Edgar Allan Poe1


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Edgar Allan Poe1

  1. 1. Edgar Allan Poe: Democracy and Transgression Loosely based upon the notes from Professor Alessandro Portelli’s lecture at Liceo “Augusto” - Roma 21 January 2009
  2. 2. Controversial but influential writer <ul><li>Poe was a highly productive inventor of new literary genres (horror, detective, mystery etc.) </li></ul><ul><li>His works can be easily read at a meta-literary level, that, is as a reflection on literary form </li></ul><ul><ul><li>How do stories work? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Why do we tell stories? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How are poems written? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Why are they written? </li></ul></ul><ul><li>He was one of the first writers to consider literary texts as meaning generators, thus he was one of the first modern artists </li></ul>
  3. 3. Three seminal works <ul><li>A horror story: The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) </li></ul><ul><li>A detective story: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) </li></ul><ul><li>A critical essay on how literary texts are written: </li></ul><ul><li>The Philosophy of Composition (1846) </li></ul>
  4. 4. Common features <ul><li>These works can be read at different </li></ul><ul><li>levels. Among other things there are </li></ul><ul><ul><li>explorations of the functioning of the human mind </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>reflections on the function of art in general and literature in particular </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>analysis of technical features of literary texts </li></ul></ul>
  5. 5. The Fall of the House of Usher <ul><li>The unnamed Narrator is called to the isolated mansion of his friend, Roderick Usher. Filled with a sense of dread by the sight of the house, the Narrator meets his old companion, who is suffering from a strange mental illness and whose sister Madeline is near death due to a mysterious disease. The Narrator provides company to Usher while he paints and plays the guitar, spending all his days inside, avoiding the sunlight and obsessing over strange superstitions. When Madeline dies, Usher decides to bury her in one of his house's large vaults. A few days later she emerges from her tomb killing her brother while the Narrator flees for his life. The House of Usher splits apart and collapses into the tarn, wiping away the last remnants of the ancient family. </li></ul>
  6. 6. Narrator <ul><li>First person internal, unnamed narrator who </li></ul><ul><ul><li>is directly involved in the story as a friend of the protagonist, but is not omniscient </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>creates a gloomy atmosphere by relating his impressions and emotions </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>mediates between the reader and the story </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>is instrumental to involve the reader in the intricate mixture of emotions and facts and to keep his/her attention alive </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>his commonness helps to highlight the special features of Roderick Usher who is a refined, highly sensitive, artistic aristocrat, even though a decadent one </li></ul></ul>
  7. 7. The reader is ushered in the story <ul><li>An Igor-like stealthy valet introduces the narrator into Roderick Usher’s studio </li></ul><ul><li>“ The valet now threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master…” </li></ul><ul><li>The word ushered clearly contains the name Usher – an indirect way to imply the reader’s involvement in the story </li></ul><ul><li>In other words, this is a way to let the reader understand that De te fabula narrat </li></ul>
  8. 8. Main themes <ul><li>Exploration of the functioning of the human mind through </li></ul><ul><li>Opposites </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Emotions vs Reason </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Life vs Death </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Mind vs Matter </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Order vs Chaos </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Symbols </li></ul><ul><ul><li>House - head with vacant eyes </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Madeline – Mad –Line </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Closed chamber </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Sense of Guilt due to </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Aggressive impulses </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Disruptive sex drives </li></ul></ul>
  9. 9. Emotions versus Reason <ul><li>Extreme emotions – music </li></ul><ul><li>Extreme rationality – mathematics </li></ul><ul><li>Brought, but not held, together by poetry which is made up of </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Sound (music) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Metrics (rational regularity) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Roderick Usher is both a musician and a poet </li></ul>
  10. 10. Blurring borders <ul><li>Life and death are not clearly definable </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Madeline and her cataleptic malady </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Mind and matter are difficult to separate </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The house as a sentient being </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The reader doesn’t know whether the events in the story are real or just a projection of Usher’s disrupted mind </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Order and chaos are not as far as one could imagine </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The house is an orderly ensemble of rotten elements </li></ul></ul>
