Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Florence McLandburgh's The Automaton Ear

"Seeing is believing." Taken broadly, that old axiom articulates the virtues and limitations of empiricism. The "sight" is the information that can be gleaned through the use of the physical senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. A functional empiricism underlies two of the most important ventures in democratic society: science and justice.

In justice, it is the requirements of physical evidence and reliable, corroborated witnesses. It is also implicit to the principles of legal impartiality, presumption of innocence, and trial by jury, which together signify the importance of sufficient evidence adjudicated objectively. Looked at this way, it is easy to see how the concept of "social justice" is increasingly antithetical to actual justice... Under "social justice," guilt is presumed on the basis of assigned group identity (which is itself guilty of collective group crimes) and emotion supplants evidence in the court of public opinion.

In science, only what can be observed about the physical universe is what can be taken as valid information about it. Of course there are more ways than science to perceive insights about the experience of existence - such as aesthetics, ethics, and religion - but science deals with a particularly narrow subject matter, being the physical universe. Many of the same processes are at work in science as in the processes of justice. Physical evidence is an obvious requirement, as are multiple independent researchers to corroborate findings. The trial by jury becomes the peer reviewed scientific journal, where findings must first pass the editorial board whereupon they are published for the rigorous dispute of the scientific community. At all points, objectivity is desired and the transparency of the Scientific Method encourages multiple researchers to check up on each other's work.

To carry on its experiments, science has produced ever more elaborate tools to increase the scope of the physical senses. What is the telescope, after all, but a giant eye that allows one to see further (and in more spectra) than the normal, unaided eye? The connection between time and space creates the mind-rattling conundrum that what we see through a telescope is not what is happening right now, but rather, is a glimpse into the past. All those beautiful images brought to us by the Hubble Space Telescope are actually images of things that happened millions, even billions, of years ago... However long it took the light from those nebulae to reach us here on Earth. Where our telescopes read a barren rocky exoplanet 500 million light years away, it may, at this very moment, be teeming with its own brand of dinosaur that we won't see for another half-a-billion years.

Now what if we could do that for sound?

In a sense we already do. The first thing an alien civilization is going to hear from us are the first  radio broadcasts from a century ago. This was illustrated dramatically in the beginning of the 1997 film Contact. Florence McLandburgh wondered this same question quite early on in the history of Scientific Romances. Her 1873 short story The Automaton Ear sticks closer to home in its depiction of a scientist who builds an elaborate ear trumpet designed to amplify the faint vibrations of terrestrial events millennia ago.

However, despite this entire preamble, the subject of The Automaton Ear is not the device itself nor its cultural and scientific ramifications. Instead, it is a character study of scientific monomania. It is the autobiography of a mad scientist.

Most Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances begin with an outside observer being inducted into the mysteries of the scientist or explorer. The archetype is Professor Arronax, Conseil, and Ned Land being taken aboard Captain Nemo's submarine. Passepartout was the entry point into Phileas Fogg's trip around the world, and Ned Malone was the entry point into Professor Challenger's lost world. The scientist or explorer is almost always the Other who dominates the story told by a narrator. Only in a handful of rare circumstances, like H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, is the scientist themselves the narrator.

I would imagine that, in most cases, this literary device exists to build a sense of intrigue as the mystery of the scientist and their invention unfolds. More likely than not, there is also an underpinning of writers recognizing that it is easier to write about a genius than to pretend to be one. The greatest flaw that writers of geniuses fall into is sub-genius characterizations who tend to come off as undeservedly egotistical Mary Sues.  It's difficult to pass off a character as the most brilliant poet or scientist or whatever, if the writer is clearly not. 

McLandburgh bypasses this problem by setting out to examine the deleterious effects of monomania on her inventors' mind. It is less about the ways and means of the invention itself than on the obsession that drives him to madness.

The Automaton Ear was first published in Scribner's Monthly in May 1873, then again in Florence McLandburgh's only published book, The Automaton Ear and Other Sketches, in 1876.  It appears here as it did in Scribner's. Click on the image, and then right-click and tap "Open image in new tab," to see a larger version.

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