The German singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who represents the conventionality of the pheno-song, plays the straw man in Barthes's argument. The contrast between the two singers is also a contrast between two national cultures (French and German) with their two genres of vocal music (mélodie and Lied), and perhaps between two generations of singers: Panzéra was born in 1896 and “FD,” as Barthes calls him, in 1925. His use of a German singer as bête noire is significant, since he is making an argument specific to French language and culture rather than proposing a universal aesthetic principle. Since Barthes is proposing an aesthetic criterion intimately connect to his own libidinal relation to the French language, the concept of the grain is untranslatable, untransferable to other cultural contexts. It also draws upon hoary romantic notions of national essences, creating a potent mixture of personal idiosyncracy and cultural exceptionalism similar to that of Lorca’s. Barthes’s personal response to Panzéra, however, also invites comparative and universalizing gestures. Translated into English, and read by many who have never heard a recording by the Swiss baritone, Barthes’s essay acquires other meanings untethered from his libininal response to this music.
“The Grain of the Voice” is one of the few essays that Barthes dedicated to lyric poetry, but it is “about” poetry only in a very specific sense: the genre of the mélodie, exemplified by composers like Debussy, Ravel, Duparc, and Fauré, consists primarily of settings of French romantic and symbolist poets like Hugo, Baudelaire, and Verlaine. The words whose phonology Barthes savored in Panzéra’s performances, then, were those of this canonical French lyric poetry. He had an intimate connection to this poetic tradition, experienced through a particular style of performance to which he felt a personal attachment.
Marjorie Perloff notes an oversight in Jonathan Culler’s explanation for Barthes’s habitual neglect of lyric poetry. Culler had argued that Barthes is suspicious of poetry because of its identification with “plenitude” (Perloff, Poetic License 17). Perloff suggests that we look for the French theorist’s engagement with the “poetic” elsewhere: “not in the conventionally isolated lyric poem, so dear to the Romantics and Symbolists, but in texts not immediately recognized as poetry”(ibid. 18). This is a keen observation, but both Perloff and Culler are perhaps forgetting a peculiarly regressive or sentimental aspect of Barthes’s sensibility, one evidenced in his love of the mélodie and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pleasures. This facet of Barthes’s work, of course, becomes increasingly strong in the final phase of his career.