WP 14: Spell

Aural Temptation: Vowels, Violence, and the Sirens’ Song

Hunter Dukes

“My sudden enthusiasm for this glorious idea swept away all practical obstacles. No matter if no one knew exactly where the Sirens were, —I’d find them”1,2

Everyone knows the story of the Sirens from
the Odyssey. They’re the singers who tempt all
those who sail past to listen to them forever,
forgetful of their families. . . [T]he Sirens in
Homer aren’t sexy. . . . The seduction they offer
is cognitive: they claim to know. . . everything
on earth. They tell the names of pain.3

The mother’s lullaby and the lover’s
exaltation share the essence of the siren’s
song. All are emotive and sometimes
paralinguistic vocalizations from some primal

Not at all, he [Friedrich Kittler] insisted: the spot is extremely isolated; there’s
no noise pollution there at all. “Which means,” he concluded, “that Homer
was deliberately setting a false trail: what he’s telling us between the lines is that
Odysseus disembarked, swam to the rocks and fucked the sirens.”5

—The Greek! he said again. Kyrios! Shining word! The vowels the Semite and the Saxon know not.6

. . . their song was so unearthly that it forced those who heard it to realise the inhumanness of all human singing.7

(car les sirènes, c’étaient des hommes)8

Preparing for 1985’s Israfel Society Conference, the first meeting of Edgar Allan Poe specialists to be held outside the northern hemisphere, Vogelstein — the fifty-year-old narrator of Luís Fernando Verissimo’s Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (2000) — gets diverted when his cat Aleph suddenly dies. Alpha, in other words, reaches Omega. In need of companionship, Vogelstein meets Fat Pipo, who promises to introduce him to Jorge Luis Borges. (In the meantime, Vogelstein encounters a guy called “Borges Luis Jorge”, but he’s all mixed up.) The Poe conference is life-changing: it gets cancelled on account of a locked-room murder. The irony is not lost on anyone. Shifting into his own claustrophobic register, our narrator meets Borges and interviews him about letters: Dupin’s purloined missive, yes, but also Thomas Browne’s exy quincunx, etc., before moving on to “O”. Living up to his name, Vogelstein asks about the nature of vowels.

“You said somewhere that you would like to write in one of the Nordic languages because they have more vowels, and vowels are more serious.”

“Did I say that? But Latin languages have more vowels than Nordic ones! I think what I meant was that I would like to write in one of those ancient northern tongues which were almost entirely made up of vowels. I’ve always felt it had something to do with the climate. They were hot languages, insulated by all those heaped up vowels”.9

The joke is not quite as climactic or climatic when tracked back to its source. In 1966, at the University of Buenos Aires, Borges gave a twenty-five-lecture course on the history of English Literature, from Old Norse kennings to Oscar Wilde, recorded on grainy audio tapes. These were accidentally overwritten, but the lectures have been reconstructed from student notes by two men named Martín (Arias and Hadis) — another double in keeping with the Borgesian mode. Verissimo’s novelistic adaptation, a different kind of overwriting, is, indeed, verissimo, borrowed from a discussion of Anglo-Saxon, which Borges found remarkable for its slippery alliteration. “If a verse contains a word with the vowel a, another with e, and another with i, they were alliterated”. This language was “highly vocalic” (eminentemente vocálico), spoken by a polytheistic people, who had no problem incorporating Christianity — “accepting yet another god: one more is nothing” — and they had no concept of “emperor”, says Borges, before Latin loaned the concept of “Caesar” to the language.10

Like Borges, we are working at a distance, tracking, from a work of fiction, a reconstructed lecture about a language and literature largely lost, whose vowel sounds we can only approximate. But I am interested in the imaginative space that opens between these two versions of Borges, and what each fantasizes about ancient vowels. On one hand, climate: that vowel-heavy languages might run hot and insulate the speaker from her environment; on the other, politics: that consonance could consecrate the power of the Kaiser. In both, vowels concern the relation between an individual and their community (whether ecological, devotional, or political), which is a way of saying that they resonate in the seams between the one and the many. Tongues “almost entirely made up of vowels” protect the Norsemen of Verissimo’s Borges from dying back into physical indistinction amid the moorland. “Highly vocalic” Anglo-Saxon allows the Borges of Arias and Hadis to link polytheism with a generosity of linguistic alliteration: as vowels elide with ease, so too the gods. A reversal arises, in both cases, with the intrusion of Latin. The loanword caesar, in the second case, with its leading voiceless velar plosive (<k>), quietly links Christianity, imperialism, and the historical rise of consonance.

I. "O"

This is where our essay begins: with a longing ossified across Germanic and Romance languages, or, at least, imposed upon these languages by those who write within them. Of course, the “romance” in that second term is Roman, but there is also a kind of maudlin and erotic desire that recurs with regard to vowel sounds. What I am trying to describe is the enduring vocalic vision of a lost state of language. Liquid speech. Utterance as song. Vowels are often mythologized as categorically different, not only by linguistics or palaeography, but in their social origin — that they somehow come from without, a prosthetic technology internalized by humans from the nonhuman world, or sung down from a source vaguely divine or otherwise monstrous. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

During the “Proteus” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus reminisces about his past literary ambitions. “Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W.”11 Novelists influenced by Joyce have done their best to bring about Stephen’s vision. We have Tom McCarthy’s C., John Berger’s G., Roberto Calasso’s K., Thomas Pynchon’s V., and George Perec’s W ou le souvenir d’enfance.12 But I am troubled by the “O” in that quotation from Ulysses. Though the list is short, Stephen’s books are all consonants. The “O” is reserved for exclamation. It cannot be title case. As in its iconic letter form, it encircles an affective space for a “paralinguistic” sonic intensity that exceeds any semantic paraphrase.

Something similar happens with the exclamatory “O” a few episodes later in “Sirens”, when the barmaids, Miss Douce and Kennedy, erupt into laughter: “All flushed (O!), panting, sweating (O!), all breathless.”13 Sympathetic and parasympathetic physical reactions commingle with semantic and parasemantic speech, as the vowel hollows out a textual space to hold the noise of these bodies, doubled by the iconic parenthetical form. Miss Douce, who has just returned from a seaside holiday in Rostrevor, sings the “O” into aqueous melodies of erotic pursuit, such as lines from Florodora’s “In the Shade of the Palm” (1899): “—O, Idolores, queen of the eastern seas!14 And, like the barmaid’s laughter, the “O” becomes almost contagious, as onlookers at the inn find themselves overcome with lust:

Miss Douce reached high to take a flagon, stretching her satin arm, her bust, that all but burst, so high.
—O! O! jerked Lenehan, gasping at each stretch. O!15

If “Sirens” uses the “O” as a textual referent for a jouissance-filled utterance that exceeds the capacity of written repetition, the preceding episode, “Wandering Rocks”, offers a genealogy for Joyce’s technique, when Buck Mulligan discusses cakes and Shakespeare in a Dublin Bread Company tearoom: “We call it D.B.C. because they have damn bad cakes. O, but you missed Dedalus on Hamlet”.16 Mulligan is referencing Stephen’s supposed proof “by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father”. But that “O” — offset from D.B.C., as well as the presence of a character named “Gerald Ward A. D. C.” and the H. E. L. Y. S. sandwichmen (advertising a stationary shop by wearing letters affixed to tall white hats) who eel and plod through the episode — well, that “O” catches our eye and becomes a loophole through which to enter Hamlet, a play baked into the plot of Ulysses.

