The Hearing Body in Robert Wilson’s and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Letter to a Man

Sylvia Solakidi*

for Λ


In 2015 Robert Wilson presented Letter to a Man, a solo for Mikhail Baryshnikov, based on the diaries that Vaslav Nijinsky wrote when he was descending into schizophrenia. A soundscape composed of recorded phrases repeated by the voices of Wilson, Lucinda Childs and Baryshnikov stages the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenia. Baryshnikov’s body moves in response to voices that are chasing each other by repeating motives of reflective meanings turned into sound, in a way reminiscent of a fugue. The relationship between the body and the world from the point of view of auditory stimuli and movement is explored by this essay-fugue of performance philosophy through the concept of the hearing body that the writer elaborates based on Baryshnikov’s performance and her experience in the audience. Wilson’s soundscape and the ontology of phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty—his notions of coherent deformation and simultaneity, in particular—chase each other like voices in a fugue and demonstrate a continuum between body and world that brings to the foreground the difficulties in the interaction and the play of both pre-reflective and reflective powers of the body.

Keywords: Letter to a Man, Robert Wilson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ontology, coherent deformation, simultaneity, fugue

“You are not God, you are Nijinsky,” says a male voice.
A man in tails, hears the voice, moves his eyes and his body towards its source.
“You are not Christ, you are Nijinsky,” says a female voice.
The man moves his eyes and his body again; where does this voice come from?
“You are not Christ, you are Nijinsky,” says a male voice and repeats it in Russian.
The man is puzzled as he hears his own voice in two languages. Where should he move to, since the source of the voice should be himself?

What Is It?

It is Mikhail Baryshnikov on the stage of Espace Pierre Cardin, in Paris, in January 2017, performing the solo theatrical piece Letter to a Man, directed by theatre and visual artist Robert Wilson; I am in the audience. The work premiered in Spoleto on July 8, 2015, and it is based on the published diaries of the legendary Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Letter to a Man is the title of an unsent letter that Nijinsky wrote to Serge Diaghilev, the director of Ballets Russes, when their relationship deteriorated (Nijinsky and Acocella vii).

According to Baryshnikov, there is “no choreography” in this piece, “only voices and movement” (“Mikhail Baryshnikov Letter to a Man” 00:07:38). Baryshnikov perceives a world of sounds and reacts through movement. Auditory stimuli and his sense of hearing motivate him to explore the world, to ask “what is it?” “The reason I work as an artist is to ask questions, to ask what is it?” states Wilson in a performative lecture that he has been giving since the late 1970s. He does not know the answer and sets out to explore the question through his works, such as Letter to a Man. Baryshnikov does not know the answer either, and he sets out to explore the question through movement; movement is the way he makes sense of the world of sounds.

I name this experience the hearing body, I ask “what is it?” in this essay, and I set out to explore the dynamics of the relationship between body and world from the point of view of auditory stimuli and movement. View is not incompatible with sound. The world makes itself available to Baryshnikov primarily, but not exclusively, through sounds. I, the spectator, hear these sounds and watch Baryshnikov’s movement, which is his response and his contribution to the world that he perceives. And, like him, I make sense from the point of view of sound, without forgetting that I am an intersensorial body in an intersensorial world. As Tim Ingold suggests, it is more fruitful “to explore the common ground” between senses rather than abandoning the one for the other (287). Rather than approaching hearing as a privileged way of perceiving the world, I explore the potential offered by the perspective of hearing.

I choose the hearing body here, instead of the listening body, in order not to restrict the exploration into attentive hearing but open it up to the perception of sounds. I choose a present participle instead of a subordinate clause (“a body that hears”) to explore hearing as an act related to movement rather than a passive reception of the world; as a process rather than an outcome. And as the present participle “is relative to the time given in the larger construction” (Huddleston and Pullum 80), the act of hearing is a process in all tenses. This essay elaborates on the hearing body as a concept in order to explore the way it acts, its agency; namely, the way it makes sense and, as I will demonstrate, modifies the world.

