Death by representation
Mimesis Between Murder and Immortality in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”
Michiel J. O. Verheij Leiden University, Netherlands ABSTRACT – This paper explores the intimate connections between art and death on the basis of an analysis of the short story “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allan Poe. This story can be interpreted as a metaphor for the act of artistic creation and its ambiguous relationship with living reality. Poe gives us an inversion of the famous myth of Pygmalion: instead of a lifeless artwork becoming a living girl, he describes the transformation of a living girl into a static work of art. Artistic representation, the tale seems to suggest, by its nature implies the destruction of the very reality it depicts. This idea is best understood against the background of the age-old debate on the nature of mimesis – the relation between the image and the original. Poe’s story, it will be argued, provides a remarkable perspective on Plato’s influential condemnation of art, and constitutes a vivid demonstration of poststructuralist theories of ‘simulacra’, ‘simulation’, and ‘hyperreality’. “The Oval Portrait” dramatically confronts us with the murderous capacity inherent in the principle of representation. INTRODUCTION Imagine a wounded traveler, taking refuge in an abandoned castle in the Italian mountains. The man enters a small room inside the castle, and lies down on
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MIchIel j. o. verheIj
the bed to recover from his wound. He begins to study the paintings that cover the walls, and in a little book found on his pillow, he reads the history of their creation. His eye is especially caught by a small portrait of a young girl, which has a mesmerizing and somewhat unsettling effect on him. The expression of this portrait is extremely lifelike. Turning to his little book, our traveler starts to read the story behind this fascinating painting. He finds out that the portrait...