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Topic: [HM] Dupin
Replies: 1   Last Post: Oct 2, 2000 6:28 PM

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Barry Cipra

Posts: 21
Registered: 12/3/04
Re: [HM] Dupin
Posted: Oct 2, 2000 6:28 PM
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This doesn't answer Cuculiere's question, but HM'ers may find the following
excerpt of interest. It comes from a long piece by Dale Keiger in the Johns
Hopkins Magazine titled "A Sleuth in the Garden of Forking Paths," which can
be read in its entirety at .

Barry Cipra

John T. Irwin is Decker Professor of the Humanities, professor of English,
and chair of the Hopkins Writing Seminars. In 1981, four years after
returning to Hopkins from a stint as editor of the Georgia Review, he put
aside projects on Hart Crane and F. Scott Fitzgerald to explore his
fascination with a set of six detective stories. Three were by Edgar Allan
Poe, three by Jorge Luis Borges, the late Argentine writer of short stories
and essays. Irwin began puzzling out the myriad arcane references and sly
allusions contained in these texts, and the more he found, the more curious
he became. He expected to divert himself from his other projects for perhaps
two years.

Thirteen years later, he finally delivered a manuscript that he says, with a
typically boisterous laugh, "consumed my middle years." The Mystery to a
Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story (Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1994) is an intellectually muscular 452-page analysis of
what Poe said was "little susceptible of analysis"--the nature of analysis.
If that sentence gives you vertigo, you've had but a taste of what the book
will do to you.

.... [much deleted here] ....

Irwin did get stuck now and then, he admits. One major block occurred over a
section of "The Purloined Letter." Poe, a concise writer, had included a
strikingly long passage on mathematics, in which Dupin alludes to a debate
over whether algebra constitutes the highest form of analysis. Irwin didn't
understand the reference.

He spent three years trying to understand what Poe was getting at. He
tracked down the titles of the math books Poe had possessed, and the math
curriculum he had studied at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The
trail led Irwin to the French Ecole Polytechnique, England's Cambridge
University, early 19th- century French politics, and the real Dupin
brothers, who lived in Paris in the early 1800s and were models for various
aspects of Poe's characters of the detective and the evil minister.

What Irwin finally deduced was that at the time Poe studied mathematics,
there was an intellectual debate underway as to the merits of algebraic
versus geometrical analysis. In Paris, because Ecole Polytechnique had been
established to train engineers for the new French republic, says Irwin, "The
math taught there was in the popular mind the math of Revolutionary France."
Thus the debate had political implications, and Irwin reminds that
"Purloined Letter" is a story of political intrigue. Poe had tied his story
to actual events and the intellectual milieu of his day.

Beyond that, Irwin believes that many of Poe's readers in the 1840s would
have been conversant with the math debate, much as modern readers would be
aware of debates about deconstruction or political correctness, and thus
might have equated analysis with algebra. Poe disagreed with that equation.
He notes, through his character Dupin, that analysis comes from a root
meaning "to take apart," and algebra from a root meaning "to put together."
Anyone who equates the two, Dupin says, is not to be trusted. Poe makes
Minister D-- (Dupin's nemesis) a "poet and mathematician"; by having Dupin
solve the mystery by thinking like the poet/mathematician minister, Poe
argued that mathematical analysis alone was insufficient to solve a deep
mystery. What one needed, Poe believed, was to marry the resolvent logic of
higher mathematics with a higher, poetic creative power. A "true"
mathematician was also a poet.

In the same passage from "The Purloined Letter," Dupin discusses a formula:
x2 + px = q. The literature professor was stumped by this, too. "I'd only
had first-year calculus in college," Irwin says. "I had to go back and learn
more math." It occurred to him that the formula might not mean anything,
might just be an invention of Poe's. But, he says, "Once you've lived with a
writer's work for so long, you get a sense of what they invent and what they
don't invent. In Poe, when information has a certain level of specificity,
that's generally a clue that it's not made up--that it has a reference and
you will learn something if you find that reference. I knew that formula was
not the sort of thing Poe would invent. I was going to look for the answer
until I dropped."

Knowing that Poe had owned a translation of S. F. Lacroix's Elements of
Algebra, Irwin went to the Hopkins Eisenhower Library Rare Book Room, looked
up the book, and found the equation, which turned out to be a
well-established formula for solving quadratic equations with one unknown.
Irwin links quadratic and square, then offers an interpretation of Poe's use
of the equation that creates a striking image of thought and the
self-conscious mind.

A square, Irwin says, seems to be a straightforward construct. After all,
it's precisely quantifiable, describable, measurable, and therefore
rational. The square is a classical figure of perfection, an image of
rectitude and stability that persists in sayings like "a square deal."

Yet, as Irwin points out, a square contains an implicit diagonal, and that
diagonal is the hypotenuse of each of the two resulting triangles (that
three/four business again). If we assign a value of one to each side of the
square, the length of the hypotenuse is the square root of two--an
irrational number of infinite decimal places. In other words, Irwin says, at
the heart of the square, this image of all that is rational, measurable, and
stable, lies irrationality and infinite possibility. Says Irwin, "In
something that seems so finite, the abyss of the infinite yawns."

Date Subject Author
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Barry Cipra

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