Text: Claude Richard, “Poe Studies in Europe: France,” Poe Newsletter­, January 1969, Vol. II, No. 1, 2:20-23


[page 20, column 1:]

Poe Studies in Europe: France

Université de Montpellier

The fortune of Poe’s reputation in Europe constitutes, in itself, a fascinating subject, for his position on the European and more specifically the French literary scene is different from that which he occupies in the United States. For many American critics and writers Poe belongs to the past, but in Europe Poe is very much alive — especially in France. Every year yields its rich crop, not exclusively meant for students, of paperback reprints of Baudelaire’s translations; almost every year sees the appearance of so called complete editions and new translations. Gallimard will not allow the Pléiade edition to run out of print and periodically announces a revised and augmented edition; every publisher running a collection of “classic writers” must have his “Poe”; and every continuous series of critical works has a volume devoted to Poe (1).

The attitudes of the critical schools are especially revealing. Whenever a new critical method is developed, it has to be tested on Poe’s work as if the touchstone of its effectiveness were the discovery of some unsuspected new richness in Poe’s works. This practice began with Lauvrière’s psychopathic study in 1904. Since then we have had Marie Bonaparte’s monumental study (the only full scale psychoanalytical interpretation of a foreign writer), Charles Mauron’s “psychocritique,” Jean Paul Weber’s “critique thématique,” George Poulet’s Métamorphoses du Cercle, and Lacan’s “Séminaire sur la lettre volée.” Quite naturally, Jean Ricardou’s “scriptural” method is now applied to Poe, and his article has elicited a commentary by Raymond Jean in Le Monde [17 Jan. 1968, Sup., p. 1]: “Poe, lucide and conscient de son art . . . . est un assez bon maître à écrire pour les nouvelles générations. “ Jean goes on to mention the adepts of the nouveau roman who, in turn, pay their homage to Poe (Ricardou is, himself, a brilliant novelist), while Michel Butor muses on Baudelaire’s Poe-haunted dreams (2).

Curiously, the interest of creative writers and critics is compensated for by the indifference of the traditional scholars. The scholars who do Poe studies in Etudes Anglaises are Americans, and those critics who investigate the relations between Poe and French writers are mostly American and English (3). Recent French critical studies of Poe, apart from studies like those mentioned above which are meant to illustrate a new method, belong to one or the other of two approaches which have historically dominated French criticism of Poe: the earlier Baudelairian tradition, and the later psychoanalytic concern. No French critic of Poe can ignore Baudelaire’s notices or Marie Bonaparte’s analysis. This twofold influence, I am convinced, is the bane of Poe studies.

An uncritical respect for Baudelaire’s opinions has resulted in the neglect of the grotesque tales (the French being satisfied with the vision of Poe as le farceur whose burlesques were defensive gestures against a mercantile society), in a misapprehension of the meaning of Eureka, and in a misconceived portrait of Poe as an arch-romanticist, [column 2:] a rebel, and a fiend. Fontainas, Colling, Jaloux, Castelnau, and many others have blindly followed this tradition, while Valéry’s criticism has only found subdued echoes in the excellent but neglected study by Denis Marion [La Méthode intellectuelle d ’Edgar Poe (Paris, 1952)]. Poe the fiend is excused for his sins, but these sins remain as the basis for Poe’s French grandeur (4). Thanks to Poe, flowers could bloom in the garden of evil, and his devotion to evil has become, under Baudelaire’s influence, an epistemology. This is the best Baudelairian tradition, but the other side of the picture is less stimulating. In his fight with his “demon” (Mallarmé has used Poe to restore the full meaning of this beautiful romantic word), the angel (helped by Baudelaire’s mistranslations) has finally overcome the powers of darkness; and many French critics have contributed some features to the mawkish portrait of the angelic Mr. Poe — a literary angel no doubt, but still an angel whose heart strings vibrate most willingly and whose angelic soul is, at least to those who share the tastes of the refined devil of “The Bargain Lost,” unpalatable (5).

