Caroline Bergvall’s Deleuzian Stuttering: “Via: 48 Dante Variations”

Caroline Bergvall’s “Via: 48 Dante Variations” explores – via a list of forty seven different English translations of the famous opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno – the variable lexical, syntactical, and semantic values immanent within a single familiar poetic utterance. For this piece, Bergvall collected all the English translations of the Inferno’s opening tercet (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / che la diritta via era smarrita”) archived in the British library “up until May 2000” or “[e]xactly 700 years after the date fixed by Dante for the start of the Comedy’s journey.” [1] (Bergvall notes that before finishing the project two new translations had already been published.) From this exhaustive procedure emerged forty seven different translations or variations spanning nearly 200 years. These are organized alphabetically, each variation followed briefly by the translator’s name and the date of publication. In the summer of 2000 Bergvall recorded a performance of “Via” in collaboration with Irish composer Ciarán Maher. [2] In a controlled and measured delivery, she unhurriedly reads all forty seven translations, accompanied by a discreet digital treatment of her voice by Maher, a processed filigree of vocal micro-particulars runs underneath her reading voice and provides “Via” with its final, fugitive ‘variation’: “Using calculations set up via his software, he [Maher] unearthed an added line, an imperceptible grain, my voice’s fractals, and we let it run, hardly audible, underneath the structure of the reading voice, inextricably tied to it, yet escaping it, releasing from it a surprising beauty, magnified shrapnel of interior sound. The 48th variation.” [3] Over the piece’s ten minute duration the repetition of specific words and phrases creates a clear pattern and distinct set of sonic expectations – “midway,” “dark wood,” “straight road” and “journey of our life,” for instance, recur insistently – while small variations in wording from one translation to the next blip against the flow. Take for instance the following three variations (variations 18, 33, and 34 respectively):

In the mid-journey of our mortal life,
I wandered far into a darksome wood,
Where the true road no longer might be seen.
(Chaplin, 1913)

MIDWAY upon the journey of my days
I found myself within a wood so drear,
That the direct path nowhere met my gaze.
(Brooksbank, 1854)

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life,
I found me in a forest dark and deep,
For I the path direct had failed to keep.
(Wilstach, 1888) [4]

Thus the dark wood is also “darksome,” “drear,” and a “forest dark and deep,” while the “straight path” modulates into both “the true road” and “the direct path.” In performance, these subtle lexical substitutions and syntactic shifts produce a fascinating, sustained aural play of difference and repetition, movement and stasis, a kind of linguistic or text-sound counterpart to the music of Morton Feldman, or minimalist composers Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass.

The placing-in-variation of canonical or “major” literary works through musico-poetic performance may well constitute a paradigmatic instance of the Deleuzian process of linguistic minorization or stuttering. In this respect it would be interesting to develop and expand (and, ultimately deterritorialize, as one must) Deleuze’s concept of minorization with reference to Mac Low’s diastic processing of Pound’s CantosWords nd Ends from Ez – and Cage’s “Writing for a Second Time Through Finnegans Wake.” Both of these poems are procedural treatments or readings-through of iconic modernist texts that double as notations for aural performance, even if only the virtual performance of a silent reader. [5] Briefly, though, we can note here that through their critical dismantling of canonical works, the interventional, viral poetics of Mac Low and Cage – along with work by William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Susan Howe, Vito Acconci, Antoine Beuger (calme étendue (spinoza) [Edition Wandelweiser] 2001), and Michael Maranda's Parasitic Ventures Press – clearly substantiates Deleuze’s notion of a minor usage of language as the performative placing-in-variation of the dominant forms of public language from within, including here the unravelling of hegemonic notions of text and canon. Such explicitly intertextual work, moreover, also substantiates Deleuze’s notion of the minor text as overtly a collective assemblage of enunciation open to multiplicity, difference and variation, an idea opposed to the majoritarian illusion of the literary text as the individuated and stable enunciation of a great or “master” writer supposedly creating ex nihilo.

