Voice doubles: auditory identities in Michel Tournier's "Tristan Vox".
In this article, I will trace the intertwined problems of voice and identity in Michel Tournier's short story "Tristan Vox" (1978). (1) On the level of its characters, "Tristan Vox" dramatizes voice and identity as paradoxically mutable. On its textual level, the short story can be read as analogously vacillating between different articulations and identities. In probing this double problematic of "Tristan Vox," I will account for such interrelated issues as characteristic voice, name and naming, intertextuality, and the very sound of language.
"Tristan Vox" is a story about a radio announcer, whose real name is Felix Robinet but who appears under the pseudonym Tristan Vox in his own midnight program. The show becomes considerably popular, and the listeners imagine Tristan, on the basis of his voice, as a romantic, handsome, and young-looking single, whereas, in reality, Felix is a balding and plump married man approaching sixty. Among his fan mail, Felix qua Tristan begins to receive letters, which refer to his private life and secret thoughts, from a woman who calls herself Yseut. Gradually Yseut's letters turn into seductive accounts, complete with graphic drawings of sexual acts.
A radio magazine accidentally publishes, in connection with Vox's name, the photograph of a tennis player, who happens to correspond to the audience's image of Tristan's physical appearance. When the athlete, Frederic Durateau, comes to Felix's studio in order to claim compensation for the loss of his privacy, Felix's secretary, Mile Flavie, throws herself out of the window. Shortly before her death Mile Flavie confesses that she had written the letters signed Yseut. Returning home, Felix learns from his wife that she, too, had been writing under the pseudonym Yseut. While the shocked Felix is on a sick leave, Frederic Durateau begins the host the Tristan Vox show. Surprisingly, his voice sounds exactly like the original announcer's, and Felix finds out that his wife continues writing love letters addressed to (the new) Tristan Vox.
The word radio stems from the Latin radius, "beam, ray" (Oxford Latin Dictionary s.v. radius). Radio in the meaning of "wireless telegraphy or telephony" or "an apparatus for receiving or transmitting radio broadcasts" is a shortened form of radiotelegraphic (or -telephonic) transmission or instrument (Webster's s.v. radio). Radio, hence, involves telecommunication, transmission of messages with the physical absence of one member of the process. In "Tristan Vox," the most obvious form of radio communication is telephonic transmission, the voice in the absence of an interlocutor. Speaking into the microphone in his Paris studio, Felix Robinet addresses his absent audience all over France, for whom he materializes as a vocal image of Tristan Vox, rhetorically captivating the auditors within the radius of his voice and causing a variety of emotional effects. However, telegraphic transmission, i.e. telecommunication in writing, also figures in the short story, albeit more implicitly. Literary tradition, preceding fictional works and characters, inform many key aspects of "Tristan Vox," including its very protagonist and title.
I will first deal with the radiotelephonic characteristics of "Tristan Vox," and then proceed to its intertextual features as manifested in characters' names. These two forms of telecommunication relate to the problem of identity in the radio(ed) personalities of "Tristan Vox."
Voice Doubles I: Disembodiment and Re-embodiment
Tristan Vox only exists as a voice. A radiotelephonic pseudonym, Tristan Vox is in essence immaterial, a voice without a perceivable body. In Tristan's case, the disembodiment inherent in all telephonic communication manifests in an extreme form. Only a few people know the real identity of the man who articulates his words as Tristan Vox; for the millions of other listeners, the pseudonym and his voice are identical with each other. For the auditors, Tristan Vox is not, however, a voice without some personality or body. The quality of Tristan's voice, its raucite tristanienne, evokes a number of specific characteristics of the articulator: "il y avait en elle une gravite caressante et veloutee que relevait une felure, une cassure, quelque chose de blesse, et qui blessait aussi avec une implacable douceur ceux--et surtout celles--qui l'entendaient" (126). With a surprising conformity, the auditors picture, in letters and drawings, the detailed physical looks of Tristan: "L'image qu'on se faisait generalement de lui, d'apres sa voix, etait celle d'un homme dans sa seconde jeunesse, grand, mince, souple, avec une masse de cheveux chatains indomptes qui attenuaient par leur flou romantique ce que son masque noblement tourmente, aux pommettes un peu hautes, aurait pu avoir d'excessivement sombre, malgre la douceur de ses grands yeux melancoliques" (127). Felix Robinet's appearance is almost a diametrical opposite of these characteristics: "Il approchait la soixantaine. Il etait petit, chauve et bedonnant" (127).
