Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “Poe and France: The Last Twenty Years,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (1970)


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Ladies and Gentlemen: My Topic is Poe and France: The Last Twenty Years. Under that heading I shall discuss some examples, more or less recent, of the attention Poe has received from various French writers. By way of prologue to that discussion I should like to make a few anecdotal remarks having to do with the more general question of Poe and France.

One of the most striking instances known to me of French interest in our author was a ceremony that took place in October, 1933, at the Sorbonne. It was held under the auspices of “friends of the University of Paris,” and it was attended by, among others, the ambassadors of the United States, Poland, Brazil, Roumania, and indeed almost the entire diplomatic corps. The ceremony consisted of the usual things: speeches in honor of Poe and readings from his work. And what was the occasion or excuse for this event? Only that 1933 was the 124th anniversary of Poe’s birth.

Another ceremony in honor of Poe took place at Leeuwarden, a city in the Netherlands, in October, 1949, the one-hundredth anniversary of Poe’s death. The late distinguished professor of American literature at Harvard, Perry Miller, was the chief American guest and participant on this occasion. He described his experience in an Atlantic Monthly article. For this occasion, Professor Miller wrote “. . . solid citizens — bankers, lawyers, the Queen’s commissioner, and the provincial government — suspended their affairs for an afternoon and gravely devoted four hours (with an intermission for tea) to hearing orations on Poe and readings of his poems. For the first time since I was thirteen, I recited ‘the Raven’ aloud. Translated [into the local Dutch dialect] by a poet who seemed to have stepped out of some primitive North Sea saga, it sounded beautiful.” But during the intermission for tea someone raised the question which Perry Miller knew was inevitable, and not satisfactorily answerable. The question was: What are they doing in America on October 7? What could he say? He suspected that something might have ­[page 2:] been organized by the Poe Society of Baltimore, but in other American cities? No doubt nothing. And so his answer disappuinted his hosts, as he knew it would. In his article Professor Miller went on to a diagnosis of the situation. “Like most of my generation,” he wrote, “I have had a long struggle with Poe. If I have rejected the Poe over whom I swooned at thirteen, I have come painfully to appreciate him as a conscious craftsman, as an editor who increased the circulation of his magazines, and above all as a critic of society. I presented this Poe in Holland and elsewhere, causing only bafflement.” And now, notice especially Miller’s final remark: “I found that the Poe honored throughout Europe is that construction of the French imagination who is quite a different being from the historical person.”

The reputation of Perry Miller as a cultural historian is perhaps unrivalled. But even as sophisticated a mind as his can have its off moments, and these last observations are a case in point. To admire Poe for his craftsmanship — this is fairly solid ground. But to say that he ought also to be admired because as editor of certain magazines he increased their circulation figures, this seems a desperate and farfetched reason. And it is hardly more relevant to extol Poe as a critic of society. He was, incidentally, such a critic, and a sharp one. But the Poe remembered in America as well as Europe is the author of “William Wilson,” “Ulalume,” and “The House of Usher,” and those works and others like them have nothing to do with social criticism.

As for Miller’s final comment — that the Poe honored throughout Europe is a construction of the French imagination — this also is something one might take exception to. It is quite true that the Poe known in Europe is Poe as he was understood and described by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, and his version of Poe was laid out along its main lines in an essay on Poe written in 1852. What Perry Miller did not know — for the discovery was made subsequent to his Atlantic article — was that this, the first of Baudelaire’s three essays on Poe, was hardly more than an excellent translation — or in another and blunter word, a plagiarism — of an article by an American critic, John W. Daniel, published in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1850. Thus this first French portrait of Poe proves to be hardly more than a copy of an American original; and hence it is hard to maintain, in the teeth of this evidence, that the Poe revered in Europe ­[page 3:] is altogether a construction of the French imagination.

But is it undeniable that there has been a striking disparity between Poe’s status in his own country and his status abroad. Why this is so is among the most interesting problems that can be taken up by students of modern comparative literature. In an essay entitled From Poe to Valéry, T. S. Eliot addressed himself to this problem, which, in a simple formulation, might be put this way: How did it happn that Poe, his fame insecure in his own country, how did he become not simply an important name but a force in European literature during the past hundred years? Eliot did not try to answer the question. Its nature and implications were what interested him. But in the end he came to at least an interim conclusion, which he phrased as follows: “We all of us like to think that we understand our own poets better than any foreigner can do; but I think we should be prepared to entertain the possibility that [the French] have seen something in Poe that English-speaking readers have missed.”

In the spirit of that remark of Eliot’s let us look at some examples of how Poe’s work has been treated in recent French criticism.

My first exhibit, however, is a book that is mainly of interest to students of Baudelaire. Only in a minor way does it comment on Poe. But it is nonetheless a useful starting point. The book, published in 1961, is by the novelist Michel Butor. Its title is Histoire Extraordinaire, and it is an extended and detailed interpretation of a dream of Baudelaire’s, an actual dream of which Baudelaire gave a full report in a letter written on March 13, 1856. He was able to make a full report of it, but he could not interpret it, though he was convinced that the dream hieroglyphics, if read aright, could be made intelligible. What Butor does is to show how the details of the dream came out of the daily occupations of Baudelaire and out of his emotional life. Butor’s first interpretive step is to show that the occasion of the dream, its origin or cause, was that on the previous day, March 12, Baudelaire’s translation of the Histoires Extraordinaires by Edgar Poe had just been published. This was his first book and a turning point in his life. Accordingly, the dream gathers together some of the major anxieties, hopes, and fantasies of his life. Baudelaire was then thirty-five years old. ­[page 4:]

Butor’s theory, in brief, is that the dream was concerned with the alleviation of ego-anxiety. For all his apparent strength of will and independence of mind, Baudelaire found it difficult to stand alone, to be his single, solitary self. He needed support, needed to identify with a personality separate from but complementary to his own. That need was never more fully realized than after his discovery of the work of Poe. He saw himself in Poe, almost literally. He translated the American author, he once said, because Poe resembled him. And so for that reason his intage of Poe, and the image of Poe he tried to publicize, was a very full one: poet, story-teller, intellectual, analyst, explorer of strange states of mind and feeling, a literary martyr, a dandy, and a critic of contemporary bourgeois society. Usually, as in the case of Perry Miller, the “Poe of Baudelaire” is objected to on the presumption that Baudelaire’s view of his American counterpart was reductive, leaving out too much. And it is true that Poe’s work as a journalist received no special mention. But on the whole it is a very versatile figure whom Baudelaire presents. It is useful to be reminded of this, as we are by Butor’s discussion of the Baudelaire-Poe relationship. We will see, too, that some of these different sides of Poe have been of interest in the commentary his work has received in France over the past twenty years.

Among the five or six contemporary scholars and critics of whose work on Poe in the French language I am giving some account, certainly the most distinguished name is that of Georges Poulet, now professor of French literature at the University of Zurich, but for some years, not long ago, a resident of Baltimore and a member of the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University. The books by which he is best known, both here and abroad — The Interior Distance, Studies in Human Time, The Metamorphoses of the Circle — have been translated by Elliott Coleman and published by the Johns Hopkins Press. So in one sense Poulet is a relatively familiar figure. In another sense he is not at all familiar and never will be. His thought, his mind, his critical intelligence is original, subtle, and innovative, and requires some time and considerable effort to get used to. I myself am still involved in this learning process, and while in it am reminded of how Poe once described his response to the work of Coleridge: “Of Coleridge,” Poe said, “I cannot speak but with reverence. ­[page 5:] His towering intellect! His gigantic power! . . . In reading [him] I tremble, like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious, from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and the light that are weltering below.”

Let us glance first at the brief essay on Poe which appears in the Appendix on American authors in Studies in Human Time. Poulet gives his attention to two aspects of Poe’s work: the first is the effort to evoke or induce an imaginary duration. This, simply put, is the world of dream, which has neither past nor future and is complete in itself, unaffected by change. It is a world sunken or submarine, along the lines of Poe’s own “City in the Sea.” Poe does not treat this dreamworld directly; he doesn’t present it. Rather, he handles it as a reminiscence; and thus memory comes into play, memory dissolving into the immemorial, as the present withdraws into the distance and melts into the past. So there is change within the dreamworld. Indeed yes, Poulet implies; and, further, this change is impressive in its ugliness rather than by its beauty. “Poe’s dream past,” Poulet writes at this point, “dies a slow and even nauseated death. A kind of gangrene corrupts it, disintegrates it, transforms it into mental rot. It is nevertheless the greatness of Poe to have fastened his gaze on this spectacle.” Such a statement as this is an instance of what I had in mind in alluding to Poe’s phrasing a moment ago: “darkness bursting from the crater.” Here and elsewhere in Poulet’s pages intelligibility is precarious because examples, illustrations, instances are so few.

Communication is more successful in the second half of the essay when Poulet examines the other aspect of Poe’s work: the return to life. The dream is extinguished but the dreamer is not. Instead, he wakens into a feeling of simple physical existence in which considerations of time, or even of duration, are irrelevant. Sensory intensities replace the other movement, of fading out, withdrawal, dissolution. And then, following this stage, there floods in an awareness of nonactual life — that is, of past and future, from which there is no escape. So it’s as if the dreamer, in waking out of one trap, the threat of death, falls into another, which is temporal existence itself. Fear is the inevitable response either way, to either trap, which is why that feeling is so often evoked by Poe’s tales. Poulet concludes: “A sort of temporal ­[page 6:] circle surrounds Poe’s characters. A whirlpool envelops them, which, like that of the Maelstrom, disposes its funnel by degrees from the past in which one has been caught, to the future in which one will be dead. . . . The work of Poe always presents a time that is closed.”

In a long essay in The Metamorphoses of the Circle Poulet develops the point that closure, the feeling of being hemmed in, is what Poe’s imaginative work is most usually about. Again he emphasizes, although again without adequate illustration, the negative drift of what he calls Poe’s universe, which is the realm of dream. It decomposes, is swallowed up in the void. But the sleeper wakes up, though less in the spirit of a return to life than as a reluctant arising from death. His first condition is one of hyperacute awareness, of an immersion in attentiveness. This is succeeded by thinking, and as a result fear is aroused. Poulet generalizes at this point in this way: “The being who returns to thought would be struck by the same terror if he did not awake in a tomb or a torture-chamber. For to come back to thought is to awake into terror. . . . Terror precedes all reasons for being terrified. . . . Thus the terror is first the terror of thinking.” What I believe Poulet is implying here is that the condition primarily desired is that of nonthinking, of nonsensory dream; whereas thinking leads to a full awareness of the real world, and this, per se, is terrifying. If the circle of its understanding is enlarged, the spirit ascertains only more fully the reasons for its terror. At this juncture occurs a lucid and incisive passage. Poulet writes: “No one before Poe has shown with as much precision the essentially circumscribed nature of thought. For him, that which is limitless is inconceivable. . . . He does not go beyond limits. He never stretches beyond his reach. If he likes to analyze paroxysms and frenzies, it is because they lead to an end, which is the bottom of a well or the ceiling of a tomb. If for him man is buried alive, then man’s mission is to explore the interior surfaces of his dwelling. He must learn his way about the place. It may be that this place is surrounded by death, but within, it contains life. In spite of its morbidity Poe’s work is saved by his intellectual power. It measures the span of the human enclosure.”

