October 22, 2013
My scholarly friend J. Enrique Ojeda, whom I mentioned in a recent issue, has continued to recommend books to me and loan me books. He recommended From Baudelaire to Surrealism, by Marcel Raymond, a Swiss critic who specialized in French literature. According to Wikipedia, From Baudelaire to Surrealism brought Raymond “universal critical praise.” Unfortunately, none of Raymond’s books have been translated into English. But he’s a widely-respected critic, a member of the Geneva School of criticism.1 His first book was about Ronsard’s influence on French poetry; according to Wikipedia, this book “has become a classic.” Raymond also had a keen interest in Rousseau.
Enrique also recommended another member of the Geneva School, Albert Béguin. One of Béguin’s chief works is The Romantic Soul and the Dream: An Essay on German Romanticism and French Poetry. Several of Béguin’s books have a Hermetic bent. Unfortunately, none of his books have been translated into English.
Enrique is a big fan of the Austrian poet Rilke, whom I’ve never read. Enrique recommends Donald Prater’s biography A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, and he recommends Otto Bollnow’s study of Rilke.
Finally, Enrique recommended a book by one of his BostonCollege colleagues, Georges Zayed. It’s called The Genius of Edgar Allan Poe. It discusses Poe’s high reputation in France, and low reputation in his native country. It’s a concise book, and carefully researched. I read the chapter on Poe as philosopher; this chapter focuses on Poe’s book Eureka.
Poe understood that science isn’t just a matter of patient experiment. “Science makes its most important advances by seemingly intuitive leaps,” Poe wrote.2 Poe believed that everything is connected — a fact that the poet can grasp better than the scientist. Through intuitions and dreams, “the poet can reestablish the network of universal correspondences and the unity of Creation which intelligence and analysis have fragmented.”3 But Poe confuses things (in my view) by emphasizing the role of God; he says, for example, “All created things are but the thoughts of God.”
I read a Poe story called “Mesmeric Revelation.” I’m interested in mesmerism because it smacks of the occult. Mesmerism is a path to the unconscious, like hypnotism, dreams, etc. It’s also a path to transference — i.e., to a telepathic bond, an unconscious rapport, between mesmerist and patient. After reading “Mesmeric Revelation,” I read two essays about it.4 Neither the story nor the essays were very good, but the essays did whet my appetite to read Poe’s other stories about mesmerism: “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” That Poe wrote three stories about mesmerism shows how interested he was in the subject.
“Mesmeric Revelation” isn’t a story so much as a philosophical essay. Hence it can be compared to Poe’s treatise Eureka; one critic called it “a prelude to Eureka.”5 As in Eureka, Poe confuses things by emphasizing the role of God. Poe also makes the mistake of viewing the universe as created for a purpose, rather than growing up spontaneously. This notion of purpose reminds me of our earlier discussion of The Great Chain of Being; in this discussion, we reviewed the history of Western philosophy, showing how rational thinkers often argued that the world must have been created for a purpose.
According to Poe, life exists for the purpose of pain, and pain is necessary to appreciate pleasure; we can only appreciate heavenly bliss if we’ve gone through earthly pain. “Pleasure, in all cases, is but the contrast of pain,” Poe writes. “Never to suffer would have been never to have been blessed.... The pain of the primitive life of Earth, is the sole basis of the bliss of the ultimate life in Heaven.” In my view, Poe’s emphasis on pain and pleasure is a sign of superficial thinking. My fundamental principles are that everything is connected and everything is alive. I regard pain and pleasure as secondary things, epiphenomena.
Poe falls into the same error that many rational philosophers fell into — namely, he believes that God must have created many inhabited worlds. We must have earthly pain, Poe reasons, so worlds are created, and each of these worlds is “tenanted by a distinct variety of organic, rudimental, thinking creatures.”