Ignoring the First (“bad”) Quarto, one of the more pronounced differences between the Second Quarto and Folio versions of the play appears, through the exclamatory “O”, just as Hamlet disappears. In Q2, his final line reads: “The rest is silence.” And in the Folio: “The rest is silence. O, o, o, o.” As Martin Coyle rightly asks, “How can the rest be silence if Folio Hamlet then toils away in a series of ‘O’ sounds?”17 Terence Hawkes discusses these four vowels at length describing the “editorial exasperation” caused by “Hamlet’s groaning” and asking whether or not we should read these letters as stage directions or exclamations. Far from signifying nothing, these empty vowels shake the foundations of textuality:

They invite us to “read” another person’s final, engulfing agony and follow his headlong plunge into an area about which we can have no “normalizing” knowledge or experience, one from which no traveller returns… We encounter at such moments… the enormous capacity for the generation of meaning inherent in that non-discursive, musical or “tonal” dimension of language, for which “paralanguage” lamely stands. It is one for which, as students of English, we have no adequate critical vocabulary.18

Coyle largely agrees and also detects “traces of an oral dramatic culture which we find slightly embarrassing by its use of repeated sounds or letters”, but these traces nevertheless allow us “to glimpse a particular form of oral culture even as it was dying on Shakespeare’s stage and passing into print”.19 For both scholars, Hamlet’s “O”s lead us headlong into loss: the inaccessible experience of death and the “resting silence” of an extinguished oral culture. (It is notable that Coyle chooses the verb “glimpse” rather than “hear” when discussing these letters.) But I am more intrigued by the notion that neither Hawkes nor Coyle feel the need to draw attention to the class of sound that signals death. We may have “no critical vocabulary” for the musical or tonal dimension of language, but, as it is written, we can say: vowels. One dies less often in plosive or dental consonance. If not the sibilance of a final, voiceless breath, death is vocalic, drawing us back to our origins at the acquisition of language, or so the myth begins…

“Reproductions of the vowel O, sung at different pitches”.20

II. Avowal

The rule is established early. To spell a word, you must have a vowel. Children learn these letters are special and essential. “Vowel” shares its etymology with voice. Consonants come later, breaking up the breath, dividing sound into meaningful parts. But first there were the vowels. The undifferentiated cry of the infant’s AAAAA.

In the immersion into language, we find echoed those Enlightenment mythologies about a lost state of speech. Sebastián de Covarrubias, the sixteenth-century Spanish lexicographer, thought a memory of the event could be retrieved from infant vowels. He said that girls squeal EEEEE, when they are born, while boys cry AAAAA lamenting Eve and Adam.21 During his Essay on the Origin of Languages, Rousseau describes a fall, not from Eden, but from the melodious, linguistic enchantment of ancient Greece. It started, like Borges’ decay of vocalic Anglo-Saxon, with the Romans, whose Latin, “a more muted and less musical language, wronged music in adopting it”. Then came the Gauls, barbarbar-ing over the harmonious fluctuations of rough and smooth breath (spiritus asper, spiritus lenis). “Since all their articulations were otherwise harsh and muted and their vowels hardly sonorous, they could give only a sort of mildness to their singing, which was to stress [renforcer] the sound of the vowels in order to cover up the abundance and harshness of the consonants”.22 Wrenched between languages in translation — on the page before you and in Rousseau’s antiquarian fantasy — stressed vowels were used to reinforce song against the consonance of difference.

The collapse of this linguistic Arcadia echoes an earlier loss: the fragmentation of a first language. If the expulsion from Eden in Genesis is soon redoubled by the Babababel-ing of linguistic division — the articulation of an earth “of one language, and of one speech”, says the King James — then Rousseau’s Greece is the uncanny, historical double of when speech was first parcelled into component parts.23 The more guttural and staccato a language, the more it has fallen from the state of nature, thought Rousseau. “As natural voices are unarticulated, words would have few articulations; a few interposed consonants eliminating the hiatus between the vowels [voyelles] would suffice to make them flowing… since voices, sounds, accent, and number, which are from nature, would leave little to be done by articulations, which are conventional — one would sing it rather than speak it”.24 The closer we get to that primal scene, the more speech seems to approach a state of song. And the literaturnost of formalism dissolves into the sonorities of common talk.

Taking up Rousseau’s own ambivalence (his use of both voix and voyelle to render “vowel” in the Essai), Jacques Derrida heard something unnatural in this appeal to natural language. “The opposite of ‘vowels’ or ‘voice’ to accent or ‘diversity of sounds’ evidently presupposes that the vowel is not pure voice, but a voice that has already undergone the differential work of articulation.”25 And indeed, Derrida’s différance rests on a difference between graphic vowels, seen not heard. Yet the discovery that the vowel is not “pure voice” does not really account for the centuries of longing for it to be so. Nor fully explain why vowel-chasers default, time and again, on the other senses of purity that the word has accrued: the unadulterated, the chaste, and the sinusoidal waveform — the shape of a “pure tone”, in the third case, that human phonology shares with waves in the sea.

Emulating this waveform, my essay offers little in the way of a consonant argument — used in that word’s telling, secondary sense: the harmonic and consistent. Rather, I picture these sections as seven shorings, a number that connects ancient vowels to Western musical notation and the tonal vibrations of planetary spheres. These shorings are not merely a way to prop up fragmented, broken, or imagined knowledge, but the emergence — from bodies of water, both landlocked and tidal — of vaguely congruent tangles, webbing wound round stories told of vowels, power, and purity, across language, period, and place. In tidepools of modern European and American history, literary and philosophical discussions of vowels are emmeshed with complex figurations that arise at the crossroads of sexual, ethnic, biological, and taxonomic difference.

I say European and American here only due to my uncertainty (and embarrassing lack of knowledge) about how far these associations extend, onto how many shoals they have washed, though my instinct is to say many. Eiko Shiota, for example, describes the “protean aspect of kanji”, akin to how Joyce’s “O” in “Proteus” demonstrates the apotropaic possibilities of the Latin alphabet. Drawing on the work of Shojiro Kobayashi, Shiota elaborates how the kanji 海 (literally a character for “sea”) can be combined to sound “a, i, u, e, and o — the five main Japanese vowels”:

海女 (ama): a female diver for seafood
海豚 (iruka): a dolphin
海丹 (uni): a sea urchin
海老 (ebi): a shrimp
海髪 (ogo): Ceylon moss (a kind of seaweed)26

In these examples, “sea” becomes a source for every vowel. My essay drifts along a parallel current, but wrecks upon the rocks of difference. It is no coincidence that mythological creatures of the sea and shore — often gendered female — sing seductive, vowel-laden songs. Just as it is no coincidence that, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to W. G. Sebald and Christian Bök, vowels are associated with a kind of “primitive” ethnographic purity, exoticized cultural difference, or Homeric Sirens and other undines, aspects of which are voiced in the novels and poems of Ingeborg Bachmann and Sylvia Plath.

When Freud dismissed Romain Rolland’s “oceanic feeling” — the shared longing across religious accounts of ecstasy, to be one within a larger, rippling body once again — he also obscured the groundwork for discussing a certain fixation on the immanence of vowels. In this wavy line of thought, vowels take the form of an ur-mother tongue, hence their recurrent association with the earth and other nonhuman, organic, and material bodies; a form I want to erode. The claim is not simply that, fossilized in vowels, we find a Kleinian anxiety stemming from maternal separation. (Derrida’s mother, Georgette Safar, made it clear when she asked, at an event celebrating the admission of différance into the Petit Robert dictionary — “But Jackie, have you really written ‘difference’ with an ‘a’?” — that vowels, whether graphic or oral, are not so neatly Oedipal.27) Fixated on the enduring afterlife of Derrida’s critique of phonocentrism, we have perhaps missed the gentle humming of something like vocalicentrism: a class of phonemes that do not cleanly align along binaries of speech and text, body and writing, sex and gender, or presence and memory, but are often made to appear as if they do.