Following this, Poulet gives citations of Poe’s interest in, ­[page 7:] or rather domination by, the notion of enclosed circularity or, as in Eureka, the image of constricting perimeters. And there can be no doubt, by the time Poulet is through, that the image of the circle haunted Poe’s imagination more than did anything else. Roaming freely through all the work of Poe, Poulet finds the circle-motif virtually everywhere. The embroideries of implication that he himself traces out on the basis of this motif are intricate and fascinating. But one has at least occasionally the impression that it is more Poulet’s imagination than Poe’s that is being exhibited.

Here is the place to mention, primarily by way of contrast to the brilliant interpretive flights of Poulet, the scholarly investigations that have been made by Claude Richard, of the University of Montpellier. To judge from the several articles of his that I have read — all in American publications — what Richard is trying to do is to put behind him the image of Poe that has been made available in French commentary on this author and to reconstruct in exact detail the American Poe and the cultural context, the literary reality in which Poe wrote.

Why was it, for instance, that Evert Duyckinck persuaded the firm of Wiley and Putnam to publish Poe’s Tales in June, 1845, and The Raven and Other Poems in the following November? Poe was not a popular author, and so the financial risk was high. Or, another question, how is one to account for Poe’s very laudatory review of Horne’s Orion, a work that fell altogether short of his critical standards. Why, in 1844, does Poe soften his judgment of the work of Simms? And why does he in effect tie himself up in knots as he tries to be severely critical of Mrs. Browning’s play The Drama of Exile and yet enthusiastically endorses it at the same time? These are the questions taken up by M. Richard in an article entitled “Poe and ‘Young America,’ ” appearing in the 1968 volume of Studies in Bibliography, published at the University of Virginia. His convincing answer to these questions is that Poe during the period 1844-46 was playing the game of literary politics by currying favor with the “Young America” clique. Late in 1846 he turned against this group. But during the previous two years his criticism is marred by erratic judgments and surprising contradictions. Richard shows how these may be accounted for. Probably it was ­[page 8:] during his years in New York that Poe compromised most in his critical opinions. But, in addition, Richard concludes that Poe’s years in Baltimore, Richmond, and Philadelphia “remain to be examined in detail before critics can reach reliable conclusions about which of his reviews deserve to be taken seriously . . . and which are to be dismissed as insincere or frivolous.”

Probably no one in France has had more to do in recent years with the way Poe is read there than Roger Asselineau. Not only is he the director of American Studies at the Sorbonne; he has also written introductions to four different collections of Poe’s tales; or rather he wrote a long introduction to Choix de Contes, a Poe anthology published in 1958, and later prepared an abbreviated version of this for publication in other, and different, editions all of which, I believe, enjoy a wide sale. What, then, are some of the presumably influential ways in which Asselineau introduces Poe to a wide French audience?

He begins by emphasizing the dualities, oppositions, and conflicts, the ambitions and disappointments, which marked and marred Poe’s life. He compares him to the fisherman in his own story of the Maelstrom, retaining his lucidity, but, unlike the fisherman, with no strong desire or will to extricate himself. His writings, more broadly seen, reflect the duality of his personality, with the accent now on the loss of self, and now on the command of self; or, on the one hand showing the passivity of a dreamer indifferent to everything outside his dream, and on the other hand revealing a clear perception of all the implications of reality. To put this duality in the simplest of terms is to describe his work as both creative and analytical.

Turning first to the creative side of Poe’s work, Asselineau points to the primacy that the emotion of fear has in Poe’s stories. Almost all his heroes are tormented, afflicted, solitary, inhabiting a nightmare world. And so the question inevitably arises: Was Poe sincere in all this, or were these stories merely “made up,” products that would sell? Asselineau would say that Poe was more sincere than not. He remarks that if Poe was something of an actor, he was the kind of actor who becomes so caught up in the part he is playing as to be killed in the final act by a real dagger. ­[page 9:]

Fear of death, of being swallowed up in nonbeing, constitutes the essence of many of his tales. This is certainly not a fear peculiar to Poe. Everyone experiences it. But not with his intensity. With him it becomes “a morbid obsession complicated by phobias and frenzies of a clearly abnormal character.” Sadism is the hallmark of his demented murderers. Asselineau suggests that in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” despite the pity which Poe evidently feels for the prisoner, one wonders if secretly or unconsciously he does not have a perverse admiration for the ingenuity shown by the villains of the Inquisition in the choice and management of their tortures.

