The Eldritch Voice: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography
— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin
A decade after finding itself downsized to a dwarf planet, Pluto has managed to spark wonder in the summer of 2015 as pictures of its remarkable surface features and those of its moon are delivered to us by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. As scientists begin to tentatively name these features, they have drawn from speculative fiction for what they see on the moon Charon, giving craters names including Spock, Sulu, Uhuru, and—mixing franchises—Skywalker . From Doctor Who there will be a Tardis Chasma and a Gallifrey Macula. Pluto’s features stretch back a bit further, where there will also be a Cthulhu Regio, named after the unspeakable interstellar monster-cum-god invented by H. P. Lovecraft.
We can imagine that Lovecraft would have been thrilled, since back when Pluto was first discovered in early 1930 and was the evocative edge of the solar system, he had turned the planet into the putative home of secretive alien visitors to Earth in his short story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1931, “The Whisperer in Darkness” features various media of communication—telegraphs, telephones, photographs, and newspapers—as well as the possibilities of their manipulation and misconstruing. The phonograph, however, plays the starring role in this tale about gathering and interpreting the eerie and otherworldly—the eldritch, in a word—signs of possible alien presence in backwoods Vermont.
In the story, Akeley, a farmer with a degree of erudition and curiosity, captures something strange on a record. This something, when played back by the protagonist Wilmarth, a folklorist at Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, goes like this:
Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! (219)
The sinister resonance of a racial epithet in what appears to be a foreign or truly alien tongue notwithstanding, this story features none of the more obvious and problematic invocations of race and ethnicity—the primitive rituals in the swamps of Louisiana of “The Call of Cthulhu” or the anti-Catholic immigrant panic of “The Horror at Red Hook”—for which Lovecraft has achieved a degree of infamy. Moreover, the understandable concern with Lovecraft’s social Darwinism and bad biology in some ways tends to miss how for the author—and for us as well—power and otherness are bound up with technology.
The transcription of these exclamations, recorded on a “blasphemous waxen cylinder,” is prefaced with an emphatic remark about their sonic character: “A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH” (219-220). The captured voice is further described as an “accursed buzzing which had no likeness to humanity despite the human words which it uttered in good English grammar and a scholarly accent” (218). It is glossed yet again as a “fiendish buzzing… like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species” (220). If such a creature tried to utter our tongue and to do so in our manner—both of which would be alien to it—surely we might expect an indication of the difference in vocal apparatuses: a revelatory buzzing. Lovecraft’s story figures this “eldritch sound” as it is transduced through the corporeal: as the timbral indication of something off when the human voice is embodied in a fundamentally different sort of being. It is the sound that happens when a fungoid creature from Yuggoth—the supposedly native term for Pluto—speaks our tongue with its insectile mouthparts.
Yet, reading historically, we might understand this transduction as the sound of technical mediation itself: the brazen buzz of phonography, overlaying and, in a sense, inhabiting the human voice.
For listeners to early phonographic recordings, metallic sounds—inevitable given the materials used for styluses, tone arms, diaphragms, amplifying horns—were simply part of the experience. Far from capturing “the unimaginable real” or registering “acoustic events as such,” as media theorist Friedrich Kittler once put the case about Edison’s invention, which debuted in 1877, phonography was not only technically incapable of recording anything like an ambient soundscape but also drew attention to the very noise of itself (23).
For the first several decades of the medium’s existence, patent registers and admen’s pitches show that clean capture and reproduction were elusive rather than given. An account in the Literary Digest Advertiser of Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone, explains the problem:
The talking-machine records sound by the action of a steel point upon some yielding substance like wax, and reproduces it by practically reversing the operation. The making of the record itself is accompanied by a necessary but disagreeably mechanical noise—that dominating drone—that ‘b-r-r-r-r’ that is never in the human voice, and always in its mechanical imitations. One hears metallic sounds from a brazen throat—uncanny and inhuman. The brittle cylinder drops on the floor, breaks—and the neighbors rejoice!
