The Orangutan Story

Orangutan Flashbacks

From one "@posturingsimpleton" on Tumblr. Edited for readability and a bit of coarse language:

My American Lit professor went to this Poe conference. Like to be clear: this is a man who has a doctorate in being a book nerd. He reads Moby Dick to his four-year-old son. And Poe is one of the cornerstones of American literature, right, so this should be right up his alley?

Wrong. Apparently Poe scholars are like, advanced. There is a branch of Edgar Allen Poe scholarship that specifically looks for coded messages based on the number of words per line and letters per word Poe uses. [That doesn't sound advanced; that sounds crackpot. ESW] My professor, who has a PhD in American literature, realizes he is totally out of his depth. But he already committed his day to this so he thinks [screw] it! and goes to a panel on racism in Poe's works, because that's relevant to his interests.

Background info: Edgar Allen Poe was a broke white alcoholic from Virginia who wrote horror in the first half of the 19th century. Rule 1 of Horror Academia is that horror reflects the cultural anxieties of its time (see: my other professor's sermon about how zombie stories are popular when people are scared of immigrants, or that purge movie that was literally about the election). Since poe's [stuff] is a product of 1800s white southern culture, you can safely assume it's at least a little about race. But the racial subtext is very open to interpretation, and scholars believe all kinds of different things about what Poe says about race (if he says anything), and the Poe stans get extremely tense about it.

["Stans" = "stalker fans" and "fans" is from "fanatics," so "stans" are really, really über-fans.]

So my professor sits down to watch this panel and within like five minutes a bunch of crusty academics get super heated about Poe's theoretical racism. Because it's academia, though, this is limited to poorly concealed passive aggression and forceful tones of inside voice. One professor is like "This isn't even about race!" and another professor is like "This proves he's a racist!" People are interrupting each other. Tensions are rising. A panelist starts saying that Poe is like writing a critique of how racist society was, and the racist stuff is there to prove that racism is stupid, and that on a metaphorical level the racist philosophy always loses—

Then my professor, perhaps in a bid to prove that he too is a smart literature person, loudly calls: "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ORANGUTAN?"

Some more background: in Poe's well-known short story "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," two single ladies—a lovely old woman and her lovely daughter who takes care of her, aka super vulnerable and respectable people—are violently killed. The murderer turns out to be not a person, but an orangutan brought back by a sailor who went to like Burma or something. And it's pretty goddamn racially coded, like they reeeeally focus on all this stuff about coarse hairs and big hands and superhuman strength and chattering that sounds like people talking but isn't actually. If that's intentional, then he's literally written an analogy about how black people are a threat to vulnerable white women, which is classic white supremacist [crap]. BUT if he really only meant for it to be an orangutan, then it's a whole other metaphor about how colonialism pillages other countries and brings their wealth back to Europe and that's REALLY gonna bite them in the ass one day. Klansman or komrade? It all hangs on this.

So the place goes dead [freaking] silent as every giant ass Poe stan in the room is immediately thrust into a series of war flashbacks: the orangutan argument, violently carried out over seminar tables, in literary journals, at graduate student house parties, the spittle flying, the wine and coffee spilled, the friendships torn—the red faces and bulging veins—curses thrown and teaching posts abandoned—panels just like this one fallen into chaos—distant sirens, skies falling, the dog-eared Norton critical editions slicing through the air like sabres—the textual support! O, the quotes! They gaze at this madman in numb disbelief, but he could not have known. Nay, he was a literary theorist, a 17th-century man, only a visitor to their haunted land. He had never heard the whistle of the mortars overhead. He had never felt the cold earth under his cheek as he prayed for God's deliverance. And yet he would have broken their fragile peace and brought them all back into the trenches. Much later, when my professor told this story to a Poe nerd friend, the guy said the orangutan thing was a one of the biggest landmines in their field. He said it was a reliable discussion ruiner that had started so many shouting matches that some conferences had an actual ban on bringing it up.

So my professor sits there for a second, still totally clueless. Then out of the dead silence, the panel moderator stands up in his tweed jacket and yells, with the raw panic of a once-broken man:


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