Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Power of Voice

When I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I noticed the contrast of silence and voice, particularly in relation to Billy Pilgrim. The silence that preceded his most honest voice reminded me of the calm before the storm. I am all too familiar with hurricanes and there truly is an eerie calm right before a hurricane; one that stills the wind that has been whipping violently, one that turns the sky black no matter the time of day, and one that restrains the storm just enough so that it builds into something that can destroy. I don't know that Billy's voice is a storm, or anything meant to destroy, but it undoubtedly has a power over him, his audiences in the work and over me.

The first time I wrote, “VOICE” in the margin of my book, Billy had just been introduced as someone affected by numerous tragedies; Vonnegut writes, “after the airplane crash, he was quiet for a while…He didn’t resume practice. He had a housekeeper. His daughter came over almost every day. And then, without any warning, Billy went to New York City, and got on an all-night radio program devoted to talk. He told about having come unstuck in time” (pg. 25). The tragedies of both the “airplane crash” and his wife’s sudden death from carbon monoxide poisoning shroud Billy in silence; Vonnegut’s short, choppy sentences characterize the helplessness, the stillness that restraining the power of the story Billy will eventually tell. Not only does Billy find his voice through his story of “having come unstuck in time”, but Billy’s radio program is “devoted to talk”. Devoted. Billy’s newfound voice is elevated by devotion by the power it has to influence its hearers.

Billy’s voice is associated with a distinct and uncanny power that even commands his attention. Vonnegut writes that when Billy was elected President of the Lion’s Club, “he had nothing to say” (pg. 50), but somehow the restraint of silence has built up the strength of what lies within; “Billy opened his moth, and out came a deep, resonant tone. His voice was a gorgeous instrument. It told jokes which brought down the house. It grew serious, told jokes again, and ended on a note of humility” (pg. 50). Separating Billy’s voice from his physical being, his voice is once again revered. His human body acts as a mere vessel, carrying the sacred voice that is capable of what Vonnegut calls a “miracle” (pg. 50). The fact that the literal sound Billy makes is described as a “beautiful instrument” begs the question, of what? Does Billy’s voice serve a purpose? Is it an instrument used for something? In this circumstance, his voice brings “down the house” with laughter, “grows serious” and “humbles” Billy to his fellow club members, but in light of the entire work, what purpose does Billy’s voice serve? What purpose does Vonnegut’s voice serve? Are their voices sacred messages pouring out of human vessels?

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