The Telegraphone, which recorded sounds “upon imperishable steel through the intangible but potent force of electromagnetism” such that no “foreign or mechanical noise is heard or is possible,” of course promised to make the neighbors happy not by breaking the cylinder but rather by taking the inhuman ‘b-r-r-r-r’ out of the phonographically reproduced voice. Nonetheless, etching sound on steel, the Telegraphone was still a metal machine and unlikely to overcome the buzz entirely.
In his account of “weird stories” and why the genre suited him best, Lovecraft explained that one of his “strongest and most persistent wishes” was “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” In “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Lovecraft put to work a technology that was rapidly becoming commonplace to introduce a buzz into the fabric of the everyday. This is the eldritch effect of Lovecraft’s evocation of phonography. While we might wonder whether a photograph has been tampered with, who really sent a telegram, or with whom we are actually speaking over a telephone line—all examples from Lovecraft’s tale—the central, repeated conundrums for the scholar Wilmarth remain not only whose voice is captured on the recorded cylinder but also why it sounds that way.
The phonograph transforms the human voice, engineers a cosmic transduction, suggesting that within our quotidian reality something strange might lurk. This juxtaposition and interplay of the increasingly ordinary and the eldritch is also glimpsed in an account of Charles Parson’s invention the Auxetophone, which used a column of pressurized air rather than the usual metallic diaphragm. Here is an account of the voice of the Auxetophone from the “Matters Musical” column of The Bystander Magazine from 1905: “Long ago reconciled to the weird workings of the phonograph, we had come to regard as inevitable the metallic nature of its inhuman voice.” The new invention might well upset our listening habits, for Mr. Parson’s invention “bids fair to modify, if not entirely to remove,” the phonograph’s “somewhat unpleasant timbre.”
What the phonograph does as a medium is to make weird. And what making weird means is that instead of merely reproducing the human voice—let alone rendering acoustic events as such—it transforms the latter into its own: an uncanny approximation, which fails to simulate perfectly with regard to timbre in particular. Phonography reveals that the materials of reproduction are not vocal chords, breath, labial and dental friction—not flesh and spirit, but vibrating metal.
Although we can only speculate in this regard, I would suggest that “The Whisperer in Darkness” was weirder for readers for whom phonographs still spoke with metallic timbre. The rasping whisper of the needle on cylinder created what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky was formulating at almost exactly the same time as the function of the literary tout court: defamiliarization or, better, estrangement. Nonetheless, leading the reader to infer an alien presence behind this voice was equally necessary for the effect. After all, if we are to take the Auxetophone as our example—an apparatus announced in 1905, a quarter of a decade before Lovecraft composed his tale, and that joined a marketplace burgeoning with metallic-voice reducing cabinets, styluses, dampers, and other devices—phonographic listeners had long since become habituated to the inhumanity of the medium. That inhumanity had to be recalled and reactivated in the context of Lovecraft’s story.
To understand fully the nature of this reactivation, moreover, we need to know precisely what Lovecraft’s evocative phonograph was. When Akeley takes his phonograph into the woods, he adds that he brought “a dictaphone attachment and a wax blank” (209). Further, to play back the recording, Wilmarth must borrow the “commercial machine” from the college administration (217). The device most consistent with Lovecraft’s descriptions and terms is not a record player, as we might imagine, but Columbia Gramophone Company’s Dictaphone. By the time of the story’s setting, Edison Phonograph’s had long since switched to more durable celluloid cylinders (Blue Amberol Records; 1912-1929) in an effort to stave off competition from flat records. Only Dictaphones, aimed at businessmen rather than leisure listeners, still used wax cylinders, since recordings could be scraped off and the cylinder reused. The vinyl Dictabelt, which eventually replaced them, would not arrive until 1947.
Meanwhile, precisely when the events depicted in “The Whisperer in Darkness” are supposed to have taken place, phonography was experiencing a revolutionary transformation: electronic sound technologies developed by radio engineers were hybridizing the acoustic machines, and electro-acoustic phonographs were in fact becoming less metallic in tone. Yet circa 1930, as the buzz slipped toward silence, phonography was still the best means of figuring the sonic uncanny valley. It was a sort of return of the technologically repressed: a reminder of the original eeriness of sound reproduction—recalled from childhood or perhaps parental folklore—at the very moment that new technologies promised to hide such inhumanity from sensory perception. Crucially, in Lovecraft’s tale, estrangement is not merely a literary effect. Rather, the eldritch is what happens when the printed word at a given moment of technological history calls up and calls upon other media of communication, phonography not the least.