Deleuze’s important reading of Italian playwright Carmelo Bene, “One Manifesto Less,” provides a highly suggestive exposition of stuttering as a species of intertextual praxis or performativity, and one that can usefully illuminate Bergvall’s poem. “Is there not … great interest” he asks, “in submitting authors considered major to treatment as minor authors, in order to rediscover their potential for becoming?” [6] Bene’s 1977 production of Richard III is, for Deleuze, exemplary of such a minor treatment. In this extremely truncated and heretical adaptation, Bene’s begins by subtracting or “amputating” approximately half of Shakespeare’s lines, cutting whole scenes while freely rearranging others. In performance, the remaining textual fragments are then placed in a state of variation, their linguistic and sonic components undergoing continuous modulation through dramatic enactment, resulting in a series of stuttered iterations of Shakespeare’s lines. Deleuze proposes as a concrete example of this process Lady Anne’s remark “I loathe you!” According to Deleuze, Bene’s Lady Anne repeats this phrase continuously, modulating its syntactic and acoustic components like a jazz musician improvising changes on a melody, each variation constituting not only a different speech act with a different semantic content but also a different acoustic event as well, the words being variously “whispered, stammer[ed] or deformed” while at the same time the voice itself is rendered “scarcely perceptible or quite deafening” through electronic treatment. [7] In this way, the statement becomes “no more than the sum of its own variations, which make it escape every apparatus of power capable of fixing it and which enable it to dodge every [linguistic] constancy.” [8] It is through a minor use, then, – which Deleuze describes as “the ‘theater’ of the language,” [9] – that Bene deforms or even destroys Shakespeare’s majoritarian text, but this process also entails the creation of a new minor idiom within Shakespeare’s original play, the production of sometime new and different – a strange, musicated language of stammers, near-inaudible murmurs, and stop-start Steinian iterations. [10]

In “Via” Bergvall submits Dante’s famous tercet to precisely such a process of Deleuzian minorization: via her electronically-treated recitation of the variously translated tercets, she succinctly places the linguistic and acoustic particulars of Dante’s lines in a state of continuous, chromatic variation. Like Bene’s setting of fragments from Richard III, this is performance as iteration as difference. [11] And like Bene – whom Deleuze describes as more a “controller,” “mechanic,” or “operator” [12] who intervenes strategically in pre-existent texts than a playwright or director in any traditional sense – Bergvall reduces her role as poet to an impersonal and mechanical operation, content to function as a kind of writing- or stuttering-machine that merely selects, arrangers, and processes others’ words. Procedural and intertextual, Bergvall’s fascinating musico-poetic experiment – like the plundergraphic writing of Kenneth Goldsmith, who’s monumental work Day transcribes word for word an entire edition of the New York Times – clearly situates “the beginnings of writing not in the white silence of the page but in the noise of written language, in the business of its cultural machines, in the lifted pages of existing books and documents.” [13] So although “Via” may seem a more austere and formalist work than “Say: ‘Parsley,’” given that installation’s playful manipulation of colloquial and idiomatic language within public space, one can say that the former, though it probes a canonical literary text, is in fact no less concerned than the latter with placing the variables of a public language in a state of variation. [14]

In discarding chronological sequencing in favour of alphabetization, Bergvall carefully avoids any false sense of teleology toward some final, perfected English version of Dante’s tercet, instead using paratactic form to emphasize the historical and contextual relativity of translation. “Via” demonstrates that no two translations of the Inferno are the exactly the same, that each translation is an actualization of a particular point on a virtual line of continuous variation that passes through all possible instantiations of Dante’s lines. Indeed, from this perspective, Dante’s “original” can no longer be privileged as the basal statement which then undergoes various subtle nuances in meaning as it is diversely translated within different historical contexts. Rather, it occupies a certain point on that virtual line of semantic values, a line that includes all of its various English translations as well. Performative repetition with continuous variation – what Stein would call “insistence” – actualizes this virtual line. [15]

