HOW THE SIRENS
LOST THEIR WINGS-
ON VOCALITY AND SILENCING
BY MATTIA CAPELLETTI
I. SILENT SCENEGGIATE
Napoli, sirena della canzone [Naples, siren of song] spells the title of Elvira Notari’s final film (1929). Notari, one of the first women filmmaker in history, dedicated most of her now lost work to her hometown, Napoli. The few films that survive her, testify to the stark realism and genuine affection she showed in depicting Napoli’s street life and characters – whose naturalistic style of acting made of Notari a forerunner of neorealism (Bruno 1998, 118). Unfortunately, the same radical qualities of her work made it also a target of Fascist censorship, which would ultimately force her to shut down the company she founded, Dora Films, at the time a leading Italian production house (Tomadjoglou 2013). Notari’s films were sceneggiate, dramaturgic adaptations of popular Neapolitan songs, performed live by orchestras during the screenings. We can only imagine Napoli, sirena della canzone, since only a small part of the footage survived. Allegedly, the plot served as a mere pretext to hold together a series of vignettes, the film’s interests being mostly musical. So much so in fact, that on premiere night the film’s protagonists “were called upon to sing live against the backdrop of their own filmic images”, making it so that “the absent body of the film actor materialised in live performance” – only to be removed again when live singing were to be replaced by live-playing phonographs (Bruno 1998, 95). The musical spirit of Notari’s films and of the city they so passionately depicted would never know the thrill of sound, since Italian cinema would leave the silent era only in 1930, one year after the release of Napoli, sirena della canzone. Nevertheless, Notari’s films and the aural paradoxes they act out are not only powerful testaments to a bygone era when silent films entertained a complex relationship with sound, but also stand as invaluable contributions (in the form of love letters) to the mythography of a city: Napoli. If the association of Napoli with sirens and singing goes so far back it enters the timeless stage of myth, Notari’s use of the trope in fact relates to the city’s legends, while offering a swan song for the end of silent film, not without bitter irony.
Legend has it that Napoli was founded by a siren – not your average siren indeed, but Parthenope, one of the three sirens from the classical myth cycle of which Homer’s Odyssey is the most notable contribution. Homer’s sirens were nameless, but the later Argonautiche (5th century BC) imagines them as three sisters called Ligeia, Leucosia and Parthenope. This anonymous document in the Argonautiche cycle does not depart from the Homeric text in its figuration of the sirens as singing seducers, but, having Orpheus at its center instead, has them won over by the lyre-player in a singing competition. On the other hand, the subsequent Argonautiche of Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC) goes back to the Homeric source by attributing the sirens’ demise to Ulysses’ indifference before their alluring chant. Defeated, the sirens’ bodies were swept along by the tides. Parthenope is said to have washed ashore on the coast of modern Napoli, where she still stands as patron deity, and where her name, adjectivised [partenopeo] became a synonym for anything Neapolitan. The fact that Napoli, a city so frequently associated with singing (mostly, but not exclusively, by way of its centuries-old tradition of operatic singing) is believed to have been founded by Parthenope – a siren, thus the very archetype of vocality, and whose very name means “maiden-voiced” (Holford-Strevens 2006, 20) – brings about a legend that seems to have come full circle. However, it is impossible not to notice a paradox at the heart of the founding myth of Napoli, a contradictory irony that Elvira Notari’s ‘silent’ musical films so brilliantly actualise. For Napoli was founded by a mute siren, a dead sea creature, defeated by a man’s indifference (Ulysses’) or another’s bravura (Orpheus’).
II. BE WATER, MY CONCUBINE
Siren-like figures abound in the folklore and mythology of cultures all over the world, from Russia to Bolivia. For its extraordinary affinity with modern audiovisual spectacle however, and because of the hegemony of those cultures of spectacle that adapted it, the western siren myth is particularly ubiquitous. If the siren travelled far from her birdlike beginnings, her modern form bears the signs of patriarchal silencing. Her journey from bird-woman to mer-maid is the result of this process. The most Mediterranean of myths, she came to symbolise the juncture of sex and death, ‘femininity’, and most of all, voice and the enchantment of singing. Her story is one marked by cuts and discontinuities, appropriations and re-appropriations, even physical metamorphoses. But before delving deeper into the far-reaching consequences of its different readings and manipulations, let me briefly summarise the myth as told in Book XII of the Odyssey.
