Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Achilles among the women

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“What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture,” Sir Thomas Browne writes in Urn Burial, which was first published in 1658. I’ve been intrigued by this sentence for as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to understand why. Most readers are likely to encounter it as the epigraph to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story, which means that it can seen as a benediction, or a declaration of purpose, for the entire mystery genre. I initially saw it on the back cover of a paperback edition of The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which advertised that the book contained “practical solutions to many of the apparently insoluble riddles of antiquity.” Graves expands on this in the introduction:

The book does read very queerly: but then of course a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth has never previously been attempted, and to write it conscientiously I have had to face such “puzzling questions, though not beyond all conjecture,” as Sir Thomas Browne instances in his Hydriotaphia: “what songs the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he held himself among the women.” I found practical and unevasive answers to these and many other questions of the same sort.

And while Graves might not seem to have much in common with C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s fictional detective, both men take what seem to be impossible puzzles and solve them through an exercise of pure reason, which is what Browne’s enigmatic questions—which he borrows from the historian Suetonius—have symbolized ever since.

Of course, it isn’t that straightforward. Poe’s mystery, like most of its successors, is obviously constructed to lead Dupin to the solution, and most modern readers would be unlikely to forgive its use of a murderous orangutan. (The best part of the story is the mysterious voice overheard by multiple witnesses, which I love so much that I mention it in “The Spires,” my upcoming story in Analog.) And Graves’s method of “proleptic reasoning,” although it yields ideas of great beauty and originality, exposes his arguments to serious doubts. Here’s how he solves the mystery of Achilles:

According to Suetonius the guesses made by various scholars whom the Emperor Tiberius consulted on this point were “Cercysera” on account of the distaff (kerkis) that Achilles wielded; “Issa,” on account of his swiftness (aisso, I dart); “Pyrrha,” on account of his red hair. Hyginus gives his vote for Pyrrha. My conjecture is that Achilles called himself Dacryoessa (“the tearful one”) or, better, Drosoessa, (“the dewy one”), drosos being a poetic synonym for tears. According to Apollonius his original name Liguron (“wailing”) was changed to Achilles by his tutor Cheiron. This is to suggest that the Achilles-cult came to Thessaly from Liguria. Homer punningly derives Achilles from achos (“distress”), but Apollodorus from a “not” and cheile “lips,” a derivation which Sir James Frazer calls absurd; though “Lipless” is quite a likely name for an oracular hero.

This is all very interesting, but far from conclusive, and the reader is left to choose between several equally plausible alternatives. (In the first chapter of my novel City of Exiles, I mention this question as part of a minor plot point, and I arbitrarily settle on Pyrrha.) But the most revealing discussion of the problem doesn’t appear in The White Goddess at all, but in The Greek Myths, which Graves published several years later. Here’s how he discusses it there:

Now, Thetis knew that her son would never return from Troy if he joined the expedition, since he was fated either to gain glory there and die early, or to live a long but inglorious life at home. She disguised him a a girl, and entrusted him to Lycomedes, king of Scyros, in whose palace he lived under the name of Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha; and he had an intrigue with Lycomedes’s daughter Deidameia, by whom he became the father of Pyrrhus, later called Neoptolemus.

So what happened to Dacryoessa or Drosoessa? Graves evidently concluded that his suggestion, which was acceptable within the more speculative framework of The White Goddess, would be out of place in a more scholarly work—although the notes to The Greek Myths are filled with wild leaps of their own. He simply writes “Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha,” which are guesses in themselves, and moves on. A casual reader might never know that it was a matter of dispute, or even that the problem of Achilles’s assumed name was of any interest at all.

And this offers an elegant example of a pitfall that affects scholarship of all kinds, particularly when directed toward a general audience. Writing a nonfiction book of my own has reminded me that history or biography is full of apparently objective facts that are really open to interpretation. A single date can be the result of a long process of investigation, speculation, and elimination, but the underlying judgments go more or less unseen. Very occasionally, the search itself becomes the point of the work, but it’s more common for scholars to present us with the end result and leave out all the intermediate steps. And if we knew how much guesswork goes into the books that we read, we might well view them with a justifiable skepticism. (Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Bob Hope rule, which is that scholars get to use intuition as long as they can prove that they don’t need it.) In The White Goddess, Graves, to his credit, goes into considerable detail about his methods, and he acknowledges that it undermines his own case:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

But he isn’t alone here. Other scholars just take greater pains to disguise it—unless we can trick them, like Achilles, into revealing themselves.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2018 at 8:43 am

The Passion of St. Edgar

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It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, the patron saint of all those who write for a living. More than two centuries after his birth, Poe remains a fascinating figure, largely because few authors have presented us with so stark a contrast between the rational and irrational sides of a writer’s personality. When we think of Poe, we tend to think of the obsessive, alcoholic, manic-depressive eccentric, but he was also deeply learned, an ingenious plotmaker, and a talented cryptologist who challenged readers to submit ciphers for him to solve. Poe was arguably the first professional American writer of lasting interest, at a time when he had few, if any, models for such a career. As such, he could hardly have been anything less than prodigiously hardworking and talented. He remains the epitome of the popular writer, and the model for all those who followed: clever, opportunistic, but with more than a touch of madness to be writing for a living at all.

Every critic knows that Poe was a prolific inventor of genres, above all that of the detective story, but not everyone understands why. Genre, as I’ve said before, is the result of a sort of dialogue between an author and his audience, a process of trial and error as writers figure out what elements get the best response. Because Poe was among the first writers whose survival depended entirely on a popular readership, he embodied that process singlehandedly: while he was undoubtedly driven by his own obsessions, he was also willing to try anything once. Browsing in Poe’s collected stories is like watching natural selection at work, with successful innovations alternating with wild shots in the dark. It’s no accident that of the three short stories featuring the detective Dupin, the first and last, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” have become classics, while the second, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” survives, if at all, as a weird, basically unreadable experiment. Here as elsewhere, Poe tried something new, checked to see if it worked, and if it didn’t, he moved on. And that’s how genres are made.

Earlier this week, I mentioned Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which nicely sums up the two halves of his, or any writer’s, creative personality. In it, he makes a show of breaking down “The Raven” into its constituent parts, claiming that every choice he made was the result of a rational process—that he chose to write about the death of a beautiful woman, for instance, because it is unquestionably “the most poetical topic in the world,” and selected the refrain “Nevermore” because of “the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.” Critics tend to believe that the essay is a parody of close literary analysis, and indeed, Poe often seems to be winking slyly at the reader. Yet I have the feeling that what Poe describes is not entirely removed from his real creative process. It seems quite likely that Poe initially conceived of a poem with the refrain “Nevermore,” then worked it out forward and backward, proceeding with the intuition of the craftsman, not the mystic. And the result is a poem that produces its uncanny effects in unexpectedly rational ways.

Poe’s influence is incalculable—”He is never wrong,” as Paul Valéry said—but these days, it’s easier to admire him for his plots and originality than for the actual experience of reading his fiction. The core of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is an astonishingly modern detective story, at least in terms of its red herrings and high-concept solution, but it takes a long time to get there, opening with an interminable two-page essay on the nature of analysis before introducing the characters themselves. A few decades later, Arthur Conan Doyle would refine and perfect this model to the point where we can still read his stories with undiminished delight, but even he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be anywhere without Poe. Nor would any of us. In mystery, in horror, in science fiction, in suspense: in the end, we’re all working from the example left for us by Poe, the great original, who knew what it meant to write like your life depended on it.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2012 at 10:12 am

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