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ELH 72.3 (2005) 635-662

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Valdemar's Tongue, Poe's Telegraphy

University of British Columbia

Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" caused a stir when it first appeared in American magazines in December 1845; many readers were willing to believe the tale's first-person scientific account of a mesmeric experiment in deferring death which ends with an instantaneously putrefying body. While Poe did not seem actively interested in perpetrating "Valdemar" as a hoax, he played with his readers' desires to know whether it was true—"It does not become us, of course, to offer one word on the point at issue. . . . We leave it to speak for itself."1 This is Poe's sly joke, for precisely what the tale does through its most startling device, Valdemar's vibrating tongue, is speak for itself to utter into circulation the last, echoing word, a grotesque metacommunication: "I am dead." As Poe put it several years later in a pseudonymous self-review, "Valdemar" "perhaps made a greater 'sensation' than anything else he has written," and it has continued to surprise and attract readers: Poe's main twentieth-century editor Thomas Mabbott introduces "Valdemar" as a "repulsive masterpiece"; Jonathan Elmer, in his reading of the story, labels its climax "one of the most powerfully effective moments in all of Poe"; and the tale has been taken up by Barthes and Derrida.2

This essay reads Valdemar's tongue and its impossible utterances as figures for electromagnetic telegraphy and its unlikely communications, and takes up "Valdemar" in the context of Poe's other writing on mesmerism of the mid-1840s to unfold perceptions and experiences of this ambient technology.3 In part this essay tests a reading method that begins from an observation: at moments when some writers experience shifts in authorial status, their writing and poetics become particularly attentive to whatever publication means, and whatever publication means will be crucially informed by emerging technologies of reproduction or mediums of communication—not only print but also, in the mid-nineteenth-century, photography, telegraphy, and others, whether these are conceived as rival or competing media for print, or simply as newly available and making possible distinctive perceptual experiences.4 Between 1843 and 1846 (and especially from the fall of 1844 to the fall of the next year), Poe reached the highpoint of his [End Page 635] career, gaining new fame and infamy, and this moment coincides with his extensive treatment of mesmerism in the three tales and several entries in Marginalia that form my main texts in what follows: "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," "Mesmeric Revelation," and "Valdemar."5 Mesmerism offered Poe a way to theorize what a medium for writing could be or do at the moment when just such a new medium was visibly, and audibly, emerging, and he is especially drawn to think through these questions at a moment of transition in his own status as author (or medium).

Poe's writing makes audible a peculiar experience: Morse's telegraph offered its perceivers both code—dot and dash inscriptions on paper, in the early version of a recording telegraph—and a kind of sound and movement. The quiet, tap-tap sound, consistently cast as a voice that utters in the absence of the body that is its source, was distinct from other experiences of sound communication without visible sound source, such as thunder, cannon or gunfire, or yells and yodels, all of which depend on sound volume, spatial configuration, and sound wave propagation in the medium of air. Electromagnetic telegraphy communicated coded language by way of electrical signals propagated in the medium of wires and electricity, and its force, I'll suggest here, lay both in its binary code and in an extension in indexicality which enabled much faster transmission than previous writing or communication at a distance. The strangeness of telegraphic experience for we later users of telephones and CD players is in offering to perception a "voice" that, unlike these later audio technologies, is heard as already code or writing coming from an operator's fingers...