Text: David Halliburton, “Inscriptions of the Self,” Poe Studies, June 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 14:9-11


[page 9:]


Inscriptions of the Self

John T. Irwin. American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980. xi + 391 pages. $19.50.

“He seeks as image a second of the self,” says Wallace Stevens in describing how “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.” American Hieroglyphics could carry the poet’s line as an epigraph.

There is nothing novel, in itself, about such seeking: not a few critics have seen double since it became respectable to bring psychology to bear on art. What separates Irwin from the crowd is his recognition that doubling raises questions more complex than those usually addressed — in particular, the relation of doubling to signification and the problem of origins. In one of his chapters on Poe he observes:

The attempt to discover the origin of man through language inevitably leads to the hieroglyphics, to that basic form of signification in which the physical shape of the sign is taken directly from — indeed, is like the shadow of — the physical shape of the object that it stands for. For the writers of the American Renaissance, the hieroglyphics and the question of man’s origin are implicit in one another; if you start with one, sooner or later you will be led to the other. Furthermore, because in pictographic writing the shape of a sign is in a sense a double of the physical shape of the object it represents, like a shadow or a mirror image, the essays and stories from this period dealing with hieroglyphics and human origins are always, in one way or another, “double‘’ stories. (p. 61)

These preoccupations, Irwin reminds us, owe something to ideas, revived in the fare eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, concerning the origin of art in a nexus of shadow, outline, and modeling. Pliny tells the story of the Corinthian girl who, to memorialize her lover, drew on a wall the outline of his shadow; her father, a potter, then pressed clay onro the outline, making a relief which he subsequently fired. Irwin quotes Robert Rosenblum to the effect that figurations such as these — Fuseli called them “skiagrams, outlines of a shade“ — anticipate the nineteenth-century art of the silhouette, the beginning of which coincides with the revival of the Corinthian myth and the rage for Egyptian hieroglyphics and art. This ancient mode of representation appealed to the period’s taste for a flat style. [column 2:] Irwin contends, and he is right, even though the interest in this style seems to have reached a zenith only in the grand fin-de-siecle mannerisms of Jugenstil, The Yellow Book, and the Viennese Sezession.

Flatness may be viewed, on the other hand, as a relative thing. Most printing or handwriting, for example, lies flush with the surface (at least as far as the eye can tell) on which it has been impressed. But some “natural” writing — the writing that constitutes “the book of nature“ — leaves either a distinct track or a relief. Emerson (quoted by Irwin, p. 25 ) observes: “The falling rock leaves its scratches on the mountain; the river its channel in the soil, the animal its bones in the stratum; the fern and leaf their modest epitaph in the coal. The falling drop makes its sculpture in the sand or stone. . . . [T]he ground is all memoranda and signatures, and every object covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.”

One of the hint-covered things that interests Irwin is neither an object in the ordinary sense, nor its track or relief, but rather its planar trace. I refer to the trope of the shadow that appears throughout the book; for here, as in Irwin’s study on Faulkner (not to mention The Heisenberg Variations, by the shadowy “John Bricuth”), the idea is to treat an author’s written self “as an inscribed shadow, a hieroglyphic double” (p. xi).

Now a shadow offers nothing to penetrate, no depth to plumb. It exhibits itself, flat and dark as ir is, as the epitome of surface, a phenomenon infinitely superficial, as it were. Well and good. But what if the world turned out, on inspection, to be nothing but surfaces — something deep only insofar as the surfaces that form it are layered? The thought occurs to Melville (quoted in Irwin, p. 162):

Yet now, forsooth, because Pierre began to see through the first superficiality of the world, he fondly weens he has come to the unlayered substance. But, far as any geologist has yet gone down into the world, it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface. To its axis, the world being nothing but superinduced superficies.

Melville exposes what Irwin calls “the illusion of depth — the illusion, as in the case of Narcissus, that the spatial depth lying below his image on the surface of the water corresponds to the self-conscious ‘inner’ being that ‘lies below’ the surface of his body . . .” (p. 161). Irwin argues that “in fact depth is simply the surface below the surface, as is shown in the incident of the purple water on Tsalal [in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym], where the insertion of the knife blade between the veins of color (a penetration from surface to depth ) causes a temporary separation of the immiscible veins, thus revealing that the inner depth is made up of surfaces” (p. 162).

