Friday, April 29, 2011

The Domain of Arnheim

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

Le domaine d’Arnheim, 1949, oil on canvas
by Belgian painter René Magritte (1898–1967).

In a 2009 New York Times blog entry, Academy Award–winning director Errol Morris answered reader responses to an article he had written about the nature of photography, its “reliability” as a source, and the tenuous boundary between photojournalism and art. Morris discusses specifically whether Ansel Adams altered (“retouched”) his photographs (he did) and points out that previous “artists have argued that natural landscapes are imperfect and can be improved.”

One of those “artists” was Edgar Allan Poe, and Morris draws special attention to the story “The Domain of Arnheim” and its protagonist, Ellison, who has inherited $450 million (in the early nineteenth century!) and decides to use his inheritance to create “the perfect landscape.” The story is an expanded version of a sketch Poe had published earlier as “The Landscape Garden,” and Morris notes that it “is omitted in most scholarly discussions of Poe’s work, but it may be his greatest story.” Morris contemplates the story’s ambiguity:
There is something endlessly puzzling about his imagery. Is the narrator describing something beautiful or horrific? Is this seemingly one-way trip down a river an excursion into Paradise or into Hell? Is the narrator mad, delusional or hopelessly imprisoned in Ellison’s odd vision? Is Ellison’s vision of Heaven more terrible than what we might presume to be a vision of Hell?
To biographer Kenneth Silverman “Arnheim seems dead as well as alive, suffused with in-betweenness”; he notes that Poe finished this story while his young wife, Virginia, lay on her deathbed and that perhaps the story amounts “to declaring that only the dead know beauty, to imagining Virginia’s pleasure in her transfiguration.”

This week’s selection was suggested by Story of the Week reader Lisa Lideks from Canoga Park, California; she comments that, with its “mystical” themes rather than with elements of horror, the work “defies what is typically thought of as a ‘Poe story.’” She also reminds us that another admirer of the story was the painter René Magritte, who between 1938 and 1962 finished a series of paintings inspired by it. (Morris lists nine paintings known to exist and reproduces five of them online with his blog post.) One of the more intriguing entries in the series (above) shows a broken window that had been painted over with the same landscape that can be seen through the window. Pondering Magritte’s shattered attempt to portray a landscape, Morris asks, “The window, no different from the painting? Is there something ultimately imperfect in every attempt to depict reality?”

Notes: The epigraph by Giles Fletcher is from the second canto of Christ's Victorie and Triumph, in Heaven, in Earth, over and after Death (1610). A.R.J. Turgot, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley were philosophers identified by philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet as proponents of the doctrine of the perfectibility of human beings.

Claude (p. 859) refers to landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1600–1682). Joseph Addison (p. 862) is the author of the play Cato (1712), a tragedy based on the life of Cato the Younger, a contemporary of Julius Caesar. Timon (p. 864) lived in ancient Athens and was famous for his misanthropy. Madame de Stael (1766–1817) was a French writer most famous for her novel Corinne. Fonthill (p. 865) is a reference to Fonthill Abbey, the grand architectural project of William Thomas Beckford, who inherited one million pounds in 1771 at the age of ten.

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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From his cradle to his grave a gale of prosperity bore my friend Ellison along. Nor do I use the word prosperity in its mere worldly sense. I mean it as synonymous with happiness. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!