Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.02

Guy Lachenaud, Les Routes de la voix: l'Antiquité grecque et le mystère de la voix. Études anciennes. Série grecque, 147.   Paris:  Editions Belles Lettres, 2013.  Pp. 233.  ISBN 9782251326849.  €45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Timothy Power, Rutgers University, New Brunswick (

Thanks to renewed scholarly focus on mousikê over the past two decades, we are more than ever attuned to the sonic and aural dimensions of life in ancient Greece. But music was only one component of the acoustic environment of the polis. Classics may well be primed for a much broader engagement with the diverse soundscapes of Greek (and Roman) cities and communities, for a “sound studies” approach that aims to make sense of the ways auditory phenomena of all sorts, not only musical, were experienced, interpreted, and conceptualized in the ancient world.1

Excellent scholarship on sound and listening in Greece and Rome has already been done. Two books, Silence in the Land of Logos by Silvia Montiglio (BMCR 2001.10.07 and Maurizio Bettini’s Voci: Antropologia sonora del mondo antico (BMCR 2008.12.09), deserve special mention. Now we are lucky to have Guy Lachenaud’s learned and contemplative monograph on the voice in ancient Greece. As Lachenaud’s subtitle indicates, the voice was then, and remains today, something of a mystery. It is the primary medium of language, yet there is some part of its sonorous materiality that inevitably exceeds the verbal message it bears, one that even threatens to overwhelm or subvert linguistic meaning. It is a somatic property, yet it seems to have a life of its own, and it can find itself detached, sometimes in weird and uncanny ways, from the body. (The undead voice of Orpheus sounding from his severed head is paradigmatic in this respect.) Vocality plays a crucial yet enigmatic role in psychic development—the impact of the maternal voice on the fetus and newborn has long fascinated developmental psychologists and psychoanalytic theorists (Plato too pondered it [Laws 790c-e])—in the construction of sexuality and gender, and in the problem of personal identity and subjectivity. Listening to our voices on a recording can unsettle us in ways in which seeing ourselves in a mirror or photograph do not.

Lachenaud expertly guides the reader down various paths—linguistic and philological, mythical, poetic, physiological, philosophical—toward understanding how the Greeks perceived and theorized the voice and its mysteries. To this end, he draws from an impressively wide range of Greek and Latin literature, from many different eras (Archaic to late Imperial), and genres: poetry of all kinds, lots of philosophy, medical texts, rhetorical treatises, the New Testament, and biblical exegesis. Little-read, late, and obscure authors receive as much attention as canonical ones—Nonnus appears with welcome frequency—and Lachenaud is equally authoritative in handling them all. In addition, he liberally incorporates references to more recent (and often pleasantly offbeat) novelists (Hugo, Proust), poets (Maurice de Guérin, Madame Blavatsky), essayists (Thoreau, Camus), and philosophers/intellectuals (Serres, Deleuze), who have reflected on voice- and sound-related topics, and he brings in relevant academic research from fields outside of Classics. This eclectic approach almost always serves to illuminate the ancient subject matter in original and thoughtful ways. Only occasionally, when Lachenaud flits too rapidly among disparate sources, ancient and contemporary, in too tight a space —jumping from Novalis to Plato to twentieth-century French linguists to Thoreau to Aeschylus, for example, on pp. 88– 90—does it distract. But even then, it is hard not to admire and enjoy the dynamic erudition behind those creative juxtapositions.

In the first section of the Introduction, Lachenaud makes the case that the study of the voice in itself, apart from language, voice as sheer sonority (“phonation, émission de sons, indépendamment de leur écoute, de leur interprétation et de leur transcription” [21]), has heuristic value, despite being largely neglected by Hellenists. The following sections examine ancient views of the relation between language and vocal expression (a topic to which later chapters return) and survey representations of contrastingly inflected “mythical figures of the voice,” the Muses, Typhon, and Pandora.

The first chapter offers a useful overview of various Greek words for the voice, audê, phônê, omphê, and *ops, focusing primarily on the semantic distinctions between the first two as registered in texts from Homer to Galen. The Stoic theory, cited by Galen, that phônê basically refers to the physical functioning of the speech organs while audê describes the communicative human voice, has some general validity, Lachenaud shows, but is not true in all cases. The second chapter, “Qu’est-ce que la voix?,” does not quite answer the big question of its title, but it is interesting nonetheless. Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic views on phonetics and the elusive substance (ousia) of the sounding voice are the main focus, but I appreciated too Lachenaud’s digressive observations on the voice as an indelible marker of identity, transcending even bodily transformation (46–47), and his musings on the conceptual complex of light, sound, and revelation as evidenced in sources as diverse as Plato, Augustine, Paleolithic cave paintings, Dante, and the discourse of the Greek mysteries (50–51).

