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THE EMERGENCE OF A POSTCOLONIAL AMERICAN GOTHIC
ROBERT C. SCHACHEL
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Robert C. Schachel
To my father
I thank my committee chair and mentor, Dr. David Leverenz, for all of his
encouragement, support, insight, and academic guidance over the past eleven years.
Secondly, I thank my committee cochair Dr. Terry Harpold for his incitement,
enthusiasm, and assistance with my studies of Poe, Lovecraft, Irving, and my interests in
all things generally considered weird, marginal, and odd. I would also like to thank
Professors Jim Paxson and Sylvie Blum for their participation on my committee and the
helpful feedback they provided.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jessica Magnani for all of her help in getting the
details of this project finished, as well as for bringing me to the Waldo train station at all
hours of the night. I thank Charles Poff for his continually reminding me that I needed to
get this done and encouraging me to do so on a daily basis, as well as for being both a
best friend and colleague. Drs. Dale Bauer, Dana Nelson, and O. R. Dathorne also
deserve my thanks for their guidance, patience, and encouragement during the genesis of
this project while I was at the University of Kentucky. Moreover, I thank Drs. Harold
Kolb, Eric Lott, and Cynthia Wall for imparting their insight and experience during my
time at the University of Virgina.
This project would never have been possible without the foundation that my high
school English teachers provided for me, and so I would like to offer my gratitude for all
of their (often unsung) dedication and effort as well-Mr. Fred Mashburn, Mrs. Elizabeth
Mashburn, Ms. Tina Garofalo, Mrs. Barbara Martin, and the late Mrs. Sandra Stroup.
Lastly, I thank my family-specifically my father, Robert F. Schachel for all of his
love and support. I would also like to thank my uncle, John Schachel and my cousin
John "Rabbit" Schachel for their encouragement during this process. In addition, Davis
"Little Dog" Schachel also has my love and gratitude for keeping me company all
through the night as I was working on the final chapters. My sister and her husband,
Patricia and Jamie Tozzi also have my thanks, as does my nephew, Chris, who helped
remind me there were things more important than this document. Lastly, I would like to
thank my Grandmother, Patricia Hughes, and my aunt, Pat Lingham, for helping me
remember the encouragement my mom provided for me throughout my academic career.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iv
ABSTRAC T ...................... .................................. ........... .... ............ viii
1 INTRODUCTION: THE RELENTLESS WORKING OUT OF AN
A N CE STR A L CU R SE ..................................................... ................................... 1
N o te s ...................................... ..................................................... 1 5
2 TERRA INCOGNITA: IRVING'S SKETCHES OF HAUNTING...........................17
N o te s ...................................... ..................................................... 5 0
3 THE BRINK OF ETERNITY: POE, GEOGRAPHY, AND ANTARCTIC
A B JEC TIO N ..................................... .................................. .......... 53
N o te s ...................................... ..................................................... 9 2
4 TEXTUAL PROJECTIONS: HAWTHORNE AND NEW ENGLAND
M A TE R IA L H IST O R Y ...................................................................... ..................95
N o te s ................... .... ........ ............... ................................. 1 2 2
5 REPOSSESING HISTORY: HAWTHORNE'S HOUSES AND
GEN TLEM AN 'S GOTH IC ......... ................. ......... .................. ............... 125
N o te s ................... .... ........ ............... ................................. 1 5 6
6 BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: ONEIRIC OBLIVION IN THE
NEW YORK OF MELVILLE'S PIERRE ....... ..................158
N o te s ................... .... ........ ......... ......................... ................ 1 8 5
7 THE AEON-SILENT MAZE OF UNHUMAN MASONRY: LOVECRAFT'S
OTHER PLA CES .......................... .......... .. .. .. ......... ........ 188
N o te s ....................................................... ................... ................ 2 2 9
W ORKS CITED .................................. ................ ...............233
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ........................................... ...........................................245
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
THE EMERGENCE OF A POSTCOLONIAL AMERICAN GOTHIC
Robert C. Schachel
Chair: David Leverenz
Cochair: Terry Harpold
Major Department: English
This study traces a specific psychological thread through the works of Washington
Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and H. P. Lovecraft to
reveal one particular source of America's emergent gothic literature. Working within a
Lacanian psychoanalytical framework that provides a point of engagement with
narratives of American postcolonial experiences, the arc of this study moves through the
Nineteenth Century, from Irving to Lovecraft, focusing on the psychological angst of
America's condition as an emerging postcolonial nation.
Chapter Two examines the seeds of American gothic writing by looking at Irving's
most famous stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in their
original context of The ,V\lci lh Book of Geoffrey Crayon. Irving's treatment of the
landscape lays the foundation for what Victoria Nelson terms a "psychotopography" of a
Chapter Three considers this foundation taken to its abstract extreme in the tales of
Edgar Allan Poe, culminating with a look at his novel, The Narrative ofArthur Gordon
Pym. Poe employs word play and geographical abstraction to manifest the expression of
a conflicted postcolonial personal self-narrativization.
Chapter Four analyzes the manner in which Nathaniel Hawthorne confronts the
intersection of both his personal and national genealogies. Through his short fiction such
as "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "Alice Doane's Appeal," and "The Custom House"
introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne obscures the boundaries between historical,
psychological, and fictional narrative.
Chapter Five continues to examine Hawthorne's psychotopography in his "Legends
of the Province House" and The House of the Seven Gables. One sees how Hawthorne
textually wanders through the history of America, finding a fragmented, conflicted, and
gothic-influenced collection of ambivalent signification.
Chapter Six examines the psychotopography of an abstracted and unnamed New
York as Melville presents it in his novel Pierre. Melville uses New York City as a
geographical topos as he reconceptualizes the patricidal narrative on the level of an
imagined individual history.
Chapter Seven delves into the serpiginous psychotopography of H. P. Lovecraft's
"Cthulhu Mythos" showing how through the body of his tales he attacks history and
postcolonial significations. Building on the psychotopographies of his literary
predecessors, he culminates the work begun by Irving and truly modernizes the American
INTRODUCTION: THE RELENTLESS WORKING OUT
OF AN ANCESTRAL CURSE
Any approach to analyzing American Gothic has, at its core, a problem of
definition. Theresa Goddu points out, "Just as gothic unsettles the idea of America, the
modifier American destabilizes understandings of the gothic" (4). Problematic
tautologies such as this one fill criticism of the genre. While they highlight a truth, they
rarely move beyond describing the general "gothicness" of the Gothic. Nevertheless, the
veracity in such observations provides a reasonable base from which one can introduce a
more specific analysis of the genre. Leslie Fiedler famously asserted that the place of the
Gothic is, "of course, the world of dreams and of the repressed guilts and fears that
motivate them" (140). Perhaps the best general observation of Gothic classification
comes from Theresa Goddu's book, Gothic America:
Despite its formulaic and conventional nature, despite its easily listed elements and
effects-haunted houses, evil villains, ghosts, gloomy landscapes, madness, terror,
suspense, horror-the gothic's parameters and 'essence' remain unclear. While
easy classification seems to imply a definitional stability, the gothic genre is
extremely mutable. Cobbled together of many different forms and obsessed with
transgressing boundaries, it represents itself not as stable but as generically impure.
The concepts of impurity and instability imply a continuing rift between the ideal and the
actual, between perception and reality, and the working definitions of the Gothic from
which this study proceeds begin at this point.
The tropes listed by Goddu are commonly known and, as she points out, to define
the Gothic using them as a standard reifies simple dichotomies the genre itself attempts to
undermine. Therefore, one should approach such a subjective term by beginning with the
subject. Freud's concept of projection, as he describes it in Totem and Taboo (1913),
offers a subject-centered explanation for feelings of haunting:
The [repressed, unconscious] hostility [of the subject] ... is ejected from internal
perception into the external world, and thus detached from [the subject] and pushed
on to someone else. It is no longer true that they are rejoicing to be rid of the dead
man; on the contrary, they are mourning for him; but, strange to say, he has turned
into a wicked demon ready to gloat over their misfortunes and eager to kill them.
Freud then applies his term to the Oedipal conflict, extrapolating that the idea and
presence of the father becomes more powerful and influential after his death (178). The
subject's repression of his desire for the sole affections of the mother as a result of the
presence of the father therefore initiates an emergence of the superego to balance the id,
with the ego itself as gatekeeper of substitution.
Yet in "The Uncanny" (1919), Freud examines the gap left by this repression in
terms of aesthetics, discussing the emotional expression of the return of the repressed as
belonging to "all that arouses dread and creeping horror" (122). Though Freud cannot
fully define the sources of the dread-he can only assume from symptoms-in this essay
he lays the groundwork from which Lacanian psychoanalysis provides a structure for
tracing individual threads of haunting within the Gothic. Freud asserts, "an uncanny
effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and
reality, such as when something we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before
us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of the thing
it symbolizes" (152). Building upon Freud's observations with a Lacanian approach, one
sees how the Uncanny occurs during a slippage of signification-since as Danielle
Bergeron sums up Lacan's notion of the function of language, "the signifier is the writing
of a loss establishing the subject as a real, a position determined by the Other" ("The
Signifier" 61). That "loss"-the inaugural event during which the imposition of the
paternal metaphor occurs-instills that "the function of the father is to represent the law
of the signifier and its primacy for the human subject" (Cantin 41). Human
subjectivity-an identity, albeit one founded on alienation-begins with the prescription
of language. That language remains anchored in the paternal metaphor, and prevents the
chain of signification from unraveling.1
Though the magnification of the Oedipal conflict from a subject to a nation has its
problems, postcolonial critics often refer to colonizing countries or cultures in such terms.
Such an analysis invites dangerous generalizations and again sets up dichotomies that
oversimplify conflicts in history. For example, stating that America overthrew the
paternalistic presence of Britain overlooks the emerging nation's internal conflicts of
slavery, gender, and western expansion. Narrowing that statement to a specific viewpoint
of certain writers of an emerging American nation who sought to speak on behalf of a
broader American audience restricts such historical generalizations. Writers like Brown,
Irving, Poe, Emerson, and Hawthorne arguably operated within an Oedipal framework.
Each wrestled with the questions of what an American literature should be. Lawrence
Buell points out the "possible hypocrisy" and problematic simplification of viewing
American literature as "postcolonial rather than proto-imperial" (411). Yet Charles
Brockden Brown argues at the start of Edgar Huntly (1799), "That new springs of action,
and new motives to curiosity should operate; that the field of investigation, opened to us
by our own country, should differ essentially from those which exist in Europe, may
readily be conceived" (641, emphasis added). Declarations such as this one suggest that
American authors wrestled with the idea of American identity as a nation after the
Revolution, and that the crisis indeed had Oedipal characteristics, with the shadow of a
paternalistic England embodying the role of the Other.
Lawrence Buell observes that one mark of postcolonialism in American
Renaissance writing is "the expectation that artists be responsible agents for achieving
national liberation, which in turn bespeaks a non-specialized conception of art and an
ambivalence toward aestheticism that threatens to produce schizophrenia" (429).2
Indeed, whereas a first generation writer like Washington Irving could frame his tales
with a humorous veneer, second-generation writers like Poe and Hawthorne could no
longer contain the personal and national neurosis that a break with a paternal historical
narrative had induced. If, as Lacan famously stated, "the unconscious is the discourse of
the Other" ("Seminar" 32), and if, as Freud asserts, the uncanny is one of many potential
discourses of the unconscious, then in the emerging American Gothic one can trace a
thread of the uncanny to reveal the pressures this group of writers sought to express.
Moreover, one sees how the presence of historical objects, including the American
landscape itself, serves as a conduit for both alienation as well as a means of expressing
In tracing that thread, one must take into account the effect a postcolonial literature
has on its own critical analysis. Goddu rightly observes, "Whether the American gothic
is subsumed into the British, excised from the tradition, or relegated to a subsidiary role,
The British paradigm remains securely in place. By marginalizing the American gothic,
both American and gothic studies limit its challenge to critical consensus" (162). Hence,
one should be careful to recognize the emergence of American Gothic as both a genre of
itself as well as one that resisted pressures from a European counterpart. In so doing, one
may recognize that while both may have similar (if not the same) kernels of origin, they
encompass an expression of wholly different threads of literary and cultural neuroses.
This study has excluded an exploration of Charles Brockden Brown, for example,
because of his deliberate writing against the British Gothic, of which the subtitle of
Wieland-An American Tale-appears as a symptom. The dichotomy established by
Brown's grudgingly transplanted Gothic remains too teleological to reflect fully and
naturally the anxieties of a young nation. In contrast, writers like Poe, Hawthorne, and
Melville did not write against postcolonial pressures in a dichotomous fashion that
affirmed the authority of Britain or Europe by openly denying it. In fact, by the time Poe
began publishing, such a dichotomy would be ineffective, as regional tensions and
histories began to exert their own pressures upon the American authorial subject. Poe,
for example, found grand dichotomies to be both didactic and insufficient to express the
American character. This view ironically put him at odds with the Transcendentalists,
whose definitions were too distinct to admit the Gothic as a form of Transcendentalism.
As a result, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville recognized the roots of their
alienation-both personal and national. Rather than writing in direct opposition to those
roots, which would leave the primary alienating structures intact, these writers sought
ways in which to hollow out, frustrate, or re-encode the signifiers of those structures.
Signification necessarily relies on history as Lacan points out, "the signifier, by its very
nature, always anticipates meaning by deploying its dimension in some sense before it"
while forming meaning retrospectively as the chain unfolds from its anchor ("Instance"
145). The writers of the American Renaissance faced a particular problem-how does
one redirect a system of signification when one's environment remains filled with
signifiers of an alienating colonial past?
In order to undermine those signifiers, one must in some way destabilize the history
that supports them. The Young America Movement simply modeled their attempts at
founding a national literature after European precursors. The Hudson River School of
painting, in contrast, began with the one thing America had that England did not-the
American landscape. This concept, termed by Myra Jehlen the "American Incarnation"
(3), appears as an attempt to reanchor the American narrative to a shared idea without the
ghost of a paternal British Other. Washington Irving comes close to achieving that task
by looking to the Dutch as an alternate identity anchor in his writing, thereby
undermining British authority on American soil. Yet he must still acknowledge both the
alienation and the conflicts the ghosts of British authority stir in a new American
By the time of the American Renaissance, a second generation of writers raised on
Irving's tales could no longer look to the promise of a new land or an alternate anchor for
the chain of the nations narrative. Instead, examining that chain highlighted multiple
narratives of America, illustrated a foreclosure of the American ideal, and led those
writers to narrativize themselves as part of the emerging history of the young nation.
Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville had no choice but to seek to push the limits of what they
saw as their prescribed identities, already unfolded for them as an incipient history.
Aware of their self-narrativization, they sought to express it, perhaps even to catch up to
it, by excavating the cores of their own subjectivity. Those narratives were founded on
signifiers of a material history-physical objects such as a portrait, a house, or a place-
that served as complex, identifying, and alienating mirrors for both the author as well as
the nation. For Poe it was geography; for Hawthorne it was the houses and land of his
Puritan ancestors; for Melville, it was the anonymity of the New York cityscape. For
Lovecraft, it was the eldritch ruins of a prehuman civilization. Each of these authors
pushes the limits of significance to attack their own subjectivity using the very presence
of the past that helps to determine it.
That physical objects play a crucial psychological role in the construction of
subjectivity for these authors works well, given the implied material underpinnings of the
Lacanian Real. The dimensional mass of the object-a desk or a house for example-
asserts a narrative that existed before the subject, and potentially will exist after it. At the
same time, it occupies a place in the present, acting as a conduit of history for the subject,
bringing him or her in contact-physical contact-with a narrative that denies their
primacy. Simultaneously it manifests and threatens the boundaries of the chronology that
sustains the subject. For an author like Poe, trying to regress to the Real in order to create
a new, unimposing chain ultimately leads him to drift at the edge of the world.
Hawthorne finds he must negotiate and reinscribe himself onto the signifiers of his past
on his own terms to sustain his identity. Melville, on the other hand, realizes the
impossibility of such a task, illustrating that to lose one's subjectivity is simply to
obliterate oneself in the process, to become absorbed as part of the object. All three of
these author's personal narratives reflect larger American anxieties about its postcolonial
By the Twentieth Century, H. P. Lovecraft weaves that thread into a transhistorical
tapestry of alterity. He founds a mythology that manifests the Real as a paraphysical
presence that exists as an integral part of both the postcolonial American Landscape and
the postcolonial American narrative. In fact, he builds the "Cthulhu Mythos" on the
foundations of Hawthorne's Salem and Boston, Melville's New York, and Poe's
Antarctic. In doing so, he creates an alternative symbolic that casts both America and
England as places that are insignificant in the grand narrative of cosmic time.
Lovecraft's consummation of a project begun by Irving a hundred and twenty years
earlier ushers the Gothic from the postcolonial to the modern at a time when the globe
would become increasingly smaller between the two world wars. Working within a
Lacanian psychoanalytical framework that provides a point of engagement with
narratives of American postcolonial experiences, the arc of this study moves through the
Nineteenth Century, from Washington Irving to H. P. Lovecraft, focusing on the
psychological angst of America's condition as an emerging postcolonial nation.
Chapter Two, "Terra Incognita: Irving's Sketches of Haunting," examines the seeds
of American Gothic writing by looking at Irving's most famous stories, "Rip Van
Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in their original context of Irving's The
,khe.II h Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). Reading the nested narration of
what have come to be two of America's favorite tales highlights the postcolonial
anxieties of the young American nation. Irving narrativizes them in order to minimize
the alienation of breaking with the history of a paternal Britain, stemming it with a
lighthearted yet significant brush with uncanny edges of abjection. In so doing, he
refocuses the anchor of American national identity in the topography of America itself,
using the Dutch History of New York as a proxy paternal culture. Irving couches these
tales in Crayon's newly-postcolonial viewpoint, giving the narration a nationalistic
import. As a result, Sleepy Hollow and the Kaatskill Mountains come to represent more
than just setting; they provide a legitimizing topography that asserts a cultural history of
the landscape while obscuring that landscape's colonial past. Consequently, Irving
transforms the topography into a psychotopography-an American mythos that reanchors
young America's national narrative to landscape that predates British colonial rule while
using the Dutch as a safety line.