In A Voice and Nothing More (2006), Mladen Dolar argues for a third valence of voice that is neither a vehicle for semantic sense nor a fount of aesthetic experience, something akin to Hamlet’s final oes: “an object voice which does not go up in smoke in the conveyance of meaning, and does not solidify in an object of fetish reverence, but an object which functions as a blind spot in the call and as a disturbance of aesthetic appreciation”. Carving out a niche for this object voice, Dolar turns immediately to a historical example, Wolfgang von Kempelen’s lesser-known preoccupation, which has been eclipsed by his construction of a chess automaton: his desire to fashion a speaking machine, which he did, in competition for a 1780 prize offered by the Royal Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg “to construct a machine which could reproduce the vowels, and to explain their physical properties”. Kempelen’s machine did better with French, Italian, and Latin than German. And, like the Borgesian fable of Latin and the Caesar, its concussive speech excelled at praising imperial power: “Leopoldus Secundus—Romanorum Imperator—Semper Augustus”. For Dolar, the voice bleeds through all the supposedly sound-proof conceptual boundary walls of intellectual history:

All those voices rise over the multitude of sound and noises, another even wilder and wider jungle: sounds of nature, sounds of machines and technology. Civilization announces its progress by a lot of noise, and the more it progresses the noisier it gets. The dividing line between the two—voice and noise as well as nature and culture—is often elusive and uncertain. We have already seen […] that the voice can be produced by machines, so that there opens a zone of undecidability, of a between-the-two, an intermediacy, which will be, as we shall see, one of the paramount features of the voice.28

And yet, just as there is a counterhistory to the phonocentric account of metaphysics — “a different metaphysical history of voice, where the voice, far from being the safeguard of presence, was considered to be dangerous, threatening, and possibly ruinous”— there is a counterhistory of the vowel that vibrates through attempts to contain it as a subset of language, speech, body, writing, or voice.29 A “between-the-two” of AEIOU.

III. Liquid Vowels

Rudolph Kœnig’s “Vowel Siren”, 1889. Note the teeth.30

It is not surprising that St. Petersburg’s Royal Academy of Sciences focused on a machine that could reproduce the vowels: these sounds have long been paradoxically figured as at once the most human and the most prosthetic class of utterance. And vowels themselves open a third space between common conceptions of phonemic classes. I will often call vowels liquid due to their aqueous associations, but liquids, in the linguistic sense, might be said to inhabit a middle space between vowels and consonants due to their resonant properties. This ambiguous liquidity, a consonant that resonates like a vowel, muddies colloquial assumptions about the division of speech sounds. As George Dobbin Brown described in his 1901 treatise on syllabification and accent in Paradise Lost, liquids almost double the epic’s leitmotif and axial orientation:

a. The syllabic nasal or liquid has developed from vowel + nasal or liquid. Then the synizesis is with, not the tonic vowel but, the tonic syllable, which must end in a very sonorous sound. Thus fallen > falln.
b. The syllabic nasal or liquid has developed from nasal or liquid + vowel. The synizesis is then with the tonic vowel. Thus flourishing > flourshing > flour’shing.31

Were we to read Brown’s examples with a suspicious eye tuned to the linguistic unconscious — his own, Milton’s, or English as langue — then whether one falls or flourishes appears to rest on the choice between a vowel or consonant in the tonic syllable: the mechanics by which synizesis makes many into one: something neither clear-cut consonant nor purely vocalic. More frequently, however, the phrase “liquid vowels” loses its technical association, yet retains a valence of being not quite here nor there, at once this and that — often employed on banks and shores, where solid earth meets fluvial or oceanic movement. (And, occasionally, both associations swirl together: as David W. Packard once argued, “the highest concentration of liquid letters in the Iliad accompanies a mention of the fair-flowing river Scamander”.32)

This Homeric coupling of linguistic and thematic liquidity percolates into the modern world. During Marcelle Tinayre’s Hellé (1898), for example, we find a classicism similar to Rousseau’s in her narrator’s descent into a French translation of Homer’s Odyssey. She encounters “une beauté d’ordre inconnu, étrangère au sens même des phrases que je lisais… avec leurs consonnes liquides et leurs syllabes féminines” (an unknown beauty extraneous to the meaning of the sentences I had read… with their liquid vowels and feminine syllables).33 Note how in Jette Kjaer’s translation, consonnes liquids become liquid vowels, as if these sounds leak through attempts at classification — and how, like Hamlet’s “O”, Tinayre’s strange beauty is parasemantic, as the conjunction of feminine syllables and ancient Greek rhythms are at once unknowable and beautiful, opening a space of aesthetic, epistemic, and taxonomic uncertainty. We will return to the Odyssey, as this essay opens with Joyce’s Ulysses, and closes with Odysseus, but first we must pursue a tributary produced by “liquidity” — the longstanding sense that vowels are somehow inherently ecstatic: divine, in some contexts, erotic in others. If consonants seem to fall on the side of culture and discipline, with the violent polysemy baked into “articulation”, vowels have long been linked to nature, in that term’s shifting valences, and the soul, inspiration unencumbered.

Enlightenment philosophers doubled down on the association of vowels and the spirit. As Johanna Drucker reveals in The Alphabetic Labyrinth, the Scottish linguist George Dalgarno, during his seventeenth-century work on linguistics for the deaf and mute, “assigned the consonants to represent the gross and material parts of human activity while the vowels were reserved for aspects of soul”.34 Steven Connor has tracked how these connotations lead back to Aristotle, but seem rooted in a physiological analogy between the phenomenology of sound formation and an epistemology of conceptual division. “Vowels, we may say, are identified with an idea of the continuous, the irreversible and the extensive… Vowels are thought of as the motive form of speech, pressing outwards from self to world, and pressing speech onwards from past to future”.35 Yet if vowels lead outward from the self into its world, from one into many — palpable through choric arrangements and the shared resonant bodily reverberations of religious chanting — they have also been figured as sounds that humans have internalized from an external source.

IV. Thoreau’s Railroad and the Archaeology of Vowels

The occult American linguist Charles V. Kraitsir speculated, in his Significance of the Alphabet (1846), that:

Vowels cannot strictly be called inorganic sounds, for the organs of respiration are used to produce them. But they are not produced by articulating organs. They can be produced by the wind in trees, on the Æolic harp, by all musical instruments, by animals; the cat produces all the vowels, as they are pronounced on the continent of Europe and Asia…36

Here we find an aspect of our speech in the soughing of tree boughs, self-voicing panpipes, and feline exclamation. For Kraitsir, vowel sounds have never been entirely human. In the Æolian harp — most familiar to Anglophone readers as a shorthand for the Romantic imagination — vowels sound across categorical divisions of artform, continent, and species. The linguist is speaking of “meow”, transcribed “mieaou” (and it helps explain why Vogelstein’s Aleph must die before he can start discussing vowels unheeded). But, cats aside, Kraitsir also expresses the inherently logocentric division between classes of phonemes. “An inarticulate sound is not worthy to signify a human thought”, making consonants “the logical elements, because they are the result of reason (logos)”. Vowels, then, are unreasonable — and accordingly, for centuries, have been coded as irrational, uncivilized, animal, or feminine. In Kraitsir, Dalgarno, Rousseau, and other thinkers to follow, we find the fledgling formation of certain conceptual divisions whose maturation will occupy the minds of writers reflecting on the atrocities of twentieth-century history below.

Piecing back together the inspiration for American Transcendentalism’s linguistic theories, Aaron M. Moe credits Kraitsir with teaching Henry David Thoreau to pull language out of lichens in the following excerpt from Walden.37

Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented… As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard’s paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds… I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body… Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat, (λείβω, laborlapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβος, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words,) externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed,) with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.38

Another person, next to another body of water, thinking about language. Here we surface amid the woods near Walden Pond. Thoreau discovers a machine in his garden (remember Dolar: “sounds of nature, sounds of machines and technology”). But there is a reason that this section does not appear in Leo Marx’s classic account of Thoreau and the railway (or the subsequently revised editions). For Marx, the ambivalent characterizations of Concord steam engines in Life in the Woods — denigrated for their sonic oppression, praised as vehicles of American progress — cohere in technological certainty. “For Thoreau, like Melville’s Ahab, this machine is the type and agent of an irreversible process: not mere scientific or technological development in the narrow sense, but the implacable advance of history”. Yet in the passage quoted above, railways serve a much weirder purpose.39

Deep cuts in clay embankments geoengineer semiotics. As railways multiply, sand and clay flow at greater rates. These flows at first appear as leaves or lines. Suddenly “we” are recruited into this landslide, with a second-person invocation, and begin to see a kind of phantasmagoric montage of evolutionary progress. Language emerges from solid granules moving as liquids, just as Thoreau’s self-reliant individualism makes rhetorical gestures that appeal to a shifting community of readers. Lichens become corals become leopards’ paws. And then we are inside of these bodies, following Thoreau’s tracks across brains, lungs, and bowels. Railway runoff becomes soul and then excrement once again. In this microcosmic “cycle of life”, we find a kind of interrupted journey of the Fitchburg Railroad, for unlike the steam engine heading toward the vanishing point on the horizonal frontier of history, its erosive sludge goes global — that is, circular. The sandy overflow becomes a body with organs. And then gives rise to language itself. The “labor” of industrial progress is a lapsus — flow or fall — but it is not “postlapsarian” in the common sense. Instead, in the railway runoff, we find a material link between the human voice (its gutturals, the “flap” of the epiglottis, this “capacity of the throat”) and a dawning global and industrial awareness.

