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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Poe (5)

Friday
Oct072016

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

Nothing is more vague than impressions of individual identity. Each man recognizes his neighbor, yet there are few instances in which any one is prepared to give a reason for his recognition.

                                                                                                                Auguste Dupin

You may have heard of a recent film with the name of a masterpiece; you will surely know the inspiration for what critics have almost uniformly understood as an excuse – albeit a clever and original one – to allow yet another serial killer to wreak havoc on the national census. Perhaps this is what remains of minds like Poe's (many self-proclaimed admirers of Lovecraft, for example, praise his 'gory science fiction plots,' or other such nonsense) to those who cannot appreciate the sonic rapture of his prose – I know and care not. A true lover of literature preserves deep in his memory the enchantments of the best works of a given author and finds, in time, that certain authors can be trusted and certainly simply cannot. Those who love topicality, who are inspired by the latest hue and cry, can and should be returned to the shelf whence they came and left to rot. Only the authors who consider their own works and own genius eternal, bereft of the shackles of the news hour, are worth our time. Which brings us to a famous literary experiment.

The crime involves a sumptuous young Parisian who helped her mother run a pension until the age of twenty-two, "when her great beauty attracted the notice of a perfumer." The latter obviously has a saleswoman in mind, at least for the business side of things, but we do not. As readers of literary fiction discerning enough to enjoy Poe, we expect that something romantic if not diabolical will absorb poor Marie Rogêt. Now if a pretty young woman is discovered by one man, she will be discovered by dozens of others, because nothing is more beguiling to a man than a woman on whom other men have their eye. It can be concluded therefore that Marie Rogêt, at the time of the onset of this 'mystery,' had become a favorite among those Parisian men lucky enough to frequent the 6th arrondissement. She had gotten herself engaged to one of those men, a certain St. Eustache, who had actually taken up residence in the Rogêts' pension (which commitment came first is left to the reader to surmise), and one fine morning in June she had informed that same St. Eustache that she would be visiting an aunt about two miles away. Thus our story unravels:

St. Eustache ... was to have gone for his betrothed at dusk, and to have escorted her home. In the afternoon, however, it came on to rain heavily; and, supposing that she would remain all night at her aunt's, (as she had done under similar circumstances before,) he did not think it necessary to keep his promise. As night drew on, Madame Rogêt (who was an infirm old lady, seventy years of age,) was heard to express a fear ‘that she should never see Marie again’; but this observation attracted little attention at the time. On Monday, it was ascertained that the girl had not been to the Rue des Drômes; and when the day elapsed without tidings of her, a tardy search was instituted at several points in the city, and its environs. It was not, however, until the fourth day from the period of disappearance that anything satisfactory was ascertained respecting her. On this day (Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of June), a Monsieur Beauvais, who, with a friend, had been making inquiries for Marie near the Barrière du Roule, on the shore of the Seine which is opposite the Rue Pavée St. Andrée, was informed that a corpse had just been towed ashore by some fishermen, who had found it floating in the river. Upon seeing the body, Beauvais, after some hesitation, identified it as that of the perfumery-girl. His friend recognized it more promptly.

St. Eustache will leave one of literature's most magnificently described farewell notes ("Upon his person was found a letter, briefly stating his love for Marie, with his design of self-destruction"), which does not, of course, preclude him from possible involvement. What follows this and similar paragraphs lifted from all the newspapers of the day is a quilt of speculation and hysteria that the renowned Auguste Dupin will spend the second half of the story tearing asunder from the friendly confines of his sitting room. Without revealing his methods, which are as usual pedantic in a most enlightening manner, one aside remains particularly trenchant:

The town blackguard seeks the precincts of the town, not through love of the rural, which in his heart he despises, but by way of escape from the restraints and conventionalities of society. He desires less the fresh air and the green trees, than the utter license of the country. Here, at the road-side inn, or beneath the foliage of the woods, he indulges, unchecked by any eye except those of his boon companions, in all the mad excess of a counterfeit hilarity the joint offspring of liberty and of rum.

