Text: Michael Williams, “The Voice in the Text: Poe’s ‘Some Words with a Mummy’,” Poe Studies, June 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 16:1-4


[page 1:]

The Voice in the Text: Poe’s
“Some Words with a Mummy”

Washington State University

“Some Words with a Mummy” has attracted little commentary; it has most often merely been cited en passant as evidence of Poe’s distaste for the contemporary mythology of progress as it was expressed in politics, science, and commerce.(1) In the words of his singular spokesman, the revivified Mummy Allamistakeo, progress “was at one time quite a nuisance, but it never progressed” (Works III, 1193). Those studies that focus on the tale do so to identify its sources and references to contemporary figures like George to bins Gliddon and James Silk Buckingham.(2) Ironically, however, the tale itself implicitly undercuts this very activity, positing a fundamental skepticism toward the accessibility of the past in and through textual representations; it denies the assumption that the interpretation of texts is an enterprise that, as readings accumulate, draws ever closer to the goal of perfect understanding of the original truths they are presumed to embody; and, more generally, the tale questions any interpretive effort to recover from a text an authentic “voice” with which to re-invest writing with the authority of the spoken word.(3)


At one point, Allamistakeo explains why certain Egyptians chose to be embalmed before the end of their “natural term” of life — eight hundred years — and cites the case of an historian, who

having attained the age of five hundred, would write a book with great labor and then get himself carefully embalmed; leaving instructions to his executors pro fem., that they should cause him to be revivified after the lapse of a certain period — say five or six hundred years. . . . he would invariably find his great work converted into a species of hap-hazard notebook — that is to say, into a kind of literary arena for the conflicting guesses, riddles, and [column 2:] personal squabbles of whole herds of exasperated commentators. These guesses, etc., which passed under the name of annotations or emendations, were found so completely to have enveloped, distorted, and overwhelmed the text, that the author had to go about with a lantern to discover his own book. (III, 1189)

This complaint about the vulnerability of the written word to misrepresentation is a familiar one. The classic statement is that of Socrates, in Phaedrus:

once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn‘t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.(4)

Allamistakeo seems to be describing a solution to the plight of the orphaned text. The revivified historian must follow a “process of re-scription and personal rectification”; that is, he must first re-write his text, and then correct “from his own private knowledge and experience, the traditions of the day concerning the epoch at which he had originally lived.” He speaks as the past in the present and so prevents “history from degenerating into absolute fable” (III, 1189) .

This revival of an authentic voice is paralleled in the case of Allamistakeo, who is represented, in part, as a text which speaks back. He is discovered at the heart of a series of inscribed layers. The outer “large box, or case” is “papier mache, composed of papyrus” and “thickly ornamented with paintings representing funeral scenes, and other mournful subjects” (III, 1179). Moreover, among these,

in every variety of position, were certain series of hieroglyphical characters, intended, no doubt, for the name of the departed. By good luck, Mr. Gliddon formed One of our party; and he had no difficulty in translating the letters, which were simply phonetic, and representing the word, Allamistakeo. (III, 1179)

The group gathered about this box must open two other boxes, one inside the other, before penetrating to the core, to the body named by the hieroglyphs. The Mummy so discovered is sheathed in papyrus

and coated with a layer of plaster, thickly gilt and painted. The various paintings represented subjects connected with the various supposed duties of the soul, and its presentation to different divinities, with numerous identical human figures, intended, very probably, as portraits of the person embalmed. Extending from head to foot, was a columnar or perpendicular inscription in [page 2:] phonetic hieroglyphs, giving again his name and titles, and the names and titles of his relations. (III, 1180)

They strip off the layers of papyrus and uncover the “flesh” beneath.

The process so far has been an exercise of power, of an “interest” which reduces the sepulchres and their contents to “specimens . . . . at our disposal” (III, 1179). Such “disposal” initially takes the form of their physical control over the Mummy, which had so far been “subject only externally to public examination,” as they remove its outer inscribed layers; their interpretive confidence in similarly “disposing” of the meaning of these outer inscriptions is reflected in the unhesitating descriptions of the nature of the representations (disturbed momentarily by the verbal tics of “no doubt,” and “very probably”) and in Gliddon’s ease in translating the “simply phonetic” letters. Certain elements, however, subvert this approach. Their Mummy has been transferred “from a tomb near Eleithias,” and is regarded as a particular “treasure” because such tombs, according to the narrator, “are of higher interest [than those at Thebes], on account of affording more numerous illustrations of the private life of the Egyptians” (III, 1179). But a project, whether it involves texts or corpses, that seeks to recover “life” from “sepulchres” has an element of perverseness; and the distance between death and the doubly remote “private life” implies that interpretations of that life will bear a tenuous relation to any original.

