Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “Poe in Europe: Recent French Criticism,” Poe Studies, June 1978, Vol. XI, No. 1, 11:17-20


[page 17:]

Poe in Europe
Recent French Criticism

Wellesley College

In this survey of recent French criticism of the work of Poe, I see no point in restating, even in digest form, what I said in this journal (December 1976) about the first issue of Delta, which was given over almost entirely to six essays on Poe’s fiction. Nor need I do more than mention Roland Barthes’ analysis of “Valdemar,” which, ably translated and introduced by Donald G. Marshall, appeared in Poe Studies a year ago. The Barthes essay (1973) and some of those in Delta ( 1975) are very good examples of what might be called practical structural analysis; and, as we all know, it is this kind of analysis that is now in the ascendant in France, inside the academy as well as out. They are also very useful examples, in that they are intelligibly written. The writers are evidently interested in making themselves understood. Proceeding at a snail’s pace in his account of “Valdemar,” Barthes seems almost over-solicitous about educating his readers in the way this new method works.

Not all who have taken up the new method, or methods, express themselves in Barthes’ lucid fashion. Indeed, there more often seems to be a contrary tendency, for which obscurantism is probably the right term. This tendency is disconcertingly evident in an article by Helene Cixous: “Poe re-lu: une poetique du revenir” (Critique, 28 [1972], 299-327). I had read it and been baffled by it when it was first published. My most recent traversal of it proving not much more successful, I was curious to see what someone else might have made of it; turning to American Literary Scholarship: An Annual / 1973, I found G. R. Thompson’s comment: “Helene Cixous . . . in a ‘re-reading’ of Poe’s ‘poetics of return from the dead,’ discusses the theme of love and death in ‘Morella,’ ‘Berenice,’ ‘The Oval Portrait,’ ‘Ligeia,’ and other such works in evocative rather than precise prose.” As a one-sentence summary this could not be bettered, except possibly by replacing evocative with provocative.

For it is annoying to discover, as I did, that after a careful reading of an essay of almost thirty pages I had taken notes on only two possibly interesting suggestions. One has to do with “The Oval Portrait”: the portrait is in an oval frame, the face portrayed is itself oval, and the tale too is oval, or egg-shaped, in that a nascent second story is folded within the shell of the first or outer story. The other suggestion — one I do not recall encountering elsewhere — is that not only is will emphasized in the name William Wilson, but so too is the Doppelganger motif, via the “double-you.” Both points are well taken, but neither helps to clarify what Cixcus means by une poetique dn revenir.

That, presumably the central mattes, is inevitably obscured by Cixous’ assumption that Berenice, like Ligeia and Morella, “came back.” The artist’s bride in “The Oval Portrait” [column 2:] is at best a doubtful case of return from the dead, but Berenice is not even borderline. On the other hand, the revenant phenomenon is essential in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” but of this tale no mention is made.

Perhaps what is of central interest to Cixous is not the poetique mentioned in her sub-title but the chance to offer some subjective speculations about the four female characters whose names entitle four tales. Add to these four the woman of the oval portrait and one has a collective entity, la femme, of whom in a typical passage Cixous says this: “Her body is fantastic: it presents itself so that decomposition may begin. A chimerical body, indescribable, a composite of fabulous details but in its totality ungraspable, it is at once the cause of and the obstacle to a verbal account which . . . .” But that should suffice.

If the prose — here faithfully translated — tends to be bizarre, it is at least organized under a sequence of headings. And so in reading the essay one finds that some sections are less impenetrable than others. But the reigning premise — that all the women in these stories are one woman, and hence a generalization made about one applies to all — is demonstrably untenable, and so the superstructure based on it can be only whimsical. For instance, as her theme statement in one section Cixous gives us this. “There exists no discontinuity between knowledge [la science] and the female body.” The polymathic figures of Ligeia and Morella would seem to be relevant here, but not Berenice, who is not in the least bookish. Yet she to — Poe’s text notwithstanding — is brought in as an example of the alleged body-knowledge correlation.