As my discussion will by now have suggested, American Hieroglyphics is crisscrossed by oppositions: body’ shadow, surface/depth, figure/ground, and horizontal/vertical are representative instances; these are less commanding, however, than the opposition of self/image and the correlative opposition of writing self/written self, which Irwin develops in his section on Pym:

The narrator, a fictive self created by the words of the narrative, [page 10:] pretends by the very convention of his role ro be the real self who writes the words; and this reversal is carried a step further when, in the preface that Poe’s surrogate Pym is supposed ro have written, the real writer appears as a character who offers to serve as a surrogate for the writing of Pym’s story. This reversal of roles evokes the imaginative writer s feeling that his real self is the written self (the body of his work), in comparison with which the writing self is a fiction. (p. 120)

This is fairly typical of the strategy Irwin employs (for the most part effectively) in the eleven chapters on Poe making up the bulk of the text. After several of these, as the doubles kept piling up, it occurred to me that I was meant to play Fortunato to Irwin’s Montresor — that Irwin, himself a kind of shadow cast by Poe, was aiming at his reader’s immurement. Does this reflect Poe’s claustrophobia, I wondered, or Irwin’s single-mindedness? I confess that I do not know. I do know that, thanks to the suggestive juxtapositions and ingenious glosses that are the spice of Irwin’s expository life, the diet of doubles is made generally tolerable and sometimes downright tasty.

It is a Medusan motif, on the other hand, that prompts some of the better discussions in this always interesting book. After commenting on the Memnon Stone episode in Pierre, Irwin observes that throughout the novel “the image of petrifaction is associated with a glimpse of the eternal as in the book’s dedication to ‘the majestic mountain, Grey Lock . . . eternally challenging our homage,‘” or as in Melville’s remark that Pierre (Peter, petra, a rock) is “‘a peak inflexible in the heart of Time, as in the isle-peak, Piko, stands unassaultable in the midst of waves‘” (p. 309). Irwin, suspecting an influence, connects this effect with Novalis’ theory of the sublime: “The sublime has the power to petrify, hence we should not be surprised at the sublime in nature or its influence, or fail to know where to seek it. Might nature not have turned to stone at the sight of God? Or from fear at the advent of man?” (p. 310). If Melville was influenced by this, he turned the premise inside out: what petrifies is the possibility that there may be no God to sight, the possibility that the world, once regarded as His artifact, is all blank stare and meaningless surface. The same applies to one of its human counterparts, the Egyptian hieroglyphics, behind which there lies concealed — exactly nothing. Before Champollion’s reading (and here I return with Irwin to Poe) the hieroglyphics could be a sign, not for the recovery of meaning, but for its death. In the chasm episode in Pym, as in an episode reported by Humbolt, a potential reader of inscriptions in stone first notices a resemblance to alphabetic characters, then dismisses the inscriptions as wanting in sense. The primordial writing intended to preserve cultural memory thus signifies at once the absence of meaning and the endurance of forgetting: in a way it is that absence and that enduring. Before the decipherment that began with Champollion,

the scenario of an explorer confronting a rock-hewn inscription in a mysterious ancient tongue presented modern Western man with the disturbing image of a language that was dead in a dual sense — not simply a language no longer spoken because lacking a living community of speakers, but one literally unspeakable because [column 2:] unintelligible, undecipherable. . . . Such inscriptions seemed to reverse the basic sense of an immorral memorializing through writing in stone, for what an undecipherable inscription preserves is the memory of that forgetting which forms memory’s external limit of dissolution, that dearh which obliterates signification. (p. 79)

