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ELH 67.4 (2000) 993-1009

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Poe and the Poetics of Opacity: Or, Another Way of Looking at that Black Bird

Richard Godden


Common to post-Saussurean accounts of language is the assumption that where the signified once stood, the signifier now stands, and that furthermore it is signifiers all the way down. The systematic assumption that language operates in the absence of an available signified has tended to produce practices of reading for which a certain dematerialization and abstraction are the inevitable concomitants of language's actual incapacity to refer. Yet it is arguable that where the absence of the referent is an easy assumption, too little concern may be shown for the residual vehemence with which signs attend to the world. To explore what may be in effect a turn towards reference by devious paths we must attend to opacities since it is in moments when meanings fail that, as psychoanalysis has insisted, the painful origin of that failure may be intimated. Of particular relevance here is the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, who have focused on language as a barrier or obstacle to understanding within which what is being obstructed is a situation "whose interpretation consists entirely in evaluating its resistance to meaning." 1 The words in which the event resides, if only as the pressure points left by its refusal of expression, are "defunct," words "relieved of their communicative function," but not, paradoxically, of their force. 2

Abraham and Torok describe a situation in which the impact of some traumatic event is such as to block the symbolic operation and to locate linguistic resistance to communication in phonic and graphic effects. Such effects obstruct direct articulation of the event, with heightened non-semantic features operating in the service of the need to conceal. One example chosen by Abraham and Torok in their exploration of Freud's Wolf Man case may serve to make the point: tieret (Russian, to rub) is taken to crystallize a four-year-old boy's trauma over witnessing his father fondling or rubbing his six-year-old sister. 3 At sixteen the sister commits suicide by swallowing mercury (Russian rtut). Abraham and Torok, noting two shared consonants ("r" and "t") and "the glottal [End Page 993] pronunciation t.r.t.," hear rtut as an oblique enunciation of tieret. 4 The girl swallows the word, objectified as mercury, and the boy disguises the word tieret in a visual image of a nursemaid scrubbing a floor (natieret, to rub down, to scrub, wax, to scrape, wound oneself). The word, with its freight of occluded events, silent within the image of domestic rubbing, causes the boy to achieve orgasm "in his father's place, as it were." 5 Whether or not one is persuaded by the ingenuity of Abraham and Torok's reading is not finally the point: the example is intended to illustrate how absolutely the event--the early scene of child abuse--has taken on phonic and graphic substance. Tieret and rtut are both "defunct" semantically, at least in terms of the scene they finally address, and yet because of that occluded site elements of each term remain semantically over-charged--theirs is, we might say, a forceful opacity. This turn away from language as communication--away from the presentation of what we might call a knowable event and toward an experience of the past as a kind of indeterminate force--encapsulates that need to conceal which characterizes the discourse of trauma. The event is repressed at the level of direct expression and can make itself felt again only in what Abraham and Torok call the "antisemantic" features of language. 6 Yet in what ways can such textual items be read when they aggressively occlude those elements which are normally read, replacing them with elements which customarily do not carry semantic burdens?

One way to approach this set of questions is to consider the degree to which a particular linguistic opacity articulates or denies access to the originating event against which it provides a preliminary psychic defense...


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