The irony in the discontinuity between Felix's voice and body is increased by the fact that the magically captivating tone of his voice is due to such unromantic physical defects as chronic laryngitis and a curiously vibrating double chin. Discontinuous as Felix's voice and body are, the effect of this discrepancy is not merely ironic but it also relates to the phenomenon of disembodied voices in general. The narrator opens the short story by recounting the meanings and effects of voice, besides in radiotelephonic transmission, in religion and mysticism. In many religions, the narrator points out, "les decrets de Dieu se manifestent par une voix tombant du haut d'un ciel vide" (125). Ethereal both in the physical and metaphysical senses of the word, the voices of radio "spiqueurs" get divine attributes in listeners' letters: "incorporelles et douees d'ubiquite, a la rois toutes puissantes et inaccessibles" (125). Even if the announcers themselves did not want to occupy the heightened position to which the audience had elevated them on the basis of mere voices "sans visage ni regard" (125), they would be compelled to face and acknowledge their other selves when looking at the mirror: "se regardant parfois dans une glace, ils prononcaient en tremblant le mot terrible de quatre lettres qu'on leur faisait incarner malgre eux" (126). The disembodied voice is, thus, re-embodied in a transcendented form in a body untransfigured.
Interestingly enough, the narrator abstains from articulating the divine name of that new constellation but refers to ineffable "Dieu" with a eupheism. In contrast, even the most reluctant of the announcers speak the divine name aloud, albeit tremblingly, to themselves, or rather to the reflection of themselves seen in the mirror. This incident can be read as a parody of the Lacanian mirror stage; unlike a toddler, the announcer recognizes himself as a complete stranger, a divine totaliteraliter. The voice pronouncing the name of that self-as-other seemingly connects the two entities but it, too, is removed from the immediately given. Voice as heard by others issues from the speaker's body, whereas the speaker hears his/her voice through the body, through the resonating cavities and vibrating membrane of the skull. This means that the speaker does not know what his/her voice sounds like, until hearing a recording of it; in a similar fashion, only a reflecting surface or recording device reveals the physical appearance of the subject to him/herself. Both voice and body are, then, too intimate for the subject to know as others know them. Therefore, both bodily and vocal identities are different for the subject and for others from the outset, opening up the discontinuity of these seeming stable phenomena in actual life, but especially so in radiotelephonic communication.
The disembodiment (and the possibility of re-embodiment) of voice inherent in radiotelephony seems to entail a rupture in the synchronization of the speaker and the sounds s/he produces. Felix Robinet's career as an actor can be seen to have prepared him for radiotelephonic incarnations; an actor's work is to "incarner aux yeux du public un personnage qu'on n'est pas" (130). On the radio and in the case of Tristan Vox, however, the situation is doubly different: the audience has no ocular proof of the synchronization between the speaking subject's body and the words he utters, and Felix does not play Tristan but professes to be him: "Il l'incarnait en affirmant sans equivoque qu'il l'etait reellement, et il le creait en meme temps, a chaque instant, au lieu de l'emprunter tout fait a un repertoire" (130). Felix's radio career has followed a gradual development from being a plain voice to its re-embodiment in a fictional character. He started as an anonymous "spiqueur" reading weather forecasts, news in brief, and the following day's program information. Then he lent his voice to the "speaking clock" (l'Horloge parlante), which inspired a veritable public quest to reveal the man behind the voice (127). Felix's own show finally takes the voice/body problematic to the extreme.
As the speaking clock, Felix's voice had been perfectly synchronous with the face of the timepiece. As Tristan Vox, Felix's voice belongs to an non-existent face, to an auditory image it creates in listeners, radically differing from Felix's own. The situation is a reversal of the Hollywood film musical Singin' in the Rain (1952). In the film, silent-screen star Lina Lamont is told: "You're a beautiful woman; audiences think you have a voice to match" (qtd. in Silverman 45). Her shrill, ungrammatical, and heavily accented voice is incompatible with Lamont's outer appearance, and the studio tries to hide this discrepancy by dubbing her lines with another, more "suitable" woman's voice. In "Tristan Vox," his romantic voice contradicts Felix's mundane body, and this heterogeneity is attempted to conceal by hiding his true identity--until it is taken over by Durateau's, to whom, in the auditors' minds, the voice seems to belong.