The town blackguard? What town blackguard? Our year was 1844 and we still tended in that era to blame small, roving bands of criminals for all the ills of society while robber barons were becoming billionaires and slaves still roaming plantations. The curious reader may discover the rest for himself.

It has been often lamented that The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is the weakest of the Auguste Dupin adventures, and, on the whole, one of Poe's least flavorful works. Yet Poe is one of the few writers whose style is invariably impeccable; his subject matter, however, may be of dubious value. His fascination with the macabre cannot be conveniently explained away by his use of laudanum, nor by some psychological perversions (his marriage to a thirteen-year-old cousin is commonly cited) concocted by some very modern and very ignorant minds. No, Poe had all the attributes of literary genius – style, precision, strong opinions, touchiness regarding any criticism in his direction, and something we can loosely term a sadistic streak. Literary genius thrives in tragedy, not comedy or the doldrums of historical codswallop (as one writer famously quipped, every author should make horrible things befall his fictional underlings to see what they are made of). We are mortal beings and the implications of this limit should and do scare the writer of genius into a labyrinth of unending nightmares. What he finds therein depends principally on what lies in his own soul. Even if it be entrapped in blackest night.   

Thursday
Nov072013

Blok, "Осенний вечер был. Под звук дождя стеклянный"

A work ("One autumn eve, beneath the rain's glass rapping") by this Russian poet inspired by this work of genius.  You can read the original here.

One autumn eve, beneath the rain's glass rapping, 

The selfsame vexful thought my strength impair'd,  
When to my large, dim study there was tapping: 
A gentleman and shaggy dog stood there. 

A hearthside seat soon held my guest so weary, 
Beside his rug-warm'd shoes did hound prostrate. 
My guest politely asked: "Wherefore still dreary?  
'Tis time, sir, to submit to lustrous fate."  

"Old age is youth's return, its sunswept shore –"
So I began. Yet he cut in, insisting:  
"'Tis all the same: mad Edgar's lost Lenore.
There's no return.  And I need say no more."

Strange that in life were storms, hell, bliss persisting, 
Yet in one hour alone with unknown guest,
I, his long-calm and steady gaze resisting,
Came to see life far simpler now, compress'd ...

This man has gone, his hound my hearth still facing.
Yet its good gaze, one bitter hour, will sit, 
With rigid paw upon my knee so placing, 
As if to say: 'Tis time, sir, to submit.  

Thursday
Feb162012

Borges, "Edgar Allan Poe"

A work by this Argentine man of letters about this American writer.  You can read the original here.

These marble splendors, black anatomy,
Which injure worms upon their sepulchres,
The glacial symbols of death's victory,
He would assemble, by fear undeterred.

It was the other shadow, love's, he feared: 
That common fortune and its common woes. 
Resplendent metal did not blind him sheer,
Nor did sepulchral marble; 'twas the rose. 

He, from the mirror's other side, alone 
Succumbed then to his complex destiny
As the inventor of all nightmares known.

And so perhaps, from well beyond death's shroud,     
Shall he keep building, still alone and proud,
These splendid, wicked wonders endlessly.

Thursday
Mar182010

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Whenever historically-minded scholars try to pinpoint the beginnings of the detective story, they often find themselves pondering the meaning of the terminology we apply like a cookie cutter to any tale that contains an initially unsolved crime.  To be sure, there are stories in which the only person who does not know what has occurred is the same poor soul entrusted with an official investigation; other narratives move from one mystery to one another so that, in the end, we are neither closer to solving these conundra nor quite certain what to make of the circumstances that have obtained.  An example of the former type is this well-known detective series; an example of the latter is an anagram for what has been termed the postmodern.

Now readers of these pages might have an inkling as to what I think of postmodern literature (never mind manifestations of its visual arts, which are best left unmentioned): with few exceptions of brilliant creativity such as this novel of genius, most attempts are laborious endeavors to mystify and obscure the truth behind a parade of parlor tricks that, upon close inspection, do not add up to much at all.  Their aim?  To point out the inherent contradictions in our system of values that lead them to assert, with no iota of conviction one way or another, that what we see and think and feel is not only relative, it also does not make any sense.  Since life doesn't make sense, and art is known in many circles to be nothing more than an imitation of life, it similarly has no such obligations to conform to logic.  Purveyors of such rot are easy to identify: they will tell a story that seems to contradict itself and when you ask for explanation, will inform you are too stupid to understand their charlatanism, I mean, their subtlety; they will waft around cocktail parties half-drunk and recount degrading stories of famous artists' lives, perhaps because their own lives, while degraded by no hope or imagination, are not nearly as interesting as those of the people they mock; and they will publish ironic and wholly nonsensical articles filled with neologisms and jargon that reference one another to make it seem as if there lurks a network of like-minded critics who collectively march towards truth, when their real destination is darkest oblivion.  What these second-raters do not understand is that true art does not destroy, it builds; it builds on the accomplishments of its forerunners and anticipates to a great extent its successors.  And all successors to the detective story owe something to this odd but rather amazing tale.

Our narrator – he remains unnamed throughout – tickles our fancy with an introduction both poorly organized and completely fascinating on the nature, as it were, of logic.  He begins this discourse with an observation about that supposedly most intellectual of childish pursuits, chess:

the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess.  In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play.  If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat.  The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers.

This setup suggests that the meaty portion of our narrative will provide evidence of such an approach – which, as it turns out, it does and does not – but what happens next is much more interesting for the history of letters because our narrator turns out to be our Boswell.  He quickly shifts into an introduction of a certain Auguste Dupin, a Frenchman of “an illustrious family,” who “had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes.”  With a bit of shrewdness and understated austerity Dupin is able to maintain himself on his intellectual interests with “books as his sole luxuries.”  Starving intellectuals are unfortunately nothing new to either literature or life; but the acuity of Dupin’s reasoning is more than unusual and something akin to phenomenal.  To prove this claim our narrator then devotes another dozen paragraphs to Dupin’s amazing deduction that culminates in the observation, “he is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Variétés,” a tactic that will remind the reader of this later work.  Yes, Holmes is a direct descendent of Dupin, and even goes so far as to criticize Dupin for precisely the trick of deductive reasoning (in the form of intrusive commentary at just the right time) that Holmes would make famous.  That does not stop Dupin, however, from making a name for himself.

The eponymous "murders" are some of the famous ever committed and involve an old woman and her daughter, a locked apartment on the fourth floor of a Paris building, a passel of witnesses who all claim to have heard a foreigner speaking "in a shrill voice" at the time of the murders, although they cannot agree at all on what language he spoke, and a sailor on a Maltese vessel.  One part of the solution, which is both ingenious and preposterous, would be copied in a Holmes story and, alas, the culprit can be easily ascertained through an image search of the title on the intergalactic weapon known as Google.  Nothing more should be said except one line from Dupin:

Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling-blocks in the way of that class of thinkers who have been educated to know nothing of the theory of possibilities – that theory to which the most glorious objects of human research are indebted for the most glorious of illustration.

How strange, then, that this maxim, so well-kept and yet so very trivial, doesn't actually apply to the case in question.  Could we have detectives of integrity rather than opportunity?  Perhaps at the very beginning of it all.

Wednesday
Sep022009

The Purloined Letter

The material world … abounds with very strict analogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has been given to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be made to strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description.  The principle of the vis inertiae, for example, seems to be identical in physics and metaphysics.  It is not more true in the former, that a large body is with more difficulty set in motion than a smaller one, and that its subsequent momentum is commensurate with this difficulty, than it is, in the latter?  That intellects of the vaster capacity, while more forcible, more constant, and more eventful in their movements than those of inferior grade, are yet the less readily moved, and more embarrassed and full of hesitation in the first few steps of their progress?  