What Is It?

The world of Letter to a Man is a soundscape consisting of the recorded voices of Wilson, of dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs and of Baryshnikov, who recites in English and Russian. The phrase that one voice speaks is repeated by another voice, and then another. Repetition and variation obscure the meaning of phrases, as if the full stop at the end gradually turned into a question mark, and the voice that followed rushed to give an answer by speaking the phrase differently. Voices chase each other in a question-answer game of repetitions, in a way that reminds me of a fugue, a composition of polyphonic music. Fugue is based on imitation as the first voice presents a motif called subject, which is subsequently reprised differently by the other voices in the form of an answer. Fuga means flight; voices flee as they are chased by other voices, their coming together is constantly being postponed and, unlike harmonical compositions, there is no hierarchy among them (Kennan 202–06).

Baryshnikov hears this fugue of the world, his hearing body moves towards the voices and away from them, he chases them and is chased by them. His movement becomes another voice in the fugue of the world; he does not only hear the fugue, but he also participates in it. Sound is a wave and triggers hearing by making anatomic elements of the ear move. Sound, though, is not perceived only by the ear. “The whole body or organism raises a taut sculpture or statue of skin, vibrating to the voluminous sound” as if “covered head to toes with a tympanum,” like the membrane of the ear with the same name, as Michel Serres claims (141). Sound crashes like a wave against the shore of the hearing body that reacts to this movement with its own.

The reason why I watch/hear a fugue is that Baryshnikov’s hearing body makes sense of the voices by organizing them through movement. He can only sing an answer with his movement if he perceives what voices do with each other as a subject-answer interaction and if he takes up this structure in order to respond through his own answer to what he perceives as a voice’s subject. Without his answer, the world would have seemed/sounded meaningless; voices would not have chased each other but crashed against each other and the soundscape would have been nothing more than noise.

The world of sounds does not depend on the hearing body but on the process of hearing, which involves perception and response, modifies this world by organizing it into motifs that demand an answer; in the non-hierarchical world of a fugue, the voice that moves is as important as the voices that sound. As Salomé Voegelin claims, sonic sensibility demonstrates that the world “is not a pre-formed container but is built continually as the fleeting timespace of [one’s] present listening” (3). Movement makes sound meaningful; this is the agency of the hearing body.

Trailer of Letter to a Man

Baryshnikov’s hearing body is not the only one in the theatre venue. Spectators, like me, do not only watch but, as members of the audience,[1] are hearing bodies as well; we also hear voices and are chased by them. We do not move from our seats, but we move our eyes, like Baryshnikov moves his eyes when he hears the voices and directs his body towards them. When Nijinsky was young, he paired his study of dance with the study of drawing in St. Petersburg. He obsessively drew eyes “peering from every corner,” and, when asked, he used to reply that they were “soldier’s faces . . . it is the war” (Nijinsky and Acocella xix). His movement as a dancer was paired with faces whose eyes chased him, like soldiers that chase enemies in wartime, like the eyes of spectators of his dance performances. The spectators’ gazes chase the same sounds as Baryshnikov, as well as his movement on stage. Our eye movements become more voices in the fugue of the world. We do not just perceive the fugue of the world but become a part of it and sing along. Wilson’s recorded voice sings the subject of this fugue, its first phrase, and all other voices—namely, Baryshnikov’s movement of eyes and body and spectators’ gazes—take it up differently and sing their answer.

Baryshnikov’s body is alert like a cat’s, whose process of hearing “involves every cell in the body,” as Peter Brook states (47). The bodies of spectators are equally alert because in the non-hierarchical world of the fugue, Wilson asks the audience “to create a story of themselves” (“Mikhail Baryshnikov Letter to a Man” 00:24:52). I sang an answer to Wilson’s subject in Paris. I now sing another answer by creating a story of myself, the story of the agency of the hearing body, on stage and in the stalls, by writing this essay. According to Manfred Bukatzer (qtd. in Mann 7), fugue is “neither a form nor a texture, but a contrapuntal procedure”; like the process of hearing. In this essay-fugue I explore the process of hearing as a hearing body that hears and sings the world.

