The Pfaallic Fallacy

Qui pauca considerat, facile pronunciat.

— Dr. Johnson1

The Problem

In his footnoted “Commentary” to “Hans Phaall,” Prof. Harold Lothar Beaver wrote the following in 19762:

(p. 12) of One Hans Phaall: With an echo of 'fall' and 'phallus' and 'fail'. For the sound, above all, seems to matter. The spelling underwent at least four metamorphoses: 'Phaal', 'Pfaal', 'Pfaall', and 'Phaall'.

Marie Bonaparte pointed to the German root phahl, meaning 'stake'; Edmund Reiss, to the Latin follis, meaning 'bellows' (for a bellows-mender), late Latin 'windbag', French fou, English fool (for this foolscap balloon).

But a touch of sexual clowning seems also to have been intended. In 'A Tale of Jerusalem', for example, the puerile but quite legitimate name for the high priest, Abel-Shittim (Saturday Courier, 1832), on republication became Abel-Phittim (1836). So too in 'Lionizing' (1835) the Shandean joke on noses and inflated reputations, with its phallic innuendo, was later revised or deleted (1840). A kind of bashful obscenity is a hallmark of Poe's earliest style.

Beaver further states, “But here the very name of this dreamer who rises upward has a dying ‘fall’: its phallic sound suggesting both erection and detumescence.” (339)

This “phallic” implication was too much for Prof. Burton Pollin. In “Hans Pfaall and the Phallic Fallacy,”3 Pollin “protest[s] against the far too widespread assumption of Poe’s sniggering indecency of language.” (519) The current indecency is laid at the feet of Prof. Beaver:

“There is absolutely no narrative sense in any implication of ‘phallus’ for Hans, despite the forced interpretation by Mr. Beaver of ‘its phallic sound suggesting both erection and detumescence’ (p. 339) This is part of a tendency to insist upon a covert obscenity as widespread in Poe's works — a tendency derived perhaps from two sources: the Freudian interpretation by Marie Bonaparte in her extremist study of 1933 and the pseudo-metaphysical approach of Edward Davidson of 1956, which is full of stimulating but unsupported assertions about Poe's work.” (521)

There is confusion over the spelling of Hans’s last name because

“First, there is a kind of carelessness that is common in Poe scholarship, whereby the authority of the ‘firstcome’ critic's name causes students to ignore the need for independent checking of firsthand sources. Second, there is the tendency to accept a reading which confirms one's own notions and justifies a ‘new’ and often startling conclusion.” (521)

Pollin remains convinced that “the Victorian Poe would find an appallingly erroneous reading of his tale” (523) for those who seek scatological imagery:

“I have examined every discoverable published review of his books, every squib in the contemporary press concerning his individual tales. every letter of his correspondents and of those who speak about him, to verify this claim of Poe as a ‘nasty’ author. Not one single shred of evidence can be adduced. Moreover, upon his death and afterwards, in the tributes and brickbats as well, there is only praise for the purity of his language, regardless of opinions about his drinking habits. Almost all the spokesmen for this notion nowadays speak about his hidden meanings, his sly ‘turn’ of phrase, his off-color implications, as though Poe, who had to seek the acclaim of his contemporaries for meagre survival and who doted on the praise that came to him directly, could afford to ignore the strict Victorian proprieties and as though we alone, a century and a quarter later, have insights and ‘readings’ that penetrate to the truth veiled from the keenest of his critics and friends.” (524)

Furthermore, “Poe apparently wished to guard against any ‘phallic’ inferences by changing the spelling in the ‘definitive’ edition of the tale; hence he altered it from ‘ph’ to ‘pf’.” (526) Upon what evidence do we deduce Poe’s intent here? What is apparent to Pollin is not apparent to all. The 1850 edition is “definitive” only because Poe is dead by 1850. The wish to guard against phallic references is Pollin’s.

What, then, is Prof. Pollin’s conclusion?

“It appears to me that he was looking merely for a clever and disguised way of saying ‘fall’ since it is the story of a balloonist whose primary concern is to stay aloft and proceed toward the moon.” (523)

“It appears to me” simply means that Pollin is making a guess, no more/no less.

