Text: Jean Ricardou, “‘The Singular Character of the Water’,” Poe Studies, June 1976, Vol. IX, No. 1, 9:1-6


[page 1:]

“ ‘The Singular Character of the Water’ ”

Washington State University

Editorial Note

This is the first in a series of translations of important articles on Poe by contemporary European critics. Jean Ricardou, novelist and member of the editorial committee of Tel Quel from 1962 to 1971, is particularly well-known for his theoretical essays on the New Novel. Among his published works of fiction are L’Oblervatoire le Cartnes ( 1961), La Prise de Constantinople ( 1965), Les Lieux-dits (1969), and Revolutions minuscules (1971). His critical writings include Le Nouveau Roman (1973) and two collections of essays, Problemes du Nouveau Roman (1967) and Pour une theorie du Nouveau Roman (1971). “Le Caractere singulier de cette eau” first appeared in Critique in 1967 and was reprinted as an epilogue to Problemes du Nouveau Roman (Paris: Aditions du Seuil), pp. 193-207. The translation is based on the latter text and is published by permission of the author and editions du Seuil. Patrick F. Quinn provides a perspective on Ricardou’s approach in “Arthur Gordon Pym: ‘A Journey to the End of the Page’?” Poe Newsletter, 1 (1968), 13-14.

Conclusions such as these open a wide field for speculation and exciting conjecture. They should be regarded, perhaps, in connection with some of the most faintly-detailed incidents of the narrative; although in no visible manner is this chain of connection complete — Edgar Poe (1).

I. Extra-Textual Concerns

Critical interpretation is under a curse. If it lets itself go, it refines itself into subtleties that are sometimes excessive; if it reins itself in, it stops at a meaning that is often premature. These two temptations, however, are hardly of equal importance: through excess, interpretation exalts the fundamental idea that everything in a text has meaning; through deficiency, it condemns part of the text to meaninglessness. Thus it is primarily on what it overlooks, rather than on what it reveals, that an interpretation is to be judged. Because the area of a text allowed to lie fallow is generally immense, the need for precision here requires a special example.

A) An example of ambiguity

Taking advantage of the interest that has been shown by Marie Bonaparte, Gaston Bachelard, and Jorge Luis Borges in the passage, I have chosen as my example a brief enigma [column 2:] from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It will be remembered that, while sailing toward the south pole, the schooner Jane Guy reaches “a country differing essentially from any hitherto visited by civilized men.” The explorers are particularly surprised by the appearance of the streams:

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. I am at a loss to give a distinct idea of the nature of this liquid, and cannot do so without many words. Although it flowed with rapidity in all declivities where common water would do so, yet never, except when falling in a cascade, had it the customary appearance of limpidity. It was, nevertheless, in point of fact, as perfectly limpid as any limestone water in existence, the difference being only in appearance. At first sight, and especially in cases where little declivity was found, it bore resemblance, as regards consistency, to a thick infusion of gum Arabic in common water. But this was only the least remarkable of its extraordinary qualities. It was not colourless, nor was it of any one uniform colour — presenting to the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple, like the hues of changeable silk. This variation in shade was produced in a manner which excited as profound astonishment in the minds of our party as the mirror had done in the case of Too-wit. Upon collecting a basinful, and allowing it to settle thoroughly, we perceived 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 cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighbouring 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 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. The phenomena of this water formed the first definite link in that vast chain of apparent miracles with which I was destined to be at length encircled.

B)A case of high-handed interpretation

If we are to believe Marie Bonaparte’s famous book on Poe, this enigmatic liquid, indeed, offers pure . . . transparence:

In this water it is not difficult to recognize blood. The idea of veins is expressly set forth, and this country, “differing essentially from any hitherto visited by civilized men,” where nothing that one perceives is “familiar,” is on the contrary the most familiar thing there is to all men: a body whose blood, even before its milk, fed us in its time — our mother’s body that lodged us for nine months.

It is not difficult to recognize here an interpretative bluff. Of the four principal attributes of the liquid (no limpidity except when falling in cascades, infusion of gum arabic where little declivity was found, variable color, veins and their strange cohesion), Marie Bonaparte uses only one, the idea of veins. Of course an object can symbolize by a single one of its characteristics; that is precisely [page 2:] to define it as the possible center of a plural symbolism. But instead of admitting that she is neglecting the other attributes, Marie Bonaparte thrusts them out of sight while implying that the deciphering of them, a thing too easy to merit attention, would supply further parallels. Thus a partial interpretationC and this is not the place to discuss the legitimacy of it — makes unjustified pretensions to exhaustiveness by means of high-handed hermeneutical tactics.

