The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Arnold Berleant

The Verbal Presence: An Aesthetics of Literary Performance

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 31 (3)

Spring, 1973, 339-346.



I - Language: The Prime Product of Culture

II – Literary Arts as Arts of Speech

III – Performance: Activation of Language

IV – Phenomenology of the Spoken Word


HHC: titling added


WHEN WE SURVEY what has been written on the various arts, it is remarkable how much more is devoted to the literary arts than to any of the others.  Remarkable, perhaps, but not surprising, for one would think that literature is in a favored position, since the medium of the commentator is identical with the medium of the artist.  Literature appears to be the sole artistic beneficiary of Stravinsky’s insight that the best comment on one piece of music is another piece of music.  While music rarely comments, language, it would seem, nearly always does, thus solving the principal difficulty of aesthetics - the radical dissimilarity between the subject of the discussion and the discussion of the subject.

Rather than being a special advantage, however, this is in actuality a subtley vitiating impediment.  For all appearances to the contrary, the literary arts are the most difficult to illuminate.  This is largely because they encourage an enormous equivocation, an equivocation between language in literature and language about literature.  Most of us assume that the customary cognitive use of words for formulating and communicating ideas is their only use, and we find it hard to imagine how they could function otherwise.  Thus when we turn to literature, the linguistic medium becomes a Faustian trap in which we sell our aesthetic souls for a knowledge that was never there.

A variety of things contributes to this problem.  There is, for example, a blithe unawareness of the difference between language and speech, yet there is an unfortunate inclination to separate the literary arts into those that are realized in performance and those that are independent of it.  Moreover, a difficulty underlying both of these is the basic dissimilarity between the analytic function of language and its perceptual function.  I will explore each of these briefly and then attempt to sketch a phenomenology of the spoken word, which may help set us right.


I – Language: The Prime Product of Culture

For many of us language is the prime product of culture.  In language are coalesced the fruits of civilization, its science and scholarship, the insights and precepts of its traditional wisdom, and much of the artistic expression of that tradition.  To perpetuate a social order, language is the most powerful force, since it concretizes the forms of thought and action which a community of men accepts as orthodox.  How much more effective it is to grasp the clarity of an idea that is written than one grop-

ARNOLD BERLEANT is professor of philosophy at C. W. Post Center, Long Island University.  His article “Aesthetics and the Contemporary Arts” appeared in the Winter 1970  issue of this journal.

Read in a shortened version at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, New Orleans, Dec. 27, 1970.  I gratefully acknowledge the suggestions of several people, in particular Justus Buchler.


ingly formed in speech.  Language, solidified in verbal formulas or written documents, is objectified, an external body to which we come and to which we must adapt.  What an advantage when the inchoate gropings of half-formulated notions become stabilized in the clear shapes of language.  And it is primarily to language that we turn when we search for the mentality of a culture - as social historians, anthropologists, or philosophers.

Yet the very source of our advantage easily turns into the basis of our error.  For in objectifying language we become the taxidermists of culture, snuffing out its vital breath and stuffing it with a sawdust of minced scholarship.  This is clearly illustrated by comparing the spoken with the written word.  We are inclined to view the oral tradition of a culture as an early stage of progress, succeeded by the more stable and permanent stage of recorded language.  For purposes of historical analysis this is a true sequence and a convenient one, but it obscures a possible loss, because it seems to suggest that written language is the product toward which spoken language has been tending.

Instead of taking the written word as the standard against which to measure the spoken, the converse is more truly the case.  The written word, as written, is lifeless.  To revitalize it, it must be experienced directly.  There is a difference, for instance, between a metaphor that is spoken and one that is read silently.  Speaking it gives the metaphor a special vitality; it breathes the air of life into it.  For speech is an act of appropriation that humanizes language.

