Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

In reading the preface to this work, I was struck at how Poe sets out the writer's dilemma between fiction and nonfiction, and how those relate to narrative, especially autobiographical narrative. In just these few paragraphs, Poe hits all the key points.

"One consideration which deterred me was, that, having kept no journal during a greater portion of the time in which I was absent, I feared I should not be able to write, from mere memory, a statement so minute and connected as to have the appearance of that truth it would really possess, barring only the natural and unavoidable exaggeration to which all of us are prone when detailing events which have had powerful influence in exciting the imaginative faculties."

Autobiography cannot have a direct relationship to the truth; fiction has a variable relationship to the truth. The truth has a variable relationship with reality, and reality has a variable relationship with that which is casually verifiable. The basis for autobiography is thus questionable at best. The narrator Pym acknowledges this because he has no journal of his trip; this journal would be suspect, of course, because it would be colored by his perceptions, but it would have been better than nothing. Pym is concerned about the appearance of truth, not the actual truth. This doesn't mean that he wants to lie, it just means that he recognizes that verisimilitude is the best a writer can hope for.

The project of setting out an item as a work of nonfiction, when it is clearly fictional, is a difficult task.

Another reason was, that the incidents to be narrated were of a nature so positively marvellous, that, unsupported as my assertions must necessarily be (except by the evidence of a single individual, and he a half-breed Indian), I could only hope for belief among my family, and those of my friends who have had reason, through life, to put faith in my veracity-- the probability being that the public at large would regard what I should put forth as merely an impudent and ingenious fiction."

Talk about lacing up the shoe a little tighter. Not only is there no reliable external evidence, the only other witness is someone whose testimony is automatically suspect. Interestingly, the fact that the events are "marvellous" dovetails with the instability of the "half-breed Indian" as witness. Instead of making the events less marvelous, the Indian's testimony would make them even more so.

A distrust in my own abilities as a writer was, nevertheless, one of the principal causes which prevented me from complying with the suggestion of my advisers."

This is almost an offhand dismissal. It's a convention of the time, yes, the I'm-not-worthy of its period, but the fact that it comes after the other two is key. It becomes a minimal concern because of its context. What amazing skill Poe had.

Among those gentlemen in Virginia who expressed the greatest interest in my statement, more particularly in regard to that portion of it which related to the Antarctic Ocean, was Mr. Poe, lately editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, a monthly magazine, published by Mr. Thomas W. White, in the city of Richmond. He strongly advised me, among others, to prepare at once a full account of what I had seen and undergone, and trust to the shrewdness and common sense of the public- insisting, with great plausibility, that however roughly, as regards mere authorship, my book should be got up, its very uncouthness, if there were any, would give it all the better chance of being received as truth."

And here we have the dual autobiographical self: The one being created in the text, and the one doing the writing. Except that Pym now has three selves. There's Pym the invented author; Poe, the editor of the SLM; and Poe, the actual writer of the text. Brilliant. The remark about the MS's uncouthness is part of the writerly self-dismissal.

He afterward proposed (finding that I would not stir in the matter) that I should allow him to draw up, in his own words, a narrative of the earlier portion of my adventures, from facts afforded by myself, publishing it in the Southern Messenger under the garb of fiction. To this, perceiving no objection, I consented, stipulating only that my real name should be retained. Two numbers of the pretended fiction appeared, consequently, in the Messenger for January and February, (1837), and, in order that it might certainly be regarded as fiction, the name of Mr. Poe was affixed to the articles in the table of contents of the magazine."

Even more complications. Poe leavens the relationships of the three men with internal disbelief and distrust, the beloved's resistance from the romance novel, and the concealment of identity for the sake of revelation of the truth. "The pretended fiction"--now Poe's really hitting his stride in the creation of this façade. Poe the editor--who is as much a construct as any of us are when we hold paid work--affixes his name to a work that he the writer created under the guise of the fictional author Pym. Death of the author, indeed. It happened long before they thought.

and several letters were sent to Mr. P.'s address, distinctly expressing a conviction to the contrary."

One must wonder, of course, if the letters were real as in actually on paper, and if Poe wrote any or all of them himself. Poe the editor, who exists only temporarily, now in the guise of yet more writers who don't exist. Hell, no wonder Poe drank, with such a fluid sense of identity.

This expose being made, it will be seen at once how much of what follows I claim to be my own writing; and it will also be understood that no fact is misrepresented in the first few pages which were written by Mr. Poe. Even to those readers who have not seen the Messenger, it will be unnecessary to point out where his portion ends and my own commences; the difference in point of style will be readily perceived."

Yet it is an exposé of nothing. No one has been revealed. The fact that Poe admits to having written the early parts of the Narrative doesn't admit anything. That Poe doesn't exist and the text is still a fiction.

What'll be interesting is to examine the Narrative for this stylistic break that the Pym-narrator claims is there.

No comments: