Text: Henri Justin, “Recent Poe Criticism in France: 1983-1987
Source: Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, December 1987, Vol. XX, No. 2, 20:27-35


[page 27:]

Recent Poe Criticism in France: 1983-1987

Sorbonne Nouvelle

Poe seems to be moving farther away from the center of the intellectual stage here in France, but he keeps very much alive in the universities, with a highly readable biography and a deluxe publication centering on “The Raven,” renewing the wide-spread appeal of his enduring enigma. I will start with these, then review a number of isolated articles, and finally come to the nucleus of mental excitement these days (with Claude Richard in the eye of the storm): “The Purloined Letter” (still!), divisibility and indivisibility, atomism — and the poems. This renewal of an interest in the poems is linked with their appearance on the program for the 1984 “agregation“(1) and may have been heralded by the paperback edition of 1982 (in Mallarme’s translation).(2) Its preface by Jean-Louis Curtis stressed the “revolutionary” approach to the literary text which Poe inaugurated by seeing the poem first as a “linguistic object” (aun objet de langage,” p. 21) and by being himself, in his own practice, aa literary engineer” (aun ingenieur des Lettres,” p. 17): so here is one truth, at least, which has begun to be widely circulated.


Claude Delarue’s Edgar Poe is a good biography, as far as biographies go, and must have met with success, since the first edition (Paris: Balland, 1984; 380 pp., 98 F.) was soon followed by a paperback version (collection “Points,” 1985: same pagination, 38 F.). Delarue gives no source references but has obviously gone through the necessary readings, and his approach is both honest and imaginative. He does not fill up the gaps when information is missing, but when a scene kindles his imagination he avails himself of the rights of the novelist (which he is, too) — thus giving us vivid empathic renderings of the fatal intimacy between the little Edgar and his sweet and dying mother (pp. 29-31), of the youth’s swimming feat up the James River (pp. 52-56), of his legendary meeting of Mrs. Stanard (pp. 58-60), of his (hypothetical) last interview with his declining father (pp. [column 2:] 157-159). Then, as things deteriorate for Poe, the narrative takes on more lurid colors. Claude Delarue sees Poe’s work itself in an existential light, with the very contemporary themes of “incommunicability, disintegration, solitude, the absurd” (p. 193). He does not see in it, as I do, a tremendous victory of consciousness, and so it remains for the reader of this biography to follow Poe on his way down to the triple loss of control, dignity, and life — the way of all biographies of Poe, probably. As to the key to his miserable destiny, the traditional one has to do — the suicidal tendency, which I accept because it is part and parcel of that logic of contradiction which is central to his work. Here is typical comment, as early as p. 82: “he was organizing his own wreck” (“il preparait son propre naufrage”). Or this remarkable pivot in the narrative, when Edgar decides to leave his foster parents’ house: “he opted for the irremediable; from that irremediable Edgar Poe [the writer in him] was born.”

And perhaps out of the irremediable alooked in the face,“(5) or even courted by the poet (much in the way the bull is lured on by the torero), there may spring the “inescapable” work of art.(4) “The Raven” is such a work, and Le Livre des Quatre Corbeauz (The Book of the Four Ravens)(5) is a testimony both to the continuing popular appeal of Poe’s poetical “tour de force” and to the fascination it has been exercising on major European artists. The “four ravens” are five: Poe’s (given in the original), then Baudelaire’s and Mallarme’s, followed by Fernando Pessoa’s verse translation aritmicamente conforme com o original“ — the whole being illustrated with twenty-nine paintings, collages, and sketches by the contemporary Portuguese artist Julio Pomar. We might even add a sixth “Raven”: the one which gradually emerges from the personal comments and reflexions of the editor, Claude-Michel Cluny, an essayist and novelist who accompanies us from one text or illustration to the next. It is a remarkable book, 12 1/2 inches by 16, 150 pages of thick, smooth paper [page 28:] (a little unwieldy to say the truth, and the binding is not its strong point). The idea of such a meeting “beyond Time” (as Cluny puts it) is superb. The final product is lavish, with the poems printed in soft brown on delicately tinted pages. Poe’s poem, however, might have been presented just a little more lovingly. One regrets that its seven longer lines must still be cut up because they do not fit the preestablished frame, so that, with 7 1/2 inches at his disposal (and he could have used more) the compositor still conveys a slightly cramped feeling, the “censer” of stanza 14, for example, still dangling uncomfortably under “unseen.“(6) One is also annoyed at stumbling over “Open here I plung, the shutter”: fortunately this is in a quotation in Cluny’s comment, not in the poem itself. And these typos, so much the rule as soon as books in French venture into foreign languages (the “Jekyll/Jeckyll” hesitation, in Les Quatre Corbeaux, is typical), remain the exception.

The main interest of the book for the scholar is that it offers a cross section of the evolution of art consciousness in the West over the last century and a half, almost. Pomar’s portraits (faces, most of them) show Baudelaire (in perhaps the most impressive painting in the collection, on p. 92) as a haunting presence, tragic, with a sick skin but the lurking energy of some devilish human tiger; they show Mallarme as evanescent, or splintering into the nervous touches of the brush; Pessoa (especially in the fine, arresting profile on p. 51), as pensive, abstracted, and Poe, as the sad, red-nosed and top-hatted clown, except on p. 28, where he retains the depth of tragedy. In all these portraits, too, the human face is in danger of collapsing into a chaos of rough color touches. As for the raven of the collages, made of pieces of rough cloth flayed or caught flat in mechanical rigidity, it is very much the comical “ungainly fowl” retaining some uncouth stateliness still — a disquieting avatar of the angel of the odd.

Cluny’s comment is a string of reflexions sparked off by the corpus put in front of him by the publisher. The homework has been limited, as he acknowledges, but we are made to hear an artist speaking in vivid, personal terms. Cluny defends the chiaroscuro of the creative experience against Poe’s show of mastery and the encroachments of logic and criticism. His outlook is close to that of Delarue: existential and open to the unaccountable, with a tendency to see Poe’s truth in the dark failures which gradually submerged him. Cluny also relays the idea that Poe “cultivated [column 2:] . . . that annihilation of the living experience . . . which Pessoa was to impose on himself, organizing the wreck of all instead of submitting to it” (“cultive . . . l‘aneantissement du vecu . . . que Pessoa s‘imposera a soi-meme, organisant le naufrage de tout au lieu de le subir” p. 80). The subject of “organizing” is Pessoa here, as it was Poe in Delarue: this conscious self“deconstruction” posited by the biographers is felt as part of the artist’s modernity.

As for “The Raven,” on its own, with its built-in critique of the romantic poem, it is tantalizingly interesting; with the “Philosophy of Composition” as counterpart (which Cluny plays down), it is a masterpiece of criticism. Cluny is wrong when he says that “even Baudelaire did not question the factual truth [“l‘exactitude”] of ‘The Philosophy of Composition‘” (p. 98). In “Genese d‘un poeme,” Baudelaire does say that aa little charlatanism is always legitimate in genius, and even does not suit it ill.” This can be found in Curtis,(7) but not in Cluny. The final comment on the Poe “diptych” was to be Mallarme’s(8) and the lesson is being taken up by Claude Richard (see below) — but obviously, as a cultural community, we have not digested yet whatever truth lies in the hinging on each other of poetry and criticism.

As it stands, Claude-Michel Cluny’s Livre des Quatre Corbeaux could be of great interest to American universities as a vivid, quadrilingual testimony (with painting as one language) to an enduring Poe tradition in Europe. The “raven” collages are dated 1981 and the last paintings, 1985.


Of the seven following articles, two are from established journals (Poétique and Littérature), four from university reviews and one (in English) from the French Reviews. The chronological order will do, except for the first article (by Richard again), which hinges well on the second one.

Claude Richard’s “Le Demon de la perversite” (“The Imp of the Perverse”) is a short, sinewy, and very necessary article.(9) “The Perverse,” because of its misleading French homonym, has been misunderstood in France as long as Poe has been read almost exclusively in Baudelaire’s translation. French readers have imagined moral perversions and diabolism (“imp” being translated by “demon”) where the Poe text establishes pure paradox. Richard puts things right: “the imp of the Perverse lives in the space of the oxymoron” [page 29:] (p. 30). It is prior to Reason (which is itself a never completed process of rationalization) and the first concept it does away with is the concept of metaphysical and religious finality. The second is causality. The Perverse, aa mobile without a motive, a motive not motivirt,” just is. It breaks the chain of determinism and could have something to do with desire, revealing its gratuitousness: if so, Poe is then opposing the whole culture of his time. And with the example of vertigo, he is assimilating human nature to the system of the cosmos where the law of gravity and the centrifugal irradiation are coupled. The final twist: Poe’s essay turns into a fiction whose narrator himself is under the influence of the Perverse, so that the Perverse is the reason of the text itself. Richard goes on to say that it is the cause of language. In my view, he ignores a threshold here: awriting/reading” is not “speaking,” “literature” is not “language,” as the next article is going to remind us — covering ground covered by Richard before.

Bernard Hamel’s linguistic analysis Of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Un Texte a deux voix” (“A Text by Two Voices”), is one of a series of essays on enunciation (and this shift from the structures of language to the problems of enunciation is typical of the eighties). The general title is perfect: La Parole prisc aux mots (Speech Taken at its Own Words).(10) Hamel’s article is short, neat, direct, and organized on the I-YOU-HIM triangle. The narrator (“I”) very consistently poses a narratee (“you”) who is asked to testify to the narrator’s sanity: “how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” “Him” is “the old man,” but he is refused his name, refused speech, refused relevance (only his eye, “the eye” matters): the old man is refused any reality, and the “eye” belongs with the “I” and myself of the I for ever . . . ”; that is the text’s other voice speaking, the voice of madness, the voice of the Other within him, the voice of the “heart” (which does tell the tale, in spite of the conscious I’s rhetoric). “The interest of Poe’s text is to show an enunciation subverted by a denunciation.” Such a reading is not new,‘1 but its lesson is worth repeating: this subversion of enunciation is the subversion of speech by the literary text, a common and exemplary practice in Poe. Hamel clearly and sparingly isolates the linguistic situation which is created by the text — and which generates it in return, with its ambiguities, inviting interpretation.