This sense of subversion is reinforced by Gliddon’s translation of the phonetic hieroglyphs. As John Irwin points out, Poe might well be alluding here to Champollion’s “discovery of the key to the phonetic character of the hieroglyphics through the translation of Egyptian proper names.“(5) But because the phonetic was the most complex of the three types of sign that Champollion identified — the other two being the figurative and the symbolic, tropic, or aenigmatic (Irwin, p. 6) — we should be suspicious of the ease of Gliddon’s translation, especially since it yields “Allamistakeo.” The name appears “in every variety of position” on the outer boxes and extends from “head to foot” on the inner papyrus sheath. The examiners assume that it names the Mummy, but the phrasing — “the letters . . . represented the word“ — leaves the precise nomination in question; it could easily name their project and, like the word “DISCOVERY” in “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” mock the very search for meaning from which it issues.(6)

Having reached the flesh, which, the narrator observes, is “in excellent preservation, with no perceptible odor” (III, 1180), the examiners search “the corpse very carefully for the usual openings through which the entrails are extracted” (III, 1181) but discover none. Before continuing inwards by dissection, they decide on “the application of electricity” to the Mummy, in a spirit — “one tenth in earnest and nine tenths in jest“ — which emphasizes the sense of contempt that is implicated in the assumption of control. When the Mummy is galvanized into life, their interpretive complacency is assaulted: they are faced no longer with the dead letter, the orphaned word open to [column 2:] interpretive abuse, but with an inscription that talks back; they have literally revived a presence within the text. Like the revivified historian, Allamistakeo sets about correcting the “traditions of the day concerning the epoch at which he had originally lived” (III, 1189).

Many commentators have accepted the “authority” of Allamistakeo’s voice in his refutation of the “fable” of progress and perfectibility, but ironically his remarks, and the narrative situation in which they are delivered, undercut his own claim to authority; the voice speaking from within the text may indeed be “All a mistake, oh!” When he describes the historian searching for his original book beneath the layers of accumulated commentary, emendation, and annotation, he remarks that “When discovered, it was never worth the trouble of the search” (III, 1189). He further states that the historian must re-write it, implying that this re-scription, like the correction of tradition, is somehow a reassertion of an authentic vision. Yet a subsequent statement dismisses much of the authority of the original written version:

The Kabbala [spurious traditions] . . . were generally discovered to be precisely on a par with the facts recorded in the un-rewritten histories; — that is to say, not one individual iota of either, was ever known, under any circumstances, to be not totally and radically wrong. (III, 1190)

The implied homology here — historical fact/subsequent rradition, Torah/Kabbala, in which the first term is temporally prior to-and inspires the second — is repeated by the third pair — original text/“un-re-written history].” But the un-re-written history in this third pair obviously contains some portions of the historian’s “original book,” portions which must be, by definition, “totally and radically wrong.” Implicitly, the author’s proximity to , or even participation in historical events is no guarantee of the truth of his written statements. Moreover, although the historian feels impelled to re-write his book, it is unclear how this second version could be anything but a repetition of the (inadequate) first, since his embalmment had followed immediately upon its composition.


The frame narrative of the tale recapitulates these issues by offering a parallel instance of a “history,” an original text inscribed by a participant in the events it records: the narrator, not unlike the Egyptian mummy-historian, is awakened suddenly from a sound “slumber”; he pens his “memoranda for the benefit of . . . family and of mankind”; and when the writing task is done, he prepares to “get embalmed for a couple of hundred years” (III, 1178, 1195). This frame functions, as will be seen, to elaborate both the limitations of “authority” at the origin of written histories and the problems that language itself poses tor efforts to maintain that authority in written texts.

One reason for the implied distance between “facts” and “recorded facts” in Allamistakeo’s discussion of the [page 3:] original texts of Egyptian histories is suggested by the ambiguous status of the narrator’s experience of events. As in so many of Poe’s tales, distinctions between reality and perception blur in epistemological confusion, for experience itself is deceptive and necessarily subjective. The opening paragraph strikes a reasonable tone, a gesture for establishing the narrator’s authority:

The symposium of the preceding evening had been a little too much for my nerves. I had a wretched headache and was desperately drowsy. Instead of going out, therefore to spend the evening as I had proposed, it occurred to me that I could not do a wiser thing than just eat a mouthful of supper and go immediately to bed. (III, 1177)

The vaguely intellectual connotations of “symposium” suggest that here speaks a cultured man, perhaps — given the forbearance of the mere “mouthful of supper“ — even an ascetic one. But in the light of the next two paragraphs we suspect that the symposium was, quite literally, a drinking party and that his indisposition is a hangover; furthermore, his “light supper” consists of several pounds of “Welsh rabbit” washed down with five bottles of Brown Stout. After this “frugal meal” he put on his night cap, and “with the serene hope of enjoying it till noon the next day, I placed my head upon the pillow, and through the aid of a capital conscience, fell into a profound slumber forthwith” (III, 1178). His crapulous sleep is interrupted by a “furious ringing at the street door bell,” an “impatient thumping at the knocker,” and his summons to the unswathing of the Mummy.

