On Edgar Allan Poe

I know I keep slipping authors into my summer reading challenge who weren’t on the original list, but the temptation to digress often becomes too great to withstand. I’d heard so much about Edgar Allan Poe, that I couldn’t resist reading his Tales of Mystery and Imagination. However, I was surprised how intellectual my response was towards them, when I had expected instead the shivery chickenflesh of disquiet. Of course nothing flattens the delicate reading response quite like a heavyweight expectation; the very anticipation of horror is often enough to render the story banal and quotidian. And reading for a living means that I’m professionally clinical with my emotional arousal; I accompany my reading self with a mental clipboard and check list, ready to take down my feelings and use them as evidence. It takes quite a skilful author, or at least the upsurge of the truly unexpected, to catch me out in a sharp, swift reaction. So, having read Edgar Allan Poe, I cannot say that I felt fear, but I did become extremely curious in an intellectual way about Poe’s representation of fear.

It struck me very forcibly how often Poe uses the trope of claustrophobia to evoke terror. So it’s not enough for the beleagured narrator of The Pit and the Pendulum to be chained to the ground in a sealed room whilst a razor-edged pendulum swings ever closer to him; oh no, the finale involves a brilliant feat of engineering on the Inquisition’s part, to allow the walls to slowly close in on him, forcing him ever closer to the pit. Then in The Cask of Amontillado, the narrator lures Fortunato to his dank cellars and bricks him in underground. Even a story like The Oval Portrait, in which no one is locked in anywhere, recounts a kind of mystical incarceration, as the beautiful subject of the portrait quietly dies while the painter finishes her picture, indicating a bizarre transference of vitality from the freedom of the lived body to the eternal prison of the framed representation. It’s interesting to note that the action of trapping something in, whilst horrific to the captive, can be all too flimsy a protection for the captor. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator’s grisly murder of the old man is uncovered when the heart that he has buried under the floorboards starts to beat so loudly that the police in the room can hear it. So the dynamic seems to go thus: the horror of imprisoning something or someone, is matched only by the horror of the trapped object breaking out.

Now all of this interests me because I’m very claustrophobic and it’s a right nuisance. I can only sit on the end of the aisle in cinemas and theatres as the thought of being stuck in the middle of all those people arouses the kind of heart-stopping horror in me that no book, no matter how scary, ever has. I find it very difficult to be trapped in the car for long periods of time and dread traffic jams. When my college elects a new Master, we are all supposed to vote in the chapel, but I’ve always chickened out because we get locked in until we have a result (it’s much like electing a Pope) and I can’t possibly countenance such a thing. It’s bad enough to be claustrophobic; the last thing I feel like doing is panicking visibly before my colleagues. I only have to see a door shut on me to feel the beginnings of a fearful constriction in my chest. As phobias go, I think claustrophobia is an interesting one because you can track its evolutionary logic: being locked in or trapped is not a great survival method for a human being, and so it’s understandable as a distant echo from the anthropological past. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s misplaced in the modern world; there are few situations that someone won’t let you out of (apart from a mastership election), and so it is, like just about any other phobia, a pointless waste of energy and a needless foreclosing of life’s possibilities. And so the recognition has to dawn that that is the whole point of having a phobia: it’s a really convoluted way of keeping you safe, even if must make you worn out and confined in order to limit your sphere of engagement.

What I found most powerful about Edgar Allan Poe’s depiction of this phobic state, was the way that he wrote within the logic of fear itself. So what’s really scary about the fact that the narrator traps Fortunato in his cellars, is that we as readers never find out why he does so. ‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could,’ the narrator explains to us, ‘but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.’ What could Fortunato possibly have done to warrant such revenge? He himself is entirely unsuspecting, allowing his vanity and his greed to tempt him into his fate. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the murder of the old man is even less motivated: ‘Object there was none. passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me an insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes it was this! He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold’. So the tales suggest to us that we are right to be fundamentally fearful, because there is no reason nor motivation required for fearful events to befall us. We may well be surrounded by murderous aggression and be none the wiser, never realising what forces are at work around us until the fatal blow is dealt. Even though there may be no obvious reason why anything bad should happen, I might as well be afraid of being trapped without escape, as this time it might be the death of me.

The psychoanalytic perspective on phobia is, as one might expect, entirely different and requires a huge change in perspective. ‘A phobia,’ the brilliant Adam Phillips tells us, ‘is a story about where the wild things are.’ Which is why it’s very informative to try to teach someone else how to have your phobia. Phobias tell us nothing about the object of terror (spiders, heights, the number 13) except that they are fearful. So, as with all highly significant banal objects, the interest lies not with it, but in the person who refuses to go near it. Essentially the phobic is living a kind of supercharged relationship with the situation or the object of their terror, investing something large and dark and negative in an otherwise banal and harmless space. The explanation for this is to be found in a kind of outsourcing of emotional storage space. The child, according to Freud, is simply ill-equipped to contain all the turbulent emotions inside him or her, and it’s not so surprising that it’s the bad stuff s/he is very keen to offload. Adam Phillips explains it far more eloquently when he suggests: ‘The first world we find outside is, in part, a repository for the terror inside us, an elsewhere for those desires and objects that bring unpleasure. And that world we make outside is the world we need to get away from.’ The more the child strives for a kind of internal purity, tolerating only positive thoughts and loving gestures towards others and themselves, the more the bad, fearful parts of the self need to be expelled into external zones, relocated elsewhere in random situations and objects that then become radioactive rubbish dumps. Hence the dynamic in Poe that says if it’s bad enough to lock things away, it’s even worse to let them out. But as ever, the counterintuitive move is the healthy one. Adam Phillips argues that ‘if one can tolerate some of one’s “badness”, then one can take some fear out of the world.’

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13 thoughts on “On Edgar Allan Poe

  1. I had no idea. I thought claustraphobia was the fear of *small* enclosed spaces. Well, count me in! I wonder if it is at all related to trauma? If one is perpetually expecting some mortal threat to appear, it stands to reason that one would want the escape routes open at all times…?

  2. I haven’t read Poe since I was quite young. Probably too young to understand him (I just liked horror stories); I should revist him. And I used to watch the movie version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” a lot, so I always seem to associate Poe with Vincent Price. 🙂 That last part about phobias is fascinating — in that sense, couldn’t the destructive, macabre elements in Poe be read as the negative consequences of that 19th c. striving for ‘internal purity’? The results of refusing to acknowledge the terror within us?

    For the record, I’m afraid of coming home to a dark, empty house. I can be by myself in the house, but when I first get home I’m afraid I’m going to interrupt a burglary or something. I always have to throw on the lights and make a lot of noise. Which is embarassing, because sometimes the house isn’t actually empty…

  3. Stefanie – well naturally I agree. Escalators, the underground and pot holes are all places where it is entirely reasonable not to go! Sylvia, yes, I think that trauma has a huge effect on the forming of phobias, because the experience of trauma is one of a radical not knowing, and knowledge is counterphobic – insisting that what’s been mastered mentally is perfectly possible to master physically. Also, that kind of experience of fear would be hard to process, so you would inevitably run into unexpected pockets of it, I would think. And AC, yup, I don’t like empty houses either! I did laugh, though, at the thought of you rousing your housemates with war cries! I love what you have to say about the 19th century – I think you are on to something there.

  4. How strange that you should post this when only today I took my four-year-old to a psychologist to talk about her fear of dogs, more specifically her fear of being bitten by a dog. Daisy, while mostly adorable, has gone through a long and hideous phase of biting her sister (at four she should have long outgrown this). I understand now that in order to deal with the biting ‘badness’ inside she’s projecting it onto dogs as a coping mechanism. It looks like I’m going to have to teach her that we all have some badness inside and that I don’t expect her to be perfect – thus far I think she’s been getting the latter message. Thanks for helping with some insights into what’s been a nasty problem.

