Thursday, June 06, 2019

"The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841)

This story by Edgar Allan Poe is at least as difficult as it is strange. Every time I go back to it I find myself losing attention for most of the first half. It's formally presented as a dialogue between two spirits in the afterlife who were lovers or married when they were alive. Monos (Greek masculine form of "one") was the first to die, apparently—he has memories of Una (Latin feminine form of "one") grieving at his funeral ceremonies. Now he seems to be explaining the afterlife to her. Perhaps she has just died. If it's classified as a horror story, and I'm not sure it should be, that's chiefly for two reasons: 1) it was written by Poe, and 2) its vision of the afterlife is bound to be disturbing to many as a version of being buried alive (a familiar Poe motif). I'm not 100% comfortable myself with his vision yet I find it somehow more soothing than unsettling, even exhilarating in a way. To be honest I'm not even sure I'm getting it right. The introduction to the online version I found, for example, characterizes this piece as "Conversations between two Athenians who have experienced life and death several times. They are frustrated because mankind never seems to learn from the past." Actually I'm not at all sure that's it, but given the business model of the website—"a 'G' rated study resource for junior high, high school, college students, teachers and home schoolers"—it may be they don't want to fly right at this one.

As I say, it's not easy to make out. The story is outfitted with multiple foreign languages, including Greek rendered in the Greek alphabet (hence "Athenians," I presume, though I believe Una would then have to be more like Roman). The dialogue between Monos and Una is not easy to follow even when it's in English. It's actually, title notwithstanding, more of a soliloquy by Monos, who can't quite figure out how to say what he wants to say. "Words are vague things," he says in one of the most straightforward declarative sentences in the whole thing. "[A]fter some days there came upon me, as you have said, a breathless and motionless torpor; and this was termed Death by those who stood around me.... I was not unconscious of those movements which displaced you from me, which confined me within the coffin, which deposited me within the hearse, which bore me to the grave, which lowered me within it, which heaped heavily the mould upon me, and which there left me, in blackness and corruption, to my sad and solemn slumbers with the worm." Though this last passage is very close to the end of the story, there's still a good deal more to be revealed by Monos in the last three paragraphs, which it might be fair to call epic revelations, come thou now and hear the word. Certainly this section works on me that way. This is the part of the story that thrills me, which has even led me to inflict it on others in informal reading discussion groups and now to make a home for it in these contemplations of horror short stories. Asking others to look at it is always when I'm suddenly reminded how strange and how difficult the story is, whether or not you call it horror. I don't even know Poe well enough to understand what kind of a story it is for him (it seems a departure from everything else I've read) or how much of an anomaly it might be. But the thing practically floors me every time, extolling its oxymoronic balm of death's sting.

Read story online. (Library of America)

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