Saturday, May 4, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 11: Edgar Allan Poe, The Domain of Arnheim (#70)

I forgot to mention what yesterday's headnote taught me, which is that the Story of the Week is open to suggestions. Wait, I'm reading a story picked by just some schmo on the street?

Edgar Allan Poe, "The Domain of Arnheim" (1847) from Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales:
Today's reading is from that contemporary of Lincoln who I read yesterday: Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks, random number generator! First, I should confess that Poe was my first literary hero--clever riddles, hard language, trance-inducing rhymes, what's not to love?

I even loved the stories that don't get taught much in public school, like his comedy pieces and his landscape stories. That doesn't mean I think Poe should be represented primarily by this landscape story: it may be an exceptional story in more ways than we want it to be. (The LoA also has "Hop-Frog" up. Oh well, at least has all his stuff up if you want more.) "The Domain of Arnheim" is a lot closer to his "Philosophy of Furniture" or his essays on Stonehenge and road-paving: a guy inherits a huge amount of money and decides to use it towards creating a perfect landscape--and the second half of the story is a description of that landscape that probably should be drawn.

Now, if you've read Poe's other works, "The Domain of Arnheim" can be very interesting and connected to his other works:

  • he's got the same interest in rule-bound vs. situation-bound philosophy that go through his detective tales (and even there his interest in morality shades over into aesthetics); 
  • there are a few drops of mass vs. individual stuff, which is always interesting in Poe--a mass/commercial writer who also felt he was a man of genius; 
  • his interest in scale and perception comes out here as it does in "The Sphinx" and "The Spectacles";
  • there's his interest in breaking down the world according to mathematical laws, such that we get to hear how much the rich inheritor makes per minute, or how artists understand beauty in the same way that mathematicians understand math; etc.
Taken as itself, though, this is a story that, as Poe would say, does not allow itself to be read. A large part of that is Poe's style, which is all interruption, equivocationary and explanatory sub-clauses, and delays. Poe will go on for paragraphs about what something isn't, before he remembers to tell us what something is. (Damn, so that's where I got that from!)

For instance, Ellison, that inheritor, has a poetic soul that gets expressed not in poetry or in music--though he loves poetry and music; and not in sculpture or painting, which if you think about it, might fit in well with Ellison's idea of beauty.... And then eventually we get told that he's a landscape gardener.

That's a little deflationary and it's even more so when Poe describes this experience of the landscape which is so carefully managed that you realize today's equivalent would be a theme park ride. Well, why not? Poe--always interested in how things affect the audience--could have been one of the best designers of theme park rides.

Curiously, in all his description of the landscape, Poe focuses on sight: we hear about color, shade, shape, form, illumination. We hear a little bit about the mysterious music, but nothing about what all those flowers smell like or how it feels.

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