What Is It?

“Singing the world” is a way that phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to the function of language, which consists of “words, vowels and phonemes” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology 193), pointing to an “intimacy of language and music” and “the incarnation of meaning in sound” (Ihde 154). This language sings Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of being-in-the-world/être au monde (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology lxxvii), according to which the world is not a container and the body is not a contained object, but the world solicits the embodied subjects, who respond and solicit the world back. Being-in-the-world involves perception and response; the world sings a subject and the body sings an answer; the body is an agent in-the-world (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology 137–39). The French preposition au indicates situatedness within as well as movement towards the world (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology xlix).

Thus, the agency of the body in-the-world is exerted through movement. In the case of the fugue of the world, the agent in-the-world is a hearing body that “copes” with the world (Dreyfus and Wrathall 3) by hearing and moving towards and away from voices. Nijinsky is not God, Baryshnikov’s hearing body cannot have the God-eye view upon the world. Since it is situated within the fugue of the world, it can only have a perspectival view. This situatedness, according to Merleau-Ponty, allows only a certain degree of freedom (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology 467). This restriction makes the hearing body a point-of-view from within the world. It is not overwhelmed by the world, though, because it can sing along, thanks to movement. It cannot become the dominant voice in-the-world, either, because, as in a polyphonic composition, in this fugue of the world there is no hierarchy among voices, but they all contribute to the music according to their situatedness that defines their point of view; the restriction of freedom is the condition for music to be played and heard.

Dualistic notions about body and world are further challenged by Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh of the world (Merleau-Ponty and Lefort 147) that is based on a reversible relation between body and world. Reversibility is key as it allows the intertwining of the sensing and the sensed, the seeing and the seen, the touching and the touched; the image of hands touching each other, where both are touching and are being touched, defines this reversibility. The body is open to the world, and it envelops it with its gaze, while it is simultaneously a body of the world, as it is enveloped by it (Merleau-Ponty andLefort131, 268). The movement of being-in-the world becomes in late ontology a movement of embrace, based on the basic reversibility between vision and touch. The body is the place of this fold, the site where this reversibility takes place. It does not have full control because of its situated freedom, but it can make sense of the world by organizing reversible relations.

The ontology of Merleau-Ponty has the point of view of visual perception, since his examples come mainly from seeing and vision, although his book Phenomenology of Perception is not restricted to visual perception. Merleau-Ponty claims that the body “is not a sum of juxtaposed organs, but a synergic system of which all of the functions are taken up and tied together in the general movement of being-in-the-world” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology 243). Letter to a Man has the point of view of aural perception. How can dualistic notions about body and world be challenged further, and how is the agency of the body in-the-world modified, when the sensing/sensed reversibility is neither seeing/seen nor touching/touched, but hearing/heard? This essay explores these ontological questions through a fugue for two voices: Wilson’s and Baryshnikov’s Letter to a Man and Merleau-Ponty’s ontology. My hearing body organizes these voices into the fugue and, as a result, it modifies them. Thus, one voice is my experience from Letter to a Man and the other voice is my reading of Merleau-Ponty; I have chosen to situate my freedom as a writer in-the-world of these two voices.

The writing of the fugue, the “ideal combination of likeness and diversity” (Mann 8) is made possible by two terms of Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology: coherent deformation and simultaneity, which are seminal in his understanding of the flesh of the world and its fundamental function of reversibility that defines the movement of interactions. Merleau-Ponty borrows coherent deformation from André Malraux. It is a way of repeating differently, a way of making the reversible sensing/sensed relation possible. Simultaneity is inspired by Henri Bergson (Colonna, “Simultanéité” 211) and points out to coherence in space and time, while it demonstrates that there is no cohesion without divergence (Colonna, Renouvellement 386). Divergence is the aspect of the process of ontological reversibility that prevents both fusion and a parallel relationship. As a result, simultaneity becomes the ontological unity of difference” (Colonna “Simultanéité” 214).

Fugue is “historically associated with mounted hunt” (Solie 181). After the initial call, the two groups of hunters were using wind instruments differently in order to respond to each other and coordinate the hunt. I choose Wilson’s “What is it?” as the initial call. My fugue has already begun. Wilson has set the subject with his soundscape and Merleau-Ponty has sung the answer with his ontological terms.

What Is It?

This is my essay-fugue that explores the ontology of the relationship between the body and the world through the voices of a theatrical performance and a philosopher. It is a proposed way to do Performance Philosophy. This is an interdisciplinary field launched in 2012 that deliberately avoids a specific definition in order to “bring together voices” from diverse backgrounds and encourage practical and theoretical approaches to the interaction of the two disciplines. Of particular interest is the “gap” between Performance and Philosophy, since the way researchers choose to bridge it defines their way of enacting Performance Philosophy in order to favour equal contribution to knowledge by both disciplines (Cull and Lagaay 3, 11, 16, 25).

Doing Performance Philosophy is possible through the exploration of new methodologies, such as an essay-fugue. Like voices that sing a fugue, performance and philosophy do not have a hierarchical relationship. The topic of the essay-fugue is also suitable for Performance Philosophy, since it explores the “gap” in the relationship between body and world. In this discipline, performance and philosophy chase each other like voices in a fugue and sing a polyphonic composition. The hearing body is elaborated as a concept of Performance Philosophy whose agency is explored through four ontological features of hearing: encroachment, pre-reflective and reflective perception, continuum of experience between inner and outer sounds, interaction with otherness.

What Is It?

Nijinsky’s diaries were written between January 19 and March 4, 1919, and they are “the only . . . non-retrospective . . . written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis” (Nijinsky and Acocella vii), in particular schizophrenia. Characteristic of schizophrenia are auditory hallucinations, which are “experienced as voices . . . perceived as distinct from the person’s own thoughts,” and they may be “conversing with each other or maintain a running commentary on the person’s thoughts or behaviour” (DSM-IV 275). This is the aspect of schizophrenia that Wilson has taken up in order to create the soundscape of the piece.

This fugue of the world, though, is not a song of schizophrenia. At the beginning of the piece, Baryshnikov sits on a chair that is upside down and wears a straitjacket. The chair gradually turns to an upright position, and, like a magician, he is liberated from the straitjacket and presents himself in tails. The straitjacket restricts movement. Wilson, the magician who liberates Baryshnikov’s movement, is not interested in Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev and the personal tragedy of the dancer, but his aim is “to explore the dynamics of the body movement,” as Baryshnikov states (“Mikhail Baryshnikov Letter to a Man” 00:15:20). Wilson’s “What is it?” in this piece does not refer to what schizophrenia is, but to how the body can cope in a world of sounds. From the moment that Baryshnikov is liberated from the straitjacket, he becomes a hearing body, not because of schizophrenia but because he can respond to the soundscape through movement. By staging schizophrenia, Wilson coherently deforms it into an existential story of sound and movement. In this essay-fugue, there are two voices of ontology, the voices of performance and philosophy. The medical aspect of schizophrenia remains simultaneous; the medical and the ontological aspects chase each other, the illness sings the subject of voices as auditory hallucinations and theatrical ontology sings the answer of the hearing body as an agent in the fugue of the world.

Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the body as agent that copes and interacts with the world does not obscure the controversies and difficulties of interaction: crucial in Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is the non-positive notion of encroachment/empiètement that shows the difficulty in all reversible relationships (Merleau-Ponty and Lefort123). In Wilson’s piece, the medical aspect of schizophrenia brings encroachment to the foreground. Coping with the world is not easy. Indeed, Baryshnikov’s eyes constantly show puzzlement and confusion. At a certain point, he is caught in a crossfire of deafening sound made by machine guns. The hallucinations of the illness are transcribed into the sound of machine guns and attack him. In fear, he moves to protect himself. The auditory hallucinations are also transcribed into images, on video projections. Spikes, shadows that prove to be people, unidentified dark objects, comprise the coherent deformation of the soundscape into a visual landscape that haunts Baryshnikov and makes evident the encroachment in the interaction with the world. Auditory and visual elements challenge him simultaneously as they chase each other. They all become voices in the fugue of the world and the movement of Baryshnikov’s hearing body responds to all of them.