Stanislas Fumet, a free-lance critic in the Christian, romantic, subjective tradition, capitalizes on this image of Poe in one of the least informed and most unstimulating of French essays on the poetry of Poe [”Edgar Poe” in La Poesie au Rendez-vous (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967), pp. 65-98]. This must be said bluntly on account of Fumet’s faithful if relatively limited audience. The preface leaves no doubt about Fumet’s attitude, with its appeal to the “spirit of poetry” uncannily hovering over the souls and the works of some “inspired” poets. This attitude reveals an anachronistic and sentimental belief in some kind of poetic transcendence that allows Fumet to ignore gleefully the literary context of Poe’s poetry and to quote, in a show of fallacious scholarship, Edmond Stendam (probably Stedman), Mrs. Shew (on “The Bells” she was so proud to have “inspired”), and Mrs. Weiss (in her delicious ravings about Poe’s eyes). Thus supported by what he considers irrefutable evidence, Stanislas Fumet feels entitled to make a few decisions on some important points: Mr. Poe drinks, Mr. Poe takes opium [p. 69], Mr. Poe’s collections of tales follow one another rapidly [p. 71], and Mr. Poe’s disorders are too well known to be dwelt upon [p. 80]. Mr. Fumet has firm opinions on everything: “The style of the American has gained in Baudelaire’s translation the elegance, the nobleness, that was lacking in the original” [p. 84]. The good old French legend is more flimsily affirmed here than ever. And we do not know whether Fumet refers to the tales, to Eureka, to “The Raven,” or to the pilfered passage from “The Poetic Principle.” Fumet must have read a lot of critical material to be able to state that “the Anglo-Saxons have always scorned Poe” [p. 84], thereby achieving a lighthearted, happy-go-lucky privation of nationality for Allen Tate, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, Conrad Aiken, Bernard Shaw, et al. The reason is that “they,” the Anglo-Saxons, find him “exotic” (naturally no one reads Melville) and “méridional.” They (those Anglo-Saxons, who are all molded to the same monotonous shape in the great melting pot, like the William Dean Howells-Allen Ginsberg type) find him vulgar.

But what Mr. Fumet really likes about Poe is his soul: “Mon âme. I1 ne s ’agit que d ’âme, partant: de poesie.” In the “partant” lies all the secret of Mr. Fumet’s method — [page 21:] the sound, time-honored, scientific technique of soul-investigation. The results bear the traces of that scientific method: sentimentality equals spirituality; Virginia is Eulalie, is Annabel Lee, is Lenore; and every single line is autobiographical: when it is not the autobiography of the heart, it is naturally the autobiography of the soul, and when that one was drowsy, well, there was laudanum and alcohol to “excite” it so that it was easier for “Edgar” to “meet his images.” And when everything failed, there was good old Marie Louise, the dear “soul.”

Thus Poe was beautifully equipped to live in “the habitual heaven of the poets” [p. 80]. Let us be careful, warns Mr. Fumet, to distinguish between that heaven and the “heaven of the psychoanalysts”; the latter is unreliable, “not quite pure,” writes Fumet, alluding no doubt to the closing lines of “Alone.” Fumet wants pure skies and finds no clouds darkening Poe’s ethereal poetry, about which he has some sensational revelations to impart. Just think: Poe’s lines bear testimony of a great mastery of “echoes, alliterations, repetition of syllables, even sentences”; he even uses “rhymes [and] refrains” [p. 81]. Fumet thinks he likes sober skies, but they turn ashen.

This kind of subjective criticism — or wordy chit-chat — reminds me of Poe’s dissatisfaction with the criticism of Cornelius Mathews (see “Exordium”). Such criticism must be denounced as useless and ultimately pernicious. If the goal of criticism still is a more accurate understanding of the historical and permanent meaning of the work of art, then such desultory writing must be challenged. Impressionistic criticism by a superior mind is often thought-provoking, but Fumet’s litany is nothing but an emasculated distortion of Baudelaire’s intuitions and will achieve nothing but the perpetuation of preposterous romantic legends about Poe. Indeed, the same kind of subjective license lies at the basis of a recent article by R. M. Albérès who reviews a group of novels “because Poe would have liked them” [”Pour Edgar Poe,” Nouvelles Littéraires, No. 2106 (11 Jan. 1968), p. 11]. The link between the four novels is the trite old notion of “a wild imagination,” a phrase that reveals once more the mistaken romantic image of Poe which the Baudelairian tradition fosters.

But even scholars often prove unable to reconsider Poe fruitfully; their critical imagination seems to be enmeshed by the Freudian dicta of Marie Bonaparte. Jacques Cabau relies heavily on her conclusions, and even the best Poe specialist in France, Roger Asselineau, when he adopts Marie Bonaparte’s interpretations of the grotesques, is forced to neglect the aspect of parody in “Loss of Breath” [”Introduction” in Choix de Contes, pp. 88-92]. Jean Paul Weber’s “thematic” Freudian criticism is not so well known: but after the rigidly systematic clock-image of “Edgar Poe ou le Thème de l ’horloge,” in which the insistent motif of the clock in Poe’s works is accounted for by reference to unconscious memories from childhood, I expect with some apprehension his forthcoming interpretation of the abyss motif which he considers to be an obsession that originated in a fall from an apple-tree (6).

