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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Sunday, August 01, 2004


I’ve wanted to do a post about Joseph Glanvill for a while. Glanvill’s name has fascinated me ever since, as a kid, I encountered it in Poe’s story, Ligeia. That story is a typical Poe atmospheric, in which the matter seems to condense briefly out of a dense mental fog and proceed intermittently to some shocking horror that always just escapes the visceral. It is this flickering aspect of Poe that makes his stories seem like the way we remember our dreams – which is mostly what we mean by dream-like. Here’s how Poe begins the story:

“I CANNOT, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown. Yet I believe that I met her first and most frequently in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine.”

Notice the counterpoint between the tactile fact and the dreamlike doubt. The narrator starts out by not remembering something – an exceedingly odd way to begin a story. The confession of feebleness in the second sentence – which contests the pre-supposition of the narrator’s narrative competence that the reader brings to the reading of a story -- is in turn contested by the third sentence, which puts into doubt the epistemological grasp of narration itself – the Lady Ligiea “effect”, to use Barthes term, is produced at a level below that of the larger, grosser themes by which ‘story” grasps reality. And then the fourth sentence, a masterpiece of fogginess, descends to fact only to shirk before a proper name. The narrator ‘believes,” instead of remembers, that there were a series of meetings – where? In some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine. In other words, in one of a fifty or more places. The decay of the city is underlined by the absence of the proper name – for as we all know, the extreme point of a city’s decay is when the proper name is forgotten. And we all knew that even better in the Romantic era, with its vogue for ruins and digs.

One of Poe’s stylistic tricks is to always leave a discrepancy, a perceptible gap, between what the reader knows and what his sentences say. The sentences accumulate on the page, and properly one knows that these sentences should each be adding details to a picture beyond the text, should be making clearer some essential content, just as one knows about how to be awake without being taught -- waking being a natural state, rather than learned condition . Mysteriously, though, as the sentences pile up, the reader feels that he is being left behind, as in one of those dreams in which one walks and walks and, due to some unbearable, invisible weight, some supervenient heaviness, one never gets anywhere – one’s position in the road becomes an agonizing, incremental crawl, one’s attempt to climb the stairs becomes a sweaty effort to lift one gigantic foot up and forward, leveraging forward with paralyzed slowness.

This is the effect in Ligeia, just as it is in Pit and the Pendulum, or even the Fall of the House of Usher. In other stories, of course, the normal relationship between reader and information is maintained. In the Purloined Letter, for instance, Dupin will leap ahead of the reader with information about what happened and then (with the reader neatly eavesdropping somewhere outside the door the police commissioner has hastily closed as he rushes out to inform the Queen) lounge in his chair and tell us all about it. The logic of sequence is preserved.

Ligeia is a much sicker story – it is narrative infected with the sickness unto death. Given this kind of story, Glanvill’s name can’t but acquire a certain glamour for the reader. A phrase of Glanvill’s is placed as the epigraph for the story (and we all know how important his quotations were to Poe – his most analyzed story, The Purloined Letter, ends on one of those culled masterpieces of eccentric erudition), and as the story jerks into its start and stop motion, with Poe’s description of the “beauty’ of Lady Ligeia’s face one of his better jokes: his description shows us not a beauty, but a nightmarish monster, a face with long raven hair and distended eyes mounted upon a tall, emaciated figure. A haunt before her death, dying she utters Glanvill’s words: "Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will," which keys the entire fixation of the rest of the story.

Like the narrator of this story, my memory is feeble through much suffering, not to mention late payments for rent, and this splitting headache from the vodka cocktail last night. However, I believe I first read this story in a crumbling, suburban town, redolent every autumn of high school football fervors, near the banks of the Chattahoochee. I didn’t follow up that reading until years – and leaf driven years – and still more years – later. But in the decline of my mortal frame, I’ve sort of had a thing for reading 17th century prose writers. And naturally I was lead, by this habit, to take down, in a figurative sense, or download, in a literal one, a volume or two of Joseph Glanvill’s.

Well, let’s get to that in the next post, shall we?

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