In a companion article, N. Perera san Martin compares “The Tell-Tale Heart” to a Uruguayan short story first published in 1946, from the point [column 2:] of view of enunciation.l2 After romanticism, there appeared in fiction this narrator who depends on his own text as much as the text depends on him, an inflated and impotent “I,” as “blase” by now (in Hernandez’s story, for instance) as he was brimming with energy in Poe. It is high time for linguists, now that de Saussure’s teaching has borne its fruits, to go beyond structuralism by developing a theory of enunciation.

Mary Ann Caws’ double article, “Insertion in an Oval Frame: Poe Circumscribed by Baudelaire,” 1s is easily available to American readers. It is very elaborate and offers a sophisticated view of translation as framing. The leftovers of Baudelaire’s translation of “The Oval Portrait” are very expertly pointed out (this is one of the main interests of the article),(14) and the critic concludes that what has been lost is “the erotic process of embedding.” But I fail to see how this loss can, by putting the English text to death, give life to its French counterpart; and, if so, how the alost” concept is reactivated later by Baudelaire in a poem, “Le Fantome” (aThe Ghost”), I wonder whether there is more here than superficial coincidence.

On the contrary, the way Caws plays with this idea of embedding as erotic process is very convincing,(15) and when she paraphrases “framing” as “arresting the flux of reasonable reading by an ardent enclosure,” she is, I feel, touching on something essential in Poe, and in poetry. The best thing I can do here, to relay the intuition, is translate Baudelaire’s relevant stanza. It is the first term of a comparison: the jewels and the furniture and decoration surrounding the poet’s lover fitted her rare beauty —

As to a painting a fine frame does add

(However mnsterly the painter’s brush)

An extra something strange and magical

By marking it off from boundless Nature.

Raymond Rogé, in “Edgar Poe, la mort blanche et le diable noir,“l~ sets out to show that “The Devil in the Belfry” and “The Masque of the Red Death” are companion pieces and goes into a meticulous catalogue of parallels and differences. For some time, the list fails to throw light on either tale, but then the seven dials of the town-hall clock are linked to the seven rooms of Prospero’s retreat, the tumult at the end Of “The Devil” is opposed to the final darkness reigning at the end of “The Masque,” and we see that the routine of the burghers of Vondervotteimittiss is death (are not their colors, black and red, the emblems of death [page 30:] in “The Masque“?). The number of comparative details is impressive, and Roge can conclude, “The two tales form a set which presents the antithetical options of routine and artistic creation“ — with Time as the master of both.

Death is also central to Bertrand Rouge’s “La Pratique des corps limites chez Poe: La Verite sur le cas de ‘The Man that was Used Up,‘” (aThe Practice of Border-case Bodies in Poe — The Facts in the Case of ‘The Man that was Used Up‘”)(17) — death and life, rather. Rouge starts by reminding us of Poe’s exploration of the taboo area where life and death overlap. In particular, if a Poe character’s body is dead (he notes), his tongue will be most active (Psyche Zenobia, M. Valdemar, the mummy, Mr. Vankirk) — or vice versa, as in the case of Mr. Lackobreath. In “The Man that was Used Up,” body and tongue are all but lacking, and also the truth about them, as in the tales of ratiocination. So the tale develops as an inquest on a border-case body. Rouge sees the General as a prosthetic monster disguising its own non-being (just as the text itself hides a lack of meaning) in a society whose utopian project is a mere prosthesis. He cleverly concludes, “thesis, antithesis, prosthesis,” giving striking meaning to certain details on the way (the general tells us, for instance, that the Indians “took the trouble to cut off at least seven eighths of [his] tongue” and “A.B.C.,” the initials of his middle names, are a little less than one eighth of the whole alphabet!) and moves on, following Poe’s own crescendo, to the main prosthesis: the prosthesis for articulated speech. The tongue hinges the body on to language and vice versa and cannot but be the focus of Poe’s quest for a hinge between life and death. The tale appears then as a satire of all orders (technical, social, but also mythical and textual) in as much as they try to cover up with intelligible signs the gaping chasm of Death. Bertrand Rouge seems ready to follow Poe beyond even that but desists, leaving us with “used up” Poe passing “the threshold” on October 7, 1849. His reading of the tale is playful (in the teeth of its subject, like the tale itself), suggestive, with one or two false clues, it seems to me,(18) and a great display of intellectual vitality.

Jean-Rémy Mantion’s “Le Pas des anges dans ‘le Jardin-Paysage’ d‘Edgar Allan Poe” (“Angels’ Steps in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘LandscapeGarden‘”)(19) is so allusive and finely complex that I am still wondering what the essayist has to say and whether he shows anything beyond his own sophistication. If you come across this number of Littérature, entitled Passages, read the admirable [column 2:] article by Louis Marin.(20) Though it has nothing to do with Poe, it shows the Poe student how much the world of Eureka is akin to the world of Pascal, with its infinite divisibility and material infinity. On that subject, more in a moment.

