Operative Theory of the Hoax
To truly understand a Poe hoax, to Get It, a reader must be willing to risk it all, performing a flip-flop dum legere to initially substitute Belief for Sense-making upon Poe’s intrusive and repeated presentations of an impossible possibility, such as the famously self-cancelling narrator, Pym. Without performing this spiritual gymnastic, you deny yourself the possibility of the Moment of Recognition.
This action goes far beyond the willing suspension of disbelief, more toward questioning the rules defining Reality and therefore what it is possible to understand, what “makes sense.” It’s not that the fictive ground is shaky; it’s that the concept of ground itself may no longer be tenable. Once one gives up on making sense, the possibility of logically quite impossible connections can come into focus, perhaps to point toward a future resolution.
Achieving the solution may happen all at once, via fortuitous flashes of insight visited upon the thinker while the mind relaxes, at what I call the opening Moment of Recognition. But one must also perform due diligence and proceed incrementally, performing Sisyphean bouts of “ratiocination” to follow down said flash in hopes of finding it again, linking, testing, retrying to find the solution. [Best consider ratiocination to be “that subset of Thought devoted solely to the solution of hoaxes by E. A. Poe” when reading Dupin’s words.] The flash is quite addictive; it pulls you onward to detect more and more hoax layers, seemingly endless in number.
Maintaining critical balance on a slope that may disappear momentarily is dicey, but linking a hoax work to the incidental attributes or data points of Poe’s life or “historical period” to find sources for interpretive meaning of these jeux d’esprits is utterly pointless.
The solution to the hoax always lies entirely within the experiencing of the text, i.e., the solution appears only during and within the performance of the reading act, when print becomes thought. It is experienced phenomenologically, but only strangely. For example, usually the text is only a text, but sometimes it stands up and talks. Where? What is the locus when this happens? On what possible ground? None. Dare we invent one? Yes, because it is necessary to our understanding of the hoaxes and thus of the man; interpret (solve) the hoaxes correctly, and you may then glimpse the mind of Poe.
No professor-critic or scholar has reported on this trick publicly (I am not a professor), but clearly, Melville and Nabokov learned from Poe and knew at least some of what I claim to know.
In solving the hoaxes, patience is rewarded as much as cleverness, but on a different scale. Which trait do you think Poe would appreciate more?
I. Monsters of Fiction
In this world there are certain constants, things so obvious that they need no thought. In “real life” there exists, say, a book, a reader, an author, a narrator. But what if there were a realm in which these entities may suddenly become unmoored and begin swapping “places” or roles during the thinking act of reading? What is the result?
What if the mutant recombinations are in fact horrific in appearance, bizarrely distorted warpings of what we “normally” view as fiction? Would it be fair to perceive these as fictive monsters? By definition, they could not be analyzed successfully by a criticism that values order, regularity, and coherence as the marks of a successful fictive performance (and it is always a performance for Poe). Judgmental professor-critics eagerly describe the hoaxes as failures, but, as Poe foresaw, they demonstrate only the limits of their systematizing. Clearly a different approach is required if we are to make any progress. Can we legitimately formulate and thereby study an agency through which this swapping business might be facilitated?
II. Introducing The Biblioscape
I call my attempt The Biblioscape,1 a preliminary construct toward understanding what we call hoaxes and Poe calls jeu d’esprits [Try reading this term as “joyous acts (of the spirit)”.] It’s only a start, but you will soon discover in your hoax spelunking that one can only ever begin. Poe is always in wait, far far ahead.
Consider a similar realm that Rod Serling very profitably employs in The Twilight Zone — an excuse and at the same time a plea for acquiescence in letting the impossible run wild within a fictive reality that has declared itself unreal from the outset (like a moon-man descending upon Rotterdam to the tune of “Betty Martin”).
But where Serling dumbs down his reveal to one clarifying moment of resolution, Poe works in the opposite direction, overlaying his jeux d’esprits with overly clever punny twists. When each product is presented unto the mass for consumption, the comparative results are disappointing for the Poe aficionado but predictable: beloved long-running television series vs. a history of professorial-critical confusion and ridicule of works declared minor, marginal, or peripheral.
The Biblioscape is a free-for-all.
Think of it as the spawn of a “land”scape as solidly dependable as quicksand, crossed with a “book” that is at once a physical entity within time and a platform sliding through the phenomenological moment of reading. The nominal ingredients necessary for a reading experience are all present, but they are far from static. Fictive entities at different levels within The Biblioscape perform a sleight of hand en passant. John Barth famously attempts something like this performance with Lost in the Funhouse in 1967, in a crude reification of what Poe engineers within the reader’s mind in 1835.
Within The Biblioscape, Poe slings out coded textual tidbits sideways as clues to the hoax’s solution, bobbing in a sea of apparently ill-formed, even nonsensical prose.
A fictive name contains a variable that must be filled from the printer’s type box 24 times.
A text talks to the narrator, who is describing a text that is talking to him.
The author walks off scene with his characters.
A hoax-tale’s title contains the essence of its resolution, thereby entirely wrapping its tail in upon itself.
And so forth.
It’s like watching the interplay of the particles of a complex atom, yet the components of these fictive monsters zip by much faster than if they were merely real — they’re instantaneous.
Hence The Biblioscape very poorly supports subjection to a rigorously logical or, worse yet, merely data-driven interpretation. For some, it does not even exist because it cannot fit within the strict borders of the imaginable realm. But The Biblioscape actively resists rigor by its very nature.
If nothing exists outside the walls of the system’s parameters, Poe simply cannot be doing this. But then he does it again, and another layer is revealed, and perhaps (are you sure?) another interplay/hook is shown lurking within the hoax. What is a reader to do when confronting a clue that is also a stumbling block? Reject, retry, or explore?
Pull back a little. These entities radically misbehaving at indeterminable levels have a life of a sort, but any behavioral-directional arrows showing interaction in the illustration above would have to be infinite in number and resolve into and out of existence through something akin to a black hole. A symbol like Ω would mark a nexus as much alpha as it is omega, or perhaps the entrance to a negative that is neither a cancellation nor an inversion.
Imagine the illustration residing within an infinitely deep box. Now agitate the terms to impossible judders, making them recede, twist, spin, and enlarge. Swap them in and out at random. Now wrap the levels in upon one another and watch the sparks fly.
This is Poe at work in real time, working with and also within you, as you two live out the hoax together. Bringing down narrative itself may be his over-arching aim (“to abolish Literature, subvert the Press, and overturn the Government of Nouns and Pronouns”), but pity the fool who cannot interpret the scattered hieroglyphic artifacts that lead only to Poe’s absolutely novel and absolutely exclusive hoax solution. The problem, dear reader, lies before you.
I do not say that I have detected what he himself does not know of the inner thinking Poe. I say that we can get some interesting results in the scientific sense if we examine this framework as an informing basis and window into Poe’s thought, by looking at this short-lived but forever contingent phenomenon that I am attempting to describe as The Biblioscape. It is a self-cancelling whole: not persistent yet eternal — for a moment.
III. Jump or Fail
The Biblioscape is there/but it is not. It is there only if you can perceive it, but you must first be willing to accept the very possibility of its existence — a necessary leap of faith unto Poe. Without crossing this threshold, you leave your reading self first open to the hoax’s barbs, but then ultimately ignorant, angry, and confused.
“I Don’t believe A damned word of this yarn do you Sir [sic].” records that long-lost and now famous frustrate of Pym.2 He wants his money back, but Poe is already at the tippling house with Hans — the drunken villain.