Chapter three examines the physiology of voice and speech as detailed by medical writers. There is much fascinating material presented here, all knowledgably handled, but it cries out to be unpacked for more than the eight pages Lachenaud gives it. Chapter four reviews various literary manifestations of aphonia and aphasia, beginning with that canonical case of the former at Agamemnon 36–37, and concludes with meditations on the broader theme of silence in ancient Greek culture and early Christian theology. In the fifth chapter, Lachenaud uses Aristotle’s Politics 1253a27–29 and On the Soul 420b as starting points to reconstruct the Greek hierarchization of human vocal expression, with psophos ‘indistinct sound’ at the bottom and logos at the top, and phthongos, phônê, audê, and dialektos marking states of increasing communicative articulation in between. Later sections deal with non-human voices: resonant stones, speaking trees, and animal sounds.

Chapter six, La voix dans tous ses états: phonétisme, sons vocaux et caractéristiques de la voix, is the longest in the book, and the one that readers interested in the sonic aesthetics and phenomenology of the voice will find most valuable. Lachenaud assembles a useful reference chart on pp. 105–111 that summarizes qualities of vocal intensity, pitch, timbre, elocution, and musicality as described in authors from Homer to Oppian. The antepenultimate section of the chapter considers the permeable borderline between the spoken and sung voice, particularly in oratory, but at only two pages it is too brief to do justice to this complex topic. Students of lament, however, will want to have a look at the more fleshed-out concluding section, which is devoted to pathetic and plaintive voices.

After a short yet rather diffuse chapter on the slipperiness between words and things, which begins with Plato’s Cratylus and ends with Foucault on parrhêsia, language, and truth, Lachenaud turns in the final chapter to the role of paideia in shaping the voice. Plato’s prescriptions for good musical education in the Republic and Laws are discussed alongside related texts on music in this respect. But for the remainder of the chapter Lachenaud turns inward, as it were, tracing notions of an “interior voice” within the soul from Plato and the Stoics to Philo to early Christian writers.

In these last two chapters, Lachenaud takes the reader far from what Roland Barthes called “the grain of the voice.” Indeed, despite his claim in the Introduction about the value of considering voice in its sensuous, sonorous aspect, separate from language—which he does to very good effect in chapters one, five, and especially six—he not infrequently treats it as a proxy for immaterial, intellectual logos, as “voice” rather than voice. It is not as if the book is any less interesting for this; it is just that those looking for a more dedicatedly “phonocentric” study may be disappointed in parts. Another point on which some readers may find criticism is Lachenaud’s largely ahistorical method. He is in general not concerned with recovering historical change on the ground – how concepts and perceptions of voice evolved culturally and socially from the time the Homeric epics were composed to, say, the era of Nonnus. Texts and authors seem to exist and interact in a timeless vacuum; nor does he tarry with cultural and ideological differences within Greek culture, how, for instance, voices in Classical Sparta may have been differently uttered and heard from those in Athens. But this is not that kind of fine-grained cultural-historical study; its priorities are literary and philosophical, and it tilts freely toward the essayistic. At that, Lachenaud has done an excellent job of mapping the textual and thematic territory of the voice in ancient Greece. It will be for other scholars to revisit the many routes he has so elegantly traced, attending more closely to the historical and sociocultural contexts and nuances of the ancient sources.

Those scholars will benefit greatly from Lachenaud’s extensive bibliography (177–214). It is divided into two parts. The first contains editions of the ancient texts and belletristic literature he cites; the second is a bibliographie raisonnée of scholarly and critical literature. While there are some conspicuous absences (no Montiglio or Bettini, for instance, nor the most important recent contribution to the study of the voice , Mladen Dolar’s The Voice and Nothing More [Cambridge, Mass., 2006]), Lachenaud includes many works, most in French, which all students of the voice (and sound more generally) in antiquity will be glad to have so conveniently catalogued.


1.  For a good recent overview of “sound studies” across the humanities and social sciences, see J. Sterne, ed., The Sound Studies Reader (New York, 2012).

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