- Mapping Amazement:John Irwin and the Calculus of Speculation
. . . modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake . . .—Borges, "The Circular Ruins"
John Irwin's ambitious new book The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story looks to answer a fundamental question which is put simply but then very splendidly amplified. In play at first and primarily are the detective tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges. These imply much else, as Irwin will persuasively demonstrate. But to begin, this is his inquiry: "If [End Page 343] the point of an analytic detective story is the deductive solution of a mystery, how does the writer keep that solution from exhausting the reader's interest in that story?" These texts empty out their own challenge to our reading; why then do we turn back into them? What draws us, as private readers and as a culture universally defined by literary texts at least since the eighteenth century, to celebrated questions whose celebrated answers we already know perfectly well? All of us remember, and can never forget, where the purloined letter is hidden, or what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls. What textual, what aesthetic or structural perspectives can so inexhaustibly interest and clarify us, when their point seems to be an absolute and irreducible solution to the bewilderments they plait? Is this eternal return a paradigm of representation and of reading?
It is neither depth of character nor subtlety of plot that distinguish the genre: Irwin makes this clear right at the start. Like some gothic fiction the analytic detective story demystifies its world, unraveling apparently irreducible supernatural or divine secrets by mundane and mechanical procedures. This sort of fiction does seem designed to deplete itself; that is its nature and (seemingly) its textual agency. So our dedicated return to texts like Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (in one major line of development, through the pivotal theoretical positions advanced by Lacan, then Derrida, then Barbara Johnson, and here again in a reprise by Irwin himself) is a challenge to explain. There seems something deeply remystifying in this encounter with "potential infinities of interpretation," as Irwin will argue. Why is the exhausted so inexhaustible? What kind of reading is this?
It's an interesting word, "read." The meaning most of us would take as primary, "To apprehend mentally the meaning of written or other characters; to be engaged in doing this; to be occupied in perusing a book, etc.", does not appear until late in the OED entry, as the fifteenth possibility. What comes first is of course the etymology, which tells us that "read" probably derives from the ancient Sanskrit root radh-, meaning to succeed or accomplish. Before it gives the meaning most familiar to us, the meaning we learn when we are five or six years old and already beginning to be the creatures of educational institutions and linear thinking, a series of other meanings is suggested: to consider; to make out the meaning of a dream or riddle; to see into the future; to have an idea, to be able to understand; even to "teach or impart . . . to another." These are the possibilities we learn to delight in later on, as a discipline, after the common meaning has all but eclipsed the word's relation to mystery. Yet the sense we are likely to think of first, the exercise [End Page 344] of following written signs through a syntactical sequence to find a message or a story, comes to us relatively late in the word's history, somewhere around the ninth or tenth century AD, and starts to flourish after the invention of printing and the early beginnings of literacy for the masses.
But it is very helpful to remember that at first, "reading" must have been the province of magi, those who could best tell us how to accomplish and succeed. The first readers, in the first sense, must have been hierophants...