Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “Arthur Gordon Pym: ‘A Journey to the End of the Page ’?,” Poe Newsletter , April 1968, vol. I, No. 1, 1:13-14


[page 13, column 1:]

Arthur Gordon Pym: “A Journey to the End of the Page”?

Jean Ricardou. “Le Caractère singulier de cette eau,” Critique (Août — Septembre 1967), pp. 718-733.

A taste for Poe together with a certain savoir-faire in interpreting his work — this has long been a French specialty, and it is now being evidenced under “structuralist” auspices. A recent instance is this essay by Ricardou (1).

Its unusual title alludes to a phrase that appears late in Arthur Gordon Pym, at the point when an exploring party from the Jane Guy is being guided by the native chieftain Too-wit across the bizarre terrain of Tsalal. A small stream is reached, and “Too-wit and his attendants halted to drink. [But] on account of the singular character of the water, we refused to taste it, supposing it to be polluted; and it was not until some time afterward we came to understand that such was the appearance of the streams throughout the whole group [of islands].” Ricardou quotes this and the rest of the final paragraph of Chapter XVIII as a prime example of an enigmatic text. He takes a critical look at several exegeses that this text has evoked, and he then proposes an interpretation of his own.

The earlier commentaries which are weighed and found wanting are those by Marie Bonaparte (in Edgar Poe, 1936), Gaston Bachelard (in L ’Eau et les rêves, 1942), and Jorge Luis Borges (in Discusiôn, 1957). With each of these three commentaries Ricardou deals fairly and acutely. For instance: it is not because of their specifically psychoanalytic slant that Bonaparte and Bachelard go astray, but rather because of a more general notion they have as to the nature of imaginative literature, namely, that its goal or purpose is to point to something prior in time to itself, as when Bachelard premises a dream as necessarily antecedent to every literary work. The few remarks made by Borges are more precisely literary than, shall we say, psychological, in their bearing. But Ricardou shows that Borges too has not accurately read the text he is commenting on. Ricardou’s own position is unassailable: an exegesis should take into account all the details of the text under examination, and not isolate only the one or two details the commentator finds it convenient to embroider on. [column 2:]

We are reminded, accordingly, that the water described by Pym in the final paragraph of Chapter XVIII had four characteristics: it appeared limpid only when falling rapidly, in cascades; when moving slowly, it resembled, in its consistency, “a thick infusion of gum arabic in common water”; it was variable in color but was mostly of purple hues; and structurally it seems to be made up of veins, with cohesive power along the vertical but not the horizontal axis. Pym provides another clue: seeing this water “excited as profound astonishment in the minds of our party as the mirror had done in the case of Too-wit,” who had nearly gone mad when, for the first time, he encountered mirrors in the cabin of the Jane Guy. The essential point is, Ricardou concludes, the Tsalalian water is non-reflecting. Its four attributes all coincide to negate the mirror-effect. And so, having never seen themselves in mirrors of either water or glass, the Tsalalians have no comprehension of a complementary relationship between what is same and what is other. Their world has been the totally dark one of their black archipelago, a world of undifferentiated sameness. Ricardou doesn ’t put it this way, but he has in effect discovered an epistemological motive behind the attempt of Too-wit and company to do away with the party from the Jane Guy.

Of greater importance for the exegesis, however, is the link between the strange water and the black hills of Tsalal: the routes that serpentine through these hills were once beds of the torrents in which that water flowed; and the gorges made by these torrents form an immense hieroglyphic (diagrammed by Pym in Chapter XXIII) . In close correspondence with this detail is what we are told about the “veiny” structure of the water. “We perceived,” to quote Pym’s account:

that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; and that their color was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighboring veins. Upon passing the blade of a knife athwart the veins, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of the passage of the knife were instantly obliterated. If, however, the blade was passed down accurately between the two veins, a perfect separation was effected, which the power of cohesion did not immediately rectify.