Bernard Terramorsi belongs to a research group on the fantastic imagination and has come out, in their more recent publication, with an intelligent and witty parallel between “Rip Van Winkle” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.“21 In both tales, the hero embarks on a fantastic journey, starting in mountains, helped by labyrinthine emblems, and leading to the negation of geographical space and historical time. Both heroes can attribute their adventure to the effect of a drug (gin in one case, opium in the other), but that drug must have the potency of a magical spell, for what happens to them transcends all known experience. Finally the fantastic journey is also an inner metamorphosis, not a programmed change which could give them the right distance from which to see their usual world with new eyes, but a radical mobility which deprives their usual world of meaning. The essay is richer on Rip, because it can avail itself of the political references used by Irving, but it shows Poe’s systematic use of symmetries and circularities, rooting the generative focus of his tale in “the impossibility of the representation of one’s own death, which is always the death of the other” (p. 164). Does not that illuminate the rationale of a tale which may sound more artificial than others? It also brings out what, I think, is the common point of those six articles: they all revolve more or less closely around the idea that Poe’s strategy against death is the dangerous one which consists in trying to bring it within the reach of language — more precisely, within the reach of narrative prose. This, in return, may account for the breaking up of the traditional qualities of expressive prose in his tales, a breaking up so typical of our author and of his modernity.


My previous review of French Poe criticism had been centered on folding as Poe’s main creative technique, and I had had to insist on the double folding of the “purloined” letter, which enabled it to be “turned, inside out, like a glove“ — as Poe puts it, with perfect precision. Now, if the French public had missed Lacan’s demonstration, or if they had been led astray by Frangoise Levy’s misapprehension,(22) they now have no excuse: Jean-Claude Milner takes the (postal) matter up and puts things straight, or rather, folds [page 31:] them correctly again for us, with photographic backup. That is part of a book entitled Déctections fictives (Fictitious/fictional Detections), in which the scholar plays detective within or around three works of fiction, the first one being “The Purloined Letter.“(23) Milner’s argument is crystal clear. Though not new, especially after Babener’s key study, it has the originality of pressing the realistic reading of the story to the limit. It first establishes that Dupin is brother to the Minister, a conclusion difficult to resist. It then rereads the exchanges between Dupin and the Prefect in terms of coded bargaining: this is very cleverly done, with an analysis of the restrictive choices in Baudelaire’s translation,24 but leads from uncertain premises to unpleasant conclusions. Milner posits that the Prefect is aware of the secret family relationship between Dupin and D — and so reckons that Dupin could know of the letter and even actually hide it on his own premises. Hence the bargaining. But this, as Milner concludes, makes Dupin a double traitor in the eyes of the Queen. Why strain the text, I feel (at the end of the second interview, the Prefect is astonished — says Milner, logically — at having been right!), if the cleverness does not add to the enjoyment of the story? Milner then turns his attention to the letters in the tale. One originality, perhaps, is to count the check as a letter, thus adding a third parallel scene to the two analyzed by Lacan. The other is to pay close attention to the letter forged by the Minister. It is supposed to come from a woman who is entitled to use the D — cipher. From there, and drawing on the three Dupin stories, Milner convincingly reconstructs the whole personal story of Dupin (“le roman de Dupin”). The latter was treated by his unprincipled brother, it appears, very much in the way Atree was treated by Thyeste: was robbed of his love (and money and position) at Vienna. Milner’s final twist is that, if Dupin has brought ruin on his antagonistic brother, this must mean (in “William Wilson” logic) ruin upon himself. And the fact is that “The Purloined Letter” is the last Dupin story.

Along this line, too, the couplet from Crebillon “is the message of the tale” (p. 42), and Milner does not forget the practical, that is (here) the formal, or again, the highly symbolical, details. The couplet was “copied” on the inside double page of the letter. More precisely, “into the middle of the blank sheet,” as Poe puts it. That means that it was neatly cut in two by the central fold of the letter. And Milner prefers a vertical fold separating the two last hemistichs and making them mirror each other: “S‘il n‘est digne d‘Atree, / est digne [column 2:] de Thyeste.” However that may be, and here I am taking up where Milner leaves off, the word which clamours for meaning, here, is ~into” (where ain” could be expected). It directs the attention to the very middle of the blank sheet, that is, to its fold, its blank fold, which no written line can reach. Just as Atre‘e (the last word of Poe’s tale) is the story of Atreus and Thyestes, just as “The Purloined Letter” is the story of Dupin and the Minister D — , the fold is where the whole text doubles up (thus closing on its own self-consciousness and blank totality) — it is the blank line around which Poe elaborates his antagonistic symmetries.