But where are the vowels in the Walden passage, besides within its author’s aqueous surname (eau)? Despite his attention to “the soft mass of b”, “the liquid l”, and “the guttural g”, Thoreau is like the Quarto Hamlet: all the rest is silent when it comes to “O”. Yet the passage relies on the rhythmic assonance of “o” words: “flow down”; “the railroad thorough”; “a phenomenon not very common”; “globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe”; “other words”; “double lobed”; “globe”; “throat”; and so on. On one hand, it seems as though Thoreau privileges the taxonomic hierarchy of his cosmic tree, despite its “global” etymology. On the other, the frequency of the word “bowels” in the “Spring” section of Walden practically cries out for its rhyme.40 A train can cut a linear path across the earth and still not go in circles. The self-reliant “I” risks vanishing when bent into an awareness of “O”.

If vowels remain unvoiced, buried in the bowels of Walden’s biosemiotics, there is precedent for their absence. Connected to the sprit, they have long been thought to slip the ligatures of lettering. The religious thinker Philo of Alexandria, for example, convinced himself that the seven vowels in Hebrew were proof of divine origins — a vowel for each planet, every day of the creation.41 Earlier, in De Elocutione, Demetrius of Phalerium says that the sounding of vowels is like de facto prayer:

In Egypt the priests, when singing hymns in praise of the gods, employ the seven vowels, which they utter in due succession; and the sound of these letters is so euphonious that men listen to it in place of aulos and cithara [flute and lyre].42

Long before the Objectivist Louis Zukofsky had a field day with Demetrius in his “A” (1978) — “and / if I / voice thru / Demetrius ‘Egypt /…singing harmonies / of seven vowels // hymning gods’” — King James IV of Scotland set out to prove Philo right: that we might find, in language, an umbilical link to divine speech.43 He performed a sinister experiment. After abandoning two infants and a mute caretaker on an island in the Firth of Forth, the King waited patiently for these children to speak. Here the details become murky. But Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie reported, via secondhand stories, that the children’s first words were in perfect Hebrew, vowels and all.44

Diagram on vowel sounds from the Bell System Technical Journal, published by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. I am taken by the way that “father” sits between two different visions of collectivity. A multiplicity of bodies (“team”) and aqueous indistinction (“pool”).45

Only consonants are written out in the Torah. Vowels remain unseen, like those children, cast off.

Johann Gottfried Herder had an explanation in this regard. Writing about ancient Hebrew speakers, the German philosopher argued that their “pronunciation was so alive and finely articulated, their breath so spiritual and etherlike that it evaporated and eluded containment in letters”. 46 Divinity lives on in the vowel, a sound whose liveliness resists even the most ornamental script. And this myth lives into the present. For David Abram, the space held open by absent vowels were lacunae to anchor language to the phenomenal self.

The invisible air, the same mystery that animates the visible terrain, was also needed to animate the visible letters, to make them come alive and to speak. The letters themselves thus remained overtly dependent upon the elemental, corporeal life-world—they were activated by the very breath of that world, and could not be cut off from that world without losing all of their power. In this manner the absence of written vowels ensured that Hebrew language and tradition remained open to the power of that which exceeds the strictly human community—it ensured that the Hebraic sensibility would remain rooted, however tenuously, in the animate earth.47

English vowels are graphic, but their phonology is equally effervescent. While the Latin alphabet — not counting diphthongs — only recognises A, E, I, O, U, maybe Y, the International Phonetic Alphabet puts the number of voiced vowels in English at twenty plus, depending on your accent. The Great Vowel Shift, which occurred over three centuries, unmoored anglophone speech from its written past. “The language of Shakspere has departed from us”, wrote Alexander J. Ellis in 1869, in a spelling of “Shakespeare” since departed too, “and has to be acquired as a new tongue, without the aid of a living teacher.”48 According to a theory that once kept English departments busy, poetry written before the fifteenth century had its “sounds swallowed by the inexorable forces of language change and phonetic drift”.49 Vowels ebb and drift beyond human recollection. Yet consonants remain like sea-shaped glass, refashioned yet retrievable.

In an 1838 letter to his sister Helena Louisa, Thoreau begins a commentary on vocalic nationalism with a bit of throat-clearing: “Ahem! As no one can tell what was the Roman pronunciation, each nation makes the Latin conform, for the most part, to the rules of its own language; so that with us, of the vowels, only å has a peculiar sound”.50 Poet Robert Duncan did not need to Shakespeare or Latin to find the process at work. “I start with the word ‘Father,’ and since I compose the by the tone-leading of vowels, the vowels are notes of a scale… They are the least lasting sounds in our language; even in my lifetime, the sound of my vowels alters.”51 Both Thoreau and Duncan affirm the principle of vowel shift, these sounds’ liquid nature. Yet each also locates this shift in relation to a centering power: the state, in Thoreau’s case, the father-as-origin for Duncan. Vowels have, for centuries, inspired fantasies of fixity — inseparable from questions of nationalism, the fatherland, and monarchical or dictatorial power.


“7 given things that totally influenced me and that I thot [sic] of as part of everyone’s ordinary experience… 2) the scene in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where the caterpillar makes letters out of smoke which float thru the air as he sings the vowels in the alphabet.” — bpNichol52

Despite their coyness, vowels appear in magical kinds of thinking, spells encrypted on the movements of spelling, and people, often men, who try to harness this magic for domination and control. Rather than signing his name, the Habsburg Holy Roman emperor Frederick III employed a string of letters: A.E.I.O.U. Historians have long found the formulation puzzling. Some think it is an initialism for Austriae est imperare orbi universo (all the world is subject to Austria).53 Others believe Frederick simply meant to signify his judicial strength: amor electis, iniustis ordinor ultor (I am loved by the electorate, appointed punisher of the unrighteous).54 No matter the meaning — some claim there are more than three hundred viable interpretations — these vowels became a shorthand for the power of one over many.

In 2002, Anselm Kiefer made a strange installation in Salzburg’s Marx Reinhardt’s Square, which memorialises Frederick’s signature. It looks like a stucco shipping container or a sparse chapel: four white walls and a sliding glass door. Inside, there are two artworks and an inscription. The first painting “shows clay bricks set out to dry — an allusion to Sumerian cuneiform tablets — and is partially strung with NATO wire”, the Bonn Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur informs us.55 Across the top of canvas is a cursive stanza from Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Das Spiel ist aus” (The game is over): “Wach im Zigeunerlager…” (Awake in the Gypsy camp). On the adjoining wall, we find “A.E.I.O.U.”, scratched out like graphite; while on the opposing wall, a bookshelf of sheet lead explodes with branches of Moroccan thornbushes, as if running Thoreau’s railroad passage in reverse.

Bachmann’s poem, which Kiefer reproduces in part across his canvas, opens her final collection: Anrufung des Großen Bären (1956). In Karen R. Achberger’s gloss, it mainly focuses on the mythological aspects of a Mediterranean landscape, and, as in earlier work, “ship and water metaphors continue to prevail”.56

My dearest brother, when will we build a raft
and sail down through the sky?
My dearest brother, the weight’s too much for our craft
and we will sink and die.

