Text: Henri Justin, “The Fold Is the Thing: Poe Criticism in France in the Last Five Years,” Poe Studies, December 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 2, 16:25-31


[page 25:]

The Fold Is the Thing:
Poe Criticism in France
in the Last Five Years

Sorbonne Nouvelle

After having received a lot of public attention in the heyday of structuralism, Poe’s tales left the limelight but not the stage of French critical discourse. On that stage, the tales are involved in a scenario in which linguistics and psychoanalysis are merging into philosophy in response to the work of Lacan and Derrida, with “letter,” “text,” and “double” as key-concepts in the script.


Some voices react against such intellectuality; one is Françoise Levy, who takes issue with Jacques Lacan’s reading of “The Purloined Letter” in her 1981 essay “La Lettre . . . .“(1) Poe insists in his tale, we remember, on the two faces of the letter received by the Queen — one bearing the “address,” the other the “contents” (Works, III, 977) — which cannot but remind us of Ferdinand de Saussure’s visualization of the sign as a double-faced entity, half-signifier, half-signified. On this basis, Lacan concludes that the address-face stands for the signifier — whose meaning is thus hidden. Hidden and soon lost: Lacan, as Levy observes gradually moves to a conception of the letter as a signifier whose meaning has been lost in the process of passing from hand to hand. Poe’s text again seems to help Lacan here: we are never given the actual contents of the letter, and its return to the Queen is by-passed, with Dupin’s message to the Minister D — giving the rale its striking tag end in place of such a return. But for Levy, the job of critic is to resisr being led on: if the letter had indeed lost its meaning, the story would have lost its motive power. “Meaning is stubborn,” and Lacan, by reinforcing instead of denouncing the letter’s ostensible loss of meaning, [column 2:] has, in his turn, “purloined” the letter. Why? Levy suggests that recoil from sexuality and fear of the unknown motivate Lacan’s strategy — it can be convenient to cut language completely off from the real world and link up the signifier directly with the unconscious.

Levy’s essay is beautifully written and very suggestive. Its insistence on the power of the letter invites me to add a remark about that power, which, I think we all agree, never stops being felt in the tale. This power moves from (illegitimate) sexual power (the Queen/S ——— ) to (legitimate?) literary power (Dupin/narrator). It does so in successive stages, through a series of doubles; and this phased diversion of power, this “purloining” of the letter, could well be worth a detailed examination as an internal process of sublimation at work in the text.

There is, however, a weak point in Levy’s argument; I mention it because she makes it the linchpin of her demonstration, and because its elucidation opens a path for speculating about Poe’s art. It bears on the material manipulations imposed on the letter by the Minister. Levy goes to some length to show that the writing of his address by D ——— implies the disappearance of the text of the (original) letter. Had she taken more seriously Lacan’s own demonstration of how the letter was folded,(2) or had she simply read T. O. Mabbott’s note on the matter (Works, III, 986, n. 23), or, more simply still, taken Poe’s image for the folding literally (“the letter had been turned, as a glove, inside out”), she would not have concluded that the text creates a factual contradiction which, she says, Lacan obliterates. In fact a first fold gave the sheet of paper four faces (the glove structure), and a second one must have preceded the writing of the address. This fold-upon-fold structure is pure Poe and is essential to the tale, as its very opening already suggests, where the narrator introduces himself as “enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum,” the twofold luxury of meditation and a mere sham — of a genuine letter and a forgery — of truth and fiction.

Such, I would argue, is the twofold status of the literary text, but, not to come so abruptly to that conclusion in the manner of Jean Ricardou, let me first compare the discovery of the letter by Dupin to the famous “discovery” episode in “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” to which Allan Gardner Smith devotes his short 1981 essay, “‘Discovery’ in Poe.“(3) Discovery, Poe suggests, is not to be made so much within the folds (in the text as content) as at the folds (in [page 26:] the text as structure). Dupin’s language implies this perspective when he tells his friend how he made

a discovery which set at rest whatever trivial doubt I might have entertained. In scrutinizing the edges of the paper, I observed them to be more chafed than seemed necessary. They presented the broken appearance which is manifested when a stiff paper having been once folded and pressed with a folder, is refolded in a reversed direction, in the same creases or edges which had formed the original fold. This discovery was sufficient. (Works III, 991-992; italics mine, except for “chafed” and “broken.”)

