Bad Idea 5

The Voice

{Chapter 3}

The initial opening chapter of this project was going to be about the practice of editing explored through the category of the “voice.” I was interested in thinking through how writers and readers alike understood questions of voice, how voice was situated within literature, and how editing posed a problem of multiple voices – or maybe it didn’t. How could you hear only one voice in a text that had been produced by multiple people? Was this possible, did texts try and do this or did they celebrate their own multiplicity?

So much work had been done after Derrida on the importance of the voice to the western philosophical tradition – as an affirmation of presence – and I thought this reflection on the figure of the editor could help reorient our thinking a bit towards a tradition of thinking about the deployment of multiple voices in the single text. I had a wonderful anecdote about a scribal emendation to a manuscript of Augustine’s Confessions – courtesy of Martin Eisner – and it seemed to condense these dual concerns with editing and voicing.

What I later came to understand was that a) what was novel about this chapter was its reflection on the interaction between editing and authoring and not the category of the voice and b) that in ascribing the editor a “voice” I was enacting the very personification that has been identified as one of the great hallmarks of romantic literature. Locating the editor’s voice was no different from trying to locate the author’s voice, each instance a function of a readerly projection that the text may or may not motivate (in the case of the Augustine example, the text certainly did not motivate the voice of the editor). Indeed, what I gradually – very gradually – came to see was that the entire category of “orality” itself was in some sense a romantic revival to compensate for the distantiating effects of print. There has been some great recent work on this that I cite in the chapter. Using the category of the voice would have been a naïve attempt to overlook this larger cultural construction.

In any case, I think this example is the best indication I have of how certain categories – which might be very popular when we’re writing – don’t work at all for some of the material we’re working on, but this can be hard to see at the time.

Here are excerpts of the various ways I tried to address the question of the editor’s “voice.”
In twelfth chapter of the eighth book of the Confessions, Augustine describes his conversion: sitting alone under a fig tree, he hears a voice, a voice that tells him to read. “When all at once I heard the singing voice of a child in a nearby house, and whether it was the voice of a boy or girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ [Et ecce audio vocem de vicina domo cum cantu dicentis, et crebro repetentis, quasi pueri an puellae, nescio: ‘tolle lege, tolle lege.’]” Augustine opens the Bible, reads Romans 13.13, and “it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt dispelled [quasi luce securitatis infusa cordi meo, omnes dubitationis tenebrae diffugerunt].” When he hears someone else’s voice, Augustine is finally able to hear the voice of God, and thus able to find his own voice and to write the story of his life and his epiphany. According to Augustine’s elegant testament, the story of oneself commences among many voices.

This interesting nexus of voices, texts and autobiography becomes even more complicated when we look at the manuscript history of Augustine’s own work. As Pierre Courcelle first pointed out in Recherches sur les Confessions de saint Augustin, there is an important variation in the earliest manuscript of the text where the word “divina” appears instead of “vicina” in the phrase “de vicina/divina domo.” Scholars after Courcelle have discounted the importance of this variant, arguing that “divina domus” is not a phrase common to Augustine’s work (instead we find many uses of “domus dei”) and must therefore be an interpolation by an early scribe. My interest in this passage, however, is not to recover Augustine’s original text; nor am I interested in unpacking the rich theological implications surrounding this early manuscript that underlie the location of this voice (is divine knowledge mediated or direct?). What interests me is that at the pivotal moment about hearing another voice in the paradigmatic text about finding one’s own literary voice, we encounter in fact one more voice – the voice of the scribe, or in more modern terms, the voice of the editor, the one responsible for preserving and passing along a written document.


When we speak of a voice in a text, we are most often speaking about style, about a unique use of language that we say belongs to a writer. This is his style, you hear her voice. To speak of a voice is to speak of personification, the relation of language and person. We know our voice is our own, but we are not always so sure about our language. In the face of this anxiety, we deploy metaphors of voices in texts. We equate our written words with our spoken ones. The more skeptical we become of owning our language and our stories, the more complex are our fictions of voices. The relation of language and person becomes more complicated.

Perhaps no other period has been read more frequently and intensely in its attention to the voice in the text than the early nineteenth century. This Verstimmlichung, or oralization, of the literary landscape is usually used to explain the period’s lyrical sensibility, or what M.H. Abrams described as “the exploitation of literature as an index to personality.” (23) Voices abound in early nineteenth-century poetry, so the argument goes, because poets are busy creating poets in their poems. This is what Abrams calls the genre of the biodicy, or the artist’s theodicy, that was so popular in the early nineteenth century (i.e., The Prelude), or what David Wellbery suggests is the basic argument of Goethe’s “Promotheus.” Yet the story of Augustine’s confession is the story of how the voice in the text is not so much an index of the Author or Poet or Genius, but instead an index of how a text is made. Behind the voice of the author is always another voice, the voice of the scribe, the collector, the editor, or the Philolog.


As the many contributors to the recent issue of New Literary History devoted to the idea of voice and text argue, voice does not necessarily have to imply unities and idealisms. Today, we are more attune to listening to pathological voices, from Freudian oedipal dramas, to Tourette’s eruptive curses, to Deleuzian schizophrenics. Or, after Bakhtin, we listen to the overpopulated voices of the popular and the carnevalesque. Or, after Said, we listen to the voice that “speaks for” another in the colonial or post-colonial situation; we listen, pardoxically, for voices that we cannot hear. And finally, following the brothers Kittler and media theory, we listen to the voice in the machine, to the many techniques of producing and reproducing voices, from gramophones to digital sampling. Whether Mozart’s Queen of the Night, New World travel diaries, or the diffusion of free indirect discourse in the nineteenth-century novel, far from dreams of self-presence, the voice very often appears on the verge of being out of control. Speech and speaker start to fall apart. What I would like to investigate in this chapter is an episode in the history of this kind of unraveling, complex voice.


The oral was invoked to motivate a broad range of early nineteenth-century projects. But at the heart of each use was the project to recover something original. Whether it was the pre-print, pre-lapsarian culture of the primitive, the linguistic beginnings of the nation, or the figure of the author who functions as the source of poetic language, voice was used to signify first things. The oral was invoked as an antidote to the anxieties that surrounded the new mass print culture with its proliferation of copies and absence of originals. Yet there is another voice that scholars and writers were intently listening to in the early nineteenth century, and this is the voice of the editor. This voice was not (or not only) focused on recovering a fixed origin, but was occupied with the fluid questions of transformation and negotiation. As scholars and writers compiled and printed these early “voices” that were recorded in medieval manuscripts, they were also asking how much change of their sources was acceptable. They were asking where the “editor’s” voice stopped and the “author’s” voice began, or in other words, how much was one’s tongue one’s own.