My dearest brother, we sketch out on paper
countries and railway lines.
Watch out, close to the set of tracks right here
you’ll be blown high by mines. […]

Awake in the gypsy camp and the desert tent,
the sand runs out of our hair;
your age, my age, and the age of the planet
in years can have no measure. […]

On the golden bridge, only he who might know
the troll’s secret word can win.
I’m sorry to say, along with our last snow,
it melted in the garden. […]57

The word that Peter Filkins translates as “troll”, in the fourth stanza above, is Karfunkelfee (the name of another work by Kiefer; a portmanteau of “carbuncle” and “fairy”). Yet while “troll” in English evokes an often-masculine creature, the German “fee” is female, in grammar and gender expression. This unusual construction, an example of Bachmann’s immersion in fairy tales and folklore, evokes both the dwarf king Laurin from the Middle High German Der kleine Rosengarten, thought to originate from South Tyrol, and Melusina, the shapeshifting water spirit.

In the former myth, a version of which appears in the Heldenbuch, Laurin — using an invisibility cape — kidnaps Similde, the daughter of a king who rules the Etschtal portion of the Adige river, carrying her up into the Dolomites and down into his subterranean palace illuminated by a giant carbuncle (karfunkel).58 The story is framed by a movement from river to cave. When the rescue takes place, Dietrich von Bern and his allies are initially blinded by magic, but regain their sight through the use of enchanted rings. The story explains Tyrolean alpenglow, for after his defeat — and to hide his carbuncle and roses — Laurin makes them invisible, yet his kingdom appears for those who look closely during sunrise and sunset.

But what about the -fee? In tellings of the latter tale, Melusina, a water-fay, offers a palace and unlimited wealth to her suitor, Raymond, provided that she is occasionally granted “complete seclusion, upon which he should never venture to intrude”.59 Of course, Raymond does, looking in on her bath through a keyhole, to find “her lower extremities changed into the tail of a monstrous fish or serpent”. In Jean d’Arras’ edition, which drew upon William de Portenach’s Italian version, Melusina enacts revenge when a similar violation occurs to her mother, chaining King Helmas to the mountain Avalon (Brunbelois). And in Goethe’s popular revision, the locked room becomes a casket, not to be opened, but the suitor catches sight of a “carbuncle” (karfunkel), and, drawing his eye close, finds a shrunken Melusina, reclined in a Lilliputian drawing room. She builds him a castle and he shrinks to inhabit it by means of a ring, which entraps him, forcing the man to file it off to regain his former scale.60

The stories share structural similarities: both involve male overreach coupled with strategies of ocular perception (invisibility, voyeurism); the equation of taxonomic, sexual, and scalar difference (dwarf and woman; miniature undine and man); and a nonhuman castle — the architecture of nobility — whether subterranean or microscopic, access to which is governed by rings.

Bachmann’s usage of Karfunkelfee is enlightening, then, in several ways. First, it plays upon the longstanding links, in both classical texts and medieval European writing, between the carbuncle and luminance but reroutes it through written and spoken language.61 The enjambed image, when translated as “the troll’s secret word” (für die Karfunkelfee / das Wort noch weiß), loses, in English, polysemy that perhaps justifies the description that follows (“I’m sorry to say, along with our last snow, / it melted in the garden”): weiß (the third-person present of wissen — “to know”) and weiß (the adjective “white”, which picks up a writerly connotation from “weißes papier” or blank page). Thus the stanza does in “white”, fading known words into snow, what the earlier stanza does in “black”: obliteration, whether by the mines embedded in the countryside of postwar Europe, or an ink-filled page:

Mein lieber Bruder, wir zeichnen aufs Papier
viele Länder und Schienen.
Gib acht, vor den schwarzen Linien hier
fliegst du hoch mit den Minen.62

The “schwarzen Linien hier” may refer to the map’s denoted train rails (Schienen), but it first signifies the black lines sketched out on paper. How, then, should we read the end of this stanza? Is that explosion by landmine? Or, in the light of Karfunkelfee, can we also pick up a sense of a dwarf king’s mine of precious gems, high up, hidden in the Dolomites?

A scholar of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Bachmann maintained a career-long interest in the inexpressible. In her first of five “Lectures on Poetics” at the University of Frankfurt (1959–1960), she offered a widely quoted dictum on language and violence: “Hätten wir das Wort, hätten wir Sprache, wir bräuchten die Waffen nicht” (If we had the word, if we had language, we would not need violence).63 But in “The Game is Over”, “das Wort”, known by the Karfunkelfee, melts away elementally, as if running Thoreau’s railway excavation in reverse. In in her final poetics lecture on literature and Utopia, Bachmann summons “das weiße, unbeschriebene Blatt” (the white, unwritten page) as a symbol of literary renewal, offered not by the singular writer but by us, a collective of readers, who encounter something slightly “faded” (verblüht), which we refresh through attention, sustained by the text’s openness: “literature is unclosed, the old as well as the new”.64 In this poem, however, the speaker has no such luck, for the castle is not accessible, even conditionally (as in the myth of Melusina), but rather sealed in the mouth of a male monarch, who dictates the conditions of song:

Let’s hop to the fairytale king,
for it’s in his mouth that the castle key’s sealed,
and he’ll lead us away to sing

In her 1956 essay on music and poetry, Bachmann asks us “to forgive the human voice, that voice of a bound creature, not capable of fully saying what it suffers, nor of fully singing what high and low pitches there are to measure”.65 But here the king’s song lapses into cliché —“Everyone who falls has wings” (Jeder, der fällt, hat Flügel) — before revealing yet another image of closure: “dein Herzblatt sinkt auf mein Siegel” (“your bud [darling] is sealed in my ring [signet]”). Unlike the feminine carbuncular fairy, whose knowledge of the word melts away, the king’s dominion manifests in vocal control, mastery, and closure.

“I, I and I. I.

By inscribing “The Game is Over” across his Sumerian tablets, Kiefer places “the fairy tale king” into proximity with Frederick III, who took up the vowels, the raw material of song (according to Rousseau) as his signature: A.E.I.O.U. In the Salzburg context, we are reminded of an exiled Austrian historian who wrote, after Hitler’s invasion in 1938: “AEIOU no longer meant ‘All the world is Austria’s subject (Alles Erdreich ist Österreichs Untertan), but ‘the first [to be] lost is Austria’ (Aller erst ist Österreich vertoren)”.67 While Bachmann’s poem wanders into fairy tale, it is nearly impossible to read the phrase that Kiefer highlights — “Wach im Ziegunlager” — and not hear Zigeunerfamilienlager, the name for the “Gypsy Family Camp” section of Auschwitz, where tens of thousands of Romani were murdered. We encounter a horrific dialectic of enlightenment, then, in Kiefer’s installation, where the origin of writing systems (Sumerian tablets) is overlaid with its twentieth-century terminus: a fragmented language that, in the nightmare of history, reaches for words, but finds them melting away under the weight of a violence whose scale challenges the capacity of representation.

Kiefer’s installation leaves us wondering if vowels are involved. In Bachmann’s work, we find, as Adrian Nathan West argues, an exhibition in “pitiless detail the spiritual and psychological sequelae of the struggle with language’s inadequacy at a moment when the encapsulation of horror, a historical horror embodied in, but not limited to, the crimes of the Greater German Reich, appeared as a moral necessity.”68 There is a parallel to be drawn between Bachmann’s treatment of fascism and Theodor W. Adorno’s description of lyric poetry, which he believes can both dissolve the one into many, allowing language to speak itself, or concentrate societal discontent in the vocal register of an individual speaker. In Adorno’s conception, poems like Bachmann’s “The Game is Over” risk a “danger peculiar to the lyric”, for the form’s “individuation never guarantees that something binding and authentic will be produced.”69 When they succeed, as Bachmann’s does, “the highest lyric works are those in which the subject, with no remaining trace of mere matter, sounds forth in language until language itself acquires a voice”.70 When they fail, the lyric risks an antithetical operation, which Adorno describes, in an essay about Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s correspondence, while discussing Arthur Rimbaud’s synesthetic poem “Voyelles” (Vowels).