But what is the nature of the voice implied in this procedure of stuttering? Bergvall adopts a sober, formal, and slight terse mode of delivery that Brian M. Reed likens to “an instructor’s voice on language-learning tapes,” carefully avoiding not only the kind of vocal histrionics characteristic of Bene’s post-Artaudian theatre of cruelty, but also the natural affective cadences typical of the traditional, “unmediated” poetry reading as well. If, as Deleuze says, stuttering is “the theatre of the language,” then perhaps the closest analogue to Bergvall’s distanced and impersonal use of voice is Samuel Beckett rather than Bene. Many of Beckett’s plays and performance pieces demand flat-toned, intonation-less voices. [16] As Charles Krance notes, Beckett frequently “admonished his performers when their deliveries threatened to spill over into conventionally lyrical overtones,” and he describes Beckett’s own 1970 reading of “Lessness” as “characteristically monotone.” [17] Yet, paradoxically, Beckett’s performance, like his equally minimal plays, “nonetheless exudes a ‘compelling musicality.’” [18] Bergvall’s permutational poem not only shares affinities with Beckett’s experiments with repetition and variation, it is also strangely “musical” despite, or because of, the rigid formalism and sober delivery. It is worth exploring this connection in more detail.    

For Krance, as for Deleuze, the fraught and strangely implacable permutations so characteristic of Beckett’s late dramatic works are in effect enacting or embodying – like John Wiese’s ‘power radiophonics’ (see post below) – a kind of strained process of “musical parturition” [19]: through the exhaustive, near-incantatory use of serial repetition with variation, Beckett exhausts stories and suspends sense, taking language to its limit where the empty word becomes a pure asignifying sound or arbitrary sonic vibration. Deleuze, as we have seen, noted a similar trajectory a propos Bene’s treatment of language. In Beckett’s writing, however, the asignifying and sonorous limit need not necessarily lie only at the end of the permutational series; insofar as this sonorous limit subtends the language itself, it may also occur “anywhere in the flow: between two terms, between two voices or [within] the variations of a single voice – a point that is already reached well before one knows that the series is exhausted, and well before one learns that there is no longer any possibility or any story.” [20] Deleuze here invites us to attune to – to listen for – the limit as it surfaces intermittently as a near inaudible murmur, tremolo, or resonance in or behind the current of the enumerating Beckettian voice, rather than merely at the culmination of the series (which can potentially be interminably deferred). As Krance explains,   

Because Beckett music is structured primarily along patterns of reiterated permutations, resolution can only (theoretically) occur within these patterns themselves (hence, the fundamentally Beckettian paradox whereby “a step forward is, by definition, a step back”). Hence also the indispensability of his (music’s) being heard (again, if never fully understood), and then again, only fragmentarily. [21]

It is important to note that “music” here does not refer to a structural or formal music, or anything resembling lyric harmony, but rather an unformed sonorous material outside or beneath the lexical range. The point of Beckett’s sober ‘step-forward, step-back’ iterations, according to Krance, is to produce an intensive usage of language capable of releasing from within its own quasi-mechanical iterability this elusive, fragmentary, “predominantly quiet” [22] music, a music sounded in (sounded din) those fleeting moments when language, strained through incessant repetition, “vibrates like a musical instrument or hums like a machine.” [23]

In Beckett, this disjointed, iterative storytelling frequently corresponds to the compulsive manner in which the narrators pace out the same enclosed spaces (pace May in Footfalls, the old woman of Ill Seen Ill Said) and the physical exhaustion – and eventual deliquescence – that this obsessive movement entails (in the Trilogy, Molloy’s stiff leg, Moran’s crutches, and Mahood’s bodily dispersal). “It is true that,” writes Deleuze, “in Beckett these affirmative disjunctions [reiterated permutations] usually concern the bearing or gait of the characters: an ineffable manner of walking, while rolling and pitching.” [24] In other words, “the characters speak like they walk or stumble, for speaking is no less a movement than walking: the former goes beyond speech toward” disarticulate sound, “just as the latter goes beyond the organism toward a body without organs.” [25] The stuttering incipit of “Via” condemns Dante to a similar entropic movement: like a Beckettian protagonist, his quest is continually interrupted, forcing him to restlessly pace the closed-circuit of the “dark wood.” (Indeed, Dante’s predicament in “Via” instantly evokes the relentless closed-circuit choreography of Beckett’s minimalist experimental teleplay Quad (1982), in which four cowled players monotonously pace the lengthwise and diagonal lines of a marked square until they have exhausted all possible pathways and combinations. Like much of Beckett’s work of course, Quad is itself influenced by Dante’s Inferno. [26]) This series of false starts, moreover, may be extended indefinitely through the addition of new translations, just as the limit in Beckett may be deferred through further variation. In correspondence with Marjorie Perloff, Bergvall draws attention to the ambiguity of this stalled movement, which can be apprehended as being both liberation and prison:

Unlike the graphic causal horror of linear travel, these point by point interceptions spin a spiraling musicality, its horror is abstracted, a build-up of interrupted motion, pulling together into a narrative of structure, stop-start, each voice trying itself out, nothing looped, yet nothing moving beyond the first line, never beyond the first song, never beyond the first day, the forest walls, the city walls, my body walls. Having to look for points of exit, further in, further down, rather than out. [27]          

As in Beckett’s work and much minimalist music, escape or release from extended repetition remains immanent to the iterative partitions themselves.   

The Beckett comparison allows one to see how Maher’s electronic treatment of Bergvall’s voice functions precisely as this point of escape: positioned as the final, “48th variation,” the fractal track is that asignifying limit toward which the series strains, [28] while simultaneously underpinning its quietly distressed ‘step-forward, step-back’ permutations. As in Beckett, the limit surfaces here as a kind of molecular Steinian agitation in and behind the soberly enumerating voice, blurring the resonance of the narrator’s words. Similar to the musique concrète reductionism of Ralf Wehowsky (Pullover Table Of The Elements, 1996) or Christof Migone (Vex Ohm/Avatar 1998), in which concrete sounds (including voice samples) are processed and abstracted into minute clicks and dry islands of metallic hiss poised on the edge of audibility, Maher pulverizes Bergvall’s voice, reducing it to an allusive micro-scattering of digital penumbrae. Radically altered, these indistinct, ethereal vocal sounds invoke the residual “echoes” and “fragments” [29] that Krance hears in late Beckett. This becoming-sound or becoming-molecular of the voice liberates it from the constraints of discursive meaning, and simultaneously draws the self into a parallel becoming-other. In extending the voice – and by extension the body – beyond its “natural” capacities through technological prosthesis, Bergvall thus succeeds in moving beyond both “the first line” (the limitations of discursive meaning) and the physical limitations of her “body’s walls” via a post-semantic sonorous line of flight located “further down, rather than out” – that is, in the fractals of the voice, the electronically manipulated sounds of the body. (Significantly, Christine Hume hears this sound as “auscultation”). [30] Treated beyond recognition, the processed voice not only ceases to be tied to the biological parameters of the individual body as limiting territory, but is sonically dispersed in a way that renders the ‘place’ of the voice – as in “Say: ‘Parsley’” – highly ambiguous and non-localizable. 

It is here that the sonic dimension links up with the thematic one. A commentary on both literary and social forms of translation, “Via” self-reflexively thematizes the experience of many bilingual and multilingual speakers who – like the Italian Dante and his nomadic passage through English – remain in exile from their mother-tongue, forever lost and wandering within the wilderness of their adopted language(s). But as in “Say: ‘Parsley’”, Bergvall envisages “foreignness” not as state of exile to be transcended through linguistic mastery, but rather as a political strategy of positive linguistic (and cultural) displacement, a gesture of resistance to Nationalistic, monoglossic language politics and the “the nativist myth often given to language belonging, that one’s body is unalterably the shape of one’s first language.” [31] “To be in language,” writes Bergvall, “is not only to be caressed, held, nurtured by ‘intuitive’ or tonal waves of recognition and belonging.” [32] This, for Bergvall, is the lesson of Beckett’s writing:

Beckett’s traffic from English to French, and back into English by way of a translated French is an expectoration of the English language’s occupation on the colonised Irish body. His leitmotifs of speech loss, language stutter, assisted memory, gestural language all point to the dislocation experienced in the move, and to the feeling of liberation it also opened up. Fighting off one language with another language, transforming in the process both the spat-out source language and the adoptive language. [33]