Ulysses is giving an account of his adventures by sea to Alcinous and his court (Ciani 2014, 166), when he tells the audience of his meeting with the sorceress Circe, who is giving him precious advice, warning him against the sirens. Of their likeness Circe does not say, but we know through the depictions of Greek pottery that they were envisioned as having a head or a top half of women and the bottom part of birds. Circe tells Ulysses that the sirens' danger lies in their voice, a collective voice that enchants anyone who dares to pass near them. They would charm the hapless sailors with their 'high song'. All around them is the rotten flesh of their victims. The sorceress then famously suggests Ulysses to cover the ears of his crew with wax. Him alone, the hero, will be able listen to the sirens, provided that he is tied to the mast of his ship, and secured at it if he asked his crew to be let free. Only then he can take pleasure in their song (166). This is exactly what will happen later in the story.
In Circe's foretelling we find all the main elements of the conceptual iconography of the siren. But throughout centuries of cultural exchange, it is vocality to remain the constant that made the siren a ‘conceptual persona’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1994, 2-3). It is around her song and the way it was listened and interpreted that many other conceptual articulations have gravitated. Desire and repulsion, embodiment and disembodiment, knowledge and bliss, belonging and exoticism, become entangled at the level of the voice as outward vector. Most noticeably, the binary understanding of voice as either phone (‘pure’ vocality) or logos (discourse) ends up reproducing the essentialist view that couples women with ‘Nature’ and men to ‘Culture’. By privileging literacy, this is also an apparatus of colonial dominance on which human exceptionalism is founded. Among others, voice scholar Adriana Cavarero deconstructed this articulation, showing how the transformation of the siren into the beautiful fish-woman we know is predicated on a tactical misinterpretation of the original myth. The siren was thus made into a “song without words” belonging exclusively to the “sphere of the phone semantike” (Cavarero 2005, 103). The beautiful femininity she came to embody is the formal result of a severing of the semantic from the prioritised arena of the somatic. The metamorphosis into fish stresses this silencing, for where fish is mostly mute, the half-bird the siren once was is much more easily associated with vocality and singing (107). Underlying the history of its western representation, a male gaze made of the siren an erotic fantasy, turned her into an object to possess. And because bird body parts did not apply to the heteropatriarchal imagination, her lower limbs had to change. “This is why, for example, the beautiful Melusina had an interchangeable bottom half—sometimes she was fishlike, but when the need arose, she became a whole woman" (109). The iconography of the sirena bicaudata (two-tailed siren), so widespread in central and southern Italy from Etruscan times up until the Renaissance, is based on Melusina, who also stars as the siren of the Starbucks logo. Her two tails begin at the height of her thighs, thus exposing the groin and providing an anthropomorphic silhouette with which to more easily identify (and liable to be penetrated). But in order to become a desirable body, the siren had to be muted. In Cavarero's words,
[this] process corresponds, in a rather significant way, to the one of the most stereotypical models of the female sex — namely, the stereotype according to which, in her erotic function as seductress, as an object of masculine desire, the woman appears first of all as a body and as an inarticulate voice. She must be beautiful, but she must not speak (107).
