Jacqueline Doyle

Fyodor Translates Edgar Translates the Universe

The universe pulses, a giant heart. Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849. Last seen en route from Richmond to New York, he’d been missing for a week, and was found drunk and delirious in a Baltimore bar, wearing shabby, torn clothes that weren’t his own. In the hospital they diagnosed him with “congestion of the brain.” Others have posthumously diagnosed lead poisoning, alcohol poisoning, syphilis, epilepsy, rabies, cholera, influenza. According to his attending physician, “Lord help my poor soul!” was the last thing he said. The constellations swirl and eddy, creating new patterns in the night sky. Dr. Moran was the last to see him, but his account of the event kept changing each time he wrote it. At one point he even claimed that Poe’s last words were “The arched heavens encompass me, and God has his decree legibly written upon the frontlets of every created human being, and demons incarnate, their goal will be the seething waves of blank despair.” Even Poe’s madmen made more sense than that. Space stares. On November 16, 1849, Fyodor Dostoevsky was sentenced to death by a Russian court for alleged anti-government activities. In December he was reprieved and sent to Siberia for four years of hard labor. Later he translated “The Black Cat,” “The Devil in the Belfry,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “How odd are the vagaries of his fancy,” Dostoevsky wrote of Poe, “and at the same time how audacious!” The heavens flood with unearthly light. Dostoevsky suffered from “ecstatic epilepsy” and kept records of over a hundred of his seizures. It sometimes took a week before he recovered from an episode. “For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life. I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is, that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.” Dostoevsky was almost 60 when he died from a pulmonary hemorrhage. The universe holds its breath. Poe once imagined writing a book called “My Heart Laid Bare,” but concluded, “No man will ever write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.” He was 40 when his heart stopped beating. And then exhales. Did the abyss yawn, empty and terrifying, at that moment? Or did the detox ward at Washington University Hospital shimmer and pulse with light? Whatever last words Poe spoke in the dark hours before dawn, surrounded by restless drunks tossing and turning in their beds, his doctor seems to have missed them. A year before he died Poe published Eureka, an audacious treatise unlocking the secrets of the Universe. He’d discovered nothing less than a vast Tell-Tale Heart at its center, “swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine,” and confided his “hope—that the processes we have here ventured to contemplate will be renewed forever, and forever, and forever.”