As Philip Brophy states, the voice “will always locate itself in adverse directions beyond the origin of its generation and production,” which defines its “residence in otherness” (382). Otherness of the voice is the encroachment, and coping with it is the task of the hearing bodies of Baryshnikov and audience; of me as a writer as well, since I cope with the theatre of Wilson and the ontology of Merleau-Ponty in this essay. The agency of the hearing body can only be exerted through its interaction with otherness; being-in-the-world as a hearing body means to take the risk to cope with otherness. Fugue is a procedure for achieving it, since it is an “ideal combination of likeness and diversity” (Mann 4).

What Is It?

Wilson does not think that language is an adequate medium; his first theatrical pieces in the early 1970s, such as Deafman Glance, were silent.The title of Wilson’s performative lecture where he states the importance of “what is it?” in his art is: 1. Have you been here before? 2. No, this is the first time. It is a line from his 1974 piece A Letter to Queen Victoria, written by Christopher Knowles, an artist in his teens who had received early in his life a diagnosis of autism. Wilson was fascinated by the way he encoded his thoughts in mathematical patterns, resulting in the deconstruction of language and meaning. Wilson paired Knowles’s approach to language as a “spatial, pictorial and sonic art form” (Davies Arendell 1) with his own “spatial thinking,” since he always draws to express his ideas, he thinks in drawing (6). This was one of the main motivations for Wilson to experiment with text in his theatre and ask, “what is it?” in reference to language. Understanding the reflective meaning of language is not of primary importance to him, though. He has stated how annoyed he gets when he repeatedly hears “do you understand?” in theatre, in television, in everyday life. His reply in this case is “get lost, who cares!” (Wilson).

Wilson was first interested in Nijinsky’s diaries in the 1970s, when he included an excerpt of the text in one of his theatre pieces (“Mikhail Baryshnikov Letter to a Man” 00:04:46). Baryshnikov states that Wilson was fascinated by the way the text depicted the struggle between the vision of the artist and his family, and as he adapted it into Letter to a Man, “he created a parallel story on stage” (00:06:06). In this story, Wilson explores the text by transforming language into the fugue of the world through repetition of phrases isolated from the rest of the text. This is a way to transform text, “the logos of theatre,” into a “textual landscape” (Lehmann 59). Words are coherently deformed into sounds and the stress falls on the exploration of the pre-reflective sense of the sound of language rather than its reflective meaning; Wilson replaces reflective understanding with its pre-reflective counterpart of making sense. Words, however, simultaneously bear their reflective meaning. As a result, the fugue of the world can be perceived in both pre-reflective and reflective ways.

When Wilson talks about his theatre, he claims that “there is nothing to understand, it is just the experience.” When at the end of a story Wilson wants to show the audience of his performative lecture that he understood something from this experience, he does not offer a reflective statement. He says, “Hmmmm,” instead. For Steven Mithen, this as “an acronym or an early hominid communication system” that stands for “Holistic multi-modal manipulative musical” (147). The “Hmmmm” is an ancestor for both language and music in the evolutionary process that Mithen describes, and Wilson seems to use remnants of the common ancestor in order to transform language into sound, text into fugue.

