Friday, July 5, 2013

Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle": A Tour

One of Gustave Doré's illustrations for Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I had originally hoped to write a full-fledged critical article about Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle”, an essay that made some interesting point or other. The story has otherwise inspired a series of annotations, and it is with the intention of making their vehicle that I write this post.

“MS. Found in a Bottle” is my favorite Poe story even though it is not his best. It shows signs of hasty composition (a vice with which I'm in sympathy) mostly in the way of inconsistencies and blind motifs. The two other stories by Poe with which it runs parallel, “A Descent into the Maelström” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, are impossible not to recall while reading “MS. Found in a Bottle”, but what they reflect they do not clarify much. Neither do they amplify, for “MS. Found in a Bottle” has a power all its own. If this post has any point, it is to diagram the mechanism generating that power.

Two miscellaneous observations about "MS. Found in a Bottle" stick out for me. The first is that the story was a prizewinner in a newspaper prose competition. It is absolutely incredible that a newspaper of any era, let alone the first half of the 19th century, would award a story as alienating as this. The other point of interest I find here is the uncanny similarities this story has to UFO stories told in the last half of the 20th century. It is here I would most like to be able to draw some conclusions, but the whole mythology of UFO stories seems to empty itself of significant meaning as soon as it is examined. I can see no connection aside from common imagery and common effects. Fortunately Poe’s effort creates meaning where UFO folklore fails.

The text of the story is taken from a Project Gutenberg ebook. Much of the story’s text is presented, but thankfully not all of it. I recommend reading that text before or instead of reading this blog post.

The Tour:

MS. Found in a Bottle

Qui n'a plus qu'un moment a vivre
N'a plus rien a dissimuler.


This story is based on a fictionally “found” manuscript the way Blair Witch Project  and many recent horror films are found films. Poe often uses such devices to enhance the suspension of disbelief in his narratives. Here, as in other stories of his, the records of a diarist are to be taken for truth. But with the added head note, translated by M.J. Cummings to mean "Whoever has a moment to live has nothing to hide", Poe attempts to frame this story as a kind of deathbed confession as well.

OF my country and of my family I have little to say. Ill usage and length of years have driven me from the one, and estranged me from the other. Hereditary wealth afforded me an education of no common order, and a contemplative turn of mind enabled me to methodize the stores which early study very diligently garnered up.—Beyond all things, the study of the German moralists gave me great delight; not from any ill-advised admiration of their eloquent madness, but from the ease with which my habits of rigid thought enabled me to detect their falsities. I have often been reproached with the aridity of my genius; a deficiency of imagination has been imputed to me as a crime....

Here Poe establishes his narrator as being intelligent, and therefore competent to record facts, as well as being dull. Being dull precludes his inventing fantastic stories such the one he tells, and this handicap enhances the story’s credibility. The narrator’s dullness also winds up making him a vulnerable character in the face of incredible events, and that sets up the arc of the character’s development.

That "crime" would describe his lack of imagination becomes interesting in reviewing the story. It is a dullness, by its description, that disturbs function in a community. If a schism between individual and community is important in the narrative, this word is its verbal root.

I have looked in vain for a passage in Jorge Luis Borges to suggest in comparison to this paragraph, though it is here I detect Poe’s as his precursor very strongly.

After many years spent in foreign travel, I sailed in the year 18— , from the port of Batavia, in the rich and populous island of Java, on a voyage to the Archipelago of the Sunda islands. I went as passenger—having no other inducement than a kind of nervous restlessness which haunted me as a fiend.

The narrator has ordinary motives for travel and is writing, so far,  an ordinary travelogue, although “haunted me as a fiend” establishes a motive in the character that is extraordinary and therefore can lead to extraordinary places.

Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak. She was freighted with cotton-wool and oil, from the Lachadive islands. We had also on board coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of opium. The stowage was clumsily done, and the vessel consequently crank.
Here a sense of ordinariness is created that will be both utilized for the sake of credibility and then violated to create a sense of the weird. This strategy has been used by writers in the fantastic literary tradition from Poe’s day (at least!) up until Stephen King’s. The introduction of far-fetched and dream-inducing cargoes, not to mention their disaster-prone stowage, points toward unusual perils. The ports of departure are themselves exotic from the 19th century American point of view. Where might the journey end?

One evening, leaning over the taffrail, I observed a very singular, isolated cloud, to the N.W. It was remarkable, as well for its color, as from its being the first we had seen since our departure from Batavia. I watched it attentively until sunset, when it spread all at once to the eastward and westward, girting in the horizon with a narrow strip of vapor, and looking like a long line of low beach.