The folding lines themselves spell discovery — as they do literally in “MS. Found in a Bottle”:

An incident has occurred which has given me new room for meditation. Are such things the operation of ungoverned chance? . . . While musing upon the singularity of my fate, I unwittingly daubed with a tar-brush the edges of a neatly-folded studding-sail which lay near me on a barrel. The studding-sail is now bent upon the ship, and the thoughtless touches of the brush are spread out into the word DISCOVERY. (Works, Il, 142; italics mine.)

Smith’s introductory summary of this passage — “the aimless daubing of a sail spells out a word“ — leaves out what precisely constitutes the answer he is looking for in the rest of his article, for he ignores the role of “the edges” of the “neatly-folded studding-sail.” Ricardou’s treatment of such passages(4) cannot now be avoided: the sail is the page, and Poe’s err is the art of framing and folding and framing with fold within fold (with the term “neatly” in the passage answering, at least for the reader, the narrator’s question on the possible operation of chance in the process). The article by Smith is interesting but keeps on a level where Poe cannot be found at his best. The critic comes to a conclusion in line with that of Lacan: the word “discovery” is “the signifies without the signified, like the letter in “The Purloined Letter.” As a psychologist, however, he seems not to like this “semantic blankness” (p. 9): nor Lacan only, but Poe himself is caught up in “the prison-house of language and of thought” (p 8). But, let me add, the French tend to think that the prison-house is worth exploring — and fun to explore.

This sense of fun is Claude Richard’s passport to his American audience in his 1980 lecture at the University of Iowa.(5) The lecture covers very thoroughly the Lacan/Derrida ground and goes on with a piece of playful virtuosity of its own. Since it is obvious that Poe very deliberately chose the letter D ——— as a common signifier for the twin identities of Dupin and the Minister, one can read the purloining of the letter as “the theft of a D ——— “ — and Richard very cleverly chases this D ——— through the whole text, to the point where Dupin recovers it and shares that restored “I.D.entity” with the narrator because no Poe character can be whole, no human subject should feel whole in himself. I leave American readers to the pleasure of this text easily available to them.

This was not Richard’s first venture into what we can call “lettrism,” a reading at letter-level traceable back to Ricardou and de Saussure(6) and given theoretical context by the Lacanian school.(7) In his 1981 essay “‘L’ ou l‘indicibilite de Dieu: une lecture de ‘Ligeia,‘“s Richard shows that the letter L works as the linguistic representation of God [column 2:] in the tale — and condemns the representation as blasphemous, and the narrator as a romantic megalomaniac, thus articulating the lettrist approach moralistically. Richard starts by showing that the validity of a text written by a narrator with such confused and fragmented memories must be based not on the story told but rather on the telling, on the text itself. Then, in the “letter” of the text, he finds that the divine and lost Ligeia is associated with “letters, lambent and golden” and Rowena with “lead” (p. 16). Richard follows this merallic couple throughout the text, brings out the alchemical metaphor, and concludes that the obliterated element in the story is the narrator’s desire to recover his lost gold by the transmutation of lead, that is, the lost god by the “revivification” of the dead woman. From “gold” to “god,” from “lead” to “dead,” we see what the narrator is denying: his quest of the L, of the L of Ligeia — “by that sweet word alone,” by that sweet letter alone. . . .

At this point, even if I tried to hide it, my reader would see that I cannot go on with the summing-up rationally. Richard’s text moves on by association, connotation, play on words and letters; it is highly seductive and resists the rationalization which an abstract implies. So here I can only come to the moral Richard draws from his reading and invite the reader to go for himself through the rich network woven in between. Obviously Ligeia does not come back, a fact Richard terms the “failure” of the narrator’s project (pp. 22, 25). The narrator claims he wanted “god” through “death” to come “back,” whereas he only gets “gold” through “lead” to come “black”; that is, he remains hopelessly enclosed in the order of the L, the alluring order of language — or literature? (pp. 27-28). The narrator holds inordinate belief in his mastery of a magical language which could, with a “word,” create a “world” (p. 29); with an L create God — “God is but a great will,” a great ‘11, a great L . . . (p. 31). But God cannot be represented, cannot be said.

One sees how Richard uses the potent seductions of language. He does not apply a rational method but follows his own path, a path where the verbal play, brilliant and illuminating (it finds fuel in Poe’s text indeed), moves towards a condemnation of the magic use of the letter. But who (in the Poe text) says that God cannot be said? — not a morally-placed voice as in a Hawthorne story, in fact nobody. The text itself is saying it, the letter itself. And indeed, we must grant that in a Poe story, the narrator is judged by his text alone, by its letter — a letter, then, very much in the position of God. And Poe put it there to distinguish narrator from writer is essential, as Gargano taught us two decades ago, but to quarantine the narrator in the hope of preventing contagion — as Gargano did too(9) — appears desperate to me. The question is — as Richard is aware(10) — how to distinguish between the various consciousnesses at work.


