Edgar Allan Poe: The Sancturary of the Disengaged Soul
domingo, 22 de septiembre de 2013
Edgar Allan Poe: The Sanctuary of the Disengaged Soul
However much they differ . . . writers like Cooper and Sedgwick do have common interests and ideas, derived from the basic currency of Western myth: a belief in mobility, a concern with the future, a conviction that, whatever problems it may have, America is still a land of possibility. The counter-myth to this is the myth of the South: preoccupied with place and confinement rather than space and movement, obsessed with the guilt and burden of the past, riddled with doubt, unease, and the sense that, at their best, human beings are radically limited and, at their worst, tortured, grotesque, or evil. And if Cooper was the founding father of the Western myth in literature, even though he never actually saw the prairie, then, even more queerly, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was the founding father of the Southern myth, although he was actually born in Boston and hardly ever used Southern settings in his fiction or his poetry. What makes Poe a founder of Southern myth, typically of him, is not so much a matter of the literal as of the imaginative. "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) is set in an anonymous landscape, or rather dreamscape, but it has all the elements that were later to characterize Southern Gothic: a great house and family falling into decay and ruin, a feverish, introspective hero half in love with death, a pale, ethereal heroine who seems and then is more dead than alive, rumors of incest and guilt—and, above all, the sene that the past haunts the present and that there is evil in the world and it is strong. Typically of Poe, who turned his own life into drama, this Southern dimension is also a matter of self-consciousness: the causes he espoused, the opinions he expressed, the stories he told about himself. "I am a Virginian," he wrote in 1842, "at least I call myself one, for I have resided all my life, until within the last few days, in Richmond."
Despite all his aristocratic sneers at the bourgeois dullness and correctness of Boston, and his complaints about Southerners "being ridden to death by New-England," he was actually born there. He left at the age of two to be raised by a Richmond merchant, John Allan. It was from John Allan that, by choice, Poe took his middle name. And it was with the Allans that Poe lived in England from 1815 to 1820. Poe then entered the University of Virginia in 1826, but relations between him and Allan were by now severly strained. Allan wanted Poe to prepare for a legal career. Poe, however, left university for Boston, where he began a literay career with his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). Published anonymously and at his own expense, it went unnoticed. But it clearly announced his poetic intentions: aims and ambitions that were later to be articulated in such seminal essays as "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) and "The Poetic Principle" (1850) and further put into practice in the later volumes, Poems by E. A. Poe (1831) and The Raven and Other Poems (1845). The poet, Poe wrote in his essays, should be concerned, first and last, with the "circumscribed Eden" of his own dreams. "It is the desire of the moth for the star," Poe says of the poetic impulse in "The Poetic Principle." "Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave," he goes on, "we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone." According to this prescription, the poet's task is to weave a tapestry of talismanic signs and sounds in order to draw, or rather subdue, the reader into sharing the world beyond phenomenal experience. Poems make nothing happen in any practical, immediate sense, Poe suggests. On the contrary, the ideal poem becomes one in which the words efface themselves, disappear as they are read, leaving only a feeling of significant absence, of no-thing.
Just how Poe turned these poetic ideas into practice is briefly suggested in one of his poems, "Dreamland," where the narrator tells us that he has reached a strange nw land "out of SPACE—out of TIME." That is the land that all Poe's art occupies or longs for: a fundamentally elusive reality, the reverse of all that our senses can receive or our reason can encompass—something that lies beyond life that we can discover only in sleep, madness, or trance, in death especially, and, if we are lucky, in a poem or story. Certain poetic scenes and subjects are favorites with Poe precisely because they reinforce his ultimately visionary aims. Unsurprisingly, life after death is a favorite topic, in poems like "Annabel Lee" and "The Sleeper." So, too, is the theme of a strange, shadowy region beyond the borders of normal consciousness: places such as those described in "The City in the Sea" or "Eldorado" which are, in effect, elaborate figures for death. As Poe himself explains in "The Philosophy of Composition," an account of how he wrote "The Raven," "the death . . . of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world" because it enhances the seductive nature of death, transforming annihilation into erotic fulfillment. "O! nothing earthly," begins "Al Aaraaf," one of Poe's earliest poems, and that captures his poetic thrust: whatever the apparent subject, the movement is always away from the ordinary, phenomenal world in and down to some other, subterranean level of consciousness and experience. The sights and sounds of a realizable reality may be there in a poem like "To Helen," but their presence is only fleeting, ephemeral. Poe's scenes are always shadowy and insubstantial, the colors dim, the lighting dusky. In the final instance, the things of the real world are there only to be discarded—as signposts to another country that is, strictly speaking, imperceptible, unrealizable by the waking consciousness.
"Helen, thy beauty is to me, /" "To Helen" begins, "Like those Nicean barks of yore, / That gently o'er a perfumed sea, / The warly, way-worn wanderer bore / To his own native shore." This is poetry as incantation. Poe uses hypnotic rhythm and recurring, verbal melody and words like "Nicean" that suggest more than they state: all to create a sense of mystery, or what a later poet, and disciple of Poe, Arthur Rimbaud, was to call "a prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses." The narrator is transported, by the end of this poem, to "the regions which / Are Holy-Land!" So, ideally, is the reader. The motion here is remorselessly centripetal, away not just from the world of use, getting and spending, but from the entire world outside the self. In dreams, trance, death, Poe intimates, the self fashions its own reality, inviolable and intangible; it draws inward to a world that, to quote "Al Aaraaf" again, has "nothing of the dross" outside it, on the material plane. And, if the poet is capable of it, the poem makes a supreme version of that world: self-contained, fixed, perfect, it is a pure or closed field, as autonomous and impalpable as the reality it imitates. It is as if Poe, with typical perversity, had decided to rewrite the dangers that many of his contemporaries saw in the American ethic of selfhood, and the way it opened up the perilus possibility, in particular, of isolation. For, in his work, solipsism becomes the aim: the poet seeks neither to embrace nor to dominate the world but absolute solitude, the sanctuary of the disengaged soul.
Disengagement was not, however, something that Poe could pursue as a practical measure. He had to earn his living, to support himself and then later his wife: in 1836 he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. He worked as an editor for various journals, including Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and Graham's Magazine; he was associated with other journals, such as the New-York Mirror and Godey's Lady's Book; in 1845 he even became proprietor of the Broadway Journal; and he was an apparently indefatigable essayist and reviewer. What the magazines wanted, in particular, was stories; and in 1835 Poe attracted attention with one of his first short stories, "MS Found in a Bottle," which won first prize in a contest judged by John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870)—himself a writer and author of one of the first idyllic fictional accounts of life in the old plantation, Swallow Barn: or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832). This short story was followed by more and more tales appealing to the conteamporary taste for violent humor and macabre incident. "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Imp of the Perverse" were all published in Graham's Magazine in 1841-1842, while 1843 saw the freelance publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and another prize-winning story, "The Gold Bug." His first collection of stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, was published in 1840; it included "Ligeia," "Berenice," and "The Assignation." In 1845 Tales appeared, a book that reprinted previous work selected by Evert Duyckinck (1816-1878)—an influential man of letters of the time who, with his brother George (1823-1863), was to produce a Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855), the most comprehensive scholarly work of its kind at the time. This later collection contained "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Talle-Tale Heart" among other notable pieces. In the earlier, in turn, Poe made his [in]tentions as a short story writer clear in a brief preface. It was true, Poe admitted, that many of his stories were Gothic because they had terror as their "thesis." But that terror, he went on, was not of the conventional kind, since it had little to do with the usual Gothic paraphernalia; it was, instead, a terror "of the soul."
Whatever else he might have been, Poe was an unusually perceptive (if often also malicious) critic. And he was especially perceptive about his own work. Poe did not invent the Gothic tale, any more than he invented the detective story, science fiction, or absurd humor. To each of these genres or approaches, however, he did—as he realized and, in some instances, boasted—make his own vital contribution. In a detective story like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", for example, Poe created the detective story as a tale of ratiocination, a mystery that is gradually unraveled and solved. He also created the character of the brilliant amateur who solves a crime that seems beyond the talents of the professionals. And in his Gothic stories, he first destabilizes the reader by using unreliable narrators: madmen and liars, initially rational men who have their rationalism thoroughly subverted, men who should by all commonsensical standards be dead. And he then locates the terror within, in something that springs from and bears down upon the inner life. In Poe's stories, the source of mystery and anxiety is something that remains inexplicable. It is the urge to self-betrayal that haunts the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," or the cruel and indomitable will of the narrator of "Ligeia," which finally transforms reality into fantasy, his living wife into a dead one. It is the impulse towards self-destruction, and the capacity for sinking into nightmare worlds of his own creation, that the protagonist and narrator of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) reveals at so many moments of his life. For that matter, it is the strange ending of Pym's story. As he hurtles toward a chasm in the seas from which arises "a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men . . . the hue of the skin . . . of the perfect whiteness of the snow," he appears to be hurtling toward death. Imaginatively, emotionally, it seems he is dying; and yet, according to other textual detail—and the simple, logical fact that he is narrating the story—he would appear to be alive. Poe tears the Gothic tale out of the rationalist framework it previously inhabited, with accompanying gestures toward common sense, science, or explanation. And he makes it a medium for exploring the irrational, even flirting with the antirational. As such, he makes it as central and vital to the Romantic tradition as, say, the lyric poem or the dream play.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" shows how Poe makes a fictional art out of inwardness and instability. The narrator, an initially commonsensical man, is confused by his feelings when he first arrives at the home of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher. "What was it," he asks himself, "that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?" But he is inclined to dismiss such feelings as "superstition": and, even when he is reunited with Usher, his response is "half of awe," suggesting suspicion that his host might know things hidden to him, and "half of pity," suggesting the superiority of the rational man. "Gradually, the narrator comes to speak only of "awe." He even admits that he feels "the wild influences" of Usher's "fantastic yet impressive superstitions" "creeping upon" him. The scene is set for the final moment when Roderick's sister Madeline arises from her grave to be reunited with him in death, and the House of Usher sinks into a "deep and dark tarn." At this precise moment, Usher turns to the narrator and speaks to him, for the last time, addressing him as "Madman." The reversal is now complete, either because the narrator has succumbed to the "superstition" of his host, or because his continued rationality argues for his essential insanity, his failure to comprehend a truth that lies beyond reason. Nothing is certain as the tale closes, except that what we have witnessed is an urgent, insistent movement inward: from daylight reality toward darker, ever more subterranean levels, in the house and in the mind of the hero. And as the narrator moves ever further inward, into "Usher" the house, we the readers move ever further inward into "Usher" the fiction. "The structures of the two journeys correspond. So, for that matter, do the arts of the hero and author. Roderick Usher uses his to transform his guests' minds and expectations, so also does Poe with his imaginative guests. And at the moment of revelation at the end—when the full measure of the solipsistic vision is revealed—both "Usher" the house and "Usher" the tale disintegrate, disappear, leaving narrator and reader alone with their thoughts and surmises. In short, the house of Usher is a house of mirrors. Every feature of the story is at once destabilizing and self-reflexive, referring us back to the actual process of creative production, by its author, and re-production, by its readers. Like so many other tales by Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher" stands at the beginning of a long line of Southern narratives that incline toward narcissism and nostalgia, the movement inward and the movement back. And it stands at the beginning, also, of an even longer line of fiction, American and European, that disconcerts the reader by jettisoning the mundane in favor of the magical, bare fact in favor of mysterious fantasy—and turning the literal world into a kind of shadow play.
Poe had, perhaps, his own reasons for wanting to turn the world into shadow play, and for associating women with death. His own mother had died when he was only two, which was why he went to live with the Allans; and, in 1847, his young wife Virginia died after a long, debilitating, and painful illness. Even during his more successful periods—when, for instance, "The Raven" was published in 1844 and became an overnight success—he was haunted by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, reasonless fears that nothing seemed to diminish. In his last few years he remained prolific: in 1848 he published, among other things, a long philosophical work, Eureka, and in 1849 he wrote one of his best known poems, "Annabel Lee." But he was finding it increasingly difficult to place his work. Suffering from periodic attacks of what he called "brainfever," or temporary mental instability, Poe turned for comfort to a series of relationships with women much older than himself, and to the simpler, chemical release offered by alcohol and opium. Nothing, however, seemed to relieve him; he attempted suicide. Then, in 1849, he disappeared in Baltimore on a journey; he was discovered five days later, in a delirious condition and wearing someone else's clothes. He never recovered enough to explain what he had been doing; he simply died four days after this. It was like one of his own stories; and, bizarre and disconcerting though it was, it seems an appropriate end for a writer who thrived on mystery, viewed life as a masquerade and death as a voyage into another, truer world. As we look at the story of Poe's forty years, we can see certain experiences and obsessions emerging to haunt his writing and aesthetic: death and beauty, alienation and subterfuge, loss and despair. What is perhaps more marked, however, is not this or that particular theme but a guiding impulse: the living and the writing show us someone who by sheer effort of will transforms everything he inhabits, who dissolves the sights and sounds of the world just as he touches them. Poe turned personality into performance, poetry and story into a series of ghostly gestures; in the process, he marked out boundaries for American Romanticism and its succeeding movements that few writers have been able, or even perhaps dared, to cross.