Text: Jean Ricardou (Translated by Frank Towne), “Gold in the Bug,” Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol. IX, No. 2, 9:33-39


[page 33:]

Gold in the Bug

Washington State University

Editorial Note

This essay is Jean Ricardou’s second contribution to our current series of translations sampling contemporary European responses to Poe (see Poe Studies, 9 [June 1976], 1-6, for Professor Towne’s translation of “Le Caractere singulier de cette eau” and for a brief summary of M. Ricardou’s career). “L’Or du scarabee” first appeared in lel Quel in l968; a slightly revised version was reprinted in the author’s Pour une theorie du Nouveau Roman (Paris: editions du Seuil, 1971), pp. 40-58. The translation, based on the latter text, is published by permission of the author and Editions du Seuil. In Poe and France: The Last Twenty Years (Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1970), pp. 12-21, Patrick F. Quinn places “L’Or du scarabee” in the context of Ricardou’s other discussions of Poe.

A treasure’s hidden there. — La Fontaine (1)

The technique of concealment celebrated in The Purloined Letter has apparently led to the most treacherous kind of eclipse — an eclipse, strangely enough, of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, a paradoxical darkening produced by an ambiguous glory. It is all as if the overly generous gift of the Histoires Extraordinaires to adolescents, under the pretext of supplying them with mysteries and adventures, had a very well defined function.

No doubt a mixture of purposes combined with a diminution of esteem has permitted a subtle censorship to be imposed. There is precious little chance that a reader coming to these stories for the first time, moved by sensuous delight in the mystery, will know how to distinguish between the literature and the innumerable by-products. At the same time the blight that touches any text connected with a juvenile audience, just as it touches a fairy story, takes its toll. Thus many an adult opts for one or the other of the two sides of the same resistance to such a text: “have passed that age” or “have already read it.”

This repulse is not a chance phenomenon. Few writers have succeeded better than Poe in setting forth a text with its multitude of problems. The following pages will inventory more than one such problem, dealing as they do with the most glorious of the stories — the one best calculated, in its splendor, to blind us — and asking of it an answer to the question posed by a character in Roussel’s La Poussiere de Soleils:

Well, isn’t this legacy of a skull with writing on it strange enough to make one think it has a secret meaning? [column 2:]

I. Geography

Most attempts to obliterate a literary text, as is well known, are based on naturalistic theory. A primordial extra-textual subject is assumed: “an external world, an internal universe.” Writing is assumed to consist of representing the one and of expressing the other. It is looked upon as a tool and thus as something that, in order to attain the perfection of a roof, should tend toward absence, that extreme of restraint.

As for the extra-textual subject, improperly called “real,” it is nothing, for any given period, but the mass of that period’s accepted beliefs. It is not a scientific theory whose relative coherence, always in question, is known to be provisional, but a hardened acquisition, tyrannical and mystifying.

A. Invention

It is not hard to imagine to what extent every derail of geographic locality in a piece of fiction can have the effect of satisfying naturalistic dogma: thus localized, fictitious space seems to provide a faithful copy of familiar daily experience. Perhaps it is even possible to add to this “reproduction of the external world” an “expression of the internal universe.” Can it not be done by discovering that this region occupies a significant place in the biography of the author? If we ate to believe the opening lines —

Many years ago, I contracted an intimacy with a Mr. William Legrand. He was of an ancient Huguenot family, and had once been wealthy; but a series of misfortunes had reduced him to want. To avoid the mortification consequent upon his disasters he left New Orleans, the city of his forefathers, and took up residence at Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, South Carolina

— that is the case of The Gold-Bug. As a matter of fact, as Marie Bonaparte has not failed to note,

In the autumn of 1827, Edgar Poe, who was eighteen years old at the time, . . . had embarked with Battery “H” of the first regiment of the United States of America, for South Carolina.

. . . Several weeks later he had landed on the flat shores of Sullivan’s Island, opposite Charleston. There, for a year’s time, he slept in the shelter of the walls of Fort Moultrie.