Three recent, more limited, and less controversial studies make clear and useful contributions. Monique Dubanton’s [page 27:] 1979 “L‘Ovale du portrait“(11) is a reading of “The Oval Portrait” in the Freud/Bonaparte tradition — but with a difference: full attention is paid to the main structural problem in the text, the articulation of the two parts. Dubanton, who does not seem to have read G. R. Thompson, comes to a conclusion related to but opposite from his — that the narrator is in fact the painter himself compulsively forced to come back (“forcible entrance”) to the chateau he had “temporarily and very lately abandoned,” morally “wounded” as he was by the realization that his wife “was dead.” Dubanton makes a lot of sense (even though two of the clues she gives are to be found only in Baudelaire), and the logic of her argument leads her to see under the cliche-ridden surface of the second part a genuine personal experience which the narrator cannot bear to tell in the first person — not the experience of art as “life-in-death,” but the experience of the young Poe and his dying mother. Poe’s modernity, Dubanton goes on, lies in the fact that he does not hide subconscious conflicts under the smooth surface of a traditional narrative but breaks up that surface, consciously transgressing accepted literary codes (with the unreliable narrator, the shift from “I” to “he”), to offer a text to be read on two levels.

The return of the living picture of one’s victim and beloved is a form of “the return of the repressed,” a process which Freud connected with the feeling of “the uncanny” in “Des Unheimliche,” a short study rediscovered in France in the early 1970’s. Dubanton refers to it, and so do several of the other critics discussed here. Gilles Menegaldo mentions it too in a 1980 contribution to a symposium on “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the Fantastic.12 And it is the focal point of Jacques Gadeau’s valuable 1980 article “Edgar Poe and the Unheimliche.“(13) Gadeau starts with a bibliography of the rediscovery of Freud’s study in France, then shows that “wild,” the nearest English approximation for “Unheimliche,” is often used by Poe: the best example introduces “The Black Cat” as “the most wild yet homely narrative.” Other close substitutes in Poe are such couples as “fantastic yet impressive,” “deep yet most singular,” “objectless yet intolerable.” Gadeau finds not only that Poe offers numerous illustrations of the contents of Freud’s “uncanny” (the double, the evil eye, the return of the same) but also that “Poe seems to have had the intuition of both the origin and the working principle” of the concept — the origin in infancy (see “Usher,” “William Wilson”), the principle of an antagonism between the impulse to see and say, and the necessity to hide.

“Who shall tell?” concludes Legrand at the end of “The Gold-Bug.” Armine Kotin takes up the question in an 1980 essay “La Lecture de la Mort.“(14) The answer is obvious enough and corresponds to the nasty aftertaste the conclusion of the tale must leave most readers with: the goldfinder is also a potential murderer, gold is linked up with death, and the gold-bug with a death’s head. But some of the suggestions Kotin offers in the course of the analysis are interesting. 1) The “mattock” in the last sentence is a remarkable example of the extreme nicety of Poe’s art. 2) The gold/“goole“/ghoul association is much more central to the tale than Ricardou had thought. 3) The “coincidence” [column 2:] that Legrand should draw a sketch of the bug at the back of the parchment and exactly along the lines of Kidd’s death’s-head on the front is an “accident” (say an operation of chance) of the order of metonymy. But because Legrand offers no “cause-and-effect” “connecrio4” we are left with the “coincidence” of two drawings. Thus “metonymy becomes metaphor,” Kotin writes, and the metaphor works as the unacknowledged starting-point of the treasure-hunt proper — and commands its double-ending in gold and potential death. 4) Finally, one interpretation of this coincidence (or neat folding by Poe) is that the grown-up (Legrand as “le grand”) revives by his writing the coded writing of the child (Kidd as “the kid”) and so pursues his own repressed secret. One sees here how the unfolding of the text opens “room” for “discovery” in the fields of psychoanalysis and of poetics.