Asselineau takes the view that Poe’s heroes are projections of himself, of the real self which his social self knew had to be kept hidden. Accordingly, his tales of imagination are not the result of a conscious effort at fictitious invention but were in large measure dictated to him, imposed on him, by unconscious desires. They are not mere fictions but veiled confessions — I need hardly point out that Asselineau is adopting the psychoanalytic, or a psychoanalytic, viewpoint here; and inevitably, as the introduction proceeds, the name of Marie Bonaparte appears. Asselineau agrees with her theory that Poe at age three was shown the corpse of his dead mother and that this was the source or cause of his neurotic life and of almost everything he wrote. In his extensive commentaries on the seven stories contained in Choix de Contes, Asselineau relies on Marie Bonaparte’s study to the exclusion of any other approach.

As for Poe the analyst and logician, Asselineau shows how this aspect of Poe’s mind expressed itself in the rigorous control he maintained over nightmare material. But he finds it significant that the tales of ratiocination are few; far more creative energy was available for the stories of anxiety, fear, crime, and punishment. Asselineau undertakes an examination of Poe’s aesthetics of fiction, promising that this will reveal how Poe was able to effect a synthesis of the contradictory elements of reason and imagination. But this promise goes unfulfilled, so far as I can see. On balance, Asselineau finds imagination a more important faculty than reason in the short stories. That is, Poe resembles Roderick Usher more than he does C. Auguste Dupin.

But the province in which rationality dominates is that of ­[page 10:] language and diction. Although there are some paste jewels in his prose, Poe’s style otherwise is highly intellectual, logical, crystal clear. “All the details have been weighed and carefully calculated; nothing has been left to chance — Poe was the most meticulous of writers.” This is high praise — too high, and in fact Asselineau doesn’t really mean it. For in the remainder of his discussion of style he is quite critical of Poe’s preference for the multisyllabled Latinate word, for adjectives, for diction thought “poetic,” and so on. A French reader who knew Poe’s work only via Baudelaire’s translation would profit by reading this trenchant critique of Poe’s characteristic manner of writing English. Indeed I would say that this section on style and language is the best part of the Asselineau introduction. Its weakest aspect is its too close adherence to the theories about Poe held by Marie Bonaparte. I must say, however, that in the shortened and revised version of this introduction, printed in Asselineau’s three later collections, the psychoanalytic method of interpretation receives much less emphasis.

All to the good, would say a professional colleague of Asselineau’s, a professor at the University of Toulouse, Maurice Lévy, who recently published a very impressive study of Poe’s relation to the Gothic tradition.

He begins his essay by admitting how hard it is for a commentator on Poe to get out from under the massive shadow cast by the Bonaparte book, but he recommends that this be done. He remarks that, ironically, the trouble with her psychoanalytic interpretations is that they explain, or seem to explain, too much: they impute too much sense to Poe’s stories, while ignoring the part that is played in them by bizarre, grotesque, and merely extravagant elements, and the part that is played by the Gothic tradition. In the year of Poe’s birth that tradition was still flourishing, and it continued to do so until at least 1820, when Melmoth was published. Poe was fully aware of the tradition, as direct references in his writings show. And for someone even dimly aware of that tradition it is impossible to read his stories without recognizing in them the presence of a number of “obsessive images” which in various degrees resemble those characteristic of the manifold progeny of The Castle of Otranto.

In “The Oval Portrait,” for instance, we find the standard ­[page 11:] setting of a lonely castle in the Apennines in which we are led to a room in one of its secluded towers, and within this room — exactly like a scene in The Mysteries of Udolpho — we have a confrontation with a mysterious portrait of a lady. In “Usher” Poe uses the device of “the pause at the threshold,” as the visitor / narrator finds himself disturbed by sad forebodings and unaccountable fears. As much for Poe as for Ann Radcliffe and her fellow Gothicists, the threshold of the castle or mansion is the entry into a magical and fantastic realm. The parallel between Usher-mansion and Usher-family occurs as a similar donnée in The House of Tynian (1795), “one of the most Gothic of novels,” according to Lévy, who has gone through scads of them. Similarly, in Otranto the castle and Manfred are linked in some occult way, and the terminal collapse of Manfred’s castle is in close parallel with the collapse of the house of Usher. House, castle, or abbey, Gothic dwellings are characteristically distinguished not only by their crenelated towers but also by the subterranean tunnels and corridors through which the protagonist — below ground level much of the time — must make his way. Indeed, getting lost seems to be virtually the vocation of the Gothic hero, and in the circumstances in which he usually finds himself the fear of premature burial is an almost unavoidable reflex. There is also in Gothic fiction the cliché of the drugged maiden, mistaken for dead and entombed as such. “The Pit and the Pendulum” may be read in the context of The Italian, The Monk, Melmoth, and many others, often anonymous, in which the Gothic convention prescribes that the prisons of the Inquisition were intended less for the sequestration than the torture of prisoners. Thus the “sadism” of Poe had many precedents in English literature at the turn of the century. Animated portraits occur in Otranto and Melmoth and in many other Gothic romances now rightly lost in obscurity; and there is also a long lineage behind the “animated tapestry” motif of “Metzengerstein,” and the device of the cryptic prophecy, used in the same story. So, too, with “The Man of the Crowd”: the figure of “the wandering man” had become a primordial image by the time Poe dealt with it. The labyrinth-dream — exploited by Poe in Wilson’s school building, the journey through the wine cellars in “Amontillado,” the winding river sequence in “Arnheim,” and the experiences of Pym both in the hold of the “Grampus” and in the crevasses and ­[page 12:] caves of Tsalal — this dream hardly calls for a uniquely Freudian reading; or, if it does, a similar reading is in order as explanatory of many similar instances occurring in Gothic fiction thirty or more years before Poe wrote. And so, too, finally, with the dream of falling, a dream as old as humanity and one in which the dreamer’s psyche is no doubt deeply involved. But this is a dream, Lévy points out, “that Lewis, Charlotte Dacre, George Walker, Edward Montague, Shelley, Maturin, and many others made use of and which they made a part of the Anglo-Saxon literary heritage; a dream which conveyed unease and anxiety in a highly specific and almost inevitable way.”