Postdubbing, which Singin' in the Rain features, adds voice to a character's image after filming (Silverman 47). The analogue of filmic dubbing to "Tristan Vox" is as heuristic as it is problematic. Durateau's body is, imaginarily, compatible with the impression which Tristan's voice creates, thus formally realizing the perfect synchronization strived for in postdubbing. Durateau in a way also acts as a stand-in or body double (doublure) in relation to Tristan's voice, albeit not to Felix's body, which practice, again formally, resembles the conventions of predubbing. Temporal suffixes do not, however, quite suffice to capture the voice/body problem in the Tournier short story. It could be said that Felix himself dubs all the present and future incarnations of Tristan Vox, because that fictional character primarily exists as a voice. Nevertheless, when Durateau starts to act as a "voice double" under the pseudonym Tristan Vox in Felix's radio show, the voice and body form a perfect match in one single person. If this phenomenon is called dubbing, then Durateau marries "his" voice to his own body in real-time performance, and one wonders whether or not the situation differs radically from actual people and their conventional speech-acts. In any case, the doubling of voice in "Tristan Vox" functions as an auditory version of the Doppelganger motif recurrent in Tournier's early oeuvre (cf. Scheiner 168-96).
Durateau's incarnation of a voice which is at first heard without "its ostensible source ... visible at the moment of emission" resembles another codified deviation from synchronization, the voice-off (Silverman 48). When Durateau's photograph and finally the man himself appear in the narrative world, the unity of the disembodied voice and its ostensible source seem to be recovered. By using the word "ostensible" instead of "actual" or "real" Silverman presumably emphasizes that the voice-off is a matter of viewers' impression rather than an empirical state of affairs: what appears as recovered synchronism may well have been executed with the help of postdubbing.
The radiotelephonic medium as such can be conceived of as a version of the voice-over, i.e. the voice heard (in film) without a sight of its originator. The voice-over is another deviation from the rule of synchronization, and this kind of disembodied voice is almost invariably male in classic Hollywood films (Silverman 48). Felix qua Tristan Vox attempts to remain invisible not only in the diegetic world of his show or medium but also in the extradiegetic realm of everyday life. The only image of Tristan Vox is indeed the one created by auditors' imagination, which is also the case in the pure cinematic voice-over. Durateau's appearance in a published photograph and eventually in the flesh breaks the diegetic anonymity and recovers ostensible synchronism, thus turning the voice-over, via the voice-off, into a temporally anomalous version of dubbing.
The problematic nature of voice in "Tristan Vox" can emerge conceptually more manageable when conceived in cinematic terms, as I have done above. The Tournier story's analogue to the audiovisual conventions of the film should not, however, be stretched too far. "Tristan Vox" is literature, and the literary permeates it from the outset. In the next two sections, I will deal with naming in "Tristan Vox" and try to find out how it harks back to prior literature, as well as to hark at the auditory quality of the names themselves.
Michel Tournier tends to name his characters in an allusive way. The name of a Tournier character typically relates either to his/her dominating personal traits or to some intertextual ancestors. It may suffice to trace the significations of Abel Tiffauges's name in Le Roi des Aulnes to see Tournier's onomastics at work. The family name Tiffauges is, at one level, a portmanteau of the German expression tiefe Augen, "deep eyes," and it gives away the character's relation to seeing and vision. Apart from natural language, the signifier Tiffauges can be conceived as an almost homophonic allusion to Tiphaine, the child-slaughtering criminal in Victor Hugo's "l'Aigle du Casque" (Bouloumie 45, 258). Abel, for its part, obviously alludes to the biblical twin brother of Cain, who eventually kills him thus making him the first martyr, but it, too, relates to other meanings than those of its mythical bearer. In Hebrew, Abel signifies a meadow, a breath, futility, and grief (Mercatante s.v. Abel). The first of those significations relates to the biblical Abel's occupation as a shepherd, whereas the other three more accurately describe Tiffauges's mode of being.
The names of Tournier's characters are not, hence, as transparent as a hasty reader might conceive of them. One single name may enclose layers of semic traits, intertextual allusions to literature, and references to mythological characters, the priority of which is not always apparent. Even the characters themselves are uncertain about the real meaning of each others' or even their own names, and often suggest alternate readings of them. For instance, in Le Roi des Aulnes, Abel's surname is conceived either as Tiefauge or as Triefauge, both of which refer to seeing, but with the opposite meanings of prophetically deep vision and myopia respectively (Tournier, Le Roi des Aulnes 276-77, 406-07).
Naming a character after an already existing literary figure is as common a feature in fiction as it is neglected in literary theory. Wolfgang G. Muller's account of the interrelations between characters of different texts provides a useful taxonomy of the phenomenon as well as coins a term, interfigurality, for it (101-21). (2) Naming is an economic means of establishing an interfigural relationship between fictional characters. Characters with the same name also metonymically link the whole texts in which they appear. The relationship between characters (or texts) is not, however, that of identity, for the new context inevitably causes changes in meaning. Often that contextual change is deliberately emphasized in the interfigural use of characters.
The most prominent interfigural name in Tournier's short story is, of course, that of its protagonist and eponymous title, Tristan Vox. Tristan Vox is a pseudonym, literally a given (and taken) name in its entirety. In order to protect his identity and to synchronize his voice with the (auditory) image it evokes in listeners, the radiophonic Felix Robinet is renamed as "Tristan Vox, superbe assemblage de roman courtois et de modernisme vulgaire" (129). This bricolage of semic and interfigural traits breaks the bond between the new name and its bearer so radically that the narrator describes it as a veritable coming into existence of a new person: "ainsi qu'etait ne Tristan Vox" (129). The pseudonym consciously contradicts Felix Robinet's traits as suggested by his actual name. Felix enjoys the simple pleasures of good food, modest petit bourgeois life, and marriage, thus realizing the meaning "happy" of his Latin given name. In contrast, Tristan interfigurally refers to the legendary hero of courtly love, epitomizing, even in popular thinking, unconditional passion. The suffering and melancholic side of passionate love can be seen as embedded in his very name; the first five letters of Tristan homophonically disclose a semic trait of his sadness. (3) Felix's family name Robinet, "faucet," seems to hint at the banality of the modern life he leads. However, the surname also relates to Felix's most prominent feature: his exceptional spoken skills, characterized by a smooth flow of words. When, toward the end of the story, he thinks of giving notice of leaving, Felix puns on the aquatic and vocal meanings of his family name: "Il faut fermer le robinet" (149).
Besides a semic marker of Felix's verbal skills and the tone of his voice, robinet opens up an intratextual connection to another story in Le Coq de bruyere. "Tupik" is a story about a little boy who, taking his cue of his nursmaid's threat to cut off his "petit robinet" (Tournier, Le Coq de bruyere 79) in case he ever wets his bed again, castrates himself. In "Tupik," the flow of liquid is urethral-genital, whereas in "Tristan Vox" it is hydrophilic-oral. (4) The opposite ends of the metabolic (and metaphoric) tract are partly dissolved in the discourse of the latter story's narrator. The new microphones in Felix's studio are, with definite phallic overtones, described as being snake-like: "Le nouveaux micros avaient l'air d'une tete de vipere dardee sur le visage, sur la bouche de celui qui parlait. Robinet s'avisa que c'etait ce serpent electronique hostile et mechant qui operait sa metamorphose en Tristan Vox." (133) The urethral-erotic association of speaking into the microphone is reinforced by the mention of FElix's being worth of gold to the radio station (128) and his voice as being golden (129). Hence, Felix's radiophonic discourse is not necessarily only clear and smooth as water but also toned and pressed as a golden shower.
The pseudonymic family name Vox seems a transparent sign of Tristan the radio personality's most prominent semic feature, his voice. In Latin, however, the semantic field of vox is considerably wide, including, in addition to the most common "human voice" and "tone and quality of voice," such significations as "the auditory effect of a word," "spoken utterance," "language," and "gnomic saying" (Oxford Latin Dictionary s.v. vox). Tristan Vox's radiophonic discourse is indeed characterized by the unique grain of his voice ("raucite tristanienne"; 126; emphasis in original), the spell it casts on the auditors, and the quotidian subjects heightened to veritable wisdom of "immense experience" (130). His voice is thus not only voix d'or but, as auditory magic, it also resembles voix d'Orphee, leading the listeners from the dull underworld of the everyday, but also leading them astray as regards his own identity.
To sum up the relations between the protagonist's name and his pseudonym, the following observations can be made. There is a formal resemblance between the first name in the actual name and family name in the pseudonym (the Latin language), as well as between the actual family name and the pseudonymic first name (the French language). The first names are contradictory ("happy" vs. "sad"), while the family names are (metaphorically) analogous on account of liquid symbolism. The pseudonym is not, thus, completely separate from the protagonist's real name or his mundane identity.