This superimposing of atlas and biography, however, is not made without some risk. Although Marie Bonaparte is right in saying that the shores of the Carolinas are flat, the terrain toward which the treasure-hunters make their way is rugged:

We crossed the creek at the head of the island by means of a skiff, and, ascending the high grounds on the shore of the main land, proceeded in a northwesterly direction, through a tract of country excessively wild and desolate, where no trace of a human footstep was to be seen. . . . [page 34:]

In this manner we journeyed for about two hours, and the sun was just setting when we entered a region infinitely more dreary than any yet seen. It was a species of table land, near the summit of an almost inaccessible hill, densely wooded from base to pinnacle, and interspersed with huge crags that appeared to lie loosely upon the soil.

Since he lived there, Poe is the last person one would have expected to create physical features of such altitude in place of the low hills and plains of that region. If he does so, it is obviously with the purpose of meeting some requirement imposed by the story. Those cliffs and the enormous rocks serve at least the double function, essential to the site of the treasure, of establishing the wildness of the place and the availability of landmarks.

B. Exception

Not at all accidental, this practice is resumed in an affinitive fashion with a remark which betrays its set purpose:

The winters in the latitude of Sullivan’s Island are seldom very severe, and in the fall of the year it is a rare event indeed when a fire is considered necessary. About the middle of October 18, there occurred, however, a day of remarkable chilliness.

The unrelenting reversal of the usual order of things, this time by an improbable exception, justifies the presence of that other major element — fire. The heat of the fire is what reveals the skull drawn in secret ink on one side of the parchment:

Do you observe how mere an accident it was that these events should have occurred upon the sole day of all the year in which it has been, or may be, sufficiently cool for fire, and that without the fire . . . I should never have become aware of the death’s-head, and so never the possessor of the treasure? [Poe’s italics]

Altered by the striking corrections introduced by invention and exception, the setting of The Gold-Bug, far from providing an obliging image of actual geography, is nothing but space cut to size as needed by the story.

C. Polarized space

Now, the specificity of the region is corroborated by a strange phenomenon of polarization. Let us consider certain elements chosen first in the east, then in the west: the houses.

In the inmost recesses of this coppice, not far from the eastern or more remote end of the island, Legrand had built himself a small hut . . . . Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings;

the trees of the island,

The vegetation . . . is . . . dwarfish,

and of the mainland,

an enormosusly tall tulip-tree, which stood, with some eight or ten oaks;

the terrain of the island,

It consists of little else than the sea sand,

and of the mainland, [column 2:]

It was a species of table land, near the summit of an almost inaccessible hill.

Let us note, finally, the island itself, microscopic in comparison with the mainland — the whole of which, in reference to the island, is in the west — and we must admit that the west, in this spatial framework, has the curious faculty of growing and multiplying.

Apparently supplied, as in many an inconsequential work, by a flight of fancy, several details later prove that they are essential by confirming this imperious capacity for growth. When rich, Legrand lived in New Orleans; having become poor, he moves back to the east coast and even onto that smaller land, Sullivan’s Island. Or, again, Legrand [the big fellow] is linked to the west; the little fellow (Kidd — kid = child) comes from the east, the sea. The bug (which we can think of as a miniature treasure) is found in the east —

The spot where we discovered the scarabaeus was on the coast of the main land, about a mile eastward of the island

— and in order for it to multiply and produce a profusion of riches, it must travel, along with the hunters, toward the north-west. Moreover, on the evening when the message is discovered on the parchment (that decisive step toward the treasure), it is to the west, to Fort Moultrie, that the bug is taken by Lieutenant G —. As for the treasure itself, it has found its resting place to the west of the Atlantic, on the mainland. Finally, when Legrand corrects his bearings, he does so by moving the peg “to the spot about three inches to the westward of its former position.”

D. Cosmogony

Now, this enhancement of the west is clearly connected with another element of the narrative. Even on a first reading we are aware of the insistent presence of the sun in its rising and setting:

“Just before sunset I scrambled my way through the evergreens to the hut of my friend. . . .” “fodder day he gib me slip fore de sun up. . . .” “We shall start immediately, and be back, at all events, by sunrise.”

Their comings and goings between east and west establish a close relationship between the sun and the beetle which is reinforced elsewhere in two ways: by involuntary substitution resulting from a mistaken reference —

“Stay here tonight, and I will send Jup down for it at sunrise. It is the loveliest thing in creation!”

“What? — sunrise?”

“Nonsense! no! — the bug”

— and by the combined effect of proximity and resemblance:

the beetle, which he had suffered to descend, was now visible at the end of the string, and glistened, like a globe of burnished gold, in the last rays of the setting sun, some of which still faintly illumined the eminence upon which we stood.