In this regard, I am reminded of another lost film from the silent era that shows a beautiful but muted mermaid. A Daughter of the Gods (Herbert Brenon, 1916) besides being the first American motion picture to cost a million dollars, became famous for being the first film showing scenes of complete nudity of a major star, Annette Kellerman (Lenne 1978, 139). An Australian swimmer and actress, Kellerman was an advocate of the liberated body, promoter of the one-piece swimming suit (and later of the bikini), at the time a more progressive bathing costume than the pantaloons, and for this she is regarded as a proto-feminist. Mostly, but not exclusively in virtue of the technological constraints of the period, Kellerman could only rely on her figure for her self-representation on screen. Curiously, in a twist that is emblematic of the siren’s cultural journey, she was to be given a full-bodied singing voice back – although not her own – in 1952, when Esther Williams impersonated her in the musical bio-pic centred around her life Million Dollar Mermaid, directed by Mervin LeRoy and choreographed by Busby Berkeley. However, if our contemporary ears are deaf to Annette Kellerman’s mermaid-persona of the silent era, we have not to be equally neglectful of the song of the ‘original’ sirens. For, as I mentioned above, their transfiguration depended not so much on a definitive silencing as on a biased misinterpretation. Feminist close-readings of the myth thus come in help, for a reparative undertaking that refuses to reproduce stereotypical narratives and binary frameworks.
III. DROWNING IN THE SEA OF LOVE
The sirens' promise of knowledge was object of different interpretations. Depending on how it was read, the song came to be envisioned by feminist scholars as a numbing maternal embrace, or a nuanced erotic invitation. Interestingly, these different articulations also mirror divergent phenomenologies of sound and desire. As I mentioned above, the elements of pleasure and danger are indeed present in the Homeric text: the sirens' song brings delight, Circe tells Ulysses, but she also makes sure to emphasise the gruesome outcome to its exposure. Conflating the vocal expression of the sirens with music in a more general sense, musicologist Linda Phyllis Austern draws a parallel between the danger embodied by the sirens, and music’s power to enrapture its listening subject. Aural pleasure is able to disrupt the boundaries of the Self in ecstatic enjoyment, to affect the listener comprehensively, envelop them. In other words, music and sound are understood by Austern as ambience: incommensurate and akin to environment, in which the subject is immersed.
The fluid behavior of sound is made to correspond with the sirens’ aquatic figuration (especially in their later reincarnation as mermaid), and by extension, to similarly aquatic understandings of femininity. Austern however warns the reader of the essentialising dangers of such narratives, typical of much second-wave feminism, which join female corporeality with fluidity through menstruation, amniotic fluids, and so on (Austern 2006, 55). Not only because of the impossibility to include all female and female-identifying subjectivities within a biologically fixed narrative, this framework also reproduces the binary logic that assigns women to 'nature' and men to 'culture'. Nonetheless, as Austern points out, this logic is also at the center of much psychoanalytic theory. Orgasms, whose connection with fluidity is perhaps even too obvious, have been often tied to death and to a radical negotiation of the limits of the Self. Moreover, the asemantic vocalisations expressed in orgasms, make them one and the same with sirenic vocality. At the same time, the sirens’ numbing call enacts a promise of return to the sea-womb, a regressive uterine fantasy. An 'oceanic feeling', in Freud's terms. “The mother’s lullaby and the lover’s exaltation share the essence of the [siren’s] song” (58), writes Austern. They are both forms of what Lacan called lalangue, where language and the body’s jouissance (pleasure) produce utterances beyond signification. It is indeed the language of intimacy, of mothers' 'baby talk' as much as the child's own babble, the silly vocabulary of lovers and the orgasm’s expressive asignification.
