Mind over mutter: Céline on the challenges of speech production

Other doctor-novelists; why musicians can’t write.

Yesterday, thoughts totally elsewhere, patiently trying to explain to a German craftsman that interest-free loans sound terribly progressive (well, until you dig up 1930s German literature) but, by discouraging private sector lending, nail shut the poverty trap (want a monumentally shitty society? mandate sharia-compliant finance), vocal tract seizure…

Then, on this morning’s flight, Céline – a quote-mine, a counter-Bible:

When you stop to examine the way in which our words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard put to it to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. That corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth, which screws itself up to whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth—how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment. Being in love is nothing, its sticking together that’s difficult. Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state—that’s the unconscionable torture.(Journey to the End of the Night)

I’m not alone.

There must be a list somewhere of fine GP-writers, and the powers of observation of a couple I know lead me to hope that list will grow. Bulgakov’s A Country Doctor’s Notebook is brilliant: pre-revolutionary modernity meets the medieval (imagine an exaggerated, superior James Herriot) midst wolves and blizzards; 15,613 patients treated in a first year of rural practice. Pío Baroja is another great example, and, like Céline, doesn’t know when to stop. Consultants should only write when written to.

I can’t think of any musician-novelists (by which I mean people who have been trained as musicians or who have otherwise undergone some form of initiation into the cult of musicianship) who have managed both successfully. Music students now are taught easy bits of dodgy sociology, renamed “marketing” to preclude alarm, in the hope that they won’t end up opening every gig with the phrase, “Would you like fries with that?” But the idea of them observing or caring about individual faces in the circus they imagine will be theirs is preposterous. Legislation or rat poison should have been used to prevent Wagner from writing his own libretti. Anthony Burgess only succeeded to the extent that he did because he learnt first by listening to his dad, a part-time pub pianist, and then by making it up for himself, before having the great good fortune to be rejected by Manchester University’s music department.

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