C) The inconsistencies of a dreamer

In l’Eau et les R eves (pp. 80-86), Gaston Bachelard adopts and, it would appear, completes the Bonapartist interpretation. But in his attempt he permits himself such great inconsistencies that it is absolutely necessary to set the balance straight. This brief memorandum will perhaps prompt Bachelard’s admirers to read more circumspectly. Let us first note the two sentences that follow:

But the narrator who begins with a descriptive narration feels the need to give an impression of strangeness. He must, then, invent; he must, then, draw upon his unconscious.

We detect here a sophism in the form of a tautology. To say of a text that it becomes strange because the author has felt the need for it to do so is to repeat the same idea in different terms. This “need’ recalls a little too strongly a certain famous “dormitive virtue” (2). It explains nothing; it is what needs to be explained. This first irregularity ought not to mask the curious nature of the two then’s that follow it. With each of the two conjunctions is issued what might be called a deductive ukase. The first deduction, according to which, in order to give an impression of strangeness, “he must, then, invent,” is not admissible unless strangeness is an exclusive characteristic of the invention of fictive elements. However, strangeness can arise, in a geographical account, from the very singularities of nature; Poe has not failed to use them in his description of the rookery:

At each intersection of these paths the nest of an albatross is constructed, and a penguin’s nest in the centre of each square — thus every penguin is surrounded by four albatrosses, and each albatross by a like number of penguins.

The extraordinary can arise, no less, from a narrative change. Think of the strangeness produced, in l’Education sentimentale, by the abrupt jump from minutely described scenes to the brutal passage:

He traveled.

He knew the melancholy of steamboats, cold awakenings under canvas, the stupefying effect of landscapes, the bitterness of interrupted sympathies.

He returned.

The second deduction, assuring us that in order to invent “he must, then, draw upon his unconscious,” is equally inadmissible unless the unconscious alone is capable of invention. In spite of its ambiguities The Philosophy of Composition, or many another page by Poe, amply demonstrates the contrary. And Bachelard himself says, “It is not the unconscious that would suggest the experience with the pen-knife. . . .”

Unhappily my pejorative comments cannot stop here. [column 2:] Bachelard adds, in fact:

Invention, subjected to the laws of the unconscious, suggests an organic liquid. That could be milk. But Poe’s unconscious bears a private stamp, a fatal stamp: valorization is to be made by blood.

To imagine the possibility of a choice between blood and milk betrays an astonishing misreading of the text. Marie Bonaparte and gorges, as we shall see, know, like every reader of Arthur Gordon Pym, that the color white does not exist on the island of Tsalal. Thus there is no possibility of a choice, to be settled by the unconscious, between a brook of milk and a river of blood.

There is still more:

. . . in a realistic account he has not hesitated to put rivers that flow slowly.

Only a person who has not paid attention to the words, especially to these —

The phenomena of this water formed the first definite link in that vast chain of apparent miracles with which I was destined to be at length encircled

— would assert that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is realistic.

After these observations, which it was impossible to avoid making, let us consider Bachelard’s interpretation.

However, it does not seem to me that classical psychoanalysis, the lessons of which we have followed in this particular interpretation, explains all the imagery. . . . The experience in which the pen-knife is slipped between the veins of that extraordinary water would not be suggested by the unconscious. What would be needed is some positive experience with “fibrillary water, with a liquid which, though formless, has an internal structure and which, as such, unceasingly exercises the material imagination. Thus I believe we can affirm that Edgar Poe had a childhood interest in jellies and gums. He saw that a thickening gum takes on a fibrous structure. He says so. Why not believe him? Doubtless he thought of blood while molding different kinds of gum. . . .

This pleasant anecdote, one might say in the words of gorges’ Lonurot, is like the “imaginary tribulations of an imaginary thief.”

Doubly hypothetical, this interpretation proceeds by fitting together two biographical assumptions. Having attributed the liquid’s origin to a jelly or a gum, the interpretation goes on to describe a conjectural childhood scene showing the coexistence of blood and jelly. I have already said that what interests us for the moment is not the value of an interpretation, but the part of the text that it leaves obscure. Now, this part is considerable; Bachelard’s interpretation overlooks two characteristics of the water: the limpidity found in the waterfalls and the variable color. Not taking “account of all the imagery,” it does not satisfy that desire for exhaustiveness with which it was introduced.