But while Poe falls into some errors, he also has some interesting ideas, such as the idea that some matter is solid, while other matter is loose, airy, “unparticled.” For example, the atmosphere is less solid than a rock, and electricity might be less solid than the atmosphere. “There are gradations of matter of which man knows nothing,” Poe writes. “These gradations of matter increase in rarity or fineness, until we arrive at a matter unparticled.” I’m reminded of the old alchemical idea of a “subtle body.” As I said in an earlier issue,
Poe’s idea of “unparticled matter” blurs the distinction between matter and void. Likewise, Poe’s idea of a “living corpse” blurs the distinction between life and death. All three of Poe’s mesmerism stories (“Mesmeric Revelation,” “Ragged Mountains,” and “M. Valdemar”) deal with a living corpse, a person who seems to straddle the fence between life and death. At the end of “Mesmeric Revelation,” the narrator wonders if the patient has been speaking to him while dead, “addressing me from out the region of the shadows.” Rationalists will dismiss such things as wild fantasy, contrived to sell magazines, but in my view, the line between life and death is unclear, mysterious, and worthy of serious consideration. We simply don’t know what is life, what is death. Poe suggests that a “dead” person may have heightened powers of thought, feeling, and action, though his physical senses are gone, just as a mesmerized person seems to have heightened powers, though his physical senses are in abeyance.
In Poe’s “Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” a man named Bedloe appears to be a living corpse, a second incarnation of a man named Oldeb. So this appears to be a case of reincarnation, metempsychosis. Bedloe has a vision of his former life, as Oldeb, at the very time when his mesmerist, Dr. Templeton, is writing an account of Oldeb’s life. So this appears to be a case of unconscious rapport, transference, a telepathic bond.6
So which is it, reincarnation or rapport? I would argue that it’s both reincarnation and rapport; in earlier issues, I’ve said that different branches of the occult often overlap. But critics seem to be confused by this overlapping; Lind argues that this is only rapport, not reincarnation, and Falk argues that Lind is wrong, it’s reincarnation.
Oldeb is killed, then has an out-of-body experience. “I seemed to rise from the ground.... Beneath me lay my corpse, with the arrow in my temple.” Then Oldeb “flitted buoyantly out of the city.” Rationalists will dismiss this as wild fantasy, others will regard it as a good description of an out-of-body experience. We discussed out-of-body experiences, or “near death” experiences, in an earlier issue.
In Poe’s “M. Valdemar,” a mesmerist tries to prolong someone’s life by keeping them mesmerized. Here again, rationalists will dismiss this as wild fantasy, but there seem to be such cases. A few months ago, I attended a lecture by Eben Alexander, who wrote a bestseller called Proof of Heaven. He said he woke up one morning with a lethal case of meningitis, spent a week in a coma, had an out-of-body experience, then came back to consciousness. The odds of surviving such an illness are slim, and his doctors didn’t expect him to live. Was his life prolonged by his out-of-body experience? Did his soul’s vitality prevent his body from dying? Can an out-of-body experience be induced, and life be prolonged, by a hypnotist or mesmerist?
Lind points out that Dickens was a defender of mesmerism, while Hawthorne was a critic.7 Lind speaks of, “Hawthorne’s repugnance to spiritualism and mesmerism, and his harsh delineation of Dr. Westervelt, the crafty mesmerist in The Blithedale Romance.” The founder of mesmerism, Franz Mesmer, coined the term “animal magnetism,” meaning a force or energy exerted by living things, and perhaps non-living things, too. Schopenhauer, who was generally receptive to the occult, said
Poe shared Schopenhauer’s view that mesmerism (animal magnetism) opened up important new fields; in “Ragged Mountains,” Poe says, “the soul of the man of today is upon the verge of some stupendous psychal discoveries.” Mesmerism opens up the study of the unconscious, and the study of the occult, and thus can lead to “stupendous discoveries.”
Lind tells us that a writer who met Poe, Andrew Jackson Davis, said “he is, in spirit, a foreigner.” Lind calls this “a keen insight into Poe’s personality.” Was Poe a “foreigner in spirit” because he spent some of his formative years in Britain? Or was he a foreigner because he was a great intellectual, and many great intellectuals are “foreigners in spirit”? Nietzsche, Joyce, Ibsen — they were all “foreigners in spirit.” Did Poe connect with French intellectuals partly because he was a “foreigner,” not a “total American”?
As I mentioned before, “Mesmeric Revelation” is a rather dull story, and rather unimpressive as a philosophical treatise. “Ragged Mountains” and “M. Valdemar” are better stories. But if you want to see Poe at his best, read “The Black Cat.” I admit, it requires a strong stomach, it’s a grisly story, but it’s one of the best stories by one of the best story-writers.
As for criticism, I recommend “The Black Cat”: Perverseness Reconsidered, by James Gargano.9 Gargano notes that the narrator of “The Black Cat” has much to say about
Many critics, Gargano says, have argued that “Black Cat” is a story of perverseness. But they’re wrong, Gargano says; “Black Cat” is about justice, about how evil actions are punished, how man descends gradually into evil, each step leading to the next step, how evil destroys the soul, how evil destroys the evil-doer from within. In short, it’s a story of the workings of moral law, not a story about arbitrary perversity. Gargano speaks of “the narrator’s fatuous denial of a moral order at the same time that the reader observes its unfaltering operation.”
In “Black Cat,” punishment follows crime with such regularity that one is tempted to invoke the concept of karma. We discussed karma in an earlier issue:
When the narrator of “Black Cat” raps on the very spot where he has immured his wife, it’s an example of frevel, playful daring that’s related to evil. Apparently the “immuration” in “Black Cat” was inspired by an actual murder. And it resembles a later murder: Dr. Hawley Crippen’s murder and “immuration” of his wife in 1910.
When did the narrator’s chain of crime and punishment begin? When did his descent into evil begin? Gargano shrewdly argues that it began with exaggerated goodness, with a life of sweet innocence:
One is reminded of Poe’s own unconsummated marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin. Does the narrator’s fondness for pets also have an analogue in Poe’s own life? Certainly the narrator’s alcoholism has an analogue in Poe’s own life. Gargano shrewdly remarks (following an earlier critic?) that the narrator’s “helplessness under the power of ‘the Fiend Intemperance’ symbolizes his susceptibility to evil through his own divided nature.”
The narrator ignores everything but the “soft and gentle,” and thereby pushes his shadow to rise up in protest. Nikos Kazantzakis said, “The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness.” The narrator closes his eyes to the darkness, to his own shadow.
Gargano notes that “Black Cat” has two distinct parts:
Gargano also notes that the destruction of the house in “Black Cat” is comparable to the destruction of the house in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.”
Poe’s work is full of vitality as well as profundity. Critics have derided the youthful tone of his work. T. S. Eliot, for example, said that Poe has “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty.” But perhaps this youthful tone is a virtue; perhaps it’s part of Poe’s charm.
Henry James said that “enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Yes, if we take “primitive” in a positive sense. It’s precisely this primitive character that James’ own work sorely lacks.
“The Purloined Letter” is one of Poe’s best-known stories. It’s a detective story, featuring the shrewd C. Auguste Dupin. It’s one of Poe’s “ratiocination” stories — in other words, it deals with solving a puzzle.
Poe himself was good at solving puzzles, so one wonders if Dupin has some of Poe’s own traits. As aids to concentration, Dupin uses smoking, darkness, and silence. Did Poe use the same aids? Poe created the genre of the puzzle-solver because he was himself a puzzle-solver; he was good at it, and enjoyed it.
Sherlock Holmes has some of Dupin’s traits; Poe’s detective stories influenced Arthur Conan Doyle and others. Like Sherlock Holmes, Dupin is a private detective who has an admiring friend (the narrator), and is more clever than the police.
In “Purloined Letter,” the police decide that the letter must be in a certain apartment, and they thoroughly search the apartment. One can’t fault their thoroughness or diligence. Dupin thinks more creatively, he considers a wider range of possibilities. If the police are like a scientist who works hard, Dupin is like a scientist who makes a leap to a new paradigm. Dupin puts himself in the mind of the thief, and says that the thief must “reason well” because he’s both a poet and a mathematician, he’s both imaginative and calculating.
Though there are many critical essays on “The Purloined Letter,” I didn’t find an essay that I especially liked. I did, however, find a Poe Society website that has many critical essays online. One of these essays is about Coleridge’s influence on Poe.10 Perhaps no thinker influenced Poe more than Coleridge.11 Coleridge was a deep thinker, a penetrating critic, and a gifted poet. He popularized recent German thinkers and old Hermetic thinkers.
One critic says that Poe’s policeman is merely ingenious, not analytic.
This was Poe’s first detective story, and it created a sensation — indeed, it created a genre. Wikipedia says,
“Rue Morgue” begins with a long prologue on analytic thinking. Poe argues that chess doesn’t require genuine analytic thinking, because the number of possible moves is finite; chess requires only concentration and calculation. But whist, Poe says, requires analytic thinking; a whist player “notes every variation of face as the play progresses, gathering a fund of thought from the differences in the expression of certainty, of surprise, of triumph, or of chagrin.”
Poe mentions the famous French detective Vidocq, whose memoirs may have inspired “Rue Morgue.” Vidocq started the world’s first detective agency in 1817, when urbanization was causing a rise in crime, and the first police forces were being established. Newspapers were reporting on crime, and the public was becoming interested in crime.