Since the beetle, following a process which I shall explain later, gradually becomes a substitute for riches, it is possible to establish a chain of equivalence among the three terms: treasure = bug = sun. Representing disappearance, [page 35:] the setting sun clarifies the link between Legrand’s initial wealth (in the west — lost) and Kidd’s treasure (in the west — buried). No doubt this resemblance points to a similarity between Legrand and Kidd that we shall have occasion to return to.

But the equivalence here of sun and beetle suggests a further dimension. In Les Peuples de l’Orient Mediterraneen Etienne Drioton and Jacques Vandier write:

The sun, with his equipage, sailed through the sky on two boats — the day boat, the Manndjet, and the night boat, the Masaket. He was thought to enter the mouth Of the sky-goddess in the evening, pass through her body during the night, and be reborn from her as the new sun in the morning. An ancient tradition made him a dung beetle. This name was later reserved for the morning sun.

If one thinks of the discovery of the gold-bug at dawn, and of the use of two boats — the one which brings the narrator to the island in the daytime and the skiff which the hunters use to pass over to the mainland for their expedition at night — it must be admitted that Poe knows exactly what he is doing in introducing a new dimension here — Egypt. We shall examine its role later on.

II. Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Thus a study of the cosmographical details of the narrative reveals a symbolism. But since fictitious space makes only partial use of a geography many points of which it takes the liberty of rejecting, the text hardly follows a fixed repertory of symbols. Beetle and sun are not linked together in the text because they belong to a coded myth. On the contrary, it is because the text links them together that the Egyptian myth is evoked. Far from being held to any fixed order of knowledge, we are witnesses to an elaboration of the text. By way of example, let us read how the bug becomes a clue to the treasure.

A. Grammar

If there is one sentence which turns out to be noteworthy, it is the one in which the first reference to the bug appears:

He had found an unknown bivalve, forming a new genus, and, more than this, he had hunted down and secured, with Jupiter’s assistance, a scarabaeus which he believed to be totally new, but in respect to which he wished to have my opinion on the morrow.

There are actually two finds of which we are told, and, curiously, they are linked by all sorts of circumstances. Embraced in the unity of a single sentence, bivalve and scarabaeus are closely joined by the conjunction that coordinates the clauses in which they respectively appear. Moreover, this proximity is reinforced by a grammatical resemblance; the nouns bivalve and scarabaeus fulfill the same syntactic function: object of the verb. Furthermore, and not without insistence, they are both modified by the same adjective: new.

But this pairing of the two is soon thrown off balance. In violation of every probability of story-telling, nothing more is said about the bivalve. The absence of the bug during the first evening, however, gives it another chance to appear. For the function of this unequal relationship is very precise: to color the element which survives with the hue of the element which disappears. By this means [column 2:] the bug becomes associated with the place where pirates ply their trade: the sea.

Now note the order of the words. Going from the bivalve to the bug, the trajectory of the syntax, like Kidd going to hide his booty, moves from the sea to the mainland.

B.Similarity, contiguity, superimposition

Such a grammatical connection represents three of the principal laws of relationship: on the one hand, proximity (between the words bivalve and scarabaeus coordinated in the unity of a single sentence) and similarity (between the clauses where these two words fulfill the same function); and on the other hand, the superimposing of one upon the other (the similarity of the clauses is added to their proximity in the unity of the sentence). It is by means of this triple construction, in which elements that are associated (similar) are caused to be associated ( contiguous) and vice versa, that the bug and the treasure are linked at this point in the story.

In accordance with a carefully prescribed insistence, the bug thus acquires several of the attributes of the treasure: exceptional weight,

[1] . . . neber feel half so hebby a bug in my life;

golden hue,

It is of a brilliant gold color;

spots on its back suggesting the emblem of the pirates,

“A death’s-head!” echoed Legrand — “Oh — yes — well, it has something of that appearance upon paper, no doubt. The two upper black spots look like eyes, eh? and the longer one at the bottom like a mouth — and then the shape of the whole is oval.”

Moreover, the bug is placed, a number of rimes, in proximity to the realm of the treasure. Besides the connection with the bivalve, it is in the west on the first evening. Its discovery takes place on the mainland and near the wreck of a ship:

Near the spot where we found it, I observed the remnants of the hull of what appeared to have been a ship’s long-boar. The wreck seemed to have been there for a very great while; for the resemblance to boat timbers could scarcely be traced.

Provided that it can also be reversed, the proverb “Birds of a feather flock together” (2) expresses with some adequacy the way in which these metonymic and meraphoric constructions are superimposed upon each other. When Jupiter catches the bug, he brings together the death’s-head (the back of the insect) and the still secret skull traced on the parchment by Kidd:

I did n’t like de look ob de bug mouff, myself, no how, so I would n’t take hold ob him wid my finger, but I cotch him wid a piece ob paper dat I found. I rap him up in de paper and stuff piece of it in he mouff — dat was de way.

Except for the slight interval that distinguishes a recto from a verve, William Legrand brings about almost exactly the same coincidence by drawing the spotted silhouette of the insect on the same piece of parchment. Making use of the bug in the final approach to the treasure, he pays his respects yet another time to the contiguity of similar things.

Little by little, far from being a naturalistic assemblage [page 36:] of chance objects, space becomes filled with specific devices produced by the laws of the text, those machines for inventing fiction.

III. Reading

Instead of constituting a series of adventures of which the text is simply the result, the story here appears as a result of the text. Keeping itself clear of any hallucinogenic matter, the text requires and defines the kind of reading which can decipher its workmanship.

A. A result of the text

As we have all seen, disturbances inflicted on the habitual order of things have been destroying the kind of naturalism according to which fiction is supposed to represent the “world.” But in its very strangeness, is it not possible to recapture fictitious space as an enchanted place, the result of supernatural intervention? It can hardly be doubted that traditional fantasy is a wily avatar of naturalism — a subtler attempt to obliterate the text. Through the insistent recurrence of allusions to the devil, a dimension of fantasy surely seems to infiltrate Poe’s prose:

“. . . wishing the whole tribe of scaraliaci at the devil” . . .,’ I had a big stick ready cut for to gib him d —— d good beating . . .; “debbil take me if I don’t blieve” . . .; “but do you mean to say that this infernal beetle has any connection with your expedition into the hills” . . .; “His demeanor was dogged in the extreme, and ‘dat d —— d bug’ were the sole words which escaped his lips during the journey’ . . .; “what for mus tote de bug way up de tree? — d —— d if I do” . . .; “‘You infernal scoundrel’ cried Legrand” . . .; “‘You scoundrel,’ said Legrand, hissing out the syllables from between his clenched teeth — ‘you infernal black villain!’ “

Now this contamination is a trap in which the bait and the mechanism clearly serve to distinguish two different ways of reading. If the reader, taking things promptly at face value, were hastily to accept this talk of the devil as a controlling principle, he would soon become aware of his mistake. Frequent up to this point, all reference to the devil ceases as soon as the narrative, from the lips of Legrand, reveals its perfect logic and the secret function of such reference. The last instance of it, in fact, is in connection with a topographical landmark, the place called “the devil’s seat.”

If it is impossible to read into this text anything having a supernatural origin, there are, nevertheless, fleeting apparitions of a kind of fantasy that ought to be recognized as an effect produced by the text. The process is clear: through frequent mention of the devil, in direct or indirect proximity to the beetle, Poe’s prose tends to develop an artificial metonymic system thanks to which beetle and devil, in the Pavlovian manner, are automatically associated. It was doubtless because he was aware of this association that Baudelaire, in his translation, had the happy idea of adding a new member to this cluster by rendering the words “Nonsense! no! — the bug” as “Eh non! que diable! — le scarabee.” What is devilish here, as a matter of fact is the way in which every attempt to find an explanation of the text instead of letting the text explain itself is doomed to be thwarted by this pseudo-fantasy.

B. Unfit readers

To carry the matter further, in this story about the breaking [column 2:] of a code, reading serves explicitly to put people in their places. It is by their way of reading that the nature of each of the three characters is determined. Only Legrand is capable of decoding. Jupiter and the narrator, for their part, are on bad terms with language. In cases of ambiguity, their interpretation follows the law of quid pro quo. If Jupiter interrupts Legrand’s description —

“The antennae are — “

“Dey aint no tin in him, Massa Will”

— he does not do so without an involuntary play on words causing him to mistake one thing for another. Elsewhere he interprets two synonyms as opposites, and it is precisely these two terms that prompt the exchange:

“Did you bring any message from Mr. Legrand?” “No, masse, I bring dis here pissel.”

