Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 5, pp. 42-51

Poe’s early childhood spent travelling with his mother Eliza Arnold, a small-time actress, from one production to another, had a formative influence on the impressive child. Pagenstecher believes that the “metaworld” of the theatre the child was exposed to from his early days, with its bizarre sets, exaggerated gestures and grease-painted faces considerably affected the themes and the style of Poe the writer. He also states that while his mother was performing on the stage, the three-year old Edgar used to be placed in a laundry basket in the wings.

Another of Pagenstecher’s observations: there is no winter in Poe’s tales. They proceed reading some of the passages from Pym, and Wilma, hitting upon the following sentence, says that it is a description of snow: “We were nearly overwhelmed by the white ashy shower which settled upon us and upon the canoe, but melted into the water as it fell.” Her husband shrugs off the idea, noting that it’s probably just volcanic ash. Pagenstecher, of course, regards this scene through the prism of his quirky theories. He believes that the mysterious white substance is the powder that some dancers dabbed on their cheeks in the wings where the little Poe could observe them. Whereas the vapour “flaring up occasionally” on the horizon is nothing but the quivering stage curtain. Moreover, Daniel is positive that theatre imagery is present in all of Poe’s tales.  Obviously, it is represented not in a straightforward manner, but rather unconsciously, in close relation with etyms.

The allegorical character of Poe’s novel draws a comparison with Phineas Fletcher’s poem The Purple Island, or the Isle of Man. The 17th century English poet described the human anatomy  in his verbose and detailed allegory as elements of a landscape in which rivers represented veins, forests stood for hair, and mountain ridges signified bones. The full text of the poem is available here, if you are interested. The anatomical interpretation of the landscape in Pym immediately leads to the evocation of bodily functions such as urination and menstrual bleeding. What is more, in a multilingual punning spree Pagenstecher reveals Gordon Pym as an ass fetishist. He says that Pym’s journey to the south is yet another proof that the real hero navigates towards “S” (i. e. ass). Whereas a breast fetishist is most likely to go up north with its alabuster mountains, Poe’s main character meets natives (i.e. nates) in fissures (i.e. cracks). To which Wilma exclaims in disgust “Assez!” which is the French for “enough”, but, ironically enough, in compliance with Pagenstecher’s etym theory she is also saying “Asses!”

The next point of discussion is John Lloyd Stephens’ travelogue Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land, and its influence on Pym. Poe wrote a long and detailed review of this book, which despite being rather critical, also  considered its merits: “Although in some respects deficient, the work too presents some points of moment to the geographer, to the antiquarian, and more especially to the theologian.” Comparing different passages from Arabia Petraea and Pym, Pagenstecher shows Poe’s borrowings from Stephens’ account. A longish passage from Stephens’ description of the historical city of Petra follows. The mountainous landscape depicted by Poe in his novel, according to Daniel, owes much to the scenery described in Arabia Petraea. There are also similarities between the experiences of Stephens and his travelling partner Paul among the rocks of Petra and the adventures of Gordon Pym and Peters in the mountains of Tsalal.

to be continued

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