In the metafictional novel The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Oedipa Maas escapes from a shootout and hostage situation. Among the crowds, journalists, police and searchlights, she spots the mobile unit of her husband’s radio station, KCUF. Wendell “Mucho” Maas, whom she hasn’t seen for some time, is reporting on the event. She walks up to the van, sticks her head through the window, and says, “Hi.” He presses the cough button and smiles, which she thinks is strange since the listeners can’t hear a smile. Her reaction shows that she expects him to consider his audience before her, which he does.
She quietly climbs into the van and he pushes the microphone in her face and mumbles, “You’re on, just be yourself.” Then, more loudly for the mike, he states in his earnest broadcasting voice, “How do you feel about this terrible thing?” Not knowing what to say, she takes a cue from his question and says, “Terrible.” He answers, “Wonderful,” because he knows that this is what his listeners want to hear: how terrible the situation was.
She summarizes the event dispassionately, for how can her husband expect her to “be herself” on the air after such a traumatic experience, especially since he is playing the part of a radio broadcaster rather than a sympathetic husband? At the end he says, “Thank you, Mrs. Edna Mosh.” Something is not quite right. At the border of either insanity or a giant conspiracy, her identity is slipping. After he signs off, she asks, “Edna Mosh?” and he explains that he adjusted her name to allow for the distortion on the rig and tape, saying that it will come out the right way when broadcast.
Back at the studio, the concerned program director tells her, “Frankly, since you left, Wendell hasn’t been himself.” “And who,” she asks, testily, “pray, has he been, Ringo Starr? Chubby Checker? the Righteous Brothers? And why tell me?” Caesar Funch ignores the last question, which betrays a strange apathy, and replies, “All of the above, Mrs. Maas.” He might have added, “And mucho mas,” the implied pun in the name Pynchon chose: Wendell “Mucho” Maas.
“He’s losing his identity, Edna,” Funch goes on to say, “how else can I put it? Day by day, Wendell is less himself and more generic. He enters a staff meeting and the room is suddenly full of people, you know? He’s a walking assembly of man.”
Later as she and her husband are driving away, Mucho draws her attention to the Muzak on the radio. One of the seventeen violins, he points out, is a few cycles sharp. Because this violin was not perfectly blended with the others, he says of the musician, “He was real. That wasn’t synthetic.” It may seem that Mucho approves of this expression of individuality, but Mucho’s own voice is becoming more generic, blending in with the other voices around him.
He then explains that he can “listen to anything and take it apart, break down chords, and timbres, and words too into all the basic frequencies and harmonics, with all their different loudnesses, and listen to them, each pure tone, but all at once.” Then he claims that he can aslo do it with people talking. He asks her to say, “Rich, chocolaty goodness.” She does so and he says, “Yes.”
“Well, what?” she asks. “I noticed it the other night hearing Rabbit do a commercial,” he answer, speaking of another announcer at the station. “No matter who’s talking. . . . Everybody who says the same words is the same person if the spectra are the same only they happen differently in time, you dig?” Oedipa is probably as puzzled by this explanation as you are, but he goes on to explain, “But the time is arbitrary. You pick your zero point anywhere you want, that way you can shuffle each person’s time line sideways till they all coincide.” In other words, line up all the tracks of everyone who has ever said “Rich, chocolaty goodness” so they are in sync. “Then you’d have this big, God, maybe a couple hundred million chorus saying ‘rich, chocolaty goodness’ together, and it would all be the same voice.” Notice how the placement of the word “God” turns the voices of these people speaking together into one “big God.”
“Mucho,” Oedipa asks. “Is this what Funch means when he says you’re coming on like a whole roomful of people?” “That’s what I am, right. Everybody is.” She looks at him and realizes that she doesn’t know him. He says, “Whenever I put the headset on now, I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah, well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the ‘you’ is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it’s a flipping miracle” (Pynchon 114 – 117).
Turns out Mucho’s doing a lot of LSD. The LSD is having the effect of blurring the boundaries of Mucho’s ego. He cannot tell where his personality begins and ends, so his identity stretches across time and space. Although Mucho may be on drugs, he is right. Whenever we speak, there are crowds of others speaking through us, all the voices that have spoken the words before us. Go ahead and try it. Say, “Rich, chocolaty goodness.” Can’t you hear them, those others speaking through you?
I am not the first to say this, nor was Pynchon. Mikhail Bakhtin calls this heteroglossia, a fancy word for a multiplicity of voices. Language is not something that one person speaks alone. In order to communicate, language must exist on the boundary between self and other, but there is always more of the other in what we say, because so many others have spoken those words before us.
According to Bakhtin, there are no “neutral” words, which belong to “no one”: “All words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre, an tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions” (Bakhtin 1214). When we say “rich, chocolaty goodness,” we cannot shut out the sponsors who have said the phrase in commercials or the guests who have said it with a smile at a friend’s house during dessert.
Actually, a single word may invoke many voices at the same time, for example the word “acid,” has been used by gourmands, writers, scientists, nutritionists, marketers and hippies in different ways. “Language,” Bakhtin explains, “is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated — with the intentions of others” (Bakhtin 1215). This is what Funch means when he says that Mucho is coming on like a roomful of people whenever he speaks.
Not only do words carry with them the use that others have made of them, they invoke the words that were not chosen as well. No word relates to its object simply in a one to one relationship, for many words exist for the same concept. If I say someone is a “woman,” I am not saying she is a “lady,” a “babe,” or a “goddess.” The choice of “woman” includes the negative meaning of the words I did not choose.
Bakhtin claims that poetry and non-fiction writing (like this post) is not as heteroglossic as the novel which revels in the different voices of characters, narrators, classes, and genres, but this distinction is spurious. He mistakenly believes that a poet is capable of taming the various voices in the language she is using in order to gain a unity of theme and style. Even if this were the intent of poets in the past undermines that multiple voices exist in every word we choose and every word we leave out, and this is as much the case with non-fiction and poetry as the novel. Modern poetry, on the other hand, delights in the multiplicity of voices. It doesn’t take a scholar to hear the heteroglossia of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, whose originally title was going to be “He Do the Policeman in Different Voices.”
How then can a writer of poetry or prose make himself heard above the voices that are speaking through him? For Bakhtin, “these voices create the background necessary for his own voice” (Bakhtin 1204). In other words, without these other voices, our voice would be meaningless. Our words have meaning only in relationship to how they have been used before us. It is the richness of voices that allow language to act as a mode of communication.
Like Mucho Maas, whenever you walk into a room, you walk in with a crowd of historical figures, novelists, poets, priests, politicians, scientists, friends and strangers. If asked who you are, you can answer, “I am a walking assembly of man.”
(For more on inherited language and forms and heteroglossia, read my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon, or read my post “To Understand, We Must Produce Narrative.”)
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Harper Perennail, 1965. Print.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1190 – 1220. Print.