Felix's wife and secretary form a bodily and nominal opposition, the terms of which, not unlike in the case of his name and pseudonym, secretly share some characteristics. The spouse Amelie, nee Lamiche, is voluptuous and a masterly cook; the significations of a soft rounded figure and food are embedded in her family name (la miche, "loaf of round bread"; les miches, "arse") (Tresor de la langue francaise s.v. miche). In contrast, Felix's secretary, Mile Flavie, is thin and horselike ("chevaline";131). The name Flavie is phonetically close to the literary adjective flare, "golden blond, light in colour" (Tresor s.v. flare). The semic content of Mile Flavie's name seems curiously contradictory to her general appearence; she is not a radiant beauty, or at least the narrator discloses no such evidence but rather emphasizes that Felix does not actually see or know her: "Felix Robinet ne la voyait pour ainsi dire que de dos, et la connaissait rual" (131). If there is radiance in Mile Flavie it is of immaterial nature. Upon her self-defenestration but still unaware of the incident, Robinet sarcastically comments on the wailing sound of an ambulance with the cliche "Un ange passe" (143). Durateau takes his cue from the phrase and lists the characteristics of an angel, meaning Tristan Vox: "Un ange se dresse, radieux, incorruptible, genial, genereux, terrible de purete et de puissance" (143). Ironically, a moment later Mile Flavie is being lifted ("charger") in an ambulance, and when he rushes to see her, Felix finds Mile Flavie with her head wrapped in a turban-like white bandage (143-44,145). After her revelation Felix sees Mile Flavie as a new person capable of writing the Yseut letters; she is indeed pale ("blafarde"; 146) and dressed in white like an angel.
Both Mine Robinet and Mile Flavie turn out to have used the pseudonym Yseut in their letters addressed to Tristan Vox. But do the two Iseults refer to the same interfigural character? In some versions of Tristan et Yseut, there are in fact two Iseults. The first one, with whom Tristan falls in love, is called Iseult the Fair ("Iseut la Bloie"); when he mistakenly assumes that she no longer loves him, Tristan marries Iseult of the White Hand ("Iseut aux Blanches Mains") for her beauty--and for her name: "pur belte e pur nun d'Isolt" (Thomas 153n). The conventional epithets attached to the two Iseults may function as telltales of Mile Flavie's and Mine Robinet's interfigural roles in the Tournier story. It is clear that both women want to be or rather to play the role of the original Iseult, the fair object of Tristan's desire. Both women consciously assume the identity of another character. In her letters, to match Tristan's name, Mine Robinet uses the pseudonymYseut, which Mile Flavie soon usurps. Mlle Flavie's assumed identity is thus doubly false; she not only uses an interfigural name but also an intrafigural one referring to the first bearer of the pseudonym. Structurally, then, Mme Robinet seems fit in the position of Iseut la Bloie. Storywise she is indeed prior to her impostress; as for discourse, however, Mile Flavie qua Yseut is primary in the sense that her writing is quoted in the short story, whereas the style and content of Mme Robinet's letters remain secrets. As for their maiden names, both women are equally connected with the seme of whiteness, albeit with different connotations. The "flave" in Mile Flavie's name relates to the semantic field of blond hair, whereas the light colour in Lamiche suggests doughy flesh. Again, the priority of the two Yseuts is nominally reversed: Mile Flavie's blondness suggests that of Iseut la Bloie, and Lamiche's white skin that of Iseut aux Blanches Mains.
Frederic Durateau, the tennis player who is generally mistaken for Tristan Vox, comes to Felix to ask for economic remuneration for the loss of privacy. Trying to rake in money over the deal, Durateau seems to fulfil the omen du rateau embedded in his name. Appropriately enough for his compensatory claims, Durateau's name is also a homophone of the somewhat ungrammatical dur a taux. This economy in the sound of his name is analogous with Durateau's experience of actually possessing Tristan's voice and opinions: "tout ce que vous avez dit ce soir, eh bien j'avais l'impression que c'etait ma bouche que ca sortait" (143). In Durateau's name, homophony is thus both economy of expression and an expression of economy. (5)
Durateau finally adopts the pseudonym Tristan Vox, but his real family name has a certain nominal affinity with Felix's surname, Robinet. Water connects both "faucet" and Durat-eau (or even rat d'eau), and this aquatic resemblance in the names ties in with the metaphor of voice qua flow of water in that the two mens' voices indeed appear as identical when heard on the radio (150). There are, then, two Tristans in the story, just like there are two Iseults. Analogously, the legend of Tristan et Yseut features nominal doubles of its protagonists. In Thomas, Tristan l'Amoureux is accompanied by a benevolent namesake, Tristan le Nain (215n-19n). Again, the relation between the original and copy in the Tournier short story becomes complicated when interfigurality is taken into account. Felix Robinet qua Tristan Vox is both story- and discourse-wise the original bearer of the pseudonym, but his dwarfish outer appearance is that of the namesake in the legend. Analogously, Frederic Durateau is structurally in the position of Tristan the midget, but his handsome looks formally seem to cast him as the hero.
In "Tristan Vox," all the characters are bearers of names which either give away their personal traits or interfigurally connect them with prior literature. It is, however, questionable whether the semic names disclose the characters' most prominent features or whether the names themselves summon those very characteristics. In the short story's constellation of names and the treatment of identity as a mutable entity, the latter reading is equally tenable. The pseudonym Tristan Vox is an exemplary case of this kind of nominalism in the short story. That pseudonym is taken in order to assume a new identity, and the effect it brings about is so radical that it surpasses rational realism: both Felix's wife and secretary fall in love with Tristan Vox although they are fully aware of his fictitious nature. That the name is more important than its bearer is further underlined with Mme Robinet's continuing infatuation with Tristan in spite of the fact that he is later played by another man, Frederic Durateau. The two Iseults, or rather, one Iseult mimicked by two women is analogous with the identity-generating force of a name found in Tristan's extreme case. The other names do not dramatize this force as radically as Tristan and Iseult but the semically motivated connection between the name and the named points to that direction. For instance, Durateau's interest in money may rather be a function of his name than vice versa.
Voice Doubles II: What's in a Name?
As Arlette Bouloumie quite correctly notes, the proper name has a dynamic content in Tournier (54). However, when emphasizing the metaphysical function of the proper name at the cost of poetic use or the sonority of signifier, Bouloumie muzzles the very phenomenon which makes onomastic dynamics so economical in Tournier. The one and the same graphic surface of a signifier allows for a number of possible articulations. The voice thus doubles or redoubles the "content" of a name. It is this polyphony that brings forward the polysemy of names in Tournier.
Just like the very Shakespearean question "What's in a name?" is rephraseable, upon articulation, as "What sin a name?" the lexical borders of all phonetic writing can be demarcated anew. Garrett Stewart calls this articulatory stream breaking through the graphic the "phonotext," and the kind of reading which only has access to it "phonemic reading" (28; for a critique and development of Stewart's theory, cr. Shoptaw).
The names in the Tournier short story tie in with the auditory in two ways. Either the name literally or metaphorically refers to sonic phenomena (Vox and Robinet respectively) or it can be conceived of as an auditory cryptograph, which discloses its meaning upon a reorganization of articulation (Lamiche < la miche; Durateau < du rateau; dur a taux; durat-eau). The breakable acoustic continuum on which these puns are based is an aptly sonorous image of the dynamics of voice, name, and identity in the short story. The sound of a name doubles its referents just like the disembodied voice of Tristan Vox is a carrier of multiple identities, articulable by more than one bodily speaking subject.
Both the main characters' names and casting in the roles of Tristan and lseult are doubled in "Tristan Vox." To extend the tennis metaphor suggested by Durateau's profession and not only rakish but also racketlike name, the short story's characters are performing a curious version of mixed doubles, with two men playing against two women-and against each other. The courtly love of the Tristan and Iseult legend can be seen as transposed into a game of love or even a love game on Tournier's metaphoric tennis court.
Philter and Filter: Phonetic Love-Potion
The reason that medieval Tristan and Iseult fall madly in love is because they accidentally drink philter, love-potion, or wine of herbs meant for King Mark and his bride to be consumed as an aphrodisiac after their wedding. But, as Denis de Rougemont notes, the mistakenly drunk philter may be but a pre-text for the moral acceptability of a passion which the lovers, even without the potion, strive for. Besides a perfect alibi, the philter functions as a symbol of the intoxication of love and as a seal of destiny, demonstrating the blind force external to the subjects in question (de Rougemont 22, 39, 113).
How does the idea of a love-potion relate to "Tristan Vox"? Phonetically. Tristan Vox's radiophonic voice gives a filtered version of Felix Robinet, and it functions as invisibly as a philter. Vox qua voice filters into the auditors' ears, creating a seductive auditory image of the absent speaking subject. The force of the philter is blind; it affects anyone who is exposed to its power. In the Tournier short story, the narrator repeatedly emphasizes that Vox's radiophonic voice lures both sexes alike and that Felix Robinet must be protected against the overzealous approaches of both male and female admirers (126, 130, 131, 148). (6) This is the reason why Robinet's connections with the outside world have to be "filtrees avec le plus grand soin" (129). This filtering is executed by Robinet's secretary Mile Flavie, who for her part is affected by his vocal philter.
Interestingly reversing the conventions of courtly love, Mile Flavie assumes the role of a knight who protects the chastity of the beloved: "C'etait sur elle que venait se briser le flot du courrier matinal, l'artillerie lourde de cadeaux et paquets, et l'assaut intempestif des visiteurs et visiteuses" (131). Military rhetoric was by no means alien to courtly love; fight for the favor of the lady in lyric poetry or against competitors in the logic of tournaments combined erotic and violent instincts (de Rougemont 210-13). In "Tristan Vox," however, there is a general reversal of roles. Passionate auditors pursue Tristan Vox (played either by Felix Robinet or Frederic Durateau), who wishes to remain unattainable. Both men exude vocal philter but are not affected by it themselves. Intertextually, both Robinet and Durateau are in the position of King Mark's mother, who brewed the love-potion but did not drink it herself, or Orpheus, who charmed with sound and voice without being charmed himself.
The main characters' identities are thus complicated by the presence of voice. The vocal philter especially reverses or blends sexual identities and the stereotypic behavioral patterns they imply. So powerful is Tristan Vox's philtering voice that it surpasses the logic of marriage and adultery inherent in courtly love.
Auditory Adultery and Identity
According to Denis de Rougemont, Western literature, starting from the Tristan legend, shows a persistent tendency to prefer adultery to marriage, and deathly passion to life. In courtly love, however, the loyalty between the adulterous lovers opposes not only marriage but also any "satisfaction" of love, for love fulfilled ceases to be love. In the case of Tristan and Iseult, this can be seen in her return to her husband and his, literally, nominal marriage to her namesake, instead of indulging in mutual love (de Rougemont 11-13, 27-8). De Rougemont states that happy love has no history (11), but it is equally true that unhappy love generates literature.
In "Tristan Vox," the obstacles in the way to the consummation of love are of ontological proportion. Tristan Vox is a fictional entity even within the fiction itself, and he only exists as immaterial and invisible voice. Yseut is like-wise fictitious, but her mode of existence is that of an interfigural epistolary addresser. In the Tournier short story, Tristan and Yseut are doomed to remain separate for they are figures of speech and writing respectively. This also enables the multiplication of protagonists' identities; one voice can be articulated by two men, and two women can execute a single mode of writing.
The characters' multiplied identities bring about curious twists in their relationships vis-a-vis the Tristan and Iseult legend. Felix's wife, in the disguise of Yseut, is about to commit adultery with her own husband qua Tristan Vox. Felix is thus in danger of being cuckolded by himself. The constellation does not change radically when Frederic Durateau usurps Felix's position in radio, for Mme Robinet continues to be infatuated with the voice which is practically identical with that of Tristan Vox. Passionate love and any possibility of adultery hence appear on the disembodied level of radiophonic voice and epistolary writing, since M. and Mme. Robinet are, as bodies in the material world, already married to one another, and Durateau's looks are important only as a pictorial epitome of Tristan Vox's voice. Mile Flavie is seemingly outside the marriage/adultery double bind, but, by adopting Mme Robinet's pseudonym and style, she is inevitably caught in the same constellation of sonic inconsummability. For the fictitious Tristan and Yseult, amor de lonh is the sole possible form of love.
In the context of courtly love, the existence of a husband is both an obstruction of passion and a prerequisite of adultery, for which reasons he is despised. On the other hand, her being married and thus unattainable makes Iseult passionately desirable to Tristan. In de Rougemont's reading, a Mme Tristan would equal a negation of passion (35-6). The basic relationship between passion and marriage found in courtly love holds partly true in "Tristan Vox," albeit condensed in a doubled couple. Mme Robinet qua Yseut loves Tristan Vox (or the idea of being in love with him), because he is "not" her husband, but Felix Robinet qua Tristan Vox does not desire Yseut, because he is a man to be loved, not a loving man. Interestingly enough, Tristan Vox formally resembles Don Juan, the inverted reflection of Tristan (cf. de Rougemont 178). Like Don Juan, Tristan Vox is loved by many while not being in love himself (except possibly with himself); unlike Don Juan, however, he is unintentionally seductive, as if inadvertently spilling his irresistible phonetic philter.
Mlle Flavie dies upon revealing her double identity, and consequently Tristan Vox as articulated by Felix fades out into inexistence. When the aural being of Tristan Vox comes to an end, Mme Robinet grieves, seems suddenly older, and refuses to give her gourmand husband culinary oral pleasure (150). Tristan Vox's reincarnation as Frederic Durateau also revives Mme Robinet, but not her relationship with her husband. Rather, she resumes her admiration for Tristan Vox, and, as if miming the co-authoredness of the pseudonym Yseut, reverently listens to his radiophonic voice with another woman: "Les deux femmes, penchees sur le recepteur de la T.S.F., n'entendirent pas la porte s'ouvrir et se refermer" (150). The surviving couples thus repeat the initial situation. Felix as Tristan and Mile Flavie as the other half of the doubled Yseut cease to exist, and their positions are taken over by Frederic Durateau and Mme Robinet's female neighbor respectively. The only person to remain in her original position is, thus, Mine Robinet. Her auditory affair with Tristan Vox continues with the difference that Felix is now only a potentially cuckolded husband, not in the same breath also his own wife's lover, as used to be the case.