D) Extra-textual concerns

Thus a question arises. Why do certain critics, who have ingenious minds and sometimes profuse imaginations, abandon a text so soon, before they have cleared the entire ground? No doubt we must rise above the level of individual [page 3:] aptitude and consider ideology. The agreement between Marie Bonaparte and Gaston Bachelard rests on a common assumption: The purpose of literature is to express an antecedent — “the human unconscious which draws from its prehistory the eternal themes on which it embroiders a thousand variations,” or the “dreams which preface works.” It is always a matter of a centrifugal force projecting a given reading of the text toward the essential extra-textual subject which is to be explained. As soon as a consistent outline of the extra-textual subject is obtained, this reading, in its euphoria, tends to omit the remainder, regarding it as redundant or insignificant.

But it may be doubted that literature, even were it relative, is a transparency which reveals something else. It is possible, on the contrary, that the text presents a fundamental opacity and is the locus of the permanent problem. Instead of incessantly fleeing from the page to some fixed antecedent, interpretation would then be held in untiring circularity.

II. Physics in Fiction

A)The elimination of whiteness

But before studying the symbolism of it, we must remember that every fiction, though essentially removed from everyday life, still presents the conditions of a world. There is need, especially if the fantastic element is strong, to establish the physical laws of that world. Surely no novel has posed the problem of a fictitious physics better than The Invention of Morel, that book by Bioy Casares for which Borges wrote a preface. It will be remembered that the postulating of the coexistence of past and present in the same place in that novel poses all sorts of problems with respect to realism, problems for which fiction, with major failures that have been overlooked, strives to provide elegant solutions. It is not at all surprising, then, that in his essay “Narrative Art and Magic,” from the volume entitled Discussion, Borges is quite aware that certain characteristics of the water in Pym were part of an entire physics belonging to the realm of fiction:

The secret theme of this novel is the fear and depreciation of whiteness. Poe imagines tribes who live in the vicinity of the antarctic circle quite near to the inexhaustible homeland of that color and who, for generations, have suffered from the terrible incursions of white men and white storms. White is anathema to those tribes, and I can vouch for the fact that, toward the last line of the chapter, it is anathema to the reader too. . . . It is impossible for me to summarize or analyze the whole novel here; it will be enough to mention as an example a feature that is subordinated — like all the others — to the secret theme. I refer to the obscure tribe I have spoken of, and to the streams on their island. To decide that their water was red or blue would have been to deny too flatly any possibility of whiteness.

In other words, since white is not commonly to be found on the island, the polychrome character of the water manages to eliminate the eventuality that it may be found there.

B)A questionable application

The principle applied by Borges here is too important for an insufficiently rigorous use to be made of it. Now, three points in gorges’ interpretation invite controversy. The attempt at a realistic reduction according to which white is anathema because the island has had to suffer [column 2:] from incursions of white men and white storms fails to agree with at least this one passage: “It was quite evident that they had never before seen any of the white race.”

The second point concerns the various techniques for getting rid of whiteness. If I wished to classify them, I would do so under the three following headings: change of color pure and simple (the black albatrosses); elimination of the problem (the lips of the islanders concealing their teeth); preservation of silence concerning whiteness (the whites of the eyes of Too-wit’s subjects). Of course I would be reminded not to omit the fact that, as we learn after leaving the island, the teeth of the savages were not white, but black. The difficulty faced by the author is clear. By calling attention to black dentures in the initial descriptions, Poe would so forcefully have denied them, as Borges says, “any possibility of whiteness” that the identical problem with respect to the islanders’ eyes would have been immediately brought to the fore. Poe’s solution, a particularly subtle one, appeals to a fundamental law of narrative: If a narrative presents one or two attributes of a thing, the need for presenting a third is, as a general rule, lessened; for the text, because of its linearity, would otherwise become unaesthetically insistent. It is probably on this law, moreover, that certain explications, since they themselves are narratives, depend in order to make many an incomplete interpretation pass for exhaustive. If we reread the passage in Poe —

Their lips, however, like those of the men, were thick and clumsy, so that, even when laughing, the teeth were never disclosed. Their hair was of a finer texture than that of the males

— we see, on the one hand, to what extent his stratagem with respect to the lips puts aside the dangerous problem of color, and, on the other hand, to what extent the description of the teeth and hair makes it easy not to say anything about the eyes.

