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JOHN T. IRWIN Handedness and the Self: Poe's Chess Player close reader of Poe's detective stories soon discovers that the .real mystery in these tales turns not so much upon the startling identity of the killer in the Rue Morgue or the actual cause of Marie Rogêt's death or the manner in which the purloined letter is concealed by the Minister D_________ (all of which are soluble), as upon the analytic power itself, that mysterious mental ability to solve a mystety. Starting with the narrator's opening argument in the first Dupin story that "the mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves , but little susceptible of analysis,"1 Poe expands his analysis of the analytic power over the course of the three tales to include the mysteries of the mind-body relationship and the structure of the self. In making the nature of human self-consciousness the real object of investigation in the Dupin stories, Poe is simply continuing and refining a thematic concern that had been present from the beginning of his career as a prose writer. Indeed, some five years before publishing the first Dupin story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe made what is perhaps his most explicit examination of the criteria of mental activity in an 1836 essay entitled "Maelzel's Chess Player." In the essay Poe presents a lengthy analysis of the chess-playing automaton invented by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1 769 and exhibited during the 1820s and '30s in the United States by Johann Maelzel, an inventor of musical automata and a one time friend and business partner of Beethoven. Poe's analysis—which critics frequently point to as a préfiguration of the analytic method of the three Dupin stories—is Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 1, Spring 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 John T Irwin designed to solve the mystety of the automaton by showing that it is a hoax, that its chess playing is the work not of a mechanical but of a human agency. The automaton consisted of a slightly larger than lifesized figure of a turbaned Turk seated behind a wooden cabinet. The cabinet's interior was filled with machinery that could be exhibited during a public performance by means of panels in the cabinet's front. The chessboard was located on top of the cabinet directly in front of the automaton who, to the accompaniment of mechanical noises from the interior of the cabinet, moved the pieces with his left hand. Poe contends that the automaton is not really actuated by the machinery in the cabinet but by a man ingeniously concealed behind the machinery. He suggests that once the exhibition of the machinety is completed and the panels in the front of the cabinet closed, the "man within . . . gets up into the body of the Turk just so high as to bring his eyes above the level of the chess-board. ... In this position he sees the chessboard through the bosom of the Turk which is of gauze. Bringing his right atm across his breast he actuates the little machinery necessary to guide the left arm and the fingers of the figure."2 To support his contention , Poe points out first of all that the automaton's manner of playing chess exhibits the characteristics of human rather than mechanical activity . For example, "the moves of the Turk are not made at regular intervals of time, but accommodate themselves to the moves of the antagonist" (14:25), the assumption being that temporal regularity is essential to the workings of a machine and that the temporal variability displayed by the automaton in adjusting the intervals between its moves not only to the intervals between the opponent's moves but to the moves' complexity is something beyond the scope of a pure mechanism and in the realm of mind. Poe's line of argument—in its elaboration of the antithetical qualities characterizing the opposition between a human mind and "a pure machine" (qualities such as temporal variability versus temporal regularity)—involves an implicit analysis of the human analytic power, and as such, prefigures the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-28
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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