[Essay] A Walking Skeleton: Illusions of Voice — Michael Sutton

In Blazing Saddles, a hillbilly henchman taunts a group of black railway workers: ‘Now come on, boys. Where’s your spirit? I don’t hear no singing. When you was slaves, you sang like birds. Come on, how about a good ol’ nigger worksong?’ The railway workers give an ironical rendition of I Get a Kick Out of You (replacing kick with belt). The film is set in 1874, a decade on from the abolition of slavery, and sixty years prior to the release of Cole Porter’s classic standard (1934); voices in the distortion of a lost future, glitching in fantasy timescapes. Some physicists theorise that time is but an emergent property of matter, the illusion of actions occurring.[1] Action after action. No action, no time. But what about the dream state, birthed-of-but-not-consisting-of matter? Time exists there, in your dreams; actions occur and time is assumed, but the only material required is the brainmeat and its frantic neurons; consciousness takes over thereafter, and what is human consciousness if not the internal voice, the connotations and denotations of language, voices diseased and voices subsumed, god voices, voices of creation, from brain to page to screen to brain to page, big screen voices projected into the lost future of the 1930s United Dream States of America, the decade of The Great Depression, voices crooning. . .

I get no kick from champagne. . .

‘Hold it, hold it, what the hell is that shit?’ yells the henchman, ‘I meant a song, a real song. Something like. . . 

Swing low, sweet cha-ri-o-ot. . .

The railway workers look baffled, as if they have never heard this song before. It is a trick. The workers do not want to perform. The workers want to hear a song for once. The scene ends with the group of henchmen dancing around singing Camptown Races while the railway workers look on and laugh. Voice is power. The word or the withholding, the song or the silence, is power. The writer and activist Maya Angelou withheld her voice for five years. Between the ages of eight and thirteen she went mute, convinced her voice was responsible for the death of the man who raped her. She thought the utterance of his name was the cause of his demise. She thought her voice was a weapon of immense power. And she was right. When Angelou met William V. S. Tubman, the 19th President of Liberia (a country heavily linked to American slavery), Tubman asked her to sing the Swing Low spiritual.[2]

I looked over Jordan and what did I see. . .

Twickenham, 19th March 1988. Following a poor first half performance, the England rugby team is starting to dominate its Five Nations match against Ireland. A song begins to swell from the thousands of England supporters in attendance. Soon the stadium is roaring with Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a song which would come to be synonymous with English rugby, a song so engrained in black struggle sung in totemic support of a country fundamentally culpable for slavery and the subjugation of Africa. Dark irony pervades the stadia of culture. Voice is ignorant. Voice is bliss.[3]

Boris Johnson mocks demands to BAN Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as ‘no one knows the words’[4]

Of course, there were no calls to ‘BAN’ the song, rather to elucidate its cultural significance to those who have appropriated it. But the British Prime Minister is a master-manipulator of language, and the media is his megaphone. Voice is power. Voice is corrupt.


From Hamlet to The Lion King, the story of the unruly uncle usurping power from the king and, by extension, his heir to the throne, is engrained in the collective-consciousness. But this narrative has its basis in the Osiris myth, the foundational saga of ancient Egyptian mythology; in this case, the king was Osiris, his son and legitimate heir was Horus, and the uncle-usurper was Set. The Contendings of Horus and Set tells of the tumultuous power struggle that ensued following the murder of Osiris at hands of Set, the resentful brother, ‘instigator of confusion.’[5]

The institution of the monarchy is beyond reproach

                                                                          —  Boris Johnson, ITV Election Debate (2019)

What is legitimate rule? In modern democracies, political legitimacy is determined by a public vote, preceded by months of campaigning and discourse through media and legislative bodies. The people have no voice. The vote — from the Latin votum, meaning vow: ‘to bind oneself’ (14c)— masquerades as the voice of the people, while the incessant words of would-be rulers are entreaties to this amorphous non-voice of the ballot box.[7] The television debate is a relatively new development to this artifice. Ever since the first televised election debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy during the 1960 US general election campaign, voters have not only heard the policies on offer, but heard the cadence of the voices, and seen the powdered faces of the politicians vying for their votes. Live. Live voices. Voices attached to faces. Does the face change the words; the symmetry of the face, the angularity of the jawline, the colour of the skin; the value of the voice, the honesty of the argument? The limitations of language are contingent on a web of prejudices.