Although, according to Merleau-Ponty, perception is the pre-reflective way of coping with the world, unlike visual perception, hearing perceives both sounds and language. Thus, hearing encompasses all the powers of the body as an agent in the world and the hearing body can switch from the reflective into the pre-reflective experience by coherently deforming one into the other, thanks to their simultaneous presence in words that “sing the world.” As in a fugue composition, there is no hierarchy between the reflective and the pre-reflective aspect, but the one chases the other each time words or phrases are heard. In this chase, the parallel stories that Wilson stages are more than one. For example, the four recorded voices represent important aspects of Baryshnikov’s own journey as dancer and actor. The Russian language corresponds to his roots and the first years of his career at the Mariinski Ballet in St Petersburg, whereas his voice speaking English points out to the next phase of his art, in the West. Childs is one of the important members of the New York performance scene that had particular respect for George Balanchine, the director of the New York City Ballet, where Baryshnikov worked after he moved away from Russia, whereas Wilson’s voice represents the present stage of Baryshnikov’s career, when he works with directors of postdramatic theatre, including Wilson and the Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis; in the works of the latter, he speaks Russian, his mother tongue.

Baryshnikov can move away from the voices of others, he can protect himself from the noise of machine guns, but how can he be saved from the attack of his own voice, of his own artistic history? This is the encroachment of the sound of the machine guns that attack him. This “just the experience,” is a multi-layered and risky adventure in which Wilson encourages the audience “to get lost.” Or, as Voegelin claims about hearing, “the aim is not to listen to understand, judge, categorize or preserve the soundscape, but to illuminate and generate the plural possibilities” (13).

Since the agency of the hearing body can be both pre-reflective and reflective, I adapt the pre-reflective response of my spectator’s gaze into a reflective response by writing this essay-fugue, while being alert to the multiple responses of the hearing body.

What Is It?

Elsewhere in his practice, Wilson has created a sound piece in the floor of a building; when someone approaches the partially covered well in the floor, Wilson’s recorded voice is heard. In fact, it is a well in the floor of two buildings. The first is the Watermill Centre, Wilson’s laboratory for arts and humanities in New York, and the second is Troubleyn Laboratorium, the creative space of theatre and visual artist Jan Fabre and his theatre company Troubleyn, in Antwerp, Belgium. Wilson is one of the artists-friends that were invited to choose a space in the building and create a site-specific piece. Wilson’s piece is in the main foyer (Bousset et al. 19), and he decided to repeat the same piece that he had installed in his own Center in order to create “an umbilical chord” and connect these two spaces of experimentation that host artistic communities (Goossens). Hearing connects. The ear is like a well, “its spiral goes down to the mind,” claims Fabre, referring to the spiral in the anatomy of the inner ear.[2]

In this essay-fugue for two voices, a third voice will chase the other two for a while; it is Fabre’s. When he presented his theatre piece I am Blood (2001) in the Avignon Festival, he called it “a Medieval Fairy Tale” because the medieval period, as the period before Renaissance, the era of the image, is the era of hearing. The ear is the organ of imagination, Fabre thinks, because it can create images—like Wilson’s transcription of the soundscape into a visual landscape in Letter to a Man—since hearing is a kind of “hypnotic process.” Thanks to imagination, the medieval period is the era “when the opposites co-exist” (Bernadac 32). Indeed, the ear can perceive both the outer sounds of the world and the inner sounds of the body, according to Fabre. A few days ago, as I was revising the final draft of this essay-fugue, the upstairs neighbour turned up the volume and his music was heard in the whole building. My last resort were ear plugs, but, as always, I removed them almost immediately, as sounds much louder than the neighbour’s music started pounding in my ears: my heartbeat, my breath, my abdominal movements. Jean-Luc Nancy states that “to listen is to enter that spatiality by which, at the same time I am penetrated . . . to be at the same time outside and inside” (14). He refers, though, to external sounds penetrating the body. The hearing body perceives her own sounds as well, not only those that she makes with voice and movement but also her inner movements, her bodily sounds that she can neither control nor silence but set the rhythm in her life. The ear is like a well that creates a continuum between the inside and the outside.