The act does not completely eliminate the uncanny alienation brought on by a break
with a paternal signifier, as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" demonstrates, but it does
temper the effect enough so that one can weather the feeling with a few exaggerated
nervous laughs until it passes. Moreover, reanchoring (or as Irving puts it,
"remembering") the nation's narrative with its physical landscape sets in motion not only
a national mythos, but also a conflict of regional signifiers within the nation, personified
by the New England character of Ichabod Crane and the New York presence of Brom
Bones. These conflicts, though treated in a humorous style by Irving, eventually amplify
to become anxieties in a second generation of American writers, as exemplified by Edgar
Chapter Three, "The Brink of Eternity: Poe, Geography, and Antarctic Abjection,"
explores the how the geography of antebellum America affected Edgar Allan Poe on the
level of personal narrativization. Among a second generation of American writers, the
post-colonial status of the emergent nation led to conflicting self-perceptions between the
North and the South. In Poe, whose multiple personal narratives were prescriptively
anchored in these conflicting and multiple geographies, one sees the expression of and
attempt to escape from the anxieties generated by systems of geographical signification.
On a personal level, Poe experiences the effects of a postcolonial psychology, and seeks
to undermine the signifying chain that enables their perpetuation. Examining tales such
as "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), "A Descent into the Maelstrom" (1841), and "The Imp
of the Perverse" (1845), the chapter shows how Poe folds language over itself, initiating a
return to the Lacanian Real-a return to the repressed kernel of subjectivity-in an effort
to attack the prescriptive personal narratives which he could not fulfill and which
continually alienated him.
Unlike Irving, Poe does not seek a new anchor for a national narrative. Rather, he
simply sought a line of flight from his own personal narrativization, which for him
confirmed the impossibility of viewing the geography of young America as anything but
foreclosed. In The Narrative ofArthur Gordon Pym (1837, 1838) and "MS. Found in a
Bottle" (1833), Poe pushes his writing from the schizophrenic to the paranoiac by means
of the abject in order to produce a "schizonoiac" expression of his frustrated identity.
Using the anti-Oedipal models of Deleuze and Guattari to highlight Poe's methods of
attacking the determinism of the Symbolic chain, this chapter shows how he adopts the
Antarctic as both an anti-geography and an anti-signifier, establishing an abject
geography that accelerates narrative and pushes it to its representational limit.
Chapter Four, "Textual Projections: Hawthorne and New England Material
History," analyzes the manner in which Nathaniel Hawthorne confronts the intersection
of both his personal and national genealogies. Like Poe, Hawthorne understood the
rupture inherent in imagining the promise of America as an autonomous new Eden. This
chapter investigates the subtle ways in which Hawthorne sought to narrativize himself as
part of an unfolding history of both Salem and a young America that he perceived as
being prescriptively incipient rather than fully fated or totally unformulated. The
American rejection of British and European authority left Hawthorne to look to his
autocratic Puritan ancestors-whose sin of the Salem Witch Trials marked them as
hauntingly unfit anchors for subjectivity yet ever present in the physical environment of
Salem and Boston. Hawthorne negotiates this ambivalent historical terrain though a
narrativizing of both the material landscape and himself as a presence in that landscape.
Using as the base of that narrative the physical objects themselves-the Salem
Custom House, the scarlet piece of cloth, Gallows Hill, the Province House, and the Old
South Church-Hawthorne obscures the boundaries of historical, psychological, and
fictional narrative. He sets up his own uncanny psychotopography that pressures, but
does not entirely threaten, subjectivity. Hawthorne's "Custom House" introduction to
The Scarlet Letter (1850), "Alice Doane's Appeal" (1835), and "My Kinsman, Major
Molineux" (1832) in particular manifest his earlier expressions of those pressures,
establishing a structure of counter-memory that would later become "The Legends of the
Province House" (1838) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
Chapter Five, "Repossessing History: Hawthorne's Houses and Gentleman's
Gothic," continues to examine Hawthorne's psychotopography in two specific texts, "The
Legends of the Province House" (1838) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
Building on the arguments in Chapter Four of this study, Chapter Five shows how
Hawthorne establishes a diegetic, non-chronological, ambivalent geography throughout
his texts. One sees how Hawthorne textually wanders through the history of America,
seeking out a typology to account for both a personal and national narrative, instead
finding only fragmentary events of ambivalent signification. In "The Legends of the
Province House," Hawthorne thematically continues where he left off with "My
Kinsman, Major Molineux," bringing the Boston wanderer into the Province House and
establishing it as a heterotopic space that disrupts a unity of narrative while acting as a
conduit for history. The effect essentially turns history into legend, using material
heirlooms inside the house such as Esther Dudley's mirror, Edward Randolph's portrait,
and the main staircase and front door of the house itself. As Irving worked with the
physical landscape of the Kaatskills, so Hawthorne works with the material attributes of
his houses, but with a greater degree of irresolution and uncertainty.
Though not abject, the spaces of both the Province House and the House of the
Seven Gables remain haunted. The reader experiences the pressures and thrill of a ghost
story, yet never fully feels threatened by Hawthorne's ghosts. Instead, their presence,
embedded in the presence of the houses themselves, works through a narrative framing
that safeguards the reader while Hawthorne copes with the narratives that comprise both
his subjectivity and that of his nation. As a result, the narratives become open to
subjective input from all three diegetic levels-the reader, Hawthorne, and the narrator.
Opening up these houses to his audience, Hawthorne demonstrates how the American
Gothic Romance serves as an ambivalent environment in which to traverse a conflicted
Chapter Six, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Oneiric Oblivion in the New York
of Melville's Pierre," considers the psychotopography of an abstracted and unnamed
New York as Melville presents it in his 1852 novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Melville
reconceptualizes a patricidal narrative on the level of an imagined individual (and
somewhat personal) history. In doing so, he uncannily structures the arc of that narrative
in a way that is homologous with Lacanian psychology, anticipating or at least refracting
elements of Kristeva's abject in the disjunctive subjectivity of the title character of the
novel. Consequently, the narrative shift from the pastoral Saddle Meadows to the
labyrinthine cityscape of New York manifests almost allegorically a crisis inherent in
such a break with paternal history. In Lacanian terms, Pierre expresses a grammatical
ordering of the subject from which madness or subjective abeyance remain the only
means of escape.
The geographically abstruse Church of the Apostles and its surrounding New York
City become psychotopographies of erasure surrounding Pierre Glendinning with
oubliers instead of souvenirs. Melville presents the city as a structured but hollow oneiric
signifier, one that becomes constructed from within his title character's own subjectivity
as it begins to unravel to its foundations and echoing Pierre's self-conscious frustrations
as it approaches the abject and oblivion.
Finally, Chapter Seven, "The Aeon-Silent Maze of Unhuman Masonry: Lovecraft's
Other Places," delves into the serpiginous psychotopography of the "Cthulhu Mythos."
Also considering himself an "outsider" like Poe and Hawthorne before him, Lovecraft
faced a paradoxical self-narrativization. He viewed himself in a genealogical fashion,
feeling more of a fraternal rather than a paternal relationship with his literary
predecessors. Yet being a generation removed from the American Renaissance (born one
year before Melville's death), Lovecraft also felt chronologically misplaced. He attacks
the teleology inherent in genealogical thinking by hollowing it out. Through his tales, he
builds on the psychotopographies created by both Hawthorne and Poe, eventually
establishing a mythic parageography of northeastern America that excavates the Oedipal
dynamics and significations attached to postcolonial New England by exaggerating the
timeline on which it bases its history.
Attacking both history and postcolonial significations in this manner, Lovecraft
faces a complex task. Through the body of his tales, one sees how he establishes a
diegetic geography similar to the one Hawthorne set up and then pushes it much farther
into the grotesque. He rejected the literary influences of his time-Realism and
Naturalism-feeling that the former was both too elitist and ordinary and that the latter
was too deterministic. Instead, he creates a geography of the paraphysical; his demons
are horribly real but not supernatural, while his materials are all grounded in a material or
scientific reality. In tales such as "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927), "The
Outsider" (1921), "The Shunned House" (1924), "Pickman's Model" (1926), "The
Dreams in the Witch House" (1932), and "At the Mountains of Madness" (1931),
Lovecraft formulates his psychotypography as multidimensional. He creates an entire
subterranean landscape that runs underneath those established by Irving, Poe, Hawthorne,
and Melville. In so doing, he supports the existence of that geography, but destabilizes
further its significance. Whereas in Irving and Hawthorne the paternal returns as a
ghost, in Lovecraft the paternal comes back as a physically rotting corpse, or a pre-
These expressions give rise to a very specific thread of American Gothic that
substantiates the scene of a return to the Real. Eric Savoy observes that "it is the very
struggle to give the Real a language that singularly shapes the American Gothic as
broadly symptomatic of cultural restlessness" (169). Yet Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville
do not engage the Real simply to express their alienation. Rather, they strain towards it
in an attempt to shake off identities founded on a prescribed ideal that has already been
foreclosed. They do not attempt to articulate the Real as much as they strive to generate a
new symbolic from it, approaching the abject via the uncanny. As Deleuze and Guattari
The repulsion of these machines, as found in the paranoiac machine of primary
repression, gave way to an attraction in the miraculating machine. But the
opposition between attraction and repulsion persists. It would seem that a genuine
reconciliation of the two can take place only on the level of a new machine,
functioning as "the return of the repressed." (Anti-Oedipus 17)
Hence, a failed reterritorialization in the Real results in the uncanny or the abject,
reflecting to varying degrees an eruption of the unconscious that threatens subjectivity
and stresses its seams. As a result, one thread of the American Gothic exists as the
expression of this continual and sustained assault on the subject in order to reshape it-a
literary articulation of the threat history continually poses to the precarious state of early
1. In referencing the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real as interconnected registers of
psychic life, this study requires some clarification of terms. Lacan refers to the Symbolic
as a linguistic dimension that makes intersubjectivity possible (Dylan Evans 201). Of
course, only after an initiation to the symbolic though the imposition of the paternal
metaphor can subjectivity emerge as a result of signification. Yet, the Symbolic order is
not limited to language. "The Symbolic is also the realm of radical alterity which Lacan
refers to as the OTHER," and the unconscious speaks for this alterity. The symbolic not
only precipitates subjectivity, it also "is determinant of subjectivity" (202-203).
The Imaginary exists as a second register, often counterbalanced by the Symbolic in
tension against the Real, in which the subject forms and sustains a conception of himself
a whole, a gestalt, with concepts of internal and external experience. "The principal
illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and
above all, similarity" (82). Because the Imaginary is essentially a realm of ideal, it is also
a register of alienation and therefore also initiates desire and lack that becomes
articulated in the Symbolic. The Real, against which the previous two registers sustain
subjectivity, "emerges as that which is outside language and inassimilable to
symbolization (159). It is a psychic entelechy akin to a neo-natal state shattered by the
intrusion of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, and though it has "a character of
impossibility," the Real also encompasses an external reality, "a material substrate which
exists in itself, independently of any observer" (160). It is extra-symbolic, ante-symbolic,
and para-imaginary. Because the Real resists signification, it also threatens subjectivity.
Though one cannot, according to Lacan, regress to the Real from the Symbolic, one can
approach it. Pushing towards the Real however begins to break down borders between
subject and object, and thus can initiate what Kristeva terms abject-a heightened state of
threatened or disintegrating subjectivity through slippage in signification and material
2. As Buell astutely points out, "On the one hand, 'postcolonial' is from the start an
objectionably reductive term since it coerces us to look at everything within the
indigenous cultural field as old-world driven. On the other hand, American culture can
be said to remain at least vestigially postcolonial as long as Americans are impressed by
the sound of an educated British Accent-or (to take a more pertinent example) as long
as D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature remains an iconic text for
American literary studies" (434).
TERRA INCOGNITA: IRVING'S SKETCHES OF HAUNTING
To speak of Washington Irving's status as a great American gothic writer among
scholars of American literature invites contention. That he penned many gothic tales
cannot be disputed, but critics consider his two most famous contributions to the
American canon, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," to be too
satirical or lightly told to be considered truly gothic. In part, those critics must be
correct-the tales do not follow in the traditional European model established by Walpole
and Radcliffe in the Eighteenth Century. Instead, they manipulate the rules set up by that
model, and infuse them with a postcolonial psychology, amplifying the functions of time
and geography while maintaining a pragmatic approach to the unexplainable. In an
attempt to negotiate and map the cultural terrain between colonization and nationhood,
Irving asserts a cultural history of the New York landscape that simultaneously obscures
that landscape's colonial and patricidal past.
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky observes that post-colonial Americans were "consciously
apprehensive of radical changes and yet dissatisfied with their vague self image" (Adrift
79). Since "the European 'Past'. became to the besieged Americans an image of
balance and stability" as Rubin-Dorsky argues, it seems that part of the "psychologically
healing function" of that past stems from its legitimating capability. America, despite
having rejected both the stability and legitimacy of the patriarchal British crown, found
itself unsure of how to write its own narrative. Irving's two most famous tales seek a
stability by subtly effacing the colonial past with a pleasantly gothic dreamy mountain
mist, and in doing so they encompass the literary balance necessary for future American
Still, imbedded in this new breed of American gothic literature, a threatening
countercurrent of postcolonial consciousness remains as a grim reflection of the
conflicted and divided nature of the emerging American identity. Without its colonizing
father figure, American anxiety developed from a lack of legitimacy. Given that the
European model of the Gothic relied on mined castles, fallen aristocracy, and swooning
women, Irving had no choice but to recast the genre to suit the new American landscape.
European Gothic relied on historical constancy, which was the one thing that the young
country felt it lacked. America did have a landscape, however. In a country with little to
no legitimatee" history and certainly no long-mined castles, Irving focuses on the
landscape itself and the manner in which it becomes signified in the postcolonial
experience. In the process, he lays a foundation of a distinct American gothic style that
expresses the psychological interaction with real (that is material) surroundings and the
alienation which prescribed narratives create for the subject who experiences them.
Understanding the part that "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
play in the emergence of American gothic style requires one first to consider with
hindsight their place in the American literary canon. Out of the whole of The .\NetI l
Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), only these two tales-the only two that
establish a distinct American setting-have ingrained themselves firmly in American
consciousness. Indeed, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is arguably America's favorite
Halloween tale. Yet both tales have an undercurrent of alienation that acts as the driving
force of the effect of the stories upon the reader. In describing the tale, Charles Neider
observes that "Rip Van Winkle," "which itself often feels like a nightmare," is "a story of
the magical changes wrought by Time" (xxi).1 Neider skirts the roots of the American
postcolonial condition articulated in these stories when he states that Irving's "native land
... was short on hoary monuments and traditions as compared with the mother country,
the country so recently rejected but that nevertheless was his and that haunted him"
(xxii). Thus, Neider's observations help to clarify the relationship time has to the
foundations of an American Gothic.
Time, when viewed as the course of history, perpetuates postcolonial alienation
because it recalls colonial dependence precisely at a time when one seeks a uniform
historical narrative. Simultaneously it accentuates the postcolonial subject's
independence by its lack. In America's case, wiping the historical slate clean with the
Revolution simply left traces that make reading any new text more complicated. Without
physical monuments such as the analogs of Otronto or Rackrent or Strawberry Hill to
account for the new concept of American history, the ghosts of history had to come from
the ground itself. Thus, Irving plants the seeds of the American nightmare in the
geography of his native New York. Localizing his two most recognizable tales in
villages rather than in a metropolis allows him to divorce the geography from a history of
colonial commerce as well as establish the locale as a mythic heterotopia2 that
emblematizes the phantoms of the American postcolonial condition.
At the heart of this argument lies the assertion that antebellum American literature
is indeed a postcolonial literature. As such, it operates within some of the psychological
parameters of a nation emerging out from under its perceived paternal authority and re-
imagining its identity as an autonomous one. Ignoring or dismissing this view of
American literature because of America's parallel expansionist practices is, as Lawrence
Buell argues, "to perpetuate at the level of literary commentary the utopian fantasy of
American literary autonomy cherished during the early national period, and to abet, in
consequence, an American exceptionalist mentality that may without our fully realizing it
reinforce in us ... an insularity of perspective that is hazardously inaccurate" (415).
Moreover, examining Irving's germinal texts in this manner allows one to separate
intention from effect. One finds that Irving's texts, having been written under
postcolonial socio-psychological stresses, result in refracting flickers of a burgeoning
American gothic style rather than intentionally founding that style. Those flickering
beams light up a search for an authentic or homogenous American past with no material
objects-"no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor
thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins" as Henry James puts it (55)-to justify or legitimate its
new existence. These "items of high civilization" signify both the legitimating historical
narrative of Europe as well as the American national lack of that material foundation for
historical legitimacy. What fills that lack, James observes, "what it is that remains-that
is [the American's] secret" (56).
Given James's choice of words, one should keep in mind Freud's discussion of the
concept of the Uncanny ("unheimlich") in which "two sets of ideas, which without being
contradictory are yet different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and
congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight" ("Uncanny"
129). Freud notes that the definitions of"heimlich" (which is the root and supposed
opposite of "unheimlich") mean "'familiar'; 'native', 'belonging to the home'" (124).
Yet, "what is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich" (129). Irving's literary effect marks
the ways in which the native New Yorker becomes a stranger in his own land. At the
same time, that effect makes the land itself the guardian of an inaccessible knowledge
that acts as an historical narrative. Diedrich Knickerbocker seeks in New York what
Geoffrey Crayon seeks in England. Yet, somehow Crayon's quest remains incomplete,
which may be why he must defer to Knickerbocker's acumen to fill out his sketch book.
Knickerbocker's found "papers" may be just as incomplete, but in such as way as to
avoid inspiring a sense of lack. Indeed, they appear to invite the reader rather than
emphasize his remove from the land or his lack of national history.
As Crayon explains in the .,\kic h Book, America "was full of youthful promise:
Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. Her very ruins told the history of
times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle" (Irving, .s\el/L / Book 2).
Thus, the abstract concepts of time and history take on dimensional mass in the
"mouldering stones" of Europe's ruins. Already, Irving's narrator has begun to
characterize his encounter with history in terms of a lack, going so far as to state that by
traveling to Europe he wished to see "the gigantic race from which [he] was degenerated"
(3). Crayon sees himself neither as fully American nor as fully English. Instead he is a
jumble of insufficiencies, since, as O. R. Dathorne argues,
locating past American experience must, of necessity, begin with an examination of
negatives. For, from the country's inception, definitions of being an American
require an admission of colonial historical legacy. Independence is itself dependent
on the "positive" attributes of the conqueror, whose offspring the colony is. (1)
Essentially, then, Geoffrey Crayon is a dispossessed American, which is why the .s\hiNc
Book serves as an example of nascent American postcolonial literary self-consciousness.
Irving sets up his fictional narrator as one who seeks an experiential history embodied
and relived in a sense of place and material presence. In contrast, Knickerbocker
explores his own land, and acts as a catalyst for the reader to seek the same history in the
imminency of immanent physical encounters.
In his "Account of Himself' (Chapter 1), Crayon tells his reader that he "was
always fond of visiting new scenes, and observing strange characters and manners" as if
manners, strange characters, and the new scenes were all intertwined in a causal
relationship (Irving, \kNLc h Book 1). He makes "tours of discovery into foreign parts and
unknown regions," and he becomes "familiar with all its places famous in history or
fable. I knew every spot where a murder or robbery had been committed, or a ghost
seen." Such research indicates that Crayon is truly trying to account for his presence.
The fictional author has a fascination with visiting real historical places tinted with
unreality because the fantastic element attached to them allows him imaginative access to
their deeper significance. That is, his sense of historical space encompasses a fantastic
history as well as a real one, but both types of history are directly grounded in a physical
geography to which Crayon can stake a small claim. Consequently, the physical place
itself becomes the grounding center for legitimating narratives, rather than having a
paternalistic authority authenticate them. As a dispossessed American, Crayon enjoys the
freedom of immanent experiential title-if the physical place is all that is required to
legitimate narrative, be it historical, fantastic, or both ("legend"), then all narratives
become valid. No matter where he goes, Crayon can impose his narrative on the place,
and not the other way around.
That freedom, however, is the by-product of a postcolonial consciousness, and
therefore also becomes a source of alienation. Though Dathorne does argue that
"Americans see the European past in ways through which they can mythicize it," he is
inaccurate to assert that "their conception need have no basis in reality" (14). Crayon
uses the reality around him to create his narratives, even when he is at sea. In "The
Voyage" (Chapter 2), Crayon even couches the ocean in narrative terms, noting how the
"vast space of waters that separates the hemispheres is like a blank page in existence"
(Irving, .\seit h Book, 4). Crayon relishes the voyage because he faces another
opportunity in which to recast his own history as he watches "the last blue line of [his]
native country fade away in the horizon" (5). Yet that ocean is also "a gulf, not merely
imaginary, but real, between us and our homes,-a gulf subject to tempest, and fear, and
uncertainty, rendering distance palpable, and return precarious" (emphasis added).
Hence, the reality of the ocean also acts as a catalyst for claim-staking, since Crayon tells
his reader how his "imagination would conjure up all that I had heard or read of the
watery world beneath me," fashioning an experiential possession using stories of
"shapeless monsters that lurk among the very foundations of the earth; and of those wild
phantasms that swell the tales of fisherman and sailors" (6). Predating Melville's Ishmael
by three decades, Crayon contains the shoots of the American postcolonial nomadic
character. Like Crayon, Ishmael is "tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.
I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts" (Melville, Moby-Dick 7).
Both characters, it seems, are similarly adrift in their identities.
Yet as "the great shroud of the sea [rolls] on as it did five thousand years ago"
(Melville, Moby-Dick 572), so the ocean becomes for Crayon the field of the paradox of
historical reality-it is both the container of all time as well as its destroyer. That is why
the "spectre" of a shark darts below its surfaces, and it is populated by "shapeless
monsters that lurk" and "wild phantasms" (Irving, .\~Ai/ h Book 6). In truth, the language
Irving uses to express Crayon's sensations intimate a non-specific, but very threatening
gothic atmosphere. That gothic atmosphere comes to uncanny fruition when Crayon
views "some shapeless object drifting at a distance." The implied undercurrent of the
narrative is the unspoken mirroring effect this "shapeless object" has. It recalls the
"shapeless monsters that lurk" and the fact that viewed from the same distance, Crayon
himself must be a shapeless object. Skillfully, Irving quickly diffuses the looming
surface tension of this moment while retaining its parallel gothic undercurrent. The
object "proved to be the mast of a ship that must have been completely wrecked." In the
same sentence, Irving's grammatical construction confirms an object but undermines its
history. Using the present perfect "have been" with the auxiliary verb "must" situates the
object in an indistinct past while leaving its fate speculative. Therefore one cannot prove
that the ship was wrecked, one can only assume it. Moreover, the passive construction of
the ship's assumed fate leaves a menacing gap where the acting subject should be-what
wrecked the ship?
In this fashion, the ocean functions as a heterotopic space for Crayon's postcolonial
psychology. The mirroring effect that the ocean creates functions both horizontally and
vertically. Foucault discusses this reflective aspect of heterotopias in relation to the
mirror. The mirror is a placelesss place ... [wherein] I see myself where where I am not,
a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself
there where I am absent" ("Of Other" 24). Yet the mirror "does exist in reality" and so
"it makes the place I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once
absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since
in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there." For
Crayon, the wrecked mast couples with the "watery world beneath me" (Irving, .sA\iec
Book 6) to determine his position, constructing what Victoria Nelson terms his
"psychotopography" (110-111). Hence the objects and their perception by the subject
"[reverberate] at the point of coincidence; not only is external reality made to stand for
internal reality, but behind both is posited a deeper transcendental reality" (110). In
Crayon's case, rather than the objects being projected out from within, they seem to
impact the subject's encounter with that reality.
Of the wrecked ship's narrative, only the physical objects remain, and for Crayon
that is enough upon which to speculate. He notes that "The wreck had evidently drifted
about for many months" (Irving, .\kelt h Book 7). Again, the use of the word "evidently"
grounds the narrative in the physical objects, in the evidence available, while keeping the
facts uncertain. Thus, the "remains of handkerchiefs" exemplify the life and death
struggle of sailors lashing themselves to "this spar" (6). "Clusters of shell-fish" and
"long sea-weeds" embody the time this floating gravesite has existed. Crayon's
speculative narratives sprung from these physical objects lead him to consider the
absence of human remains-"their bones lie whitening among the caverns of the deep"
(7), perhaps to become food for the "shapeless monsters." In fact, Crayon laments that
"not one memento may ever return for love to cherish." Because of the lack of such
"mementos" (a term that embodies the past in the physical), "expectation darkened into
anxiety-anxiety into dread-and dread into despair!" Consequently, this one
unresolved discovery "gave rise to many dismal anecdotes." Irving's use of "anecdote"
instead of "tale" or "story" implies a temporally self-contained, personal, unauthenticated
history. In addition, Crayon hears these "anecdotes" while sitting "round the dull light of
a lamp in the cabin, that made the gloom more ghastly." The telling of anecdotes cannot
remove the anxiety, dread, and despair caused by the presence of the wrecked mast
because as Crayon himself observes, "Silence, oblivion, like the waves, have closed over
them, and no one can tell the story of their end."
The experience of Irving's narrator approaches abjection, as Julia Kristeva
A wound with blood and pus .. does not signify death. refuse and corpses
show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. There, I am at the
border of my condition as a living being. The border has become an object ...
It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not
protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it
beckons to us and ends up engulfing us. (4)
Irving does not allow his narrator to be engulfed, but rather allows him a brief encounter
with possible oblivion. Crayon's defense is once again to create a narrative buffer for
what he has experienced, to account for the horror, which is why he must narratively lash
himself to the short anecdote "related by the captain" (Irving, .'\kei h Book 8). Crayon
cannot fully account for the encounter with the wrecked ship, and so he therefore must
interpose an anecdotal distance between himself and it. In turn, the captain's account of
the small schooner provides a much-needed bulwark for the reader of Crayon's narration.
Yet, at the heart of the captain's tale, that experience of brief abjection remains
embedded, and it is just enough to haunt the captain, Crayon, and the reader. "'I heard
their drowning cry mingling with the wind. The blast that bore it to our ears swept us out
of all farther hearing. I shall never forget that cry!" The encounter of the wrecked mast
psychologically removes all barriers between the utopia of Crayon's ship and the
heterotopic potential of the ocean. Thus the narrator's experience moves from the
"heimlich" to "unheimlich," from security to aporia. There is nothing to keep the world
of the ship from mingling with the "watery world beneath" where "shapeless monsters"
The brief brush of abjection that Crayon experiences, no matter how many
narrative buffers he creates for it, remains to haunt him and continues to reproject itself
onto the narrator's experiences. As the weather worsens, Crayon describes how "The
whistling of the wind through the rigging sounded like funereal wailings" and how "it
seemed as if death were raging round this floating prison, seeking for his prey" (Irving,
\.eNAich Book 9). The mirroring effect of the wrecked mast has come round, and the
specter of the assumed fate of the unknown sailors who lashed themselves to it haunts
Crayon. It is almost as if Crayon hears not only the cries of the men of the ill-fated ship
in the wind, but also the cries of all sailors who have been lost at sea. Jeffery Rubin-
Dorsky comments that Crayon's "self-conscious" fears reveal "Irving's own terror of
being, both realistically and metaphorically, lost forever between two shores"
("Washington" 511). Though Crayon's remarks about the mast, the lost sailors, and the
raging storm might appear exaggerated and melodramatic, these traits of the narration
manifest a nervous laughter in an attempt to mask a self-conscious fear and are yet
another attempt to stem the encounter with abjection.
Whether or not Irving shared these fears, they emanate from an encounter with a
material object onto which Crayon has projected an uncertain narrative in order to bar an
encounter with abjection. That narrative in turn, because of its uncertainty, haunts
Crayon's self-conscious efforts to account for himself. To be "lost forever between two
shores" in the literal sense would mean that there would be no "memento" to account for
his existence, no evidence of his narrative, no gravestone, and he would be obliterated.
Underneath that, and yet parallel with it because of the persistence of physical remains, is
Crayon's postcolonial fear of losing one's place forever. When someone dies on shore,
they are buried or entombed. When they die in the sea, they are "lost."
This feeling remains a part of Crayon's self-consciousness even after his fears have
subsided with the return of good weather. As he approaches the English shore he notices
the "mouldering ruin of an abbey overrun with ivy" as well as "the taper spire of a village
church" among other structures that "were characteristic of England" (Irving, .'skcl hI
Book 10). Though the dread has subsided, the mechanics of the psychological process
remain in place. Crayon has yet to encounter these objects up close, and because of that
he cannot anchor them to any specific narrative and therefore remains unsure of his
relationship to them. Laura Murray refers to this process as "figurative possession and
imaginative ownership" (216), but those terms seem too abstract and not grounded in
encountering the actual material object. Moreover, the temporary experiential claim
Crayon enjoys through chronicling objects and spots can go awry, and create haunting
alienating narratives that emphasize one's own state of dispossession. Such times are like
Crayon's fears on his voyage, Rip Van Winkle's return to his village, or Ichabod Crane's
night ride through the hollow. Indeed, as he steps off the boat, the narrator begins to feel
his own dispossession: "I alone was solitary and idle. I had no friend to meet, no
cheering to receive. I stepped upon the land of my forefathers-but felt that I was a
stranger in the land" (Irving, .\klic h Book 11). Crayon is both on the land and in it, and
yet cannot account for his presence there.
Perhaps Crayon's alienation stems from the fact that, as Benedict Anderson points
out, "The Declaration of Independence of 1776 makes absolutely no reference to
Christopher Columbus, Roanoke, or the Pilgrim Fathers, nor are the grounds put forward
to justify independence in any way 'historical,' in the sense of highlighting the antiquity
of the American people" (193). But if "a radical break with the past was occurring," as
Anderson argues, then Crayon is an example of the American trying to patch that break.
He is an American, but has no reference to history to account for himself; he has access
to the material history to justify his English patrimony, but he is himself not English.
Negotiating this terrain must therefore become an exercise in narration. Even the
narrator's name, "Crayon," signifies "pencil" in French, signaling his role in writing the
American historical consciousness into being. Anderson argues that the materiality of the
past "simultaneously records a certain apparent continuity and emphasizes its loss from
memory. Out of this estrangement comes a conception of personhood, identity ...
which, because it cannot be 'remembered,' must be narrated" (204). Thus, Irving's
narrator must continually reinsert himself into the history manifested by the material
objects he encounters.
"Stratford-on-Avon" (Chapter 27) amplifies this trait of post-colonial American
character in a more pleasant way. In visiting Shakespeare's home, Crayon does more
than make a "poetical pilgrimage" (Irving, .\'Ake/ h Book 265); he faces what Dathorne
terms "the mirror image of the metropolis" (1). Once more, the narrator encounters
history somehow embedded in material objects and the imagined narratives:
There was the shattered stock of the very matchlock with which Shakespeare shot
the deer. There, too, was his tobacco box; which proves he was a rival smoker
of Sir Walter Raleigh; the sword also with which he played Hamlet .... (Irving,
.\keiN h Book 265)
But the pilgrims remake the history through their encounters with its physical
manifestation, exemplified by Crayon's observation of Shakespeare's chair. Visitors to
the house sit in his chair (another object that Crayon imaginatively narrates), yet as a
result of their sitting, "the chair had to be new bottomed at least once in three years"
(266). Hence, the pilgrims remake the relic into one that is part history and part present,
with their impress upon it, and as a result incorporate themselves into the narrative of
Crayon defends this practice by stating that he is "ever willing to be deceived,
where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing. I am therefore a ready believer in relics,
legends, and local anecdotes of goblins and great men .... What is it to us, whether these
stories be true or false, so long as we can persuade ourselves into the belief of them, and
enjoy all the charm of the reality?" (Irving, .s\kec h Book 266). Yet suspending one's
belief is not always pleasant and free. Crayon's outlook is tinted by his views expressed
in "English Writers of America" (Chapter 6), when he recognizes that "there are feelings
dearer than interest-closer to the heart than pride-that will still make us cast back a
look of regret, as we wander farther and farther from the paternal roof, and lament the
waywardness of the parent that would repel the affections of the child" (55). Crayon's
couching the postcolonial American mindset in paternal terms gives the reader an avenue
into the mechanics of his psychological state.
Crayon seems to be negotiating what Lacan terms a denial or negation of the
paternal metaphor acting as the "point de capiton," or "anchoring point" of the signifying
chain ("On a question" 190; "Subversion" 291). This negation or denial ("Verneinung")
causes, in the case of foreclosure (" Ve i e ng "), "At the point at which the Name-of-
the-Father is summoned ... a pure and simple hole may thus answer in the Other; due to
the lack of the metaphoric effect, this hole will give rise to a corresponding hole in the
place of phallic signification" ("On a question" 190). Crayon's position is far from being
one of foreclosure. Rather, his is a paternal metaphor in transition, a negotiation of
negation-" the owning [aveu] of the very signifier that Verneinung annuls." Simply put,
in Crayon's case, he narratively latches on to the material objects that embody a rejected
paternal history in order to compensate for the void that rejection has produced and to
curb the onset of abjection. This process is only "pleasant and costs nothing" when he
can do so with his own narrative, thus controlling how he can account for himself. When
he was at sea, "cast loose from the secure anchorage" and the "'lengthening chain'" that
holds him, Crayon loses control of his narrative abilities, cannot trace time, and drifts
frighteningly close to the edges of abjection. The phallic presence of the wrecked mast
then comes to embody more than just a haunting mortal fate; it also signifies exactly how
dangerously close to the edge of abjection Crayon himself approached.
The main characters of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
(Chapters 5 and 33) encounter this loss of control. While the chain of narration keeps the
reader anchored, the characters drift. Though Crayon is the narrator of the .s\etIh Book,
both of these chapters come from and are "found among the papers of the late Diedrich
Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York" (Irving, "Rip" 1). Much like the
wrecked mast, these are "found" texts, yet one can assume that their inclusion in the
.s\keih Book is an editorial choice both of Irving and Crayon-Irving because he is the
ultimate author of all the texts, and Crayon because it is his sketch book. This editorial
chain requires one not just to consider the two tales in the context of the ,\ke ILh Book, as
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky rightly argues ("Value" 393-394), but also to examine the
individual links in the narrative chain, how they relate, and what effect they have on the
As Rubin-Dorsky points out, "Irving, it seems, has gone to considerable lengths to
make it explicit that Crayon is not passing off these stories as his own or claiming to have
seen or witnessed in any way the events related within them" ("Value" 393). Still, he
argues, "their ultimate significance may very well lie in the fact that they tend to reflect
back on him anyway" (394). Indeed, the reader faces a book written by Irving, but
supposedly penned (narrated) by the fictional Geoffrey Crayon, Esq., who in turn has
collected these "found" tales among the papers of the late (but still fictional) Diedrich
Knickerbocker, who in turn has collected these tales from the New York region.
Ultimately, then, Irving presents these particular tales so that they have no traceable
author, and as such, appear to spring from the very lands in which they take place, which,
despite their fictional authors, are very real. Michael Warner describes this chain as
seeking "not more history but antiquity, a folk temporality" (791). That point aside,
Knickerbocker as a character was already legendary-part reality, part fiction. Irving ran
publicity notices in the New York Evening Post in the Autumn of 1809 declaring Mr.
Knickerbocker a missing person, and then detailing the circumstances of the publication
of the History of New York as a means to pay off his debts. Indeed, that text too is a
found work, ostensibly "found in the chamber of Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, the old
gentleman whose sudden and mysterious disappearance has been noticed" (Irving,
These found texts by a lost author (who by the third printing in 1819 had since been
found and then died, making him lost once more) bring with them a distinctly American
mythos. But the anchor of that mythos is the landscape of New York itself, and
consequently Irving creates a legitimating topos for a narrative that is arguably not an
effort to stem abjection, but rather an expression of the alienating potential of negation's
effect and the psychotopography it sustains. Irving effectively narrativizes a specific
American postcolonial mindset as it struggles to establish itself in an historical
continuum. Though elements of postcolonial alienation remain in the tales, Irving,
writing as Knickerbocker, centers the history of New York not as starting with the
colonial expansion, but with the land itself. The first three chapters of the History discuss
the theories of creation and location of the world (and consequently New York). Chapter
5 of the History humorously refutes Europe's claim to the land by "discovery." In short,
Knickerbocker does not recognize England as a paternal authority, and therefore does not
have the same postcolonial mindset as Crayon.
Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the character of Knickerbocker, "an old
gentleman of New York" (Irving, "Rip" 1), and his collected tales do put forth the
grounds to justify independence in historical terms and highlight the antiquity of the
American people. Since the tales themselves have no prime author, but are directly
grounded in the folk unconscious of the landscape, Irving's construction establishes the
landscape itself as the source of American character. There remains in the stories,
however, enough of the fantastic so that the tales remain open to the traveler, and
therefore any American can stake a small claim in the imaginative priority of the
Kaatskills or Sleepy Hollow, just as Geoffrey Crayon can sit in Shakespeare's chair.
