Dummy speaks your thoughts

March 16, 2001

If you have not seen Dave Strassman and his evil dummy Chuck Wood, you have a treat in store. While Dave tries to maintain order and decency, Chuck insults him, abuses members of the audience, and threatens to dismember other dummies. The skill with which Strassman switches his voice from normal to the cackling snarl of Chuck and the hilarious foulness of his wooden enemy are in the same vein as Edgar Bergen and Charlie MacCarthy around the turn of the century and Ray Alan with Lord Charles in the 1950s and 1960s. For sheer nastiness, however, nothing could beat the 1945 horror film Dead of Night , in which the dummy gradually takes control of his supposed master, played by Michael Redgrave.

Vocal skill, odd voices and indecency - good for a laugh or for a horror film, but I would not have thought this combination significant until I read Steven Connor's book. It turns out that the qualities of ventriloquism imprinted on my memory are crucial parts of a story that goes back to ancient Greek and pre-biblical mythology. The ability to project one's voice and to speak with other voices has long been seen as a kind of magic, often as the work of the devil.

Unusual vocal powers have for centuries been regarded as a kind of physical deformity, resulting in stigma and many types of vicious mistreatment. As for the impudence of Chuck and his ilk, one of the characteristics of people who spoke in strange voices was to speak the unspeakable: the stereotype of a witch, including, of course, a strange, cackly voice, is of a woman who would say things that you did not want to hear. Connor shows how this combination of dark magic, strange voices and unwelcome words has been a perennial part of European culture. The term "ventriloquism" is a Latin translation of the Greek engastrimythos , which meant "speaking from the stomach", and classical authorities such as Hippocrates linked this to what they called sternomancy or speaking through the chest. Connor uses the term to cover any type of voice that has an unusual quality or source or no apparent source, along with the different ways in which these sources are explained. This broader view embraces prophecy where - as was often the case in classical times - the prophet or seer was described as speaking in a strange voice, as well as accounts of possession by demons who made the victim speak in a different voice. He covers spiritualism, where dead people supposedly speak via a medium, and people such as Joan of Arc who heard disembodied voices. His concern is the cultural significance of these phenomena rather than scientific investigations of them, and he brings out common threads.

One of these is the status of women's voices. It is widely accepted that mainstream voices in European culture have been predominantly male. When we find one that is female, it is worth asking why. One example is the oracle at Delphi, which is described in a number of sources as the voice of a woman, often in a frenzy accompanied by moans and violent body movements. The similarity with female orgasm - at least, the male picture of female orgasm - is striking, and Connor points out that the sounds made by the Delphic oracle and other prophetesses were sometimes described by men as coming from, or connected with, the genitals.

The link between women's voices and possession, witchcraft, sexuality and madness continued over the centuries, with the Christian church playing a key role in stigmatising the words, emotions and energy of women. Famous ventriloquists of recent times have almost always been men, with the notable exception of Shari Lewis. Her hand puppets (remember Lamb Chop?) were particularly sweet and harmless, a far cry from the powerful and threatening images of women in mythology.

Connor argues that a person's voice is central to his or her identity, and that when the two are dissociated, the result is at best unsettling and at worst terrifying. Images of madness and of possession by evil spirits are traditionally associated with strange voices. Disembodied voices are another matter: radio and the telephone provide sounds without the physical presence of the speaker, and though they may have aroused fears when the technology was introduced, they have become familiar and pervasive. Perhaps, after all, science and technology have made us a little more enlightened.

This book is erudite and broad in scope. Its strength is the way it links cultural phenomena in new ways. My problem with it is one that I have with much of cultural studies, namely its misplaced objectivity. Historians may have a duty to catalogue appalling events factually, but anyone analysing culture should make moral judgements. This is not a call to reinstate F. R. Leavis, but we do rely on informed critics to say that certain cultural products are of high quality while others are not, and that some aspects of culture are simply evil. It is interesting to link witchcraft as a cultural phenomenon with 18th-century circus performers and modern television shows, but there has to be some sense of progress as well as continuity. The human race is growing up, and many people nowadays see speaking in tongues and ghostly voices as throwbacks to childhood fears. The civilised response is sympathetic therapy, not demonising. Connor gives us an intelligent study of a domain of skilful cultural creativity, against a background of several millennia of appalling irrational behaviour. I just wish he had distinguished the two a little more clearly.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Author - Steven Connor
ISBN - 0 19 818433 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 449

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