One great merit of this solid and suggestive essay is that its author wholly avoids the temptation to be merely reductive. Lévy can say of “The Pit and the Pendulum” that it is “the most perfect, the most horrible, and the best written of Gothic stories in the line of The Italian and The Monk.” At the same time he concedes that from the point of view of depth psychology it may well have some specific meanings of its own. Indeed he is persuaded that the two areas — Gothicism and psychology — are by no means necessarily disjunct. “To go into the house of Usher,” he writes, “like entering the castles of Otranto or Udolpho, is to go down into the irrational, to descend to ‘archaic’ levels of the self, where logic is quite without authority.” Or, speaking again of “Usher” and its antecedents: “To enter a dwelling is not only to go into someone’s house; it is also, to a degree, to enter someone else’s being.” In short, he does not mean that Poe should be seen as merely an American disciple of Ann Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin, for in the least of Poe’s stories there is, he says, “so much more art than in the most brilliant Gothic novels; and the interior realms explored are much more authentically those of the soul.” Poe surpasses his predecessors, but he does use them; and in going beyond them he developed a literature more relevant to the insights of Jung than to those of Freud. Lévy suggests, finally, that the similarities he has pointed out are perhaps “not to be explained so much by direct and thoughtful imitation as by a return to the same archetypes.”

I have reserved the last place on my list for a critic whose work on Poe is of the first interest. His name is Jean Ricardou. He is in his late thirties, author of two novels and of a book on ­[page 13:] the theory of fiction, and an editor of the highly intellectual periodical Tel Quel. I came upon him quite by chance last year when, one day in the library, I was looking through some back issues of Critique. In the issue of August, 1967, my eye was caught by the odd title of one of the articles. That title was: “Le caractère singulier de cette eau. ” The phrase in French meant nothing to me, and I don’t think that the English equivalent would have been more recognizable. And so I was surprised to discover that the article was concerned with a story by Poe, a story I thought I knew well: “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.”

Ricardou borrowed his title from a phrase that appears late in “A. Gordon Pym,” at the point when an exploring party from the “Jane Guy” is being guided by the native chieftain Too-wit across the bizarre terrain of Tsalal. A small stream is reached, and “Too-wit and his attendants halted to drink. [But] on account of the singular character of the water, we refused to taste it, supposing it to be polluted; and it was not until some time afterward we came to understand that such was the appearance of the streams throughout the whole group [of islands].” Ricardou quotes this and the rest of the final paragraph of Chapter XVIII as a prime example of an enigmatic text. He takes a critical look at several exegeses that this text has evoked, and he then proposes an interpretation of his own.

The earlier commentaries which are weighed and found wanting are those by Marie Bonaparte (in Edgar Poe, 1936), Gaston Bachelard (in L’Eau et les Rêves, 1942), and Jorge Luis Borges (in Discusiòn, 1957). With each of these three commentaries Ricardou deals fairly and acutely. For instance: it is not because of their specifically psychoanalytic slant that Bonaparte and Bachelard go astray, but rather because of a more general notion they have as to the nature of imaginative literature, namely, that its goal or purpose is to point to something prior in time to itself, as when Bachelard premises a dream as necessarily antecedent to every literary work. The few remarks made by Borges are more precisely literary than, shall we say, psychological, in their bearing. But Ricardou shows that Borges too has not accurately read the text he is commenting on. Ricardou’s own position is unassailable: an exegesis should take into account all the details of the text under examination, and not isolate only the ­[page 14:] one or two details the commentator finds it convenient to embroider on.

We are reminded, accordingly, that the water described by Pym in the final paragraph of Chapter XVIII had four characteristics: it appeared limpid only when falling rapidly, in cascades; when moving slowly, it resembled, in its consistency, “a thick infusion of gum arabic in common water”; it was variable in color but was mostly of purple hues; and structurally it seemed to be made up of veins, with cohesive power along the vertical but not the horizontal axis. Pym provides another clue: seeing this water “excited as profound astonishment in the minds of our party as the mirror had done in the case of Too-wit,” who had nearly gone mad when, for the first time, he encountered mirrors in the cabin of the “Jane Guy.” The essential point is, Ricardou concludes, the Tsalalian water is nonreflecting. Its four attributes all coincide to negate the mirror-effect. And so, having never seen themselves in mirrors of either water or glass, the Tsalalians have no comprehension of a complementary relationship between what is same and what is other. Their world has been the totally dark one of their black archipelago, a world of undifferentiated sameness. Ricardou doesn’t put it this way, but he has in effect discovered an epistemological motive behind the attempt of Too-wit and company to do away with the party from the “Jane Guy.”