Lacan’s “Séminaire sur la lettre volée” is almost completely unknown in literary circles. Lacan is the most original (and obscure) Freudian structuralist of contemporary France, and he has used “The Purloined Letter” as a pretext for a searching reflection on the power of the object [column 2:] (the letter) and the psychological effects caused by its possession (7). But psychoanalytical studies are perhaps more useful when urging refutations of the psychoanalytical tradition (8) as does Maurice Lévy in an important article on “Poe et la tradition ‘gothique ’” [Caliban V, Annales de la Faculté des Lettres de Toulouse, IV (January 1968) 35-51]. Maurice Lévy is undoubtedly one of the French scholars whose knowledge of the English Gothic tradition is the least questionable. Lévy first takes Marie Bonaparte to task for imparting too much meaning to the humorous tales and for a neglect of the literary context of Poe’s work. He states clearly that Poe’s “grotesque” and “extravagance” are partly traceable to a tradition. Lévy sums up briefly and pungently the fortune of the Gothic novel in England and the United States, bringing to the task the fully reliable care of the trained scholar. His information, for example, on the circulating and private libraries in the early years of the nineteenth century is impressive. Lévy then proceeds to show Poe’s awareness of the Gothic tradition; he draws up a list of Poe’s allusions to Ann Radcliffe, Maturin, Godwin, and Beckford and concludes, somewhat hastily, that “these references bear testimony of his taste for what could be more generally described as le roman noir “ [p. 37]. He considers that Poe’s “obsessive images” — an explicit allusion to Charles Mauron’s “methode psychocritique” in Des Métaphores Obsédantes au mythe personnelare all related to the Gothic tradition as are also some of Poe’s characters and narrative tricks. Lévy’s article is an attempt to study these similarities in order to reveal Poe’s historic situation in the Gothic tradition and to probe deeper into the meaning of the Poe hero and “the house of Poe” (9).

The method is impeccable, grounded as it is on the most reliable kind of erudition. Lévy draws a parallel between Poe’s castles (”The Oval Portrait,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher”) and the crumbling, turreted dwellings in The Mysteries of Udolpho, La Nuit Anglaise, Le Prieuré de St. Botolph, The Romance of the Castle, Sicilian Mysteries, The House of Tynian, etc., and shows how, both in Poe’s tales and in the Gothic tales, the limited space of “the house” becomes a “magic space.” The links between Usher and his house remind Lévy of the uncanny sympathy of the hero of The Castle of Otranto with his abode. Poe’s underground passages are convincingly compared to the horrible tunnels in Matilda Montfort and Melmoth. We are led by Lévy to question Marie Bonaparte’s interpretation of these tunnels as maternal cloaca and to ask with Lévy this question: are we to explain in the same way the multitude of subterranean peregrinations found in most Gothic novels? Lévy simply asks the question and declares himself incompetent to answer it, but he prepares us for his conclusion that Jung and Bachelard may be more useful than Freud to help detect the primeval archetypes that inform the literature of a whole generation. Examining successively the traditional figures of the wanderer (”The Man of the Crowd”) and the devil (”Never Bet the Devil Your Head”), Lévy reveals the archetypal features of the Poe hero. He also discovers common themes (the cruelty of inquisitory Catholicism — “The Pit and the Pendulum”), common motifs (the portrait and the animated tapestry) and the conventional technique of the prophecy (”Metzengerstein”). [page 22:]

Thus Lévy concludes, with laudable restraint, that Poe is “tributary” to a tradition; the word is carefully chosen, suggesting neither conscious imitation nor restrictive influence. But while Lévy pays homage to Poe’s superior art, he does so perhaps a little too vaguely, for here, after all, is the core of the matter: if Poe uses the same tricks as those of the Gothic novelists, how do we account for the mediocrity of those writers, which Lévy grants, and for Poe’s superiority? The appeal to “the interior spaces he explores — those of the soul” will never convince me; it reminds me of that irritating, firmly anchored habit of French critics, which is found among even the most reliable scholars, to twist unwittingly the famous “terror is not of Germany, but of the soul” into “terror is not of Germany but of my soul” and to drop the essential word from the quotation: “I have deduced terror....”

