Friday, 1 March 2013

In Two Minds: Poe’s Palimpsestic Wordplay.

I was flattered recently when my Russian correspondent, an eminent authority on Edgar Allan Poe, consulted me on a thorny textual question of interpretation:
‘Can you explain the meaning of the word “grosser” in the final phrase of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd? “The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the Hortulus Animæ, and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen.’ ” Does it mean simply bigger or thicker or worse or viler?’
Having consulted the authorities, I wrote: ‘I agree with the Poe commentator’ (Columbia University, New York) who writes on the nature of evil examined in The Man in the Crowd thus: 
‘In its wicked aspect, then, the heart of the world (for it is odd to think that the world has more than one heart - a worst, a better, etc.) is a bigger, fatter book than a devotional primer intended to instruct gentle readers in the cultivation of character (and gardens). God has mercifully arranged it so that the bigger book is illegible.’
In short, I wrote, to my Russian correspondent, ‘In this context, grosser DOES NOT mean eviller or more disgusting but refers to the greater cubic volume of the worst heart of the world if imagined as a book and compared with the Hortulus Animæ. ( The Little Garden of the Soul being a slenderer book concerning the cultivation of morals.)’

But a day later I had second thoughts. Forty years before Poe, in 1802, Walter Scott writes in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border:

 ‘But the Peris [fairies] hover in the balmy clouds, live in the colours of the rainbow, and as the exquisite purity of their nature rejects all nourishment grosser than the odours of flowers, they subsist by inhaling the fragrance of the jessamine and rose.’ 
It seems to me, Scott uses GROSSER to suggest that if the quiddity of a thing is somehow denser than the thing it resembles it is a corrupt version of that thing. So, to the Peris, the scent of wood sap would be grosser, even if it is actually pleasant to us.

So, after all, I thought, perhaps the Russian interpretation was almost correct. The worst heart in the world, regarded as a book, is a corrupt version of a book of Devotional Readings to Cultivate the Soul. But it does not mean that Poe has made a mistake and regarded the Hortulus Animae as a disgusting book. Poe seems to be saying that the worst heart of the world is a profaner version of the sacred Hortulus Animae.

Yet still I was unsatisfied with this reasoning, and felt compelled to examine the question in greater detail:

The example I gave from Walter Scott demonstrates a writer can compare VERY REFINED DEGREES of grossness, which if greater, induce disgust.
SCOTT 1802 : Nourishment grosser than the odours of flowers.
[ So the lovely smell of moss or ferns is grosser or MORE INTENSE IN ITS EFFECT; therefore disgusting, IN RELATIVE TERMS. ]
POE 1840 : The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the spiritually moral book cited.
[ So the worst heart in the world is a book MORE INTENSE IN ITS EFFECT than this spiritually moral book. ]
A gross perfume could be described as TOO HIGHLY CONCENTRATED and TOO INTENSE. A gross spiritual tract is the gross (inclusive, complete) weight of thought and meditation on the soul. A grosser book is MORE INTENSE IN ITS EFFECT, so disgusting, IN RELATIVE TERMS.


The worst heart of the world is a book more intense in its effect than the Hortulus Animae, and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that er lasst sich nicht lesen. [ The book/person does not permit itself/himself to be read. ]
My dissatisfaction with these unresolved niceties led me to approach Columbia University’s Poe specialist for a final ruling; an approach that prompted this subtle commentary: 
‘The English in use in Poe’s day, and Poes use, carries all the senses of grosser as denser, bigger, more massive.  “Fat” carries all of that for contemporary American English native speakers (it's an idiomatic expression over here, and I was giving a talk to US English speakers).  I’d by concerned about using “more intense in its effect” as the translation guideline for Poe’s “grosser.” 
‘The book is even bigger than standard guides for the cultivation of virtue.  Poe thinks that this will be necessarily true.  The thought is that a catalog of the abuses of good in human life grows more quickly than the catalog of goods, because each new good produced opens indefinitely many opportunities for its own misuse.  I have no idea how to translate THAT image into a claim about the book of the bad heart having AN effect.  It is the dynamic growth of that book that makes it impossible to complete the catalog of evils, and the dynamic growth of that book that makes it impossible to read.  Flatly—a book that rewrites itself and enlarges itself every time human ingenuity opens a new kind of good in human life cannot be read in part because it cannot ever be a completed book.  It is as though it was an organism rather than a text (which is part of why we get the wrong article in the German phrase). [This remark refers to er, relating to a man, in comparison with es, relating to a thing.]
‘Poe's theological background came from serious engagement with the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and a kind of atmospheric Eastern Seaboard US Calvinism more generally.
‘So I'd go with “denser” rather than “more intense in its effect”—that gets you closer to the sense that a single good can be abused in indefinitely many ways, and that each new leaf in the good book introduces the possibility of MANY new leaves in the bad.
Well, I am truly grateful to – and humbled by – my correspondents’ erudition, yet feel that overall I have observed what I would call the ‘Palimpsestic effect’ whereby one meaning in a later century over-writes the meaning in an earlier.  Take the word, ‘egregious’, and consider how it has shifted from ‘outstandingly good’ to ‘outstandingly wicked’ and now it’s shifting back again, if I am not mistaken.

Last word. Here is my great-uncle’s illustration to Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

A tailpiece, you might say, to The Facts in the Case of Poe’s Palimpsestic Wordplay.

No comments:

Post a Comment