Monday, October 23, 2017

Miscellaneous Monday—Number Eighteen

IT HAS BEEN quite a while since we last ventured into the tenebrous world of professional literary critics and their judgments with respect to crime/mystery/detective fiction, but we're game if you are. Today it's Edgar Allan Poe again, and you would do well to read, or re-read, the stories under discussion beforehand . . . but soft! Let the critics themselves send their enlightenment breaking through yonder occluded window of ignorance . . .
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   ". . . as the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed
me not, but resumed his solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in contemplation."

"The Limits of Reason: Poe's Deluded Detectives."
By J. Gerald Kennedy (born 1947).
First published: 1975.
Reprinted in On Poe (1993; HERE).
Article (13 pages).
Online at Hathi Trust (HERE).
(Note: SPOILERS for "The Man of the Crowd" and "The Oblong Box.")

By examining two stories, Kennedy shows how over time Poe's fiction veered from Gothic to Enlightenment and back to Gothic again:

   ". . . publication of 'The Purloined Letter' [1844] marked the last of Poe's investigative fiction; none of the tales after 1844 returned to the subject of ratiocination. Two basic questions to be considered here, then, are why Poe initially became interested in the detective story, and why, after the technical achievement of 'The Purloined Letter,' he abandoned the genre, reverting to the familiar materials of horror and the grotesque."

   ". . . the ratiocinative tales posit a vision of reason and order not elsewhere evident in Poe's fiction."

   ". . . [unlike the typical protagonist in Gothic fiction] the ratiocinator discerns the causes behind effects, proving that nature's laws are accessible

to the man of reason. The emergence of this man of reason and his eventual disappearance from Poe's fiction can be observed in 'The Man of the Crowd' (1840) and 'The Oblong Box' (1844), tales which respectively signal the beginning and end of Poe's ratiocinative cycle."

   "Though not a major work in the Poe canon, 'The Oblong Box' delivers, through the narrator's grotesque misinterpretations, a clever satiric version

of the detective hero.  . . . The tale portrays the reductio ad absurdum of rational analysis: reason dissociated from reality."

   ". . . Poe came to see the detective story as a rather superficial and mechanical exercise in mystification . . ."

- "The Man of the Crowd" is online (HERE; PDF, 7 pages), and "The Oblong Box" is (HERE; PDF, 10 pages).

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   "'The Gold-Bug' . . . was the most popular of Poe's tales. Upon its original publication in 1843, this story secured fame for its author that in later years was second only to 'The Raven'."

"'The language of the cipher': Interpretation in 'The Gold Bug'."
By Michael Williams (born 1949).
First published: 1982.
Reprinted in On Poe (1993; HERE).
Article (15 pages).
Online at Hathi Trust (HERE).

Williams argues that in "The Gold-Bug" Poe, whether intentionally or not, points up how much language use is commonly conditioned by social context, often leading to misinter-pretation and confusion:

   "Throughout the tale, the contingent nature of the sign is repeatedly implied. The narrative's shifting terminology for its central image, the gold-bug, em-phatically illustrates the arbitrariness of the relationship between word and referent."

   ". . . the tale again stresses that meaning is created by conventions of use and context, which alone stabilize the interpretation of signs. The text simi-larly dramatizes the obstacles to communication which arise when words are considered to be naively referential, as if the word and thing were indissolubly linked."

   "In a tale that demonstrates the value of heightened intellectual powers, the narrator's laziness of mind is marked."

   "Legrand's task is doubly difficult; he has not only to cope with the unrelia-bility but also to discover meaning in a text which human ingenuity has de-liberately rendered obscure."

   "Legrand's belief in that process of discovery by which nature appears to conform to man's need for order is clear."

   "His [Legrand's] steps are governed by thoughtful common sense, intuition, and an insistence that the meanings of words and signs is contingent on a multiplicity of possible contexts."

When Legrand tries in his mind to find a "connexion—a sequence of cause and effect" but fails to do so, causing him to fall into a "species of temporary paralysis"—a state of mind his less clever friend sees as a sure sign of insanity—we find the situation echoed later in Holmes's drug-induced reveries, which a worried Watson is never able to obviate. No doubt about it: As far as detective fiction is concerned, Poe laid the foundation for everything that was to follow.


- You can read "The Gold Bug" (HERE; HTML; several clicks may be necessary) and (HERE; HTML, 27 pages as a PDF).
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   "At such times I could not help remarking and admiring (although from his rich ideality I had been prepared to expect it) a peculiar analytic ability in Dupin."