This passage describes the first bizarre event of the story.  Plausibly constructed, it is the gateway to the bizarre.

However, as the captain said he could perceive no indication of danger, and as we were drifting in bodily to shore, he ordered the sails to be furled, and the anchor let go.

The first bizarre event is rationally accepted and dealt with. The captain accepts the anomaly glibly and makes no attempt to account for what has happened. The characters believe what’s happening unquestioningly. Why shouldn’t the reader?

I went below—not without a full presentiment of evil. Indeed, every appearance warranted me in apprehending a Simoom. I told the captain my fears; but he paid no attention to what I said, and left me without deigning to give a reply.

More of the same, but here the narrator adds the first note of dread. The dread also arrives with the first explicit break between the narrator and the community around him. This gap will widen.

As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder, I was startled by a loud, humming noise, like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a mill-wheel, and before I could ascertain its meaning, I found the ship quivering to its centre. In the next instant, a wilderness of foam hurled us upon our beam-ends, and, rushing over us fore and aft, swept the entire decks from stem to stern.

“Humming” creates a dissonance in the description. What is first an event of nature makes a mechanical sound. We are less sure of our surroundings than we were both because of the violence of the event and because of this dissonance.

After a while, I heard the voice of an old Swede, who had shipped with us at the moment of our leaving port. I hallooed to him with all my strength, and presently he came reeling aft.

One other person survives this first disaster. Given later events the character ofnthe Swede may seem superflous, a blind motif and a distraction. The Swede will be import in Poe's story, even if the character's addition, to say nothing of his demise, is clumsy. If Gordon Pym shows a model, the Swede’s demise at the very least demonstrates Poe's habit of killing off co-survivors of nautical accidents.

The frame-work of our stern was shattered excessively, and, in almost every respect, we had received considerable injury; but to our extreme Joy we found the pumps unchoked, and that we had made no great shifting of our ballast….   [T]he hulk flew at a rate defying computation, before rapidly succeeding flaws of wind, which, without equaling the first violence of the Simoom, were still more terrific than any tempest I had before encountered.

This passage moves smoothly from describing a world of comprehensible problems and solutions to one of inconceivable causes and effects. We are swept along.

Our course for the first four days was, with trifling variations, S.E. and by S.; and we must have run down the coast of New Holland.

References to the world are still mundane and mathematical. Yet even in this reference the ordinary world slips into the distance as a thing to reckon by instruments. The environment is progressively weird.

And then the final physical ruptures with the ordinary world occur:

Just before [the sun's] sinking within the turgid sea, its central fires suddenly went out, as if hurriedly extinguished by some unaccountable power. It was a dim, sliver-like rim, alone, as it rushed down the unfathomable ocean.

Here the conditions described could have a natural cause, but by now we know they cannot be events in a normal world.

We waited in vain for the arrival of the sixth day—that day to me has not arrived—to the Swede, never did arrive.

I mark this as the final break with ordinary space and time. From now on there are no reliable markers of time. Presumably the rest of the manuscript could have been written in ordinary time of a few hours waiting for sunrise of the sixth day, but the effect of this sentence and the total effect of the story is to suspend time as we would know it.  Time for the Swede, after all, effectively ends in this sentence. Perhaps the character of the Swede exists in the story in order for Poe to produce words that cast us into another world.

We observed too, that, although the tempest continued to rage with unabated violence, there was no longer to be discovered the usual appearance of surf, or foam, which had hitherto attended us. All around were horror, and thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert of ebony.—Superstitious terror crept by degrees into the spirit of the old Swede, and my own soul was wrapped up in silent wonder. We neglected all care of the ship, as worse than useless, and securing ourselves, as well as possible, to the stump of the mizen-mast, looked out bitterly into the world of ocean.

Now that the world has ceased to operate correctly, the human order of responsibility also begins to fail, overwhelmed now by what is acknowledged as horror. Poe continues, “We had no means of calculating time, nor could we form any guess of our situation.”

We were at the bottom of one of these abysses, when a quick scream from my companion broke fearfully upon the night. "See! see!" cried he, shrieking in my ears, "Almighty God! see! see!" As he spoke, I became aware of a dull, sullen glare of red light which streamed down the sides of the vast chasm where we lay, and threw a fitful brilliancy upon our deck. Casting my eyes upwards, I beheld a spectacle which froze the current of my blood. At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship of, perhaps, four thousand tons.

I count this and the paragraph it is from as the climax of the story. The appearance of the ship within this setting of desolation and alienation is utterly unsettling. It remains so because it is a ship of its environment, unreal, ten times larger than the ship of the narrator.

