sounds beyond us: the divine and uncanny in the womb

by jdavidcharles

Sound is resonance. No sound occurs truly spontaneously, but is always the coming together of objects—the breath vibrating the body, vibrating the horn whose brass in turn sings, the bow on string, mallet on drum or cymbal. There is the action, breath, and the space that contains and responds to the act, the body of the instrument. Word likewise is the breath bringing forth sound out of space. This is the word of the Judeo-Christian god, the god who speaks into being, the breath made flesh in the speaking, the breath bringing shape to the void—sound that creates. The god cloaked in shadow whom to see is death can still be heard if given the space to resonate. Where there is no space to resonate there is no voice to be heard. Space is the home of sound.

We rarely think about the fact that our ears become fully formed in the womb. Before we have any sense of placement or vision beyond our own bodies we hear the world around us, objects devoid of placement or presentation, a content-less form. In this our mother acts as our resonating chamber, like the body of the stringed instrument or piano, the sound we are first attuned to. She is our shelter from the outside and the foreign, while yet introducing it to us by its resonance, its distance. Before we can see beyond ourselves we listen. Freud was not so far off then in saying we desire to return the womb, the pure dependability and attachment of our first home. The mother is really the first appropriated other, the first thing we experience beyond ourselves yet feel entitled to. What confusion must have struck us at birth! To move beyond the self and into a world of sharing, sacrifice, hierarchy, rebellion. To be on the very fringe of language and aural intelligibility—the sounds of the outside before we ever knew of an inside or outside. What to do but cry? What to do but mimic those unknown resonances of beyond-the-womb, the inner workings and intimacy of the mother’s body, the tapping of the hand to the belly, the words and songs of comfort or distress. I wonder if those first attempts at sound are a child’s first grasp of language, the opacity of the cry signifying an infinity of meaning. Signifying perhaps the splitting of single, simple existence into polyphony, alterity, the sudden shock of distinction: inside and outside, here and there, sounds to objects, and the self to other.

The womb as chamber of resonance then is where we learn the notion of the voice of god, or where we first experience it—a sound without a body, pure resonance. This takes the form of the god of hope just beyond my immediate viewpoint, the god at the horizon who is always beyond and orchestrating the seeming chaos. This can also be the sinister god though, the spider-god, the noises that go bump in the night whose body is beyond imagining. This is the noise of the ghost. Bodiless sound is both the trace of the divine other as well as the haunting of the beyond. Conversely, it is also where we learn what a home is, what it means to have a space bound up with who we are, a place of repose that if disrupted in some way works back upon the self. An insult to the home is an insult to the ego; an infestation of the home reflects a breech of self; a cluttered home, a cluttered mind, etc. Before we knew of an outside or saw the other face-to-face we felt and heard the sounds of the uncanny and ecstatic resonating all around us, the divinity and horror latent in sound.

Gaston Bachelard said, “the world would get along better if pots and covers could always stay together.” I am inclined to agree—every coverless pot is nothing more than a bowl, a space devoid of mystery or a timbre of its own, any sound it can make a reflection of what is put into it. A covered pot however resonates back on itself, a single tap revealing a whole aural world, resonating and re-resonating. A covered pot is filled with mystery and imagination, a womb-home, pregnant with infinite possibility. From the covered pot sounds a voice beyond-the-self, beyond the mere touch which aurally “opens” the pot—releasing a Pandora’s box of divinity and horror.