Of greater importance for the exegesis, however, is the link between the strange water and the black hills of Tsalal: the routes that serpentine through these hills were once beds of the torrents in which that water flowed; and the gorges made by these torrents form an immense hieroglyphic (diagrammed by Pym in Chapter XXIII). In close correspondence with this detail is what we are told about the “veiny” structure of the water. “We perceived,” to quote Pym’s account,

“that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; and that their color was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighboring veins. Upon passing the blade of a knife athwart the veins, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of ­[page 15:] the passage of the knife were instantly obliterated. If, however, the blade was passed down accurately between the two veins, a perfect separation was effected, which the power of cohesion did not immediately rectify.”

If in this passage we read lines for veins we have a metaphorical description of a written (or printed) text. In Ricardou’s paraphrase: “. . . if an imaginary vertical were to divide a line of writing, the two separated parts would in principle remain as one because of the intense cohesive force of syntax; if on the other hand a horizontal divider were to cut between two lines, the broken connection, essentially spatial in nature, would manifest a much weaker tendency towards reunification.” One could quarrel with the way he has visualized the experiment of the knife-in-the-water; and surely the cohesive force of syntax operates through the whole length of a sentence, whether or not it is one line long. Ricardou does not stop to consider such objections; instead he pushes the analogy one step further: Just as the water appears limpid only when in rapid movement, so with the story itself. If read rapidly it presents no difficulties. But if our reading rate slows down we do become aware of opacities, which eventually can open out into multiple meanings. The water-text analogy holds up primarily in this respect: neither offers a mirroring surface. Antirealism is the key. What not to do is to look in the text for a reflection of the real world. One remembers that in The Power of Blackness Harry Levin called the adventures of Pym a “Journey to the End of the Night.” Presumably Ricardou would find this unduly “realistic.” For him, Pym’s story in its final section is, in his phrase, “un voyage au bout de la page.”

Seen in this fashion, the black archipelago of Tsalal is analogous to a printed page. The main gorges of the island (see Chapter XXIII) spell out something: the Ethiopian verbal root, “to be shady.” And there are meaningful inscriptions on the walls of those gorges. In short, everything has to do with language, words, with black marks on a page. Thus for Ricardou the conflict between the black islanders and the white visitors is not an indirect expression of racial animosities but instead pertains to the way pen and ink impose themselves on paper. When, in the last paragraph of Pym’s narrative, fallouts of ­[page 16:] whiteness begin to cover the escape canoe, the captured islander, Nu-Nu, expires. In Ricardou’s word he has been “gommé” — i.e., literally erased. But for the two white men — “paper men” in more than one sense — there is the success of attaining the page’s marginal blankness.

Ricardou’s theory enables him to explain why Pym erroneously decided that the indentations seen on the cavern walls were meaningless; and he ingeniously tries to show how the cry of the island birds constitutes a reading of the island’s name, Tsalal. Flying high above the linked gorges, they decode the lithic lettering below and translate it in their cry. We also should try to read in the same way, not literally, at word-level, but from a height, looking down metaphorically, as we do physically. Only thus can the spirit of the text be discerned. If Poe’s text is read in this way what is it saying? Pym’s last adventure, in symbolizing a page of writing, tells us that literature borrows from the material world only in order to call attention to itself. Fiction is about itself. The signs and symbols revolve in patterns around a vacant hub, language being, in Mallarmé’s word, self-reflecting. (“Le langage se réfléchissant.”)

Three comments: 1) Ricardou’s prose is not without its own opacities, but my first reaction after reading his essay was to feel exhilarated rather than wearied. Right or wrong, this is the work of an unusually agile intelligence. This is “creative reading” — indeed, so exuberantly creative as to become at times plainly excessive. As one instance: the Bennett’s Islet landfall (in Chapter XVII) “stands for” the heading at the top of the page; by relentless analogy the lines of print below must “stand for” the Tsalalian archipelago. 2) Yet even if one objects to the thesis in its entirety there are insights incidental to it that certainly reward examination. I would single out the correlation observed between the white men’s consternation when they first examined the nonreflecting water and the near-frenzy of Too-wit when caught between two mirrors. Double-or-nothing in the one case; double-and-nothing in the other. In both the fear of Nothing — as R. M. Adams has discussed this concept in some cogent pages on Poe — is the dominant motive. 3) Though admiring the essay as a whole, I can see at least two important grounds for dissent. One I have mentioned: Ricardou’s understanding ­[page 17:] of the passage that describes how a knife blade could operate on the veiny water. For him it is the key passage in the enigmatic text. I believe he has misconstrued it. The other objection starts from agreement with his own principle that an exegesis should attend to all the details of the examined text. When he goes beyond the final paragraph of Chapter XVIII to include nearly the entire last third of “A. Gordon Pym” he has overextended himself and is unable to abide by that principle. Perforce he does what he faulted Mme. Bonaparte and others for doing: selecting for exegetical comment only the details that prove congenial to the predilections of the commentator. Hence Ricardou concludes with what I would wager he knew he would find — confirmation of the thesis, now very much in vogue, that a literary work is “a piece of language,” creative only “in the sense that it brings into existence its own meaning.”