In the process, by the way, of looking for a picture to decorate this blog post, I discovered that there is a contemporary subgenre of surrealistic portrayals of sail ships in storms. There is something inherently creepy and overtly thrilling about sail ships in storms, and some have thought, seemingly with Poe, to amplify the effect.

Her huge hull was of a deep dingy black, unrelieved by any of the customary carvings of a ship.

The ship is from no known port or nation. This may be one of the first figurations or precursors of the black helicopter of UFO and conspiracy lore: the black, unmarked vehicle of terror that visits abductees in the light of day.  Poe’s black ship and the black helicopters are elements of horror because they make an implicit promise of contact with human power but have no truly human origin. The ship comes from a bizarre world. The helicopter comes from an inhuman and inhumane bureaucracy.

But what mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment, was that she bore up under a press of sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea…

Here Poe underscores that this is a ship of and at home in this weird place.

In the subsequent collision between the narrator’s ship and the black ship, the Swede vanishes and the break with human society is complete. Poe can take us to a place of even greater alienation. The narrator is literally flung from the last physical vestige of his world into what could have been rescue or at least a message from the world he has lost. Whaere he lands turns out to be an otherworldly artifact with occupants as strange.

When he begins to describe the crew of that ship, he moves about them, but they do not notice him. He is unable to interact with them in any way. Afraid, he hides.

A man passed by my place of concealment with a feeble and unsteady gait. I could not see his face, but had an opportunity of observing his general appearance. There was about it an evidence of great age and infirmity. His knees tottered beneath a load of years, and his entire frame quivered under the burthen. He muttered to himself, in a low broken tone, some words of a language which I could not understand, and groped in a corner among a pile of singular-looking instruments, and decayed charts of navigation. His manner was a wild mixture of the peevishness of second childhood, and the solemn dignity of a God. He at length went on deck, and I saw him no more.

It is a world populated by uncanny entities.

A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul —a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of bygone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key. To a mind constituted like my own, the latter consideration is an evil. I shall never—I know that I shall never—be satisfied with regard to the nature of my conceptions. Yet it is not wonderful that these conceptions are indefinite, since they have their origin in sources so utterly novel. A new sense—a new entity is added to my soul.

From here on out the text fqlls into frequent sections divided by rules that hint at indeterminate periods of time. History and time with it become insignificant. Narration itself comes into question as writing becomes broken and episodic. How does the narrator’s credibility hold up? He’s established as a character of limited vision. But that vision, so limited that he does not even acknowledge the absence of the Swede, is about to expand in spite of itself. This growth adds credibility and humanity to the narrator, cold as he remains.

Concealment is utter folly on my part, for the people will not see. It was but just now that I passed directly before the eyes of the mate—it was no long while ago that I ventured into the captain's own private cabin, and took thence the materials with which I write, and have written. I shall from time to time continue this Journal. It is true that I may not find an opportunity of transmitting it to the world, but I will not fall to make the endeavour. At the last moment I will enclose the MS. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.

The grays, the prominent alien race from UFO tales, would at least have performed some kind of intrusive medical examination upon the narrator. This crew is no less alien than those from flying saucers.

While musing upon the singularity of my fate, I unwittingly daubed with a tar-brush the edges of a neatly-folded studding-sail which lay near me on a barrel. The studding-sail is now bent upon the ship, and the thoughtless touches of the brush are spread out into the word DISCOVERY.

I’m sure there is no end of structural and deconstructive analysis that has been spent on this passage. I would venture some myself if I were better trained in such theories. And, to be quite honest, I imagine such criticism is a very, very good way to approach the event of a narrator in a story absent-mindedly scrawling a text describing what is happening to him on the sail of the ship that’s carrying him there.

My tack is to ask an impertinent question: what realistic emotion would lead someone to literally do something like that and then recount it in this way? My only answer is: furious sarcasm. It is a sarcastic and egocentric (This crap only happens to me!) gesture toward the absurd and horrific. All in all, it’s the most sympathetic thing he has done in the story so far.

I have been looking at the timbers of the ship. She is built of a material to which I am a stranger. There is a peculiar character about the wood which strikes me as rendering it unfit for the purpose to which it has been applied. I mean its extreme porousness, considered independently by the worm-eaten condition which is a consequence of navigation in these seas, and apart from the rottenness attendant upon age. It will appear perhaps an observation somewhat over-curious, but this wood would have every characteristic of Spanish oak, if Spanish oak were distended by any unnatural means.