On the affirmative side, the hieroglyphics, when they do become intelligible, offer Poe and others an archetype to which they can relate their own productions. Irwin argues that Whitman went a good way in this direction, furnishing a drawing of himself as the frontispiece of Leaves of Grass “in accordance with the physiognomic/pictographic presence that the book was meant to embody” (p. 98). The ideal, Irwin suggests, is a signification embodied in the physical shape of the writing itself; in contrast to alphabetic writing, which separates phonetic signs from their referents, this mode of communication is self-evidential. It thus resembles, in a seeming paradox, the least pictorial of aesthetic modes, music (a topic to which Irwin, through the mediation of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, devotes several good pages). Not the least of music’s attractions, where Poe is concerned, is the legitimacy it lends to the qualities of vagueness and indefiniteness which he deems essential for the realization of “the poetic principle,” and which Irwin also connects (this time drawing on Edmund Burke’s treatise ) with the sublime. In Poe’s hierarchy of the arts, one may argue that music occupies the highest rank: “It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty.” Irwin is correct, therefore, in the connections he draws (see p. 116). But Poe also says, at the beginning of the same passage, “The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develope itself in various modes — in Painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance — very especially in Music — and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the composition of the Landscape Garden” (Complete Works, XIV, 274). This is interesting on two counts. First, the poetic sentiment is supposed to function autonomously: it develops itself, without mediation, as though looking back to the vatic tradition and forward to the Paterian notion of a world of ‘‘influences” which “indelibly . . . figure themselves on the white paper, the smooth wax, of our ingenuous souls, as with ‘lead in the rock for ever,’ giving form and feature, and as it were assigned house-room in our memory . . .” (“Child in the House”). Second, Poe’s statements widen the field in which the poetic sentiment can flourish, embracing modes of figuration more visible than the musical.

This is not to make visibility a necessary criterion of art as such. But working as he did in an age sensitive both to the ancient glyphs of Egypt and to the contemporary glyphs of print, Poe kept returning to the problem of a script that would enable a writer’s authorial identity to be bodied forth in the very appearance of his inscriptions. In contrast to publishing methods that replace original idiosyncratic handwriting — the author’s own distinctive tracery — with standardized marks, anastatic printing, like the clay treatment in the Corinthian myth, replicates an original presence in the form of a relief. To demonstrate the process, [page 11:] Poe takes for his example — not insignificantly — a leaf from the very journal he is writing. Dampened with a diluted acid and blotted, this leaf is placed on a zinc plate, whereupon the acid in the gaps between the letters corrodes the zinc, leaving letters, which the ink has protected, intact. “Removing the leaf . . . we find a reversed copy, in slight relief, of the printing on the page . . .” (“Anastatic Printing,” Complete Works, XIV, 154). In its own way, Poe’s technique for preserving originality and identity is as pictographic as Whitman’s inasmuch as it reproduces the primordial inscription visibly, distinctively, and entirely:

All that a man of letters need do, will be to pay some attention to legibility of MS., arrange his pages to suit himself, and stereotype them instantaneously, as arranged. He may intersperse them with his own drawings, or with anything to please his own fancy, in the certainty of being fairly brought before his readers, with all the freshness of his original conception about him. (XIV, 157)

No printer to set up type, no artist to sketch a portrait — the writer does his own layout, produces his own drawings. In contrast to print, which, like other technologies, diminishes what Walter Benjamin calls a work’s aura, the anastatic procedure preserves it. By its manner of bringing the author before his readers, the imaging process transmits (to use two of Poe’s favorite terms) morale through physique. I say “through” because physique — the equivalent in other terminologies of matter, body, morphe‘ — becomes transparent; an agency of transmission, physique lets the work’s morale — the equivalent in other terminologies of spirit, essence, or soul — go on living. Poe, death-haunted but aspiring to survive, is materialist enough to know that survival has no meaning if it does not include corporeal perdurance: in this he too is “Egyptian.”

One test of a critical book is its capacity not only ro hold the reader’s interest, but to provoke a return to original texts, there to consider whar further matters might profitably be taken up. That American Hieroglyphics passes the test is sufficiently indicated, I trust, by the reflections I have been sharing. By other evaluarive measures it fares perhaps less well. Those in search of copious historical data will probably judge the book adequate and little more. Those concerned with literary scholarship as cumulative enterprise will find the book takes litde advantage of previous scholarly work. The section on handwriting, for example, makes no reference to connections I drew, in my 1973 book on Poe, between a sequence that can be traced in the author’s work from oral to chirographic to typographic types of expression, his exploitation of handwritten narratives, his own deliberate calligraphy, and his advocacy of an anastatic printing technique. Deconstructionists will appreciate that Irwin mentions relevant concerns (for example, the primacy of speech-as-presence over writing), but will wonder why Derrida is not mentioned. The happiest readers, I suppose, will be those scholars who, like Irwin and this reviewer, are intrigued by the difficult theoretical issues that arise when one attempts to determine what any example of writing finally does and is.

David Halliburton, Stanford University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1981]