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The Voice of Hell
Jordan Harrisonon 18 February 2011
Transcript of The Voice of Hell
Of the work we've examined in Humanities 304 this semester, the broad range of both artistic mediums and styles associated with their creators has included several pieces of work which deal with the idea of Hell and, more specifically, how the voices of others can produce a sensation presumably close to one that a person might experience should they actually be in this supposed afterlife. Language is used not just to build meaning and strengthen relationships, but also to destroy peace and brutalize an individual's character. While language undoubtedly has the potential to provide comfort and happiness, it is just as easily turned into a weapon used to instill fear, impose power and exude hate.
Edvard Munch's painting entitled "The Scream", Laurie Anderson's song "Language is a Virus", and Jean-Paul Sartre's one-act play "No Exit" all convey a similar commentary about how language or one's use of it can create a "Hell" for those subjected to it. The Scream by Edvard Munch This expressionist painting was created in 1893 by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. It is considered to be a symbol of anxiety in the modern age.
Munch describes how he was inspired to create this piece of work as he writes in his journal "I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature." (Gizzarelli) Language is a Virus by Laurie Anderson "Language is a Virus" is a song by the American experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson. The song utilizes a variety of instruments including the electric guitar, drums and Anderson playing the keyboard as she does vocals. The combination of all these sounds has an undeniably new-age feel, especially for the early 80's when the track was released. No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre Published in 1943, "No Exit" is one-act play about three deceased individuals forced to spend eternity with one another locked up in a room. After the initial courtesy wears out, the three begin to argue and loss control. The issue of why they have arrived in this "Hell" plays an important role in discovering the backgrounds of each character. The most famous line from the play, "Hell is--other people", describes how the use of language by others can drive a person mad and destroy their own sense of being (45). The "infinite scream" Munch describes in his motivation for the piece speaks to this idea of an overwhelming noise, though not in this case it is not coming from another human but from nature itself. Still, the loudness that forces the subject of the painting to cover his ears may be the voice of some angry being, some evil within nature's bounds that has decidedly attacked the senses of this figure. Though the two characters in the background seem unfazed by the noise, the blood-red sky assures that everyone is subjected to the wrath of whatever is causing this terror. Their seems to be a definite contrast between the bright sky and the dark blues of what may be water or land, but certainly a piece of the Earth not to be associated with the skies above. A reasoning for this may be that the noise is coming from something above. A higher power could be imposing its will on the helpless character in the foreground. Its use of voice appears to be so shrill and unnerving that it instills a deeply honest fear within the mind of the man. He covers his ears and almost looks to be melting in the facial area, distorted by the voice surrounding him. I don't believe that the main character is the one making the noise, rather he is speechless, as if something so powerful made his jaw drop and, try as he may, no sound will escape from his wide open mouth. The look in his eyes is a haunting one, expressing all the uncertainity and fear one would expect to feel in such circumstances. A stroll on the boardwalk turns excrutiatingly painful for the subject as Nature turns violently loud. Bloody colors in the sky melt together with the darker land and as this happening so too does the man begin to appear like a melting figure, as if sound waves are beating against him and causing his body to lose shape in this terror. The song opens with the line, "Paradise is exactly like where you are right now only much much better." Right from the start, there is a sarcastic and staunchly opinionated tone to this piece. Anderson's new-age sound accompanies her talking, not singing, which feels like an everyday conversation with the audience. The subject of this conversation is just as the title implies. Language isn't merely a tool for communication; it is also a way of conveying and creating pain, furthering misconceptions, and promoting self-importance. In her first departure from the opening chorus, Anderson describes seeing a man who is in pain. "I think it's a pain cry", her friend says. Anderson responds with "Language is a virus!" The meaning behind this is that pain is not something that can be witnessed only by physical or mental harm, but also by the use of voice. The man cries because something has happened, but his hell now exists in the utterances of his sadness.
Later in the track, Anderson tells the story of a love gone wrong, worsened by the use of language as a virus that infects its victims. Apologies are often invitations to return to one's own relationship-hell. With the right words at the right moment, a person can induce a relapse into a partnership that's abusive, destructive and wrong for any number of reasons.