If in the above we read lines for veins we have a metaphorical description of a written (or printed) text. In Ricardou’s paraphrase: “ . . . if an imaginary vertical were to divide a line of writing, the two separated parts would in principle remain as one because of the intense cohesive force of syntax; if on the other hand a horizontal divider were to cut between two lines, the broken connection, essentially spatial in nature, would manifest a much weaker tendency towards reunification.” One could quarrel with the way he has visualized the experiment of the knife-in-the-water; and surely the cohesive force of syntax operates through the whole length of a sentence, whether or nor it is one line long. Ricardou does not stop to consider such objections; instead he pushes the analogy one step further: Just as the water appears limpid only when in rapid movement, so with the story itself. If read rapidly it presents no difficulties. But if our reading rate slows down we do become aware of opacities, which eventually can open out into multiple meanings. The water-text [page 14:] analogy holds up primarily in this respect: neither offers a mirroring surface. Anti-realism is the key. What not to do is to look in the text for a reflection of the real world. One remembers that in The Power of Blackness Harry Levin called the adventures of Pym a “Journey to the End of the Night.” Presumably Ricardou would find this unduly “realistic.” For him, Pym’s story in its final section is, in his phrase, “un voyage au bout de la page. ”

Seen in this fashion, the black archipelago of Tsalal is analogous to a printed page. The main gorges of the island (see Chapter XXIII) spell out something: the Ethiopian verbal root, “to be shady.” And there are meaningful inscriptions on the walls of those gorges. In short, everything has to do with language, words, with black marks on a page. Thus for Ricardou the conflict between the black islanders and the white visitors is not an indirect expression of racial animosities but instead pertains to the way pen and ink impose themselves on paper. When, in the last paragraph of Pym’s narrative, fallouts of whiteness begin to cover the escape canoe, the captured islander, Nu-Nu, expires. In Ricardou’s word he has been “gommé” — i.e., literally, erased. But for the two white men — “paper men,” in more than one sense — there is the success of attaining the page’s marginal blankness.

Ricardou’s theory enables him to explain why Pym erroneously decided that the indentations seen on the cavern walls were meaningless; and he ingeniously tries to show how the cry of the island birds constitutes a reading of the island’s name, Tsalal. Flying high above the linked gorges they decode the lithic lettering below and translate it in their cry. We also should try to read in the same way, not literally, at word-level, but from a height, looking down metaphorically, as we do physically. Only thus can the spirit of the text be discerned. If Poe’s text is read in this way what is it saying? Pym’s last adventure, in symbolizing a page of writing, tells us that literature borrows from the material world only in order to call attention to itself. Fiction is about itself. The signs and symbols revolve in patterns around a vacant hub, language being, in Mallarmé’s word, self-reflecting. (”Le langage se réfléchissant. ”)

Three comments: 1) Ricardou’s prose is not without its own opacities, but my first reaction after reading his essay was to feel exhilarated rather than wearied. Right or wrong, this is the work of an unusually agile intelligence. This is “creative reading” — indeed so exuberantly creative as to become at times plainly excessive. As one instance: the Bennett’s Islet landfall (in Chapter XVII) “stands for” the heading at the top of the page; by relentless analogy the lines of print below must “stand for” the Tsalalian archipelago. 2) Yet even if one objects to the thesis in its entirety there are insights incidental to it that certainly reward examination. I would single out the correlation observed between the white men’s consternation when they first examined the non-reflecting water and the near-frenzy of Too-wit when caught between two mirrors. Double-or-nothing in the one case; double-and -nothing in the other. In both the fear of Nothing — as R. M. Adams has discussed this concept in some cogent pages on Poe (2) — is the dominant motive. 3) Though admiring the essay as a whole, I can see at least two important grounds for dissent. One I have mentioned: Ricardou’s understanding [column 2:] of the passage that describes how a knife-blade could operate on the veiny water. For him it is the key passage in the enigmatic text. I believe he has misconstrued it. The other objection starts from agreement with his own principle that an exegesis should attend to all the details of the examined text. When he goes beyond the final paragraph of Chapter XVIII to include nearly the entire last third of Arthur Gordon Pym he has overextended himself and is unable to abide by that principle. Perforce he does what he faulted Mme Bonaparte and others for doing: selecting for exegetical comment only the details that prove congenial to the predilections of the commentator. Hence Ricardou concludes with what I would wager he knew he would find, confirmation of the thesis, now very much in vogue, that a literary work is “a piece of language,” creative only “in the sense that it brings into existence its own meaning” (3).

Patrick F. Quinn



(1)  I risk identifying Jean Ricardou as a structuralist because of his close association with the publication Tel Quel, and hence with such figures as Jakobson, Barthès, Lacan.

(2)  NIL: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of Void during the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1966), pp. 41-50.

(3)  Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago, 1953), p. 49. Cf. Adams on Mallarmé: “He does not really believe that the world he is writing about exists at all. At least if it exists, it exists only provisionally, as a convenient fiction which is dependent for its reality on the poetry which expresses/ creates it.” NIL, p. 166.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]