In the act of stuttering, then, – whether in transit between languages or as a “foreigner in one’s own language” – the voice’s body is anything but static and inflexibly organized. With or without the aid of modern sound technologies, the fluid, amorphous corporeality peculiar to the voice can be stretched and contorted into fascinatingly strange (and inhuman) sonic bodies (see the sound poetry of Henri Chopin, François Dufrêne, Carlfriedrich Claus, Arrigo Lora-Totino, Ernst Jandl, and Sten Hanson). In sharp contradistinction to the “tonal waves of recognition and belonging” proper to the mother-tongue and its naturalized articulations of a stable body contour, the sonic metamorphosis that Bergvall’s voice undergoes in “Via” sounds something closer to the spatio-temporal territory of Beckett’s “unspeakable home”: that troubled (and troubling) nonplace or tense state of inbetweenness where one moves ceaselessly “from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself” – restlessly, that is, from one language to another as from one body to another – “between two lit refuges whose doors once / neared gently close, once away turned from / gently part again.” [34]

[1] Caroline Bergvall FIG (Goan Atom 2). Cambridge: Salt, 2005. 64.

[2] This performance was first presented at the tEXt02 festival in Exeter in 2002. It is available on the CD Rockdrill 8: Via: Poems 1994-2004 (Optic Nerve, 2005), as well as a free download from both Ubu Web and PennSound.

[3] Bergvall FIG (Goan Atom 2) 64.

[4] Ibid. 68, 70.

[5] See the introduction to Mac Low’s Representative Works, 1938-1985 (New York: Roof, 1985) and Garrett Stewart on silent reading as itself a performative, embodied act in Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

[6] Deleuze “OML” 208. In The Deleuze Reader. Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[7] Ibid. 213.

[8] Ibid. 211.

[9] Ibid. 210.

[10] For another electro-acoustic deformance of Shakespeare see Simon Emmerson’s Ophelia's Dream II, a work for voice and magnetic tape first before by the English avantgarde vocal group Singcircle in December 1978 as part of the MusICA series. From the liner notes to Singcircle’s Mouth Music LP (Hyperion, 1983):  

Ophelia is 'represented' by the 2 sopranos, who are trapped in various ways by the other singers, by the musical material and by the technology. The character splits in two and then steadily disintegrates until her words break down into an undifferentiated noise – the rush of water, perhaps. No sounds are pre-recorded or electronically produced. All are vocal sounds altered 'live'. This idea is one of a series Emmerson has written in recent years which develops the idea of a 'natural theatre of technology' – that is, any incidental movements or gestures in the performance are not choreographed, (and certainly not 'music theatre' in the sense many recent composers have used the term) but follow from and are indissoluably (sic) part of the necessary function of the electro-acoustic technology. The text is derived from permutations and combinations of fragments of the following sentences and phrases from Shakespeare's Hamlet:
To be
Ophelia
Sing sweet Ophelia
With true love
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh
White his shroud as the mountain snow
Farewell Ophelia and remember well what I have said to you
'Tis in my memory locked and you yourself shall keep the key of it       

[11] Although because of the nature of the constraint “Via” on the whole leaves normative grammatical and syntactical structures in place, Majena Mafe’s “Via Error – 48 Variations of Dante Variations (variations of bergvall (of dante))” – a conceptual rewriting of Bergvall’s poem from memory – pushes the process of stuttering farther by thematizing the connection between wandering and error, her mistranscribed quotations placing more strain on normative syntax than Bergvall’s ‘original’. See the Bergvall special feature in HOW 2 (vol.3 No.3, Winter 2009), curated and co-ordinated by Sophie Robinson.  

[12] Deleuze “OML” 206.

[13] Bergvall “In the Place of Writing.” Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003. 329.

[14] This is more pronounced in Bergvall’s “Shorter Chaucer Tales.” For another (quasi)-musical deformance of Dante, see Emmett Williams’s “Musica: a Dantesque Litany for Nine Voices” in 0 to 9: The Complete Magazine: 1967-1969 (Ed. Vito Acconci & Bernadette Mayer. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006), which is made up of the nine most frequently used words in the Divine Comedy as tabulated by a computer.