For Adorno, Rimbaud’s vowel poem trades on the “endowment of sounds with colours, depending solely on the gravitation of language away from meaning, [which] liberates the poem from the concept.”71 So far, it seems, so good. “Yet at the same time language, as supreme tribunal, delivers the poem over to technique — the characterization of the vowels is less their associative disguise than an indication of their proper linguistic use”.72 The critique here is not just aesthetic but political, for Adorno finds an abstract logic analogous to the one that undergirds National Socialism. Walter Benjamin agreed with Adorno’s assessment, writing, in a 1940 letter: “The analysis of ‘Voyelles’… seems thoroughly cogent to me. The intertwining of technique and esotericism, which, as you demonstrate, appeared so early, has become tangible in a regime that establishes political training schools for pilots”.73 Adorno’s critique, then, concerns a kind of ostrenenie manqué, which he describes as “bearing” (Haltung), mannerism, or posturing, passed off as defamiliarization.74 “The necessity of estrangement is twisted into the virtue of self-sufficiency. Hence, all are united in the praise of bearing. It is extolled wherever it is found, in a revolutionary as readily as in Max Weber; and in the Nationalsozialistischen Monatshften [National Socialist Monthly Magazine]”.75

Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2001), published a year before Kiefer’s installation, sits at the crossroads of Rimbaud and Bachmann, generating words like “Gypsy” through extreme formal constraints indebted to the Oulipo — a poetry that appears to allow language to speak for itself through the imposition of abstracted operations. Named after the shortest word in English to contain all of the vowels, Eunoia references the rhetorical condition of receptivity between a speaker and their aural community. The core of the book contains five prose poems, that, tightening the rules of Wright’s Gadsby (1939) or Perec’s La Disparition (1969) — two lipogram novels that eschew the use of “e” — are written as “univocal lipograms”: each poem only employs one of the five vowel characters in English: A, E, I, O, U. And there are subsidiary rules. “All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”76 We are once again at sea.

After Eunoia, one encounters a kind of backwater section, which features other poems based on similar rules. First, there is Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” in French, then Bök’s translation, and a poem dedicated to Rimbaud called “Phonemes” that associates the letter E with “sirens who sing mankind forlorn themes”.77 His most vocalic poem is “AEIOU”, which removes all consonants from Rimbaud’s original. This version of Rimbaud’s speaker — if any can be imagined — wails in a Beckettian bardo, where consonants offer no form of fixity. What I want to discuss, however, is not “AEIOU”, but, in many ways its inversion, “And Sometimes”, which, according to Bök, “itemizes every English word that contains only consonants”.78 It begins like this:


Continues like this:



And ends like this:


There is a fraught tension here, between Bök’s authorial statement — how it stresses an impersonal ordering procedure, itemization, alongside an insistence on totality, every English word — and the end result. By itemize, I think, Bök means that “Gypsy” and “Pygmy” are grouped together because their first three letters are palindromes and therefore lexically closer to each other than to “myth” and “rhythm”, which are clustered for similar reasons (“rhythm” contains the letters of “myth” unordered). Such a rigorous restraint, excluding the vowels all together, becomes, in a sense, a way of letting language speak for itself. As Bök writes: “The text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, wilfully crippling its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.”80 He is correct, for even under extreme restraint, semantic sense emerges — the clustering of indigenous with historically nomadic peoples, both named by exonym. Is it merely a coincidence, here, that two terms, used to refer to groups that have been taxonomized, fetishized, and marginalized by post-Enlightenment constructions of hierarchical racial orders, appear together by means of phonetic proximity? Or that these terms emerge from the isolation of consonants, a class of sound that Kraitsir believed were “the logical elements, because they are the result of reason”? And can we read, in Bök’s poem, and its processes of itemization, a send-up (or endowment) of the procedures of knowledge that create these categorical clusters in the first place? The violence of articulation itself?

In the introduction to their edited volume Enlightenment and Genocide, Contradictions of Modernity, James Kaye and Bo Stråth discuss the emergence of systematic purification. “When societies create community through an emphasis on demarcation from the Other, purification programmes based on concepts like race and ethnos easily emerge”.81 We could hazard to say something parallel about Eunoia’s poetics, for here language, purified of vowel sounds, begins — under the guise of necessity — with invocations of racial and ethnic others, before clustering cryptozoological maidens of the air and sea: slyphs and nymphs. Drawing on the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Kaye and Stråth describe “classification” as “one of the most important abstracting efforts in the name of Enlightenment”, when “classification effaced the face”, what Bauman names “universal rule application”.82 The haunted ending of Bök’s poem, produced through a universalizing poetics of itemization, deconstructs its speaker’s impersonal gloss: my rhythms. Who speaks here? Surely not the Gypsies, Pygmies, sylphs, or nymphs. It is as if the very voice of taxonomy, rule application, and itemization speaks out from this poem. The voice of reason has found a body. “Speech itself, language as opposed to mythical song, the possibility of holding fast the past atrocity through memory, is the law of Homeric escape”, write Horkheimer and Adorno.83 And Eunoia concludes, cryptically, with a poem titled “Embedded Excess” that esoterically “exhausts vocabulary unsuitable for use in the retelling of the Iliad.”84 Everything points back to Greece, all currents in this essay are pulling us toward an encounter with the Sirens.

VI. The Violence of Articulation

What remains unspoken, unspeakable, in Bachmann’s work, but omnipresent throughout, is the impossibility of addressing twentieth-century history coupled with an imperative to do so. Impossibility, here, is not merely a kind of language game, but a suspicion that the holocaust was not aberrant from the trajectory of Western reason, rather its perverse telos. As Georgina Paul writes, regarding Bachmann’s Malina vs. Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: each author “reads German Nazism and the Holocaust not as a demonic aberration from the goals of Enlightenment, but as an extreme articulation of trends inherent in enlightened modernity”. But, says Paul, Bachmann differs in that she writes “from the culturally symbolic position of the disempowered, objectified, and violated within the dialectic of Enlightenment, because she writes as a woman.”85 Thus, we begin to see, perhaps, how vowels sound in the territories of intersecting dispossessions of gender, ethnicity, and biological taxonomy.

In Bachmann’s novel Malina, a name sonically catty-corner to Melusina, we meet a man named Ivan. In contrast to the unnamed narrator, who only identifies as “Ich”, Ivan possesses the ability to “make consonants constant once again and comprehensible, to unlock vowels to their full resounding, to let words come over my lips once more”.86 As in her poem “Your Voice” (Deine Stimme), this image of vocal renewal must come from some erotic other: “yet between the vowels and consonants / your breath grazes me, a new sign of life.”87 For Malina, however, this new life is predicated on a kind of folk poetics: the effacement of individual distinction, the collapse of one into many. Like the “fairytale king”, Ivan leads “Ich” away to sing, and, in doing so, ensures his dominion, as she forfeits her vocal and scripted seal for his own: “I will align and superimpose our identical, high-pitched first initials we use to sign our little notes, and after our names unite we could with begin with the first words”.88

Yet while the narrator succumbs to Ivan’s speech, she writes a fairytale, titled “The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran”, not unlike the speculative karfunkel sources that echo within Bachmann’s poem. As Alexandra Hills argues, the tale relies upon “the visual vocabulary associated with crowns and fragmented territories around the Danube plain; this pre-figures not only the future historical demise of the Austrian empire, but also associates the idyllic origin of Imperial Austria with conventional gender categories”.89 While the narrator learns to sail with a man named Atti, on the local lakes, and plans a Mediterranean holiday at sea with Ivan, her Princess seems to slowly become undine, submerging and merging herself with the Danube itself: “she was the only human live there, and she had lost her orientation… it was as if everything had swirled into motion, waves of willow wands, the Danube wandered about at will”.90

In Malina’s second movement, her father comes on the scene through a series of violent dreams and hallucinations. While the Princess seems to float freely in the river’s current, our narrator finds herself pursued by an Oedipal predator — as her father metamorphizes into a crocodile:

My father has come swimming with me into the kingdom of the thousand atolls. We dive into the sea, I encounter schools of the most magical fish, and I’d like to move on with them, but my father is already after me, I see him now beside me, now below me, now above me, I have to try and reach the reefs, because my mother has hidden herself in the coral reef and is staring at me in silent warning, she knows what’s going to happen to me.91