The eye cannot coincide the opposites of the inside and the outside of the body, the pre-reflective and the reflective aspect of the world. The same happens with touch. The eye cannot see the inside of the body; it is always directed towards the world. “I hear interiors . . . to see an interior I may have to break the thing, to do violence to it” (Ihde 70). How can I break my own body? The hand can touch one’s own body but cannot touch the inside of the body. What the hearing/heard reversibility offers to ontology is the continuum of experience and not a superiority to vision because “hearing immerses the subject while vision offers a perspective” (Kendrick 11) or because through listening “we do not observe but generate” (Voegelin 24) or because “the visual is tendentially mimetic, and the sonorous tendentially methexic” (Nancy 10). In fact, Merleau-Ponty’s visual space is both “surrounding . . . and passing through” the perceiver (Visible 162). However, only the ear functions like the well in Wilson’s sound piece.

Baryshnikov hears the voices of Wilson and Childs as well as his own voice and reacts through movement; the sounds from the world and the inside of the body exist simultaneously. As his hearing body moves towards both directions, not only sounds but also two ontological conditions exist simultaneously. Merleau-Ponty mentions the notion of self-affection, which refers to the subject’s relationship with time as a relationship between the affecting and the affected. It seems that only the hearing body can achieve the self-affection by connecting to her inner rhythms; self-affection through touch is restricted to the skin of the body’s outer parts, whereas a mirror is needed for self-affection through vision. The embodied subject does not remain isolated in self-affection but opens up towards the world (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology 448–50).

It seems that all senses are primarily directed towards the world, and they tend to isolate us from our own selves; it is only hearing that is equally directed towards ourselves as well. Wilson’s soundscape reveals that the hearing body can move not only towards the world but also towards the exploration of its own self. Therefore, self-affection and being-in-the-world exist not only as successive but also as simultaneous conditions; most important of all, they are both movements or, rather, a single movement towards two directions. When the main examples of perception are offered by vision, both the movement towards two directions and the simultaneity of existential conditions are missed; the body and the world could be mistaken for the poles of a dualist relationship. When the ontological relationship is approached through sound and hearing, the hearing body and the world form a continuum through chasing each other; they are not in an enveloping/enveloped relationship that resembles an embrace, but in a relationship in which the stress falls on encroachment. This is the reason why Baryshnikov is uncertain where to move to when he hears his own voice as if coming from outside; the movements towards oneself and the world need to happen simultaneously. The inside of the body and the outside of the body are coherent deformations of each other, and they sing simultaneously the subject and the answer through different directions of movement.

What Is It?

As voices are superimposed in a fugue composition, they may occasionally meet each other and form a chord of harmonical texture. Wilson narrates his experience with his adopted son Raymond, who was born deaf and was the inspiration for his piece Deafman Glance. When, by mistake, he once called him by his name though he was facing his back, Raymond, as expected, did not respond. Then, Wilson made an experiment, and he called him by imitating the sound of the deaf boy when he tried to speak his own name; Raymond turned towards him (Wilson). It was the moment when the sound reaching Raymond’s body from outside, from Wilson, matched the sound coming from the inside, the sound that Raymond could make. The two voices, the world and the body, accidentally form a chord of harmonical texture when the voice from the world outside becomes a coherent deformation of the voice of the body. For a moment, they stop chasing each other and the continuum between their experiences comes to the foreground.

Wilson is world for Raymond because Wilson’s coping with the world, his language, modifies the world for both Wilson who speaks and Raymond who is addressed. The same happens in Letter to a Man. Baryshnikov has shared the creative process: “Wilson would improvise while being videotaped. Then he would give the footage to Baryshnikov and say ‘make it your own.” Baryshnikov would play around with the material until the two arrived at something they both agreed on” (Acocella). Wilson is the body-agent that composes the fugue of the world on stage, since he directs this piece. As a hearing body,he is coping with this fugue, and both the fugue and the way he copes with it modify the world for Baryshnikov. The way they both respond as hearing bodies triggers more response and more coping with the fugue of the world. Therefore, being-in-the-world as a body-agent means to perform a response to the coping of others, sing a fugue with them. According to Steven Connor, “voices are produced by bodies but can also themselves produce bodies” (35). These are vocalic bodies, the results of “the embodying power of the voice” (36). The hearing body does not interact with disembodied voices but with vocalic bodies; the otherness in which a voice resides, according to Brophy, is the agency of another hearing body.