Maurice Lévy’s article is a brilliant piece of scholarship but I have two objections. First, I would take Lévy to task, but most cordially, for a slight and evidently unconscious verbal twist. Having examined Poe’s reference to the Gothic novel and convincingly demonstrated Poe’s awareness of the tradition, Lévy concludes that “these references bear testimony to his taste [italics mine] for . . . . the black novel”! I believe not. Here Lévy is a victim of his lack of familiarity with Poe’s criticism, of a crushing tradition of critical clichés about Poe’s “Gothicism,” and of a slight shift in point of view that led Burton R. Pollin to erroneous conclusions about Poe and William Godwin [”Poe and Godwin,” NCF, XX (December 1965), 237-253]. In the same way that Poe’s allusions to Godwin exclusively reveal his admiration for Godwin’s narrative art (the strict architecture of his novels), and indifference or scorn for his “Gothicism,” Poe’s other references to the Gothic novel reveal nothing but distaste for that literary genre. I do not know one favorable allusion to a Gothic novel in the body of Poe’s criticism. Lévy does quote the raving review of The Heroine, but grants that the novel is a spoof on the Gothic novel; thus the reference works the other way.

Consequently, when Lévy proceeds to compare the archetypes, he works on the hypothesis that Poe had some sympathy for the Gothic tradition, whereas there is ample proof of Poe’s antipathy for the tricks and excesses of Gothic novelists. Thus (and this is my second objection) Lévy misses the critical use of the Gothic setting and characters in Poe’s works. I must insist here on the French ignorance of the latest and most fruitful American studies on the role of the narrator in Poe’s tales. The line indicated by Basler, Wilbur, and Gargano is never exploited, probably because it runs counter to both Baudelaire’s and Marie Bonaparte’s Poe.

As he takes no account of the stylistic and architectural excesses in “Ligeia” or of the character of the narrator in “Berenice,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or “The Oval Portrait,” Lévy is bound to take Poe’s stories at their face value and expatiate on what we might call their “positive Gothicism,” whereas I am deeply convinced that it is time to dwell on their “negative Gothicism.” Poe did use the motifs of the Gothic tradition, but his critical intentions, his sarcastic ridiculing of the Gothic hero reveal thoroughly different aims and a stubborn refusal of the tenets and excesses of wild romanticism. Thus Poe’s relationship with the Gothic tradition may be situated on a [column 2:] radically different plane, and I do wish such a careful and learned specialist as Maurice Lévy could investigate that new possibility. No one is better equipped than he.

An independent line of development in French Poe studies is exemplified by Jean Ricardou. Ricardou is completely independent of the psychoanalysts and the followers of Baudelaire since, with his friends of Tel Quel, he forges the tools of his own criticism. As Patrick Quinn has shown [”Arthur Gordon Pym: ‘A Journey to the End of the Page ’?” Poe Newsletter, I (April 1968), 13-14], Ricardou’s method is founded on the assumption that a work of art is meaningful in itself and must be considered as an independent object. The article commented upon by Quinn, “Le Caractère singulier de cette eau,” has been reprinted in a collection of essays which contains also an original piece on “The Fall of the House of Usher”: “L ’Histoire dans l ’histoire; La Mise en abyme . . . . Contestation par la mise en abyme” in Problémes du Nouveau Roman [pp. 171-176].

What adepts of the nouveau roman were bound to discover in Poe was Valéry’s ingénieur des lettres. Ricardou argues that “The Philosophy of Composition” may have seemed repellent to some (as Baudelaire warned) because it announced the death of Romanticism — that is, clarity and the awareness of the writer supersede “the mysterious and confusing dogma of inspiration.” Fascinated by Poe’s theory of the “denouement,” Ricardou discovers in Poe’s critical papers the first formulation of the “absolute tyranny of the narrative”: “At any point in the story . . . . the pen works in a complete state of submission to the preliminaries of the narrative.” According to Ricardou’s analysis of “Usher,” a natural defense against such “narrative totalitarianism” is the attempt to “contest” the domineering power of the narrative, the issue of which is known from the beginning. One possible technique is to introduce a brief summary of the tale in the texture of the narrative so that the story is contested by itself. Gide, who was aware of the potentialities of this technique, discovered it in Hamlet, in Wilhelm Meister, and in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He called it “la mise en abyme,” a phrase from heraldry difficult to translate. It suggests the inclusion of one blazon into another.

Ricardou refuses the “rational,” commonsense explanation according to which the narrator flees aghast at the end of the story because he is terrified by the death of Roderick and Madeline. He believes that a “secret event” has occurred. The secret event is twofold: its first manifestation is a result of the transition from a figurative meaning to a literal one: Usher’s collapse announces the fall of the house and the narrator knows it. The second phenomenon is “une mise en abyme”; that is to say, the revelation of the winding up of the story before it comes to an end: the narrator knows the end of the story because he has read a summary of it in the “Mad Tryst” and because he suddenly remembers the fissure in the wall. He flees because he knows that the house will tumble down presently.

