Janko Polić Kamov – Poe
Translated by Martin Mayhew
Turgenjev brings tears to our eyes; Maupassant tickles our lips; Poe makes our hair stand on end: the first grabs us by the heartstrings, the second by the spirit, the third by the nerves.
Tears, a smile and a chill – those are their comments, and not erudition. Because erudition is just the comment of comments and one hair of a sensitive intellectual is more competent in the understanding of Poe, than all the dissertations of bald professors.
To me Poe appears like an ominous bird, which has flown over the mute field of our inner self; and when it plunged somewhere into space, it left a shadow of its great, black wings behind itself. Or even like the memory of a cat’s eyes in the dark; of a dog’s tucked under tail on a deserted road; of a snake’s tongue on a scorched cliff; of the ridge of a dolphin on an oily surface and of the shadows of the deceased that pull us by the legs in a dream.
And this is why Poe is mysterious – because of the fear irrational like all beauty and mysticism, living buried in the hands of our psyche, where in the glory of the Absurd they were also born.
Poe’s life was quite miserable so even a Croatian literate could envy him. He was born in Baltimore, in the North American state of Maryland, which we only know about because of tobacco. He was educated in England; he attended university in America, causing trouble, until they drove him out. He went to Greece, to fight for freedom like Lord Byron, and some would say that he also went Saint Petersburg like Stjepan Radić. He returned to America and enrolled at the war academy, but instead of a general he just became – a journalist. His foster father died not leaving him two pennies to rub together, because on account of his boozing he was not worthy of his charity. He published a collection of poems – which went unnoticed. He became well-known only with the tale ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’, which secured him the prize as “the first of geniuses, who had written legibly”. From then on he worked at other people’s journals always imagining an independent newspaper, about which we know not, whether he had in mind to call it The Rooster or something else. He married his cousin Virginia, who then died of consumption.
Whereupon he hit the bottle, even joining the “temperance society” like all alcoholics. He was engaged for a second time, however the engagement was called off, and aged 40 they found him at the door of one drinking den penniless, with no baptismal certificate and incoherent. And as such he died in hospital in a state of “delirium tremens”.
Aubrey Beardsley’s portrait of Poe.
Poe’s drunkenness has already become universally known and is more popular here today than his works. However this is does not surprise us, being that the English breed is also very well-known for its “totality of inebriation”. It is known that Shakespeare was a drunk, about whom it is still not known today whether he “as such” even existed at all. And maybe the actor Edmund Kean too was a drunk just because of an anecdote, which they circulated about him.
However, Poe himself also wrote somewhere: “science has not yet shown nor proven, whether all of this is eminently and deeply the consequence of mental illness”. Whilst his exponent Charles Baudelaire: “A part of that, which today makes up, when we read Poe, our pleasure, killed him”. Did therefore this poet of the death rattle and horror, of living graves and corpses look into the glass for inspiration or oblivion – the enjoyment of vulgarity or the pleasures of the aesthetes?
It is a question, which can quite duly remain a question. However, this alcoholic has not one rakija drinker’s, compassionate little tear; not one shouter’s tendency of our tendentiously moral and drunken Croatia.
And even if his stories are like an event of fantasy, nevertheless they are narrated with a devastating logic and realism, which also makes up – at least for us – the essence of Poe’s art: i.e. Poe also uncovers the logic of the absurd – and hands us his fantasies like a verist.
Alphonse Legros – Illustration for ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ 1861
How and why did Berenice’s teeth become ideas? Because Egaeus sees only them, he senses only them and thinks only about them. Is this not really the palpable logic of all fixed ideas?… Yet when that prisoner (‘The Pit and the Pendulum’) sees, how the deadly scythe descends to cut him in half like a saveloy, he is amused with the thought, what kind of sound might be produced in his auditory nerve – the slitting of the cloth… But this is such a simple psychological verism that really each and every man is able to experience it. Because you don’t exactly have to be under the pressure of a deadly scythe, to come to such a thought: you could also be under the pressure of diarrhoea, that drives you down the street and you are afraid of its effect like a prisoner is of death… So, you count the windows and storeys or you are entertained by the smell, that is already touching your nose…
Illustration for Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ by Aubrey Beardsley, from Brighton, England. Click on pic for link to all his drawings.
The hero of ‘The Black Cat’ starts an evil deed, for which Poe has just a couple for lines; yet one feeling or thought before the act or after the act he describes over pages… Just as every deed (we can identify that with our most ordinary loves) – has its “maximum” of the spiritual life and psychological analysis in that “ante” and “post” – in motives and reflections – whilst in the very act – its “minimum”. However, when the same hero of ‘The Black Cat’ or ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ considers on the spot all the circumstances, he proves just that, that in great moments our intellect (like reasoning and calculation) in momentary ecstasy and tension just so, because our soul is, like emotion and feeling, absent. And so intellect can act and work – unconscionably.
Beardsley’s drawing for ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ Click on pic for more.
And the sounds, that manifest in the howling of the whirlwind, that swirls around Usher’s house – the sounds of darkness, mysteries and graves – and the beating of a heart buried in a carcass under the wooden floor (‘The Tell-Tale Heart’), which is getting stronger, always stronger – all of these sounds in all of their monstrous potentiality to us as to normal people are also all too well known. That the silence echoing in our ears like the clatter of cargo wagons and that that echo gets noisier the quieter we are – everyone knows, who has tried to listen to – the silence. And the man, who sings in seclusion at night at the top of his voice, thus drowning out only the echoes, which they fear with his sense of hearing coming from our bottomless soul. So that one also sees the fantasy, who looks into the darkness and inevitably reveals the logic of the absurd, if he has not absolutely peered into Đuro Arnold’s ‘Logic’ and ‘Psychology’.
These few random examples (and the book is full of all of them) become even more remarkable, when we place them under Poe’s artistic credo: that “modern – educational fiction” is namely the main heresy. And because Poe also had an artist’s conscience and an artist’s disposition, he did not infect his stories with tendentiousness and instructiveness, which makes a street poster of art, where that painted monkey with the painted bottle makes an advertisement for Volani Refosco and lye.
Poster for Volani’s Lye (Volanijeva-lužina)
So, today Poe is more modern than ever. His “art of nerves for nerves” has perhaps paved those paths where French poetry has gone with such elegance, which is generally called “symbolism”. That poetry, namely, full more with sensitivity than feelings, more taciturn and less emotional, which being scared and crying has written verses pale, gentle and hazy like the mists, that obscure our eyes, our mountains and our universe… However, Poe spent more time being scared than crying.
Poe was frightening. And so he also paved newer ways, down which that dramatist André de Lorde is going, this – what’s his name Albert Sorel – “the distiller of anxiety and the alchemist of uneasiness”, and Henri de Régnier “the terrorist”. And in this frightening and terrifying Poe’s tears probably drowned in a torrent of deathly sweat.
Poe has remained the poet of fear.
So as Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević captured a tear with the vulgar alcoholics and everyday spinsters of literature for those who still have no moustaches nor stomachs; as Chekhov captured laughter with the Auguste clowns and cinema of literature for those, who long ago had already grown both moustaches and a stomach – so Poe captured the horror in religion and the circus and from it made an artistic sensation, which everyone might enjoy, if they have that “artist’s ability”, which “ages” our old and young – as they consciously and arrogantly only emphasise – they don’t have!
 “science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence”.
Translation – all rights reserved © Martin Mayhew
NB: Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was an illustrator and author, born in Brighton, England.