This is a post about The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe, but, I have to be truthful with you, dear readers, it is sadly also a bit of a rant.
Because yesterday I was down. MAN I was down.
For those of you who know me, you know that I’ve struggled with severe depression for the past five years. For those of you who don’t know me, now you do.
But yesterday was a dark day; when life felt heavier than it usually does. To wax cheesy about it, I think of them as my “Dexter Days,” in which my dark passenger is the heavy cloud of depression that lurks in the background of my every day existence, threatening to rain on my tiny parade.
And man, baby. Yesterday it was pouring.
I don’t know what triggers it. I only know things that certainly don’t help (mainly bodily things such as a lack of sleep or poor nutrition). But those are obviously factors in the bigger picture of physical maintenance. Babies in strollers make me sad, the way some people smile will make me sad, the fact that it is a beautiful day can make me sad. Even getting into an MFA program makes me sad sometimes. I have no idea why.
There are things I can do to help. Yoga, chocolate, soft fabrics, etc. Unsurprisingly, perhaps Poe is not the best thing to read when one is depressed. I was able to go to his house in Philly two years ago for a tidbit of time which was super cool, and when I got back from that trip I reread all the short story and poetry anthologies I had about him. But otherwise I haven’t touched the stuff in the year. I believe too much in the truth of literature to fall for that again.
But here we go again folks. Poe. *cracks knuckles* Let’s do this.
The Purloined Letter is a remarkably short story that you can actually read for free online (here, for instance), that was written by Poe in 1844. It outlines an extraordinarily clear-cut case; in which the emphasis of the story falls not on the content of the story (as nearly all of the names are left out of the tale, as well as the contents of the letter itself), but on the form. It is not the knowledge of the letter that is important, but the manner in which it was hidden. Rationalization at it’s best, ladies and gentlemen. The Prefect lays the case out in front of Dupin; mainly that the objective is to retrieve the letter, and that there are two conditions of which he is almost positive: the letter has not been revealed yet, so the contents are still quite valuable, and secondly, that the ability to reveal the contents of the letter at any moment is paramount, and therefore the letter is almost certainly in the apartments of the man who possesses it; a mysterious gentleman known as D—. Ooh this is already getting delicious!
So; this is the basis of the problem: the letter is almost guaranteed to be in the apartments of D—, but it has not been found as of yet by the Prefect, even though he has gone through the apartment with a fine tooth comb; literally employing microscopes and needles in his search.
So how does one find something so obvious as a letter in a building that has been looked over with such painful exactness?
Just as the epigraph reads “Nihil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio” (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness), it is not enough to just match wits with the criminal, but to identify with him. The interesting characteristic of D— is that he is both a mathematician and a poet. The Prefect dismisses him as a common criminal, because obviously all poets/artists are silly and illogical (see: Pattie’s biggest pet peeves), but if he had taken the time to truly understand his opponent, he would’ve quite literally found the solution right in front of his face. As humans (and especially when we are younger) we tend to prefer to see things in terms of black and white because it’s simpler. But take this quote from David Hume:
Take any action allowed to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ’tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.
When you take the time to truly understand your opponent, you will find the way to defeat him. We see in the story that the letter was really in front of everyone’s face, hidden in plain view, the entire time. Genius, right?
Well sometimes, we tend to assume that the entire world thinks the exact same way that we do. And that leads to mis-communications, wrong assumptions, disappointment, betrayal, and more. But when we sit down and try to understand the people around us, truly truly understand them; that is when we can figure out how to love them, defeat them, outsmart them, appreciate them, and more. (this works for everyone, no matter what the scenario. Check out this truly inspiring commencement speech about it by the amazing David Foster Wallace):
Even though I wasn’t doing it consciously, through the guidance of my friends, my therapist, and my own meditative thoughts, I’ve been slowly understanding my depression more and more. And even though it’s not as easy as a letter out in the open, being able to understand the reasons why I am depressed has helped me find ways to overcome it. So, here’s to smiling with honesty, folks.
Also, if you guys want to watch the Wishbone version (which is the only episode of Wishbone that I remember) called “The Pawloined Paper” here is part one: 🙂