I have remarked the apparent absence of race as a concern in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but something along the lines of class is subtly but insistently at work in the tale. The academic Wilmarth and his erudite interlocutor Akeley are set in contrast with the benighted, uncomprehending agrarians of rural Vermont. Both men also display a horrified fascination with the alien technology that will allow human brains to be fitted into hearing, seeing, and speaking machines for transportation to Yuggoth. These machines are compared to phonographs: cylinders for storing brains much like those for storing the human voice. In this regard, the fungoid creatures resemble not so much bourgeois users or consumers of technology as scientists and engineers. Moreover, they do so just as a discourse of technocracy—rule by a technologically savvy elite—was being articulated in the United States. Here we might see the discovery of Pluto as a pretext for exploring anxieties closer to home: how new technologies were redistributing power, how their improvement—the fading of the telltale buzz—was making it more difficult to determine where humanity stopped and technology began, and whether acquiescence in this changes was laudable or resistance feasible. As usual with Lovecraft, these topics are handled with disconcerting ambivalence.
James A. Steintrager is a professor of English, Comparative Literature, and European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He writes on a variety of topics, including libertinism, world cinema, and auditory cultures. His translation of and introduction to Michel Chion’s Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise will be published by Duke University Press in fall of 2015.
Featured image: Taken from “Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color” in NASA’s New Horizons Image Gallery, public domain. All other images courtesy of the author.
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“A Sinister Resonance”: Joseph Conrad’s Malay Ear and Auditory Cultural Studies
Welcome to the first part of Sonic Shadows, a new SO! series featuring essays drawn from a recent symposium on the question “what does it mean to have a voice” held last April at The New School, and featuring organizers Dominic Pettman, Pooja Rangan and Julie Beth Napolin, as well as invitees Mara Mills (NYU), Gustavus Stadler (Haverford), Rey Chow (Duke), and James Steintrager (UC Irvine). I am happy to serve as Guest Editor, bringing some work developed for, during and after that event, beginning with my own article below.
Participants in “Sonic Shadows” focused on the voice’s shadowy or coded qualities as it stands on the border of the animal, human, and machine. Our motivating question was one shared by literary studies (authorship, the voice of writing, narration), technology studies (recording, storing, and transmitting voices), and media studies, particularly documentary studies (giving voice and objectivity). This question of having a voice, among the oldest questions of philosophy and literature, is also at the intersection of musicality, ontology, epistemology, phenomenology, psychoanalysis and history. Our discussions aimed to carve out a new trajectory for voice studies today, and in this series for Sounding Out! our authors will begin to lay out where that trajectory might lead.
— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin
As readers of this blog are well aware, historically, sound has been the “other” to more ensconced objects of music and voice. Brian Kane’s Sound Unseen has recently urged for an auditory cultural studies that might move us away from a reified category of sound: “Although it seems a truism to even say it, music studies is a species of sound studies and auditory culture” (226). By this same token, “voice” does not merely become “sound” at its limit, when words fray or dissolve, but rather begins that way. More importantly, auditory cultural studies would (and does) revolve around modes of listening, which are necessarily grounded in questions—and the always open question—of difference and the social. With that in mind, this article argues for the central role of the novel—and the voice in and of the novel—in an auditory cultural studies.
Poetry has enjoyed a longstanding dialogue around sonorousness, while the novel seems more immune to questions of the auditory. In “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin called the novel “the birthplace of the solitary individual,” meaning that writing and reading happen in silence, without a listening other. We don’t “listen” to the novel in the same way we might listen to poetry, which often demands that we read it aloud. But if the novel is, in its most basic sense, a combination of description and dialogue, then the human speaking voice—and how to represent it—is central to its definition, as well as how to represent sounds in the world. William Faulkner describes “the Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.” of an adze in As I Lay Dying, and novelists like Zora Neale Hurston wrote in an “eye-dialect” that would try to approximate for the eye the sounds of African American vernacular voice, as did Charles Dickens with English vernacular—each of these practices tell us about the unstable relationship between writing and listening. The novel has always been haunted by this gap, and it tells us important things about what we think it means to communicate across distance.