Now, an author with the ability to refine so plausibly the triple panoply of chromatic change, elimination of matter, and silence probably did not represent the water as polychrome merely in order to remove the possibility of whiteness. For economy’s sake he would have been inclined, rather, to make the water dark, as he did with the sea at the approaches to the island in order to avoid the presence of foam, or perhaps to have it concealed by vegetation, or, quite simply, to leave it out.

However — and this is gorges’ third mistake — the characteristic of common water is not whiteness, but transparency. Only in the emulsion of its foam is water capable of being white. If Poe escapes the dangerous froth, he does so by the profusion of the other characteristics, especially by the limpidity of the water-falls, in accordance with the foregoing law of the exclusion of attributes.

C)Life without mirrors

But a more attentive reader will note that the physics of that extraordinary water must meet another requirement. The observation that the astonishment of the whites faced with the liquid was as profound as that of Too-wit on the Jane Guy, when he saw the mirrors, does not seem to me fortuitous. It would have been the height of stupidity to represent as being frightened by his image a man who, in the valleys of his island, would have had a mirror of water regularly at his disposal. Thus the purpose of the [page 4:] apparent infusion of gum arabic where little declivity was found, the variation of the colors, and the mobile complication of the veins susceptible of being drawn apart is to rule out any possibility of reflection.

The remarkable conclusion to be drawn from this superficial connection is that, having no mirroring surface at their disposal, the islanders were not acquainted with their own images. Never having left their black homeland of the archipelago, they reject whiteness. Not being aware of the Same and the Other, that complementary pair, their universe is restricted, as it were, to an undifferentiated sameness.

I shall return to this point after the symbolism of the liquid has been made to yield riches of greater intensity.

III. Symbolism in Fiction

The interpretation I have just sketched out on the basis of a fictitious physics is exhaustive: It provides a function for each of the four attributes of the unusual water. But if an interpretation must account for all the parts of the object it has chosen to focus on, that does not by any means constitute grounds for supposing that it has exhausted the object’s meaning. Thus the preceding analysis has shown how naive Bachelard’s semantic imperialism was, pretending that if the “valorization of the liquid by blood is missed by the reader, the page loses all interest, it is incomprehensible.” Thus one should be on his guard against forbidding a new interpretation. Still, it must not be imagined that a multiplication of hypotheses will lead to a comfortable hermeneutic pluralism. It will serve our turn to compare the two interpretations and, if possible, to combine them.

A) The shape of a text

However little we dwell on the strange water, we must admit the bond which joins it to the black hills. The travelers meet it both times they cautiously move into the gorges which Poe notes must have been carved out by a torrent:

We had passed the spring and rivulet of which I before spoke, and were now entering upon a narrow gorge leading through the chain of soapstone hills among which the village was situated[,] . . . the ravine . . . having apparently formed, at some remote period, the bed of a torrent.

Of course a final chapter, in the form of an appendix, reveals that the chasms of the black hills form the characters of a huge text.

If we now consider the strangest property of the water — the ability of each vein, when sliced, to make itself whole again immediately and the inability of two veins, when separated, to rejoin at once — we become aware that it constitutes a perfect metaphor for a written text. If an imaginary perpendicular line is made to sever a given line of writing, the two severed fragments remain united in idea by an intense syntactic cohesion. If, on the other hand, a horizontal separation is made between two lines, the broken link, essentially spatial in nature, provides a very inferior sort of adhesion. This double complicity of the liquid with written language — by contiguity and by similitude — encourages us to believe that what we are faced with is a text.

Such an interpretation ought to involve the other three [column 2:] characteristics of the water. If the text flows rapidly over the waterfalls — that is, if the reading is too rapid — the prose offers an apparent limpidity. But as soon as the reader’s attention increases, where the declivity is slight, the text becomes troubled by a nascent opacity. When the reading, finally, has come to a halt, the opacity, presenting its infinitely variable colors, reveals itself in its polysemy — a polysemy which is confirmed by this new interpretation.

It is a matter of some concern here to establish a preliminary connection between our two levels of interpretation. The judgment resulting from it has the value of an anti-realist manifesto: The liquid becomes writing only when it ceases to act as a mirror; or, in other words, there is no reason for seeking a reflection of the world in writing.

B)Journey to the bottom of the page

There is still more to be said. If the desire to corroborate our judgment prompts us to reread the last part of the book, we are soon in a position to understand the reason for those “Incredible Adventures and Discoveries still further South” which were promised us in the full title and at the beginning of the expedition of the lane Guy:

While, therefore, I cannot but lament the most unfortunate and bloody events which immediately arose from my advice, I must still be allowed to feel some degree of gratification at having been instrumental, however remotely, in opening to the eye of science one of the most intensely exciting secrets which has ever engrossed its attention.

