“To him who is a cave in which my shout echoes.” Victor Segalen, from Stèles (1912).
How was it, and when was it, that I encountered Victor Segalen’s peculiar little novel, Dans Un Monde Sonore, published in 1907? Probably when I was writing Ocean of Sound in 1995, researching Claude Debussy, his sensory and aesthetic predispositions, his artistic circle. Perhaps referenced in a tantalising footnote, it was a novel that speculated on life as it might be lived within sound as the dominant sensorial medium. It seemed to me that Segalen – traveller, ethnographer, writer, doctor, collaborator with Debussy – had written a key text in the history of listening, yet it remained largely unknown and at that time untranslated from the French. Finally an English language edition is about to appear, translated by Marie Roux and R.W.M. Hunt with an essay written by me (extracts below), published by Strange Attractor. Segalen had a keen interest in music. From his sojourn in Polynesia he wrote Voix Mortes: Musiques Maories, dedicated to Debussy, and at some point made a note to himself: “One of Debussy’s preoccupations is with the inadequacy of the percussion section. Note: bring back from my Far Eastern trip a set of gongs and cymbals.” I think of Segalen in Beijing, the Imperial system in a state of collapse, perhaps hearing the Confucian Ritual in which ancient instruments were played – bells, stone chimes, globular flutes, lute, drums and the Yu, a wooden percussion instrument in the shape of a crouching tiger, its back a ridge of ‘teeth’ scraped by a striker made from fifteen stalks of bamboo. Perhaps he heard these antique, vanishing sounds; much about Segalen remains mysterious.
In its surreptitious and proliferating nature, resonance may be described and experienced as sinister. Sound waves are disturbances, invasive, often inexplicable in their invisibility, hauntingly transient (except in memory). Imagine a reverse world in which reality is imagined or designed as this vaporous flux of vibration and resonance, in which words dissolve into shimmering echoes, physicality becomes diffuse, almost lost in a dream state of aurality. Victor Segalen’s short novel, Dans Un Monde Sonore (1907), wrote into being a world of that kind.
The book’s origins lay in the ruins of a collaborative project with Claude Debussy, an opera based on the Orpheus myth. As their project drifted, Segalen remained poignantly hopeful but Debussy prevaricated. He was critical of Segalen’s libretto and moved on to a new obsession, the possibility of an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Segalen also moved on. During these fruitless discussions he wrote and published Dans Un Monde Sonore. Coincidentally or not, the opening paragraphs are reminiscent of Poe’s story. A narrator approaches an isolated house in order to revive an old acquaintance. In both cases there is a woman in the house and the men that the narrators meet both suffer from what Poe describes as “a morbid acuteness of the senses”; Roderick Usher has developed an intolerance of all but the most insipid sense impressions, though he can listen to “peculiar sounds” from stringed instruments.
André, Segalen’s equivalent of Usher, is described as harmlessly mad, though the way he has chosen to live is radically disconcerting. As Monsieur Leurais discovers, the room to which his old friend has retreated is so prominently resonant that his account of collecting sensory data from indigenous Papuans in the Straits of Torres is transformed as if passed “through a harmonizing orchestra.” Even this constant droning effect is insufficient for André’s hypersensitive, ‘adjusted’ hearing. He intensifies the effect to create a prolongation of spoken syllables, a “bush of whispers”, buzzing echoes and delays.
The scene anticipates by more than sixty years Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, in which a spoken text become unintelligible as resonant frequencies within the room gradually blur the sense of its words, but it also responds to the synesthetic effect of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry, in which words and their music saturate the properties of the other. “Music of colour, music of words – such were the slogans of the day,” wrote Debussy biographer Edward Lockspeiser. In a ‘theoretical fiction’ entitled Mallarmé’s Nose, Allen S. Weiss describes the fin de siècle obsession with perceptual transferences as a delirium of potential, an intoxication in which all that is solid melts into air: “Mallarmé now knew that not only did the world exist to be transformed into a book, but that the book could also exist to be transfigured into a perfume! Per fumum, through smoke! Poetic alchemy. He would sublimate L’Après-Midi d’un Faune into perfume!”
A similar delirium has infected André: the desire to live within sound; to defy the tyranny of sight. Harps and resonating cylinders line his room; two singing flames flicker in glass tubes, closely tuned to produce beat frequencies. There is a banality to it, pure physics, Leurais realises, as the apparatus of the installation reveals itself from within the mist of sound. Segalen was clearly aware of nineteenth century experiments in acoustics. Similar devices can be found in Hermann Helmholtz’s pioneering study, On the Sensations of Tone, first published in Germany in 1863. Among its contents were sections on resonators (illustrated by drawings of globular and bottle shaped resonating vessels), the mechanics of sympathetic resonance, combinational tones and beats, the composition of vibrations and the musical tones of strings.
By living within sound André both disembodies himself (the signs of change are evident in his face, its ‘blind gesture’ and unnaturally active ears) and plunges himself into an echoing underworld of resonance and vibration. His wife, Mathilde, is lost to him because she refuses to relinquish sight as her primary sense. “She can not hear in the dark,” he laments. Darkness is the domain of the listener. Segalen overturns received ideas about the seductive degeneracy of sound, making sight the perverted, reverted sense, the primitive sense of sharpened sight that allowed prehistoric humans to tear apart their prey.
At this point of loss in Dans Un Monde Sonore, the Orpheus myth is made explicit by Leurais in his narration: “I readily imagine Orpheus, the singer of hymns, abandoning the world of a thousand lyres, and descending to the infernal caves – by which one can take to symbolise exactly the brute material world, mute and deaf, this is the most ignoble and truest of all Myths that men have configured.” Echoing Debussy’s words, that Orpheus is not a human being, living or dead, Orpheus is understood as an allegory whose apogee was to enable a vision of what it might be to live in sound. Base materiality dissolves in this imagined world, but then so does music (a process begun by Debussy, as much as any other, through his explorations of the resonant interior of the piano).
Segalen’s narrator asks the question: what is the true world? Perhaps he was aware of Herman Helmholtz’s insight into the inferential nature of the senses and their role in creating our sense of reality. “From the very heart of the matter,” Segalen wrote in June 1908. “I imagined that things were speaking.” They continue to speak, yet their sense is partially lost in buzzing, echoes, resonance, a forest of whispers.
In a Sound World is published by Strange Attractor:
David Toop, Marie Roux and R.W.M. Hunt will be discussing In a Sound World at Cafe Oto on Sunday 8 August, free afternoon event, 2-5: