Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “A Question of Sacred Texts,” Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol. IX, No. 2, 9:55-57


[page 55:]

A Question of Sacred Texts

Claude Richard ed. “Edgar Allan Poe et les textes sacres.” Delta No. 1. Montpeilier, France: Centre d’Etude et du Recherches sur les Ecrivains du Sud aux Etats-Unis, 1975. 127 pp. Fr. 30.

Delta is a new literary journal published in Montpellier by a group of americainistes who are associated with the Universite Paul Valery and whose special interest is the work — or maybe more precisely the ecriture, the work as written — of southern writers of the United States. The editor of this first number and the major contributor to it is Claude Richard, whose essay on Arthur Gordon Pym will be given some attention later in this review. Also by Richard is a long essay on “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In addition there is another analysis of the same story, along with a new translation of it, based on the Broadway Journal text. The other essays in this issue of Delta have to do with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Four Beasts in One.” The announced theme of the collection is “Edgar Allan Poe et les textes sacres.”

What is less evident is the particular point of view or set of assumptions which Richard and his colleagues share. Nothing specific is said about this. There is no editorial statement about objectives and ground rules. In its absence and on the evidence presented one assumes that the five essays in Delta No. 1 are workouts in the vein of the intensively text-oriented theories of literary analysis currently ascendent in France. It seems to me that they are most rewardingly read as exercises in and examples of this new mode of explication. In varying degrees all five essays are innovative and provocative, suggestive and perplexing. Above all (or at least) they are clever. But as if in keeping with the axiom of contemporary French criticism that a literary work is about nothing but itself, about its own writing, or ecriture — and so is devoid of referential interest — these essays seem to me less concerned with Poe and his tales than with what can be done with the tales when interesting minds become engaged in the process of inventive commentary on them. The author and his work do get the process going, but they serve no further purpose. This may overstate the case. It probably does. But I would still say that anyone interested in Poe’s knowledge of the Bible. or curious about his attitude towards the Bible and about the number and purpose (if any) of Biblical allusions in Poe’s work, would be ill-advised to begin his inquiries by investigating what the contributors to Delta have to say about their announced topic. On the subject of “Edgar Allan Poe et les textes sacres” they have very little to say. It has for them only a marginal, preliminary interest.

Thus in the reading Mireille Vincent gives it, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is in effect an allegorical statement about Poe’s quarrel with God. Her interpretation starts from two questions. What does the figure of Dupin represent, and what is the nature of his “opponent”? Despite his eccentricities Dupin is, she argues, the magus who can uncover concealed things, whose forte is reason and whose bete noire is superstitious credulity. His opponent, [column 2:] then, the Ourang-Outang, is none ocher than Jehovah; and the sailor who wanted to promote, manage, or simply exploit the murderous primate is to be identified, therefore, as representing the priesthood. And the pair of women who are murdered? This, too, is answered. In a series of steps resistant to precis or paraphrase, the conclusion is reached that Mme Espanaye stands for England, the once-powerful mother country; thus her daughter, aspiring to independence, is America. In these blunt equations I am not conveying the flavor of Vincent’s ingenious speculations. They should be mulled over in the fully articulated form in which she presents them. But of what significance are “les textes sacres” in this case? It may be possible to see, however dimly, in the details concerning unintelligible voices in the Espanaye apartment an allusion to the Tower of Babel. The one other text that is alleged to be relevant strikes me as not even dimly so. Here the question is: What meaning can be inferred from the fact chat the murdered women were not inhabiting a ground-floor apartment? Poe located their apartment on the fourth floor, we are told, so as to evoke the ironic associations that the New Testament “upper room” — vide Luke 22:12 — would in this context give rise to.

Similarly, scripture passages do not figure importantly in Claude Fleurdorge’s treatment of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Only towards the end of his essay are any such passages adduced. Attention is meanwhile given to other considerations, such as the fact that the story begins with the letter t (“True!”) and ends with the same letter (“heart!”), and that the way the letters t and h occur is an indication that the story concerns a quest (for Truth) that failed. Eventually the quest is more narrowly defined as a quest for salvation. The failure of the narrator in this quest is the result of his inability to see that both Truth and salvation inhere in Christ alone (“sont indissociables de la personne du Christ”) . In brief, the narrator was not one of the Elect. He tried but could not, in St. Paul’s phrases, “put off . . . the old man” and “put on the new man,” because he remained too deeply attached to that old man, that is, to his unregenerate self.

The one writer of the group who gives most attention to the question of how Biblical allusions are used is C. Lecompte, in his interpretation of “Four Beasts in One,” a wrathful extravaganza in which the sacred texts found to be relevant are passages in the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse, and in which various forms of Christian belief, observance, and behavior are under attack. It becomes obvious that the image of Poe implicit in Fleurdorge’s essay — an orthodox, even fundamentalist believer — is quire different from Lecompte’s image, in which Voltairean lineaments predominate. For what he discerns as the principal object of the story’s wrath is the intolerance endemic in institutional Christianity. Lecompte goes on at some length about this. He takes several pages to shore up the notion that well in advance of its promulgation as dogma in 1870 the theory of papal infallibility is ridiculed in this story, written in 1833. (I take it that this is what the text does, and not what Poe meant.) Lecompte does not address himself to the comparative merits of an alternative and perhaps standard interpretation of “Four Beasts in One” as a political satire, directed at Andrew Jackson. [page 56:]

In declining to branch out and acknowledge that there have been ocher and earlier laborers in the vineyard, Lecompte appears to be adhering to a code which proscribes revealing an acquaintance with previously published “literature on the subject.” His colleagues Vincent and Fleurdorge also abide by this rule, as does Claude Richard in his pages on “The Tell-Tale Heart.” When he turns to Arthur Gordon Pym, however, Richard reveals what one had assumed: that he is familiar with previous commentary on this story; and among the interests of his discussion is the adjudication he proposes of the various ways in which Bonaparte, Bachelard, Asselineau, and Ricardou have dealt with one of the more enigmatic details in Pym. He is out of line also in putting aside for a while the assumption that the story is concerned only with its own story-telling, in order to launch the trial-balloon suggestion that when Poe gave names to the mutinous crew who seize control of the Grampus he was slyly casting in the role of “bad guys” a number of contemporary American and English writers. If Richard is right the referential content of at least that detail of the story is very strong indeed. But this suggestion is not characteristic. Richard’s method in “L’taiture d’Arthur Gordon Pym” is consonant with the method of his fellow contributors. In order to bring that method into sharper focus, to show what kind of findings it produces, and to register some of the hesitations and resistances which these findings can provoke, I turn to Richard’s analysis of a few episodes in Pym.

However much else in that story has been differently interpreted, on one point there is unanimity: a land-sea, or earth-water. opposition occurs throughout and is visible especially in the first few chapters. Richard takes this as his starting point but he does so in an unexpected way, by noticing a dog motif, which in the phrase “lying in bed like a dog” is reiterated in the second paragraph of the story. To be bored with “lying in bed like a dog,” as Pym and Augustus are, is to be bored with land. Land, then, is to be seen as the place of, or under the sign of, animal — and specifically canine — horizontality. In evident contrast verticality is to be associated with the sea. Of the two land-bored young men, it is only Pym who proves in time to be truly sea-oriented. This is forecast when they embark on their night sail in the Ariel: Pym takes his place by the foot of the mast (vertical), while Augustus mans the tiller (horizontal). More obvious than a tiller as an instance of wooden horizontality is, of course, a log. Since Augustus on that night sail proved to be “beastly drunk,” he lost control both of tiller and of himself, and, collapsing, “rolled like a mere log.” After doing what he could to remedy the desperate situation, Pym “recommended [himself] to God.” What all this adds up to, Richard concludes, is that the essentially land-based character of Augustus is demonstrated. His is only the short gamut, from dog to log; whereas Pym goes a good deal further, from dog to God. Though the word dog — I am paraphrasing Richard here — is the tutelary sign of earth, it contains within itself the word God, which is the tutelary sign of the sea. However, it will be some while and many disasters before Pym attains, if he ever does, the seas of God. In this first episode the voyage out is a failure: the vertical mast goes [column 2:] down, the Ariel is run down by the Penguin, and Pym, rendered insensible, falls down on his drunken companion.

At the start of the story’s second episode we find Pym with a different horizontal companion, his dog Tiger, who lies atop or alongside Pym in the coffin-like iron box in which both are “interred” in the hold of the Grampus. A matter of importance here is that Tiger is a Newfoundland, the third syllable of which designation identifies him as a land-dog (“un chien de la terre”). In Pym’s effort to move out, from land to water, Tiger’s presence represents a backward step, towards horizontality. But just before giving way to despair during his ordeal in the hold, Pym happens to pass his hand over Tiger’s back and perceives “a slight erection of the hair,” and so the positive sign of verticality is restored. The crucial event here is that Pym discovers the warning message which Augustus had tied to the dog’s body; and after a number of frustrating developments Pym, and Tiger too, escape from the ship’s hold. Not as a pair, however. Towards the end of Chapter 3 Pym wards off a furious attack by the apparently mad Tiger: “I rose bodily up [that is, vertically], shaking him from me by main force . . . got through the door and closed it effectually against his pursuit.” That is, Pym frees himself from his imprisonment in the earth-coffin by confining Tiger in it. Pym emerges from the depths, in parallel with his earlier emergence from the water under the Penguin’s keel, in a vertical movement. Later, in some way, Tiger also emerges. But for the dog — “fidele a la horizontalite” — his exit from the hold only presages his exit from the story. As a creature of the land, happening into the domain of the sea, this land-dog must in effect dissolve. And so he does. There was no further role for him in this sea-story except, by vanishing from it, to imply the defeat of land (“la defaite de la terre”).