The basic assumption, then, to repeat the point, is that the work is about itself; it is self-contained. Ricardou could say, although he does not bother to, that this assumption is quite “in the spirit of Poe,” for it was Poe’s belief that the summit of literary endeavor is a poem written solely for the poem’s sake. Ricardou does not cite this aphorism, but in a short essay on the “House of Usher” he quotes with approval some of Poe’s remarks on the philosophy of composition, specifically the doctrine that everything in a poem, drama, tale, or novel must be governed by the denouement. The final lines of the work must be in the writer’s mind before he writes his first word. What is called inspiration has no part to play. Fabrication is a more relevant word, and in the resulting fabric everything must be tied together.

What interests Ricardou in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is what he describes as “the story within the story.” You will remember that following the interment of Madeline Usher, and during a tempestuous night, the visitor to the house attempts to calm Roderick Usher by reading to him from a late medieval romance — spurious, of course, for Poe was its author — entitled “The Mad Trist.” But since the events recounted in “The Mad Trist” are correlative to the action taking place within the story of “The House of Usher,” as Madeline returns from her tomb, the therapy hoped for does not take place. Roderick Usher’s ­[page 18:] being becomes more unstrung than ever, so that when his dying sister enters the room both he and she collapse in each other’s arms and in death. Whereupon, the narrator says: “From that chamber and from that mansion I fled aghast.”

It is typical of the way Ricardou’s mind works that at this point he raises a question that no one else would normally think of. He asks why the narrator leaves so suddenly. It would be a superficial answer, in his opinion, to reply that the narrator’s haste is a symptom of his shock in witnessing the twofold deaths of Roderick and his sister. “But it is unwise in reading Poe,” warns Ricardou, “to base one’s interpretation on ordinary day-to-day psychology.” From the outset of the story the narrator / visitor underwent and survived some very severe jolts. He is precipitate in his departure from the house primarily because he has become aware of the link between the literal and metaphorical meanings of the word house. Concurrent with the extinction of the house as family, that is, Roderick and his sister, there will occur the downfall of the literal house they lived in. And another reason for his immediate departure is that he knew in advance how the whole business would end. For in the story of “The Mad Trist” a house — the hermit’s dwelling — is destroyed. In this story-within-the-story he came upon a prophecy and heeded it. And so, Ricardou would have us conclude, we need not look beyond the pages of “Usher” itself to discover a motive for the narrator’s hurried exit. The motive is all but explicit within the text itself.

Within the text itself: this is the expressed and implied refrain of Ricardou’s three essays on Poe, the most recent of which concerns what is probably Poe’s most innocuous and least elusive story, “The Gold-Bug.” The title Baudelaire gave his translation of this story is “Le Scarabée d’Or,” thus modulating Poe’s simple word bug up to the level of scarab. Ricardou’s title for his essay is L’Or du Scarabée, the gold in the bug — and hence a promise that his examination of the story will bring to light some treasures of meaning long buried in it.

But treasures is too weighty a word to describe Ricardou’s findings, for findings they are. Every move this critic makes has reference to specific details within the story. There is no overt or covert imposition of meaning, but rather a process of eliciting ­[page 19:] meaning from the particular details that Poe used. What is astonishing is that Ricardou can fasten on what seem the most trivial of details and show, or at least put on a brilliant demonstration of showing, how these details are not inert but rather have an active function within the story as a whole. I shall cite a few instances.

Ricardou first takes notice of the east-west polarity which appears on the first page of “The Gold-Bug.” The scene of the story is Sullivan’s Island, off the South Carolina coast. The hero of the story, William Legrand, lives in an isolated cabin at the eastward end of the island. At its western extremity we find an army post, Fort Moultrie, and a group of summer cottages. Moving from the island (east) to the mainland (west) we find that the trees on the island are few and truncated, whereas on the mainland, where the crucial discovery scene is to take place, we find a gigantic tulip tree, surrounded by eight or ten oaks. The two terrains, of island-east and mainland-west, are also different. On the island there is virtually nothing but sea sand, while the terrain of the mainland consists of a species of tableland near the summit of an almost inaccessible hill. The initial conclusion that Ricardou makes at this point is that in the west things grow and accumulate. The west is fecund territory; the east is bare and impoverished.

It turns out that other details of the story are quite in keeping with the values of this east-west polarity. Thus Legrand when wealthy had lived in New Orleans. Now impoverished, he lives in a shack on an island to the east of the continent. The gold bug itself was found in the east, but when its accidental value becomes clear to Legrand — when, that is, he deciphers the cryptic message on the parchment used to pick up the bug — the bug, lent to Lieutenant G—, is on its way west, to Fort Moultrie. And there is one similar point: when the successful second try is made at locating a spot at which to dig for treasure, Legrand relocates his marker on the ground, moving it three inches to the westward of its former position.

And so the accent is put heavily on the west, which valorizes the description of Jupiter’s lowering the bug down through the eye socket of a skull on the tulip tree branch. The bug glistened, Poe writes, “like a globe of burnished gold in the last rays of ­[page 20:] the setting sun.” There is a cluster of symbolic equivalents here among treasure, bug, and sun. Setting in the west, the sun is a hint of the wealth that was lost by Legrand and the wealth that was buried by Captain Kidd and which Legrand will find.