Perhaps because it was listed as required reading for candidates taking the agregation examinations in AngloAmerican literature in 1973, Arthur Gordon Pym has received a good deal of commentary during the past five years. In 1973 it was published in bi-lingual format, edited in the grand manner by Roger Asselineau. But a survey of P>m’s fortunes in France should start from the year before with the name of Jeanne-Marie Santraud. “Le Recit d’Arthur Gordon Pym: ou le demon de la perversite triomphant” is the fifth chapter of La Mer et le roman americain dans la premiere moitie du dix-neuvieme siecle (Didier, 1972), the book Santraud wrote, one assumes, as a doctoral thesis. It has the usual marks: bulk, scope, details in abundance, and orderly layout. In the first part of her discussion of Pym she points to some of the relevant historical circumstances? including Poe’s need to establish himself as a novelist. But for various reasons Pym was not a success. Santraud thinks it likely that the total absence from it of any nationalistic, “progressivist,” values was not in line with popular taste, nor was the way in which Poe tried for authentic terror and not just thrilling entertainment. Perhaps he sounded too deep a note for the reading public of 1838. In the second half of her chapter Santraud attempts to hear that note and interpret it.

She initially contends that Pym embodies and enacts what is the basic theme, or notion, of the story, perverseness. Elaborating on remarks Poe made elsewhere about this phenomenon, she categorizes it as a mechanical compulsion unamenable to rational understanding or control, and hence evidence of the existence of fatality. That calamity/fatality is a permanent condition is the meaning of the almost endless series of disasters recorded in Pym’s narrative. [page 18:]

Is it therefore the meaning of the story? It does not seem that this is Santraud’s thesis, for following her comments on perverseness she turns to another line of inquiry: how Pym may be read as myth, allegory, and symbol. The eleven or so pages on this subject are nor persuasive. We are told that — in Rougemont’s words — myth is “symbolic fable” that brings out a pattern of relationships indiscernible under the jumble of appearances. But Santraud does not build on this. Instead she suddenly rules, in effect, that Pym is a spiritual adventure, a “going beyond,” a dream-journey into cosmic spaces. Allegory, we are (needlessly) told, is a systematic, conscious working-out of equivalences between concrete and abstract; for Santraud it is everywhere in the story — in the name of Pym’s sailboat, the Ariel, in the ambivalence of Dirk Peters’ name, in the several ways in which the valley described in Chapter 19 suggests Bunyan’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. Santraud concedes that Pym is devoid of any specifically religious implications but claims that its “metaphysical background” warrants her allusion to Pilgrim’s Progress. The journey motif is common to both, though the journeys do indeed reach different ends. Christian attains salvation. Whatever be the name for what Pym attains, it evades allegorical translation. And so symbol enters in, arising dynamically from the unconscious, to express the inexpressible. But as samples of symbol we are offered inert and surely conscious correspondences between Pym’s watch and “time.” and between the hold of the Grampus and “space.” These are hardly symbolic meanings. Nor is there symbolic relation between the numerous allusions to teeth in the story and the constant threat of death.

Death, deceit, whiteness — before the chapter ends these standard sub-headings are given their due. But what seems distinctive about Santraud’s treatment is her own willingness to do what she says Gordon Pym essentially does, that is, to transcend, to “go beyond.” Sometimes she goes beyond the actual words of the literal story, calling the white figure at the end a statue, and calling the Tsalalian canoe in which Pym and Peters move towards that figure a whaleboat (baleiniere). She goes beyond in a more interesting way, however, when she attempts to read out the meanings which she feels emanate from the final pages of the narrative. (Nowhere, by the way, does she allude to the concluding note) I translate a few instances: Pym and Peters “. . . are answering a call from the end of time. They feel themselves in a transitional state which perhaps will enable them to grasp the eternal principle and source of all that is. . . . They hurtle towards a unique adventure: their simple humanity cast off their egotism transcended, there is now present in them a grander humanity. Not yet have they reached the abstract realm of pure intelligence . . . but they are as it were in a state of grace. ready for the supreme revelation.”

Evidently, this tries to say too much. In the process what Poe wrote gets re-written. amplified, “enriched.” One infers from the lines quoted that Dirk Peters must rank with Pym as a joint protagonist. Does the imp of the perverse triumph in him also? According to Santraud’s announced thesis it should, but the question is not taken up.

