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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, October 21, 2010

STEAL my beating heart (and other tales from the cryptographer)

First, my apologies for the outrageous pun in the Title of this post, you will have to believe me that it was not (at first) conscious---I was going to use the word "steal" for reasons which will be apparent from my discussion below, and only after I plugged the word into the Title did I realize that I had inadvertently punned on "steal" and "still". Which goes to show that the best (and the worst) puns are probably all bubbling up from the unconscious, but...the best (or worst) of all worlds comes when the unconscious becomes conscious and then can be further sculpted before display.

Anyway....I am back for an update on my post the other day in which I made the case for Edgar Alan Poe having intentionally but covertly alluded to Hamlet in Poe's famous story The Tell-Tale Heart.

I gave my talk to a small but attentive crowd of patrons at the Broward County North Regional Library as part of the celebration of Poe's writing this month in what is called "the Big Read", and two interesting things happened:

First, I made one inadvertent error in my presentation, when I reported that after Hamlet stabs Polonius through the arras (why say "curtain" when you can say "arras"!), Hamlet proceeds to chop up Polonius's body and hide it for a while, the same way that Poe's narrator does with the poor old man's body.

The hand of an eagle-eared member of my audience immediately shot up, and she informed me that Hamlet does not chop up Polonius's body. I started to argue with her, and then realized she was right, I had misremembered--but.....just as quickly i realized that this was not a problem, in fact it was BETTER for my argument of an intentional Poe allusion than the way I had initially (mistakenly) argued it.

Why? Because even though Hamlet (in all its versions, the bastardized Q1, the complete Q2 and the virtually complete First Folio) does not DISmember Polonius, I REmembered that in Saxo Grammaticus's saga Amleth (yes, that is not a typo, it is Hamlet with the first letter transposed to the end of the name), the Amleth DOES dismember the Polonius character--and what's more, he boils the body parts and feeds them to the pigs!

So, what this means is that Poe was not only a devotee of the text of Hamlet, he was ALSO a Hamlet SCHOLAR, because his version points to Saxo Grammaticus's saga, showing that Poe KNEW about Saxo Grammaticus--which is hardly common knowledge today in Shakespeare circles, but which in 1840 was RARE knowledge indeed!

That's the first vignette. The second is equally cool, in a geeky sort of way. I realized after my presentation that I had failed to see the full extent of ANOTHER wonderful Poe allusion to Hamlet, in one of Poe's Dupin stories, The Purloined Letter, which I briefly mentioned in my earlier post cited above.

Here is the part I did not see before. I realized that Poe, who loved cryptography, had played a very very subtle anagramming game in his title, the same way he used the title of The Tell-Tale Heart to point to Hamlet (via Henry IV Part 2).

Here's the question to answer: What word precisely describes the ROLE of DUPIN in THE PURLOINED LETTER?

And the answer is......


And before you say, that's just a coincidence, look at what the arrogant Auguste Dupin does in The Purloined Letter. He covertly substitutes a LETTER (in the sense of a written communication in ink written on paper, and sent by one person to another) in order to defeat the blackmailing scheme of the bad guy without the bad guy realizing it.

And what has Poe done with the title of this story? Exactly the same thing! He has covertly substituted (or jumbled) LETTERS (in the sense of letters of the alphabet) and thereby changed the meaning of what is written.

And the punchline connects back to Hamlet. Dupin's letter substitution hoists the bad guy on his own petard (the way Hamlet did to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and Poe's word game in a sense hoists the reader on HIS own petard, by concealing this hidden wordgame, leaving the unaware reader in the dark about another layer of meaning in the story.

All of which is to the greater glory of Poe and his idol, Shakespeare, and all of which only further bolsters my claim that Poe did all of this entirely off the radar screen of every Poe expert out there.

Sometimes the most interesting mysteries in mystery stories are those which the writer never overtly demystifies.

Cheers, ARNIE

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