Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet (continued)

Bruce R. Smith
Georgetown University

Smith, Bruce R. "Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet
" Physiological Frame. Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 3.1-3 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/logomarg/physiol.htm>.

Physiological frame

1. Derrida offers his model of logocentricism as a universal condition, as if how one hears oneself speaking or how one hears other people speaking were the same experience in all times and all places. He assumes that human physiology does not change and therefore that the coincidence of thought and speech will be always be experienced in the same way. The medical writings of Galen and his medieval and early modern successors give us reason to doubt that proposition. The actor playing Hamlet in 1599-1600 and the audiences who heard him brought to the theater an understanding of how sounds are related to semantic meaning that is different from our own, precisely because they entertained different ideas about their physical bodies. In 1600 the human body as delivered up by Galenic medicine was only just being called into question by scientific anatomy (Siraisi 97-114). Where metaphysics hears logos, early modern physiologists heard passion. The sixteenth century inherited a model of hearing that derived ultimately from Aristotle's De Anima, expanded and worked out in detail so as to accord with the medical writings of Galen. The process by which sound becomes meaning can be rendered thus:

sound ® ear ® spiritus ® common sense ® imagination, where converted into species (or internal image) ® spiritus ® dispersal through entire body

Anatomical studies and the philosophical criterion of efficiency led sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers increasingly to question the existence of species, but authorities like Helkiah Crooke and even Descartes could not give up the idea of the body as a hydraulic system in which spiritus does the work of intercommunication among the body's parts. In his description of the physiology of hearing in Microcosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man, Crooke demonstrates that he knows all about the nerves as a network of specialized tissue; what he does not know is the workings of electrical impulses (Crooke 606-610).

2. The notion of spiritus means that every sense experience, and every making of meaning, is a whole-body experience. Sound, like other forms of sensation, activates the listener's passions. As Thomas Wright explains in The Passions of the Mind in General,

First, then, to our imagination cometh by sense or memory some object to be known, convenient or disconvenient to Nature; the which being known . . . in the imagination . . . , presently the purer spirits flock from the brain by certain secret channels to the heart, where they pitch at the door, signifying what an object was presented, convenient or disconvenient for it. The heart immediately bendeth either to prosecute it or to eschew it, and the better to effect that affection draweth other humours to help him (Wright 123).

The listener experiences this visceral bodily response as passion. In Wright's scheme reason stands in an uneasy relationship to the passions. Reason ought to direct the passions, but the passions have a friendlier working relationship with the senses. Indeed, the passions can prevent reason from knowing the truth about objects that the body, through the senses, sees and hears. Again Wright:

whatsoever we understand passeth by the gates of our imagination, being prevented, yea, and well nigh shut up with the consideration of that object which feedeth the passion and pleaseth the appetite, the understanding looking into the imagination findeth nothing almost but the mother and nurse of his passion for consideration; where you may well see how the imagination putteth green spectacles before the eyes of our wit to make it see nothing but green, that is, serving for the consideration of the passion (128).

Wright speaks here about the passion disposing a subject to see green; what would it be like to hear green? That would involve, I believe, hearing the totality of sound, its extralinguistic as well as its linguistic components. It would involve hearing, not just logos, but pitch, timbre, rhythm, and all the sound effects that we know as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, etc. These phenomena are, I would argue, not just "decorations" applied to semantic meaning but essential elements in the sound event. "O that this too too solid flesh would melt": to hear green is, in this case, to hear the repetitions of [o:], [ð], [s], and [t], the hardness of [d], the softness of [ò ]–and to delight in those sensations quite apart from what they signify as instances of logos. As Katherine Park notes, the dispersal of spiritus throughout the entire body meant that, once aural sensation had been registered in common sense, the sensation was dispersed through the entire body: intellect might attend to the logos component of sound, but other elements of sound sensation would be experienced, via the heart, as passions (Park 464-484). Hence, the concern of rhetorical manuals with the passion-inducing effects of artful language.

3. To claim that making-meaning-through-sound is altogether a cultural construct is, of course, just as partial as to assume physiological determinism. The sense organs of the human body are indeed "hard-wired" in ways that different cultures exploit in different ways. For example, the anatomy of human vocal tract is such that the sounds produced in even the simplest speech far exceed the phonemes that listeners need to isolate in order to understand the semantic content of the speech. An actor playing Hamlet says, "O that this too too solid flesh would melt." What members of the audience hear is not the phonemes [o:] [ð] [a] [t] etc. but a continuous stream of sounds that the listener brackets off into phonemes that make sense in English via a process that linguists call coarticulation (Handel 134-162, 185-217). Speech in a language one doesn’t understand seems so rapid precisely because the listener is hearing all the sounds coming out the speaker’s mouth and not just the discrete phonemes that make sense in that language. In effect, the listener in such a situation is "hearing green." In performances of Hamlet sounds in the spaces between the phonemes of English join the sounds of trumpets, cock-crow, and ordnance to produce an acoustic "world of green" in which individual words figured as isolated events. That is not to say, however, that the boundary between logos and green can be clearly delineated. Rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and other sound effects occupy the cusp, to speak, between the House of Logos and the House of Green. Post-Cartesian understandings of the body attempt to "filter out" all non-semantic sounds, not only those of trumpets, cock-crow, and ordnance but the non-phonetic sounds of human speech. Hamlet stands at that semiotic cusp. Speaking soliloquies that are insistently logocentrifugal, not logocentric, he challenges the protocols of Cartesian mind/body dualism.

Physical frame

Dramaturgical frame

Way out