As for the narrator, he too is the victim of a misunderstanding: he confuses sunrise and beetle. Thus, for both men, even at the expense of making a mistake, all ambiguity must be reduced to monovalence; no element can at one and the same time be what it is and make allusive contact with something else. They do not allow, in other words, for anything but literal meanings. As Barthes says of various positivist critics, they are doomed to asymbolism.

Victim, as he is, of the shift from the front of the page to the back, the narrator sees, not an approximate realization of a death’s-head in the drawing of the beetle, but a perfect skull:

“But, my dear fellow, you are joking then,” said I, “this is a very passable skull — indeed, I may say that it is a very excellent skull, according to the vulgar notions about such specimens of physiology [Poe’s italics] — and your scarabaeus must be the queerest scarabaeus in the world if it resembles it.”

For Jupiter the bug is neither gilded nor the sign of gold; it is actually made of gold:

de bug is a goole-bug, solid, ebery bit of him, inside and all, sep him wing.

Of course, as the result of a pun stemming from the strange gibberish of the servant, there is a certain ambiguity here. Jupiter’s pronunciation is not “gold” but “goole,” and thus the insect is, in a way, left suspended between gold and ghoul. But this nascent symbol fades away to become a member of the mystifying series of references to the devil.

C. The established order and good sense

The mediocre reading ability of Jup and the narrator gives rise, here, to the kind of behavior one can imagine. Faced with events among which they fail to see any connection, both of them, instead of admitting their own limitations, prefer to believe that there is no connection. Speaking of Legrand, Jupiter confesses,

[he] keeps a syphon wid de figgurs on de slate — de queerest figgurs I ebber did see. Ise gittin to be skeered, I tell you. Hab for to keep mighty tight eye pon him noovers,

and the narrator observes:

The man is surely mad! [page 37:]

Need I call attention, after Genonceaux, to the lines that Leon Bloy ventured to write on Les Chants de Maldoror:

It’s a lunatic speaking, the most pitiful, heart-rending lunatic. . . . For its a madman, alas, a real madman who’s aware of his madness.

In short, both Jupiter and the narrator, each in his own way, have respect for good sense, the good sense of the established order. Thus their relation to the disturber of the peace William Legrand is one of authority. A former slave, Jupiter plays the role of a ridiculous father:

[he] could be induced, neither by threats nor by promises, to abandon what he considered his right of attendance upon the footsteps of his young “Masse Will.” It is not improbable that the relatives of Legrand, conceiving him to be somewhat unsettled in intellect, had contrived to instill this obstinacy into Jupiter, with a view to the supervision and guardianship of the wanderer.

And — remember the big stick and the deuced good beating — he must have been an advocate o, corporal punishment. The narrator, for his part, would like to be a paternal friend; the manner he adopts is firm but gentle:

And will you promise me, upon your honor, that when this freak of yours is over, and the bug business (good God!) settled to your satisfaction, you will return home and follow my advice implicitly, as that of your physician?

Far from trying to understand, Jupiter and the narrator hope to intimidate or cure this dangerous adventurer in the science of reading.

D. Reading

The preservation of an intellectual complacency which tends to rule out the unusual can hardly be called reading. Since every deviation is a transgression, it ought to be regarded, conversely, as the possible emergence of another system. William Legrand profits from a curious intuition; assuming the presence of a text on the parchment, he appears above all as a reader. If he tries to find the reasons for his presentiment, he especially does not Overlook the exceptional nature of the concatenation of circumstances:

“I presume you expected to find a letter between the stamp and the signature.”

“Something of that kind. The fact is, I felt irresistibly impressed with the presentiment of some vast good fortune impending. I can scarcely say why. Perhaps, after all, it was rather a desire than an actual belief; — but do you know that Jupiter’s silly words, about the bug being of solid gold, had a remarkable effect upon my fancy? And then the series of accidents and coincidences — these were so very extraordinary. Do you observe how mere an accident it was that these events should have occurred upon the sole day of all the year in which it has been, or may be, sufficiently cool for fire, and that without the fire, or without the intervention of the dog at the precise moment in which he appeared, I should never have become aware of the death’s-head, and so never the possessor of the treasure?” [Poe’s italics]

In other words, what drives Legrand to make the text on the parchment emerge is his ability to find in this concatenation of events a kind of logic quite unrelated to daily appearances: the underlying system of the text that actually gives it life.