  5. Well I think that’s quite amazing too – to have such a textbook example! She is so young that I would imagine if you can defuse the tension in the situation, she’ll be over it in no time at all. I used to worry so much about my son until a doctor once reminded me that children are designed to be resilient… Good luck with the problem!

  6. I have that awful fear of heights, where you fear you will not be able to stop yourself from running off the edge of a roof or cliff…horrid. Did Poe ever write about that?

  7. I sure hope my family finds my antics funny, too!

    I’ve been thinking a little more about your post. What is it that makes something terrifying? What would have made reading Poe terrifying rather than cerebral?

    I loved horror movies of all sorts when I was little, but I would always find myself thinking, “Is this scary? What makes this scary?” I mean, beyond the adrenaline-laden moments (ie, ‘something-just-popped-out-of-the-closet’ moments). I never figured it out. Of course, I probably would have enjoyed them more if I didn’t think so much about them…

  8. I don’t remember any Poe stories involving heights,LK, but that’s my fear, too. The Adam Phillips interpretation, Litlove, is fascinating. I’ll have to ponder it a while. My fear of heights didn’t develop until I was a teenager, and I can almost remember the exact moment it did — getting stuck in a tree I had climbed throughout my childhood many, many times with no fear whatsoever. Once I finally got down, I never climbed it again. I think I was just at the age at which I was subconsciously beginning to realize how vulnerable I was and consciously thinking about how easily I could misstep and fall out of that tree. How fitting to expel those fearful thoughts onto heights.

  9. Hmm… I have a terrible fear of scorpions (from my childhood in Mexico) and I also had a bad habit of pulling our (black) dog’s curly tail. When I saw my first scorpion (a black one) I told my parents it was a bug with a tail like our dog. Hmm…

  10. The heights question is very interesting. I don’t remember any Poe stories that include that particular threat, but Phillips is interesting when he says of phobias ‘the threshold of experience between one moment and the next is aversive’. That gives me an image in my mind of that fantasised compulsion to fall or be sucked over an edge. There’s the sense (in my mind, although perhaps not in that of others’) that the next step, the one that takes you near the edge, could be fatal. Sylvia – I always think it’s so interesting, the way that minds perform convoluted transformations on things. I am so, so glad, however, that there are no scorpions in the UK, as I think I would be absolutely terrified of them. AC – that’s an excellent question and one I need to think about. That might be the beginning of another post there.

  11. Another great reading of one of “my” authors–you are showing entirely too much deeply sophisticated insight into 19th century American authors for a British expert on French lit! Poe’s claustrophobia is everywhere, as I can’t think of a single one of his stories where that does not figure in one way or another. He was afraid of being relegated to the dark side of hack authorship, and he had the contradictory impulse both to be an insider and to reject insiderdom completely, so this might help account for his fear of enclosure. He also read a lot of the pulp publications of the time, many of which displayed a deep fascination with “buried alive” sorts of stories.

  12. I have always had the same reaction to Poe’s writing–part of the problem is that many of us first encounter Poe much too early (for me, 7th grade). Before adulthood, Poe can be entertaining and even scary; after the age of self-consciousness and doubt, though, his writing takes on all kinds of intellectual weight.

    For what it’s worth, the first chapter of my dissertation was on Poe, and I came to believe that his theory of Perversity was at the heart of most of his thinking–see stories like “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Black Cat” for an explicit definition. For Poe, Perversity is the opposite of rational self-interest, and it is one of the first causes of human action.

    My reading of “Amontillado” is that the thousand insults just give Montresor an excuse–the real motivation is not revenge, but perverse self-destruction (the story seems to be an extended confession from a Montresor who has been tormented by the guilt for years–guilt purposely earned?).

    Eh–just a thought!

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