Geoffery Winthrop-Young
The Informatics of Revenge:
Telegraphy, Speed and Storage in The Count of Monte Cristo

For Marketa (who fell for d'Artagnan) Arrival On the 24th of February, 1815, the watch-tower of Notre-Dame de la Garde signaled the three-master, the "Pharao," from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples.1 There is an old scholarly superstition that a trained reader can derive an entire novel from its first sentence. No particular ingenuity is required as long as the opening lines are the verbal equivalent of the opening salvo of a Beethoven symphony. Anna Karenina is a gradual unfolding of the initial pronouncement that "[a]ll happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Pride and Prejudice reads like an experiment in early sociology to verify the working hypothesis that "[i]t is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." And-- to conclude with an up-to-date example related to this essay-- Neuromancer's first line, "[t]he sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel," already contains the collapse of nature into the mediated realities of cyberspace explored by William Gibson. But what about those matter-of-fact openings, so popular in the nineteenth century, which provide no more than an introductory setting: a name maybe, a location, or the time of day? Yes, like the tea leaves and coffee grounds perused by an experienced fortune teller they, too, can be made to reveal much of what is to follow. Take the innocent lines quoted above. a typical Dumas père opening: no sooner has the reader been handed date and location that Dumas, ever the dramatist, has an object of interest enter. The novel begins with the arrival of a westbound ship, it ends with another vessel departing eastward. In between, arrivals and departures punctuate a plot which in the course of 23 years travels in a circular movement from Marseilles to Italy, on to Paris, and then back to Marseilles and Italy, before vanishing in the Mediterranean. Yet the initial movement is not so much described as implied by naming the three ports the "Pharao" passed through. As we shall see, one of the characteristics of The Count of Monte Cristo is to make formerly significant spatial intervals as insignificant as the gaps between "Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples"--three names which not only suggest a westward progress through space, but also one through time, as the "Pharao" sails from the old empires of the East (already present in its name) to the new empires of the West. But, strictly speaking, the novel does not begin with the movement of a physical body but with the disembodied movement of information; and it is only after signals have emanated from the top of a Marseilles church tower that human bodies enter the narrative. This, too, is indicative of the remaining 117 chapters which appear to revolve as much around a set of characters as around the ways in which their relationships are affected by communication events. To read Dumas's novel is to pursue a tableau of love, greed, vengeance and atonement along the expanding nodes and conduits of a communication and surveillance network on the verge of industrial take-off: a fully mobilized paper world of notes, messages, letters, ledgers, registers, newspapers, legal writs, ship-to-shore signals and telegraphic dispatches, processed by pubescent bureaucratic machineries; fueled by money and ambition, retrieving the past, storing the present, and anticipating the future by pointing ahead to more advanced levels of speed and efficiency. Underneath its dated sentimentality and cumbersome embellishments (and wrapped inside the time-honoured conventions of the revenge story), The Count of Monte Cristo hides surprisingly modern features of great interest to 20th-century readers interested in exploring the literary archaeology of cyberspace. It is--to summarize the five related aspects which will be discussed here--one of the first literary texts to i) portray information as a cultural commodity of prime importance; ii) present the circulation of information as tantamount, if not paramount to the circulation of goods and people; iii) explore the effects of new storage and communication technologies on communicative and intellectual practises as well as on the perception of space; iv) clearly state that access to and ownership of storage and communication technologies is both a prerequisite for and an attribute of social power; and v) indulge in an industrial glorification of speed. Revenge: The Storage of Fate It all begins with letters. An innocent man, Edmond Dantès, is thrown into prison because two of his rivals--one of whom, Danglars, describes himself as fit for nothing without "pen, ink, and paper" (27 write a defamatory letter to the procureur du roi Villefort, who, in turn, deliberately destroys exonerating evidence, also in the shape of a letter. Disposing of one's enemies has become a surprisingly literate activity, more dependent on proper schooling than on weapons, and therefore more menacing. "I have always had more dread of a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheet of paper, than a sword or pistol" (27), says the petty villain Caderousse--whose lack of success may be attributed to his adherence to old-fashioned means of murder. Upon his escape from prison, Edmond comes into possession of an immense fortune, the location of which is described in an old letter bequeathed to him by the Abbe Faria, a learned fellow inmate who, among other useful things, teaches him how to acquire and process lots of information in more effective ways. Reborn as the Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond employs his improved intellectual and financial resources to research his enemies, gather incriminating evidence and systematically ruin them by destroying what each cherishes most. The haughty soldier Fernand is exposed as a traitor and loses his honour; the avaricious banker Danglars--"[m]y life belongs to my cash" (661)-loses his money; and the ambitious civil servant Villefort, whose perspicacity and command over others mimic Monte Cristo's more formidable powers, helplessly stands by as most of his family is murdered, and he loses his sanity. True to his credo that, "in return for a slow, profound, eternal torture, I would give back the same" (347), the Count ensures that the punishment fits the crime. This is not revenge, it is destiny; or so the protagonist would have us believe. "I wish to be Providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish" (496). Monte Cristo manages to convince himself that he is not involved in mere personal vengeance but rather acts as an instrument of fate, an "exterminating angel" whose wealth was bestowed upon him by God "for a particular purpose" (1061). As in the case of Hamlet, this self-delusion is achieved by assigning inappropriate significance to one's own actions and fortunes. Yet even some of his victims agree: in a chapter aptly named "The Hand of God," the dying Caderousse takes the sudden reappearance of Edmond as proof of God's existence (845). Monte Cristo assumes, as it were, both the role of Hamlet and of Hamlet's murdered father; he is one cursed to set right an out-of joint world and also one of the "dead [who] know everything" (232) and whose function it is to remind the living of their transgressions. The Count neither forgets anything that was done to him nor does he let the perpetrators forget what they did to others. This constant presence of the past is not only grounded in his passion for revenge, it is also--and quite simply--an effect of expanding storage facilities. "Eh, indeed," he asks, "does mankind ever lose anything?" (532). a purely rhetorical question, for in a world of mushrooming bureaucracies and other intelligence-gathering agencies everything people do is recorded and ready for retrieval. Anticipating Kafka's unease and Pynchon's paranoia, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the first texts to focus on the secularization of fate in the course of which god-like attributes such as ubiquity and omniscience are transferred onto increasingly anonymous and complex information-processing agencies. In turn, these very secular institutions and technologies attain some of the mystique of their divine predecessor, which leaves those who have no insight into their operations to explain them in terms of fate and destiny. "[Y]ou have read. . .every page of my life" (910), cries one of the Count's victims. Precisely: all Monte Cristo had to do is to buy and bribe his way into the new nerve centres of knowledge and read. His wealth enables him to achieve what Villefort can only dream of, namely, "to purchase a million secrets from a million of men" (676) and then pose as the "epitome of all human knowledge" (1088). Stripped of its romanticized moralizing and byronesque posturing, his mission of revenge has all the trappings of a well-endowed research project brought to a successful conclusion because generous funding secured extensive data-gathering and thorough logistical planning. Abbé Faria and the Crowded Brain of Sherlock Holmes To carry out his mission, Monte Cristo will not only have to control certain technologies, but also be able to handle increasing amounts of information. The hardware is taken care of by his wealth: he owns enough ships, horses and informers to outpace and outperform most government agencies, and those he does not own (like the telegraph) he is able to abuse. The software, however, the ability to direct an array of information and communication media in a purposeful way, depends less on money than on mental training. The challenge Monte Cristo faces is thus a literary representation of one of the nineteenth century's cardinal challenges: how to handle an unprecedented growth of knowledge as well as the supervision of technologies which accelerated the movement of information, goods, and people in equally unprecedented ways. As James Beniger has pointed out in his study of the modern "control revolution," one of the principal techniques consisted in training individuals to rationalize the processing of information. "The use of human beings...for the more objective capacity of their brains to store and process information, would become over the next century a dominant feature of employment in the Information Society" (225). The issue is addressed directly by the Abbe Faria. a victim of the late 18th-century reading revolution, he once owned 5,000 books, but soon discovers "that with 150 well-chosen books a man possesses a complete analysis of all human knowledge" (129). Likewise, he is able to learn languages simply by working on the few words he already knows (130). The emphasis is on analysis, not on content, since the latter can be derived from the former: the How of knowledge becomes more important than the What. In the great tradition of French rationalism, the unknown is part of the known; it can be revealed by eliminating the unnecessary and rearranging the essential. Thus, Faria possesses the mental skill to reveal why Edmond ended up in prison. He reduces Edmond's lengthy narrative to two crucial questions: who stood to benefit from his incarceration, and who knew of the potentially treacherous letter he was asked to take to Paris? Focus on motive and opportunity reveals the plot and its engineers (136 42). This is a feat of deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the two have a lot of common--cognitive power, scientific interests, unkempt exterior, and, most importantly, an awareness of their own indispensable mental limitations. Upon first encountering Holmes in a Study in Scarlett, Doctor Watson is struck by the fact that Holmes's ignorance is as remarkable as his knowledge: his political insight is "feeble"; he knows "nil" about literature, philosophy, and astronomy; he has never heard of Thomas Carlyle (!); and he neither knows nor cares whether the suns travels around the earth or vice versa. Holmes, however, defends his self- imposed limitations: I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. a fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with lots of other things, so that he has difficulties in laying his hands upon it.... It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. (Doyle 21) Successful storage of instantly retrievable items requires strict preprocessing, which ensures that no unrelated information is admitted. To illustrate the need to pre-process all incoming data, Holmes resorts in true 19th-century fashion to metaphors of spatial confinement ("attic," "room," "walls"). In the case of Faria, however, these are not metaphors. When asked by an admiring Edmond what he would have done if he were free, he replies: Possibly nothing at all;--the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; it needs trouble and difficulty.... Pressure, you know, is required to ignite powder; captivity has collected into one single focus all the floating faculties of my mind; they have come into close contact in the narrow space in which they have been wedged.... (135) In a Foucault-like twist, outer confinement mutates into inner discipline; the stone walls of the Chatêau d'If surrounding the body of Faria become the mental walls structuring the mind of Sherlock Holmes. The link between the two is Monte Cristo who escapes from the Chateau d'If only to take it with him. Although richer and ultimately more knowledgeable than his teacher, he can survive without prison walls because he has internalized them. What the spatial confinement did to Faria the existential focus on his mission of retribution will do for Edmond: he will be able to exert purposive control over vast wealth and equally vast amounts of information because everything is geared toward one particular objective. Revenge is a mental prison. Thus, Monte Cristo's enterprise depends as much on expanding storage and communication hardware as it does on improved human software. Dumas's novel belongs to an industrial mythology of information which, between 1815 and 1914, produced a set of literary figures--most of them human, though frequently with certain superhuman qualities--that are part of the cultural response to the growing importance of media technology and related changes in communicative practises. Among them we find Dracula and Professor Moriarty, the spider-like master-criminals operating from within their communication webs (Winthrop-Young 116); highly efficient special-purpose operators such as Sherlock Holmes or the Abbe Faria; addicted dilettantes of knowledge like Bouvard and Pecuchet; Kim, Kipling's extremely adaptable operator involved in the "Great Game" of imperial cybernetics (Richards 22-32); and last but certainly not least imposing Lords of Information à la Monte Cristo. Telegraphy: "The Delight of Speed" What exactly is Monte Cristo up against? No mortal can match him; his adversaries are more formidable: [U]ntil now, no man has found himself in a position similar to mine. The dominion of kings are limited, either by mountains or rivers, or a change of manners, or an alteration of language. My kingdom is bounded only by the world.... I am a cosmopolite. No country saw my birth. God knows which country will see me die. I adopt all customs, speak all languages.... I have only two adversaries--I will not say conquerors, for with perseverance I subdue even them though they are time and distance. (494, emphasis added) Monte Cristo moves in a world which has effaced concrete physical boundaries and impediments, leaving only the pure dimensions of time and space. Also, bothersome linguistic diversity is overcome by protean linguistic abilities. But just as topographic unruliness is reduced to mere "distance," constant adaptation to linguistic cacophony can be replaced by something far simpler. But what is there in the world of Monte Cristo that moves through space regardless of natural obstacles, that does so in less time than anything else, and that is unaffected by an "alteration of language" because it uses a non-linguistic code? Answer: telegraphic messages.2 At the time of the novel's first publication 1844-46, Paris was the centre of a star-shaped telegraph system made up of about 5,000 kilometres of line and no fewer than 534 stations (Wilson 146). Pioneered by Claude Chappe in the 1790s, the French network was linked to neighbouring lines--which is why Danglars, when abducted by Roman bandits, automatically assumes that the telegraph has informed the Papal authorities (1070). Chappe had hoped that his invention might be applied to industry and commerce; he envisioned a transEuropean, channel-hopping network and even proposed to relay stock exchange news, but the only "commercial" messages Napoleon consented to were weekly transmissions of the winning lottery numbers (Wilson 132). After 1815, several attempts to allow the public access to the telegraph failed. It remained a government monopoly until its demise, which may account for some of the rough treatment it received from the nineteenth century's greatest telegraphy author, Victor Hugo.3 Telegraphy and money go together well, particularly in a novel obsessed with the latter. In order to portray a world in which "man 'proposes,' yet money 'disposes"' (512), it presents a series of business triangles connecting money, information and love. For instance, when Lucien Debray, the callous civil servant working at the "fountain-head" of the telegraph system, breaks up with Danglars' wife, he informs her of the exact worth of their relationship: 2,400,000 francs plus interest, all due to successful stock market speculations based on prior knowledge of politically sensitive information arriving by telegraph (1014). The ban on telegraphic communication of stock exchange is naive: all news transmitted by telegraph lines is of interest to the stock market, simply because it travels along government-owned lines. As so often in media history, the fact that a medium is new and exclusive vouches for the truth of its messages (Haase 51). Telegraphic gullibility is also at the centre of one of the most famous episodes. Monte Cristo bribes an operator to send a false message to Paris, as a result of which Danglars loses enough money to become susceptible to further schemes (619-27). Dumas's description of the telegraph tower contains an intriguing detail. After dismounting at the foot of the hill and ascending a path "about eighteen inches wide" (619), Monte Cristo arrives at a hedge behind which is a beautiful garden with a path "formed in the shape of a figure 8, thus, in its windings, making a walk of sixty feet in a garden of only twenty" (620). a telegraph tower, designed to speed up information, is placed on top of a hill accessible only by a narrow path and bounded by an enclosed garden with an elongated pathway and exquisite scenery, all of which serve to slow down. This juxtaposition--the machine of speed in the garden of languor- -is indicative of the way the text deals with space and speed. Throughout the novel, action is confined to enclosed spaces: prisons, dungeons, catacombs, theatre boxes, gardens, ships, the restricted interior of bourgeois mansions, while the interim movement between these locations is glossed over. Often, a brief introduction will allude to the briskness with which somebody moved to a new scene of action, or the reader will be "transported" across Paris. Distance is something the narrator as well as the characters have little patience with, and they take great satisfaction in traversing it as quickly as possible. Traveling with Monte Cristo from Paris to Normandy--a journey of only eight hours since his host has enough horses at his disposal to change them every hour--Albert Morcerf exclaims: "I never knew till now the delight of speed" (855). Even the suicidal Morrel, accompanying Monte Cristo to Marseilles by coach and private, built-for-speed steamboat, "was not insensible to that sensation of delight which is generally experienced in passing rapidly through the air" (1057). The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the first novels to freely indulge in aestheticizing speed; it does so by depicting the physical exhilaration derived from swift motion and by celebrating Monte Cristo's "marvelous rapidity" (1056), be it the speed with which he travels or the "marvelous promptitude" with which his servants execute orders (638, see 344, 424, 763). Albert pays him the ultimate compliment: "You are certainly a prodigy; you will soon not only surpass the railway...but even the telegraph" (854). Indeed, from the very beginning the action is dictated by telegraphic speed. Edmond is arrested and questioned by Villefort on the afternoon of March 1, the same day Napoleon returns from Elba. To gain Louis XVIII's favour and jump-start his career, Villefort must arrive in Paris before telegraphic dispatches from Lyons alert the court. News of Napoleon's return reaches Versailles at 11 a.m. on 5 March, but Dumas once again gets his dates wrong and has it arrive a day earlier (81). This leaves Villefort less than 72 hours to ride from Marseilles to Paris, a trip Edmond planned to do in five days. As the Count of Monte Cristo, however, five days will take him from Paris to Marseilles and then on to Rome (1053).4 Although located in a world of coaches and sailing ships, The Count of Monte Cristo aspires to speed levels more akin to the railway age. But since the French railway system, though frequently talked about,5 was still in its infancy, the novel pays more attention to telegraphy. The unprecedented speed of Chappe's télégraphe aérien rested on the simple fact that it did not depend on sluggish couriers or vehicles to move its paperless messages. With the advent of the tachygraphe or 'speed writer' (Chappe's original name), the time of shoes and ships and sealing wax had passed. If writing had enabled the separation of physical interaction from communication, telegraphy permitted for the first time the effective separation of communication from transportation (Carey 203). The novel stages this progressive disembodiment of communication by presenting a series of images and fantasies devoted to various degrees of disembodied, quasi-magical communication: from hashish dreams of bodies acquiring "airy lightness" and flying over an "unbounded horizon" (288) and talks of strange "magnetic wires" that link distant bodies (679) to the Countess G.'s fears that another body may serve as a conductor linking hers to Monte Cristo's (335). But the most memorable image is that of paraplegic Noirtiers de Villefort, who, seated in front of a "large glass, which reflected the entire apartment" (595), is reduced to communicating with his eyes only, employing a Morse- like binary code. However handicapped, his "speaking eye sufficed for all": using his eyelids like a telegraph uses its shutters, he is the only one to be Monte Cristo's equal; and he, too, is an embodiment of the growing dependence on medial extensions. Fish and Trains: The Annihilation of Space The "annihilation of space" is a catchword as overused as it is misleading. Obviously, the spaces are still out there, as all those who dare to step outside of the car will soon notice. So what does it mean? Let us look at another innocuous scene. Monte Cristo has invited some of his friends and most of his enemies to his house in Auteil. As usual, his dinner is extravagant: Every delicious fruit that the four quarters of the globe could provide was heaped in vases from China and jars from Japan. Rare birds, retaining their most brilliant plumage, enormous fish, spread upon massive silver dishes; together with every wine produced in the Archipelago, Asia Minor, or the Cape.... (636) The coup d'état is the combination of a sterlet from the Volga and a lamprey from Lake Fusaro. The host admits that they may not be great delicacies, but adds that "one [was] brought fifty leagues beyond St. Petersburg, the other, five leagues from Naples. Is it not amusing to see them both on the same table?" (637). The Count is a great collector and, as such, the ultimate decontextualizer: things and people are uprooted and thrown together, sometimes simply for the sake of seeing them in one and the same place. His palatial cave on Monte Cristo, for instance, is a veritable fur shop, boasting skins of "lions from Atlas," Bengal tigers, "panthers of the Cape," Siberian bears, Norwegian foxes, "etc." (287). The times and distances which separate these items and which guaranteed their spatiotemporal identity are negated. This is the more precise meaning of the "annihilation of space:" it refers to the loss of interim space, a decreasing consciousness of the distances that lie between points of arrival and departure, which, as pointed out above, is already present