An article by Evelyne Pinto whose “argument as a finished whole elude[d]” Patrick Quinn when he reviewed it in Poe Studies for 1978,‘5 was a small section from a doctoral thesis now available under the title “Edgar Poe et l‘art dtinventer.“(16) Unfortunately I have to add that if the argument is now traceable it can scarcely be called satisfying. To start with the title, I must warn my reader that the book it ostensibly represents has almost nothing to do with Poe’s art of invention. Pinto’s general idea is the probably valid if limited one that Poe interiorized his social frustrations — folding life on death, I would suggest. But Pinto is not interested in the process, in the urt involved; she reacts against it (“the death-wish of which the writer was in his way the theorician is not native to the human subject”) and puts in its place Poe’s struggle for individual survival and communication. She does not face the fact that this act of faith runs, technically, counter to the structuralist approach she also flirts with, leaving her with no other mffhod than loose pragmaticism. She deals successively with the sea narratives, the narratives centered on women, the cycle of perverseness, the tales of ratiocination, and the cosmologies. And in each case she comments on the destinies of the tales’ main characters in terms of the writer caught in his personal, social, ideological environment. She does not take into account the now wellestablished distance between character and writer and does not really show in what sense the writer transcends his environment — indeed, she assumes he does not, while paying lip service to his mastery of form.

What Marie Bonaparte did in terms of strict psychoanalysis, Pinto does in broader terms — provokingly replacing sexual impotence by social frustration and poverty as the decisive basis for the development of neurosis. Her contribution in this context is twofold. First, she offers an interesting (and she says “plausible”) reconstruction of Poe’s predicament as a man and as a writer (one that runs counter to Richard’s defense of Poe’s mental control, but Richard works at a level Pinto never even considers). Second, she presents an abundant and varied supply of contextual information (of whose value, for the most part, I am no judge) — on epidemic diseases, on poverty [page 28:] and vice, on the split image of woman as sacred or vile (Ch. 2); on Kant and the sublime, on criminality and psychiatry (Ch. 3); on astrophysics and cosmologies, on science and epistemology, on game analysis and probability applied to the human sciences (Ch. 4). In offering contextual information, Pinto reveals a remarkable talent for popularization, and her bibliography offers refreshing sources, largely in French, which invite further exploration.

As for the development of Pinto’s argument, ir is necessarily circular, even though it rejects the deep satisfaction of full circularity. The title which should announce the argument becomes more and more of a riddle as we proceed through the first chapters, expecting analyses of Poe’s literary invention but getting instead environmental archaeology and the theme of personal survival. Pinto’s favorite tale is “A Descent into the Maelstrom” because, in her thematic reading, it illustrates a drowning man’s gradual discovery of “a way OUt” through scientific curiosity — but still Pinto shows no interest in the dynamics of Poe’s imagination. She rums instead to processes of discovery staged in Poe’s writing, and, half-way through, we are suddenly made to realize that “I‘art d‘inventer” was, under LeiLnitz’ pen, a new, tentative, less Cartesian approach to game analysis. We are dismayed, not because of Pinto’s attention to LeiLnitz, or to Kepler and his “noble art” of “guessing,” but because the critic draws connections to Poe the thinker at the expense of Poe the writer. When Dupin’s thinking on games is considered in its historical context, his method is discussed in all seriousness as parallel to Poe’s (hypothetical) “thought.” On the other hand, when Pinto toys with Poe’s teasing anticipations in Eureka of more recent scientific developments, she ultimately backs away from the irrational facility of explaining the past by the present and Eureka as the product of prophetic genius. So what is left? For Pinto, Poe has discovered “a curative technique“ — writing as “sublimation.” With Eureka he offers himself the “consolation” of the “myth” of a return to divine unity even while he discovers the logic of his whole work, the external logic that is, the logic of literature as a substitute.

We have been taken on a pleasant round-trip, comfortably seated in a vehicle upholstered by Baudelaire,(17) and given remarkably clear and interesting commentaries on the scenery along the way, but we have been allowed no glimpse into the engine. While Pinto is very well-versed in contemporary thought, she chooses to take a more traditional, humanistic and rationalistic approach. This I respect and could value, bur she comes out empty-handed, having to fall back finally on literature as the only field of Poe’s “invention” after having paid no serious attention to literary invention proper.


One thing Pinto shares with recent Poe critics is an interest in Eureka — her last chapter contains some excellent illustrations and intuitions. Eureka is also the subject of a long essay in 1981 by Isabelle Rieusset, “Edgar A. Poe, [column 2:] poete de la connaissance,“(18) which does not deal so much with the epistemology of sciences (Pinto’s main concern) as with philosophy proper. The whole first part in particular (pp. 35-80) is a very thorough and supple placing of Eureka in reference to the two dominant philosophical models in Western civilization: metaphysical dualism and materialistic dialectics. Rieusset does so with a remarkable taste for nuance and lack of dogmatism. She sees Eureka as wavering between the two models but, in the final view, she finds that its text functions as an adequate criticism of both traditional systems. Poe’s system does not belong to metaphysical dualism because it poses matter and spirit as “reciprocal” (whereas in traditional dualism spirit always gets the upper hand), at least to the non-point where both disintegrate into “God,” who can be called not only “Spirit” but also, synonymously in men’s eyes, “Nihility” (pp. 46-48). This strict reciprocity is necessarily dialectical and comes very near Hegel’s dialectical metaphysics — metaphysics even though dialectical — in the sense that the reciprocal interaction of the contraries transcends itself into pure Oneness, the “full,” “homogeneous” Oneness of Origin to which the whole system now returns.

Rieusset chooses not to see at this point that if one follows the whole imaginative movement of Eureka, one is led to Oneness as pure homogeneity and pure heterogeneity, pure difference as much as pure substance — “pure” here meaning that our imagination itself then collapses in triumph. But she later remarks that Poe can also reverse Hegel’s metaphysical perspective by defining spirit as difference and heterogeneity and that he then comes very near contemporary materialism. Still, Poe remains basically metaphysical in perspective by posing a transcendent Center, an Absolute Beginning, his originality being that he recognizes it as “a mere assumption“ — a mere and essential assumption as it is born of the desire of desire, keeping itself to itself out of time, in Absolute Simplicity, away from Derrida’s “difference,” away from the indefinite shifting of meaning as difference and the passing of “the letter” from hand to hand to no final destination (pp. 51-52). The interplay of Unity and Multiplicity is good dialectics, the jumping into Oneness is pure metaphysics, but Rieusset concludes after a detour into astrophysics where she is not in full control, the two are so linked up with each other, and with the fictional organization aiming at effect, that the whole works as an invitation to doubt the distinction (p. 70). Perhaps we shall never leave metaphysics at least as long as we privilege seeing in the pursuit of knowledge — and, in the order of sight, symmetry is “the key-concept in Eureka” (p. 78) because it implies both common measure and relations, both oneness and twoness as Rieusser insightfully observes (p. 79).

Symmetry, as an aesthetic principle, provides the hinge of Rieusset’s essay: Poe in Eureka is not offering a piece of knowledge but a (reading) experience. Rieusset now comes to Poe’s poetics, seeing its modernity and its transcendence over the oppositions between the two philosophical orders previously considered. Both orders see the signifier as transparent to its referent under the guarantee of God (metaphysics) or the Real (materialism). Poe, on the contrary, poses “God” (or “Infinity”) as “a word” expressing [page 29:] “a certain tendency of the human intellect,” that is, as a signifier with no signified proper (God being inconceivable). Language can thus assume its full autonomy “Oneness” itself being a theoretical signifier pointing to that openness, that “blank space” which allows the articulations of meaning: as such, it is akin to Derrida’s “difference“ — and fiction finds its “truth” in its degree of perfection as an integrated whole (pp. 90-96). It takes genius to add that the truoh of fiction, thus defined, is related to Truth (p. 95) .

So we see how the reaching towards an impossible perfection of symmetry will be central to Poe’s aesthetics — while the danger of getting obsessed by more superficial duplications (as Roderick Usher by his double?) or by some incantatory signifier (be it “Ligeia,” “L,” or “nevermore”) forms an ever-present temptation. Rieusset shows in the last part of her essay (and in particular by an analysis of “The Raven”) how the Poe narrator falls victim to it while the writer himself steers clear.

Such is also the concern of Claude Richard in his 1982 “Edgar A. Poe et l‘esthetique du double.“(19) It is impossible to map here the course of an intellectual meditation in which Richard plays with contemporary concepts and with conceptions of his own reached in previous work. But its general direction can be given. Richard implicitly draws his main inspiration from the wholesome defense by Clement Rosset(20) of the uniqueness of everything real, of the otherness of others and (Richard adds in the Poe/Derrida context) of the otherness of the other sex.(21) On this basis, Poe’s dark characters, obsessed as they are with projected images of themselves, appear as obvious instruments and victims of madness and of death.

