Were it only possible to find out who are alive, and who dead, it would contribute infinitely to my peace of mind. Every day of my life, somebody comes and stares me in the face, whom I had quietly blotted out of the tablet of living men, and trusted never more to be pestered with the sight and sound of him.
The unreliable narrator has become a staple of postmodern writing, as unreliable a "movement" as you'll find in any human epoch, precisely because the "art" of the postmodern sits like a row house within the artfulness of the con. We have had interesting liars throughout literature; but the vast majority have lied for something noble, or something so dear that, for but a fleeting moment or two, they have even gained our pity. But how is one to pity a crook? What empathy resides in our hearts for those who wish to deceive simply for the sake of deception? Why should we care about those whose business is to hide their true feelings – if, of course, they had any true feelings to begin with? No, the best symbol of the postmodern is the labyrinth with no minotaur or treasure at the center, not even a path that leads back on its own pebbles. The reader has navigated the zags and zigs and come to the clearing. Here he finds a card, a simple paper card, blank and ornate, yet to the discerning eye very cheap, and he stops to pick it up. And it is then that he looks around the topiary trim and espies not shrubs, but large green cut-outs in plainest carton, all of which begin to collapse simultaneously like the house of cards the postmodern has always been. True art resides in the eternal genius of men, in their moral mettle, and in their sincere striving towards spine-tingling bliss – nothing more and nothing less. A fine introduction to this odd and seminal work.
Our narrator will pass the baton rather quickly to his beleaguered friend, the eponymous P., who "has lost the thread of his life," a wonderfully sad way to soften the report of creeping senility. If we were, that is, dealing with senility:
All this is not so much a delusion, as a partly wilful and partly involuntary sport of the imagination, to which his disease has imparted such morbid energy that he beholds these spectral scenes and characters with no less distinctness than a play upon a stage, and with somewhat more of illusive credence.
These characters will turn out to be the major figures of English Romanticism, but let us take our cue from the date of P.'s letter, included integrally in the text, of February 29th, 1845. The date, as we know, is impossible; yet its impossibility prepares the reader to receive the text as the fantastic "moonshine" of someone who may not be able to separate our reality from the courtyard of his private dreams. P.'s own description of his environment does nothing to dispel this impression:
Sitting as I do, at this moment, in my hired apartment, writing beside the hearth, over which hangs a print of Queen Victoria – listening to the muffled roar of the world's metropolis, and with a window at but five paces distant, through which, whenever I please, I can gaze out on actual London – with all this positive certainty as to my whereabouts, what kind of notion, do you think, is just now perplexing my brain? Why – would you believe it? – that, all this time, I am still an inhabitant of that wearisome little chamber with its one small window, across which, from some inscrutable reason of taste or convenience, my landlord had placed a row of iron bars – that same little chamber, in short, whither your kindness has so often brought you to visit me.
Some would assume that time has so retrenched P.'s mind that he does not even realize the place of his own incarceration, likely an institution (he will recur to that "row of iron bars" towards the story's end) for those from whom reason has departed forever or in whom it never bothered to take root. We suspect, however, that neither condition truly befits our narrator. Not that this indeterminate state could stop him from strolling through an imaginary London peppered with more than a few imaginary literary acquaintances: Byron, now obese and, his newfound religion in mind, a violent bowdlerizer of the works of his juvenilia (the real Byron, as we know, enjoys eternal youth); Burns, senile and sentimental; Scott, nearly paraplegic, and empty of everything except what distinguished his particular adventures from everyone else's ("whether in verse, prose, or architecture, he could achieve but one thing, although that one in infinite variety"); Shelley, now a preacher; Coleridge, once of unlimited potential, now a mediocrity bereft of all traces of his mad genius; and Keats, the sole member of this unwilled fraternity who has survived both corporally and in reputation. Lesser lights also twinkle in P.'s dark evenings, but that is likely owing to his wish to incorporate all those past who influenced his own rapturous sighs. And despite the fact that most of the spectres are British, our text ends with two questions for this American diplomat who, like the rest of P.'s pantheon, has long since quit our green earth.
Some believe that elements of our strange little story would furnish, a couple of generations past Hawthorne's own lifetime, that most nebulous and anti-intellectual of genres, science fiction, with a niche of beastly boringness known as alternate history. The chief difference being, of course, that P. is simply revisiting his heroes (both he and the addressee of his letter allude to P.'s failed literary aspirations), not transforming them into zombies, aliens, or rogue planets. What the space-and-race pundits omit to mention is that every literary man worth his salt will daydream in terms not unlike those P. so boldly lays out for his public. That said, the actual reimaginings of deceased writers now alive, if well past their literary primes, is not the usual manifestation; more common is a dialogue in which the dreamer revels in meeting his masters only to discover (if the dreamer is himself a first-rate genius) that the man whose work he has worshipped is a bore, and possibly also an unkempt and lumbering oaf. There is also the small matter of the moral pendulum of these same esteemed letters, an accusation he launches at a decrepit Scott ("the world, nowadays, requires a more earnest purpose, a deeper moral, and a closer and homelier truth, than he was qualified to supply"). It is therefore appropriate, one supposes, that Shelley, the most virulent opponent to society's mores, is accorded the keenest change of heart, and that his early works are explained thus:
They are like the successive steps of a staircase, the lowest of which, in the depth of chaos, is as essential to the support of the whole, as the highest and final one, resting upon the threshold of the heavens.
Shelley is still read in English survey classes, although he remains one of those authors one embraces when young and barely tolerates when older. Alas, not even such fame will ever be the lot of P.; although he will never stoop to the lows of anarchism and other such inanity, he will also never rise to the sublime perfection of this poem. "The reality – that which I know to be such," writes our resigned narrator, "hangs like remnants of tattered scenery over the intolerably prominent illusion." Which is why some people never find themselves able to choose between the two.