Poe's “Body Poetics”: Between “Theory” and Russian Formalism
Alexandra Urakova. Поэтика тела в рассказах Эдгара Аллана По [The Poetics of the Body in Edgar Allan Poe's Short Fiction]


Alexandra Urakova . Поэтика тела в рассказах Эдгара Аллана По [The Poetics of the Body in Edgar Allan Poe's Short Fiction] . Moscow : A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature , 2009 . 252 pp .

This book has two “protagonists”: Edgar Allan Poe and “theory.” Literary theory arrived late to Russia and became widespread only ten years ago or so, by which time Terry Eagleton had proclaimed Western literary criticism to be “after theory.” Still, Russian studies undertaken with real knowledge of “theory” are very few; some supposedly theoretical works referred to as “phenomenological” are actually quite traditional in thought and method. But such is not the case with this contribution by Alexandra Urakova. She is deeply in love with the sophisticated ideas of Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Genette, and others. And love brings knowledge. Urakova's starting point is a phenomenological preoccupation with le corps propre, the body-subject that “can make itself known contrary to the notions produced by the culture”[11; all translations are mine]. Hence her semiotic approach differs in general from Judith Butler’s, which emphasizes the hidden significance of politics, as well as from Peter Brooks’s, which investigates mostly the sexual body. She chooses to follow Jean Starobinski and focus on the body in its relation to writing. Also following Roland Barthes, Urakova aims to show the function of the body in the construction of narrative. Not narratological in the proper sense (though developed with the diegetic nature of the texts in mind), her study deals with “narrative bodies” displaying the power and limits of representation. [See Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993); Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993); Jean Starobinski, “L’Echelle des températures: Lecture du corps dans Madame Bovary,” in Le Temps de la réflexion (Paris: Gallimard, 1980); and Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974)].

From the traditional point of view, Poe is an unsuitable subject for this kind of critical inquiry. His reputation as a “spiritual writer” (Daniel Hoffman), as “the patron saint of French symbolists” (Scott Peeples), deters a consideration of his prose in corporeal terms. [See Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1998), 256; and Scott Peeples, The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004), 436).] Arguing the opposite, Urakova starts with the assumption made by Dostoevsky about corporeality as a characteristic feature of the fantastic in Poe's prose. Her idea is this. The bodily experience deforming the poetical structure of the text explains the suggestive quality: “By furnishing the blocks of symbolization” the body produces the effect of “disturbing materiality” in the tales [18]. Urakova describes the experience as “displaced” or “suppressed,” since Poe's writing takes the reader away from the body. The suppressed bodily experience striving toward self-expression is believed “to charge” the narrative with energy, to provoke a special kind of interaction between the author and the narrator, the author and the reader [12]. Thus through the representation of bodily experience the structural features of Poe's prose are displayed.

In her introduction, Urakova declares that she studies not “body politics” but “body poetics”[29]. In contrast with many poststructuralist approaches that give equal treatment to fictional and nonfictional texts, she aims to understand the “aesthetic laws of Poe's prose.” This attention to the literary text as it is sounds similar to Russian formalism, but the replacement of “textual poetics” by “body poetics” signals a shift in method, in which the aesthetic laws are considered to be the laws of representation. The main concept Urakova relies upon is the gap between “what is narrated and what is suppressed, told and silenced”[239]. Here Urakova builds on the work of the notable Russian cultural studies specialist Sergey Zenkin, who, taking into account Juri Lotman's differentiation between the “continuous” and the “discreet,” describes the gap between the “continuous” bodily experience and the “discreet” nature of the text. Urakova explores the gaps in Poe's fiction between the language clichés originating in different discourses of nineteenth-century America (critical, scientific, medical, reformist, poetic, autobiographic, sensational, gothic, and so on) and the bodily experience they express.

The three parts of Urakova's book are devoted, respectively, to the body in the field of vision (“outer body”), to the collapse of the body, and to the expression of perception (“inner body”) in Poe's tales. The concepts of “inner” and “outer” body are taken from Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote of the inner body as the “heavy flesh,” a complex of “sensations, physical needs and desires,” and of the outer body as the object demanding the other person's “constructing activity”[30]. The field of exploration includes some tales central to the Poe canon and some less well known; Urakova does not organize the tales chronologically because her analysis focuses not on the evolution but rather on the essence of Poe's prose structure. The tales discussed in detail are (in order of appearance in the book) “The Man of the Crowd,”“The Domain of Arnheim,”“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,”“Ligeia,”“The Gold-Bug,”“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,”“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,”“The Oval Portrait,”“The Assignation,”“The Fall of the House of Usher,”“Berenice,”“The Man That Was Used Up,”“Loss of Breath,”“Never Bet the Devil Your Head,”“A Predicament,”“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,”“William Wilson,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,”“The Cask of Amontillado,”“The Premature Burial,”“The Black Cat,”“The Tell-Tale Heart,”“The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Purloined Letter.”