Perhaps that is why "Rip Van Winkle," after a brief introductory note about
Knickerbocker, begins with the statement, "Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson
must remember the Kaatskill mountains" (2). Even this opening line of the story implies
a temporal ambiguity. It has a tone of recollecting the past, as well as of issuing an
imperative to future visitors of the mountains. In fact, Irving's use of the auxiliary verb
"must" fulfills Todorov's observation that the stylistic elements of the imperfect tense
and modalization lie at the heart of narrating the fantastic (Todorov 38). This effect,
what Haskell Springer terms "creative contradictions," does not allow the reader "to
regard this sketch as either history or fairy tale; rather, it exists in a middle ground" (14-
15). This middle ground manifests a psychotopography that the reader can experience for
himself or herself in reality. Irving's word choice marks an ambiguous necessity that
enables possible diegetic transgression.
The narration then moves on to the landscape of the Kaatskills, describing them as
a "dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family" which swell "up to a noble
height, lording it over the surrounding country" (Irving, "Rip" 2). "Clothed in blue and
purple," the mountains sometimes even wear a "crown of glory." Though America may
not have an aristocracy, the physical landscape rivals any great royal family of Europe,
and therefore becomes a legitimating authority for the narratives that spring from it.
Irving's description of the Kaatskills as "dismembered" also carries with it the
implication of castration. Considered in Lacanian terms, the phallus represents the
subject's desire for the desire of the mothere. The location of the tale embodies both the
psychological lack of the alienated subject as well as a legitimating fertility/authority
despite that lack. This idea only reinforces the postcolonial need of"re-membering" the
Kaatskills both in a temporal and psychological manner. That act begins with the
narrativization of the landscape and the American subject.
Rip himself lives in "a little village, of great antiquity" at the "foot of these fairy
mountains" where his "ancestors" also lived (Irving, "Rip" 2). Though vague, there is an
approximate timeline that anchors the narrative, but only just enough to allow it to move
with the tide of narration. Rip's village was "founded ... in the early times of the
province, just about the beginning of the government of the good Peter Stuyvesant,"
which would place the date around 1650. The tale was published in 1819, and Rip
himself slept for twenty years; falling asleep before the American Revolution and waking
up after it in the United States place his slumber somewhere between 1765 and 1785.
That the timeline exists and yet still remains vague fortifies the fantastic element of
the story. Todorov notes that the "fantastic therefore implies an integration of the reader
into the world of the characters; that world is defined by the reader's own ambiguous
perception of the events narrated" (31). The reader can anchor the landscape in an
historical past while still experiencing it in the present. Moreover, the timeline becomes
more ambiguous the farther back in history one goes. Consequently, though the reader
may come after Knickerbocker, who in turn has come after Rip Van Winkle, who in turn
has come after his ancestors, who have come after Hudson, the "Indians" of the
Kaatskills came before him (Irving, "Rip" 15). Yet, according to the "Postscript," the
mountains "have always been a region full of fable" implying that they are also the
"abode of spirits" (emphasis added). Thus, the timeline fades back into "always" rather
than beginning with Hudson and colonization, and it ends with the reader rather than Rip
or Knickerbocker. As a result, the fantastic element remains open and revitalized with
every reading and the reality of the location opens a potential diegetic gateway. The
story of Rip may be contained within a vague historical period, but the fantastic
conditions that lead to Rip's encounter are not.
The opinion of "old Peter Vanderdonk," the "most ancient inhabitant of the village"
but not of the Kaatskills, confirms the possibility of encountering Hudson's ghost not just
for Rip, but for any visitor to the region:
it was affirmed that the great Hendrick Hudson, the first discoverer of the river and
country, kept a kind of vigil there every twenty years, with his crew of the Half-
moon; being permitted in this way to revisit the scenes of his enterprise, and keep a
guardian eye upon the river and city called by his name .... His father had seen
them in their old Dutch dresses playing at ninepins in a hollow of the mountain ..
(Irving, "Rip" 13)
Hence, Rip is not the only one to have encountered the spirits of Hudson and his crew.
Vanderdonk's father had seen them, and the whole village had heard them and hears
them still, according to Knickerbocker, playing at ninepins in the hollow of the hills.
Hudson and his crew are, in a sense, remembered by the landscape through a parallel
temporality and field of knowledge.
The fact that at the same time the "strange figure" appears Rip hears "a voice from
a distance, hallooing" his name imparts an uncanny ambiguity as to the voice's physical
and temporal source. The voice seems to be from both a temporal and physical distance,
while coming from both the landscape and the figure (Irving, "Rip" 6). Irving pens the
story so that the reader, who is physically able to visit this region, may think not only of
Rip, but of their potential encounter with Hudson and his crew, since their spirits appear
to exist outside the timeline, in a time of "always." In this manner "Rip Van Winkle"
becomes a true ghost story rather than just being a story about a ghost. It aims to haunt
the reader should that reader encounter the physical geography from which it flowed.
Perhaps the uncanniest moment in the tale comes when Rip re-enters his village
after waking up. "As he approached the village he met a number of people, but none
whom he knew," and this alienating experience forces Rip to reconsider his sense of self
(Irving, "Rip" 13). As the village "all stared at him," the "strange children ran at his
heels, hooting after him," and the dogs "barked at him as he passed." Though Rip is on
the very soil of his origin, he is geographically alienated because he is in a different
country and, like Crayon, cannot account for his presence there. Indeed, "Strange names
were over the doors-strange faces at the windows-everything was strange." Given this
encounter, Rip skirts the uncanny edges of abjection, considering how "His mind now
misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not
bewitched." Rip is adrift in his own village, finding his house "with some difficulty" and
seeing that it has rotted-"roof fallen in, the windows shattered, and the doors off the
hinges." Rip experiences what Freud terms "unheimlich"-the effacement of "the
distinction between imagination and reality, such as when that we have hitherto regarded
as imaginary appears before us in reality" ("Uncanny" 152).
This effacement appears to be the effect of a brief taste of oblivion, or being out of
time. In Civilization andIts Discontents, Freud discusses "a peculiar feeling" which is a
"sensation of eternity, a feeling of something limitless, unbounded, something 'oceanic'.
. a feeling of indissoluble connection, of belonging inseparably to the external world as
a whole" (1-2). Though Freud himself does not believe in the "primary nature of such a
feeling," he cannot "deny that it in fact occurs in other people." He proposes that this
feeling remains to varying degrees in each person as a "shrunken vestige of a far more
extensive feeling-a feeling which embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable
connection of the ego with the external world" that existed before the "ego [detached]
itself from the external world" (4). Freud's somewhat ambiguous and individualized
conclusion sounds very much like a unformed description of Lacan's mirror stage, where
the subject breaks off and enters the Symbolic. That "oceanic" feeling then, would
approach an experience of the Real.
This psychological experience becomes complicated when manifest in material
experience. Freud points out that "If we try to represent historical sequence in spatial
terms, it can only be done by juxtaposition in space; the same space will not hold two
contents" (Civilization 6). With Rip, the space he knows does not fit the space he
experiences, and though not gothic, that experience certainly qualifies as uncanny,
especially since for Rip his home is not his home. Irving does not maintain this
discomfort for too long in the narration-it only lasts as long as Rip has lost track of
time. What seems most unsettling for Rip is the fact that analogs of his previous world
remain, yet, these elements have now taken on an inauspicious character. They mimic
themselves, and without the anchor of narrative time, the slippage increases in Rip's
experience. Thus, "a half-starved dog that looked like Wolf was skulking" around the
ruins of his house, snarling and showing his teeth" (Irving, "Rip" 10). The village inn
has become the Union Hotel (complete with the "metamorphosed" image of
Washington), the great tree has become a "tall naked pole."
These physical objects apparently occupy the same space, and Rip feels their
alienating disjointed effects to the point where they attack his own identity. When he is
shown who is later revealed to be his son, Rip's sense of narrative identity breaks down.
He sees "a precise counterpart of himself, as he went up the mountain. ... He doubted his
own identity, and whether he himself was another man" (Irving, "Rip" 12). Moreover,
Rip has a third counterpart in the crowd in the form of his namesake grandson. This
moment, uncanny without the explanatory element of a homogenous history, juxtaposes
Rip in time at the same place-child Rip, young Rip, and elder Rip. In contrast, when
Rip's age remains the same, his historical location changes. Rip moves through time just
as time moves around him. Rip is out of place when he returns to the village, but in the
Kaatskills, he is out of time. In this location Wolf "bristled up his back, and giving a low
growl, skulked to his master's side, looking fearfully down the glen," and Rip feels "a
vague apprehension stealing over him" as the "strange figure" of the Hudson's crew
member approaches him (Irving, "Rip" 6). This moment prefigures Rip's return to the
village in much the same way, except that the difference is historical.
The narration remains unclear as to which direction time flows at this moment,
even if Peter Vanderdonk asserts that the past had imposed itself on the present. From
the narrative standpoint, time can flow either way, since the physical mountain itself
remains the only constant, as if it were a conduit of history. Either way, Rip embodies
one facet of the alienating postcolonial experience. He encounters the pre-colonial
landscape as Hudson experienced it, remembers that landscape as he lived in it, and then
settles in the new land of the United States as a "chronicle of the old times 'before the
war'" (Irving, "Rip" 14). Once the narrative time of Rip's experience becomes fixed
again, the uncanny element of the narration fades. Yet even though Rip can explain his
experience, since he "used to tell his story to every stranger" that came to the village, that
explanation can account only for the time lost, not the manner in which it was lost. At no
point in the narration does the tale speculate on what was in "Rip Winkle's flagon" or
how Hudson's crew manifests itself in the Kaatskills. Thus, though readers experience a
certain closure of Rip's experience, whose perspective they have had through the tale,
they do not experience closure for themselves. In fact, since the possibility exists that
Rip has gone back in time to encounter the past in the Kaatskills, that possibility remains
open in a new chapter for readers of the tale. Now, as a combined result of a fantastically
ambiguous narrative centered in the slippage of time and the physical presence of the
space of that narrative, the possibility remains that the reader, Rip, and Hudson's crew
may all occupy the same space at the same time. As a result, Rip has become just as
much a part of the landscape as Hudson.
Michael Warner notes that in the summer of 1835, during a tour of the Kaaterskill
Falls, Irving was told "that he was witnessing the authentic haunts of Rip Van Winkle"
(793). This one fact indicates the apparitional effect Irving's tale had on how antebellum
America envisioned the New York landscape. While Rip had encountered Hudson, the
rest of America could seek out Rip while still hearing Hudson playing at ninepins with
his crew. Irving's geographically centered story established the grounds in which an
emerging postcolonial nation might anchor a national historical narrative chain. Rubin-
Dorsky points out that "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" both
"reinforce the belief that it was fiction itself, rather than any of the illusions that Crayon
invented and then sought to perpetuate, that served as Irving's compensation for the loss
of, and the failure to make connections to, the past" ("Value" 405). Though Rubin-
Dorsky's insights place Irving's motivation as personal rather than national, they help to
illuminate how the tales augment America's perceived lack of a legitimate historical
conformity based in urban and architectural spaces as they refract the inherent conflicts
of that lack.
Rip loses twenty years-a generation's worth of history-and his resulting
bewilderment and schizophrenia becomes quintessentially gothic. Homi Bhabha
describes this type of encounter as "the unhomely moment" ("Introduction" 9).3 Indeed,
Rip does undergo the condition of being "'in the beyond' .. .to be part of a revisionary
time, a return to the present to redescribe our cultural contemporaneity; ... to touch the
future on its hither side."4 The reader, given the fact that the Kaatskill Mountains still
exist and that the physical sense of place remains the one link to antiquity in the
narrative, can translate that experience to a national one. Hence Rubin-Dorsky's
observations about Irving's personal anxieties translate well to the national scale, but
only if one takes into account the threatening gothic experience, however brief,
embedded in the narrative. Bhabha perhaps accounts for this translation when he notes
the "unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychic history
to the wider disjunctions of political existence" (11). Yet it is in the narrative filtering-
the telling and listening of that moment-that one "must attempt to realize, and take
responsibility for, the unspoken, unrepresented pasts that haunt the historical present"
(12). For both Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, that past literally "creeps up on
[them] stealthily as your own shadow .. forcing upon [the reader] a vision that is as
divided as it is disorienting" (9).
Irving's negotiation of this narrative historical terrain progresses and refines itself
with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The tale not only encompasses the lingering
penumbra of America's colonial history, it also adumbrates the geographical identity
crisis that past initiates as the new country begins to grow. Irving uses a vague (albeit
physically real) topography in "Rip Van Winkle," but Sleepy Hollow acts as more of a
tangibly specific location in which to anchor the recovery of American history. In this
little village north of Tarrytown, New York, Irving articulates a psychic heterotopia for
the expression of the American postcolonial condition. Foucault argues "the heterotopia
is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in
themselves incompatible" ("Of Other" 25).5 Sleepy Hollow becomes a focal point where
New York Dutch, British colonial, New England Puritan (Yankee), and postcolonial
American histories all converge. The significance of the space it occupies becomes
apparent in its name-in order for it to accommodate the ambivalent histories, Irving
must make it hollow. Even when Rip encounters Hudson's crew, he passes "through the
ravine, [where] they came to a hollow, like a small amphitheatre" (Irving, "Rip" 7).
Sleepy Hollow may seem like "one of the quietest places in the whole world", but the
narrator of the tale also indicates that it is capable of producing "prolonged" and
reverberating "angry echoes" (Irving, "Legend" 31). For all of its homely appearance, it
also carries an aspect of the fugitive with it as well. The denizens of Sleepy Hollow
"frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air" (32).
The "whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight
superstitions and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the
favorite scene of her gambols" (Irving, "Legend" 32). Sleepy Hollow is a contrary space,
a "by-place of nature"; while a viciously haunted "region of shadows," it still remains
"peaceful," and "listless" (32-33). The Hollow's "bewitching power" appears to spring
forth from "the early days of the settlement" and even "before the country was discovered
by Master Hendrick Hudson." In addition, the fact that the land itself is "sleepy" imparts
a certain atemporality of the unconscious to the atmosphere of the landscape. Irving
grants Sleepy Hollow the same historical foundation, if not deeper one, as Rip's
geographical haunts. Again, the narrative anchors itself in the material landscape. Irving
constructs "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as a tale found and included in the ,\ke/L //
Book by Geoffrey Crayon, but penned by Diedrich Knickerbocker, told by "a pleasant,
shabby, gentlemanly old fellow, in pepper-and-salt clothes, with a sadly humorous face"
who, after telling the story, admits "'I don't believe one half of it myself" (55-56). The
teller himself is a bundle of ambiguity. His deceptively direct statement about his belief
begins to undermine any truth a reader could seek to extract from the story.6 He never
indicates specifically which "half' he does not believe. Though the reader might take his
statement to mean that he does not believe even one half of the tale, that is not what he
says. Thus, the statement of not believing one half leaves open the possibility for
believing at least one half.
In the same way, both Haskell Springer and Jeffery Rubin-Dorsky have pointed out
the multiple implications of the title of the tale. The "legend" may refer to "the
misadventures of Ichabod Crane," to the fact that Ichabod's story is "legendary to the
drowsy people of Sleepy Hollow," to "the old legend of the headless Hessian which
[Ichabod] heard from the residents of Sleepy Hollow" (Springer 17), or even to "insist
that the 'legend' is Sleepy Hollow itself' (Rubin-Dorsky, "Value" 404).7 That the legend
refers to the place itself makes sense, not for the reasons that Rubin-Dorsky argues, but
because of its actual geographic existence in New York. Haskell Springer observes that
"Legend, moreover, has a stronger, even radical influence ... by its ability to recreate
itself in reality. [the action of Brom Bones] attests to the material influence of
imagination on actuality" (17). Whether or not Bones did play a joke on Crane, the entire
world of the tales remains as a reality one may encounter. The word "legend" connotes
perpetuation, therefore the physical existence of the town keeps the legend alive for its
readers. Whether or not they actually visit the town is also not an issue; the possibility of
being able to do so, to walk among the gravestones of the Old Dutch Church and see the
Sleepy Hollow bridge, allows the reader a narrative portal into this manifestation of a
heterotopic psychotopography. As a result, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" becomes a
part of a postcolonial American chronology. In this way, the title comes to mean "Sleepy
Hollow: The Legend."
The availability of a diegetic fissure in the tale serves as a narrational necessity if
Sleepy Hollow is to become a legitimating repository of American postcolonial angst.
Irving was aware of the effect of his tales on the geography it reflected, and by May 1839
published his essay "Sleepy Hollow" in the Knickerbocker Magazine to defend its reality.
Ironically, he defends the reality of the place using the same fictional persona of Geoffrey
Crayon, offering both a defense of the place as well as another component in its
narrativization. In fact, during this essay Crayon reveals the population with which
Knickerbocker converses, hinting at-but never revealing-the sources for the
"surprising though true history of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman" (110). He
is "tempted to give some few particulars concerning that spell-bound region; especially as
it has risen to historic importance" (105).8 By the end of the essay, Irving expresses his
fears that commercialization and industry will cause "the antiquarian visitor to the
Hollow ... [to] pronounce all that I have recorded of that once favored region, a fable"
(113). Irving covers his narrative tracks well by 1839, so that the existence of the
narrative Sleepy Hollow remains despite its gradual disappearance. Perhaps this was his
intention as well when he added the "Postscript" to "Rip Van Winkle" in the 1848
Author's Revised Edition of the .s\kicN h Book.
Foucault contends that heterotopias "always presuppose a system of opening and
closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable" ("Of Other 26).9 To enter
these spaces (if entry is not compulsory) one must "submit to rites and purifications." In
order to gain access to Sleepy Hollow, one must read or at least be familiar with the
details of Irving's "legend." By moving through a series of diegetic portals, the reader
can then enter the world of Ichabod, Katrina, Brom, and the Hessian. In introducing the
village to his readers, Irving even proposes that visitors to the region, after "[residing]
there for a time," begin "to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow
imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions" (Irving, "Legend" 33). Without
Irving's text as a first-narrative ingress, the geographical location loses its heterotopic
significance. Irving creates these doorways by blurring the boundaries of the narrative
frames though his use of nested narration.
In order to work with those levels of storytelling, Irving must begin with history.
