19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 18 (2014)

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‘His father’s voice’: Phonographs and Heredity in the Fiction of Samuel Butler

Will Abberley

Abstract


The article explores the interaction between concepts of heredity and technologies of voice recording and reproduction in the late-Victorian imagination through the example of Samuel Butler. Butler’s writing on evolutionary topics frequently conceptualized heredity as a record of ancestral voices echoing through their descendants. His Lamarckian view of evolution caused him to present heredity as analogous to the phonograph, recording the experiences of individuals, storing them in the germ plasm and reproducing them in the offspring. Theorists of hereditary memory such as Ewald Hering described it as a form of vibration and inscription, emphasizing its parallels with phonography. At the same time, language and the physical voice seemed equally haunted for Butler, resonating with the thoughts, feelings, and urges of past generations. I pursue these themes through a close reading of his posthumously published novel The Way of All Flesh (1903). Butler makes an interesting case study for this subject since his ideas about the inheritance of ancestral voices were inseparable from his complex personal relations with his family. His efforts to escape the influence of his parents were bound up with the notion of escaping the habitual ‘grooves’ in which they lived, thought, and spoke. Such escape sometimes seems impossible in Butler’s vision, with long-term heredity and immediate social convention rendering people echoes of their predecessors. However, the life experience of the individual offered possibilities for breaking with the voices of the past, etching new grooves of habit and redirecting old ones. Further, heredity in Butler’s vision was not a single, commanding voice but a cacophony of competing voices screaming to be heard. In this sense, what seemed like rebellion against the voice of one’s ancestor might turn out to be obedience towards another one. Butler conceived of intellectual influence in the same way, placing thinkers and writers in a pseudo-familial (and perhaps proto-Freudian) relationship with their predecessors. His concern with escaping ancestral voices existed in tension, though, with his desire to render his own voice immortal through his literary work.

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