The police are baffled by the murders in the Rue Morgue. But Dupin unravels the mystery by looking for what’s odd and unusual:
I went back to my old friend Marie Bonaparte, to see if her Freudian study of Poe would impress me as much as it did during my salad days. I read her analysis of “Rue Morgue,” which is quite long, and attempts to summarize the story as well as analyze it; you can probably understand her piece without reading the story itself.
Bonaparte’s big study of Poe treats his life as well as his work, and she reminded me that Poe went insane for a time, as Dostoyevsky did. Poe said candidly, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank — God only knows how often or how much.”14 Bonaparte says that Poe bounced back and forth between healthy women and dying women, and he couldn’t find peace in either direction. He could find peace only in drink or drugs or death.
Poe’s psychological problems were never solved, and may have been insoluble. These problems filled his life with trials and tribulations. His creativity grew out of his suffering.
His works often reflect his life. Bonaparte points out that Dupin the detective resembles Poe in his “doubleness,” his “duplicity.” Like Poe, Dupin has a “Bi-Part Soul... the creative and the resolvent,” the fiction writer and the puzzle solver. Like Poe, Dupin comes from “an illustrious family,” but his fortunes have declined.
Bonaparte discusses Poe’s influence on Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in the novel A Study in Scarlet. In that work,
Bonaparte says that the “ape murder” in “Rue Morgue” is peculiarly violent, and gratifies our aggressive instincts. It also recalls the “primal scene,” that is, parental sex as witnessed by the infant. According to Bonaparte, the infant views sex as an aggressive act, and thinks that the man castrates the woman. Beheading is a symbol of castration, hence in “Rue Morgue,” the man (the orang-outang) beheads the woman, and hence, in primitive society, beheading is widely practiced.
Bonaparte says that the women, in “Rue Morgue,” live in seclusion, in a tightly sealed room, because that’s what the son (the author, Poe himself) wished. “No doubt we have here Edgar’s wish-fantasy in regard to his mother; the wish of the child to keep all men away.”17
While Madame L’Espanaye represents the mother, her daughter represents Poe’s sister, Rosalie. The ape rams the daughter up the chimney head downwards. The chimney, Bonaparte says, represents the maternal vagina, and the ape implants a child in the vagina. The sex act (castration/beheading of the woman) precedes pregnancy, precedes the implanting of the daughter in the chimney. Bonaparte reminds us that “head downwards [is] the child’s position before birth.”18
If Bonaparte is right, then there’s much in “Rue Morgue” that Poe himself wasn’t aware of, and his readers weren’t aware of, much that doesn’t reach the level of consciousness. If Bonaparte is right, then much creativity occurs below the level of consciousness. On the whole, I find Bonaparte’s argument persuasive, though some of her points may be stretched.
A critic named John Moore argued that “Rue Morgue” was influenced by Walter Scott’s novel Count Robert of Paris.19 This novel features an orang-outang of exceptional size and strength. In many respects, Scott’s orang-outang resembles Poe’s — his voice, his climbing ability, his size, his agility, his fear of a whip, etc. Scott’s orang-outang
Moore notes another case of Scott’s influence on Poe: Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor influenced Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”
One might say that Moore’s argument is the opposite of Bonaparte’s. Moore argues that the gruesome quality of “Rue Morgue” doesn’t result from Poe’s pathology but rather from Poe’s source, Count Robert of Paris. Moore says that too many critics ignore Poe’s sources and focus on his pathology. In my view, these factors work together; Poe has sources, but his pathology molds his choice of sources, and his use of sources. It’s a “both/and,” not an “either/or.”
Poe followed “Rue Morgue” with another detective story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” “Marie Roget” is based on a real mystery, the death of a young woman named Mary Rogers. Poe uses “Marie Roget” to put forth his solution of the mystery of Mary Rogers. It has been argued that later evidence overturned Poe’s solution, and when Poe became aware of this evidence, he modified his story, lest his reputation as a puzzle-solver suffer.20
The local GreatBooks group recently read and discussed a Balzac short story, “A Passion in the Desert.” It’s a great story, and since it can be interpreted various ways, it’s a good story for a discussion group. It’s a great description of the relationship between man and animal, a great description of the joy of solitude, and it’s leavened with wit.