“The Purloined Letter,” together with the other tales of ratiocination, is also the “text” for the first chapter of a new book by Claude Richard : Lettres américaines (American Letters)(25) — “letters,” that is “literature” and also the alphabet, literature seen as a playful and meaningful manipulation of privileged letters in the alphabet. Richard sees Hawthorne’s scarlet A backfiring against the law of the Fathers and proclaiming the rights of sexuality (Ch. 2); he follows Thoreau’s conquest of “the letter of the subject,” GL — , not inherited or learnt, but springing from the throat (Ch. 4); and he traces the syncopes in Moby Dick, telling the story of letters sucked into the central whiteness (Ch. 3). There is also a chapter on Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and the whole finds its alpha in the letter D (Ch. 1: “Edgar A. Poe: Dupin et la litera prima”) and its omega in Poe’s poetry (Ch. 6: “Edgar A. Poe: le cccur de la lettre”). So Poe remains Richard’s main reference and sweet torment, because if the cause of individual liberty, free desire, and joyous self-expression can be more or less readily read in Hawthorne or Thoreau, Poe seems to be a harder nut to crack. The courage and audacity of Richard consists in tackling the Poe text at the deepest (which includes the most superficial) level: at the letter level which can be made to correspond to the atomic level of the constitution of the real. The whole is probing, exploratory.

In “Dupin and the litera prima” (pp. 1558), Richard takes up the matter set forth in detail in his American lecture of 1980 (that is the Lacan/Derrida controversy over “The Purloined Letter”),(26) setting it in the larger context of atomism, widening it to the whole Dupin trilogy, internalizing it — and moving back toward Lacan a little, since Derrida’s “dissemination” does not seem to agree with Poe’s belief in Oneness too well (I would stress aseem”). What is the problem? To me, the clearer angle is the angle of determinism. [page 32:] After elaborating on the idea that in Poe all investigation is an exercise in reading, Richard opens “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and finds there Dupin’s views on critical, anti-institutional, open, imaginative, indirect, and whole-oriented reading, a reading of the world which is open to chance occurrences. It is all a matter of analytical distance, of tangential focus, as it were: the good reader must take in peripheries without destroying them by focusing on them too hastily. A “masterly lesson in reading,” Richard concludes (p. 22). Now, the most open of these propositions is, “It is no longer philosophical to base, upon what has been, a vision of what is to be” (Works, III, 752). Richard acclaims it as, ain the middle of the causalistic XIXth century, one of the most radical condemnations of physical determinism” (p. 21). But by the end of the tale, Poe posits God as one with the laws of nature: “In their origin these laws were fashioned to embrace all contingencies which could lie in the Future. With God all is Now” (Works, III, 772) — a remarkable statement, leading up to Eureka, and which Richard takes up in this capacity at the end of his own text. In between, he has been following Dupin from as far back as the introductory episode Of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

He finds the trilogy as anchored in atomism. In the mind-reading episode, he follows the chain of ideas and finds in it an illustration of Dupin’s keen interest in Epicurean atoms and letters and a movement to the Ovidian litera prima, the original letter which determines order and identity. The explication is precise and convincing, and backed up by first hand references: Richard is, at least as much as Dupin, aa first rate Epicurean and a well-read atomist” (p. 32). But, as he must be aware, the shift from the plural (atoms and letters, in endless oblique combination, constituting the ultimate nature of the real and of meaning) to the singular (the letter of individual and cosmic identity) is a shift away from Epicurus and Lucrece.27 That is probably why, as Richard now says at the end of a comment on “stereotomy” and “atomies,” “the question of the letter is best put as the original question of its divisibility” (p. 36).

At this point, we move into Lacanian psychoanalysis applied to “The Purloined Letter.” The letter is now that indivisible piece of paper which works as the representative of language and the phallus. It does move obliquely from scene to scene, ostensibly “purloined” by one character after the other, but really the master of the game, the “fate” (“destin”) of all, since it puts each of its [column 2:] successive holders into the position of the woman. So, Lacan asserts the rule of the unconscious over the human subject — thus roping in the atomistic axiom of indivisibility to side with Lucrece’s old enemy: Fate. Derrida was to denounce “the atomysticism of the letter” as seen by Lacan,(28) explode it, the letter itself exploding under his reading into a succession of doubles with no original and no proper destination. Thus the psychoanalytical Law (which we know Richard to be impatient of, at least when enforced by Marie Bonaparte) was, it seems, put to pieces in the general flood of dissemination — but has not Derrida thrown out the baby with the bath-water? Atoms and letters are now endlessly divisible, but is not the freed human subject lost in a labyrinth of mirrors? (I am, here, drastically summing up Richard’s argument in my own words, the only way to give some idea of a rich text drawing on several intellectual traditions.)

Leaving open, then, the question of the relation between atomism and divisibility (pp. 49, 50), Richard now comes to his own reading of Poe’s tale. The “purloined letter‘” is the letter D. Dupin has lost his identity (his litera prima) at the hands of the unscrupulous Minister: the way Poe plays with that letter all through is made very palpable by Richard. One typical ambiguity: personal identity implies the inheritance of the Law of the Fathers, and the letter D is also identified by Richard (in an excursus through “The Gold-Bug”) as the typographical dagger — “the killing letter” (p. 56). But “Dupin believed in individuality and Poe believed in Oneness“ — “individual and cosmic” (p. 57).29 So, we have gone through all the variations of (the) letter(s) and atom(s) in the ratiocinative tales: the Law served by the reader/detective, as expressed at the end Of “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and taken up in Eureka, is “the triumphant Law of ’Simplicity‘” (p. 58). Dupin’s aim is the “restoration” of “the unicity of the letter of God” (p. 58). We are going to hear its spiritual vibration in the poetry.