Ricardou, who seems bent on uncovering a meaning behind each and every detail mentioned in the text, notices that Legrand found not only a bug but also a bivalve, and both, he thought, were of types theretofore unknown. The reason Poe places the two in parallel in this way is to endow the bug with some coloration from the bivalve, the color of the sea, that is, and so the association of pirate ships. Similarly, in the sentence in which both bivalve and bug are mentioned, the order of the nouns is bivalve first and bug second — which is in parallel with Captain Kidd’s procedure in hiding his treasure by going from sea to land. Rather surprisingly, Ricardou does not call our attention to the fact that Poe refers to a bivalve but does not identify its kind. Was it a clam or an oyster that Legrand found? The answer, à la Ricardou, is easily hit on: a pearl-bearing oyster, of course, is the kind of bivalve that would turn up in a story having to do with hidden treasure.

Since the essence of the plot of “The Gold-Bug” involves the decipherment of a cryptogram, it is inevitable that Ricardou sees the story as one about a reading process, about communication. And sure enough, at the outset there is confusion on both the narrator’s part and on Jupiter’s as to what words mean. For example, Legrand says: “Stay here tonight, and I will send Jup down for it at sunrise. It is the loveliest thing in creation.” “What, sunrise?” asks the narrator. “Nonsense, no — the bug,” Legrand replies; who then in describing its antennae is interrupted by Jupiter’s correcting him, saying: “Dey ain’t no tin in him. . . .” Both the narrator and Jupiter are on bad terms with language. They go in for monovalent meanings. It is Legrand who, guessing that his parchment contains a message, defines himself as a reader, one who can detect a concealed meaning, as for instance that the bug is not of gold but is an initial clue to the discovery of gold.

And this brings us to one of Ricardou’s nicest points. Why, he asks, does Poe tell us in the second line of the story that Legrand’s religious background was Protestant? His ingenious ­[page 21:] answer to the question is this: Unlike the Catholic Church, which reserves to itself the right to read and interpret Scripture, Protestantism gives everyone that right. And so in a story crucially concerned with the reading of an enigmatic message, it is fitting that the protagonist should belong to “the religion of readers.”

To go a bit further in this vein: since the story involves decipherment and hidden gold, it would be fitting if the text itself invited some decipherment and if there were traces of the hidden gold of meaning peeping through. Ricardou finds anagrammatic evidence that Poe did not overlook this possibility. Take the detail of the lieutenant from Fort Moultrie. He is referred to, rather blankly, as Lieutenant G—. Surely that blank can be filled in with o-1-d to give us his full name, Lieutenant Gold. A similar appropriateness occurs when Poe, in order to refer to an imaginary realm of riches, mentions not El Dorado, as of course he might have done, but Golconda, since the key letters g-o-l-d are contained in that place name. Ricardou acknowledges that verbal investigation of this kind can become a bit dizzying, so he gives only a few more examples of how one might rummage for puns and anagrams having to do with gold. And gold, in the end, is to be taken metaphorically for writing. In a final flourish he quotes one of the fables of La Fontaine: “Le Laboureur et Ses Enfants,” the one having to do with buried treasure, and annotates the poem rather fully with details from “The Gold-Bug.” He finds it possible to do this, he says, because the La Fontaine poem is also about writing. But what isn’t? one asks. Writing is what writing is all about. Just as in his discussion of “A. Gordon Pym,” so here with “The Gold-Bug”: he arrives at the conclusion he was convinced beforehand he would arrive at.

The five men discussed in this paper — Poulet, Richard, Asselineau, Lévy, and Ricardou — are by no means the only French critics who have contributed to Poe studies over the past twenty years. But they are among the most important; and though I have treated them as a group, it is the varied nature of what they have written that was the principle behind my selection of them.

A more thorough discussion of this subject would have to take into account, at one extreme, the austerely cerebral pages ­[page 22:] of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on “The Purloined Letter,” and at the other extreme the film recently imported from France under the title (the phrase is Poe’s) Spirits of the Dead. Lacan’s “Seminaire sur la lettre volée,” in his Ecrits (1966), has some fame as a “structuralist” inquiry, but considerable training is needed before headway can be made into its nearly impenetrable prose. Spirits of the Dead is a cinematic trio based on three Poe stories, interpreted by the French directors Louis Malle and Roger Vadim and the Italian Federico Fellini. I have not yet seen this movie, but hearsay suggests that Fellini’s contribution — based on “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” — is the one success of the trio. To judge from the reviews I have read, there is little connection between the scenarios of any of the films that make up this program and the stories that Poe originally wrote. Nor, in parallel, is there, I am told, really much said about “The Purloined Letter” in Lacan’s “Seminaire.” But rather than being chagrined by this, I see in the two instances an indirect triumph for Poe. Toward the end of his career Claude Debussy was planning an opera, but the plans were never realized, based on “Usher.” In 1928 the film director Jean Epstein produced his version, rather different from Poe’s original, of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It seems to me that one good indication of the strength of Poe’s genius is that it continues to evoke a creative response in other writers, artists, and critics. The story of Poe and France over the past twenty years, as we have looked at it this afternoon, is proof of that.



This lecture was delivered by Dr. Patrick F. Quinn at the Forty-Seventh Annual Commemorative Program of the Poe Society on October 5, 1969. The program was held in the Westminster Church.

© 1969 and 1998, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc. At the time of the lecture, Dr. Quinn was a professor of English at Wellesley College.


[S:1 - PAFLTY, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and France: The Last Twenty Years (P. F. Quinn, 1969)