But what about Poe as a writer? While insisting on the centrality of duplication in Poe’s tales, and sharply refusing “to play down” the issue by seeing the double “as tamely answering some literary mode or personal obsession” (p. 61), Richard sets out to exonerate Poe himself of “the aesthetics of the double.” His main argument is founded on a study of the function of the tarn at the beginning of “Usher.” The landscape, first seen as “simple” (“the mere house,” “the simple landscape features”) Richard contends, is then “remodelled” by the tarn, that is, distorted: the duplication which creates the image enters the image itself and now the house looks symmetrical (“the vacant and eye-like windows”). Duplication is falsehood and temptation, and the narrator is going to succumb to it and be contaminated by Roderick’s “perverted” aesthetics. Poe, on the contrary, has written a highly moralistic tale (with “Ligeia” or “William Wilson” as other cases in point), and the positive counterpart of these narrative example Richard finds in Poe’s celebration of “Oneness,” “the divine source of Unity,” in Eureka. “The double,” Richard writes, “is the metaphysical contrary of the Ideal of the One represented by mathematical and imaginative consistency” (pp. 66-67). [column 2:]

Such an abstract cannot do justice to a very personal text cascading from remark to remark with little respect for surface rationality, but Richard’s main drift can be discussed here, together with his analysis of the function of the tarn. My contention is that the narrator never sees the house and domain as a “mere house,” a “simple” landscape. The two adjectives already crop up as an effort to counteract the instant experience of the uncanny; and the words “landscape” and then “picture” suggest that, from the start, the narrator ignored the reality of the house and domain to view them in terms of art. This is confirmed, I think, by the action of the tarn. The remodeling did not “modify” the first impression “but” sent through the narrator “a shudder even more thrilling than before”; or again: its “sole effect” was “to deepen” that first impression. In other words, duplication in the mirror rendered more visible the essential quality of the original “scene”; just as in “vacant and eye-like windows” the awkwardly obtrusive “and” is a metalinguistic sign pointing to the metaphor already quietly at work in the original “vacant eye-like windows.” The answer to the narrator’s nausea is now drawing on us: he has been from the outset face to face! The paragraph, or rather the whole tale, is indeed “neatly-folded.” We owe Richard the discovery that Poe, in his criticism, defends humble craftsmanship and natural art. But I do not see that the opening of “Usher” can be salvaged as pointing to the possibility of artistic innocence, “before the contamination” (p. 68).

Is not the art of folding essential to Poe the tale-writer, even if obsession which one’s double is a psychological perversion? The “Oneness” celebrated in Eureka belongs to God, and even the “Unity” of the Universe can be nothing, “to all Finite Perception,” bur “Nothingness.“(22) Richard insists elsewhere(23) on Poe’s religious response to this: a sense of exile from a divine world, which poetry is called on to express. But the whole of Eureka is devoted to an intellectual approach of the impossible conception of unity, and his tale-plots are conceived by Poe in terms of an approximation of the perfect plot of God. What Poe needed at this point was a formal concept capable of degrees of perfection, or imperfection — that concept is symmetry. If Oneness is a mystical reality, symmetry is its working principle. Term-to-term symmetries must be denounced (as Richard does) but denounced, I think, as falling short of the “supreme” symmetry of the two antagonistic principles whose consideration alone can lead us towards some abstract experience of the togetherness of the Universe:

It is, perhaps, in no little degree . . . our propensity for . . . the symmetrical . . . which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended on with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe — of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. . . . Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave out of sight the really essential symmetry of the principles which determine and control them.(24) [page 30:]

The last and most recent contributions to be considered here are by Uri Eisenzweig, whose field is the detective story. In his remarkable 1982 essay “L‘Instance du policier dans le romanesque: Balzac, Poe et le mystere de la chambre close,“(25) he gives two related (and largely separate) analyses, of Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” on the one hand, and of Balzac’s “Maitre Corneliuus” on the other. The latter is seen as opening the field of the Balzacian novel just as Poe’s tale opens the field of the detective story. Eisenzweig’s purpose is to show how the two are articulated on each other and, more precisely and ambitiously, how the detective story and the narration of psychologically motivated events typical of the nineteenth century novel (“le recit romanesque evenementiel”) were founded on each other’s exclusion.

Poe’s “Murders” inaugurated the “locked-room mystery” and if the room had really been “locked” from the inside, of course, no narration of the events leading to the murder would have been possible: “pure detection” would have faced a blank. It is at this point that Dupin sees that the nail was broken, thus replacing an impossibility by a near-impossibility: the murderer now had to cross the “no man’s-land” between the shutter and the lightning-rod to enter and leave the room itself. Here the second phase of “pure detection” begins, leading to the narrator’s guess that only “a madman” could have acted thus. That this (second) process of “ratiocination” ends in the recognition of madness illustrates a paradox which Eisenzweig will place at the core of the “locked-room” genre — the room itself must be neither quite closed nor quite open (p. 283)

Dupin produces the tuft of hairs identifying the agent of the murders as an ape, and as has often been observed, the extra piece of external evidence makes the previous deductions redundant and turns the murders into an accident. Eisenzweig extends these points, concluding that the detective story — in its extreme Poe definition (the reservation is essential, I feel) — excludes the narration of humanly-motivated events. And Eisenzweig’s great merit and originality is to go on to show that Balzac, ten years before, was founding that type of narration (his own to come) on the exclusion of the non-human or unconscious “accident,” and doing so with the use of a detective plot containing elemens strikingly similar to those in the “Rue Morgue.”

In treating Poe’s tale, I should note, it is a pity that Eisenzweig tends to use general, abstract terms for more circumscribed concepts (“pure detection” for deduction from initial evidence; “narration“ — “recit“ — for Balzacian narration based on psychology; “mystery” for mystery a1ud for problem), thus losing in precision what he gains in brilliant suggestiveness. This is linked to the fact that Eisenzweig focuses on detection after the discovery of the broken nail and before the genre thus launched was taken up by Doyle and the rest. But this privileged stage can [column 2:] be placed back into a moving sequence. Before the evidence of the broken nail, “pure detection” means deduction from reading of the papers; and before the newspaper reports, before the intrusion of the gendarmes and neighbors, it means dreaming. Notice in the text how their “breaking in” can be read in terms of an act of aggression against the ladies’ “house” (Works, II, 537), not only as a consequence of the original (the ape’s) aggression but also as its duplication: both can be read as scenes in a dream, and the “dreaming room” is the two ladies’ apartment folded on to that occupied by the two bachelors, Dupin and the narrator. Are not the latter pair indirectly presented as “madmen“? And does not a similar duplication apply to the room where the sailor sleeps and the adjoining closet where the ape is (unsuccessfully) “confined“?(26)

What can be seen as the obverse of this sequence operates in Balzac’s text. Balzac’s “ape” is a banker who robs himself unconsciously in sleep-walking fits. Subsequently — and here we start moving down the sequence — footprints on flour tell their tale, and the banker, after struggling not to sleep, finally commits suicide with a razor! The sa.-ne instrument for the same function, for the same cutting off of the conscious from the unconscious, or let me add in Poe’s terms, of the “head” from the “body” (Works, II, 567). Thus Balzac could attain psychological order (and historical order to boot, with the king himself in the story playing detective!). Eisenzweig’s recognition of significant relations between Balzac’s and Poe’s texts constitutes, I think, a major contribution to the structural history of literary forms. Let me add simply that the privileged stage chosen by Poe for the detection plot proper is a highly unstable one. The symbolical head in Poe’s text is only “nearly” severed from the body; it is the official police (as distinct from marginal Dupin) who let the head fall off (Works, II, 538). This points to the evolution of the genre, its stabilization in “fact” by Poe’s followers with the introduction of humanly-motivated murders. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is not so much the “first” detective story as the invaluable “matrix” of them all (Eisenzweig uses both words).

One main element in Poe’s tale will become a structural basis of the detective story: it is the fact that the enquiry-narration must hide the murder-narration while gradually uncovering it. Eisenzweig insists on the importance of this “dual narrative structure” in a “Presentation of the genre” which opens a 1983 issue of Litterature(17) featuring, under his editorship, various structuralist approaches to the detective story as such. In addition to this “Presentation,” Eisenzweig himself introduces extracts of the first two adaptions of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” into French in 1864 (pp. 63-68) and closes the volume with a highly usable Bibliography of English, French, and German criticism (pp. 108-127). One of his own essays is listed as being published in 1982, in French, in Micluigan Komance Studies. And he dates his contributions from Rutgers University — America has, evidently, discovered him.



1 - “La Lettre . . . ,” Tel Quel, 87 (Spring 1981), 64-73. Lacan’s essay, “La Seminaire sur ‘La Lettre Volee” [in his Ecrits (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966), pp. 11-61], has been translated by Jeffrey Mehlman as “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,‘” in French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis, Yale French Studies, no. 48 (1972), 38-72.

2 - Lacan did manipulate a letter of the time in front of his audience.

3 - Delta, 12 (May 1981), 1-10.