Equating her father to an “Apostolic Kaiser”, the violence intensifies and recalls “The Game is Over”, when, in a vision, the patriarch pulls off her ring, giving it to a sister instead, while the narrator’s letters get “stuck in the snow” of the “Alpine foothills”. Eventually, our narrator seems to merge with the Princess — “I’ve reached the Black Sea, and I know that the Danube has to flow into the Black Sea. I will flow like it does” — and the distinctions between Ivan and her father blend and blur: “Crackcrack broken dam-di-dam my broken my father crack crack rrrack da-di-dam Ivan, I want Ivan, I mean Ivan, I love Ivan, my beloved father.”92 In the German, the decay of voice into noise sounds even more like Leopold Bloom’s fantasy of grandpa preserved by gramophone in Ulysses (“Kraahraark! … kraark”), a text Bachmann knew well: “Krakkrak… krak krak rrrrak”.93 The narrator’s crocodile father becomes Bachmann’s fairytale king, locking the key (Schlüssel) away in his mouth, and thus rendering the narrator without access to language: ““He takes away my key on top of everything else, it’s my only key! I’m speechless”.94

When trying to come to terms with totalitarianism, vowels become substitutes for the inadequacy of language as well as metonyms for its complicity in history (visible perhaps in contemporary debates about whether to “disembvowel” words like N*z*). Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”, like Bachmann’s Malina, collapses fascism into patriarchy, while her “Lorelai”, which explores the Rhine’s man-drowning maiden of Bacharach, reads like “The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran”. (In Elfriede Jelinek’s 2002 Der Tod und das Mädchen V, Bachmann and Plath climb a wall together screaming “Daddy”, “Nazi”, “Jew”.)95 In “Daddy”, sing-song rhymes cluster the sound of sneezing “Achoo” (sinisterly capitalized) with “Ach du”, “you”, and “Jew”, while language itself becomes an obscene “engine”, which, reversing Thoreau’s image in postwar Europe, chuffs its way to “Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen”.96 Whereas Plath’s assonant associations use vocalic rhyme to comment on the impossibility of adequate speech — “Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak” — and to gloss language as an obscene vehicle cutting a path toward systematic violence, Roberto Bolaño focuses on inscription over voice. In the entry for “Willy Schürzholz” from Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fictional encyclopaedia of fascist, emigree writers, he describes how, in 1985, the poet created the cultural sensation of the summer. “Commanding a team of excavators, he dug the map of an ideal concentration camp into the Atacama desert… The poet himself dispatched the literary component by inscribing the five vowels with a hoe and mattock at locations scattered arbitrarily over the terrain’s rugged surface.”97 Bolaño literally overlays an image of vocalic isolation onto ideality (“ideal”) and holocaust, rewriting Kiefer’s inscription of Frederick’s signature in desert sand.

Other post-war writer find, in vowels, an ekphrastic approximation of Munch’s The Scream. W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a novel whose title and narrative orbit “Auschwitz”, reworks a description, from Claude Simon’s Le Jardin des Plants, regarding the Italian painter Gastone Novelli. Entering the Belgian fortress Breendonk, which became a Nazi prison in 1940, and holding area for those destined to be transported to concentration camps, the narrator’s attention turns textual: “various adages neatly painted on its wall in Gothic lettering, I could well imagine the sight of the good fathers and dutiful sons of Vilsbiburg and Fulsbüttel, from the Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps, sitting here when they came off duty to play cards or write letters to their loved ones at home.”98 These letters then turn intertextual, as a reflection on torture recalls the passage from Simon, which opens with Novelli arrested and transported to Dachau. Surviving, writes Sebald, Novelli “found the sight of a German, or indeed any so-called civilized being, male or female, so intolerable that, hardly recovered, he embarked on the first ship he could find.”99 To escape civilization, Novelli turns to the sea.

In Simon’s novel, we get more detail about what Novelli finds in the Amazon: entering a “virgin forest” and losing his guide and companion, he spends some days trying to survive, before encountering a “little naked man”, “as if the fear that had gripped his entrails over the past ten days had all at once materialized in the form of an almost-dwarf [presque-nain]”.100 The members of this indigenous tribe are placed into a polar relationship with the progress of Enlightenment ideals (creating another coupling of the vocalic with communities of short stature). When reflecting why Novelli felt comfortable, Simon writes that “it was because they incarnated the opposite of a civilization capable of breeding philosophers as well as torturers like the ones who had tormented him in Dachau”. And yet, the description of these forest-dwellers’ language is very much framed by associations of vowel sounds with primitivism and purity. It’s as if, in Simon’s novel, Novelli wanders into the mind of Rousseau’s fevered dreams:

a language practically without consonants and composed almost uniquely of vowels, among them the sound A, which, modulated and accentuated in an infinite variety of ways, undulating now deep, now in a more high-pitched tone, now drawn out now staccato clipped, signified an incalculable quantity of things, both conceptual and concrete… He said that even using all the signs that could be borrowed from the most diverse languages, as for instance Greek aspirates, the umlauts or little circles used in the Nordic languages, circumflexes, grave or acute accent marks, it was virtually impossible to convey the variety of nuances… that those sounds, rendered in the Roman alphabet [l’alphabet latin] by one single letter, could signify.101

Inverting Borges, here Nordic graphology fails to represent free-flowing vowels. When Novelli returns to his “native land”, he begins to paint letters across canvases, like Kiefer, but chooses only the letter A. He would inscribe those superimposed lines of uneven letters, wavering like a scream, repeating themselves, never the same. They are only made uniform on Simon’s page.


We learn little from Sebald or Simon about what Novelli experienced at Dachau. In Simon’s novel, there is something akin to “the person from Porlock”, who intrudes at the very moment where the horrors are about to be spoken. Except instead of being detained, like Coleridge, by a man on business, Simon and Novelli are mutually distracted by an erotic scene of women emerging from the sea. The men are discussing translation, “when suddenly he told me that at Dachau they had hung him by his wrists until he fainted”. Before Simon learns more: “two young women, one Greek and one Spanish, emerged from the waves and came back to us, wringing their hair.”102 He proceeds to describe, in precise, visual detail, how the water glistens from their elbows, armpits, thighs, and bathing suits. Dachau gets a clause, while these women consume sentences and are visually consumed in turn. Vowels, sirenic women, programmatic violence, and the unspeakable are caught in a net again. (While many of Novelli’s books remain unpublished, the curator’s note to their recent exhibition describes how the texts track “the decade long journey that led the artist from an exploration of the signical and phonetic meanings of the alphabet towards his encounter with popular culture, Greece, and its wealth of myth, writings, and symbols”.)103

VII: The Sirens (la, le, lo)

“They tell the names of pain” (note the lapsus)104

There are many ways to find an end. That is, return to our beginning, make a homecoming. We could complete the circle of the exclamatory “O” or Thoreau’s railroad and find ourselves once again in the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses. Joyce’s use of the name “Dolores” only occurs in that episode, which might prompt a comparison with Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote under the alias “Sirin”, and gave the name “Dolores” in Lolita to the character described with a diminutive of “nymph”. “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”105 All the violence that is to come, divvying up those letters, a blazon of the proper name. This would lead to Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, the name of Humbert Humbert’s first love, who dissolves into “her sepulchre there by the sea— / In her tomb by the sounding sea.”106 And then we are back at the Edgar Allan Poe conference with Vogelstein and Borges, beginning to talk about vowels.