There are, of course, some clear reasons why linguists see language as different from speech.  In speech there are generally elements of prosody such as intonation, kinesic elements such as gestures, and paralinguistic elements of expressive voice accompaniment for which the text provides both fewer and less exact indications.  More significant here are those paralinguistic, kinesic, and even linguistic items for which the written text offers no notation whatsoever. 1

Yet there are still other reasons that distinguish speech from language that are less obvious but of more subtle presence.  Something about speech makes a claim on our attention; one cannot quite be indifferent to it.  Speech is, in essence, what phenomenologists call an intentional object, one which is an object of our consciousness and toward which our consciousness is directed.  As such it exercises a peculiar but powerful attraction on us.  There is, for example, a challenge in giving a lecture.  Because of the presence of a live audience that is involved (we assume) in the presentation, we cannot ignore abrupt shifts in ideas, weak transitions, lame inferences, strings of trivialities, or fuzzy ideas which we might be able to get away with safely when writing.  Words that have no force by virtue of their sequence and their freshness drop lifeless from the lips in embarrassment.  This indeed signifies a basic difference between language in general and its literary mode.  Language is the inert material from which literature is fashioned.  Moreover, literature has the essential quality of speech and not of the merely written word.  Thus we can say that literature arises out of language that is activated by being spoken. 2

A similar vital awakening, although less vivid, occurs when one reads literature silently.  There is, I think, an essentially similar occurrence when literature is spoken and when it is read silently.  In each case skill is needed, whether it be of the public performer who interprets a piece to an audience or of a private performer who reads it soundlessly to himself.  What the silent reader must be able to supply is an aural imagination in which literature can speak.  Poetry, in particular, receives its special literary power from its ability to create a special kind of pulsating vitality suspended on the rich combination of sound, image, evocation, and movement.

The antithesis of the literary performance is not soundless reading in quiet seclusion; it is language that cannot be read aloud without becoming heavy tongued, tiresome, and incapable of being formed and grasped by the abstractive functions of the brain.  The true contrast with the literary performance lies not between oral interpretation and silent reading but between


literature whose public reading supplies the breath of life, and language whose utterance is a slow funereal knell.  The technical jargon found in scientific and parascientific writing is a prime case of unperformable language.  It is engineered writing by cliché and formula that is actually a substitute for literacy.  Here is language meant only to be read and never to be spoken.  (One thinks also of scholarly papers read at professional meetings!)  There is but a short distance from here to computer printouts and the full computerization of language.  I do not entirely disparage these developments, for they have their own special advantages, but I think it essential that we not confuse the language of technology and the technologizing of language with the act of literature.

A literary performance, then, whether spoken or read silently, always has the character of speech, never of written language, and this is one of the consequences of recognizing that unperformable language is not literature.  While the spoken word is not, ipso facto, literature, in the last analysis, reading aloud becomes a real and important test of literature.


II – Literary Arts as Arts of Speech

If the literary arts are arts of speech, then the aesthetics of literature must explore the peculiar way in which each art speaks to us.  The notion of literature as spoken art does not provide us with an entire literary aesthetic, to be sure.  Yet it identifies an important trait that appears in an individual way in each literary mode, and it is a feature that is often overlooked.  By pursuing this, we can not only correct this omission but at the same time also illustrate our thesis.

This is easiest to do in the case of poetry.  In a sense, poetry is found everywhere. “... [P]oetry,” writes Dufrenne, “is not the privilege of poets.  A poet is whoever is inspired, whoever speaks as if under the influence of an irresistible constraint and as if he himself were astounded by what he is saying.” 3  Poetic language epitomizes the vibrant presence of words.  It offers not meaning but a word experience, and as such does not give us symbols to be understood but rather images to be perceived.  Metaphor, the heartblood of poetry, puts aside the role of symbols to take on an independent life of its own, as with the word the vivid image stands alone before us.  See how Dylan Thomas’s eulogy of Ann Jones shows us how “Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain,” 4 and Wallace Stevens’s “small howling of the dove” 5 makes us shiver with its low sound.  A great many lyrics, in fact, are full-blown metaphors.  Yet we might do better to follow Bachelard in regarding metaphors as false images which lack the directness of “an image formed in spoken revery,” 6 and end by discovering that in experience metaphor is transformed into image.