“The Heart of the Letter“(pp. 159-187) is a very fine piece of writing, which I must partly resist but which is none the less admirable. Richard describes Poe as, say, rejecting the letter of the heart to reach the heart of the Letter. The haunting pulsations of the organic and emotional heart (as heard in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for instance) must be stilled if one is to awaken to the true inaudible luminous pulsation of reality itself: in this conflict the status of poetry is at stake. The tyranny of passion, the deafening beating of the [page 33:] heart is the theme of “Tamerlane,” already, of “Al Aaraaf” (p. 165), and of “Ulalume” (p. 170) (Richard goes into close reading of the poems all through). “The Raven” stages the conflict. Its narrator is gradually contaminated by a mechanically repeated word and yields to the temptation of weaving meaning around it, and the metric organization of his narration in verse tells Of “the incarceration of language in syncopated repetition”: it is an “illustration of alienation by the letter” (pp. 168-169).

But to generalize the false lesson of a naive reading Of “The Raven” and speak of the monotonous regularity of Poe’s lines is a mistaken, though common, response. Richard detects in other poems an attempt to evoke the inaudible voice of the basic, real pulsation — with, as a hinge, “The Bells.” In a remarkable reading (pp. 172-173), Richard shows the pure, unreferential music of the silver bells as gradually stifled till, in the last stanza, the muffled beatings of the buried heart choke up the whole of the poetic space. On the contrary, the pure pulsation (which the contributions of Monos and Mr. Vankirk help us approach: Richard’s quotations are illuminating) is to be half-perceived in “For Annie,” “The Sleeper,” “Dreamland,” “To Helen [Whitman],” “Eulalie,” “Annabel Lee” (aperhaps the most perfect poem by Poe,” p. 184). Here the letter is “dissolved” (p. 178) into a poetic, immaterial, magical “Letter” (p. 179), an elusive musicality, a luminous vibration. “Steals drowsily and musically” cannot be scanned, Richard notes (p. 180), but develops “hovering modulations.” And Richard ’s own voice becomes beautifully persuasive when he celebrates light (the light at the end of “To Annie” or in the eyes of Helen) as the unreferential vibration at the heart of the real.

Richard may have had Wilbur in mind (aIt is not false to say that there is in Poe a spontaneous hatred of life,” p. 170), but, with an extraordinary capacity for empathy, he dives (or soars) into Poe’s world and comes back with a gem which many readers will rather look for in Shelley (and Keats).~° The unique position of Poe, though, is perhaps that he throws a bridge between the romantic experience and contemporary physics, and Eureka is very much in the (active) background of Richard’s reading. There indeed, the whole universe is resolved into the unparticled particle of the Now of God: such “Oneness” is not indivisible in the way Lucrece’s super-hard atoms cannot be cut into, but in the way the upholding center of all must be everywhere super-present and must, in [column 2:] human eyes, amount to No-thing-ness.

Thomas Bernard-West is also approaching Poe’s poems from that angle in “Unparticled Matter and the Space between Atoms: The Eloquence of Edgar Allan Poe’s Poetry,” an article in English in the review of the English Department of the University of Paris VII.31 But he keeps Eureka out. He starts from Poe’s aunparticled matter,” as he finds it in the July 1844 letter to J.R. Lowell (and in the colloquies and catechisms) and its temporal counterpart, the “mental pendulous pulsation” described by Monos (a sense of, says West felicitously, “continuous, seamless time”). But what appears visionary to Richard is presented as illusory by West. He sees these two apurely mythic” phrases as a materialistic effort, on the part of Poe, to negate by aa verbal legerdemain” the space between atoms. Enter the imp of the perverse. West reads the “We stand upon the brink of a precipice” passage (Works, III, 1222-1223) and sees in the “familiar” temptation a belated reaction to the censure of some infantile, and basically erotic, urge. This “imp of the space between atoms” upsets Poe’s “unparticled matter” and is the main force behind the poems. West reads “Silence” in this light, and “A Dream within a Dream,” “The Conqueror Worm,” “Dream-Land.” In a very interesting page, he sees the image of the grains of sand creeping though the fingers of the poet to the deep as aexpressing the terror of limitless nonmatter, of everything that lies in fact beyond the mind’s ability to subordinate the world into meaning,” and he comes to read the plunge of Psyche into the abyss as strategic: a way of bringing limitlessness into the confines of his unified world. The areal theme” of Poe’s later poems is “imaginary death or madness as a deeper form of eloquence through which the ultimate horror is persuaded into the mythic vision rather than excluded from the vision. If anything, this seems to me to be a sign of the deepest sort of sanity” (p. 70). Such is, say, “the French face” of Thomas West, while the general impression left by the article is different. Turning to the more dramatic poems, where a more acute split between Psyche and Eros (or the imp) makes for more “emotional intensity” (“The Raven,” “Ulalume”), West sees the illusory myth breaking and “unparticled matter” splitting into dead non-matter and dead solid matter. He concludes on “The Bells“ — “Poe’s best poem.” The reason for this judgment is that an’s purely sonorous eloquence . . . is more effective and more unanswerable than either the argumentative, scientific poetry, the dramatic suicides or pantheistic disarming of the imp. . . . There will always be the [page 34:] bells. Surely this represents eloquence at its most sublime — as Yeats said, just before his death, you can refute Hegel but not ‘The Song of Sixpence‘” (pp. 74-75). As you see, Thomas Bernard-West, an English critic and writer in a French environment, feels divided. This very finely modulated hesitation is typical of his sophisticated article. To approach the poetry as “eloquence” and the poet as “persuasive Poe” was slyly negative, and the common idea that Poe’s poems answer more closely than his tales and criticism “the needs of the emotional man” is laced with clear hints that Poe’s emotional make-up was his own. As West concludes: “the poetry is Poe.”