The notion of a fluid, asignifying sirenic vocality – hence its association with the paralinguistic "kinesics of orality" (LaBelle 2014, 31) and the pre-verbal – put it in close contact with another neighbouring conceptual knot: the exotic. This could not be more evident than in fin de siécle Impressionism, when French musicians canonised wordless singing in Western high-brow music. At the time, composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were working within post-romantic dramaturgic scenarios designed to arouse the modern audience's Orientalist and erotic imagination; while at the same time allowing them to introduce non-Western music ideas to the European classical canon. As femme fatales and archetypes of otherworldly vocality, sirens often made their appearance in the arts of the time. Both Debussy's Nocturnes (1899) and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (1912) evoke the sirens' song through wordless singing. If, retrospectively, the use they made of this device feels rather trite, even "kitschy", it is because it was picked up and reproduced as a knee-jerk signifier of faraway space and time in much subsequent spectacle (Toop 2010, 8-9). However, we have to remember that asemantic singing was not standard practice in 'serious' music of the era: composers had to fight for it. The chorus of Daphnis et Chloé for instance, caused a feud between Ravel and his producer Diaghilev, who cut it out of the ballet's London premiere. Still, the wordless song is far from menacing, testifying to the idealised vision of ancient Greece so typical of post-romantic sensibility. The hypnotic and lullaby-like quality of the wordless sections in Ravel's and Debussy's compositions “is called upon to represent a mythic time and place; the wordless voice intimates a pre-rational past” (Leydon 1999, 52). The narrative use of such asemantic vocalisations seems to suggest that there exists a linear teleology that progresses from babble to discourse, from barbarity and myth to civilisation. This ideological apparatus is not only an instrument of colonial domination, but also justifies human exceptionalism based on the supremacy of logos. Even the much more radical uses that later art will make of asemantic vocality (such as in the sound poetry of Dada and Russian Futurism) are predicated on the same rationale. But where Hugo Ball advocated for a retrieving of barbaric-infantile paralinguistics to upset rational modernity, the Impressionists used vocal coloratura to evoke exotic worlds. By way of the anesthetisation of sense, the sirenic scenes in these compositions draw the listener inward and away from the scene they conjure. The Sirènes of Debussy’s Nocturnes, which, according to Deleuze and Guattari "represents one of the first complete attempts to integrate the voice with the orchestra" (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 308) perform a seductive invitation to drown in the depths of their embrace. A performance of desire that Austern defines as sirens’ characteristic trait. Their trance-inducing modulations conjure the relentlessness of the sea waves and the invitation to disappear into a maternal chora where everything is con-fused, and man is immersed into uterine tranquility. By sonically evoking the sea depths, Debussy’s sirens allude to a perilous but sensuous territory.
IV. WAX MELTS: UNSILENCING THE SIREN
If, as Austern maintains, psychoanalysis indeed tends to offer an essentialising framework for understanding femininity, it also proves useful for tracing the diagrams of desire. But in order to provide alternative schemata to the oceanic sinking of Debussy, we can turn to the work of Lacanian psychoanalyst Laura Pigozzi, who dedicated two immensely insightful books to the voice. She is among the many scholars who considered Homeric sirens as symbols of vocality. Her close-reading of this chapter of the Odyssey help us come to different conclusions, which in my opinion capture much better not only the vocal play of desire performed by the sirens, but also provide us with a way to understand the voice beyond binary frameworks.
Finally, it is time to listen to what the sirens have to say. Yet, again we will have to hear it through a man's voice: Ulysses unveils the song to his audience. The sirens’ sounds like an invitation to an all-encompassing knowledge: “We know all”, they sing (Ciani 2014, 171). Pigozzi considers the sirens' promise in her analysis of the myth, but takes distance from what at first seemed to be its limitlessness. A different space emerges: we are no longer in Austern’s boundless ocean but in a defined territory. The sirens in fact refer to earthly events, which Ulysses took part to. For Pigozzi then, the sirens’ song would be a retelling of what Ulysses already knows, making the experience akin to that of therapy, where the analysand hears their own story as retold by another voice (Pigozzi 2008 164). Pigozzi is also aware of the interpretations of the myth that relate it to the maternal, like the ones examined by Austern. Still, for the psychoanalyst, it is precisely the limited knowledge they promise that set the sirens' songs apart from the enveloping embrace of the mother. “Their call has more to do with eros than care, with the sublimity of enchantment than with the fusionality of the body” (168). Their charm lies in the promise of discover something new, as much as in the friction between the beautiful and the monstrous, rather than in an impossible maternal reconciliation. The psychoanalyst, informed by her studies of Lacan's work (who famously stated that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship), is keen to think of voice as the locus of an impossible union. She understands it as an objet petit a, the unattainable object of desire that can only be circumnavigated, “fare il giro” (166), but never fully reach. The islet or rocks around the sirens show the corpses of those who have perished listening to their song, giving us a correspondent visualisation of the territorial motion at play. Lacan himself gave the objet petit a a similar figuration with the mathème $ ◇ a, where the lozenge defines an enclosed territory and determines a relation of no actual contact between the subject ‘$’ and the petit autre, the little other, ‘a’: an island stands between them. It is this limit that the sirens dramatize, for Pigozzi. Theirs is not a promise of a total, cosmic or encyclopedic knowledge, but a knowledge of the limit. The listener can in fact take pleasure in their song and leave “knowing more” (169) than he knew before, as long as he understands this attraction as having a limit. Access to limitless knowledge is foreclosed. “This is the lesson of the sirens”, she writes: that there is no grip on the object of desire, no dissolution into the other, mother or lover she might be, for it is unattainability itself that is able to set desire in motion (171).