To sum up: Richard’s thesis is that these episodes involve a pair of oppositions. Along one line we find land-dog-horizontality-alcohol-Augustus; along the other line we have sea-God-verticality-water-Pym. How persuasive is this scheme? I am inclined to be skeptical.

It is puzzling, for instance, that Pym’s Newfoundland is referred to, and insistently referred to, as a land-animal, “un chien de la terre,” “la terre-chien,” and so forth, and described as a dog so allergic to water that he goes berserk with hydrophobia. How different, Richard remarks, Tiger is from the authentic water-dog type, namely, the spaniel who appears in Poe’s “Bon-Bon.” None of this, if I may say SQ, holds water. Bon-Ban’s dog is not specified as a spaniel but rather as “a large black water dog,” that is, a Newfoundland! According to the latest Britannica a dog of that breed is huge, solid black, has webbed feet and a heavy, oily coat, is an excellent swimmer, and is particularly good at “rescuing persons from the sea.” In short, Tiger is the water dog par excellence! How Richard went about discarding this evident referential meaning and supplanted it with the opposite meaning, the meaning generated by the syllable -land, he does not explain. Perhaps the resemblance between Tiger and terrier counted for something.

As for Tiger’s hydrophobia, Pym explicidy rules out [page 57:] this diagnosis, saying that the dog’s frenzied behavior “had been brought on, no doubt, by the deleterious quality of the air of the hold, and had no connection with canine madness. Webster’s on hydrophobia: “rabies, or canine madness.

Also out of phase with Richard’s thesis is Tiger’s participation in the counterattack against the mutineers. Their heavy drinking — as in the earlier instance of Augustus — identifies them with the land, for alcohol, Richard several times maintains, is to be associated with land-life (it is “le liquide de la terre”) and also with animal life (“le liquide de la bete,” wherefore “beastly drunk,” as Augustus was).s Richard calls the skirmish that takes place in Chapter 8 a conflict between “les etres de la mer” (Pym and his two comrades, who arm themselves with pump handles), and “les etres de la terre” (the mutiny group, alcoholic and therefore horizontal-prone) . Why Augustus, whose land-orientation was previously stressed, should now be one of the sea-faction is not clear. Nor is it clear why Tiger suddenly sheds the land-dog status emphatically conferred on him earlier to align himself in this episode with “les etres de la mer,” and so have his referential supersede his textual status.

Referential interest is what is interesting in Richard’s original proposal, mentioned before, that Poe was indulging in invidious nomenclature when he assigned the names Simms, Hunt, Wilson, and so on, to the members of the mutiny group. A gloss of this kind certainly relates the story to a real social and literary world outside of and apart from the world of the text. But for the most part it is to this second world only that Richard invites our attention. The assumption tacitly proposed is that the language of the text is autonomous, that some thematic or imagistic pertinence is likely to lurk in any given word, name, or even syllable in the text. Hence the Nabokovian word-golf of the log-dog-God series. Hence the appropriateness of the name Block for the captain of the vessel which collided with the Ariel in her outward-bound course. But why is there no comment on the rest of his name? The initials E. T. V. are as much part of the text as the surname is. By what principle, one asks, is some evidence brought forward while other evidence, presumably equally germane, is not? It sometimes seems — although this is improbable — as if it is the thesis itself that matters most, and that details of the text are examined or not depending on their “fit” with the thesis.

Patrick F. Quinn, Wellesley College



* The connection Richard makes between alcohol and land is based on the fact that two wines are mentioned, “Cape Madeira” and “Port.” Since Madeira is an island, its wine is land-wine. Since the expression ‘to make port’ means to reach land, the other wine is also, by verbal assimilation, a land-wine. Similar reasoning leads Richard to infer that the ship Penguin should be associated with land, for the bird penguin is “un animal de la terre.” It is so not actually but textually. Penguins are in fact water birds. But in Chapter 14 they are described by Pym as he watched them on Kerguelen Island. As with the dog and the wines, so with the bird: the -land syllable is decisive. One wonders about the fifteen other species of birds also mentioned in the Kerguelen context. Are they also to be thought of as “land animals”?


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[S:0 - PS, 1976]