The chapters demonstrate poststructuralist logic, as they include a cluster of fragments, each presenting a kind of a plot inspired by Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Iampolsky, Gérard Genette, and other interpreters. Fourteen fragments of the first chapter explore the “deconstruction” of the “outer” body. In many of Poe's tales, this outer body is broken into fragments, elements, and constituents; Poe assembles it anew, displaying his love of combinations, the preference he gives to fancy as defined by Coleridge. Thus the body viewed is integrated into the narrative process. Urakova discusses other textualizations of the body in Poe, such as the narrator-flâneur reading the old man in “The Man of the Crowd,” Auguste Dupin translating the body into icon in “The Oval Portrait,” and narrators attaching semiotic meaning to corporeal fragments (“Berenice”) or playfully substituting body for text (“The Man That Was Used Up”). The gaze of the narrator can apply cultural codes of the visionary arts to the body (“The Assignation”) or play anamorphic tricks with it (“Ligeia”) while recreating the body, making the corporeal a verbal construct. As Urakova argues, Poe realizes and underlines the gap between body representation and bodily experience. Echoing Elaine Scarry's claim that physical pain destroys language, Urakova shows that the body resists total semiotization. The assumption that the body is unreadable “by nature”[105] sounds very much like Lacanian resistance of the Real to symbolization. Urakova uses the Lacanian term “trauma” to describe a situation in which the body escapes the narrator's control.

The second chapter discusses such cases in connection with distinct features of Poe's tales. Their “single effect” is reinforced by their often abrupt endings, as in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,”“Ligeia,” and “William Wilson,” which manifest the narrative rupture. The rhetorical strategies borrowed from different recognizable discourses fail when the narrator feels visual and verbal shock at the sight of the collapsing body. The longing for the realm “unmediated by language”[241] thus proves to be futile. The narrator, forced to interrupt his story, gives up words. That is why all the efforts of other writers to continue Poe's stories are unsuccessful, as Urakova argues in her conclusion. She sees Poe sequels by Jules Verne and H. P. Lovecraft as the effect of the “contagious” quality that the author ascribes to Poe's fiction.

The third chapter takes up “corporeal” metaphors, of which “contagiousness” is the most impressive. The author examines the “inner body” Poe renders with the help of electric, meteorological, mechanistic metaphors typical of bodily descriptions in contemporary physiology and sensational literature. In the vein of Susan Sontag, she examines “illness as a metaphor,” applying that concept to “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the condition of the ill body is projected on the narrative structure of the tale. What results are some very shrewd insights into the metaphorical structure of the “masque” based on a Lacanian understanding of the uncanny as the conjunction of vacuum and plenitudo[195]. As for “contagiousness,” it is analyzed as the characteristic feature of the narrative in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the narrator is “infected” with nervous excitement. In “The Premature Burial” the reader is “infected” with fear of being buried alive. In these and other tales, the narrative “functions as the mediator among the bodily experience of the author, the narrator and the reader”[219–20].

In her conclusion, Urakova suggests that Poe used this effect to perpetrate revenge on American readers for their pragmatic views on literature. She retells the story of “The Purloined Letter,” reproducing a dialogue among Poe and the “high priests of theory”—Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Barbara Johnson—who followed the structure of the tale in their debates and therefore were “infected” by it. Poe appears as one of them—not just a writer, through whom “Rousseau led to Baudrillard” in Julian Barnes's words, but their predecessor in discursive play, constantly disclosing the unreliability of verbal structures [see Barnes, England, England (London: Random House, 1998), 53].

The Poetics of the Body in Edgar Allan Poe's Short Fiction successfully promotes literary theory, providing a good example of modern Russian criticism. But its main achievement is a fresh look at Poe not as an early adherent of literary theory but as creator of a most unusual corporeal world that bewitches his readers.