The psychoanalyst also turns her attention to the choice of words Circe uses to describe the sirens’ voice (for we know them as reported by Ulysses). In her message of warning, both voice and song make their appearance. ‘Voice’ is rendered through the Greek word phthóngos, which Pigozzi understands as the “sound of nature, used for animals and natural phenomena” (160). Their ‘high song’ is instead transposed by way of the word aoidé. Aoidé carries a different connotation that refers to a chant accessible to human understanding and a divergent aesthetic register to that of phthóngos. “It is chant in its artistic sense, song as art and, above all, as epic tale” (160). The sirens’ song thus combines the ‘asemantic’ vocalisations of their animality, and the signifying production of speech. “The double is the mark of the sirens”, Pigozzi tells us (161). It is precisely the ambivalent essence of their song that makes it so attracting, for a nonsensical modulation of the voice alone would not have the same effect, relinquishing the song to ‘pure’ sonorous affect; vice versa, mere storytelling would fall short of the power to captivate. The siren’s voice in the Homeric text has one last designation as ‘óps’, which, as the psychoanalyst points out, relates to the voice of gods and minor deities. This term suggests the ambiguity at the heart of the siren’s song, as uncanny creaturely call and human discourse. Moreover, óps brings together the linguistic and the extra-linguistic, the affective. We have seen how the patriarchal narrative prioritises the somatic over the semantic to silence female voices: a misrecognition predicated on a strategic cesura of the two terms whose roots can be traced back to Aristotle. Pigozzi’s epistemological shift, on the other hand, enables us to grasp the twofold quality of the voice without reproducing a binary logic; in other words, voice emerges as a continuous space between the affective aurality of non-sense and the meaningful discursivity of language. Furthermore, by their bringing together human logos and other-than-human vocality, the sirens expose the arbitrariness of the boundary that divides them. As óps the sirens’ call can be finally reunited with its semantic quality of vector of knowledge, without losing its otherworldly appeal.
V. THE BECOMING-BIRD-AGAIN OF THE SIREN
The siren is at the same time human and more than human, as it is her voice. Her 'high song' has both the shriek and the melody of a birdsong, and the logic of human discourse. She is both, but neither: a new vocal subject. The result is uncanny. And so much for the beautiful fish-soprano she was made to become. Her cultural history enabled us to expose the binaries that – quite literally – vivisected her body, transforming it into something else. But the siren's song still encourages us to think otherwise. And if it is true that all "music is a deterritorialisation of the voice " (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 302), the song of the siren is already deterritorialised qua voice. In other words, in the siren voice already lies the ability to take flight from the fixed territorial categories that captured her. The material and ideological apparatuses that have operated these captures (the male gaze, Orientalism, human exceptionalism, colonialism) require – and in turn produce – binary machines to make sense of the subjectivities they need in order to function. On the contrary, it is not at all easy to make sense of sirens. And attending to their song reveals that they do not speak nonsense, either. Theirs is another important lesson, our last one. That "voices may be reterritorialised on the distribution of the two sexes", of human and non-human, of music and noise, of sense and nonsense, "but the continuous sound flow still passes between them as in a difference of potential" (308). New or old sirens in new forms might be among us already. But hear their song again, one will have to tune into the sound flow, listen attentively to its fluctuating intensities.
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