As Mabbott notes (III, 1195, n. 1), too much cheese before bedtime was induce (as it still is) commonly considered to nightmares, and, quite apart from the ludicrous nature of the central event, elements of the narrative imply that it could easily be a report of a dream. After such a meal it is appropriate that the narrator arrives at Dr. Ponnonner’s to find the Mummy “extended upon the dining table” (III, 1178). Moreover, when, after the rude administration of the electric shock to the Mummy’s nose, the narrator perceives that its eyelids have moved, he accounts for his own lack of alarm by reference to the Brown Stout but notes that, as in a dream’ “Mr. Gliddon, by some peculiar process made himself invisible” (III, 1182). A similar dream-logic accounts for Ponnonner’s survival of his fall through the window to the street below, and the fact that when the Mummy spoke “no member of our party betrayed any very particular trepidition, or seemed to consider that any thing had gone very specially wrong” (III, 1183). The narrative events could, then, be all a dream, in which case, as David Ketterer notes, the narrator has “confused the deceptive line between illusion and reality, making the story an excellent exemplum of the razor-edge on which our awareness of the ‘real’ both mentally and temporally rests” (Ketterer, p. 22).

More disturbing than this epistemological confusion, however, is the implication that the fundamentally figurative nature of language prevents its use as a controllable medium for representing the “historian’s” version of events, and so compounds the problems of interpretation. Allamistakeo implies that the historian loses control over his “original [column 2:] book” because authority for establishing its meaning is transferred over time to readers who treat “history” as “fable” to be explicated, annotated, and emended. But the distinction between “history” and “fable” can only be maintained by a faith in the distinction between two levels of language — the literal and the figurative — and in our ability to keep them distinct. And the narrative subverts this faith by repeatedly displaying the tendency of all language to figuration. The narrator draws attention to this tendency even as he implies his own control over it: when Ponnonner pulls Allamistakeo’s nose into contact with the electric wire, he says, “Morally and physically — figuratively and literally — was the effect electric” (III, 1182). But the tenuous nature of this assumption of control is clear when the narrator unself-consciously repeats an unintentional pun uttered by Allamistakeo, whose first words are “I am as much surprised as I am mortified, at your behavior” (III, 1183). When the narrator subsequently claims that “I could not endure the spectacle of the poor Mummy’s mortification” (III, 1195), he appears unaware that his own readers could find a similar pun at work. In his written text, the narrator has lost control over such readings, a control which, it is implied, is maintained in speech by the monitoring presence of the speaker. When Allamistakeo’s statement that he was embalmed alive because he is “of the blood of the Scarabaeus” (III, 1187) is taken literally by Doctor Ponnonner, the Mummy can assume the to le of “parent” to his discourse and correct the misinterpretation: “To be ‘of the blood of the Scarabaeus,’ is merely to be one of that family of which the Scarabaeus is the insignium. I speak figuratively” (III, 1187).

This potential for interpretive confusion in the interpenetration of the literal and figurative levels — like the deceptive nature of experience — is established at the outset of the tale. The disjunction between the narrator’s statement that he would “just eat a mouthful of supper” (emphasis mine) and his actual gorging on at least four pounds of “Welsh rabbit” is crudely comic, but it also illustrates the potential for subjective interpretation allowed by figurative language (III, 1177). Furthermore, the name of the dish draws attention to the vital to le of shared convention in signification — “Welsh rabbit,” by convention, is not a Celtic bunny. Yet other elements emphasize that language always oversignifies (in a way that is impossible, for the writer at least, to control), whether by juxtaposition — the “light supper,” in which “light” is usually taken to refer to digestibility, is here measured in pounds weight — or by concealed pun — when the narrator notes that without Brown Stout “Welsh rabbit is to be eschewed,” his intended sense of avoidance is overridden by a hideous play on unlubricated mastication of the glutinous meal.

The opening also draws attention to the interpretive instability of even the simplest kinds of denotative language. When the narrator adopts conventional terms of measurement — of numbers and pounds — to describe his meal, we might seem to be on firm ground but are not:

More than a pound at once . . . may not at all times be advisable. Still, there can be no material objection to two. And really between two and three, there is merely a single unit of difference. I ventured, [page 4:] perhaps, upon four. My wife will have it five; but, clearly, she has confounded two very distinct affairs. The abstract number, five, I am willing to admit; but, concretely, it has reference to bottles of Brown Stout. . . . (III, 1178)

Abstract numbers, then, gain significance only in conjunction with the “units” to which they are applied and the objects to which they are referred — pounds or bottles, cheese or stout — and can, as here, be made instruments of blithe prevarication. Moreover, the disagreement between the narrator and his wife over the “two very distinct affairs” of cheese and stout points up the essential arbitrariness of any sign’s relationship to a particular referent, an arbitrariness that invites, as in this case, multiple interpretations.

The narrator, happily oblivious to the problems that diet and language pose for the authority of his own “history,” inscribes in it a dialogue with the revivified mummy, asking his readers to accept Allamistakeo’s “voiced” opinions as authoritative, in part precisely because they are spoken. The narrative makes clear, however, that whatever authority such a voice might have carried in the event, it cannot be recovered from the written text. This loss is dramatized when the narrator describes the series of displacements that underlies his “record” of the “conversation in which the Mummy took a part” (III, 1184). It is a “record” of a dubious translation of a language of which he has no knowledge. He relies totally on “the medium . . . of Messieurs Gliddon and Buckingham, as interpreters,” claiming that they “spoke the mother-tongue of the mummy with inimitable fluency and grace” (III, 1184). But while his unqualified assertion would seem to be supported by Allamistakeo’s comment to them that “you speak Egyptian fully as well, I think, as you write your mother tongue” (III, 1183),7 the Mummy’s endorsement is in a translation that, paradoxically, is its own only verification. Moreover, the process of communication is beset with difficulties that the narrator attributes to “the introduction of images entirely novel to the stranger” (III, 1184). He notes that to convey their “particular meaning” they must resort to “the employment of sensible forms“ — for example, “the term ‘politics‘” is linked with a picture “sketched upon the wall, with a bit of charcoal,” and “the absolutely modern idea, ‘wig‘” is accompanied by Buckingham’s removal of his own. But there is no guarantee that the communication is successful: in the first case, the hieroglyph that Gliddon employs — “a little carbuncle-nosed gentleman, out at the elbows, standing upon a stump . . .“ — is a culturallydetermined image, far more likely to be recognized by a nineteenth-century American ehan an ancient Egyptian; and, in the second, the narrator (and the interpreters in whom he places such faith) are mistaken in believing the “wig” to be absolutely modern,” unknown to the Egyptian (III, 1198, n. 15) — any confusion must be on a far more fundamental level than they assume. The narrator’s text, then, even as it claims for itself the authority of a transcription of an original voice, draws attention to its own displacement from Allamistakeo’s “primitive Egyptian.” The Mummy’s “original . . . speech” is finally inaccessible to the reader of the tale. [column 2:]

In sum, the tale identifies the revivification of the Mummy with the interpretive strategy of attempting to recover, to bring to “life“as it were, an originating, authenticating voice in a written text; its narrative frame, its punning texture, and the Mummy’s own testimony mock the possibility of success. The search for such origins, like the questions put to Allamistakeo about the creation, lead only back to language — “the very word ‘Adam’ (or Red Earth).“(8) Thus it is not by coincidence that the language that Allamistakeo speaks is termed “the mother-tongue of the mummy” (III, 1184); this is more than an awful play on words, for “mother-tongue” implies, on the one hand, that it is an original language from which subsequent languages have derived and, on the other, that even the “mummy” has a “mother-tongue“ — this original is itself merely one in a series of linguistic progenitors, the ur-form of which recedes in infinite regress before efforts to recover it.



1 - See, for example, Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 195-196, 209. David Ketterer notes that “Poe intends attacking man’s misconception that the passing of time brings political, architectural, metaphysical, and scientific improvements“ — The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton to uge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979), p. 20. G. R. Thompson cites the ironic satire of the tale to support his case that “the ’sincerity’ of Poe’s use of the occult sciences in his ’serious’ tales is questionable,” and as further evidence that Poe’s attitudes are “always presented as ambivalent, skeptical, detached” — Poe’s Fiction: to mantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 143.

2 - See particularly Burton R. Pollin’s “Poe’s ’Some Words with a Mummy’ Reconsidered,” ESQ, No. 60 (Fall 1970), Supplement pp. 60-67. Pollin lists earlier studies.

3 - Jonathan Auerbach, “Poe’s Other Double: The Reader in the Fiction,” Criticism, 24 (1982), 341-361, addresses, from a different perspective, the issues of voice and authority in Poe’s tales.

4 - Tr. R. Hackforth, in Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds. Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Bollingen Series LXXI (New York: Pantheon, 1961), p. 521.

5 - American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the 7lgyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), p. 56.

6 - Compare Allan Gardner Smith, “‘Discovery’ in Poe,” Delta, 12 (1981), 1-10.

7 - Allamistakeo’s double-edged comment could also easily be Poe’s jibe at the prose of Gliddon and, particularly, Buckingham. Compare Pollin, pp. 62-64.

8 - III, 1190. Compare Irwin, pp. 57-58.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]