I myself take the common view that Poe’s poems are not the best part of his work, but (not having had to deliver “agregation” lectures) I tend to let them alone accordingly. Or rather, one of the starting points of my own research is that their relative failure is more interesting than what they may be found to achieve. In “Keats, Poe, Faulkner,“(32) I draw a parallel between the two Americans. Starting from the centrality of impotence and fascination in their work, I show that both began their career with poetry and started by dramatizing their selves in figures of impotence: the amarble faun,” for Faulkner, the little man in black and “His Satanic Majesty” for Poe. Then both definitely moved to prose, with obvious differences, Poe building tales whose paradoxical “plots” are prose projections (with distortions) of the poetic world. For both writers the supreme reference came to be Keats and they recognized the same hierarchy of genres: the poem, the short story, the novel.

Such a view implies that literature is best understood as a system developing, consciously or not, around a center whose transcendence is at home in poetry but has been assiduously courted or played with by Poe in his tales. I have been working on these tales and Eureka for a number of years and have recently submitted a athese de doctorat d‘etat” (aPoe and the Infinite Center”) which I am currently turning into a book. It is due for publication next year under the title, Poe dans le champ du vertige (Poe in the Field of Vertigo). It is part of a general interpretation of his work giving priority to frames and structures, rooms and plots (they are one thing really), and finally to that ainfinite center” which comes into full play in Eureka but whose logic of contradiction is active throughout: structures are dynamic, frames are forces, as Poe knew. And while respecting the major methodological priorities of structuralism, I [column 2:] have come to resist the death of the subject (which had been announced in the ‘60’s and which seems to be so consistently staged in Poe’s tales): enunciation must be part of the picture if one intends to avoid the mere repetition of equivalent forms. The result is both formal and dramatic. I have no doubt that Poe belongs to a major tradition in Western culture and indeed holds a key position in it. His figure should still be growing, as it has clearly been doing in the last two decades, on the map of American cultural consciousness.

Here in France, other Poe events are worth mentioning. At a conference on anxiety and the Romantics at Clermont-Ferrand last March, three contributions out of the nine on the program were devoted to Poe. And a research group in Nice, which has been working on the fantastic for some years (with an article on Pym in the 1983 issue of its review),89 held an international conference last April on “Poe and Visionary Reason.” (But, to cover this ground, let us wait till the contributions are published.) And next year should be a landmark, as publisher Robert Laffont is bringing out, in a very attractive format, the first “Oeuvres” ever. The editor is Claude Richard whose clear, pleasant, and scholarly Prefaces et Marginalia(34) gives a very prepossessing foretaste of the important volume to come. The translators will range from Baudelaire and Mallarme to Richard and J-M. Maguin: for the first time, the scope and general shape of Poe’s work will be disclosed to a wide French public. The gap of the Atlantic is more of a bridge every day.



1 - The “agrégation” is the national competitive examination for high school teaching. American readers may be interested in the fact that Poe is high on the frequency list of American authors on its programs since 194B, just behind Faulkner and on a level with Stephen Crane, Dreiser, Henry James, Frost, Melville, and Whitman. A selection of his tales appeared in 1954, P1tm in 1974, and the poems in 1958 and 1984.

2 - Les Poèmes d‘Edgar Poe (trad. Stéphane Mallarme), pres. de Jean-Louis Curtis (Gallimard, 1982).

3 - See “Silence” (Works II, 199) and Eureka (Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales, ed. G. R. Thompson, p. 1356). [page 35:]

4 - Harold Bloom’s view of Poe as “inescapable” echoes a wide-spread American response — see The New York Review of Books, October 11, 1984, and Poe Studies, 19 (1986), 50-52.

5 - Le Livre des quatre corbeauz; textes de Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Pessoa; peinture. de Julio Pomar; pres. de Claude Michel Cluny; Editions de la Difference, 1986 (149 pp., illustrations en couleurs, 285 F.)

6 - But what a muddle most editions make of “The Raven.” Its neat presentation in The American Tradition in Literature (Random House, 6th ed.) is one more reason for admiring that precious volume.

7 - Curtis gives “Genese d‘un poeme” in an appendix (see n. 2 above). It comprises Beaudelaire’s own introduction to his translations Of “The Raven” (“Le Corbeau”) and “Philosophy of Composition” (“Methode de Composition”).