Even though the storyteller at the "Corporation meeting of the ancient city of
Manhattoes" tells the tale, there is a metanarrational leap from that telling to its being the
"favorite story" of the "old country wives" who tell it "about the neighborhood" (Irving,
"Legend" 54-56). There exists another metanarrational leap when one sees that the
legend of the Headless Horseman is also told in Sleepy Hollow at the same time Ichabod
lives there. The source of this legend, as with the other spirits, dates back to "before the
country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson" (32). Following the links in the
chain, one sees that the narrative springs from the land itself, which Irving reinforces with
the epigraph from Thompson's Castle ofIndolence: "A pleasing land of drowsy head it
was" (31). By beginning with the physical landscape, Irving can claim a history in which
England's authority-the colonial paternal figure-had no proper place. Thus embracing
the Dutch historical foundations of the settling of New York becomes a way for the
author and his readers to evade the colonial Oedipal guilt of the postcolonial American
Though the Dutch provide a proxy paternal history, the specter of English colonial
rule still remains in Sleepy Hollow. In fact, even when ghosts are not involved, the
"sager folks ... with old Van Tassel ... [draw] out long stories about the war" (Irving,
"Legend" 47). The geography of Sleepy Hollow is such that the "British and American
line had run near it during the war," and consequently it seems to be contested ground.
But in addition to the tales of Doffue Martling and the nameless "old gentleman" of the
Battle of White Plains, the ghost stories of Sleepy Hollow are rooted in the Revolution as
well. One of the most prominent tales is of the "funeral trains, and mourning cries and
wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major Andre was
taken, and which stood in the neighborhood" (48). Since Major John Andre's actions
could have cost America the Revolution, and he was both captured and hanged "in the
neighborhood," the precariousness of the land's identity seems at the heart of that
Given the approximate timeline of the Irving's legend, this postcolonial self-
consciousness seems appropriate. Irving published "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in
1820, and the narrator states that the actions of the tale occur "in a remote period of
American history some thirty years since" (Irving, "Legend" 33). Hence, the story
takes place around 1790, only seven years after the Peace of Paris and chronologically
close to the first presidential election.12 Moreover, the Headless Horseman tale could
only be, at its oldest, fourteen years old. Terence Martin notes that "only in the America
of the time could a remote period of history be defined as thirty years" (143). Therefore
in 1790 it makes sense that the awareness of instability would give rise to the circulation
of these stories. Moreover, Irving treats his tale with undue reverence-a tone of veracity
usually reserved for older, more established legends. In a way, Irving's pre-antiquating
of the tale helps to blend it into a national historical conformity.
The tale of the Headless Horseman, also referred to as the "Galloping Hessian,"
takes on a new significance in light of the village's unpredictable postcolonial status.
Considered to be the "dominant spirit" and "the commander-in-chief of all the powers in
the air," the Horseman is the "ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried
away by a cannon ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary war" (32).
Since the Hessians fought for the British against the Americans, the ghost of the Headless
Horseman fulfills a proxy paternal signification.13 The fact that he is headless, and more
specifically that he is headless as the result of a Revolutionary battle, implies the
castration of the paternal figure and a potential unsettling of the paternal metaphor that
allows for the slippage in narration. Lacan maintains that "the symbolic Father is, in so
far as he signifies this law, the dead father" ("On a question" 199), but the Horseman is
not dead, he is undead, sempiternal, which causes the conflict to continue. In
postcolonial terms, the subject experiences "a discursive process by which the excess or
slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) ...
becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a 'partial'
presence.... both 'incomplete' and 'virtual"' (Bhabha, "Of Mimicry" 86).
Given this effect of the Hessian on the village of Sleepy Hollow, Irving sets the
stage for the expression of postcolonial angst worthy of Eteocles and Polynices. Brom
Bones is a child of the land, one of the "Sleepy Hollow Boys," who has been rightfully
nurtured in the Dutch antiquity and landscape of New York. Terence Martin describes
him as "the only authentic American in the tale" (145). Still, he seems somewhat
incomplete, a proxy basic framework American, as his nickname implies. Yet, since
Irving seeks to establish the geography of New York as a legitimating psychotypography
of American postcolonial consciousness, he becomes an unworthy protagonist of the tale.
Likewise, Ichabod Crane becomes a surrogate for the British colonial past embodied in
the geography of New England. As a schoolteacher Ichabod seems unjust and arbitrary,
fetishizing his power by "[administering] justice with discrimination rather than severity,
taking the burden off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong,"
especially the "Dutch urchins" (Irving, "Legend" 34).
Crane relishes this role-"'doing his duty' by their parents"-because it mimics
political paternal authority, and he uses that authority to fulfill his voracious appetite. He
also brings with him the Puritan identity politics in the "large extracts from his invaluable
author, Cotton Mather" (Irving, "Legend" 49), but the stigma of the Salem Witch Trials
goes along with that identity. Ichabod is not content with his "little empire" in school,
and seeks to become "lord of all this scene," and be able to "snap his fingers in the face
of Hans Van Ripper, and every other niggardly patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue
out-of-doors that should dare to call him comrade!" (35, 46). It seems that Crane looks to
reclaim for himself the authority over the Dutch New Yorkers that the British lost with
the Revolution. Dutch New York, however, comes off as the real terrain of a land that
predates English occupation, but cannot shake off its ghost. The best it can do, as Brom
Bones demonstrates, is outrun it. Donald Ringe points out this regional conflict in Sleepy
Hollow, but does not explore the postcolonial psychology underlying it (460). Crane
becomes a paternal straw man that Brom Bones can easily attack. Irving even states that
one "one might have mistaken him for ... some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield"
("Legend" 33). Ghosts, skeletons, and scarecrows all inhabit the real physical village of
Sleepy Hollow in a humorously gothic, but psychically resonant, postcolonial struggle for
This geographically grounded melee appeals to an American audience because it
allows them to skirt the implied patricidal onus implied by the American Revolution.
Ichabod Crane, as a New England straw man, comes almost as a secondary colonizing
force, literally a new form of England's old authority. He also carries with him the stigma
of a colony gone wrong, what Bhabha terms "menace"-a fetishized form of
postcoloniality (85-91). Ichabod is a New England "native of Connecticut" (Irving,
"Legend" 33), a state originally settled by the Dutch in the early 17th Century but
colonized by the Massachusetts Puritans in the mid 1630s (Tindall 27-28). In Crane,
Irving presents New England as an infectious presence invading Sleepy Hollow.
Part of the humor stems from this regional conflict, as Ringe argues, but it also
serves as the source of the tale's geographically grounded terror. Sleepy Hollow acts as
the stage whereupon two postcolonial regions vie for an authoritative identity. Even
though "New England goes down to defeat at the hands of the New York Dutch" (Ringe
460), New York wins that conflict only by assuming the guise of the undead paternal
authority. If indeed Brom Bones plays the part of the ghost on that night, Ichabod
believes him to be the Hessian. New York must mimic what it disavows-colonizing
English paternal authority. The humor stems from watching the Puritan New England
influence become scared of its own shadow.
As a result, it does not matter if the ghost is Brom or not. With Brom's knowing
look, Irving provides his reader with a narrative escape hatch; he allows the reader a way
to domesticate the postcolonial ghosts and celebrate the reclamation of American land.
What remains haunting about the tale, and indeed Sleepy Hollow itself, is that even with
Ichabod out of the picture, the village must continually outrun the ghost of the Hessian.
Both Irving and his readers may find comfort in the ousting of the British/New England
authority to link back to the legitimating original Dutch ancestry, but the
psychotopography of Sleepy Hollow remains a haunted region where they can confront
the postcolonial identity politics of American history.
1. Noting that it "has been insufficiently stressed that Time is one of Irving's chief
characters," Neider makes the point that Irving "must have strongly sensed Time's ...
effect as something resembling a nightmare" (xxi). Neider's recurrent use of the word
"nightmare" echoes the gothic resonance of Irving's tales.
2. Foucault defines Heterotopias as "real places-places that do exist and that are formed
in the very founding of society-which are something like counter-sites, a kind of
effectively enacted utopia in which real sites, all the other real sites that can be found
within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this
kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in
reality" ("Of Other" 24).
3. Bhabha derives this term from Freud's "unheimlich" or "uncanny" (literally
"unhomely") but focuses more on the postcolonial implications of the term and how it
relates to a national "home" and the resurfacing of a repressed culture.
4. Bhabha describes the concept of the "beyond" as "neither a new horizon, nor a leaving
behind of the past. Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the
middle years' but in thefin de sickle, we find ourselves in the moment of transit where
space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and
present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion" ("Introduction" 1).
5. This idea is Foucault's third principle of heterotopias: "Thus it is that the theater
brings onto the whole rectangle of the stage ... a whole series of places that are foreign
to one another" ("Of Other" 25).
6. It is at this point that I tend to disagree with many arguments made about "The Legend
of Sleepy Hollow." The majority of scholars appear to take it for granted that Brom
Bones simply played the part of the Headless Horseman in order to scare Ichabod away.
This belief assumes that the ghost is not a real possibility within the psychotopography of
Sleepy Hollow, dismissing it as provincial hogwash. Yet it seems possible that even if
Brom Bones mimicked the Hessian in that particular instance, the ghost may still be
haunting the area. Thus, the "truth" of who or what Ichabod encounters in his night chase
seems irrelevant. An effect of the view that the ghost does not exist also seems to be that
critics overlook the details of the ghost and pay little attention to the details of the stories
within Irving's narrative. Perhaps the scholars' viewing the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow
as provincial bumpkins and their not even considering their experience as potentially
legitimate (real) is a symptom of the postcolonial status antebellum American literature.
7. Rubin-Dorsky goes on to say that the location of Sleepy Hollow is a "legend" because
"As an actual geographic entity, as a community, Sleepy Hollow could never have
existed, for its harmony, its somnolence, its peaceful coexistence with the forces of
nature, are, if anything, prelapsarian in character" ("Value" 404). I disagree with Rubin-
Dorsky's assessment because, if anything, Sleepy Hollow is a geographic entity north of
Tarrytown, NY, and is a very real place, even if it is represented in a romantic manner.
Moreover, the undercurrent of hauntings present in the village, the "angry echoes" and
the "nightmare," especially since the majority of the talk in the town refers to the
American Revolution, undercut the image that Sleepy Hollow is prelapsarian. At best, it
appears as a town that would like to appear as prelapsarian when it is not. Such a
situation may prefigure the view of the American Romantic movement and the Hudson
River School of painters, both of which spring from America's postcolonial self-
8. Irving wisely does not spoil the illusion of narration with this essay. He claims that
the town has become historic "under the pen of my revered friend and master, the sage
historian of the New Netherlands. the worthy Diedrich [Knickerbocker]" (Irving,
"Sleepy" 105). As a result, Irving does not disturb the narrative structure he has set up,
and perhaps even reinforces it by providing more details of the town such as the presence
of"an old goblin looking mill" (110). The mill is possibly both the oldest building and
the oldest building still standing in Sleepy Hollow, having been built 1680s. The Old
Dutch Church is the second oldest building in the town, having been built around 1685.
He also asserts the truth of "the surprising though true history of Ichabod Crane and the
headless horseman, which has since astounded and edified the world" (110).
9. This idea is Foucault's fifth principle of heterotopias ("Of Other" 26).
10. England asserted their claim to the New Netherlands in 1664 under Charles I,
renaming the land New York (Tindall 33). Thus, in the context of the history of the
legend, the Dutch settlers are the true forefathers of the region.
11. Andre was a British Major who acted as a go-between for Benedict Arnold in his plot
to sell-out West Point. He was captured and hanged as a spy at Tarrytown, an act by
which Arnold was exposed and West Point protected (Tindall 135).
12. The chronology of the tale also places it close to, though after, the awakening of Rip
Van Winkle. The connection of chronology, though never concrete, seems to imply that
both of the tales deal directly with the emergence of an American identity as well as its
foundation on an ambiguous/negated paternal anchor. Hence, given Crayon's personal
crisis of national identity, there seems an unconscious expression in his inclusion of these
tales in his Sketch Book-an expression Crayon (Irving) can safely approach more
directly years later with his "Sleepy Hollow" essay and Rip Van Winkle "Postscript."
13. Though the Hessians are considered to be mercenaries, that term seems too
individualistic to describe their situation. Hessians fulfilled the role of a paid ally, and
their services were provided by the German state of their origin in exchange for monies
and the forgiving of debts owed to the British. The troopers themselves usually received
no mercenary compensation other than their usual military pay.
THE BRINK OF ETERNITY: POE, GEOGRAPHY, AND ANTARCTIC ABJECTION
The first extensive psychoanalytic reading of Poe's life and works, Marie
Bonaparte's 1933 study Edgar Poe: Etude psychanalytique (Life and Works of Edgar
Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, English trans. 1949), has as its frontispiece
a map of the East Coast of the United States. Since she grounds her analysis of Poe
heavily in terms of the Oedipus narrative, one might expect to find a picture of Eliza Poe
("mommy"), John Allan ("daddy"), or Poe himself ("son"). Instead, the first image one
confronts when reading this text is of Poe's literal geography. Though Bonaparte does
not fully explore the implications of this geographical representation of Poe's life, maps
and their meanings had more of an impact on Poe than many scholars have assumed. In
describing his use of spatial metaphors to explain this type of influence, Michel Foucault
to trace the forms of implantation, delimitation and demarcation of objects, ...
[and] the organization of domains meant the throwing into relief of processes-
historical ones, needless to say-of power. The spatialising description of
discursive realities gives on to the analysis of related effects of power.
Thus, the borders of a map can become signifiers for identities grounded in such power.
If one looks at Bonaparte's frontispiece one sees that Poe's life has no specific or single
geographical signifier; Boston, Richmond, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New
York, and Providence all have a claim to Poe.1 That the flow of power does not move in
the other direction-Poe does not claim any one of these cites, but instead he claims all
of them-illuminates the importance a comprehensive geography of his nation played in
The narratives of Poe's family history were inextricably bound up with the
geography of antebellum America. Eliza Poe, his mother, came to America from
England, and she retained a "special fondness" for Boston (Silverman 4-5). David Poe,
Jr., his father, had a strong family presence in Baltimore, where his father, the Irish-born
David Poe, Sr. was a "locally celebrated Revolutionary war hero" (3). Poe's foster
father, John Allan, was a "transplanted Scot" who settled in Richmond (10).
Consequently, Poe is born as a Yankee in Boston, is raised as a southern gentleman in
Richmond and Charlottesville, and remains shadowed by his unfulfilled military (and
Revolutionary) Baltimore roots.
For others, such options might have been liberating, but since cartographic borders
isolate and represent geography in terms of ideology and prescriptive identity narratives,
Poe felt, on the contrary, trapped. His Baltimore heritage and American nationality
mandated he enter West Point to pursue a military career. His Virginia upbringing
trained him to be a southern gentleman of business. His Boston birthplace insisted that
he become an educated gentleman of American letters.
Indeed, his attachment to Boston literally comes to him in the form of an
inheritance. After the death of his mother, Eliza, Poe was given "her watercolor sketch of
Boston harbor, on the back of which she had written, 'For my little son Edgar, who
should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best, and
most sympathetic friends'" (Silverman 9). Thus, it seems that Poe's "Mournful and
Never-ending Remembrance" ("Philosophy" 208) is not just for the loss of his mother-
as many psychoanalytic readings of his fictions argue-but rather it is also for the loss of
an identity rooted in place; an identity, which for Poe, established an unnarratable future
memory. Moreover, he seems to mourn the loss of his Virginia upbringing under the
guidance of John Allan, or rather the narrative that it should have produced. Kenneth
Silverman points out how in a letter "modeled on the Declaration of Independence"
written in March of 1827 to John Allan, Poe accused Allan of having "misled him,
restricted him, and rejected him. Allan taught him to aspire to eminence in public life,
led him to expect a collegiate education through which distinction might be attained, but
then 'blasted my hope' of it" (Silverman 35).
Shortly after having sent this letter, Poe fled not just the prescribed narrative that
Virginia (Richmond) held for him, but also its places. Poe's move north reinforces the
idea that his geographical identity was bound up with his sense of his own
narrativization. Silverman points out that "in distancing himself from the Allans he made
his way back to Eliza Poe" (38). Moving from the South to the North meant shifting
cultural identities-from the southern gentleman of business to the New England
educated gentleman of American letters. Three months after his arrival in Boston, in
June 1827, Poe published Tamerlane and Other Poems under the pseudonym "A
Bostonian." At the same time, he enlisted in the army, seeking to fulfill his inherited
patriarchal narrative of military service. Tamerlane did not achieve the success for which
Poe had hoped, and consequently he sought to enter West Point. In preparation for this
full transition of identities, Poe spent much of his time in Baltimore. That Poe's life
would entail a migratory existence between these northeast cities and New York,
Philadelphia, and Providence, as a result of failing to fulfill any of these narratives, or
rather trying to fulfill all of them, suggests that much of Poe's melancholy existence
stemmed, at least in part, from a sense of alienation that was bound up in his multiple
Having no specific locus of power, Poe was, however, free to move about the East
Coast. The conflict of his prescriptive geographical narratives compelled him to read the
borders of a map as signifiers of power and cultural identity, so in psychoanalytic terms
they had the potential to define the self in terms of lack (manque) (Deleuze and Guattari,
Anti-Oedipus 28).2 In these terms, Poe was neither a nomad nor an explorer; rather he
was homeless and dispossessed. This manque-a form of geographical alienation with
psychocultural implications-haunted him, and throughout his writing he sought to
undermine its systems of codification.
Such systems do not, I propose, originate within Poe or his childhood experiences,
as traditional Freudian psychoanalytic readings such as Bonaparte's argue. On the
contrary, Deleuze and Guattari contend, these systems are "created, planned, and
organized in and through social production. ... as the result of the pressure of
antiproduction ... [and are] never primary" (Anti-Oedipus 28). "Oedipus isfirst the idea
of an adult paranoiac, before it is the childhood feeling of a neurotic. So it is that
psychoanalysis has much difficulty extracting itself from an infinite regression ... "
(274). The "infinite regression" of Oedipus founds a prior system of genealogical
inheritance that prescribes identity narratives for the child. In the case of Poe, because of
its inherited significance of place, geography becomes a principal force of
"antiproduction"3 that insistently imposes such narratives and continually manufactures a
sense of lack.
In order to understand exactly how maps and geography can establish themselves
as forces of antiproduction, one must first examine how they prescribe national and
geographical narratives-how they "put things in their place." In Imagined
Communities, Benedict Anderson notes that the lines of demarcation on maps in the
Nineteenth Century served to isolate and connect varied peoples in an imaginary way
(175). These lines isolate; they also permit the removal of the geographical space (and its
inhabitants) from its surrounding geographical context. Such a process, Anderson argues,
allows for easier commodification through "logoization" (176). The geographical space
becomes "Pure sign. ... In this shape, the map entered an infinitely reproducible series,
available for transfer to posters, official seals, letterheads. Instantly recognizable,
everywhere visible, the logo-map penetrated deep into the popular imagination, forming a
powerful emblem for the anticolonial nationalisms being born" (175). The "logoization"
of geographic space creates a cultural geographic identity, while "museumization" begins
to prescribe that identity as an "inheritance at a more popular level" (183).
In the case of the young United States, those maps became signifiers anchored in a
mythic national paternal metaphor. America, from the viewpoint of authors such as
Cooper, Irving, and Emerson, was founded on the myth of America as a new Eden, a
myth which itself stems from the Puritans' and Columbus's discovery myth.4
Antebellum America's postcolonial self-conscious anxiety emerges from this myth. But
as Myra Jehlen asserts, "the first act in knowing 'America' is acknowledging it as a
concrete fact. the solid reality, the terra firma on which Columbus disembarked. ...
the decisive factor shaping the founding conceptions of 'America' and of 'the American'
was material rather than conceptual; rather than a set of abstract ideas, the physical fact of
the continent" (3). Yet it also seems that the translation of that physical fact-the
"American incarnation" as Jehlen terms it5-into the symbolic process created for some
an alienating and impossible telos. Jehlen observes that "by translating infinite time into
universal space, the conception of a New World permitted principles that in the old world
were rendered relative by their connection to process and growth to become absolute,
timeless natural laws in the new" (9). The timeless nature of the American telos severs it
from prior history; it detaches itself from the European paternal metaphor and sets the
American subject adrift. Reestablishing those laws in the fiction of an untouched but
fixed geography potentially alienates the American subject because it is, as Jehlen argues,
"better described as an entelechy than as a teleology" (25).
By Poe's generation, even the fiction of a vacant landscape could no longer be
upheld, and self-perceived post-colonial regions were beginning to expand their own and
conflicting teleological narratives. Antebellum America was still busy establishing and
testing those geographical lines. Anderson notes that the independence of nations in the
Americas, by the 1830s, "had thus become an inheritance, and, as an inheritance, it was
compelled to enter a genealogical series" (196). Entering into such a series, Anderson
argues, requires bridging the gap between memory and its lack. This gap, especially as it
relates to the genealogy of cultural identity, produces an "estrangement" and "out of this
estrangement comes a conception of personhood, identity" that "must be narrated" (204).
The narration of a cultural identity, however, once told, becomes a mirror through which,
in a Lacanian ideal, one defines the Other and establishes subjectivity. For Poe, such was
the case because of his multiple and often conflicting genealogical narratives.
In Constituting Americans, Priscilla Wald notes that through Poe's "William
Wilson" (1839) "the confusion is fueled by guilt brought on by the disjunction between
what the character does and what the character believes he is supposed to do. ... The
haunted [protagonist] must fight the self-doubt occasioned by his difference from the
prevailing norms" (136). Wald accurately diagnoses this trend in Poe; it seems that the
presence of geographical narratives accounts for much of Poe's disjunctive identity.
Jehlen notes that because of the entelechy inherent in the American incarnation,
"the course of history inevitably diverges from the founding vision" (25). Poe's anxiety
issues from this divergence. That he had at least three separate narratives to satisfy
might seem enough, but that two of these narratives directly conflicted with each other
allowed him no peace. David Leverenz points out not only that Poe "vacillated among
the contradictory expectations of gentry roles" in the South, but also that the current
northern (Boston, New England) cultural identities set "two postcolonial regions on a
collision course" ("Poe" 216-217).6 Indeed, the North and the South were both regions
that rebelled against England, but having overthrown "daddy," the "children" engaged in
a sibling rivalry for the father's power. As Deleuze and Guattari observe, "The great
territorialities have fallen into ruin, but the structure proceeds with all the subjective and
private reterritorializations" (Anti-Oedipus 308). Anderson describes how the "imagining
of fraternity, without which the reassurance of fratricide can not be born, shows up
remarkably early, and not without a curious authentic popularity" (202).
This "fraternity," as Anderson presents it, emerges "in the age of [Jules] Michelet"
as he was "summoning his Oedipus," and "is particularly well exemplified by the
United States in the Nineteenth Century. Anderson's examples address fictional
interracial relationships (such as Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook), but he
does mention how Americans try "to remember/forget the hostilities of 1861-1865 as a
great 'civil' war between brothers (201). In order for such a "familial" dispute to occur,
Oedipus must split-and Oedipus can only split, as Anderson's examples illustrate,
"when it [is] no longer possible to experience the nation as new, at the wave-top moment
of rupture" (203). The country becomes an inheritance because the myth of a vacant land
implodes, so the son splits to refresh the Oedipal cycle. In his journals, Ralph Waldo
Emerson, with whose Transcendental Boston-based literary "clique" Poe first sought
acceptance, describes southerners "in civil educated company where anything human is
going forward" as being "dumb and unhappy; like an Indian in a church" (70). Emerson
goes so far to express that the North was a colonizing "father" to the South: "Yes,
gentlemen, but do you know why Massachusetts and New York are so tame? It is
because we own you, and are very tender of our mortgages which cover all your
property" (131-132). Leverenz notes that "Emerson's landlord presumption helps
explain Poe's vitriolic attacks on the Boston literati," but it does so only if one
acknowledges the psychocultural implications of Poe's geographically alienated identity.
Poe thus becomes caught in the crossfire between his prescriptive northern and
southern identities, and as such he begins to see himself as the perpetual Other. He is a
subject continually lost in translation. But such a situation also explodes the teleological
classifications of the Oedipus narrative-Poe's geographical "mother," "brother," and
"father" become conflated and implode like the House of Usher. He has no choice but to
become "paranoiac"-his forces of"antiproduction" take on multiple foci, perpetually
generating lack (manque) and continually alienating him. In such a state, Poe begins to
"invest the formation of central sovereignty; overinvestt] it by making it the final eternal
cause for all the other social forms of history; [counterinvest] the enclaves or the
periphery; and disinvestt] every 'free' figure of desire" (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-
Oedipus 277). Yet, the primary difference between the paranoiac and the
"schizophrenic" is the subject's perception of choice. Both "do not operate on the socius,
but on the body without organs in the pure state" (281), but the schizophrenic views this
state as liberating (even if he or she is not there by choice), while the paranoiac views it
as both confining and alienating. Poe struggled to find lines of escape from such
confinement, and one sees this struggle reflected throughout his literature, as he sought to
shift from a state of paranoia to one of "becoming schizophrenic."
Such a state, in Lacanian terms, requires a return to the Real. Having lost the
imaginary and being imprisoned/alienated within the teleology of the symbolic, Poe seeks
his line of escape there. Whether such a method of deterritorialization was possible for
Poe or not, his attempts to evade "organization" through his writing results in a
"schizonoiac" literature (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus 281). Because "Oedipus is
a dependency of the paranoiac territoriality" (278), the schizonoiac endeavors to make
the periphery dominant. Poe never achieves his goal; instead, he creates a schizonoiac
"third space" that teams with multiple and detached, yet mutually dependent, signifiers
(Bhabha, "Commitment" 37). Such symbols are mutually dependant because they defy
codification only when they occur together. In terms ofPoe's geographic identity, his
alienated northern self and his alienated southern self negate each other, eventually
liberating his geocultural identity (freeing him to live in a border city, like Philadelphia or
Baltimore or New York). But the now liberated Poe attempts to reterritorialize himself in
the Real-as what Lacan terms the "vanishing being in which the symbol finds the
permanence of the concept" that allows it to be "freed from its usage to become the word
freed from the hic et nunc" ("Function" 65).8 Because of its transitory nature, the Real
resists such a reterritorialization in that "third space" of nothingness (Baltimore cannot be
coded as the center, for example). Consequently, Poe's paranoiac identity remains a
constant "mimic man"-almost the Real, but "not quite" (Bhabha, "Of Mimicry" 86).
Though Deleuze and Guattari celebrate this condition, Julia Kristeva recasts it in
the negative light of abjection. If one applies Kristeva's theories to Poe's condition, one
sees that both he and his writings exemplify her concept of the abject: "A massive and
sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been .. now harries
me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. ... A weight of meaninglessness,
about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me" (Kristeva 2). Instead
of the return of the repressed, Poe actively initiates a return to the repressed in order to
liberate it in the hopes of a reconstruction. The problem he encounters is that by inducing
a return to the Real, Poe reformulates himself as abject in his quest to refashion his
identity and consequently becomes border-stuck. Building on Leslie Fiedler's
observation that that "the whole tradition of the gothic is a pathological symptom rather
than a proper literary movement" (135), Eric Savoy points out how it is the abject "into
which the normative American subject must cast the irrational, the desire unacceptable to
consciousness, and locate it 'over there' in some frightening incarnation of the always
inaccessible Real" (170). American Gothic, he argues, manifests itself as a catachresis 9
which strains "powerfully but ineffectively in an always fragmentary narrative" (171).
Poe's gothic view is exactly that, and it manifests itself in spatial, geographic, textual,
and linguistic ways. Catachresis as a deliberate form of expression would be one way for
Poe to begin an attempt to undermine signification and undo the codification of the
Symbolic. In so doing, one would begin to give voice to the abject, but that voice would
indeed be misapplied, strained, and imploded.
Wald argues that "Conscience, after all, marks an internalized, social acceptability,
a recognizing in social terms" (136). Her statement builds on Lacan's understanding that
"the unconscious is the discourse of the Other" where a "plurality of subjects" is not in
and of itself problematic ("Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" 32). If the Other speaks
through the unconscious, which is impossible to know in its entelechy, then the Other
may speak only incompletely. The Other speaks with a "presence made of absence"
which "itself comes to be named in an original moment" that undergoes "perpetual re-
creation" ("Function" 64). That name remains evanescent, and cannot remain fixed but is
instead "embodied only by being the trace of a nothingness." Deleuze and Guattari term
this "trace of nothingness" as one form of the "body without organs" (Anti-Oedipus 281).
In fact, the "body without organs is the limit of the socius, its tangent of
deterritorialization, the ultimate residue of a deterritorialized socius." This "residue" is
the "third space" of Poe's literature-the gothic, the absurd, and the grotesque. It is that
literary space formed out of a geocultural identity, "though unrepresentable in itself,
which constitutes the discursive conditions of enunciation that ensure that the meaning
and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity; that even the same signs can be
appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew" (Bhabha, "Commitment" 37).
Poe's schizonoiac tales, when viewed in this way, become microcosms swarming
with impish signs that defy codification through their matrices of signifying chains.
Roland Barthes's "Textual Analysis of a Tale of Poe"10 illustrates this point quite
effectively by pointing out how one should return "in a freer, less attached manner, to the
progressive unrolling of the text" (93). Indeed, Barthes goes on to say, "very often in
Poe's story we have seen the same sentence refer to two codes simultaneously, without
being able to choose which is 'true' the characteristic of the narrative, once it attains
the quality of a text, is to constrain us to the undecidability of the codes" (96). The
principal vehicle of such "undecidability" is the narrator. Poe personifies the schizonoiac
space in his tales with his narrators, who almost always speak in the first person.
Moreover, their identities remain ambiguously anonymous ("Ligeia"), possess fictionally
obscure names ("Berenice"), or present intentionally false names ("William Wilson").
In addition, their tales, as Jonathan Elmer points out, are confessional, even if the
"crime" is simply witnessing the inexpressible. "Confession," as Elmer notes, "opens the
social limit, allowing the confessor to embody-monstrously, disfiguringly-the limit
itself' (164). Poe's narrative style unanchors the signifying capabilities of the words
themselves by attacking the telos inherent in the signification. Lacan argues "the
signifier, by its very nature, always anticipates meaning by deploying its dimension in
some sense before it" ("Instance" 145). Yet that meaning is continually determined
retrospectively in the unfolding of the signifying chain. By pushing the telos of
signification to its limit, Poe effectively eliminates the insistence of meaning. But to do
so attacks history itself, since the distance between signifiers and signification can be
measured chronologically. As one closes the retrospective gap between signifiers, one
moves closer to the imminent moment of experience, closer to the Real experience of
Elmer's description of the confessor as "monstrously, disfiguringly" becoming the
"social limit"-another version of the "body without organs"-fully illuminates Poe's
attempts to deterritorialize his signifiers and then reterritorialize the polysymbolic (gaps
and all) as the norm. Poe's characters, especially his narrators, may be "monstrous" but
if they are so it is because, as James Twitchell observes,
they block our attempts to classify, categorize, and hence control them. our
fears are carried within the word itself, for 'monster' in medical terminology refers
to a fetus that is abnormal, combining human with something else, literally
grotesque. But such 'monsters' clearly threaten our classifying systems not our
Readers of a tale like "Berenice" are horrified not because they anticipate harm to their
own person, but because boundaries and definitions of the Other in the text dissolve,
immix, and become progressively meaningless as they voluntarily read on. "Monster"
also stems from the Latin "monstrum," which means "portent" or "omen." Its roots,
"monere" and "monstro" both mean "to bemoan" and "to show" respectively. Therefore,
a monster appears not only as a threat to "our classifying systems" but also as a
misarticulated, almost painful, warning against the teleology those systems embody. The
genre that serves as a primary vehicle for that warning-the grotesque-comes from the
word "grotto," as Victoria Nelson points out (2). But "grotto" (vulgar Latin "grupta") is
itself a vulgarization of the Latin "crypta" which means "hidden pit," "vault" or "cave."
Even the word itself subverts the teleology of its signifier. What comes out of that cave
is the ominous portent warning of the limits of the signifying chain. Thus it seems Poe's
literary style attempts to give voice to the subversion of the teleology of signification, and
the entelechy of what for him was an othering American geographical narrative.
Poe descends into or excavates that grotto to release what is confined rather than
simply waiting for his monsters to release themselves. Unfortunately, his narrators (and
to a certain extent, Poe himself) do so at the cost of their own psychotic destruction. The
nameless narrator of the "Tell-Tale Heart" questions his readers with his first sentence,
which ironically begins with the word "True!" (259). His asking "but why will you say
that I am mad?" (259-260) accompanied with his "excessive reasonableness," may serve
"to increase the readers' doubts about the criminal's sanity" (Elmer 130), but that very
effect blocks the possibility of using the term "sanity" at all. Poe's narrator does not
question his own condition, but rather questions the signification of the sign. By asking
the reader "why will you say that I am mad?" the narrator effaces its meaning, negates the
sign, because to make such a judgment requires that the reader be "rational." But as
Jacques Derrida's theories contend, the fact that Poe writes his narrator's confessions
helps subvert their very meaning:
The 'rationality' which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no
longer issues from a logos. Further it inaugurates the destruction ... the de-
sedimentation, the deconstruction, of all the significations that have their source in
that of the logos. Particularly the signification of ti lr/h (10)
By questioning the signification of"sanity"-being "mad"-the narrator
deterritorializes11 both sanity and madness. Thus, to say that the narrator is mad because
of "how healthily-how calmly [he] can tell [me] the whole story" (Poe, "Tell-Tale" 260)
throws the rationality of the entire statement into dissolution. Moreover, the narrator's
emphasis on the word "will" implies not just what Lacan terms the "insistence of the
signifying chain" ("Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" 28)-the "will" of codification-
but also that "which, in the concept of the sign, .remains systematically and
genealogically determined by that history" (Derrida 14).
The contradictory nature of the narrator's tale, where "truth" dissolves and in so
doing upsets the chain of signification, ultimately results in the narrator's compulsion to
unravel himself. The "villain" (anti-hero) of the tale, the narrator, calls the "officers of
the police" "Villains!" (262). Insisting that they "dissemble no more!," the narrator
confesses his deed. That confession is spurred by the ambivalent/uncertain location of
the beating heart of his victim: "I found that the noise was not within my ears." Poe's
narrator cannot continue to exist in the presence of the Real, however. "I felt that I must
scream or die," he says, but to scream is to confine himself to death in the Symbolic-by
wanting to reveal a symbolic heart for the noise produced as the hallmark of its absence.
In fact, the narrator's deed, not just his confession, stems from this will to defy
codification. In his classic essay on the mirror stage, Lacan observes that,
The mirror stage is a drama whose internal pressure pushes precipitously from
insufficiency to anticipation-and, for the subject caught up in the lure of spatial
identification, turns out fantasies that proceed from a fragmented image of the body
to ... an "orthopedic" form in its totality-and to the finally donned armor of an
alienating identity .... ("Mirror" 4, emphasis added)
That is, the ego stems from an illusory integrity presupposed by the attentions of the
gaze, the "I" springs from the "eye." That "I," however, is trapped in the Symbolic; it
has lost the completeness of the Imaginary. What drives Poe's narrator-indeed the
majority of his narrators-to acts of self-destruction is the resistance to the will of such
territorialization in the Symbolic. They seek escape from the Symbolic to the Real-but
to reterritorialize in the real is to dissolve and become abject. As Kristeva describes it, "it
is no longer I who expel, 'I' is expelled. It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that
causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. ... a hatred that smiles" (3-4).
Her emphasis on this subverted order sums up perfectly the essence of Poe's narrator's
actions: "I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed
him" (Poe, "Tell-Tale" 260).
The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" commits his murderous/suicidal act because
of the old man's "eye! .... He had the eye of a vulture-a pale blue eye, with a film over
it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold. ... I made up my mind to take the life
of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever" (260). The paradox is that the
"blue eye, with a film over it" is presumably one that cannot see. Just as Poe's narrator
hears a heart that does not exist, he feels the gaze of an eye that cannot see. Thus, from
non-existence does the narrator derive his "I," but to destroy that "eye/I," to resist the
symbolic permanently, is suicide. The locus of the gaze is a condition of being: the
narrator cannot exist in the Symbolic, nor can he remain in the Real.
Robert Seaman notes that Poe's fisherman narrator in "A Descent into the
Maelstr6m," because the terror has "broken [him] up body and soul" (Poe, "Descent" 40),
has experienced "the mirror stage in reverse, a regression from the symbolic phase to the
imaginary" (Seaman 198). The fisherman, however, remains alienated in his experience;
he is at first "speechless from the memory of [the strom's] horror" (50), but eventually
reterritorializes back into the Symbolic. He does not resist the flows of the str6m, but
instead he "precipitated himselff ... into the sea, without another moment's hesitation"
(49). Thus, his is not a regression back to the Imaginary, but rather a traumatic encounter
with the Real. It is not "the mirror stage in reverse," but something more extreme-a
temporary escape from both of its phases; temporary because any experience of the Real
must be fleeting and uncontrollable, and non-fatal because the fisherman does not attempt
to reterritorialize the flow of that experience.
Indeed, most of Poe's "tales of ratiocination," such as "The Murders in the Rue
Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter," depict the analytical as simply moving with the
flow of deterritorialized signs. Dupin's greatest power, then, is to decode himself-to
step outside the chain of signification temporarily-and then recode his experiences for
his narrator and the prefects of police.12 Lacan realized this fact in his "Seminar on 'The
Purloined Letter'": "for Dupin what is perhaps at stake is his withdrawal from the
symbolic circuit of the letter" (49). At one point the fisherman even notes that he seemed
to witness "a magnificent rainbow" in the vortex, "like that narrow and tottering bridge
which Musselmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity" (Poe, "Descent"
48). Hovering over the abyss, the maelstrom seems to be a physical embodiment of the
Lacanian Real, the experience of which may return the subject to abjection.
The narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse," however, lacks the fisherman's ability
to prevent his own self-destruction. He tells his reader in a cool tone, "We stand upon the
brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss-we grow sick and dizzy" (270). To "peer
into the abyss" is to experience the Real. The abyss is fully defined by its non-presence,
and to experience it totally and as the center of codification is to experience the "rushing
annihilation" of abjection; it is to fail in "a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward
from the abyss, [to] plunge, and [be] destroyed." That the narrator has committed the
crime of murder is not enough. That act is merely to "peer into the abyss"-he has
deterritorialized the chain of signification by leaving "no shadow of a clue by which it
would be possible to convict, or even to suspect" him (there is no Dupin in this tale to
temporarily recalibrate the Real in relation to those signs). Yet, for the narrator, this
experience is not enough. His desire is to continually exist in the Real by
reterritorializing it as the center of codification-to confess his crime aloud and still
avoid suspicion. He silently repeats to himself the phrase "I am safe" until this desire for
oblivion-what he terms "the spirit of the Perverse"-causes him to realize that "to
think, in my situation, was to be lost" (271). Unable to resist "a maddening desire to
shriek aloud," the narrator confesses his crime and condemns himself in doing so. That
action reasserts a now fatal symbolic order.
In his analysis of the tale, Stanley Cavell notes, "the prefix im- [such as in the title
word "Imp"] that is initially felt to be perverse, since, it has opposite meanings. With
adjectives it is a negation or privative, as in ... imperfect ... ; with verbs it is an
affirmation of intensive, as in ... imprison ." (23). Poe's use of "Imp" in his title
appears now to be a clever choice-the signifier itself is an "imp" whose signifieds are
multiple and potentially mutually negating. Hence, the "imp" is one potential way of
expressing abjection. "The Imp of the Perverse," then, activates the desire to recast one's
identity outside of the symbol and by so doing annihilate the "I"-to become schizonoiac
or abject. Thus, it perverts Lacan's idea that "the end of the symbolic process is that non-
being comes to be, that he is because he has spoken" ("Sign" 209). Instead, the narrator
shows us that the abject schizonoiac views the end of non-being as when the symbolic
comes to be, that he is not because he has spoken.
In American Incarnation, Myra Jehlen writes that "To its European settlers ...
America did not connote society, or history, but indeed its natural parameters,
geography" (5). By the 1830s, however, that geography-through its cartographic
signifiers and demarcations-became inextricably bound up with society, history, and
genealogical inheritance. For Poe, the geography of America came to him from all
angles, each with its own specifically inherited, prescriptive, and teleological
psychocultural identity narratives. He saw those narratives as the signifieds of an
ideological geographical chain of signification and, unable to fulfill them all, he began to
view himself as an Other delimited by his lack of a single geographical signifier. Seeking
a line of escape from this geographical realm, Poe de-scribes those narratives in an
unreliable matrix of non-signification that attempts to reanchor them in the Real. The
result is a politically charged and psychologically complex schizonoiac "third space" of
meaning-one outside or on the limits of the codification of the socius. That is why Poe,
after having considered the literary nationalist movement of his time (which itself was an
offshoot of the "American incarnation"), rejected the "Young America" literary
movement.13 As Kenneth Silverman states, Poe felt that "foreign themes are to be
preferred for providing an element of strangeness" and to avoid becoming "a continuation
of England" (249).
Poe seemed to share the attitude that America embodied an entelechy, but realized
the potential of it had already become bankrupt. Consequently, Poe's character of Arthur
Gordon Pym appears as the inversion of Irving's Geoffrey Crayon.14 Pym's adventure
becomes distinctly tied up in ideas of geography. The natural parameters of America and
the paternal influence of a mythic post-colonial consciousness seem to force both Poe and
Pym to seek an anti-teleological landscape. Leslie Fiedler observes that Pym's
experience is "finally an anti-Western disguised as the form it travesties" (394). But if,
as Fiedler notes, the "West ... was always for Poe only half real, ... ; but the South
moved him at the deepest personal level" (397), then it seems that Poe's ambivalent
feelings of being a southerner trapped in a northerner's psyche generate the impetus for
Pym's attempt to escape. Yet Pym does not move west; that geography has already
become swept up into the teleology of what would become manifest destiny.15 Instead,
he is driven literally to the end of the Earth-the Antarctic. William E. Lenz argues that
Poe is the first American writer to represent this geography of nothingness because "the
importance of... the Antarctic to the American mind, to a self-conscious and visionary
view of American history, and to expanded notions of manifest destiny is clear: The
Antarctic is a new American frontier, an analogous and imaginative New World" (33).
Yet Poe does not seek the Antarctic just as a blank slate. Lenz points out that "For
Poe, Cooper, and Melville, ... the Antarctic took on the allegorical aura of the last true
terra incognita, which had previously been associated with the American West" (33).
Pym's Antarctic becomes the geographic manifestation of abjection. It is not simply a
romantic untamed land, it is a geographical region that has at its center (the South Pole) a
"cataract" or maelstrom, a "South Polar Grotto" (Nelson 139) that devours its narrator.
Victoria Nelson points out that this maelstrom "is also the vortex in the unconscious
toward which the conscious ego feels both attraction and fear. The two realms, outer and
inner, are congruent and resonate sympathetically" (150). The cataract into which Pym
descends is the psychotopography of abjection.
Though Pym willingly leaves Nantucket, he does not set out to become engulfed by
the cataract in the Antarctic. Poe writes the Antarctic not because it is simply untouched
topography, but rather it is the negation of an American topography; it is an anti-
entelechy. Jon Hauss notes this effect of the Antarctic maelstrom when he observes that
both "MS. Found in an Bottle" and The Narrative ofArthur Gordon Pym initiate
A kind of fascinated attention to global geography. It compels us to to begin
conjuring a mental image of the planet in order simply to follow its narrative. Then
it matter-of-factly leaves most of that globe unformed. The picture we are left with
is one of a partial earth hanging within representational nothingness. ... In short,
Poe sketches a world that looms indistinctly out of unthinkable void, and this
looming world is characterized chiefly by reversion to unthinkable void. (148)
The unthinkable void of Pym's geography begins when he casts off his paternal authority,
embodied by Mr. Peterson, his assumed maternal grandfather. Though Peterson threatens
to "cut [Pym] off with a shilling" if he talks of going to sea, it is Pym himself who
unfastens the paternal bond by rebuking his grandfather (Poe, Narrative 58). Though
Pym is threatened with symbolic castration ("cut off"), it is his grandfather who is
rendered impotent. Peterson grows "excessively red" then runs at Pym "with his
umbrella uplifted" only to "[stop] short" and "hobble off down the street" (60).
After rebuking his grandfather, Pym then flees Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard.
Daniel Hoffman makes note of this fact when he observes that the novel begins with "a
departure from Edgartown. While the place name on Martha's Vineyard makes possible
this coincidence, many readers have noticed a further euphonic similarity between the
name of the protagonist and that of the author of this narrative. We see that what is being
sailed away from is the self, the ego" (260). Pym initiates his own abjection, but what
Hoffman suggests is a coincidence of author and place names reinforces the notion that
Poe saw his identity as geographically anchored and determined. It further suggests that
Pym truly is what Kristeva describes as the "alter ego" of the author that initiates a
"topology of catastrophe" (9). Kristeva goes on to describe this condition: "For, having
provided itself with an alter ego, the Other no longer has a grip on the three apices of the
triangle where subjective homogeneity resides; and so, it jettisons the object into an
abominable real, inaccessible except through jouissance." This ambivalence of identity
comes full circle at the end of the narrative, when Poe adds the final note. Harold Beaver
notes this conflation of authorial identity, observing "Pym is oddly both alive and dead:
alive enough to reclaim his narrative from Mr. Poe, but dead before he can account for
his salvation" (Commentary 270). The only way to account for this confusion is
psychological-Pym exists in Poe.
It makes sense that Pym would enter the womb-like belly of the Grampus and
become adrift after unfastening the paternal authority with which his world is anchored.
Indeed, the Grampus is a manifestation of Pym's descent into abjection. The ship is a
space of authority slippage. The shifting cargo, for example, traps him in the hold.
Overcoming that obstacle with difficulty, he becomes "entombed" by the moved "chain
cables" which block his exit through the trap (Poe, Narrative 68-70). In addition, Pym
loses track of time while he is in the hold: "I looked at the watch; but it was run down,
and there were, consequently, no means of determining how long I slept" (64). Indeed,
the watch runs down twice, refusing to allow any temporal anchor for narrative. Pym
cannot read the note Augustus passes to him, and when he can make out some words they
float without context only to alienate Pym more:
And 'blood,' too, that word of all words-so rife at all times with mystery, and
suffering, and terror-how terribly full of import did it now appear-how chillily
and heavily (disjointed, as it thus was, from any foregoing words to qualify or
render it distinct) did its vague syllables fall, amid the deep gloom of my prison,
into the innermost recesses of my soul. (76)
In this setting of abjection-even the hold is spatially undefined while remaining
impossibly confining-the Grampus is almost a natural place of mutiny, indeed two
mutinies-the first one that casts off the patriarchal Captain Barnard, and the second one
that allows the recapture of the ship.
It is after this double revolution that the Grampus begins to disintegrate; the very
anchors that maintain it no longer hold, and the bulwarks threaten to let in the sea. In
fact, Pym states, "Our deck lay level with the sea, or rather we were encircled with a
towering ridge of foam, a portion of which swept over us every instant" (Poe, Narrative
122). The borders of the ship no longer exist, and in this state of abjection Pym slowly
becomes haunted by that which he has expelled. Phillipe Van Haute points out that
"according to Freud, the anxiety about being punished by the father expresses itself in
[the perverted patient] as an anxiety about being eaten up by him" (240). Pym himself
fears being eaten the most. He dreams he is about to be eaten by a "fierce Lion" with
"horrible teeth" (Narrative 66). During the dissolution of the Grampus he fears the
"continual presence of the sharks" no less than six times while he is adrift (154). The
sharks serve at times to be the "principle terror" (157) as Pym is "besieged on all sides
with sharks" (155). Moreover, Pym fears the "last horrible extremity" of being eaten by
his crew as being the "most horrible alternative which could enter into the mind of man"
(142). Pym states that these "fearful repast[s] .... may be imagined, but words have no
power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality" (146).
Perhaps the most uncanny moment of abjection in the text occurs when Pym
encounters the Dutch "hermaphrodite brig," a floating contradiction (Poe, Narrative
130).16 In an eerie echo of Geoffrey Crayon's encounter with the shipwreck, Pym sees
this ship at distance. In an uncanny tautology, however, Pym is also on a shipwreck. The
men on the brig "appeared to be looking at us" with one man "nodding to us in a cheerful
though rather odd way, and smiling constantly, so as to display a set of the most
brilliantly white teeth" (131). Poe inverts Crayon's encounter, bringing its uncanny
effect to the level of abjection.17 The brig itself is a manifestation of the interstitial-both
alive and dead. Crayon is on a whole vessel hoping to encounter its mirror, but finds a
shipwreck instead. Pym is on a shipwreck hoping to find a whole ship, but instead finds
a mirror. That mirror becomes marked by "a stench, such as the whole world has no
name for-no conception of-hellish-utterly suffocating-insufferable, inconceivable"
(132). Pym's stammering style of searching for a word to describe the smell for which
there is no name indicates the disintegration of the symbolic around the abject. His
sentences break down as he begins to experience the "triple horror" of the moment. That
"triple horror" seems to gush from the "most loathsome state of putrefaction," the
apparent gaze it projects onto Pym himself, and the horror Pym has of being devoured.
Pym's encounter with the corpses (and their smell) decomposes language itself, but
that he sees "a huge seagull, busily gorging itself with the horrible flesh, its bill and
talons deep buried, and its white plumage spattered all over with blood" recalls his
paranoia made manifest: his fear of being eaten. When the bird drops the unidentifiable
"clotted and liverlike substance," cannibalism enters his mind for the first time. It is only
with a "deep shudder" that he denies this impulse. He attempts to maintain the borders of
himself, but soon learns that the voluntary rejection of his prescriptive identity renders
him helpless and borderless. Pym does eventually give into the cannibalism later with his
fearful repast of Parker, just as he encounters the putrefying body of Augustus, which
also becomes a feast for the sharks, which at times invade the deck of the Grampus.
All borders break down. This moment comes to fruition when the smiling captain
turns and "looks" at Pym. "The eyes were gone, and the whole flesh around the mouth,
leaving the teeth utterly naked. This, then, was the smile which had cheered us on to
hope! This the-but I forbear" (Poe, Narrative 133). Pym literally is besieged on all
sides, and this moment cements his abjection. The putrid corpse bears its teeth
threateningly yet without intention, and the skull gazes with unseeing eyes that do not
exist and presumably have been devoured. Pym's final statement about this moment
appears both as a hesitation and an evocation-"but I forbear"; he does not wish to think
of the full import of the moment, and therefore calls upon the "I" to resist the abjection he
experiences. Too little, too late. In fact, this moment in the narrative confuses whether
the "I" refers to Pym or Poe. Pym can only conclude that "it is utterly useless to form
conjectures where all is involved, and will, no doubt, remain forever involved, in the
most appalling and unfathomable mystery" (134). Even the signifier seems to fall away
at this point, with the Real present simply in its unnamable effects.
It is little wonder that Pym moves unintentionally toward the Antarctic cataract. It
becomes the psychotopography of nothingness, of the Real experience of abjection. Jon
Hauss notes that the experience of the Antarctic in Poe "charts, spatially, the vanishing of
space. It is a geography marking the precise point at which geography itself becomes
impossible" (149). The landscape of the Antarctic, as Poe's endnote makes clear,
becomes a signifier itself, but it is a signifier that signifies nothing. The canyons that
spell out the "Ethiopian verbal root. 'To be shady'" and the Egyptian hieroglyphs and
Arabic verbal roots which mean "To be white" and "The region of the south" only serve
to undermine signification and "open a wide field for speculation and exciting
conjecture" (Poe, Narrative 241-242). Speculation, as the corpses of the Dutch brig
prove to Pym, only leads further into abjection. Since the maelstrom "engulfs and
destroys all familiar geographies" yet creates "absolutely nothing" (Hauss 156), Pym's
being swallowed by the Antarctic cataract appears as the full realization of abjection
(though the text ends before that final, seemingly inevitable moment). Returning to the
Platonic chora, Pym finds he has abjected himself into oblivion, into what Leslie Fiedler
describes as "a death without resurrection, a sterile, white womb from which there is no
In his discussion of H. P. Lovecraft's narrators, Eduardo Haro Ibars asks an
intriguing question when he tries to understand their motives-"how do you hate the
course of history?" (27). If one sees "the course of history" as a narrative, however, then
one can counteract, undermine, and rupture that narrative so as to throw its teleological
trajectory into chaos. Perhaps that is why the narration of Edgar Allan Poe's "MS. Found
in a Bottle" (1833) becomes increasingly disjunctive, episodic, and transitory as it
progresses. Perhaps that is why its plot appears to dissolve into the imminent moment as
the ghost ship flows toward and eventually descends into an Antarctic maelstrom that
emerges from beneath the ice. Perhaps Poe accelerates his narrative in such a way as to
subvert what he perceived to be the Boston literary narrative that has been prescripted for
him, a narrative he could never fulfill because of his geographic estrangement from the
Transcendentalist movement. To attribute that much political ideology to one of Poe's
first published tales does not imply authorial intention. Rather, it implies more of an
authorial/cultural narrative effect that manifests itself within an emerging literary genre
of an equally emerging nation caught under the shadow of mythic postcolonial self-
The events of Poe's spectral sea narrative are straightforward. Poe's narrator,
wealthy but estranged and restless, boards a ship bound from Java to the Sunda Islands to
cure his "nervous restlessness" ("MS." 624). After a period of dead calm and an abrupt
change in weather, a deadly hurricane suddenly swamps the ship, destroying all of the
crew except the narrator and an "old Swede." For the following "five days and nights,"
the ship and its surviving crew are tossed about in the storm and carried "farther to the
southward than any previous navigators" (625). Eventually, the narrator and the Swede
sight an enormous ship-a Flying Dutchman- riding the crest of an even larger wave
that is about to demolish their vessel. The impact of the Dutchman on the narrator's ship
catapults him "upon the rigging of the stranger" (626). After hiding in the hold of the
ship, he begins to keep journal of his observations. While he is on the ship, the narrator
encounters the members of the crew, but they refuse to see him or acknowledge his
presence. Carried further south by the "influence of some strong current, or impetuous
under-tow," the ship eventually plunges "madly within the grasp of [a] whirlpool" (628-
According to Paul Ricoeur, "The plot of a narrative 'grasps together' and
integrates into one whole and complete story multiple and scattered events, thereby
schematizing the intelligible signification attached to the narrative taken as a whole" (x).
Poe's narrative approach in "MS. Found in a Bottle" fractures that schematization in
order to return, as much as possible to the "Real" time of the narrator's abject experience.