The modernist novel in particular is a fecund territory for modes of listening, and such works as Mark Goble’s Beautiful Circuits have shown to what extent auditory practices shaped by technology had conditioned writing practices and its imaginary in the long 20th century. But the question of “having a voice,” still lingers, even after Friedrich Kittler has shown to what extent the writer felt robbed of and haunted by voice in the wake of the invention of the gramophone in the late 19th century. Was the experience of voice in “modernity” only its disembodiment? And doesn’t the emphasis upon disembodiment obscure the place of the body in the signifying social practices of auditory culture? Is reading a wholly disembodied or silent experience?
In a recent essay on Joseph Conrad, I addressed these questions, pointing out that the history of the novel, as a “silent” genre, feels quite different if we begin with Conrad’s physical voice as mediated by his vexed relationship to the English language. He had spent his childhood in exile in Russia and his adult life as a merchant marine, steeped in colonial locations. Conrad would only ever write fiction in English, his third language after Polish and French, and he learned English by overhearing it aboard ships, never shedding a foreign accent he once described as “gibberish.” His sentiment in a letter to confidant, “l’ Anglais m’est toujours une langue etrangère,” registers a double displacement from a home in written and spoken language.
Conrad once wrote that the “power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.” Often in his novels, characters hear when they cannot see, and “action,” is reduced to characters’ listening to distant sounds—like the drumming that comes from the jungle in Heart of Darkness. Dialogue is rarely a simple matter of transcribing words on the page. He tried to represent the fact that people often mishear each other or stutter and shout in the midst of noise—those representations changed what was possible for “dialogue” in the process. I’m reminded here of how in several of Jean Luc Godard’s films, viewers can’t hear what characters are saying because the noise in a café is too loud, or a train passes by at a crucial moment. These issues of communication in the novel are especially important for auditory cultural studies to ponder—the inner voice of writing and reading, the voice that is supposed to make the most immediate sense to a person, is suddenly hijacked by sounds.
Conrad would never speak English without a sense of shame, his own wife often couldn’t understand him, and his prose is marked by oddities that reveal thinking in one language while writing in another. In The Secret Agent, Steven G. Kellman briefly notes, Conrad writes the phrase “pulled up violently the venetian blind,” an error in word order that carries what Kellman calls “the traces of incomplete translingualism” (11). I’m also thinking of the unidiomatic word “moonshine” in the opening paragraphs of Heart of Darkness. Moments like this are important because they betray the extent to which Conrad was “passing” in his voice as an English writer.
Heart of Darkness is nothing if not a series of voices and sounds. It begins with an English merchant ship waiting for the turn of the tide and to dock in London. To pass the time, Marlow, a sailor aboard ship, tells an extended story of a previous journey along the Congo River (as reported by Marlow’s anonymous listener in the present). This story is rife with misheard voices and distant sounds. Chinua Achebe seminally attacked Conrad’s racism in his representation of African people as being without voice, as only making noise and speaking broken English. But this reading is complicated by Conrad’s own struggle with English. We have to hear “behind” or “through” his claim to speaking as an Englishman via the voice of Marlow. Conrad also crafted scenes were Englishmen have to confront being baffled by difference—they have to sit and listen, and confess they don’t understand the meanings of sounds.
The development of Marlow, Conrad’s recurring English avatar, was tied up in the desire for an idealized English voice. His relationship to English continually mediated his ambivalent feelings about the act of writing, his place in English literary society, and what it meant to speak—physically and symbolically—as a naturalized citizen. These ambivalences, I describe, all collide in the moment of Conrad’s first encounter with the x-ray and the phonograph in 1898 when he will discover that “all matter” is simply waves and vibrations. Though Conrad is most remembered for writing that the task of the novel is “to make you see”, auditory cultural studies would do well to remember that with Heart of Darkness, Conrad felt he had struck upon a novel with “a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear long after the last note had been struck.”