in the way the narrative effaces in-between spaces. In his study of the industrialization of time and space in the nineteenth century, Wolfgang Schivelbusch has linked these changes to the advent of railways. Talking about the impact on the traveler's space-time perception, he writes that the idea that the railroad annihilates space and time has to be seen as the reaction of perceptive powers that were formed by a certain transport technology who suddenly find that technology replaced by an entirely new one. Compared to the eotechnical space-time relationship, the one created by the railroad appears abstract and disorienting, because the railroad... negates all that characterized eotechnical traffic; the railroad does not appear embedded in the space of the landscape the way the coach and highway are, but seems to strike through it. (Schivelbusch 44) The same is true of telegraphy, a closely associated technology also characterized by acceleration, spatiotemporal contraction and a nonmimetic relationship to its natural surroundings. Schivelbusch has explained the effects of these changes of perception by using Walter Benjamin's famous concept of "aura." Benjamin had argued that mechanical reproduction of a work of art results in the loss of its aura, that is, in the loss of its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. What makes Benjamin's idea interesting to us is his reference to spatial perception when trying to define aura: it is said to be "the unique phenomenon of distance, however close it may be" (222--die einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nahe sie auch sein mag. Monte Cristo, however, does everything to promote a world in which uniqueness is abolished and the "auratic" relationship between distance and closeness is turned around: by uprooting and throwing together formerly distant things, recreating exotic settings in the middle of France, and appropriating and exhibiting ideas, values, objects and even people from the "four quarters of the globe," he is constantly creating die allgemeine Erscheinung einer Nahe, so fern sie auch sein mag--the general phenomenon of a closeness, however distant it may be. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that for all the loving descriptions of confined spaces, outside vistas are noticeably absent from the text. One of the few exceptions is Monte Cristo's panoramic farewell to Paris: It was a lovely starlight night--they had just reached the top of the hill of Villejuif, the platform from whence Paris, like some dark sea, is seen to agitate its million of lights, resembling phosphoric waves,-- waves indeed, more noisy, more passionate, more changeable, more furious, more greedy, than those of the tempestuous ocean--waves which never lie calm, like those of the vast sea,--waves ever destructive, ever foaming, and ever restless. (1055) In her study of Dumas, Isabelle Jan has aptly named the sea The Count of Monte Cristo's "élément tute1aire" (113). True, the story literally comes from the sea and returns to it; Edmond is reborn on the sea; and throughout the novel, the sea promises hope and escape. But it is not just any sea, it is the Mediterranean. Presented as a teeming zone of intercourse, action, traffic, movement, and exchange, it acts as an conduit connecting East and West and Past and Present--as the spatiotemporal contraction "Smyrna, Trieste, Naples" already indicated. The Mediterranean is the novel's most powerful communication medium; and like most media it effects are both energizing (for example, the novel's apparent, if not appalling, orientalism has cultural energy flow from East to West in exchange for military energy) and entropic (barriers and "auras" are destroyed, cultural codes and differences erased). The fact that Monte Cristo, looking down on Paris from Villejuif-where the second telegraph tower of the Marseilles line was located-sees the city as a "vast sea" indicates a significant change. From now on, cities will be what the Mediterranean was in the world of Monte Cristo. Within five years of the completion of the novel, Paris would be instrumental in unleashing a series of failed revolutions and an economic boom so extraordinary that people were at loss for a precedent (Hobsbawm 43-63). No longer would the world allow an individual, however rich, to hold "terrestrial beings under his control" (1008) and to boast that "being of no country, asking no protection from any government, acknowledging no man as my brother, not one of the scruples that arrest the powerful or paralyse the weak, paralyse or arrest me" (495). The sudden urbanization of life with its full-scale mobilization of modern technology and national bureaucracies will ensure that this becomes the prerogative of more anonymous agencies. They will now organize rewards and revenge and turn it into governmental business. But "in business," to quote the novel's most memorable line, "one has no friends, only correspondents" (250).