A different thesis is presented by the same writer in a [column 2:] later essay: “Edgar Allan Poe ‘En sa maison de superbe structure’: etude du recit d’Arthur Gordon Pym,” (Etudes Anglaises, 29 [1976], 360-370). Here the main proposition is that — contrary to the line taken by Ridgely, Haverstick; Moss, and others — Poe’s story is solidly, even superbly, made. To demonstrate this she invokes the rules laid down by one Gustav Freytag in his Technique of the Drama ( 1896) and shows how well the Narrative conforms to these rules. Thus a plot should have an introduction, and this is the function of Chapter 1, the Ariel/Penguin episode. There should follow a “rising action,” culminating in a climax. In the Narrative the rising action originates in Pym’s perverseness, and all his succeeding misadventures result from that impulse. But when do we reach the culminating moment, the one of “the highest dramatic intensity, the paroxysm of the crisis”? Santraud’s astonishing answer is to point to the few lines towards the end of Chapter 17 in which Pym tells us, almost off-handedly, that he persuaded Captain Guy to sail farther south. As written, this is one of the least dramatic moments in the story. Apparently if the “classical” rules of Freytag are to fit, and thereby establish the story as well-made, Pym’s encounter with the captain will have to do duty as “paroxysm of the crisis.” Santraud is similarly unconvincing in her account of the “descending action,” and the “tragic force” which propels it — this force being the “singular-looking land animal” described in the diary entry of 18 January Pym’s encounter with this animal, or rather its carcass, is what precipitates him towards his “ultimate adventure,” in Santraud’s phrase. One scans Poe’s text in vain to find that meaning in it. I am among those readers of Pym who would emphasize its coherence rather than its episodic and improvisatory character, but the story does seem to me distorted if its form is brought into alignment with Freytag’s mechanistic specifications.

In addition to mapping out this alignment, Santraud touches on some matters which were dealt with in her earlier commentary on the story: the allegorical possibilities of certain details, the voyage as one into “pure intelligence,” the themes of revolt and deception. Inevitably one has a deja vu feeling while reading these pages. Santraud paraphrases not only passages from her book but also, it seems to me, views of some earlier Pym-watchers, none of whom is mentioned except Ridgely and Haverstick. An uninformed reader would assume that prior to this 1976 essay very little critical attention had been paid to Arthur Gordon Pym. It is odd that the editors of Etudes Anglaises would permit so questionable an assumption to be aired.

One of those editors is Roger Asselineau, whose introduction, notes, and especially bibliography in the bi-lingual edition (Paris: Aubier, 1973) evidence his scholarly thoroughness. The absence of any reference to Richard Wilbur’s theories about Poe is the only lacuna worth mentioning in the apparatus Asselineau sets up. Of course he could not have referred to Wilbur’s essay on Pym, for it too was published in 1973. Coincidentally, both critics arrive by different routes at agreement on a central point. In Wilbur’s reading. Pym’s voyage is a dream of “spiritual return,” and the snow-white figure at the end “stands for the coming reunion of the voyager’s soul with God or — what is the [page 19:] same thing — with the divinity in himself.” Asselineau’s chief contention is that the story is most intelligible if read in the light of Eureka as about a return to unity, a loss of identity, the attainment of apotheosis.

At least I take it that this is his chief contention. Asselineau is not unsympathetic to other ways of interpreting Pym, except for that of Jean Ricardou, whose premise is that the story has no manifest content. But the one interpretation Asselineau is outspokenly partisan of is the psychoanalytic reading that Marie Bonaparte proposed forty years ago. Along its major lines that interpretation is, he says, irrefutable. Whether it is easily compatible with his own “apotheosis” emphasis he does not say.

The Ricardou essay on the implications of the singular water peculiar to Tsalal (see Poe Studies 9 [19761, 1-6) was, I believe, the first important demonstration of what can happen to a Poe story when taken into the semioticstructuralist camp: the “story” dissolves into lines of black print on a white page, the textual reality its only reality, in which the words, and even letters are all that matter. Maurice Mourier does not appear to be an extremist exponent of this point of view, for he can write as if Pym were indeed a fictional character, “forever in search of ultimate knowledge.” who eventually comes to accept his inevitable annihilation. These and other such notions are by now virtually standard, in certain quarters. But Mourier has something newer and more interesting to say. His specialty is the cryptographic level of the story.

Mourier does not bother to remind us of Poe’s penchant for secret writing and the exaggerated estimate he had of his skill in this area. Biographical back-up of this kind is assumed to be pointless. And yet the title of Mourier’s article — “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe (Esprit, 42 [1974], 902-926)C promises that something will be said about the author and not simply his text. What is said, essentially, is that the indentations found on the end wall of the third abyss explored by Pym and Peters (Chapter 23) are indeed to be read, as Peters surmised, as hieroglyphical markings. Deciphered, the characters in the lower range stand for E. A. P. & A. G. Pym! In a second step Mourier deciphers the shapes of the three abysses, as represented in figures 1, 2, and 3 in the same chapter. The result is: E. A. Po. He then argues, though here I lose him, that a final e can be justified. But that scarcely matters. Po will do.

Mourier remarks that it was his dissatisfaction with the explanations proposed by the unidentified author of the concluding note that caused him to attempt a cryptanalytic reading of the figures and configurations so carefully spelled out and diagrammed in Chapter 23. For about all that the concluding note does is to assert that the white/ black distinction was being reiterated in “verbal roots” of three oriental languages. If a transliteration is made into Latin characters, however, and if the abysses are seen as an inter-related group — diagrammed by Mourier on page 917 — a “legended tomb” is found in Tsalal. It is a fascinating hypothesis.

The Asselineau edition of Pym occasioned a review-essay, mote essay than review, by Bernard Levy: “Pym: conte [column 2:] fantastique?” (Etudes Anglaises, 27 [1974], 39-44). Before answering his question Levy takes into account the opinions of Bonaparte, Bachelard, and Ricardou; and though he confesses that his academic cast of mind tends to resist Ricardou’s premise that the text points to nothing beyond itself, he finds himself in the instance of Pym more on Ricardou’s side than not. A hint of this shows up early when he says that there is — or rather “almost is” — in the story une mise en abime. What that tell-tale phrase means cannot be inferred from his concluding pages, for in them he is discussing abimes of a very different kind, the geological ones on Tsalal. These abysses, images of “the void,” are penultimate; the ultimate experience, recorded in the narrative’s last lines, is revelation of “the gulf.” Far from attaining an Omega Point, a la Teilhard de Chardin, the voyage simply ends. Route has run out. And so into gulf-void-nothingness, which it had attempted to trace out and take hold of, falls the writing. The “fantastic” aspect of the story consists, then, in the relation of the text to nothingness. The basic conflict is one between writing and abyss, and the latter wins.

Obviously, one needs to develop some rather esoteric expertise in this new way of reading if conclusions such as those of Levy are to make more than very diaphanous sense. As a start, a special vocabulary (for example, ecriture, problematique, narrativite — substantives all) must be mastered. One indispensable term is mise en abime, or as its originator spelled it, abyme. In his journal in 1893 Andre Gide recorded his interest in the way a small, insert-detail within a painting or story could be seen as a miniature of the work as a whole. This “retroaction of the subject on itself” he described, borrowing a term from heraldry, as mise en abyme. One of the illustrations he gave is the Mad Trist sequence in “Usher.” It is curious that a story by Poe was found to be grist for the methodological mill now in vogue when one of its foundation stones was set in place.

A mise en abime is made the starting: point for Eveline Pinto’s essay “La Dialectique du naufrage et de la decouverte chez Poe,” in Lire: revue d’esthetiqve, ( nos. 2- 3 [1976], 156-185). Each of Poe’s three famous sea-stories is constructed along story-within-story lines and so has the “retroaction” that Gide referred to. There is the manuscript that gets written in the course of the action of “MS. Found in a Bottle”; there is Pym’s narrative, existing as a large enclave between the preface (which has to do with the story of that text) and the note at the end (which has to do with the text of the story); and there is the fisherman’s account of his experience as recorded by the narrator of “A Descent.” Another common factor is the emphasis put on the need to tell about. to publish in some way, what was discovered. And thirdly there is a similar sequential pattern in all three: voyage-shipwreck-survival-exploration-discovery. Why, then, Pinto asks, do some critics — notably Claude Richard — take the view that “MS.” and “A Descent” are hoaxes only, whereas Pym is to be read symbolistically as a quest for Whiteness, verticality, ecriture, or whatever?

But after these promising preliminaries it is as if, for this reader, a great bank of gray vapor installed itself on the Pinto text; and although in it at intervals there appear, as in one of Pym’s last notations, some “momentary rents,” the argument as a finished whole eludes me. Pinto’s style [page 20:] is more than usually thick with what seem to be rhetorical questions. But the preferred replies to them are by no means self-evident. And yet she can also bluntly hand down in her last sentence the opinion that “Even for Poe life is stronger than death.”

I believe that there are at least two American students of Poe — Eric Carlson and David Halliburton — who would be in sympathy with this conclusion. But I do not think that they would find that it is argumentatively earned by Pinto. Nor would they find in her essay any allusions to their own arguments. The essay is in this respect not untypical. On the evidence of this survey of recent French commentary on Poe, and after taking note of one exception, Asselineau, I would conclude that the academic/intellectual tradition of familiarizing oneself with and acknowledging work previously done is a tradition that is now in France in a condition of disrepair.


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[S:0 - PS, 1978]