For many years this passage about an alien material haunted me. When I was younger such details entertained me more. “Very porous wood! Wow!”  Here again, there is a UFO parallel, say, in fascination with materials they are constructed with, such as in the Roswell narratives. Today I’m more interested in the reference to Spanish oak. The only significant connotation I can find now is that the wood is popular for making caskets. This may resonate with Poe’s obsession with premature burial, if the ship really is a great coffin. I wonder if Melville picked up on this with his coffin/flotation device for the end of Moby Dick? But such speculation only goes so far.

About an hour ago, I made bold to thrust myself among a group of the crew. They paid me no manner of attention, and, although I stood in the very midst of them all, seemed utterly unconscious of my presence. Like the one I had at first seen in the hold, they all bore about them the marks of a hoary old age. Their knees trembled with infirmity; their shoulders were bent double with decrepitude; their shrivelled skins rattled in the wind; their voices were low, tremulous and broken; their eyes glistened with the rheum of years; and their gray hairs streamed terribly in the tempest. Around them, on every part of the deck, lay scattered mathematical instruments of the most quaint and obsolete construction.

This paragraph, beginning with the most futile reference to time so far, also underscores the absence of significant time in the world he now inhabits with it’s ancient humanoids and obsolete technologies.

In the figure of the captain, though, a new sense of time and a new sense of shared fate start to manifest.

In stature he is nearly my own height; that is, about five feet eight inches. He is of a well-knit and compact frame of body, neither robust nor remarkably otherwise. But it is the singularity of the expression which reigns upon the face—it is the intense, the wonderful, the thrilling evidence of old age, so utter, so extreme, which excites within my spirit a sense—a sentiment ineffable.

The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their fingers fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.

And here is the awakening of a new self awareness, an insight that the narrator’s life has not been what he would have liked. Discovery has changed from a word revealed in something akin to unconscious automatic handwriting to an event happening in an objective world. In the process, he has achieved some kind of solidarity with the crew even if no conventional community happens.

All in the immediate vicinity of the ship is the blackness of eternal night, and a chaos of foamless water; but, about a league on either side of us, may be seen, indistinctly and at intervals, stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe.

Then space again becomes measurable, even if it’s only referent is the  potential disaster of icebergs.

It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge—some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction. Perhaps this current leads us to the southern pole itself. It must be confessed that a supposition apparently so wild has every probability in its favor.


The crew pace the deck with unquiet and tremulous step; but there is upon their countenances an expression more of the eagerness of hope than of the apathy of despair.

This knowledge, which has come now with the first person plural pronoun, is that of mortality which gives meaning to otherwise meaningless spans of time. As in Stephen Spielberg’s UFO story, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the final sense of meaning is derived from communing with the aliens, although the fact that Spielberg’s ship goes up while Poe’s goes down is significant. Close Encounters shows a hero entering a wonderful and eternal world through the bizarre. Poe’s story points toward the eschatological and to the mortal when meaning is also found. (Close Encounters, by the way, owes nothing to Poe and an awful lot to Dante.)

The ship enters a giant whirlpool that he describes as an “ampitheatre,” here becoming venue for a universal drama in which the actors are the only audience.

—and amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest, the ship is quivering, oh God! and—going down.

Well, it just wouldn’t be a realistic or fun ending otherwise, would it? And the narrator's final exclamation strikes me as his only unequivocal words.

Unfortunately there is this afterward:

NOTE.—The "MS. Found in a Bottle," was originally published in 1831, and it was not until many years afterwards that I became acquainted with the maps of Mercator, in which the ocean is represented as rushing, by four mouths, into the (northern) Polar Gulf, to be absorbed into the bowels of the earth; the Pole itself being represented by a black rock, towering to a prodigious height.

This last stab at rational explanation seems to me unnecessary. Poe was familiar hollow earth theories that had vortices connecting the poles, much the way we now speculate about extra-dimensional travel through black holes. I can’t rescue this postscipt from being a distraction from the story, but it does seem more and more bizarre upon inspection. What did Poe intend? Does a cartographer’s artistic fancy become the scientific explanation of a fictional story? It’s all very convoluted and wonderful. To add yet one more Wikipedia link, here is their article on this text, which voices a couple of opinions more expert than my own, including the possibility that the hollow earth talk is satire; indeed that this whole text is a satire of nautical stories of the day.

At the end of the tour we see a story that masterfully creates an alienating world in which it was Poe’s ambition to put a character capable of gaining human insight. If there is a thesis I can develop later, it would come from this character arc.

No comments:

Post a Comment