[15] Indeed, Stein’s credo, summarised by Steve McCaffery as the assertion “that there is no repetition, that each reiteration of an identical within a series registers with a slight variation in emotional insistence” (Prior to Meaning: the Protosemantic and Poetics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 280 n42), finds contemporary validation in the modulating emotional resonances of Bergvall’s poem, each variation on Dante’s theme registering a slightly different emotional tonality from the last. As Karen Mac Cormack says, “Emotions manifest in stutters, too." Implexures. Tuscon, Arizona and Nether Edge, Sheffield, Chax Press and West House Books, 2003. 73.

[16] See in particular the television plays Eh Joe (1965), Ghost Trio (1975), and … but the clouds … (1976). Beckett describes the voice in Eh Joe, for example, as “Low, distinct, remote, little colour, absolutely steady rhythm, slightly slower than normal.” Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett. London: Faber and Faber, 1984. 201-202.

[17] Krance “Beckett Music.” In Samuel Beckett and the Arts: Music, Visual Arts, and Non-Print Media. Ed. Lois Oppenheim. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999. 54.

[18] Ibid. 54.

[19] Ibid. 54, emphasis in original.

[20] Deleuze “The Exhausted.” In Essays Critical and Clinical. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. 157-58, my emphasis.

[21] Krance 55.

[22] Ibid. 58; here Krance is quoting from Howard Skempton’s “Beckett as librettist” in Music and Musicians 25, no. 9 (May 1977): 5-6.

[23] Jean-Jacques Lecercle Deleuze and Language. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 242.

[24] Deleuze “He Stuttered.” Essays Critical and Clinical 111.

[25] Ibid. 111. See also “The Exhausted” in the same collection: “Beckett’s great contribution to logic is to have shown that exhaustion (exhaustivity) does not occur without a certain physiological exhaustion […] a fantastic decomposition of the self […] the indefinite exchange of mathematical formulations and the pursuit of the formless or the unformulated” 154.

[26] See S. E. Gontarski’s “Quad I & II: Beckett’s Sinister Mime(s)” in Journal of Beckett Studies, No 9, Spring 1983, 137,138, and Graley Herren’s “Samuel Beckett’s Quad: Pacing to Byzantium” in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, No 1, Volume XV, Fall 2000, 43-60.

[27] Perloff “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall.” In Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. 222, emphasis mine.

[28] Moreover, on Bergvall’s website there is a mix of “Via” that “increases the audibility of the track of fractals that accompanies the reading.” Bergvall texts are always in a state of transformation; thus one can imagine other potential mixes where the fractals come to overwhelm and obliterate the reading voice entirely.

[29] Krance 54.

[30] See Hume’s review of “Via” in Raintaxi: Online Edition. Spring 2007.

[31] Bergvall “A Cat in the Throat: On Bilingual Occupants” Jacket 37, 2009. N.p.

[32] Ibid. N.p.

[33] Ibid. N.p.

[34] This is from Beckett’s libretto to Morton Feldman’s opera Neither; here is the full text: “to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow / from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself / by way of neither / as between two lit refuges whose doors once / neared gently close, once away turned from / gently part again / beckoned back and forth and turned away / heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam / or the other / unheard footfalls only sound / till at last halt for good, absent for good / from self and other / then no sound / then gently light unfading on that unheeded / neither / unspeakable home” Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. Ed. S. E. Gontarski. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 258. The album Home, Unspeakable (Trente Oiseaux, 1996) by electronic composers Bernhard Günter and John Duncan is based on this short text. From the liner notes: “The music on this CD was inspired by Samuel Beckett’s libretto for Morton Feldman’s chamber opera Neither. It is constructed as a series of musical ‘places’, which in their entirety form the topography of a ‘landscape’ we feel might be described by the final words of Beckett’s text: unspeakable home.” This near inaudible, silence-ridden music bears comparison with Maher’s fractalized voice track.