Apparently the book does not keep its promise. The death of Pym causes the manuscript to break off at the most thrilling moment of the story, when the narrator, after having left the black archipelago in a canoe with Peters and the islander Nu-Nu, was pushing on, at the extreme South, into a region of absolute whiteness:

The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him, we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

Under the title of The Sphinx of the Icefields (3), Jules Verne, it seems, wrote a suppositious ending to the tale. Thus the author of the admirable Journey to the Center of the Earth took a whole book to show that he had no idea the adventures of A. G. Pym were a Journey to the Bottom of the Page.

On the other hand, Marie Bonaparte and gorges, with their respective preoccupations, have each been in possession of half of the solution. The psychoanalyst, indeed, notes that “the account of Arthur Gordon Pym is in reality complete”; and the Argentine writer asks, “Is not this impersonal white color Mallarmean?” Now, not without evidence, these two partial intuitions can be harmonized as follows: No text is more complete than The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, for the fiction it presents points to the end of every text, the ultimate establishment of “blank paper defended by whiteness.” [page 5:]

C) The allegory of the page

Now let me present the thesis in full. If the antaraic region perilously visited by the schooner lane Guy conceals “one of the most intensely exciting secrets which has ever engrossed” the attention of science, that is because, in its strangeness, it is a written page. Of course this startling opinion does not pretend to resolve directly the mass of problems presented at the end of the book. There is no doubt, however, that it holds a preponderant place in the functioning of the text. Here I shall do no more than offer, in the light of it, several elucidations that may be new.

The black archipelago that the travelers leave as they move on to the ultimate white margin of the paper is the very site of the writings. The chasms of Tsalal “constitute an Ethiopian verbal root . . . ‘To be shady.’” Besides the hieroglyph formed by them, the indentations in the wall form “the Arabic verbal root . . . ‘To be white’” and the “Egyptian word . . . ‘The region of the south.’”

If we permit a backward look to take us toward the north, we read that the Jane Guy, at first in the grip of the hostile ice floes, or the top of the page, soon comes upon the title, or Bennet’s Islet. As a matter of fact, in spite of the dubious denials made later by Too-Wit, two events link the islet to the archipelago: the finding of the derelict prow with the carving of a Tsalalian tortoise head on it and the heralding of Bennet and the archipelago by two versions of the same animal.


Mallarme observed: “You noticed, we do not write luminously, on a dark background; only the alphabet of the stars was revealed in that way, sketched or drawn in broken lines; man pursues black on white.” In contrast to the white travelers, who are metaphorical substitutes for paper, it will have been guessed that the blacks stand for writing instruments. Covering the whites (paper) with the black dust of the cataclysm (ink) and thus transforming the contour of the deep gorges of the island, everything supports the idea that the islanders, without realizing it, are setting new windings of the script in place.

The enigmatic sentence that concludes the appendix — “I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock “ — can be read, then, as words formed by the deadly ravine after the attempt upon the lives of the whites (a dramatization of the antagonism between ink and paper): “I have written it on the page, and the ink has engulfed the paper.”

Inversely, when, at the end, whiteness is about to cover the boat in which Nu-Nu lies at his last extremity, the death of the islander is an assurance to us that he has just been erased.

E) Reading

The strange inscriptions on the mountain are revealed only with the aid of the information given in the appendix; the reading of them, in fact, is dependent on certain formalities. The physics and the symbolism of fiction cross-check one another here for a second time. If the savages do not suspect that they are populating huge writings, it is because their minds, rejecting the Same and the Other, are not aware of the difference on which all writing is based. [column 2:]

Because they are white, and bring the paper to the ink, the travelers catch a glimpse of the writing for an instant:

We were about leaving this fissure, into which very little light was admitted, when Peters called my attention to a range of singular looking indentures in the surface of the marl forming the termination of the cul-de-sac. With a very slight exertion of the imagination, the left, or most northern of these indentures might have been taken for the intentional, although rude, representation of a human figure standing erect, with outstretched arm. The rest of them bore also some little resemblance to alphabetical characters, and Peters was willing, at all events, to adopt the idle opinion that they were really such. I convinced him of his error, finally, by directing his attention to the floor of the fissure, where, among the powder, we picked up, piece by piece, several large flakes of the marl, which had evidently been broken off by some convulsion from the surface where the indentures were found, and which had projecting points exactly fitting the indentures; thus proving them to have been the work of nature.