Felix's final "solitude vertigineuse" (150) is emphasized by his radio silence; he presumes that he will never again speak into the microphone. His dead silence as Tristan Vox, his refusal to speak radiophonically into ether, paradoxically throws him into the dizzying abyss of infinite ether reminiscent of Mort d'Isolde (cr. Barthes 16n). Ridding himself of Tristan Vox, Felix not only jettisons a vocal double but important features of his "real" identity as well. Felix escapes to his native Auvergne, substituting lively Paris for a small slumbering provincial town, active working life for extended games of billiards at a local cafe, and marital happiness for premature decrepitude. Withdrawn from Tristan Vox, Felix is drawn closer to death.
Etymologically, adulterate harks back to the Latin equivalent of "altered," "changed into another" (adulterat), and adultery implies more directly the polluting, defiling nature of that change (adulterare) (Webster's s.v. adulterate). There is thus a change of identity involved in adultery. In "Tristan Vox," the auditory and adulterous change of identities does not only relate to characters but also to the textual status of the short story. The analogy between personal and textual identity is, of course, as alluring as it is problematic. There is, however, a strong link between the development of theories of the self and those of the text; as Owen Miller notes, "The rejection of the text as an autonomous entity, as a self-regulating organic whole, seems logically consistent with the demise in belief in the Romantic notion of a discrete, independent, enduring self" (Miller xiii). The two main meanings of identity, i.e. individuality and the state of remaining the same, are relevant to people and texts alike. The inter-figurality of its main characters points to the fundamental intertextuality of "Tristan Vox" as a whole, problematizing the individuality of both the selves and the text in which they appear. In an analogous fashion, the phonemic instability of characters' names dramatizes the textual mutability of the short story; the graphically inscribed "text itself" does not remain the same, but is liable to change in the act of (phonemic) reading. If adultery transgresses marital contracts between individuals, intertextuality and textual "voice" break the supposedly self-same individuality of a given text.
In an interview Tournier states: "Il ne faut pas trop mepriser la repetition. L'uniforme a sa beaute.... Le clonage engendre une sorte de vertige" (Bouloumie 258). In "Tristan Vox," uniformity is less beautiful than vertiginous. Although Tournier in general provocatively prefers the copy and subverts the idea of originality (cf. Davis 163-64), "Tristan Vox" demonstrates the suffering involved in the loss of singular origin. For Felix and Mlle Flavie that loss is painful because it both constitutes and undoes their identities. However, without intertextual and auditory doubling, "Tristan Vox" would be--if not nothing--then at least substantially less than what it is now.
(1.) Michel Tournier, "Tristan Vox," in Le Coq de bruyere (Paris: Gallimard, 1982: 123-50). Subsequent references are to this edition of the short story and will be given parenthetically in the text.
(2.) For proper names as allusion-markers, cf. also Hebel 136-43. For proper names and puns in Le Coq de bruyere, cf. Redfern.
(3.) It is not my intention to provide a systematic intertextual reading of "Tristan Vox" vis-a-vis Tristan et Yseut. Such a comparison would be an interesting project, although I doubt if the Tournier short story rewrites any single version of the legend. Rather, it is my contention that "Tristan Vox" selectively taps the whole Tristan and Iseult tradition, ranging from the complete medieval romances by Beroul and Thomas, the folios of Bern and Oxford and the chevrefeuille of Marie de France to the modern versions by Richard Wagner and Joseph Bedier. The Tournier short story picks up some of the motives found in the different renderings, but the ultimate referent of the Tristan myth in it is, as Denis de Rougemont puts it, "tout ce qu'il y a d'universellement emouvant dans nos litteratures" (11).
(4.) Walter Redfern suggests that also mutilation connects the two characters, since Felix is "cut down to his voice alone" (61).
(5.) I hence disargree with Redfern, who claims that Durateau's name is "almost certainly one of those in-significant names, with which Tournier at times teases readers he has already drilled to seek out 'speaking names'" (124n).
(6.) David Platten misreads the gender of the listeners by calling them Vox's "entirely female, lonely hearts audience" (154).
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|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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