4 - Two of Ricardou’s readings have been translated by Frank Towne: “Le Caractere singulier de cette eau,” in his Problemes du Notweau Ro1nan (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967), pp. 193-207, as “The Singular Charactet of the Water,‘” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 1-6; and “L‘Or du scarabee,” in his Pour une theorie dsu Nouveas’ Roman (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971), pp. 40-58, as “Gold in the Bug,” Poe Stsudies, 9 (1976), 33-39.

5 - Published as “Destin, Design, Dasein: Lacan, Derrida and ‘The Purloined Letter,‘” Iowa Review, 12, iv (Fall 1981), 1-10. Note also the clear and complete bibliographical “dossier” (pp. 10-11), and an interview with Richard (pp. 12-22).

6 - See Ricardou in “Gold in the Bug,” pp. 37-38. De Saussure’s “anagrams” were edited by Jean Starobinski in Les Mots sosus les mots (Paris: Gallimard, 1971). Claude Richard had already applied this reading technique in “La double Voix dans ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,‘” Delta, 1 (November 1975), 17-41.

7 - See in particular Serge Leclaire, Psychanalyser (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968). Ch. 2 claims thee, in the interpretation of dreams, the decisive sign liff (hidden) at the surface of the dream in one or two inconspicuous words. Ch. 6, “L‘Inconscient ou l‘ordre de la lettre,” rounds off Leclaire’s system.

8 - Delta, 12 (May 1981), 11-34.

9 - In, for example, “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” CoRege English, 25 (1963), 177-181, and “‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered,” Texas Stsudies in Literatsure and Language, 2 (1960), 172-180.

10 - In “Edgar A. Poe et l‘esthetique du double,” Prevue (Universite de Montpellier 111), 19 (January 1982), 60-71, Richard defines “Poe” as the final (and hidden) level of responsibility for the writing, staging conflicts at lower levels. See my discussion below.

11 - Poetique, 37 (February 1979), 102-110.

12 - Cahiers du CERLI (Universite de Toulouse le Mirail), 1 (December 1980). Menegaldo’s article on space in “Usher” is a good starting point for further research, while the whole batch [column 2:] bears witness to the fact that interest in Poe keeps very much alive in French universities.

13 - “Edgar Poe et l’ ‘Inquietante Etrangete,’ ” Cahiers de l‘Universite de Pas‘, 12 (December 1980), 87-96.

14 - Litterature, 37 (February 1980), 53-59.

15 - “Recent French Giticism,” Poe St7‘dies, 11 (1978), 19-20.

16 - I read the original thesis in the Sorbonne, but it is now published under the same title [Edgar Poe et l‘art d‘inventer (Paris: Klincksieck, 1983) ]. Pinto’s style is smooth and seductive, elegant to the point of looseness, with lapses into serious mispunctuation and misspelling. I am told this has been tidied up for the book version. The chapters have also been redistributed a little: I give their book order. But I can give no page reference.

17 - Pinto is not a specialist of English and is obviously influenced by Baudelaire’s translation, in which Poe’s intellectual imagination is blurred by romantic expressiveness. The note in which she surreptitiously accounts for the legitimacy of reading Poe through Baudelaire shows typical offhandedness.

18 - Delta, 12 (May 1981), 35-126.

19 - See n. 10 above

20 - See in particular Le Reel et son double (Gallimard, Paris, 1976) and Le ReeWtraite de l‘idiotie (Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1977), by Clement Rosset.

21 - An illuminating suggestion by Richard in this respea is that William Wilson’s double could well be a thin disguise meant to protea the protagonist from the more terrible menace of feminine presence.

22 - Complete Works, XVI, 310-311. On plot, see p. 292.

23 - E. A. Poe, Poems/Poemes, ed. C. Richard, trans. H. Parisot (Aubier, Paris, 1978): see “Introduction,” pp. 91-141.

24 - Complete Works, XVI, 302. This discussion partly echoes a conversation with Claude Richard. In Eureka he reads strictly metaphysical, as distinct from aesthetic, propositions.

25 - Poetique, 51 (September 1982), 279-302.

26 - See Richard Wilbur, “The Poe Mystery Case,” New York Review of Books, July 13, 1967, pp. 25-28. One illuminating paragraph shows that “the three secluded menages of the story are telescoped into one.” I owe my final remark to Eisenzweig, who makes remarkable sense of the configuration of the sailor’s apartment and what happens there.

27 - Litterature, 49 (February 1:983), 3-15.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]