  11. 11. Symbols <ul><li>The house is a powerful archetypical symbol of the human mind. It is described as </li></ul><ul><ul><li>a head with vacant eyes (suggesting an inward oriented personality) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>a heap of crumbling stones (the constituting parts are all rotten) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>an extremely dilapidated but entire and apparently solid building (madness can give the illusion of sanity for a long time) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>covered with fungi (the protagonist’s mind is prey to evil impulses) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The fall of the house marks the surrendering of reason to madness </li></ul>
  12. 12. Madeline – Mad-Line <ul><li>She’s is used as a living symbol of Roderick Usher’s madness </li></ul><ul><li>The reader isn’t even certain of her existence (she just appears once while she’s alive) </li></ul><ul><li>Her name suggests an hereditary lineage of folly </li></ul><ul><li>Everything about her is ambiguous </li></ul><ul><li>She shows clear signs of sex appeal </li></ul><ul><ul><li>She has rosy bosom and face and smiling lips when she’s in her coffin </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>She’s covered in blood when she appears in the final scene </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>She falls over her brother with a moaning cry </li></ul></ul>
  13. 13. Closed chamber <ul><li>Symbol of the unconscious part of the mind, as outlined by Freud, the “id” </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The Id functions in the irrational and emotional part of the mind. The Id is the primitive mind. It contains all the basic needs and feelings. It is the source for libido (psychic energy). And it has only one rule, the “pleasure principle”: “I want it and I want it all now” </li></ul></ul>
  14. 14. Quotes <ul><li>“ The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face , and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death </li></ul><ul><li>“ Here did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes , and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold - then, with a low moaning cry , fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies , bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.” </li></ul>
  15. 15. Psychological implications <ul><li>Roderick Usher is a victim of his own excessive sensibility and disruptive impulses </li></ul><ul><li>He turns his huge mental powers against himself </li></ul><ul><li>His sense of guilt causes ravages in his mind </li></ul><ul><li>The narrator witnesses his friend’s progressive mental deterioration but is not involved in it </li></ul><ul><li>He doesn’t really understand what is going on until the very end </li></ul><ul><li>He escapes unscathed and so does the reader </li></ul>
  16. 16. Political implications <ul><li>Recurring words and expressions related to institutional upheavals throughout the story </li></ul><ul><li>Strong influence of historical and political events – even if Poe maintained he was not interested in politics </li></ul><ul><li>Republic and democracy, as almost exclusive features of American society, considered as synonyms of chaos and disorder </li></ul><ul><li>Constitution as synonym of malady, that is, social disorder and unrest </li></ul>
  17. 17. Order and disorder <ul><li>Order as Old Regime (monarchy) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Often described with organic metaphors - The state is a body whose head is the monarch </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Revolution as institutional upheaval </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Kings often lose their head in revolutions (see French Revolution) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The poem created by Usher is about a revolution (king Thought is sent away from his palace by evil agents) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Democracy as madness </li></ul>
  18. 18. A constitutional malady <ul><li>“ He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy – “ </li></ul>
  19. 19. Revolution <ul><li>“ But evil things, in robes of sorrow, Assailed the monarch's high estate; (Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow Shall dawn upon him, desolate!) And, round about his home, the glory That blushed and bloomed Is but a dim-remembered story Of the old time entombed ” </li></ul><ul><li>Final stanza but one from the Improvised poem by Roderick Usher </li></ul>
  20. 20. Atmosphere <ul><li>Elements of Romantic Sublime used as special </li></ul><ul><li>effects throughout the story, anticipating mass </li></ul><ul><li>literature </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Gloomy atmosphere </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Closed-up unhealthy environment </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Use of natural elements to enhance emotions </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>The dead branches of the trees and the black tarn at the beginning </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>The storm when Usher dies </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>The red moon when the house falls down </li></ul></ul></ul>