Consequently, far from being subject to the imperiousness [column 2:] of proper meanings, to read is to become attentive to the hidden order of textual workmanship: beneath the actual gold that Jupiter believes in, must be seen significant gold. Beneath the word “castle” must be discovered

an irregular assemblage of cliffs and rocks — one of the latter being quite remarkable for its height as well as for its insulated and artificial appearance.

Beneath the words “good glass,” telescope.

That William Legrand was a predestined reader (so designated by the text), a less hasty reading would have made clear to us as early as the third line of the story. What a useless detail that Protestantism of the hero is if it does not assure us that he belongs, not to that kind of Catholicism whose church claims to be the judge and guardian of scriptural truth, but, since in his sect Scripture can be consulted and interpreted by the individual’s reason, to a religion of readers.

IV. Play on Words

To grant that a text offers a semantic performance of its own is to believe that it forms, in accordance with the direction it takes, a curious specific idiom within the language to which it belongs. Sun, bug, treasure are caught here in a private system of reciprocal reference. A machine for changing the meaning of words indefinitely, the text effects a permanent subversion of language regarded as a utilitarian instrument. From this altered point of view, it will hardly be surprising that it readily assimilates the pun, that explosive process for stealing meanings.

When Baudelaire writes “Je crus un moment que la flamme allait l’atteindre” for the passage “At one moment I thought the blaze had caught it,” his translation of course eliminates the cluster of meanings of blaze which the text permits. There are two verbs to blaze: one, indeed, means to flame; but the other means to make known publicly (the flame makes public the writing on the parchment), to blazon (the kid’s head is the hieroglyphic emblem of Kidd), to mark trees (the Nlip-tree is marked by the death’s-head nailed to the seventh branch).

If a piece of prose constantly multiplies figurative or stolen meanings, it excludes proper nouns. Supposing this law to obtain, Legrand, once again, is a reader; Kidd, he notes, is a kid. But does not this abolition of the particular follow some more general rule? In order to find it, we have only to note that the servant, that ridiculous father figure who has no real authority, is named Jupiter. Far from being an isolated element, the proper noun has a function in the story.

The west, as we have seen, is endowed with a capacity for growth. During the night of revelation (the beginning of that metamorphosis of the bug into innumerable riches), the insect is in the west, at Fort Moultrie. It would be strange if an author who cites Gebillon and Quinault did not know the word “moult” [much, many]. But there is more to it than this. Moultrie can be taken as a bilingual pun: moult-trees. Taking the bug to the fort, Lieutenant G —— is the secret harbinger of another scene, the one in which Jupiter climbs up with the insect into the tulip-tree “which stood, with some eight or ten oaks . . . .” [page 38:]

Coming from the west, with the ability to expand a tiny entomological treasure to the dimension of a fortune, the hero bears the appropriate name of Legrand. As for Legrand’s strange familiarity with the piece of prose surmounted by the death’s-head emblem, it is better understood if the name William is read as “Will I am.” Is nor that the way pointed by “Masse Will,” that abbreviation frequency used by Jupiter?

Since the treasure, through innumerable references and allusions, is pointed to at many places in the narrative, can it not be held that the word gold, in the aggregate of letters, appears in a way that Saussure has called hypogrammatical? Commenting on the notes of the linguist, Jean Starobinski writes:

Poetic discourse, then, is but the second MANNER OF BEING of a noun: a developed variation that enables a shrewd reader to see the obvious (but scattered) presence of the leading phonemes. The hypogram slips a common noun into the complex display of syllables that make up a line of verse; it is a matter of recognizing and assembling the guiding syllables, as Isis reassembled the dismembered body of Osiris.

Thus the adjective old, appearing in the text a number of times, reveals the function of an enigmatic name. that of the lieutenant from Fort Moultrie: G + old = Gold. In this English text, there is little reason to be surprised if the land of riches is not Eldorado, but “Gol conda.”

Henceforward we cannot read the near anagram god or its anacyclical form dog (which makes for a better understanding of the dog’s role in the story) without underlining the neighboring l’s: “(good God!) settl ed” and, naturally in inverted order, “the violent howl ings of the dog.”

