CHAPTER 6 Edgar Allan Poe
POE has no truck with Indians or Nature. He makes no bones about Red Brothers and Wigwams.
He is absolutely concerned with the disintegration-processes of his own psyche. As we have said, the rhythm of American art-activity is dual.
(1) A disintegrating and sloughing of the old consciousness.
(2) The forming of a new consciousness underneath.
Fenimore Cooper has the two vibrations going on together. Poe has only one, only the disintegrative vibration. This makes him almost more a scientist than an artist.
Moralists have always wondered helplessly why Poe’s ‘morbid’ tales need have been written. They need to be written because old things need to die and disintegrate, because the old write psyche has to be gradually broken down before anything else can come to pass.
Man must be stripped even of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes a ghastly process.
Poe had a pretty bitter doom. Doomed to seethe down his soul in a great continuous convulsion of disintegration, and doomed to register the process. And then doomed to be abused for it, when he had performed some of the bitterest tasks of human experience, that can be asked of a man. Necessary tasks, too. For the human soul must suffer its own disintegration, consciously, if ever it is to survive.
But Poe is rather a scientist than an artist. He is reducing his own self as a scientist reduces a salt in a crucible. It is an almost chemical analysis of the soul and consciousness. Whereas in true art there is always the double rhythm of creating and destroying.
This is why Poe calls his things ‘tales’. They are a concatenation of cause and effect.
His best pieces, however, are not tales. They are more. They are ghastly stories of the human soul in its disruptive throes.
Moreover, they are ‘love’ stories.
Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher are really love stories.
Love is the mysterious vital attraction which draws things together, closer, closer together. For this reason sex is the actual crisis of love. For in sex the two blood-systems, in the male and female, concentrate and come into contact, the merest film intervening. Yet if the intervening film breaks down, it is death.
So there you are. There is a limit to everything. There is a limit to love.
The central law of all organic life is that each organism is intrinsically isolate and single in itself.
The moment its isolation breaks down, and there comes an actual mixing and confusion, death sets in.
This is true of every individual organism, from man to amoeba.
But the secondary law of all organic life is that each organism only lives through contact with other matter, assimilation, and contact with other life, which means assimilation of new vibrations, non-material. Each individual organism is vivified by intimate contact with fellow organisms: up to a certain point.
So man. He breathes the air into him, he swallows food and water. But more than this. He takes into him the life of his fellow men, with whom he comes into contact, and he gives back life to them. This contact draws nearer and nearer, as the intimacy increases. When it is a whole contact, we call it love. Men live by food, but die if they eat too much. Men live by love, but die, or cause death, if they love too much.
There are two loves: sacred and profane, spiritual and sensual.
In sensual love, it is the two blood-systems, the man’s and the woman’s, which sweep up into pure contact, and almost fuse. Almost mingle. Never quite. There is always the finest imaginable wall between the two blood-waves, through which pass unknown vibrations, forces, but through which the blood itself must never break, or it means bleeding.
In spiritual love, the contact is purely nervous. The nerves in the lovers are set vibrating in unison like two instruments. The pitch can rise higher and higher. But carry this too far, and the nerves begin to break, to bleed, as it were, and a form of death sets in.
The trouble about man is that he insists on being master of his own fate, and he insists on oneness. For instance, having discovered the ecstasy of spiritual love, he insists that he shall have this all the time, and nothing but this, for this is life. It is what he calls ‘heightening’ life. He wants his nerves to be set vibrating in the intense and exhilarating unison with the nerves of another being, and by this means he acquires an ecstasy of vision, he finds himself in glowing unison with all the universe.
But as a matter of fact this glowing unison is only a tem- porary thing, because the first law of life is that each organism is isolate in itself, it must return to its own isolation.
Yet man has tried the glow of unison, called love, and he likes it. It gives him his highest gratification. He wants it. He wants it all the time. He wants it and he will have it. He doesn’t want to return to his own isolation. Or if he must, it is only as a prowling beast returns to its lair to rest and set out again.
This brings us to Edgar Allan Poe. The clue to him lies in the motto he chose for Ligeia, a quotation from the mystic Joseph Glanvill:
And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigour? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.
It is a profound saying: and a deadly one.
Because if God is a great will, then the universe is but an instrument.