  21. 21. The Murders in the Rue Morgue <ul><li>The story surrounds the double murder of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter in the Rue Morgue in Paris. Dupin and his friend, the unnamed narrator, read the murders newspaper accounts. The two live in seclusion and allow no visitors. When a man is imprisoned Dupin offers his services to the prefect of police. Because none of the witnesses can agree on the language the murderer spoke, Dupin assumes they were not human. Dupin puts an advertisement in the newspaper for a lost &quot;Ourang-Outang&quot;. The ad is answered by a sailor who reveals he had a wild orangutan. The animal escaped with a shaving razor. When he pursued the orangutan, it entered the apartment in the Rue Morgue through a window. Once in the room, the surprised Madame L'Espanaye could not defend herself as the orangutan attempted to shave her. Then the orangutan squeezed the daughter's throat and attempted to hide the body into the chimney. The sailor panicked and fled, allowing the orangutan to escape. </li></ul>
  22. 22. Narrator <ul><li>Same as in The fall of the house of Usher: first person, internal, unnamed friend of the protagonist </li></ul><ul><li>English-speaking person, temporarily living in a secluded house in Paris with his friend </li></ul><ul><li>His commonness helps to highlight the special features of Auguste Dupin who is a refined, extremely observant, artistic aristocrat, even though a decadent one </li></ul>
  23. 23. Main features <ul><li>Extremely ratiocinative amateur detective </li></ul><ul><li>Solution of a minor mystery as a way to introduce the detective’s skills </li></ul><ul><li>The detective is able to use his outstanding ratiocinative power to throw light into the darkest mystery </li></ul><ul><li>Double, really gruesome murder </li></ul><ul><li>Isolated setting - Closed chamber mystery </li></ul><ul><li>Ratiocinative detection carried out by analyzing clues and reading witnesses’ newspaper reports </li></ul><ul><li>Solution of the mystery </li></ul><ul><li>Final explanation – restoration of existing order </li></ul>
  24. 24. Isolation – Harmless madness <ul><li>“ I was permitted to be at the expense of renting, and furnishing in a style which suited the rather fantastic gloom of our common temper, a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Had the routine of our life at this place been known to the world, we should have been regarded as madmen--although, perhaps, as madmen of a harmless nature. Our seclusion was perfect. We admitted no visitors. Indeed the locality of our retirement had been carefully kept a secret from my own former associates; and it had been many years since Dupin had ceased to know or be known in Paris. We existed within ourselves alone” </li></ul>
  25. 25. Dupin’s ability <ul><li>“ He boasted to me, with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms, and was wont to follow up such assertions by direct and very startling proofs of his intimate knowledge of my own” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Observing him in these moods. I often dwelt meditatively upon the old philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul, and amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin--the creative and the resolvent.“ </li></ul><ul><li>&quot;He is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes.&quot; &quot;Dupin,&quot; said I, gravely, &quot;this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know I was thinking of” </li></ul>
  26. 26. Classic formula <ul><li>The classical detective story fulfilled the basic </li></ul><ul><li>function of temporarily freeing the reader from </li></ul><ul><li>guilt both at a psychological and social level by </li></ul><ul><ul><li>stating the principle that the crime was strictly a matter of individual motivation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>reaffirming the validity of the existing social order </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>reducing the crime to a puzzle and a highly formalized set of literary conventions </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>transforming crime into an entertaining past time </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>changing something potentially dangerous and disturbing into something completely under control </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>enabling readers to committing in fantasy a domestic murder </li></ul></ul>
  27. 27. Crime as a puzzzle, a game <ul><li>&quot;As for these murders, let us enter into some examinations for ourselves, before we make up an opinion respecting them. An inquiry will afford us amusement,&quot; [I thought this an odd term, so applied, but said nothing]” </li></ul>
  28. 28. Generating Factors <ul><li>Decline in traditional religion </li></ul><ul><li>Social unrest </li></ul><ul><li>Political upheavals </li></ul><ul><li>Ideals of individual achievements </li></ul><ul><li>High pressure from the family circle </li></ul><ul><li>Strict moral values </li></ul>
  29. 29. Issues <ul><li>Multi-ethnical Paris – witnesses are from all over Europe </li></ul><ul><li>Investigation of the nature of language as opposed to pure sound </li></ul><ul><li>Rather crude solution which challenges the reader’s suspension of disbelief </li></ul><ul><li>Extreme emotions versus extreme reason </li></ul>