And ... that’s it? A balloonist’s assumed fear of falling and the self-censorship Pollin hopes to see in Poe is the justification for renaming “Phaall” to “Pfaall” until the end of time? This is hardly “clever,” barely within the realm of “disguised” for a Poe hoax, and much, much less than the stunning twist that we expect from Poe’s genius. No, that is at once too far a stretch, and far too weak a guess. It falls flat. And yet, Pollin’s spelling now reigns, because — well, because he’s an authority. The spelling “Pfaall” is definitive because Pollin has declared it to be so (“changing the spelling in the ‘definitive’ edition of the tale”). And that’s that.

Pollin never approaches the fact that Poe is drawing a very explicit picture of “one Hans Pfaall” whose adventure is “unparralleled.” Why this curious turn of phrase singling out one Hans, made doubly curious by Poe’s doubling of doubles in the [mis]spelling of unparralleled? To whom might we parallel Hans? Is there somehow more than one Hans implied, such that the fact that there is only one must be distinguished? But how could that make sense?

And isn’t it odd that no matter whether he’s called Phaall or Pfaall, Hans’s last name is also made doubly curious by the doubling of doubles (aa and ll)? Stranger still, it all ends in a parallel sign, whether Phaa∥ or Pfaa∥, and we note with interest that the character’s name is identical to that of the tale. They repeat and in a sense echo each other: Phaall is within “Phaall,” just as “Phaall” is within Phaall.

And what about the persistence of this “backwards” reading business? Poe didn’t change that. Llaaph may be a bit more difficult to figure out than Llaafp, but surely dropping a silent Dutch-deutsch “P” shouldn’t be beyond the pale, should it? And yet, no contemporary seems to have remarked on this too-obvious bit of play.

One parallel. One parrallell.

“The mispelling of ‘unparalleled’ matches the same error in Poe's original fair-copy manuscript of the tale, but we know that "Pfaall" is no transcription error but rather a deliberate change, since the copytext that Poe left to Griswold for the posthumous edition of his work contained the new title, which Griswold used.” (520) [Oddly, Pollin’s misspelling of the word as “mispelling” goes uncorrected by this journal’s copy editor and again at Harvard UP.]

And while “Poe's decision to change the spelling was significant” (520), when it comes to an f for an h, what of his repeated misspelling?

The spelling “Unparralleled” survives from the 1835 SLM copy-text until the “definitive” edition of 1850, but only as an unchecked, lingering schoolboy typo? Why? Pollin does not ask, since this is for him merely one of several egregious misspellings by Poe, and his concern is with stamping out phallicism wherever it rears its ugly head.

The misspelling in the 1850 edition table of contents is: “The Adventures of one Hans Pfaall,” Perhaps the typesetter didn’t want to play with the foolishness of inserting “Unparralleled” into a lengthy-enough title and performed a little street editing (akin to street justice) to abridge the whole by summarizing it as “Adventures,” plural. Nothing personal, just avoiding having to wrap a line and reset a whole bloody page. And yet he honors Poe’s odd non-capitalization in “one Hans Pfaall.” Decisions, decisions.

So much for authorial authority over one’s own authored texts, especially post mortem.

And again, why is it one Hans Phaall who has an unparralleled voyage? One Hans, unparralleled. And again with the doubling!

The Solution

I suggest that we re-examine not Pollin’s authority but rather his reasoning. We too do not want to fall into the trap whereby “the authority of the [‘lastcome’] critic's name causes students to ignore the need for independent checking of firsthand sources.”(521) On the other hand, perhaps we can “have insights and ‘readings’ that penetrate to the truth veiled from the keenest of his critics and friends” (524) through the act of actually solving the hoaxes. The first-hand sources are the extant copy-text and printings, plus Poe’s markup of a Contents page, the one and only instance of the usage “Pfaall.”

  Images of the copy-text and PDFs of “Hans Phaall” printings are all provided at this site. See “Texts” and “Sources” on the navigation menu.