                                                                                                                          Auguste Dupin

There is an old argument promoted by mostly young men that the world is far too complex to have been created by a single entity – as if a billionth of this Entity’s power would be at all fathomable to us highly evolved primates, but that’s really beside the point.  The mortal flaw in such an argument is that the most recondite and brilliant among us will guide us to the path of truth because if they cannot, their progeny undoubtedly will.  Arrogance of this sort commonly emanates from the flippant interviews given by top scientists who denounce any miracle – anything that can be grasped by an average mind with sufficient faith and imagination – in lieu of abstract and frankly absurd notions of our universe that are completely untenable because we have still but a small fragment of the technology that would allow us to evaluate such data.  We are so close to knowing how our solar system functions, said one smug gentleman recently (paraphrased to keep the Google hounds off his trail), and a mission to Mars will confirm what we have always believed: that Mars is the future residence of humanity.  If such poppycock strikes you as profound insight from a learned scholar, then by all means book your one-way ticket redwards.  But if knowledge encompasses more than subject equations that contradict one another because all numbers and facts eventually contradict one another, you might delight in this famous tale.

We begin with Dupin and our nameless narrator sitting in a Paris apartment in much the same positions as another, subsequent crimefighting duo, waiting for the world and its mysteries to come to them.  These riddles arrive in the form of the local Prefect, a certain Monsieur G., who “had a fashion of calling every thing ‘odd’ that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of ‘oddities,’” and is unmistakably the victim of the story’s epigraph.  The Prefect, at once a justice-seeker and an unabashed admirer of the powerful and affluent, is investigating a theft he can only describe in broad and rather opaque terms:

I have received personal information, from a very high quarter, that a certain document of the last importance has been purloined from the royal apartments.  The individual who purloined it is known; this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it.  It is known, also, that it still remains in his possession … it is clearly inferred from the nature of the document, and from the nonappearance of certain results which would at once arise from its passing out of the robber's possession; that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it.

We should always be disinclined to trust a man who spends over a hundred words when one would suffice.  Nevertheless, the point is made and what follows is a meticulous recounting of the event of the theft itself and the paramount value of that document to a certain lady in high standing.  Names are never mentioned because the characters involved are the prototypes of the scandal that can only afflict those unsullied by the daily grind; for the same reason are the amounts that have been extorted from her ladyship since that fateful day likewise accorded no room on our crisp, white pages. 

In good police procedural fashion, the Prefect continues to itemize the searches conducted by himself and his staff in the furrowing and organized ransacking of the robber’s apartment.  He also reports that the letter, whose contents are incendiary and its appearance known, has not been found despite months of thorough visits.  It is here that Dupin, who has been generally silent and pensive, asks his friend how exactly his team proceeded.  He also asks whether amidst the checks for hidden cabinets or empty chair legs the Prefect had snooped around the most obvious of locations for a piece of paper, the robber’s desk.  He gets a response that does not surprise him in the least:

Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of our police officers.  We also measured the thickness of every book-cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope.  Had any of the bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that the fact should have escaped observation.  Some five or six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, with the needles.

That this search could have taken days need not concern us; the perpetrator is a government official whose thievery wins him a massive amount of leverage, but it is his being both “a mathematician and a poet” that enables him for months to outgeneral the Parisian police.  Ultimately this same Prefect who boasts of owning “keys … with which [he] can open any chamber or cabinet in Paris,” is cajoled into revealing the amount of the reward offered for information leading to the acquisition of the letter – an offer that to the impoverished Dupin does not fall on deaf ears.

I fear that mystery buffs have always been disappointed by The Purloined Letter precisely because it is not really a mystery, but a philosophical fragment in anecdotal guise.  In a way, of course, they have it quite right.  What Poe occasionally lacks in his elegant amblings are the tantalizing turns and suspense that keep awake and conjoined a reader and his bedside lamp.  Not that there aren’t moments when we wonder what will happen next; there are just so many more that we cannot simply decide to forego.  Then again, we could probably do with fewer monstra horrenda roaming about – especially from the house of Atreus.