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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/31/20

The Edgar Poe You Never Knew: a Mere Writer of Horror or a Humanist Master of the Mind

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One day, whilst sauntering along the streets, I arrested myself in the act of murmuring, half aloud, these customary syllables. In a fit of petulance, I re-modelled them thus: - "I am safe - I am safe - yes - if I be not fool enough to make open confession!"

No sooner had I spoken these words, than I felt an icy chill creep to my heart. I had had some experience in these fits of perversity, (whose nature I have been at some trouble to explain,) and I remembered well, that in no instance, I had successfully resisted their attacks. And now my own casual self-suggestion, that I might possibly be fool enough to confess the murder of which I had been guilty, confronted me, as if the very ghost of him whom I had murdered - and beckoned me on to death.

At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously - faster - still faster - at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well understood that, to think, in my situation, was to be lost. I still quickened my pace. I bounded like a madman through the crowded thoroughfares. At length, the populace took the alarm, and pursued me. I felt then the consummation of my fate. Could I have torn out my tongue, I would have done it - but a rough voice resounded in my ears - a rougher grasp seized me by the shoulder. I turned - I gasped for breath. For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul.

They say that I spoke with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption before concluding the brief but pregnant sentences that consigned me to the hangman and to hell.

Having related all that was necessary for the fullest judicial conviction, I fell prostrate in a swoon.

But why shall I say more? To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! - but where?

So what was that all about? Well, keep in mind that it is no coincidence that Poe starts off this short story by discussing both a priori and a posteriori thinking, and that in EVERY short story he has ever written he is always addressing what is the proper mode of investigation to determine what is the truth. Thus, I think it is fitting that we here embody the character of Inspector Dupin, which is really the only Poe character to have shown us an effective mode of investigation, in reviewing this piece that Poe has just concocted. As with any Poe story, there are clues given as to what the outcome of the story will be. That in this case, we are given indications that the narrator we have been listening to is not of sound mind. Let us start our investigation. At the very beginning of the short story the narrator states:

In the pure arrogance of the reason, we have overlooked it. We have suffered its existence to escape our senses, solely through want of belief -of faith

If we cannot understand God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation?

Remember, this narrator has stated that he has found the cause for this impulsive behaviour perverseness, which has no purpose. The narrator states that, until now, the cause of impulsive behaviour could not be determined because it had been assumed that it had a purpose. Thus the nature of perverseness was overlooked since there was a desire, by both these scientists and philosophers, to believe- to have faith that everything must have a purpose.

In addition, the narrator goes on, if we cannot understand God, than the understanding of purpose is outside of us. And if we cannot know the mind of God, we ultimately cannot have a relationship to God. The narrator goes on to describe three examples of perverse impulse: circumlocution, procrastination and being drawn towards the edge of an abyss. He makes the point, that in every one of these examples there is no purpose for why we have such an impulse, in fact, it is never to our advantage and yet we are urged to do it anyway. Of the third example, at the edge of the abyss, he states:

"There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot."

Interestingly, the narrator seems to think that the use of thought would inevitably cause one to be lost to this impulse of perverseness. That the act of thought itself, causes us to be utterly helpless against acts of perversity. This seems to be a rather contrary statement! Let us read on to get a better idea from the narrator:

No sooner had I spoken these words, than I felt an icy chill creep to my heart. I had had some experience in these fits of perversity"and I remembered that in no instance I had successfully resisted their attacks.

I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with a new terror, for, alas! I well, too well, understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost.

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Cynthia Chung is a lecturer, writer and co-founder and editor of the Rising Tide Foundation (Montreal, Canada).  She has lectured on the topics of Schiller's aesthetics, Shakespeare's tragedies, Roman history, the Florentine Renaissance among other subjects. She is a writer for (more...)

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