September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Voice in the night

By |2018-03-21T19:06:59+01:00August 1st, 2015|Area 51|
Bogart and Bacall in "To Have and To Have Not."

ou hear a voice on the phone, a woman’s voice, a stranger’s voice. So what then is love? Diction? Is it the way a cluster of syllables kindles hot hormones outside language? Is it the way spoken lines often rushed and littered with jargon emerge differently when she speaks them, acquiring a lilt that elicits a craving for that which the human species can’t live without for long — affection — and which love itself seeks as a goal, no matter how fleeting?

What is about a woman’s voice, this woman’s voice, that gives its sweet but pensive composition the power to induce dreams of union and reunion unrelated to the subjects being discussed? How does her tone insinuate itself into my history, as if she’d been there all along? There is no discussion of lust, of sex or sexuality; there is nothing exchanged that is in the least provocative, not if judged by the crass, unfiltered standards of carnal flirtation. Instead, her words are about family and doubt and history and men and hurt and children set aside to fend for themselves. You could cite the latter, the pathos of a sad story about hurt children. You could love her words because they’re compassionate and intelligent. But that’s an academic response, and mine is more basic, feral, like a primal man exposed melody for the first time after having spent decades wandering savannahs alone knowing only the sound of thunder.

This is in fact what I think when I listen to her, that I am the first man ever, and that her sounds are met from within me by a kind of primitive rejoicing based on knowing the planet contains another soul, a woman, her timbre revealing a dimension that didn’t exist until this conversation began.

This, I think to myself, is the power of speech, of language, of elocution, a power possessed of registers and colors. She may not speak to me ever again but in a few minutes (transformed into a few hours) she’s changed me, as seeing a painting might, or hearing symphonic music. Sentences and soft laughter replenish arid landscapes. Sighs give pauses their sweetness.

We live in a time of little messages tapped on little screens and of fractured exchanges largely devoid of photographic hues, let alone brushstrokes. Words and their tone are incidental to most contact. Many conversations are short and blustery or long and interrupted, both sides eager to return the factory of indirect communication. Video chat is more about seeing than hearing.

Falling in love with a voice is ironically less likely in an age in which words are ferried around incessantly. The swoon that diction elicits, words as appetizers to a person in person, faces a losing battle on a plant whose volume is stuck on high. Listen to Katie Hepburn, to Rosalind Russell, to Lauren Bacall: don’t watch but listen. Hear the arousal their intonation pledges, or seems to. Understand “word” love as greater than the sum of physical excitement, contingent instead on the incidental but suddenly alluring vowels you seem to exist to hear. Or think about the power of the once-upon-a-time word darling, the “d,” the “r,” the necessary “i.”

This is what I think of as I listen to the woman’s voice, though darling isn’t part of the conversation. I try to explain the cause-and-effect of what’s happening to me but I fail. I attempt to define the “why” of the charm using my best intellectual science. I fail again. I then ask myself what she sounds like that thrills me so.

That I can answer. She sounds like the future.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.