Should we wish, not without a slight dizziness, to dig still more deeply, it should be enough to add, following the text at random, “right holding” and “‘good glass,’ I knew, could have reference to nothing but a telescope.”

V. Writing

If to read is to reject the orthodoxy of fixed meanings and, as we are invited by the closing lines of The GoldBug

Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen — who shall tell?

— to persist in our examination of the text, there is no doubt that the discovery of the treasure plays a mystifying role. That is because the very special purpose for which this story was written (a contest sponsored by a newspaper) destines it to a kind of treason: it must succeed and thus, if possible, let a comforting ideology prevail. What it is can be guessed: the text has its truth, and the proof of it, for Kidd’s message, is the discovery of the treasure. Being both proof and wealth, the gold makes it possible to hypostatize a meaning like Truth and Value. The ability to produce pleasure possessed by any text bringing gold and truth together in that way can well be imagined.

Doubtless this panoply of success includes less ostentatious weapons. Will not the systematic enhancement of [column 2:] the west be pleasing at a time when the country is engaged in the conquest of the “Far West”? Worse yet, by way of a subtle kind of compliment in the manner of Roussel, the author seems to have incorporated into his story the emblem of the sponsoring newspaper, The Dollar Newspaper: Dollar, treasure; paper, the parchment, news, that suspicious abundance in the opening pages —

he left New Orleans . . .; He had found an unknown bivalve forming a new genus, and more than this, he had hunted down and secured, with Jupiter’s assistance, a scarabaeus which he believed to be totally new . . .; and a large New foundland.

A. The gold: diversion and index (3)

We know that at the beginning of the story the series of allusions to the devil plays an equivocal role. As an extraneous piece of realistic fantasy that reduces the web of incidents to a non-textual order, it produces, and by its failure betrays, a poor reading. As a noteworthy aspect of the narrative, pointing to the perfect assemblage of an artificial metonymy, it calls attention to the workmanship of the text. Susceptible, in other words, of two opposed readings — of being taken at face value on the one hand and of being deciphered on the other — it constitutes, as far as the production of a text goes, either a discredited diversion or an index.

With Kidd’s message everything happens, it seems, in the opposite way, as if the function of mystifying, far from being discredited, succeeded completely in diverting. Discovered in accordance with the secret instructions, the gold causes us to forget the text and accept the reassuring satisfaction of the “truth.” But, like the series of allusions to the devil, is not this function accompanied by its opposite?

In the all-encompassing hands of the anonymous narrator, let us note, the adventures of The Gold-Bug exist in two successive versions: that of the mediocre readers — the narrator, Jupiter, the narrator again — and then that of Legrand, who figures out situations as he goes. Full of strangeness and mystery, the first section of the tale is a cryptogram; the second, its deciphering. With Kidd’s riddle and its patient elucidation, the text thus presents, at its very heart, a reduplication of itself (4).

The pirate’s message has two functions: as a prescription, it leads to the treasure, as a microcosm, it stands for the text. If the first tends to hide the other, if the diversion tends to conceal the index, that is the result, yet another time, of asymbolism. Is it not as actual gold, as piled-up riches, that the treasure supports an orthodox meaning — that “truth” which eliminates the text? But cannot a reversal be imagined which might reveal that this gold had a metaphorical dimension, and cause it to be taken also as an index? We shall make the attempt further on.

B. Reading — writing

Before that is done, the major difference separating Legrand from the two unfit readers must be noted. Of course William’s religion suggests that he has a special familiarity with the art of reading. But his Protestantism is simply an indication, not an explanation. To suppose that Legrand’s religion is sufficient to explain his abilities would be, by virtue of a clever absurdity which would interrupt [page 39:] the reading too soon, tantamount to turning an index into a diversion.

At the time of the nocturnal expedition, progressing little by little in the solution of the problem, Legrand, by the emphasis of his words, by his solemnity, by his swinging the bug at the end of a string, practices a new kind of cryptography. It is by encoding that he decodes, by writing that he reads.

In this story, moreover, is he not, with a curious insistence, the only one who writes? Is it not he who traces the outline of the bug on Kidd’s parchment? Is it not he, again, who forms figures and signs on his slate? And when a letter appears in the story, is it not written by his hand?