Or we could follow Plath to a greater depth. The legends of Lorelei conflict, but some details are consistent. Some remember her as benign, others as evil. All agree that she led men to their death, lured them with song. Suitors would come from near and far, fall hopelessly in love. Rejected, they wandered in deep woods, sometimes drowned in the Rhine. Their drowning was preceded by a fall. Lapsus sounds like lapis, the Latin word for stone. Lapse once had a wider sense, as in Thoreau, which fell out of use in the nineteenth century: a slip of the memory, the pen, or the tongue. Like slipping on a wet rock into the river below. La, la, lei. Lo, re, lai. “Lorelai” comes from the Germanic lur, to lurk, and ley, a rock. Lai is also a type of medieval poem — verse once sung, perhaps. This poetic sense of lai is thought to have come from lake: the Middle English word for child’s play, now homonymic with an aqueous body, walled off from the sea. Unlike Heinrich Heine’s “Die Lorelei”, Plath’s poem addresses the undine herself. “Lorelei” lives on the membrane between two worlds. Above are the suitors, who fall to their deaths. Below are victims past, whose “shapes float // Up toward me, troubling the face / Of quiet.”107 Plath read the poem differently than she wrote it. This is important. In the written version, the poem’s second stanza begins like this: “The blue water-mists dropping / Scrim after scrim like fishnets / Though fishermen are sleeping.”108 In an audio recording of her reading (since removed from the internet), Plath makes a small, but significant change.109 A sea-change. One syllable falls out of use. She reads fishermen as fishmen.

Plath’s “fishmen”, which unsettles the fidelity of speech and writing, brings us to The Waste Land’s “The Fire Sermon,” named for the elemental anthesis of water, where T. S. Eliot casts Richard Wagner’s Rhinemaidens from Götterdämmerung of the Ring cycle — whose dwarf-king Alberich shares much in common with the carbuncle-hiding Laurin. After the Rhinemaidens sing (nymphs who some believe were based on the Lorelai) — Weialala leia /Wallala leialala — a typist has bad sex with a clerk.110 Afterward she “smooths her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone.”111 The stanza breaks, creates a noisy silence, like the needle on wax before finding a groove. When it does, we hear the following:

“This music crept by me upon the waters”
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City, City, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline|
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon…112

The exclamatory “O” of that urban apostrophe, rounded like the record playing in the stanza above, almost remediates a skipping needle: “City, City”. And also brings us back to “A Game of Chess” — “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag” — and Hamlet. These lounging fishmen are both local mongers and mythic figures. They are framed by Shakespeare, for the quotation is from The Tempest, spoken by Ferdinand, in anticipation of Ariel’s music, a song that reports how “Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell”. Yet in Eliot “the nymphs are departed”. (Plath wrote a poem titled “Full Fathom Five” the same year as “Lorelei”.) That is all to say, even when we follow Plath’s allusions to associative ends approaching the absurd, we still alight on the same origin — a need to confront the Sirens.

“This music crept by me upon the waters… I heard then what sound like singing. I cannot describe it accurately, but it was low and somewhat distant—a ‘natural’ kind of singing one might call it, reminiscent of the waves and wind.”113 This is the historian Ernle Bradford, who once went Siren chasing, and seems to lapse into literature while conflating the avian Sirens with merfolk (“just another case of pin-the-fish-tail-on-the-maiden”, says George Prochnik).114. In Ulysses Found (1963), popularly resurfaced by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Bradford looks back at a journal from 1948, which he wrote five years after he heard a liquid melody in the Gulf of Salerno and finds the above entry. He hears a “natural” song, the undulating “pure tone” of sea and air. Yet we do not need the words of a Shakespearean spirit to know what the Sirens sang. It is all there in the Odyssey:

All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
Poured from our mouths. The music bring them joy,
And they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy115

Emily Wilson, who translated the passage above, writes that “the Sirens in Homer aren’t sexy… The seduction they offer is cognitive” and then proceeds to show how generations of her predecessors have tried to make them so, translating στομάτων as “lips” instead of “mouth”.116 The temptation, then, is epistemological, the promise of total knowledge, complete history, and “allothanatography” — a full accounting of one’s life, including the moment of death as witnessed by another. Just as we cannot witness our own passing, the “threat” imbued in the Sirens’ song is the dissolution of the one into many. “If their song was sweet and sensuous — “female,” according to the terms of Homer’s day (and ours)”, writes Rebecca Comay, “what proved most irresistible to Odysseus was in fact the (“male”) promise of a knowledge so absolute it would rupture the bonds of finite subjectivity by assuming the impossible standpoint of the whole”. Just as the song of the Sirens sounds as a choric singular, so too Odysseus stand to have his subjectivity exploded into multiplicity by knowledge.117

In a sense, I have written my way into an analogous impossibility: chased references and allusions across language and history, placed epistemic temptation over bibliographic fidelity, tried to untangle the recurring associations woven within our vowels. It’s all led to this scene — the Sirens’ song, my essay’s ruin (ruire), another word leading back to a lapsus. In Homer’s episode, Comay finds sexual difference and violation — Odysseus strapped upright to the phallic mast, instructing his men to seal their ears to avoid “the Sirens’ aural rape” — and Lillian Doherty sees an image of female resistance. “They [the Sirens] are potentially sexual, but narrative, not sex, is the true source of their power. Thus they can elude the assimilation of femaleness to ‘nature’ and sexuality, for their language is impeccably that of culture.”118 Horkheimer and Adorno too believe that “the Sirens threaten the patriarchal order”, but also see an allegory for class stratification and the dialectic of enlightenment: “Workers [Odysseus’ men] must look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side… The other possibility Odysseus chooses for himself, the landowner… He listens, but does so while bound helplessly to the mast.”119 In the Siren episode, we find labour split off from aesthetic experience: an impasse for both the sense-deprived oarsmen and the disenchanting Odysseus, who allows himself to be fettered in order that the Sirens’ spell will have no effect. In Heine’s “Lorelei”, he describes the maiden’s song as devouring (verschlingen), but Odysseus avoids being cast up (verschlagen) on the Sirens’ isle — devoured like the “great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones” that lie around the creatures — by being cunning (verschlagen).120 Yet, argues Jonas Grethlein, Horkheimer and Adorno “sideline the immersive capacity of song so central to the Homeric passage”.121

Friedrich Kittler might have agreed, as he found, in the Siren song, the origin of the first vowel alphabet circa 800 BCE. “With the addition of vowel characters, an alphabet was able, for the first time, to record language as it was spoken and to guarantee its faithful future reproduction.” 122 And for what purposes was it developed? “[I]t was for Homer’s sake that a nameless Greek adapted the Phoenician consonantal alphabet to the Indo-European vowel system.”123 Famously, Kittler, Wolfgang Ernst, and a team from Humboldt University, which included two sopranos of the Berlin State Opera, set sail toward the Li Galli islands in April 2004, for the purposes of media archaeology — to find the origins of the phonograph in the resonant coves of the Sirens’ supposed historical haunts. The vocalists were positioned on various rocks alongside mechanical sirens. As Karl-Heinz Frommolt and Martin Carlé write in their trip report, “Two trained human voices sung glissandi and chanted intervals of vowels previously recorded on tape.”124 They also broadcast the cries of monk seals… because, well why not. From a rowboat, the researchers recorded the human and nonhuman vibrations rippling out across the waters. Their conclusion?

When trying to re-access transient articulations, at first glance, it looks as if past modes of listening – which vary with cultural history – can only be reconstructed by written descriptions… How do we get access to past sound and hearing? …The best method to understand a medium is by re-engineering it and by its functional (re-) enactment… the original experience is repeatable; the experiment allows for com/munication across the temporal gap (bridging a temporal, not spatial distance like mass media do).125

For Ernst, the Sirens live on in a sound wave, and we can time travel to them given the right physical conditions: rock, stone, wave, sea. Yet, I think, as with many Siren seekers and vowel chasers, the focus on the past — on re-enactment, drift, and loss — obscures the inverse motion, the one we take for granted: passage forward through time. If we cannot only reconstruct “transient articulations” from “written descriptions”, we can also never delimit the reach of articulation as it echoes outward through allusion, conceptual division, and history. Every text seems to be pulling us back to a scene that fills our future. Death for Odysseus comes in the form of a narrative that he has already experienced in pieces. “The modern visual iconography of Sirens is very different from the ancient”, writes Emily Wilson. “They offer poetic/aesthetic/epistemic temptation”.126



Hunter Dukes is the managing editor of Cabinet Magazine and The Public Domain Review. He lives in Berlin. His first book is Signature (Object Lessons: 2020).