  30. 30. The stories are like the two sides of one coin <ul><li>Symmetrical protagonists </li></ul><ul><li>Similar narrators </li></ul><ul><li>Same narrative technique </li></ul><ul><li>Shared symbology </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Isolated house </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Closed chamber </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Severed head </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Prevailing darkness </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Shared themes </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Aggressive impulses </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Disruptive sex drives </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Sense of guilt </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Different outcomes with the same effect on the reader </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Temporary release from guilt </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Restoration of existing order </li></ul></ul>
  31. 31. The Philosophy of Composition <ul><li>It is an essay about how good writers write their works, </li></ul><ul><li>featuring the composition of &quot;The Raven&quot; as an example. </li></ul><ul><li>The three central elements of Poe’s philosophy are: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Length : all literary works should be short: the limit is of one sitting According to Poe the short story is superior to the novel for this reason </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Method : Poe dismisses the notion of artistic intuition and argues that writing is methodical and analytical, not spontaneous </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Unity of effect : a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided how it is to end and which emotional response, or &quot;effect,&quot; he wishes to create, Once this effect has been determined, the writer should decide all other things: tone, theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot </li></ul></ul>
  32. 32. Composition of the Raven <ul><li>In the essay Poe illustrates his creation of &quot;The Raven&quot; as an attempt to compose &quot;a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste&quot; </li></ul><ul><li>He says that he considered every aspect of the poem </li></ul><ul><ul><li>He set the poem on a stormy night so that the raven could seek shelter </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>He decided on a white bust to make a sharp contrast with the dark bird </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>He chose the refrain word &quot;Nevermore,&quot; because it suited the &quot;unity of effect“, since the sounds in the vowels have more meaning than the word itself </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>He decided on the raven because, in his opinion, it symbolizes Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance </li></ul></ul>
  33. 33. Literary theory <ul><li>The philosophy of composition is an attempt to explain the way in which a literary work is written </li></ul><ul><li>Literary works are artifacts </li></ul><ul><ul><li>they are made employing a suitable technique to create a specific effect </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>they have nothing to do with intuition or genius, as maintained by the romantic poets </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Poetry is explored in exactly the opposite way literary criticism does. Starting from the end. </li></ul><ul><li>The process of writing is so rigid and logical that some critics have suggested the essay was meant as a practical joke </li></ul>
  34. 34. Poetry <ul><li>Poetry as a balanced synthesis of </li></ul><ul><ul><li>music – sounds and rhythm logically organized into a pattern expressing extreme emotion </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>mathematics – a set of logical organization rules (metrics) suitable to create a whished for effect </li></ul></ul>
  35. 35. The function of literature <ul><li>Art has no moral aim – Art for Art’s Sake </li></ul><ul><li>Its only aim is to create emotions though specific techniques </li></ul><ul><li>Creating emotions implies controlling the reader’s response, that it, manipulating him/her </li></ul><ul><li>Repetition is a powerful way of creating specific effects. Repetition works at different levels </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Sound </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Words </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Lines </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Patterns </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Formulas </li></ul></ul>
  36. 36. Against “The heresy of the didactic” <ul><li>In the essay The Poetic Principle Poe argues that the ultimate goal of art is aesthetic and he complains against didacticism – a philosophy that emphasizes instructional and informative qualities in literature and other types of art - which he calls a &quot;heresy&quot; </li></ul>
  37. 37. A bridge to modernity <ul><li>On one hand, Poe paved the way to avant-garde experimentation, by theorizing Art for art’s sake which </li></ul><ul><ul><li>become one of the leading artistic philosophy in the second half of 19th and early 20th century </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>affirmed that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification and that art did not need moral justification </li></ul></ul><ul><li>On the other hand, he laid the foundation of popular fiction genres which heavily rely on emotional manipulation and special effects </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Detective </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Horror </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Mystery </li></ul></ul>