Letter to a Man is not a solo, then, but an intertwining between Wilson and Baryshnikov. According to philosopher Emanuele Coccia, who opens up the discussion to non-human species, the world is “not just to perceive” but “to construct and create” through agency (117). He claims that “each time . . . a species changes its environment to make its life possible . . . also changes the environment of others” (118). Therefore, world does not exist as such but is composed of the actions and coping of hearing bodies. As Merleau-Ponty states, perception is already expression since “all action . . . every human use of the body is already primordial expression” (“Eye and Mind” 104).

What Is It?

Baryshnikov’s hearing body hears the voices of others as well as his own voice. Now, that I write these lines, I can hear my voice speaking them in my auditory imagination. Writing is supposed to be related to seeing, while speaking is related to hearing. However, as it is the case with silent reading (Fernyhough 75), writing is related to inner speech. Inner speech is the healthy counterpart of auditory hallucinations, since it is “an imaginary modal counterpart to spoken voice” (Ihde 137), which I recognize as my own voice. Now that I write these lines, I can hear my saliva going down my throat as I swallow it; a function that I cannot control. Thus, the hearing of inner corporeal sounds and inner speech are ways of establishing the continuum of experience between inner and outer sounds, in reality and in imagination. I am a hearing body not only as a spectator of Letter to a Man, but when I write as well. Like musicians who hear the musical piece in their heads when they compose it or read the score.

In this essay-fugue I also hear otherness, since I, a woman, write a fugue with male voices in order to make sense of the world. According to Luce Irigaray, “sexual difference is the prototype of all diversity” (12), and what grounds existential and political experiences is “acting or thinking or operating as two distinct subjectivities” (ix) who interact with each other. I do not hesitate to make sense through controversy, either, since Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body has been criticized for silencing diversity issues, such as race and gender, Wilson’s view of disability through the adaptation of Knowles’s approach to language has “generated both innovation and controversy” (Davies Arendell 1), while Fabre has been accused of misusing his power in the relationship with his performers.[3] I cope with otherness and controversy since they are necessary encroachments of being-in-the-world, I take risk and responsibility, since thanks to these people’s innovative ideas, I am able to make sense of my being as a body in-the-world.

I sign this essay-fugue as an expression of my own voice through the interaction with others, by taking up Baryshnikov’s gesture at the end of the piece. Movement is not only the condition of hearing when anatomic elements of the ear are set in movement. It also produces sound; in fact, it liberates sound, as it happened with Wilson who had difficulties in talking as a teenager and he was able to free his voice through movement exercises (Brecht 14). Agency through movement is completed when the hearing body speaks at the end of the piece, when a non-recorded voice is heard for the first time. The hearing body addresses the audience, to whom the letter is dedicated, signs the letter and speaks the name:

Yours, Vaslav Nijinsky

Acknowledgement: The author receives funding from the TECHNE/AHRC Doctoral Partnership.


[1] Audience is derived from the Latin verb audire, which means “to hear” (Partridge 31).

[2] Jan Fabre’s ideas about the connection between the medieval period, hearing and the ear are from an interview that he gave to a French Television Channel in 2001, when he presented his piece I Am Blood in the Avignon Festival. The interview was available to watch until some time ago but not anymore. I have taken down notes from that interview that I use in this essay.

[3] During the final stages of revision of this essay the tribunal of Antwerp announced that Jan Fabre will stand trial for sexual harassment at the workplace in March 2022, following a 2018 open letter from former members of his theatre company.


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*Sylvia Solakidi is at the final year of a PhD at the Centre for Performance Philosophy, University of Surrey, which explores contemporaneity, presence and duration in postdramatic theatre. She has published research papers in: Platform Postgraduate Journal, Antennae Journal, Kronoscope Journal, Performance Research Journal, Global Performance Studies Journal, Streetnotes Journal.

Copyright © 2021 Sylvia Solakidi
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