Heart of Darkness is preoccupied with what I call the “vibrational monad,” as a theory of the continuity of all things and actions. Vibration—as action at a distance—allowed Conrad to imagine the novel as a material force overcoming of national and linguistic difference. As a sound-effect that reached others without speech, vibration for Conrad dissolved the difficulties of embodied communication. The drumming of the Congo is one such resonance, but so are moments like “moonshine.” These resonances remain “sinister,” though, because communication is not absolute or guaranteed. Conrad also wanted his readers to experience an emotional pall of the horrors of colonialism, communicated best not in words or “sense” but by the way obscure sounds and nonsense linger and haunt the reader’s inner ear after putting down the novel.
In my essay, I do not distinguish greatly between vibration and resonance in their material differences. In Conrad’s imaginary these forces are intertwined, and that intertwining—in the nature of the literary in its turn of phrases—marks a place for literature in auditory cultural studies. It is difficult to distinguish these tropes in his writing partly because they pose an emotional and physical tie; both link body to body. Historically, electronic technologies of vibration involve a colonizing impulse to conquer space and time. But in Conrad, vibration remains uncertain and ambiguous in that it often reverses its course to become its opposite and separate bodies as a means of distance and difference.
In his early fictions, vibration and resonance register translingual fault lines, reminding us that Conrad’s acquisition of voice was an embodied process, an uneven and ongoing one. Conrad begins his first novel Almayer’s Folly with a vocal fragment, a shout in two languages, neither of them English. These two words would have appeared strange and completely unfamiliar to his readers in England: “Kaspar, makan!” As we only later learn, this unidentified shout to Kaspar Almayer, a Dutch trader, has been issued by his Sulu wife who calls him to dinner.
What does Conrad’s Malay voice mean for the definition of Anglophone modernism (from James Joyce to Jean Rhys) and what “other” voices and sounds define it from within? It is significant that Conrad’s 1895 romance does not begin with any description of characters or even the world. In this Victorian moment, a reader would expect fiction to begin with some sort of utterance in close proximity to authorial speech, as a voice-over (in the first or third person) that overlays the world of the novel. This voice tells us who we are about to meet and where, grants access. This shout is a puzzling beginning for a writer who would worry so much about reaching his readers. We—readers in English—don’t know what this voice is saying. No reader knows where this voice is coming from, who is shouting, and where. It won’t be translated for several pages, and then only indirectly. Again, Conrad hijacks the inner voice of reading to trouble English self-certainty.
That reminds me of the critique of voice-over and translation in the writings and films of Trinh T. Minh-ha, who often forces her viewers to confront languages they cannot understand and to sit with that non-understanding. Conrad gives up that authorial impulse; he drops its armature to become another voice—of a woman and colonized subject captured and brokered—as the opening gesture of his fiction. He speaks in her voice—rather than for her—and lets it take over what should be the first, authorial utterance. The shout carries an unspoken agony of colonization. She was, we later learn, kidnapped by Captain Lingard in the seizure of her village, and while he will call her “daughter,” she must endure his nightly visits, only to be passed to Almayer along with the failed promise of material wealth. His “folly” is inherent to the colonial rage for identity. This first authorial utterance is marred by the audible specter of sexual violence in colonialism.
What does this specter mean for the place of the novel in auditory cultural studies? Conrad destabilizes the white reader’s claim to “encountering” a world at a distance through the inner voice, a voice that is supposedly spontaneous, close and natural. The novel is also a technology of voices, but in this case, rather than bringing the other close, these vocal fragments mark an important place for distance. Conrad wrote Almayer’s Folly during his last journey as a merchant marine. Remarkably, one of few drafts of a letter home from that trip in Polish survives on a verso page of the manuscript. That material manuscript is too a space of difference—voices within voices, languages within languages, voices recorded but also obscured. The “sinister resonance” is one name for this founding disparity in the novel as an act of communication.
Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parle, Fifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).
Featured image: “Joseph Conrad” by Flickr user Phoca2004, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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