8 - See Mallarme’s note on “The Raven” (Curtis, pp. 118-120, or Mallarme, Oeveres Completes, “Pléiade,” Gallimard, 1945, pp. 229-230): “Philosophy of Composition” is “sincere” without being “anecdotally true.”

9 - Dires (revue du Centre freudien de Montpellier), 4 (Psychose et peruersion), January 1986, pp. 29-38.

10 - Tertes et langages, 5 (La Parole prise auz mots — Essais sur l‘énonciation), Universite’ de Nantes, 1982; including Bernard Hamel, “Le Coeur revelateur: Un texte a deux voix,” pp. 6-18.

11 - See C. Richard, KLa Double Voix dans ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,‘” pp. 17-41, and C. Fleurdorge, “Discours et contre-discours dans ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,‘” pp. 43-65 in Delta, 1 (“Edgar Allan Poe et les textes sacres”), Universite Paul Valery, Montpellier, November 1975. They are remarkable studies. Hamel, in his short article, gives no reference to previous work.

12 - “D‘un Regard, l‘autre,” in Textes et langages, 5, pp. 19-30. The short story is “El acomodador,” by Felisberto Hernandez; a French version of it is given on pp. 31-42.

13 - The French Review, 56/5 & 6 (April and May 1983), pp. 679-687 and 885-895.

14 - Caws has a perfect command of French. May I simply mention that the “dripping” of the light would call for the verb “goutter,” not “s‘egoutter” (“drip dry”) on p. 686?

15 - One may add that the first frame ever mentioned in the tales is indeed playfully associated with a bed: “the golden frames lie embedded, and asleep in those swelling walls of eider-down“ — with Venus as the subject of the paintings (“The Duc de L‘Omelette,” 1832, in Works, II, 36).

16 - Littératures, Universite de Toulouse, aut. 1983, pp. 51-62.

17 - Poétique, 60 (Seuil, November 1984), pp. 473-488.

18 - The application of Rene Girard’s theory of the “founding murder” to the mutilations suffered by the General and the idea that Poe seriously explored the possibilities of life after death.

19 - Littérature, 61 (February 1986), “Paysages,” pp. 65-75. [column 2:]

20 - Marin, “‘Une ville, une campagne, de loin . . . ’: paysages pascaliens,” Littérature, 61, pp. 3-16.

21 - “A Propos de ‘Rip Van Winkle’ de W. Irving et des ’Souvenirs de M. Auguste Bedloe’ de E. A. Poe, metamorphoses fantastiques et distances monstres,” in Cahiers du CERLI, 13 (Les Métamorphoses du sujet), Presses universitaires de Rheims, 1986, pp. 154-168.

22 - See H. Justin, “The Fold Is the Thing,” Poe Studies, 16 (1983), 25.

23 - Jean-Claude Milner, Détections fictives (Seuil 1985). Ch. I, “Retour a ‘la Lettre volee,‘” (“‘The Purloined Letter’ Revisited,” after Lacan, that is) (pp. 944). Ch. II, on “the literary technique of Zeno’s paradoxes,” could also interest Poe scholars and affords unalloyed intellectual pleasure.

24 - For example, Milner reads, “If it were trebled, however, I could do no more than I have done” as the encoding of “If you, Dupin, trebled the price you ask for the letter, I could not meet your demands,” an interpretation rendered (just) possible by the generality of the terms used by Poe and barred by Baudelaire’s more explicit translation.

25 - Richard, Lettres américaines. (Aix-en-Provence: Alinéa, 1987), p. 189.

26 - “Destin, Design, Dasein: Lacan, Derrida and ‘The Purloined Letter,‘” Iowa Review, 12 (1981), 1-10.

27 - See for example Gilles Deleuze, Logique du Sens (Minuit 1969), Appendix 2, on Lucrece: between Epicurian freedom and Stoic fate, “the real problem is: is there some oneness binding causes together? — must the representation of Nature gather causes into a whole?” (p. 312). As a Lucrecian, Deleuze answers no.

28 - “This theoretical safety-lock of [Lacan’s] Seminar,” Derrida calls it in “Le Facteur de la verite”: “ce verrou de surete theorique du Seminaire: l‘atomystique de la lettre,” in La Cartc Postalc (Flammarion, 1980), p. 517.

29 - There may well be the rub: I wonder whether personal individuality and cosmic oneness must not necessarily fall a prey one to the other.

30 - Richard’s reading has a visionary quality, but it seems to me to invite communion beyond, rather than through, the linguistic substance of the poems themselves.

31 - Cahiers. Charles V, 5 (Espaces américaines) (Universite Paris VII, 1984), pp. 61-75.

32 - Sud, 48-49 (Marseille, 1983), pp. 189-200.

33 - Métaphores, 7 (Université de Nice, 1983) including Andre Poncet, “Le Voyage initiatique du heros d‘Edgar Poe dans les Aventures d‘Arthur Gordon Pym,” a review of the various lines along which Pym has been read.

34 - Préfaces et Marginalia / Edgar Allan Poe, prés. et notes de C. Richard, trad. J-M. Maguin et C. Richard (avec fragments traduits par Mallarmé et Valery) (Aixen-Provence: Alinea, 1983), p. 168.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]