That return cannot happen unless the narrative folds over itself, forcing a temporal
transgression that undermines symbolic representation in narrative by pushing it to its
limit. If a coherent plot is "the privileged means by which we re-configure our confused,
unformed, and at the limit mute temporal experience," as Ricoeur points out, then the
effect of"MS. Found in a Bottle" keeps the reader "confused, unformed, and at the limit"
in the temporal experience of the narration (xi).
Poe's narrator tells his readers, "I shall from time to time continue this journal"
("MS." 627). This promise has several implications. On one level, it states that the
narrator will sporadically write his observations when he can. On another level, it marks
the acceleration and perforation of the narrative into fugitive descriptions a disjunctive
present rather than of coherent past events. On still another level, it announces that the
narrative is itself the manuscript found in a bottle, rather than being a narrative about a
manuscript found in a bottle; it becomes the thing it describes. As a result, Poe's
narrative "journal" literally continues "from time to time"-it moves from a narrative
time that recounts the genealogical history of the event to the immanent experiential time
of the moment.
Poe's status as a southern writer in the face of the dominant Boston
Transcendentalists stymied his efforts to publish in what was the literary heart of the
emerging nation, and thus stoked the embers that smoldered from his personal
relationship with Boston, what Priscilla Wald terms Poe's "cultural anxiety" (5). Arthur
Hobson Quinn notes that "the New England group, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier,
Holmes, and Lowell, who in the twelve years from 1837 to 1849 had become dominant, .
. ruled from Boston, Cambridge, or Concord" (615).18 Moreover, Silverman notes that
the "moral and ethical preoccupations of Transcendentalist thinking, with its long roots in
Puritan New England, had little appeal to Poe" because of their "optimism, belief in
social progress, their obscurantism, and their moralistic aesthetic views" (265).
Considering that Poe viewed the teleological "moralistic aesthetic views" of the
Transcendentalists as "Taste on her death-bed," one can see the narrative constraints that
he faced, both psychically and professionally. It is little wonder that his works seek to
embody bordering spaces, shifting time, and destructive paradoxes. That the Flying
Dutchman descends into "the grasp of a whirlpool" appears appropriate, since the
meeting of opposing currents produces it (628-629).
In his discussion of Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Deleuze notes how
Melville uses the agrammatical structure ofBartleby's reply to "[carve] out a foreign
language within a language" ("Bartleby" 71). This "foreign language," Deleuze states,
"runs beneath English and carries it off: it is the OUTLANDISH or Deterritorialized" (72).
Analogously, Poe's story, thirty years earlier, describes a field of abjection that outstrips
itself, spectralizing the preceding narration. Consequently, the narrative subverts linear
time and attacks the teleological representations that absorb it (such as genealogical,
geographic, or literary significations). By doing so, Poe effaces the stories that have not
yet been written, and affords the subject an annihilating freedom. Elizabeth Grosz points
out that time "disappears in our representations, whether scientific or artistic, historical or
contemporary, where it is tied to, bound up in, and represented by means of space and
spatiality. It suffers, or produces, a double displacement: from becoming to being, and
from temporal to spatial" (2). Through accelerating his narrative, Poe collapses time and
prevents that displacement. He preserves the narrative as an abject becoming by
inhibiting its absorption into representation.
Donald Stauffer notes how the story shifts in style from the "plausible" to the
"arabesque," noting "Poe has managed to give his tale psychological depth by marking
the progression of the narrator's disintegration of mind with a corresponding progression
of style" (108, 120). Stauffer's thematic conclusions about Poe's change in style appear
more like symptoms of an attempt to hollow out signification. "MS. Found in a Bottle" is
not a story with a teleological theme; the narration ends too abruptly for it to have one.
In addition, there is no resolution, no character development. There is only the imminent
experiential terror that accelerates from moment to moment as the tale progresses,
ghosting any of the preceding narration and pushing the current words to their narrative
limit. Stauffer's analysis of the tale provides an interesting structural framework that
helps to highlight the point of acceleration in the narrative. He breaks the tale into its 27
paragraphs and shows how "the mingling of the .. styles forms an alternating pattern,
heavily plausible at the outset and heavily arabesque at the end" (119). The story shifts
from being a coherent, memory-based narrative (what Stauffer calls "plausible") to a
fragmented present ("arabesque") at paragraph 14. Yet Stauffer's terms-"plausibility"
and its complement "verisimilitude"-have a relation to the idea of "truth" rather than of
time or immanence. "Truth" relates more to what Poe wrote against, the
Transcendentalist moral teleology as it manifested itself in literature. Poe's narrative
seeks to obscure truth and move the narrative from transcendence to transgression.
In paragraph 14, the narrator begins in the distant past tense by saying "It is long
since I first trod the deck of this terrible ship" ("MS." 627, emphasis added). He then
moves on to say,
It was not long ago that I ventured into the captain's cabin, and took thence the
materials with which I write, and have written. I shallfrom time to time continue
this journal. It is true that I may not find an opportunity of transmitting it to the
world, but I will not fail to make the endeavour. At the last moment I will enclose
the MS. in a bottle and cast it within the sea. (627, emphasis added)
The narration moves from the distant past, to the recent past, to the present, to the
indefinite present perfect, to the future, to the conditional future, back to the future, and
up to the "last moment" in four sentences. The narrative time of the story begins to
impel itself and the reader forward with the same velocity that the narrator is hurled onto
the Dutchman. Moreover, the "last moment" exists in the future of the narrative,
indicating that the narration has reached its limit and has begun to paradoxically fold over
itself, since the "last moment" can also be the one that has just come before the present
Effectively this strategy collapses time so that "Things succeed each other in
diverse times, but they are also simultaneous in the same time, and they subsist in an
indeterminate time" (Deleuze, "On Four" 28). Thus the tale accelerates out of time, to
what Francois Peraldi terms "mythical time" and what Michael Warner calls, in
discussing Irving's works, "pirate time" (Peraldi 339; Warner 798). It is "the kind of
time psychotic subjects are sometimes trapped in for longer or shorter periods, which
they can measure only once they are capable of symbolizing their experience (Peraldi
339-340). It is in this time that "markers of historicity do not move in progressive
secular time. Remnants of the past surface as uncanny interruptions, decay happens at
uneven rates, and whole eras seem embalmed in parallel temporalities" (Warner 798).
Though Peraldi associates his term with the Lacanian Imaginary, Poe's narrative brings
that time and overlaps it with the Real by transforming the tale into the actual artifact,
causing it to be an "uncanny interruption." Thus, the narrative time moves from mythic
time through fictional time while it pressures the borders of historical time. The tale
therefore expresses the time of the abject. The Narrative ofArthur Gordon Pym takes on
this pattern of narrative time as well in the final chapter, as Pym drifts towards the
Just before this narrative shift, at the start of the journal/epistolary style of the
narration, the narrator experiences "a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which
the lessons of by-gone time are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer
me no key" (Poe, "MS." 627). The narrator moves from the hierarchical, sequential time
to an abject compression of time where "Permanence, succession, and simultaneity ...
are fragments [eclats] of time" (Deleuze, "On Four" 28). Poe plays with the narrative
time, hastening it as the events become jumbled to the point where ontological readings
(such as those that might reveal a theme or "moral") become not only impossible, but
also useless and irrelevant. In so doing the narrative becomes an involuted "Aeon"- an
imminent present that exists within "the indefinite time of the event, the floating line that
knows only speeds and continually divides that which transpires into an already-there that
is at the same time not-yet-here, a simultaneous too-late and too-early, a something that is
both going to happen and has just happened" (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus
This narrative style preserves the dialogical aspect of the narrative, rendering it
unstable as a representational narration. What marks Poe's text is that it remains a
narrative of contradictions on multiple levels. Yet, such contradictions do not negate
each other as much as they free the narration to catch up with itself. The tale's epigraph,
for example, comes from Philippe Quinault: "Qui n'a plus qu'un moment a vivre / N'a
plus rien a dissimuler" (Poe, "MS." 623).19 The idea that one "has only one more
moment to live" hints at the imminent temporality of the ending of the tale, and that there
is "nothing more to dissimulate" undercuts the pretext of the story. The "MS. Found in a
Bottle" is itself a fiction, a dissimulation. Moreover, it is a dissimulation that the
acceleration of the narrative strips away on one level, and reaffirms on another. Consider
the title of the tale. Harold Beaver notes that it "operates as a stage direction, framing
theatrical imagery" ("Doodling" 36). Yet, this aspect of the title does not become
apparent until the fourteenth paragraph of the story, when the narrator reveals that he will
"from time to time continue this journal" (Poe, "MS." 627).
The narrator states in the opening sentence, "Of my country and my family I have
little to say" (623, emphasis added). That the story invokes speech implies, at first, that
the narrator is living and present to tell the story, much like the confessional style of
Poe's other tales. Even so, the narrator still only has "little to say"; he is in the process of
receding from the imposed structure of the symbolic order. Moreover, like most of Poe's
narrators, he has indeterminate origins-he has erased or refuses to represent his own
past to the reader and thus to himself. The narrator goes on to say he is a skeptic, "lest
the incredible tale I have to tell should be considered rather the raving of a crude
imagination ." (emphasis added). Thus, one would presume from the title that the tale
is about a manuscript found in a bottle. The reader's assumption, then, becomes the
dissimulation as the narrative accelerates-the narrative shift forces the tale to become
the very subject of its title.
The first part of the narration, with its emphasis on "telling," imparts a imminent
"conversational" presence of the author while it recounts a coherent sequence of past
events-from boarding the freighter to being hurled onto the Dutchman. As the narrative
accelerates to the present moment after paragraph 13, its emphasis on the materiality of
the text, that is, its continual references to writing rather than telling and its becoming the
manuscript itself, ghosts the existence of the narrator as a voice from the past. As Jon
Hauss puts it, "Poe would keep us conscious ... that the writer of 'MS.' was erased ...
at the very moment he surrendered his text to others. When we read his words, he is
necessarily ... already dead" (155). The same assumption happens inPym, but in a more
subtle way. Though Pym's final words in the narration are not necessarily his last, he is
dead by the time we read them, as Poe's ending note indicates. Yet the preface leads the
reader to believe that Pym is still alive, since he introduces the narration. Thus, though
Pym may have survived the events of the narrative, he does not survive the composition
of the text, leaving both his survival and his death unexplained.
Poe preferred to have such an effect in his writing, as he states in "The Philosophy
of Composition," a literary work should not be "too long to be read at one sitting," lest it
"dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression" (979).
Poe's "unity of impression" has nothing to do with homogeneity or transcendence.
Rather, it is a form of writerly becoming on an emotive level that forces the reader to
share the literal moment with the narrator. Roland Barthes uses the term writerlyy"
("scriptible ") to describe a text that is "a productive (and no longer a representative) one"
that exists as "a perpetual present, upon which no language (which would inevitably
make it past) can be superimposed" (S/Z 5). To use Barthes's description to describe
Poe's early short story might seem excessive, but Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle" is not a
complete writerlyy" text. Rather, it accelerates in its present narration in order to become
one. It is a narrative textual becoming.2 Jon Hauss notes that "The writer of the 'MS.'
tells us that we will never know which: either our discoveries of meaning are glimpses
into a grand poetical design ... or they are imaginary constructions pieced together from
random fragments floated our way through 'ungoverned chance'" (144). Either way, one
cannot construct a teleological narrative of representation from the "discoveries of
meaning" the tale imparts.
Hauss's observations reflect Poe's own conceptions about "a distinct limit, as
regards length, to all works of literary art-the limit of a single sitting" ("Philosophy"
980). In fact, Poe points out that with "certain classes of prose composition"-those that
"[demand] no unity" this "limit may be advantageously overpassed." Poe argues for a
literature of the moment. Certain prose (Poe uses the example of Robinson Crusoe) may
exceed the limit because they are episodic-they are what Barthes would call "the
novelistic without the novel" (S/Z 5). Such prose demands no unity because it is already
comprised of multiple unities. This narrative style appears to be, as Deleuze terms it,
"the language of the Whale" ("Bartleby" 72). Such a comparison makes sense
considering the staccato-style narrative of Moby-Dick, itself seemingly written in the
same world as Pym's Narrative-a style that is pioneered in America by the earlier
fantastic sea-fictions of Poe. What "Bartleby" does with language, then, it seems "MS.
Found in a Bottle" does with narrative-pushes it to its representational limit so that
things "remain enigmatic yet nonarbitrary: in short, a new logic, definitely a logic, but
one that grasps the innermost depths of life and death without leading us back to reason"
(82). Reason leads to genealogy, ontology, and teleology, constructing a "truth" or moral
that constrains and restricts interpretive flows with its structures, imprisoning the subject
within the defiles of the symbolic.
Poe's narrator describes his situation on the Dutchman at one point by stating, "We
are surely doomed to hover upon the brink of Eternity" ("MS." 628). The fate of the
narrator becomes the fate of the reader. The reader can only follow the narration up to its
limit, never reaching a climax or a conclusion. In discussing the agrammaticality of
Bartleby, Deleuze argues that "its abrupt termination, NOT TO, which leaves what it
rejects undetermined, confers upon it the character of a radical, a kind of limit-function"
(68). That "limit-function" of Poe's short story creates an aporia as it folds into itself.
That aporic becoming of narration "places us in relation with something unknowable and
imperceptible ... because it speaks of a past about which it can no longer provide us
knowledge" (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus, 193). It makes sense, given
Deleuze's observations about the detective novel, that Poe has been credited with the
founding of the genre. Yet more important to notice is how Poe conflates temporal and
signifying narrative elements in the becoming narrative of the short story, particularly
"Ms. Found in a Bottle." Poe's short story narrative has both the "fundamental relation
to secrecy .. the form of the secret, which remains impenetrable" of the novella and the
"relation to discovery .. the form of discovery" of the tale.
These two elements are best illustrated by a moment from the story. Poe's narrator
"unwittingly [daubs] the edges of a neatly folded studding-sail" ("MS." 627). When the
sail is "bent upon the ship the thoughtless touches of the brush are spread out into the
word DISCOVERY." This event forces the narrator to consider whether "such things are
the operation of ungoverned chance." Poe never allows for an answer, just as he never
writes an editorial introduction of how the manuscript came to be found-to do so would
be to destroy the narrative becoming that the story manifests. What he does offer,
however, is the experiential aporia that results from an accelerating collapse of signifier
and signified. The signifier "DISCOVERY" accelerates to become its signified-the word
becomes a discovery unfolded on the sail. Yet, the narrator, in his discovery, discovers
nothing, or rather, he reaches the limit of discovery. Such an instance undoes the logos
and discloses the abject.
For Poe, reaching the limit of the narration, convoluting signifier and signified so
that the representational system becomes meaning-less, is a form of narrative forgetting
that amplifies the narratively present moment. "MS. Found in a Bottle" telescopes into a
narrative becoming of"antimemory" (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus 21).
Hence, systems of representation begin to break down as the narrative accelerates to the
present, or rather, they expand to include gaps that undo those systems. The narrator
states that the crew "muttered ... in a low broken tone, some words of a language which
I could not understand" ("MS." 626). Later on, he is "aghast at the warring of wind and
ocean, to convey any idea of which the words tornado and simoom are trivial and
ineffective" (628). These words are not "ineffective" when Poe uses them earlier in the
narration-"every appearance warranted me in apprehending a Simoom" (624). The
term is misapplied; the narrator uses it to describe a hurricane rather than the dry desert
wind it represents. Language, as a form of representation, disintegrates as the narration
accelerates. Even the abbreviation "MS." in the title obscures the meaning of the
document it represents-one can apply it to both "message" and "manuscript."
This shift, which the narrator finds difficult to comprehend, seems why the
Dutchman is so well suited to traveling in abject space, allowing it to "[bear] up under
press of sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea, and of that ungovernable hurricane"
("MS." 626). Indeed, when the narrator first spots the Dutchman it hovers "upon the very
verge of the precipitous decent," riding the crest of a wave while also being able to "hove
in stays"-that is, it is able to move freely, to "go about" as it rides upon the edge.
Furthermore, the narrator notes of the ship, "what she is not, I can easily perceive-what
she is I fear it is impossible to say" (627). The Dutchman defies representation, keeping
its purpose unknown. Indeed, even the body of the ship is constructed with gaps in its
hull. The narrator notes the "extreme porousness" that renders it "unfit to the purpose to
which it has been applied." The Dutchman is a floating fractal, similar to the
Sierpensky's sponge Deleuze and Guattari cite as a mathematical becoming. The
Dutchman has dimensions "that are fractional rather than a whole" (486-487). If the ship
is "less than a volume and more than a surface," then similarly Poe's story is more than a
tale and less than a novella-or rather, it is more than a moment but less than a narrative.
It exists in a literary "zone ofindiscernibility proper to 'becoming'" (488). It is a
That the story is a sea-narrative reflects its representational transgression, then,
because as Deleuze and Guattari point out, "the sea is a smooth space par excellence,"
even if it one of the first spaces to encounter representation or "strict striation" (Thousand
Plateaus 479). The Dutchman does not appear to codify the sea, given its "decayed
charts of navigation" ("MS. 626), "mouldering instruments of science, and obsolete long-
forgotten charts" (628). The story does not seek to map that territory but rather, through
its descriptions, keeps it shrouded as a geographical becoming. It is a world of flow,
"strong current," and "impetuous undertow" with "chaos of foamless water" and
"stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky .. looking like the
walls of the universe" (628). Poe brings his readers to the edge of representation,
undermining both geographical and literary representation, projecting the
psychotopography of the abject.
The tale must halt in the maelstrom, as Hauss notes, because "the maelstrom is
where our geography ends, in perfect and absolute nothingness, before some new
geography's efflorescence" (146). But the tale cannot reach the maelstrom-the marine
event produced of flows and void-without first accelerating the narrative so that its
meaning becomes meaningless. The narrative strips away the ontological and
teleological elements of narrative to carve out a literary space for itself that is between
the thing and its representation, the moment and its narration, the instant and its
chronology, the place and its geography.
It would be incorrect to say that Poe intended to create this literary milieu. Rather,
he fled to it from the systems of representation that confined him and he began to burrow
underneath them to enlarge it. "At a time when James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo
Emerson, and many other American writers and painters were creating a feeling of space
and self-reliant freedom," Silverman observes, "[Poe] was creating ... a mythology of
enclosure, constriction, and victimization" (228). By collapsing sequential and coherent
time, Poe attacks foundations of the systems of representation that constrained him. That
he did it with the sea-narrative imparted a new milieu for the literary genre of the short
story, and created a map for literary production founded-foundering-on the abject:
imminent, looming space.