Difficulties of Interpretation

The Poe hoax throws off literary interpretation (by Poe’s contemporaries and today’s professor-critic or ProfCrit hanger-on) by sheer centrifugal force. Glancing blows can only strike brief and disconnected sparks from the whirling multi- and intra/extra-dimensional vortex that is a self-contained monster of fiction. It is “grotesque” in our sense that it is freakish in appearance (outlandishly so), and somehow offensive in its insistence on freakishness. It nags.

Upon first reading, we

  • are put off
  • become defiant
  • feel that we must respond


  • realize that we are arguing with a text, endlessly reiterating the previous steps.

The hoax does not fit the ProfCrit pattern of faux scientific research paper-formatted disseminations of speculations reinforced by footnoted linkages to faux critical case law. The laws of logical proof in ProfCrit are much more lax than in the world of real Law: let’s call them “poetic” in their application. Poe has fun with this, of course, in Hans Phaall’s legal claim to payment:

I wonder, for my part, you do not perceive at once that the letter — the document — is intrinsically — is astronomically true — and that it carries upon its very face the evidence of its own authenticity.

Reaching the first steps is merely reflexive; reaching the final step is the most difficult, because it requires a certain intellectual “letting go” and openness to reconsideration and reinterpretation of our assumptions about Poe. What if this case law begins from flawed assumptions? The biases of dead professors must be tested and re-tested, not blindly carried on because “that’s all we’ve got” in discerning the truth about a real human named Poe who lived at a certain time. Think, and think again. This was a real, breathing man, not a ProfCrit figurine. There are plenty of other angles of view, other experiences, all having some validity.

The Approach

But how to approach this beast? A unifying conceptual framework does not (and cannot) exist, because each jeu d’esprit is instantiated uniquely, under different circumstances. For example, “The Man That Was Used Up” is a hoax upon previous hoaxes (and a key to their resolution) as well as an active hoax upon the current reader. It churns unceasingly.

Yet the always-embedded, implicit solution lurking underneath yet in plain sight (a Poe hoax trademark) engenders fierce resistance to logical rules of organization from the get-go. This fictive specie is unclassifiable. Poe’s term jeu d’esprit succinctly names the infinite yet fleeting nature of the hoax. The mot juste so crucial to Poe exists only at the Moment of Recognition, as does the turning point — The Bouleversement, always The Bouleversement — that defines a hoax and at last lets it declare itself out in the open. It’s all quite ephemeral.

In a Poe hoax of course, le futur (a plan and therefore a visualization) is always undercut by the arrival instead of l’aventir (what actually occurs). As the tavern sign says, “Free Beer!! ... tomorrow.”

There are so many, many mysteries in these hoaxes, yet they are all either undercut or declared ipso facto irresolvable by Poe’s narrators who, after all, are in the thick of it and therefore should know.

  • An anonymous narrator speaks from a place devoid of When and Where in “The Man That Was Used Up.” The solution to an overtly declared mystery (“who is the general?” elides into “who is used up?”) is tortuously, finally arrived at, yet it is both hollow and entirely unresolved in feel and tone. Something is lacking, but what?
  • The last chapters of Pym’s tale are lost and so we are forever robbed, a feeling somehow worse than discovering that pages have been left out of a physical book by the publishing house, the printer, or some malicious entity further up the authorial chain.
  • The narrator of “Used Up” tremblingly proclaims that “In especial, the slightest appearance of mystery — of any point I cannot exactly comprehend — puts me at once into a pitiable state of agitation.”
  • In “Hans Phaall,” among the crowd assembled “for purposes not specifically mentioned” ... “no one, not even the burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk had the slightest clue by which to unravel the mystery” of the moon-man’s dropped missive from Hans, a blatantly impossible object that bristles with verisimilitudinous detail gleaned at “the bookseller’s stall.”
  • Hans will explain “those dark and hideous mysteries which lie in the outer regions of the moon .... All this, and more — much more — would I most willingly detail. But, to be brief, I must have my reward.” Hans’s demand is of course denied.
  • Pym warns us quite definitively in Chapter X that “it is utterly useless to form conjectures where all is involved, and will, no doubt, remain for ever involved, in the most appalling and unfathomable mystery.” As Kafka’s policeman says, “gibs auf!”

Mysteries, blatant impossibilities, and insults all seem tightly conjoined in the hoaxes. What is going on?

Something or someone is repeatedly and quite intrusively interrupting our understanding and therefore our enjoyment of the text, and he is not shy about proclaiming these “egregious insults” to our faces.

I suggest that you open yourself to accepting a sideways interpretation, for that is the only way to deal with this double-writing trickster.