Now this vividness of word image finds support in the motion and sound of poetic speech.  Without the constant undertone of spoken words, most of poetry’s rhythm and pulse would disappear.  Poetic meter rests on the sounds of syllabication, and the division into lines may be a grouping by breaths rather than by meanings, since lines of verse often do not coincide with the shapes of thoughts.  Yet the clearest case of all is rhyme, for it could not exist without sound, real or imagined.  Rhyme schemes rest entirely on remembered sound, while internal rhymes and alliteration utilize successive sounds to govern the rate of motion.

But of course the sounds of words themselves often embody aural images.  One can hear the hiss and surge of the waves in these lines from Shakespeare’s song from The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies,


Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

And who, once having heard Dylan Thomas’s voice resonating a protest to death, can ever read his lines without hearing him cry out:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 7

Through sound, the spoken word acquires a true physical presence.  Since sight


is a distance receptor, it has traditionally been given a contemplative character and has thus been regarded as the primary intellectual sense.  Sound, on the other hand, surges round us, making hearing into a contact receptor and giving the spoken word the status of a physical object.  Thus by its many-sided presence, the spoken word assumes its full and equal reality.

It is hard, in the face of all this, to escape Valery’s conclusion that “It is the performance of the poem which is the poem.” 8  For poetry is living language, the point at which words become real.  That is why it is impossible to extract meaning from a poem, why a poem places demands upon us rather than we upon it, and why the poetic image has so absolute an ability to touch us.  The poet’s tongue releases us from the language of abstraction and objectivity, and gives us the word become flesh.

As long as we acknowledge the essential identity of spoken and silent literary performance, it is hardly necessary to demonstrate that the dramatic arts are arts of speech.  There is more to drama than language, to be sure.  Whether realized in imagination as drama or in an actual production as theater, we are confronted with the encounter of human beings in a situation which transpires before us and which implicates us by our very presence.  For Ionesco, “there is more than words: the theatre is a tale which is lived, beginning again at each performance, and it is also a tale which one sees being lived.” 9

Thus theater is action more than words, yet in theater words are not verbal symbols but a species of action in their own right.  In a way theater epitomizes human discourse in which language functions not as an artificial medium but as an act-producing reality.  Theater shows words in process, as they are exchanged among people.  They do not simply express meaning already known; they create its object. 10  Pinter is a striking case.  He sees words at their most insidious when he observes that words are not just what they say but what they do: they are weapons.  Yet words can be more than instruments, even of destruction.  As Kurt Goldstein has put it, “As soon as man uses language to establish a living relation with himself or with his fellows, language is a manifestation, a revelation of intimate being and of the psychic link which unites us to the world and our fellow-men.” 11 Theater thus comes to assume a socializing role, recalling the primal rituals which have endured to modern times largely in the religious sanctum and in the arena.  Perhaps it is in theater that modern man achieves that coalescence of word, body, and spirit that in the past was the special province of religion.

The situation with the novel, to take a characteristic form of fiction, is somewhat different.  A novel is neither declaimed from a stage nor acted out upon it.  It sounds strange to speak of performing a novel, but this is because of our convention of restricting that peculiar mode of activating an art object to behavior that is overt and public.  Yet this, as we have come to realize, is the consequence of turning the custom of common sense into a principle of aesthetics.  As literature, the experienced word articulates speech that may perhaps be mute, and no stretch of the imagination is necessary to find this as true of the novel as of the poem and the play.

When we look at the novel from this vantage point, something we have always experienced becomes explicit.  It is that every novel is a narrative, and that it is a narrative in the most literal way - it has to have a narrator.  Reading a novel is really being told a story.  We may analyze plot as dramatic structure, but we live through the sequence of awareness and events in a novel from which its plot is abstracted.  A plot is in reality not something we read about but something told to us.  The novel, moreover, is quite unlike other modes of expository prose, since we come to it with no expectation of factual truth.  Unlike the impersonal statements of information that we read in the treatise, the text, or the Times, the novel is a tale told by a teller.  It relates not a realm of truths but evokes a world of human acts, events, and awareness. Thus dialogue in the novel is speech that is being related to us, and novelists are often most skillful at capturing the sound and rhythm


of ordinary conversation.  Yet they can equally well capture thoughts, that is, words that are thought.  This is no communication in which information is transmitted from one party to another.  It is narration, in which the storyteller weaves a web that entangles his listeners in the strands of human thought and action, giving his readers the mind with which to see and hear as he would have them, so that they can enter a different world and assume a new mentality.  This is not verbal communication; it is verbal communion.  Some of this survives in the philosophical dialogue, where ideas are not merely talked about but entered into and lived through, fashioned out of the dialectical movement as a plot unfolds out of narrative movement.  Thus as the breath of song, as verbal gesture, as narrative voice, each of the literary arts, in its own individual way, involves the word as a living, moving force in performance.


III – Performance: Activation of Language

There emerges from this discussion of language, literature, and literary art a matter basic to the argument which it is now time to face directly.  If literature is a mode of speech, and speech is that activation of literature we call performance, we must identify more exactly what this performance involves and what it does not.  In my comments earlier on language and literature, I found language to be a material from which literature draws, but a material that we usually regard in the mode of the written word, where it has an objectivity and an impersonality that make it admirably suited to the function of formulating facts, executing analyses, and in general serving as the instrument of cognitive meaning.  Yet our exploration of performance in poetry, drama, and the novel has revealed how the transformation of language in literature leaves it quite removed from its usual cognitive function.  Since we are unaccustomed to envisioning language by any other than a cognitive model, it seems strange and difficult to cut it clear of such connotations.  Yet this is the particular hardship the aesthetics of literature must endure, and its only hope of success lies in recognizing and overcoming the handicap of anti-aesthetic pressures.

Let me develop this by means of a contrast, a comparison between two vastly dissimilar uses of language - the analytic and the perceptual.  The analytic is the customary use, sanctioned by common sense and common practice.  Here language is a means of stabilizing the flux of transitory experience, solidifying it so that we can manage our world by managing our words.  Yet ordinary and convenient as this is, to use it as the pattern under which to subsume literary experience is to blind ourselves to the very different way in which language functions in the literary arts.  In literature, words forsake the dissecting table of literary analysis, leaving behind their character of means and becoming ends in themselves.  In the literary experience we must follow Hart Crane’s suggestion to the poet to become “soaked in words.”

Speech facilitates such a linguistic immersion, for in our utterances language operates in a perceptual realm where the word is inseparable from the image.  That is why literary language is hardly ever abstract but nearly always dwells on the graphic details of individual objects, situations, and events.  While a philosopher may write a treatise on justice and a jurisprudent search for principles and precedents, the writer sees the human significance of justice in the immediate realism of the particular case, for it is this which touches him, even though it be removed to the point of improbability.  Hamlet’s obsession with the crime committed by his mother and uncle is forceful and moving, even though the twentieth century would be inclined to a more clinical view of a man who converses with the ghost of his dead father.  We find in novels like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Malamud’s The Fixer, and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country forceful and moving realizations of the different forms of injustice.  Even Plato took up the poet’s pen in developing the model of a just state through a particular Republic.

Thus in the literary experience we do not


understand a metaphor but rather perceive an image. 12  In the perception of language, literature discovers its unique mode of action.  It is the difference between “getting” a pun and understanding it by having it explained, catching the significance of a glance, a gesture, or a passing inflection in the ongoing play or novel and drawing plot outlines that detail relationships.  Perhaps the clearest case of literary perception is what occurs in Eastern poetry such as the haiku, which offers vivid perceptual images of common things for their own sake, as, in their individual ways, the tea ceremony and flower arranging place an aura of devotion around an ordinary activity.  We are all too ready to expect that poetry say something, that it make a point or express an idea.  This is art wrongly related to a cognitive model.

Yet it is precisely such a model that informs the analytic use of literature.  This takes hold when there is less attention to literary experience than to treating the material of literature as something to conceptualize with.  It is here that the concern with questions of meaning arises, and it is this attention to the arranging of material that motivates the search to unpuzzle symbols.  Here too arise misleading theories of literature that engage intermediators to assist language that is stretched apart from its listener - theories such as expression, communication, representation.  Yet a poem does not re-embody the experience of which it sings, nor does it transfer the poet’s feelings to his reader.  These are all non-aesthetic functions which give rise to surrogate theories that impose a cognitive model as a substitute for literary perception. 13  The same is true of seeking literary “understanding” or “unravelling the mystery” of a novel through interpreting it.  Our scholarly concerns with literature have a legitimacy, to be sure, but it hardly lies in apprehending literature aesthetically.  These activities are often confused when we stress language skills such as grammar, spelling, and exposition, having torn them out of the fertile soil of literature.  This happens too when we regard the oral interpretation of literature as a way of “explaining” what poems and stories are and “mean,” 14 or when we see it as a study of literature. 15  Oral interpretation is properly a mode of literary performance and not of textual understanding.  It may, in actuality, be a self-contradictory term, for if by “interpretation” we mean analysis rather than performance, the expression seems to suggest a mixing of the very modes of perception and analysis a literary aesthetic must make distinct.


IV – Phenomenology of the Spoken Word

Let me turn finally from a critical and analytic discussion of literary performance to a more positive probing toward what we might term the phenomenology of the spoken word.  The history of theories of the oral performance of literature shows a gradual widening of the scope of involvement.  Concerned at first only with elocution, with training speakers in the skills requisite for oral delivery, oral performance moved out to engage itself in matters of literary interpretation.  Oral reading became a device for literary study which bolstered the intrinsic approach to literature of the New Critics.  More recently, oral performance has begun to assume a dramatic stance in which the speaker, the situation, and the action combine to exercise a more intense and powerful force. 16

This succession of theories is encouraging, for it shows how the boundaries of what is relevant in literary performance have constantly expanded.  Yet they have not gone quite far enough.  There remains an element of distance, and the corresponding need to secure a mechanism which can bring together the speaker, the words, and their meaning in order to achieve a conciliation with the listener.  This is the outcome, though, of theories that proceed by regarding the poem as a product to be packaged and proffered to an audience.  The result must, quite literally, be convincing to be a success.

There is something rather misleading about this, for it somehow seems to fashion oral performance out of (or into) declamation, scholarship, or theatricality.  In each instance the theory is a theory of assimila-


tion which is deaf to the rather special magnetism of the spoken word.  If the performance of literature has its own legitimacy in experience, this must be sought for through its own operational features.  What, then, might these be?

“Doesn’t the poet put language in danger?” asks Bachelard.”  Like the artists of other media, the creative writer explores unrecognized regions of human experience which we traverse unwitting and unaware.  Moving through the space of imagination, the poet of language leaves the ordinary behind. “… [O]ne should start from song,” Valery tells us, 18 for words begin to fly as they sing, as only the lark does, and the poet uses them with adventure and daring.  What happens, then, is not necessarily a matter of surprise or of shock, even at what we have always known.  If the poet is not vivid, it is not that he is merely pale; he is not poetic.  The poet inhabits the submerged side of the words a scholar may use, for the latter’s goal is clarity not vividness, identity not suggestiveness. 19

The act of speech assists this. “[W]hen I speak, I am my speaking; I become one with my words.... [T]o speak puts me at a certain distance from that of which I speak.  But between my consciousness and my speech there is no distance at all: I am in union with the language I use.” 20  Distance intervenes between me and language as a collection of symbols, yet when these symbols are read or spoken they become activated.  They are that peculiar mode of language called speech, and in speech there can be no distance.  I appropriate the words I utter as I pronounce them.  It is my intent, my voice, my guidance that fashion them.  Language in use is always part of the user.  It is only when language has not yet been appropriated that there is distance, when it is a language I cannot understand, an idea whose meaning is yet unfathomed or whose formulation is incomprehensible, a cliché about which we have ceased to think but utter only as a mechanical response.  When the literary vision is grasped, the distance is thereby closed; the word is joined with my awareness, the speech with the speaker, the thought with the thinker.

The act of speaking, then, is more like singing than like the oral reading or recitation of words.  As with song, speech requires a bodily presence, not just a voice, and embodied speech becomes a genuine union of body and mind.  Of course, reading aloud is not necessarily aesthetic but is often repetitious and dead, and we find this affirmed all around us.  Neither is glib talk aesthetic, for here the tongue has left the thought behind.  True speech, however, is alive and creative.  It is the word embodied, given substance, largely removed from the region of the abstract and filled with the concrete vibrance of life.  It becomes, as one might put it, a verbal image, where sound evokes sight and together they form a world of imagination that surpasses the ordinary world around us, which is looked at but is unseen.

So language can be a divider of man and his world or it can be the unifier.  The verbal presence is a species of incantation, for it evokes an imagical realm in which there is a reconciliation between man and his direct experience.  It is here that the literary object waits ready to have life breathed into it. But whether this will happen on any occasion is, so to say, far more than a manner of speaking.



1. I am much indebted to Prof. Katharine T. Loesch for helping me achieve greater accuracy and clarity in working out the distinction between speech and language.

2. I am not saying here that all speech is literature but only that literature is one mode of speech.  There are obviously others.  What distinguishes literary from other speech is precisely what an analysis of its performance must show.  This will be considered in parts III and IV.

3. M. Dufrenne, “Language and Metaphysics,” in N. Lawrence and D. O’Connor, eds., Readings in Existential Phenomenology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 225.  Cf. also p. 213 for a discussion of language and speech.

4. Thomas, The Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1957), p. 96.

5. Opus Posthumous (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1957), p. 97.

6. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (New York: Orion, 1964), p. 77.

7. Thomas, p. 128.

8. Paul  Valery, “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson,” in B. Ghiselin, ed., The Creative Process (New York: Mentor, 1952), p. 99.

9. Eugene Ionesco, “Discovering the Theatre,” in Theatre in the Twentieth Century, ed. R. W. Cor­rigan (New York: Grove, 1963), pp. 87-88.

10. Cf. M. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), p. 178: “Speech, in the speaker, does not translate ready-made thought, but accomplishes it.”

11. Quoted in Merleau-Ponty, p. 196.

12. Bachelard, chap. 3, pp. 74 ff., 76-77.

13. Cf. A. Berleant, The Aesthetic Field (Springfield, Ill.: C. C. Thomas, 1970), chap. 2, “Surrogate Theories of Art.”

14. Don Geiger illustrates the ambiguous conjunction of perception and analysis when he writes, “Perhaps, rather than referring to Oral Interpretation, we would more accurately think of it as Primary Interpretation of literature, for it is based on a faith that the words in which they are written can explain much of what poems and stories are and mean… Oral Interpretation is but an aspect of literary study.  There is no question of its being an alternative or a challenge to any other legitimate approach to literary understanding.” The Sound, Sense, and Performance of Literature (New York: Scott, Foresman, 1963), p. 10.

15. “Oral Interpretation, the oral study of literature, is a discipline which endeavors to bring together the activities of speaking the poem and of speaking about the poem, in the belief that together these activities answer the challenge of reading the poem.”  R. Beloof et al., The Oral Study of Literature, ed. with an introduction by Thomas O. Sloan (New York: Random House, 1966), introduction, p. 3.

16. Ibid., pp. 4-8.

17. Bachelard, p. 220.

18. The Art of Poetry (New York: Vintage, 1961), p. 162.

19. Cf. Bachelard, p. 146.

20.  Dufrenne, p. 215.