I don’t know what God is. But He is not simply a will. That is too simple. Too anthropomorphic. Because a man wants his own will, and nothing but his will, he needn’t say that God is the same will, magnified ad infinitum.
For me, there may be one God, but He is nameless and unknowable.
For me, there are also many gods, that come into me and leave me again. And they have very various wills, I must say.
But the point is Poe.
Poe had experienced the ecstasies of extreme spiritual love. And he wanted those ecstasies and nothing but those ecstasies. He wanted that great gratification, the sense of flowing, the sense of unison, the sense of heightening of life. He had experienced this gratification. He was told on every hand that this ecstasy of spiritual, nervous love was the greatest thing in life, was life itself. And he had tried it for himself, he knew that for him it was life itself. So he wanted it. And he would have it. He set up his will against the whole of the limitations of nature.
This is a brave man, acting on his own belief, and his own experience. But it is also an arrogant man, and a fool.
Poe was going to get the ecstasy and the heightening, cost what it might. He went on in a frenzy, as characteristic American women nowadays go on in a frenzy, after the very same thing: the heightening, the flow, the ecstasy. Poe tried alcohol, and any drug he could lay his hand on. He also tried any human being he could lay his hands on.
His grand attempt and achievement was with his wife; his cousin, a girl with a singing voice. With her he went in for the intensest flow, the heightening, the prismayic shades of ecstasy. It was the intensest nervous vibration of unison, pressed higher and higher in pitch, till the blood-vessels of the girl broke, and the blood began to flow out loose. It was love. If you call it love.
Love can be terribly obscene.
It is love that causes the neuroticism of the day. It is love that is the prime cause of tuberculosis.
The nerves that vibrate most intensely in spiritual unisons are the sympathetic ganglia of the breast, of the throat, and the hind brain. Drive this vibration over-intensely, and you weaken the sympathetic tissues of the chest – the lungs – or of the throat, or of the lower brain, and the tubercles are given a ripe held.
But Poe drove the vibrations beyond any human pitch of endurance.
Being his cousin, she was more easily keyed to him.
Ligeia is the chief story. Ligeia! A mental-derived name. To him the woman, his wife, was not Lucy. She was Ligeia. No doubt she even preferred it thus.
Ligeia is Poe’s love-story, and its very fantasy makes it more truly his own story.
It is a tale of love pushed over a verge. And love pushed to extremes in a battle of wills between the lovers.
Love is become a battle of wills.
Which shall first destroy the other, of the lovers? Which can hold out longest, against the other?
Ligeia is still the old-fashioned woman. Her will is still to submit. She wills to submit to the vampire of her husband’s consciousness. Even death.
‘In stature she was tall, somewhat slender, and, in her latter days, even emaciated. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the quiet ease, of her demeanour or the incompre- hensible lightness and elasticity of her footfall…. I was never made aware of her entrance into my closed study, save by the dear music of her low sweet voice, as she placed her marble hand upon my shoulder.’
Poe has been so praised for his style. But it seems to me a meretricious affair. ‘Her marble hand’ and ‘the elasticity of her footfall’ seem more like chair-springs and mantel-pieces than a human creature. She never was quite a human creature to him. She was an instrument from which he got his extremes of sensation. His machine a plaisir, as somebody says.
All Poe’s style, moreover, has this mechanical quality, as his poetry has a mechanical rhythm. He never sees anything in terms of life, almost always in terms of matter, jewels, marble, etc., – or in terms of force, scientific. And his cadences are all managed mechanically. This is what is celled ‘having a style’.
What he wants to do with Ligeia is to analyse her, till he knows all her component parts, till he has got her all in his consciousness. She is some strange chemical salt which he must analyse out in the test-tubes of his brain, and then – when he’s finished the analysis – E finita la commedia!
But she won’t be quite analysed out. There is something, something he can’t get. Writing of her eyes, he says: ‘They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race’ – as if anybody would want eyes ‘far larger’ than other folks’. ‘They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad’ – which is blarney. ‘The hue of the orbs was the most brilliant of black and, far over them, hung jetty lashes of great length’ – suggests a whip-lash. ‘The brows, slightly irregular in outline, had the same tint. The ” strangeness “, however, which I found in the eyes, was of a nature distinct from the formation, or the colour or the brilliancy of the features, and must, after all, be referred to the expression.’ – Sounds like an anatomist anatomizing a cat –
Ah, word of no meaning! behind whose vast latitude of mere sound we entrench our ignorance of so much of the spiritual. The expression of the eyes of Ligeia! How for long hours have I pondered upon it! How have I, through the whole of a midsummer night, struggled to fathom it! What was it – that something more profound than the well of Democritus – which lay far within the pupils of my beloved! What was it? I was possessed with a passion to discover .. .
