Elove: What Does Fiction Know?


But that’s not enough for Villiers’ Edison. In the opening pages of the novel, he engages in a long soliloquy concerning his invention of the phonograph. He regrets that it had not been invented much earlier in the history of humanity. Such a simple technology, he muses: one had only to note “that my voice caused the bottom of my hat to vibrate when I talked into it” (20). He could have “phonographed," to use his word, the great biblical and historical events. He goes as far as imagining, in a sort of paleophonography, an instrument that would capture ancient vibrations (10). But he soon realizes that even if the invention of such an instrument were possible, these reproductions would still lack “the awe-inspiring character with which they were invested in the hearing of the ancients […] that intimate sense [which], constituted, in effect, their true reality” (14).
For Villiers’ Edison, reproduced sounds are therefore “nothing more than dead sounds” (14), from which the very experience of the event is missing. Edison’s distinction between the event and its reproduction reminds us of the distinction we would make today between listening to a CD or stream in the comfort of our home and experiencing what is appropriately called a LIVE performance; regardless of the sophistication of the technology, we are still listening to what Villiers called dead sounds. A reproduction of an inscribed event is, simply put, a simulation of that event and not, quite regretfully for Villiers’ Edison, its duplication.
In the same soliloquy that opens Villiers’ novel, Edison explains why a recording will never replicate the original event. It will lack, he says, “reciprocity of action [that] is the essential condition of all reality” (15). We would say today that reality is interactive, something that designers of computer and virtual reality (VR) games understand well: the more interactivity, the more the player is taken in by a seeming reality. Interactivity reduces to a certain extent the make-believe factor, at least when you are playing. As we shall shortly see in Pierre Cassou-Noguès’ “Le Jeu,” the players, in the roles of Marcel and Albertine, live the reality of their game; they meet on a train, exchange words, live together for a while on Boulevard Haussmann, chat, have tea on rue de Rivoli, etc. In a more subtle and implicit way, the same thing happens when we listen to a LIVE music performance, an original, genuine event. Any good jazz musician will confirm that her improvisations are in part determined by the reactions of her audience. There is naturally no reciprocity in listening to a CD or a stream. A loving machine is a machine in which that reciprocity is built in. It is a machine that you love and that loves you back. What drives Lord Ewald to despair and contemplate suicide when he comes to see his friend Thomas Edison is that his fiancée, Miss Alicia Clary, is afflicted by an “absolute disparity” (31) between her “divine beauty” and her “character,” her “soul,” what he calls her “intimate being," an expression quite close to the one that Edison used in his musings on capturing the sounds of the past that would be lacking the “intimate sense” of that reality. In other words, there is something about her that resembles Edison’s phonograph. Ewald calls Alicia Clary “Goddess Reason” (40), echoing
Nathanael‘s mischaracterization in “The Sand-Man” of Clara, his own homonymic fiancée.
In order to prevent his friend’s suicide, Edison’s project will be to put together a machine capable of reciprocity and endow it with an “intimate sense” that would constitute a “true reality.” The absurdity is perhaps apparent: a human-like automaton takes the place of an automaton-like human being. In any case, it is as though Villiers’ Edison was dreaming of a technology that allowed the re-living of the experience, or to put it differently, a technology that allowed the territory to magically come out of the map.

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