“Es lässt sich nicht lesen”: Poe and the Inscrutable




Tally, Robert T., Jr.

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American Literature Association


Poe begins and ends his enigmatic study of the man of the crowd with the phrase, applied to a German book, “it does not permit itself to be read.” The same observation might apply to much of Poe’s own work, in which inscrutability becomes the very mode of reading. Poe’s work actively defies interpretation, at times subtly and at others overtly undermining the reader’s assumptions that the story’s meaning will reveal itself. Poe’s texts frustrate the desire for comprehension. In his first tale, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the unnamed narrator’s thrill of “discovery” descends into the unknown and unknowable. In tales of terror, Poe deliberately puzzles his readers, leading them to imagine a stable meaning that then will not hold. The horror of Poe’s tales lies not in a particular fright, but in a general mood of uncertainty. Again and again, Poe presents the arcane, exotic, otherworldly, unique, but he refuses to play the anthropologist, explicating the unknown and bringing it into a safe and familiar intellectual archive. Rather than offer a puzzle where one finds pleasure in figuring it out, Poe insists on the insoluble puzzling. The tales’ inscrutability is at the very heart of the reading. We, like Poe’s narrator in “The Man of the Crowd,” can marvel at the enigma before us, but we cannot understand. It may be that this is for the best; as that narrator notes, “perhaps it is one of the great mercies of God that es lässt sich nicht lesen.”



American literature, inscrutability, personal narrative, Poe, terror, knowledge, reading, English


Tally, R. T. (2008). “Es lässt sich nicht lesen”: Poe and the Inscrutable. Paper presented at the American Literature Association Conference, San Francisco, CA.


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