It should not surprise us too much, then, if the obscurantism of Pym, denying the notion of writing, is dictated by a metaphor relating to the black islanders. The idea of looking for different stones to fill the orifices of the writing was supplied him by the custom the savages had of closing their caves, which resembled the inscription, with symbolic rocks.

The greater number . . . consisted of small shallow caverns, apparently scratched in the face of a precipitous ledge of dark stone, resembling fuller’s earth, with which three sides of the village were bounded. At the door of each of these primitive caverns was a small rock, which the tenant carefully placed before the entrance upon leaving his residence. . . .

F) The birds as readers

Thus, in order that the chasms and the scratches in the rock may appear as writing, we must escape from the magic of the black island. Only the distance provided by an appendix permits us to read the drawings that Pym copied on a piece of paper.

There are, however, certain privileged readers. Their presence becomes apparent as soon as the last suggestions of the appendix —

It is not impossible that “Tsalal,” the appellation of the island of the chasms, may be found, upon minute philological scrutiny, to betray either some alliance with the chasms themselves, or some reference to the Ethiopian characters so mysteriously written in their windings

— are compared with an observation made on March 2nd:

The commencement of the words Tsalemon and Tsala1 was given with a prolonged hissing sound, which we found it impossible to imitate, even after repeated endeavours, and which was precisely the same with the note of the black bittern we had eaten up on the summit of the hill.

To the degree that they attain a height above the island at which the surrounding ice floes and mists of the paper stand out, the birds are able to read the chasms of Tsalal. Being at one and the same time the reading of the Ethiopian characters meaning “to be black” and the cry of the bitterns adopted by the islanders as the name of the black island, Tsalal is a perfectly justified appellation.

By analogy it will not be difficult to believe that the albatrosses, uttering their mysterious “Tekeli-li,” are repeating the reading of some inscription relating to whiteness. And if Howard Philip Lovecraft, at the end of his [page 6:] appalling antarctic story At the Mountains of Madness, speculates on the meaning of the cry, it is not without producing, intuitively, a confirmation of this hypothesis. In fact Lovecraft’s narrative, just like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, ends, at the exact instant when the presence of paper becomes undeniable, with this indication of whiteness:

At that moment, he did nothing but repeat like an automaton the mysterious call that no man has ever deciphered: “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” (4).

IV. The Moral

So much allegorizing could hardly fail to lead to a moral. In order to find it, in its multiplicity, let us suppose that certain of the foregoing conclusions are, in their turn, allegorical.

Surely the reading done by the birds and the height that makes it possible have reference to a practical experience: Reading cannot be carried on when the eyes are at the same level as the words; words can be made out only from a distance. But the physics of reading does not hide the symbolism of it: If reading is always a matter of observing the letter, it is no less a matter of refusing to be satisfied with the letter, and of producing, in the search for the spirit of a text — a search in height — many a precious doubling-up of meaning.

Shall we, then, with an easy tolerance, recognize all symbolic readings as being equally apt? Apparently the last voyage of the Jane Guy, over and above those expressive interpretations which force the symbol into equation with a given fact, makes it possible to establish a sort of hermeneutic doubling up. The final adventure of Arthur G. Pym, by symbolizing a page of writing — that is, the place and the act that establish it — gives us assurance that by means of fiction, literature borrows materials from the world only for the purpose of denoting itself. It is this circularity, and the strange empty hub around which the signs are arranged, that should never be lost from view by any reading in height:

“Language reflecting itself” — Mallarme.



(1) All quotations have been translated from the French text of the article with the exception of those from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which are given here from The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York, 1965), III, 1-245.

(2) The allusion is to Moliere’s Le Malade imaginaire, where a candidate for the doctorate in medicine explains that opium causes sleep because it has the dormitive virtue, or power.

(3) Le Sphynx des glaces. Published in English as An Antarctic Mystery (Philadelphia, 1900).

(4) “Sur le moment, il se borne a repeter comme un automate le mysterieux appel que nul homme n’a jamais dechiffre: ‘Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!’” The French translation of Lovecraft’s sentence, which has been rendered into English in the text above, differs substantially from Lovecraft’s English text, which reads, “At the time, his shrieks were confined to the repetition of a single, mad word of all too obvious source: ‘Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!’” See H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, ed. August Derleth (Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1964), p. 100.


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[S:0 - PS, 1976]