This song speaks to the idea of language infiltrating an individual's guarded mind and creating a hell based on the lies that people tell. Anderson's idea of a hell where misunderstandings turn into giant issues plays the foreground to a technologically-based, new-age sound. "No Exit" is a play that asks its audience some intriguing questions: "What is it that we do in our lives that determines where we'll go in the afterlife and, more importantly, what evils await those who are doomed to a so-called Hell?"
The three characters (Garcin, Inez and Estelle) all have haunted pasts which account for how they arrived in this locked room, which is adorned with three couches, a bronze sculpture and a bell which only works occasionally. Certainly this version of Hell doesn't compare to the uncomfortably hot and firey underworld that has been described and furthered by religion and pop culture. However, as the play progresses and the characters become more frustrated and angered by their company, it becomes apparent that Hell is not a world guarded by a fear-inducing, horned devil, but rather (in Garcin's case) and eternity spent listening to two women argue back and forth till one goes completely mad.
By placing three characters in a room they will never leave, Sartre has created a situation one might see adapted in the modern-day "Saw" movies. In fact, the similarities are striking when it is understood that the torture in Sartre's play is the voices of the individuals in the room and not some brutally violent contraption. The climax of the play occurs as the characters reach their boiling points with each other and Garcin states that "Hell is--other people" (45). It's possible that there has never been a more honest statement, since Garcin's realization that his fate consists of being broken down and verbally assaulted by his two roommates (and consequently that he will do the same to them) stands true not just in the afterlife.
The use of language to destroy one's character is a tool that we, as human beings, are all too familiar with. Digging for the dark secrets and moral flaws that make up an individual will inevitably lead to questioning self-worth, developing excessive guilt over past mistakes or even going mad and taking the offensive to do the same to another.
At one point, Garcin attempts to have all three people sit quietly for eternity, hoping to avoid such a fate. However, it is proven to be impossible for people to leave their questions unanswered and their hatred not to be felt by another. The Connection Language has the power to destroy All three of these artistic mediums convey the similar idea that language (or simply a voice) can drive a person mad. Whether it comes from an omnipotent being, a crying man, or a damaged soul banished to an eternally horrible afterlife, there is a common theme of pain emerging in the wake of a voice.
Perhaps it is simply the fact that Munch's depiction of "The Scream" is a painting which causes one to imagine a lack of sound coming from the individual in the foreground. However, it seems that, because of the emotion in the eyes and the vibrantly horrifying events taking place in the background, this individual is speechless. Maybe his voice is drowned out by another sound, one that comes from Nature itself and packs a much stronger punch than he can handle. Whatever the reason, the distinct feeling that the victim in this painting has no control over this maddening sound invokes a sense of uncomfortable fear in the viewer. Though the noise isn't there for the audience to hear, it is the multitude of contributing factors which promote the concept of a voice engulfing someone's soul and destroying it completely.
Laurie Anderson's song about language acting as a virus, infecting those subjected to it, takes a lighter but still honest approach to this concept. The ability of language to manipulate people to ruin their lives certainly gives it a viral characteristic. Anderson describes a paradise in her song, but mentions that this is not it. The sarcasm here connects to Sartre's ironic depiction of Hell in the afterlife, since both contrast with what one might expect to hear in a song or see in a play, respectively. "Language is a Virus" gives the listener several examples of how language acts as a virus but, more importantly, its performance evokes the emotion one would expect to accompany such a statement. Anderson most likely has some personal connection to this song which, like most of us, makes it more meaningful to understand how people have misused (or intentionally used) language to hurt someone else.
Sartre's "No Exit" shares a commonality with "The Scream" in that both take a common location, a boardwalk and a room, and turn it into a living Hell. Therefore, it is not the commonly pictured underworld that embodies Hell, but rather the voices and the use of them that creates such an uncomfortable situation one goes crazy trying to escape. Garcin's final realization that his eternity will be spent listening to the voices of people he will grow to despise is the most powerful example of how language will destroy a person. It is through silence that we develop the thoughts inside our heads; it is through outside voices that our thoughts are turned against us.