Come unto me, O Isis, my mother! Come and see this which Set(h) hath done to me![8]


Violence is perhaps the most potent result of these limitations. Yet, violence becomes a kind of language in and of itself. The power struggle between Horus and Set is a chaptered affair, containing various visceral, languageless conflicts; each deity transforming into a hippopotamus for an underwater breath-holding contest; Set gouging out Horus’s left eye (the Eye of Horus); Horus, in turn, castrating and confiscating Set’s testicles. In this leadership contest there are no debates, there are no vote-chasing words. The determination of divine dictatorship requires a war of physical and psychosexual domination. The final battle sees Set (testicles restored) rape Horus in an attempt to sexually humiliate, inseminate, and assert supreme dominance over him, thus exclude his nephew from any possibility of kingship. However, unbeknownst to Set, Horus catches the offending seed and takes the evidence to his mother, Isis, who hatches a plan to turn the tables on the usurper. What is the rebuttal to the semen-voice? More semen. Isis instructs Horus to masturbate, takes her son’s effluvium, and secretly smears it upon Set’s breakfast lettuce (an ancient symbol of fertility/the phallus).9,10 The combination of these naturally occurring components, semen and lettuce, to form an incongruous new construction, the semen-lettuce, a hypersemiosis of desire (for food, for sex, for power) and fear (the fear of subordination, of death), is a silent voicing, a symbolistic hit-piece, against which the political target, Set, stands no chance. In the Osiris myth, the transmogrified essence-function of semen, an innate and extractable voice, has a far greater bearing on the kingship of Egypt than any words; words exist within a much lower dimension of meaning and relevance. When Set ingests the poison symbol of the semen-lettuce and succumbs to the dominance of pseudo-impregnation, this says it all. As the eminent scholar of esoterica Manly P. Hall states, ‘symbolism is the language of the Mysteries’ by which ‘men have ever sought to communicate to each other those thoughts which transcend the limitations of language’.[9] Somewhere between the mytho-politics of the ancients, and the modern Rules Based International Order, this understanding of symbol-as-voice has become banalised, rationalised, commodified, along with our core emotions: desire = consume / fear = vote. Vice versa. This semen fixation and its patriarchal symbolism may seem a curious way of determining legitimate rule, but surely the gods — and the ancient civilisations spawned from the dramas in which they star — would look upon what we call democracy and consider it absurd, even mythic.

There is a semblance of democracy present towards the conclusion of The Contendings of Horus and Set. Justice comes in the form of a trial before Thoth, the deity burdened with settling godly disputes. Set, unaware he is the one carrying the other’s seed, petitions Thoth to extract the semen from Horus’s body, but, to Set’s consternation, it is Horus’s semen that is summoned from him — from his ear like an evacuated voice — in the form of a sun of gold above his head. Thus, the dispute is settled. Set, defeated by his nephew, is forced to concede the office of king, and Horus, mystically fused with his deceased father/king Osiris, is established as the rightfulruler of Egypt.8 Again, even in this momentous trial, the words are subsidiary; it is the libidinal language of symbols that resolves the hearing, and only through bloody-knuckled time, through each iteration of kingship, does the voice of power becomes truly linguistic. As Julian Jaynes illuminates, ‘the relationship between Horus and Osiris, ‘embodied’ in each new king and his dead father forever, can only be understood as the assimilation of an hallucinated advising voice into the king’s own voice, which then would be repeated with the next generation’.[10]

John Locke looks upon this abomination and vomits into his hat. But is this schizophrenic power-structure so dissimilar to that of liberalism, where capitalism is the divine spirit, the infinite, unassailable Word, and our hypnotised political leaders are the mortal rulers through which the bidding of the sacred voice is done? The abrasive amplification of this voice is all around us, not only in our politics, economics, art, and culture, not only in the glut of things, but in the undetoxifiable pervasive atmosphere of wealth and enterprise.[11] In the UK, this distortion is compounded by the irreproachable institution of monarchy, which, even in its now-zombified form, further demeans the plothole-ridden fiction of democracy. The ancients believed that kingship was literally lowered from heaven, the king was, in a sense, a mortal god. What is our excuse for the demigods we worship?

Shall I come forth from his ear, I who am a divine effluence?[12]
                                                                                                                                     —  Semen


Goodison Park, 24th June 2020. Everton lead Norwich 1-0 in a torturously drab match. Due to the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the stadium is entirely empty of supporters. The stands are mute through absentia. No chants. No energy. There is a spectre haunting Goodison Park, the spectre of absence. However, for viewers watching the BBC coverage of the game, a veneer of crowd noise is played over the dearth of voices, assumedly to make the viewing audience feel less anxious about this eerie disruption to their regular viewing experience. Before the match goes to air, the host of the coverage mentions that if viewers are averse to this artificial atmospheriana, they can watch without the crowd sounds via the Red Button.[13] Evidently, whoever came up with this idea was aware of the inherent deceitfulness: if you watch and listen for long enough it tricks your mind into forgetting the empty stadium, and, by extension, the deadly pandemic which has led to the stadium being empty in the first place; hypnotised by ambient life sounds, you forget that there is no voice at all, no tribal amalgam, only simulacrum. You reach for the remote and hit mute. Thank God for the silence.


Michael Sutton is a British writer. His poetry book music/lyrics is published by Hesterglock Press. He has recent work in Streetcake Magazine3:AM Magazine, and poems forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review.


[1] Dan Falk, ‘A Debate Over the Physics of Time’, Quanta (19/07/2016), available from: https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-debate-over-the-physics-of-time-20160719/
[accessed 15/10/2020].

[2] Mary Lupton, Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion (California: Greenwood, 1998).

[3] England Rugby, The story of how Swing Low, Sweet Chariot became England Rugby’s anthem (2015), available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OaNx0zo3rA
[accessed 15/10/2020].

[4] Svar Nanan-Sen, ‘Boris Johnson mocks demands to BAN Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as ‘no one knows the words’, Express, (19/06/2020), available from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1298389/Boris-Johnson-news-Swing-Low-Sweet-Chariot-ban-Prime-Minister-latest-update [accessed 30/10/2020].

[5] Joshua J. Mark, ‘Set (Egyptian God)’, Ancient History Encyclopaedia, (07/03/2016, available from: https://www.ancient.eu/Set_(Egyptian_God)/ [accessed 30/10/2020].

[6] ITV News, Johnson v Corbyn: The ITV Debate (2019), available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kEB5pqWpJw [accessed 15/10/2020].

[7] Online Etymology Dictionary, Vote, (2020), available from: https://www.etymonline.com/word/vote Accessed 07/09/2020
[accessed 15/10/2020]; Alan H. Gardiner ed., The Library of A. Chester Beatty: Description of a Hieratic Papyrus with a Mythological Story, Love Songs, and Miscellaneous Texts, originally published by Oxford University Press (1936), reproduced courtesy of the Chester Beatty Museum here: https://chesterbeatty.ie/assets/uploads/2018/11/The-Library-of-A.-Chestera-Beatty-Description-of-a-Hieratic-Papyrus-with-a-Mythological-Story-Love-Songs-and-Other-Miscellaneous-Texts.pdf [accessed 15/10/2020], pp. 8-27.

[8] K. Annabelle Smith, ‘When Lettuce was a Sacred Sex Symbol’, Smithsonian Magazine (16/07/2013), available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-lettuce-was-a-sacred-sex-symbol-12271795/?no-ist [accessed 15/10/2020].

[9] Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, originally self-published (1928), reproduced by the CIA here: https://www.cia.gov/library/abbottabad-compound/E4/E4AAFF6DAF6863F459A8B4E52DFB9FF4_Manly.P.Hall_The.Secret.Teachings.of.All.Ages.pdf [accessed 15/10/2020], p. 38.

[10] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (New York: Mariner Books, 2000), p. 187.

[11] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Zero Books: London, 2009), p. 16.

[12] Gardiner ed., The Library of A. Chester Beatty, 8-27.

[13] BBC One, Match of the Day Live: Norwich City v Everton (24/06/2020). 

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