Reading here consists of the endlessly repeated labor of producing one writing on top of another.

C. The “Index” of Writing

We have established the fact that sun, bug, and treasure are caught in a chain of equivalence. Far from being immobilized in simple selfhood, each term is subjected, through and through, to the action of a current of metaphor. It is only necessary to be attentive for a new dimension to be seen forthwith.

The bringing together of parchment and fire enables the heat to reveal the text. But the fire can be taken here as a substitute for the sun: It provides light and heat, and it is lighted at dawn. Thus the sun is linked in this text with the bringing to light of the writing on the parchment.

Now let us recall the way in which Jupiter, in his strange talk, caught the bug:

I cotch him wid a piece ob paper dat I found. I rap him up in de paper and stuff a piece ob it in he mouff.

Any sphinx asking what, surrounded by paper, is considered to be using it up, would immediately receive the answer: writing. It looks as if Baudelaire enjoyed augmenting this symbolism by multiplying to an extraordinary degree the number of occurrences of the word paper:

Je pris un morceau de papier; j’empoignai lte scarabee dans le papier; je l’enveloppai done dans ce papier, avec un petit bout de papier dans la bouche.

We have noted that the text is such as to cause the bug to remind us of ancient Egypt; we now understand that it does so because Egypt is the country of hieroglyphics.

Finally, let me quote the curious fable around which The Gold-Bug, as many clues give us reason to believe, never ceases to play:

A wealthy1 plowman,2 feeling his death3 at hand, Spoke to his sons alone, out of vigilance.

“Do not,” he told them, “sell the land

Left by our fathers,4 our inheritance.

A treasure’s5 hidden there.

I cannot name the exact spot,6 but spare

No pains7 and you’ll not miss its hiding place.

Dig up your field as soon as harvest’s ended.

Dig, delve, do not leave any space


The father died, the sons plowed up the field,8 [column 2:] Here, there,9 and everywhere. They dug so well, its yield At year’s end was in fuller than usual measure. They found no cache of gold, it’s true. But hadn’t the father been wise To show them, before his demise, That work itself is a treasure?

The connections are many; let us consider only the most evident: (1) he “had once been wealthy,” (2) the going back and forth in plowing and the going back and forth from east to west, (3) the death’s-head, (4) the city of his forefathers, (5) the treasure, (6) the perplexing hiding-place, (7) Legrand’s tenacity, (8) the digging, (9) the two holes.

By playing on a temporary misunderstanding, the fable consists of dispossessing the word treasure of its proper meaning and investing it with the substitute dimension of work. Why would anyone interrupt this movement of the reading and betray it, now, by being satisfied with a stereotyped meaning of work? La Fontaine has chosen a very curious kind of labor. Forcing the ox to tarn at the end of the furrow and go in the opposite direction, there can be no doubt that this plowing, in the course of which the treasure changes its meaning, refers to boustrophedon, that species of writing in which lines are written first in one direction and then in the other, alternately. Far from proposing any enjoyment of a sum of money, then, what The Plowman and His Children; unequivocally invites us to do is to write.

A product of this change of direction, such a figurative meaning enables us to combat the diversion offered by the treasure, taken in the literal meaning of the word, in Poe’s text. Far from supporting a conventional view, as it appeared to do, gold is called upon, as the text is developed, to play the part of a metaphor — a metaphor by means of which, in the most unlikely place, in fine with the “beautiful gold ink” of La Ponssiere de Soleiis, the act of writing is denoted.

Thus no knowledge that the reader can make himself proprietor of is permitted by the text. A formation which is debated as it takes shape, the meaning is in endless motion, which is authenticated if it denotes the act of writing — that motion which both establishes the meaning and contradicts it.



(1) All quotations have been translated from the French text of the article with the exception of those from “The Gold-Bug,” which are given here from The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), V, 95-142. All italics appearing in quotations from “The Gold-Bug” are the critic’s unless otherwise noted.

(2) “Qui se ressemble, s’assemble.”

(3) The critic follows Poe in using the term index; see “The Gold-Bug,” Works, V, 105, 115.

(4) “Mise en abyme,” a term the critic discusses at length in “L’Histoire dans l’histoire,” Problemes du. Nouveav. Roman (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967), pp. 171-190, and in Le Nouveav Roman (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973), pp. 47 ff.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1976]