. Why do many of the radio voices I replay each day, transcribed sounds of live broadcasts featuring people now living no longer, sound so much more alive or closer to me than the voices of the present day?
Radio, back in the 1940s, when thousands of men were dying in battle far from home, was complicit in this sense of being visited by those gone or lost, a conjuring act achieved by a mere twist of the dial. Radio often presented itself as a spiritual medium, a modern device capable of annihilating space as well as time. On this day, 2 October, in 1944, for instance, Walter Huston introduced a play about the life of Thomas Paine by remarking that the words of this man called “Common Sense” still speak the
thoughts of many of us even today, in the year of 1944. And because of many other thoughts that this man put into words, we, in these troubled times, reach across the years to shake hands with him, to shake hands with Thomas Paine.
Sure, Thomas Paine sounds an awful lot like Edward G. Robinson, in whose hands lay Robert L. Richards’s script for that broadcast of “The Voice on the Stairs,” produced by the Cavalcade of America. Still, the phonic handshake was neither phoney nor merely symbolic; it was an act symptomatic of radio’s exploitation of our sense of revenance when we hear a voice from the past.
I am reminded of a friend of mine (the one with whom I went to the mystery book store a while back) who threw out her answering machine after playing back the voice of her dead father, still calling for her from the sonic loop of an old tape recording. When we look at pictures of dead people, the subject does not spring to life in the process of beholding; instead, pictures of the past or dead tend to serve as memento mori. They are a representation that does not quite render present—a reminder that is merely an aid to the act of calling to mind, whereas a recorded voice—sound being alive for the duration of its occurrence—streams through the ear canal into the now of our presence before fading into memory. Emanating from the living or the dead, it comes to life anew with each listening.
Dead, alive? The living dead? Or, speaking Tennyson, “Death in Life”? Perhaps I have dwelled among these sonic revenants for too long, becoming in turn, like Widmark’s character in the Inner Sanctum thriller “The Shadow of Death” (also cast on this day, back in 1945), dead to the world. Being engaged in this kind of séance, in the retrieval and re-presentation of past voices, I at times sense being shut out from and slipping out of touch with the living. Just like being caught in the internet, living in a world of sound is, after all, only the exposure to an echo of life—a reverberation produced by the clashing bones of a life stripped of flesh.