It’s tempting to read anything from the turn of a century as summarising or prefiguring. Many scientific preoccupations of the nineteenth century became creative obsessions and entered a curatorial lexicon by the start of the twenty-first.
The experience of synaesthesia, a blurring and blending of senses in some individuals, runs through this edition of three newly translated works by Victor Segalen. A French naval doctor turned ethnographer, sinologist and writer in the early years of the twentieth century, Segalen remains an enigmatic figure, whose prose and poetry explores and perceptively connects a sprawling array of esoteric interests.
Rather than the potential for an ecstatic bond of perception in the synaesthetic, it is the isolation of a sense and the personal solitude of experience which lurks at the heart of In A Sound World, Segalen’s short novel first published in 1907 and now presented for the first time in English, in a translation by Marie Roux and RWM Hunt. It is collected, in this Strange Attractor Press book, with Segalen’s libretto for Orpheus Rex, an unrealised collaborative opera with Claude Debussy, and the 1902 essay Synaesthetics and the Symbolist School. This latter text establishes the author’s fascination and experience with the curious merging of senses, while avoiding both the cultural exoticism of the period and the hard-line empiricism of Western science. Finally, the three translations are contextualised in a new essay by sound artist and scholar David Toop, who weaves together Segalen’s strands of curiosity and sets them into dialogue with early and contemporaneous experiments with sound, resonance and sense, slotting the writer’s work within the canon of twentieth-century sound studies.
Toop’s observation of Segalen’s pre-empting of a twentieth-century sound art is astute. As the narrator of In A Sound World, Max-Anély is invited into the home of a reclusive acquaintance, he is troubled, first by André’s supposed madness, but increasingly by the whispered resonances softly overpowering the atmosphere of the drawing room in which his friend’s experiments are taking place. André’s inventions begin to manifest as a strangeness at the periphery of the perceptual field. Tuned gas flames hum in close, beating intervals. A wall of strings, lyre-like, catching and resounding resonances, disorientates speech and hearing.
These eccentric experiments in an enlivened sonic environment neatly prefigure developments in creative music and sound arts over the next century, from Erik Satie’s often referenced but rarely heard ‘furniture music’, to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s various long-toned dream houses, and the flaming post-industrial incursions of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble. Reflections of seemingly infinite sound, delicate yet menacing.
André and his wife Mathilde have come to live in entirely separate sensory worlds, he the sonic and she the visual, each of them legitimately accusing the other of madness. Instead of producing a merging consonance, the two senses become entirely alienating in their twin primacies. Sight and sound meet only in the chasm of misunderstanding, a failure to relate to the experience of the other. ‘She cannot hear in the dark’, André tells our bewildered and mistrustful narrator. Though André may be attempting to speak literally, this mutual isolation and inability to relate with any concrete certainty to another’s experience of the perceptual world breeds loneliness and misunderstanding into those closest to us. But when a dislocated perception is ecstatic to the point of madness, what is it worth?
‘Disagreement is thus the rule’, Segalen tells us in Synaesthetics and the Symbolist School, which predates In A Sound World by several years. With his short novel, Segalen takes the central disagreement of his essay and folds together the philosophical, physical and mythical in a style Borges would further condense a few decades later. Concurrently with the earliest graspings towards a school of phenomenology, Segalen elegantly details the impossibility of a standardised understanding of the individualised experience ‘whose subjectivity is its rule.’ The libretto for Orpheus Rex continues this circumstantial discord. In a 1921 introduction to his soundless text, Segalen recalls the gulf between André and Mathilde and again dwells on this isolation of a sense, in the ‘mute words’ of the text, unmoored from a still imaginary music.
Segalen’s restrained tragedy is one of a lack of terminology as much as of experience, as sense turns to senselessness somewhere in the gulf between the self and the other. This collection allows a fascination to pass gently yet vividly through twenty years of Segalen’s work, emerging in resonances between the mythic and the scientific, the personal and the incomprehensible. In A Sound World communicates the lyrical wonder and mysterious beauty of expanded perception, but also the bafflement, unease and inevitable solitude of experience.
Nicol Parkinson is an artist and researcher working with sound in the fields of music, live art and performance seeking out the connections and confusions between these forms. Their practice investigates the use of sounding strategies in real-time art making, as they weave through the corporeal, verbal, temporal, social, political and historical spheres. They are slowly building a vocabulary of material approaches, both visible and obscured, embracing flexibility of form, in an effort to avoid settled definition.
In A Sound World by Victor Segalen (trans. by Marie Roux and RWM Hunt) is published by Strange Attractor Press.