This short piece on “Usher” confirms Quinn’s impression of Ricardou: an unusually agile intelligence. But after the pleasure of reading the essay, one is rather embarrassed by its distorting thesis and remembers Poe’s ironic remark [in the unsigned review “Poe’s Tales,” Aristidean, (October 1845), 317] when he found out that “The Gold [page 23:] Bug” was a favorite with the public: “Perhaps it is the most ingenious story Mr. Poe has written . . . . .”

This column on European studies of Poe will be continued. Other current French studies of Poe include several articles by M. Richard. See Richard, Claude, in Richard P. Benton’s “Edgar Allan Poe: Current Bibliography” and Robert L. Marrs ’ “Fugitive Poe References,” both in this number of Poe Newsletter. — Ed.



(1)  French series of Poe collections include, for example: Choix de Contes, ed. Roger Asselineau (Paris: Aubier); Histoires, with Preface by Jacques Cabau (Lausanne: Recontre); the Garnier edition of the complete tales, ed. Léon Lemmonier with new translations by the editor, 3 vols (Paris). Critical series include: in the series “Poètes d ’aujourd ’hui,” Edgar Poe by Jean Rousselot (Paris: Seghers, 1962); and in the series of “Ecrivains de Toujours,” Edgar Poe par lui-même by Jacques Cabau (Paris: Le Seuil, 1960).

(2)  Emile Lauvière, Edgar Poe, Sa vie et son oeuvre, Etude de psychologie pathologique (Paris: F. Alcan, 1904); Marie Bonaparte, Edgar Poe, 2 vols (Paris: Denoël et Steel, 1933); Charles Mauron, Des Métaphores Obsédantes au mythe personnel (Paris: Corti, 1963); Jean Paul Weber, “Edgar Poe ou le Théme de l ’horloge,” NRF, LXVIII and LXIX (August-September, 1958), 301-311, 498-508 [also “Edgar Poe or The Theme of the Clock,” trans. Claude Richard and Robert Regan, in Poe, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967), pp. 79-97]; George Poulet, Les Métamorphoses du Cercle (Paris: Plon, 1961); Jacques Lacan, “Le Séminaire sur la lettre volée,” in Ecrits (Paris: Le Seuil, 1966), pp. 11-61; Jean Ricardou, “L ’Histoire dans l ’histoire; La Mise en abyme . . . .” and “Le Caractére singulier de cette eau,” in Problemès du Nouveau Roman (Paris: Le Seuil, 1968), pp. 171-176 and 193-207.

(3)  See W. T. Bandy and P. Wetherell for Poe and Baudelaire; T. S. Eliot, Chiari, and Mansell Jones for Poe and the symbolists. I have recently discovered, with some surprise, that Bandy’s revelations on the sources of Baudelaire’s early notices (Daniel’s and Thompson’s articles in the SLM) were practically unknown among Baudelaire’s specialists. I cannot understand either why Valéry’s most pungent article on Poe is still unavailable except for the extracts printed in the appendix of the Pléiade edition of Valéry’s works [”Sur la Technique Littéraire,” Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), I, 1786-1788].

(4)  I have recently tried to show how Baudelaire’s portrait had infected such independent minds as André Breton [NRF, XV (1967), 926-936].

(5)  Baudelaire’s mistranslation of Daniel’s phrase “he would go at once to a bar and drink off glass after glass as fast as its tutelar genius could mix them . . . .” [”Edgar Allan Poe,” SLM, XVI March 1850), 181] as “il allait se planter au comptoir et il buvait coup sur coup jusqu ’a ce que son bon ange fût noyé . . . .” [Oeuvres en Prose ] reveals Baudelaire’s conception of Poe’s life as a constant struggle against the powers of evil.

(6)  Weber announces his forthcoming essay in “L ’Analyse thématique, hier, aujourd ’hui et demain,” Etudes Francaises, II (February 1966), 29-71 (on Poe, pp. 63-64).

(7)  Bachelard’s works on Poe, which are neglected in the States except by Quinn, have had little influence so far. I intend to discuss them in another installment of this column.

(8)  Mario Praz has raised some important questions that have remained unanswered in “Poe and Psychoanalysis,” Sewanee Review, LXVIII (Summer 1960), 375-389. Praz has shown how Marie Bonaparte’s study of the sado-necrophilic aspect of Poe’s personality is founded on inaccurate premises.

(9)  Maurice Lévy does not seem to be familiar with Wilbur’s essay which raises the important question of Poe’s architectural symbolism. Wilbur’s interpretation of the “magic space” as a hypnagogic state of mind goes further into Poe’s symbolic techniques.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]