Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Logic of Edgar Allen Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" 1885

THE LOGIC OF POE'S "MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE" by C.O. Hurd in The Harvard Monthly 1885

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IN his prefatory observations to the "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe takes occasion to say that what is merely complex should not be mistaken for that which is profound; that simple ingenuity must not be confounded with analytical power; that, while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is seldom capable of close analysis. Nothing can better serve as a text for what I wish to say in regard to this story than these very statements.

When I read the "Murders in the Rue Morgue" for the first time, I must confess that I made both the mistakes mentioned. I mistook what was complex for what was profound, and its author's ingenuity for exceptional analytical ability. For a long time this story passed with me as the strongest piece of logical reasoning with which I was acquainted, and it was only through a somewhat accidental discovery of a slip in a small matter of reasoning, that I was led to a full understanding of the true character of the story as regarded from a standpoint of logic. Under the new light the story has assumed an entirely different aspect to my mind. The author's task now appears not one of clear and logical exposition, but rather that of a clever mystification, and careful withholding of essential facts in the chain of reasoning.

In the first place the story must necessarily lose something of its logical force from the fact that it is a problem whose solution was clearly in the author's mind when he began to write; but passing this consideration, it is the present purpose merely to examine the argument as it stands; nor need we be hampered by the fact that the tale is in reality not true, since truth or fiction should be equally capable of bearing such tests.

The first and most damaging error made by the author is in regard to the strange voices and their effects on the persons who entered the house at the time of the murders. Six witnesses, representing five different nationalities, depose to having heard a strange voice, and to having been unable to understand the language. One of them, a Frenchman, is of the opinion that the language was Spanish, but does not understand Spanish; a second Frenchman differs from the first, and affirms that the voice was that of an Italian, but judges from the intonation alone, not knowing Italian; a third witness, a Dutchman, is of the opinion that the voice was that of a Frenchman, but does not know any French and is examined through an interpreter; the English witness thinks that the language was German, but knows nothing of that tongue; a Spaniard is positive that the language was not, as had been asserted, Spanish; thinks it was English, ot which, however, he has no knowledge; an Italian is equally positive that the language was not his own; thinks it was Russian; does not know any Russian. Aside from the high improbability that five witnesses representing as many nations, and all having heard the sounds with sufficient distinctness to testify that it was a human voice, would each ascribe it to a different nationality, there is a further and more fundamental defect in the reasoning. As to the question whether the strange noises heard were those of a human voice, there is in the minds of the witnesses no shadow of doubt, and some of them venture so far as to express an opinion as to whether it was the voice of a man or that of a woman. That is to say, each witness, as he has heard the sounds, has involuntarily referred them to something common and usual, to some cause which one might most naturally expect under the circumstances. Why then in the next step, is the process of reasoning exactly the reverse of this? Taking the case of the Frenchmen, for instance, there is no logical reason why, following the analogy of the first step, they should not immediately and unconsciously have referred the supposed human voice to what would have been most common and usual, their own language, and thus to have attributed the failure to understand the words rather to usual than to unusual causes.

A little thought at just this point will not, I think, fail to convince the reader that the author is at fault in a matter of what is technically termed apperception. The question is whether, on the receipt of an individual impression, the first and involuntary action of the brain is not to refer this impression to some class of familiar ones. An illustration, suggested by Bible accounts seems to meet the point in hand. It seems to me unquestionably true that in case we should unexpectedly hear a strange and therefore as yet unclassified sound from the sky, we should apperceive thunder, although the sound might prove to be a voice, but on the other hand, it seems highly improbable that any one hearing thunder from the sky should apperceive a voice. There is a concrete instance of just what I mean, in connection with the assassination of President Lincoln. A gentleman, sitting near by when the assassin leaped upon the stage shouting the motto of Virginia, affirmed with the utmost certainty that the words uttered were not "Sic semper tyrannis," nor yet something which he did not understand, but in plain and intelligible English "I'm sick, send for McGuinness." It seems to me that this result must have been reached in no other way than by this process of referring strange and unusual phenomena to those which are common and expected.

An instance from my own personal experience is perhaps worth adding. I was a short time since, in company with a number of English friends in a German theatre. Between the acts the conversation of our party fell naturally into English, and that of those about us into German, which I am able to understand with a moderate amount of extra attention. In the instance in question, the conversation in our group becoming temporarily suspended, I suddenly, and then for the first time, became conscious that I was not understanding the conversation about me; that it was not English; that it was German, and from that point I began to understand perfectly, thus showing that its effect had not at first been different from English, or, in other words, that I had involuntarily referred the sounds to what would have been most natural to my ear, English. These instances seem to me to indicate habits of mind directly at variance with the process laid down in this story.

There are two other places in the story where the reasoning, although of a different character, is as notably loose. Although the gens d'armes and their methods are made the butt of the whole story, yet it seems to me a great deal like imposing on the average common sense to put into their heads a theory that Madam L'Espanaye might have killed her daughter and then have committed suicide, when the body of the former was found in the house, and that of the latter in the yard three flights below, with, as the gens d'armes fully believed, no possible means of communication between the two places.

Again, the author's reasons for denying the possibility of a motive for the murder are insufficient. His position is briefly this: the two murdered women are known to have drawn 4000f. from the bank three days before the murders. On examination, all the money is found; therefore, there is no motive for the murders. The finding of the entire sum of money is, as far as it goes, a good argument for the improbability, but not for the impossibility of motive. It does not, however, preclude the possibility that the money was still the motive, and that the murderer had been obliged to abandon it to save himself. Again, the object of the murderous visit might, as far as we can be absolutely certain, have been some document or legal paper whose existence was known only to the parties concerned, and in comparison with whose value four thousand francs might have been too small an amount for the murderer to bother himself with.

So much for special instances. The general defect, however, of the logical form of the story from beginning to end arises from the fact that the author has carefully held over from the reader the discovery of the tuft of hairs and the peculiar marks upon the throat of one of the victims, without which knowledge the detectives could not possibly have reached a correct solution of the mystery.

In making these points it may seem a little too much like insisting on small and unimportant matters, especially since it is not denied that the story as a story is still a good one. This objection is, as to general principles, good, but seems hardly to apply in this case, since in the part of the story which precedes that of the murder proper, Poe has unmistakably promised a story whose value is to be estimated on just such little matters, and it has seemed quite worth the while to see how thoroughly, and yet it must be said how skillfully, he has avoided fulfilling his promise.

C. O. Hurd

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