"The Psychology of 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue'."
By J. A. Leo Lemay (born 1935).
First published: 1982.
Reprinted in On Poe (1993; HERE).
Article (24 pages).
Online at Hathi Trust (HERE).

The author basically argues that in Poe's story, as with Freudian thinking in general, it all boils down to you-know-what:

   "Actually, throughout the story, Poe repeatedly suggests that it concerns psychology and sex, and particularly an opposition between the mind and

the body."

   "Poe thus directly tells the reader that although puzzles, mysteries, riddles, and detective stories (such as, on the plot level, 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue') may be amusing for the analyst or creator, they are trivial in comparison with the 'glorious' fascination of psychological investigation."

   "The murderer and those murdered, the solver of the mystery and the teller of the tale are, symbolically, one person."

   "Poe gives two direct clues that the story should be read as an exploration in sexual psychology."

   "The primary effect of Poe's tales of ratiocination is, of course, a delight in analysis—or, at least, a seeming delight in a seeming analysis. But as Poe wrote in defending Longfellow from a foolish criticism, no development is possible without susidiary ideas and effects."

   "Dupin alone seems able to order the universe through his superior analysis—but he is grotesquely naive. Dupin is himself the astronomer

unable to see Venus because his scrutiny is too abstract.  . . .  Dupin is
an incredible egghead, an intellectual, blind to the facts of life."

   ". . . every reader is made imaginatively to feel (and the ideal reader

will ultimately perceive) that he is the murderer and the murdered."

   "Poe uses thematic irony as a clue to the truth."

   "Psychologically, the L'Espanayes cut off their own heads."

   "Poe proves that every reader will find that his own subconscious lusts

and aggressions make the crime explainable."

   "Poe implies that we will free the good in man when we correctly identify

the murderer as the repressed libido . . ."


- "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is available (HERE; HTML, 27 pages).

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Still more resources:
- For Poe, like many others in the 19th century, the word "mystery" meant more than one thing; see "On Poe's Use of 'Mystery'" (Poe Studies, June 1971) by S. K. Wertz and Linda
L. Wertz (HERE; HTML, 6 pages as a PDF):

  "The 'genuine' sense of 'mystery' then, for Poe, is best depicted as that which involves the subject and the reader in preternatural or abnormal specula-tions—in astute analyses of the bizarre. In all of the stories which we have considered under these three locutions of 'mystery,' we find that the plot structure is determined by the concept employed—that of puzzle, problem,

or mystery."
- A remarkably strong correlation between C. Auguste Dupin and extra-terrologist Wendell Urth is noted in "Isaac Asimov’s Debt to Edgar Allan Poe" (Poe Studies, June 1973) by Jack D. Wages (HERE; scroll down):

  "In addition to his ability to perform astounding feats of analysis, Urth’s love of music and books, his cloistered existence — invariably he is enclosed in his cocoon-like habitat — and his chiding of obtuse policemen are only a few traits that remind one of Poe’s chevalier."

- One critic believes it was Poe who initiated an often overlooked personal characteristic common to many fictional detectives of later eras; see "Play and Games: An Approach to Poe's Detective Tales" (Poe Studies, December 1977) by LeRoy L. Panek (HERE):

  "Behind these tales, then, is a version of the Poe who challenged his readers to play cryptography games with him and composed articles allowing them to be spectators at his victories. It is no wonder that when the detective novel appeared in the 1920’s, it showed Dr. Fell playing checkers and chess, Philo Vance and the Continental Op playing poker, and Wimsey of Balliol playing cricket. It is no wonder that Ronald Knox and W. H. Wright wrote 'rules of the game' for composing detective plots. They got it all from Poe."

- A recent appreciation (although "depreciation" might be more accurate) of Poe:

  "Poe’s is the shakiest of all large American reputations, and yet, if I remember rightly a statement of Malcolm Cowley’s, there have been more studies of him than of any other native writer. There is, as Whitman said, an 'indescribable magnetism' about Poe’s much romanticized life, and that would be part of the explanation. It is also true that Poe is an important point in any brief for Southern letters, that his supposed morbidity has attracted many diagnosticians of psychic and cultural sickness, and that some critics have been annoyed into writing about Poe by a desire to comprehend or explain away his high standing abroad. Finally, and on the whole recently, a number of people have attempted direct literary analysis of Poe, moved by a sense that there is more to him than obsession, mystification, and—as Yeats put it of 'The Pit and the Pendulum'—'an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affright-ments'."
  — Richard Wilbur, "The Poe Mystery Case," The New York Review of Books

- Our most recent Miscellaneous Monday (HERE) covered Australian crime fiction; the last MM to deal exclusively with Poe is (HERE).

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