If I were asked to come up with an alternate title for the story, I might call it “Transitions.” It deals with the transition from fear of solitude to enjoyment of solitude, the transition from fear of death to acceptance of death, etc. (In an earlier issue, I described a disciple of Jung who went into the mountains in search of solitude, and experienced a transition from fear to serenity.)
Balzac was a contemporary of Poe (he was born in 1799, ten years before Poe), and Balzac was interested in the occult, so it isn’t surprising that he deals with mesmerism (animal magnetism). “The presence of the panther,” Balzac writes, “even asleep, could not fail to produce the effect which the magnetic eyes of the serpent are said to have on the nightingale.” Later, it’s the panther herself who is mesmerized: “He looked at her caressingly, staring into her eyes in order to magnetize her, and let her come quite close to him.”
How does the man avoid being eaten by the panther? Balzac says that perhaps “his will powerfully projected had modified the character of his companion.” This suggests that mesmerism is a matter of will, the projection of will. We should view mesmerism (animal magnetism) not as a narrow, specialized technique, but as part of the larger issue of the will, how the will can influence the external world. One of Balzac’s first writings was a Treatise on the Will, which he mentions in his autobiographical novel Louis Lambert. Louis Lambert discusses Franz Mesmer, animal magnetism, etc.
I’m curious to know what inspired Balzac to write this story, and how critics have interpreted it, but I haven’t found any good essays on it. Surely Balzac knew many old soldiers who were wounded in the Napoleonic wars, but I doubt he knew any who had such strange adventures.
I’m also curious to know what Balzac and Poe thought of each other. Balzac is known for being realistic — more realistic than Poe — but Balzac and Poe share an interest in the occult.
|1.|| In its article on Raymond, Wikipedia says, “At Geneva, he became friends with Georges Poulet and Albert Béguin, and along with Jean Starobinski and Jean Rousset they formed the core of what would come to be called the Geneva School of literary criticism.” back|
|2.|| Ch. 17, p. 143. This appears to be Zayed’s only book. back|
|3.|| Ibid, p. 145. These are Zayed’s words, not Poe’s. back|
|4.|| “Poe and Mesmerism,” by Sidney E. Lind, PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Dec., 1947), pp. 1077-1094|
“Poe and the Power of Animal Magnetism,” by Doris V. Falk, PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 3 (May, 1969), pp. 536-546. Lind points out that “‘Mesmerism’ and ‘animal magnetism’ were terms used interchangeably in the nineteenth century.” back
|5.|| Lind, p. 1087 back|
|6.|| “Between Doctor Templeton and Bedloe,” Poe writes, “there had grown up, little by little, a very distinct and strongly marked rapport, or magnetic relation.... When I first became acquainted with the two, sleep was brought about almost instantaneously by the mere volition of the operator, even when the invalid was unaware of his presence.” back|
|7.|| For more on this subject, see Fred Kaplan’s Dickens and Mesmerism. See also Robert Darnton’s Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. For D. H. Lawrence’s interest in mesmerism, click here. back|
|8.|| Wikipedia back|
|9.|| Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Summer 1960), pp. 172-178 back|
|9B.||Perhaps this “inordinate fondness” conceals something darker. In his essay on Schopenhauer, Hitschmann said that compassion for animals is often accompanied by cruelty toward people. back|
|10.|| “The Spiritual Descent into the Maelström: A Debt to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’” by Margaret J. Yonce; www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1960/p1969202.htm back|
|12.|| “Purloined Voices,” by A. Schlutz back|
|13.|| Wikipedia notes that “there were other stories [before Poe’s “Rue Morgue”] that featured similar problem-solving characters. Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1819), by E.T.A. Hoffmann... is sometimes cited as the first detective story. Other forerunners include Voltaire’s Zadig (1748), with a main character who performs similar feats of analysis.” back|
|14.|| The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ch. 36, p. 449 back|
|15.|| Ch. 17, p. 107 back|
|16.|| Ch. 36, p. 430, footnote back|
|17.|| Ch. 36, p. 453 back|
|18.|| Ch. 36, p. 454 back|
|19.|| “Poe, Scott, and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’,” by John Robert Moore, American Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1 (March, 1936), pp. 52-58. A good summary of “Rue Morgue,” with useful notes, can be found here. back|
|20.||See Poe The Detective: The Curious Circumstances Behind “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” by John Walsh. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1968, reviewed by W. K. Wimsatt in American Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Jan., 1969), pp. 555-557 back|