It is easy to see why each man kills the thing he loves. To know a living thing is to kill it. You have to kill a thing to know it satisfactorily. For this reason, the desirous consciousness, the SPIRIT, is a vampire.
One should be sufficiently intelligent and interested to know a good deal about any person one comes into close contact with. About her. Or about him.
But to try to know any living being is to try to suck the life out of that being.
Above all things, with the woman one loves. Every sacred instinct teaches one that one must leave her unknown. You know your woman darkly, in the blood. To try toknow her mentally is to try to kill her. Beware, oh woman, of the man who wants to find out what you are. And, oh men, beware a thousand times more of the woman who wants to know you or get you, what you are.
It is the temptation of a vampire fiend, is this knowledge.
Man does so horribly want to master the secret of life and of individuality with his mind. It is like the analysis of proto- plasm. You can only analyse dead protoplasm, and know its constituents. It is a death-process.
Keep KNOWLEDGE for the world of matter, force, and function. It has got nothing to do with being.
But Poe wanted to know – wanted to know what was the strangeness in the eyes of Ligeia. She might have told him it was horror at his probing, horror at being vamped by his consciousness.
But she wanted to be vamped. She wanted to be probed by his consciousness, to be KNOWN. She paid for wanting it, too.
Nowadays it is usually the man who wants to be vamped, to be KNOWN.
Edgar Allan probed and probed. So often he seemed on the verge. But she went over the verge of death before he came over the verge of knowledge. And it is always so.
He decided, therefore, that the clue to the strangeness lay in the mystery of will. ‘And the will therein lieth, which dieth not . . .’
Ligeia had a ‘ gigantic volition’. … ‘An intensity in thought, action, or speech was possibly, in her, a result, or at least an index’ (he really meant indication) ‘of that gigantic volition which, during our long intercourse, failed to give other and more immediate evidence of its existence.’
I should have thought her long submission to him was chief and ample ‘other evidence’.
‘Of all the women whom I have ever known, she, the outwardly calm, the ever-placid Ligeia, was the most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion. And of such passion I could form no estimate, save by the miraculous expansion of those eyes which at once so delighted and appalled me – by the almost magical melody, modulation distinctness, and placidity of her very low voice – and by the fierce energy (rendered doubly effective by contrast with her manner of utterance) of the wild words which she habitually uttered.’
Poor Poe, he had caught a bird of the same feather as himself. One of those terrible cravers, who crave the further sensation. Crave to madness or death. ‘Vultures of stern passion’ indeed! Condors.
But having recognized that the clue was in her gigantic volition, he should have realized that the process of this loving, this craving, this knowing, was a struggle of wills. But Ligeia, true to the great tradition and mode of womanly love, by her will kept herself submissive, recipient. She is the passive body who is explored and analysed into death. And yet, at times, her great female will must have revolted. ‘Vultures of stern passion!’ With a convulsion of desire she desired his further probing and exploring. To any lengths. But then, ‘tumultuous vultures of stern passion’. She had to fight with herself.
But Ligeia wanted to go on and on with the craving, with the love, with the sensation, with the probing, with the know ing, on and on to the end.
There is no end. There is only the rupture of death. That’s where men, and women, are ‘had’. Man is always sold, in his search for final KNOWLEDGE.
That she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only was I fully impressed with thc strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart w hose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry.
(Oh, the indecency of all this endless intimate talk!)
How had I deserved to be so blessed by such confessions? (Another man would have felt himself cursed.) How had I deserved to be so cursed with the removal of my beloved in the hour of her making them? But upon this subject I cannot bear to dilate. Let me say only that in Ligeia’s more than womanly abandonment to a love, alas! all unmerited, all unworthily bestowed, I at length recognized the principle of her longing, with so wildly earnest a desire, fot the life which was now fleeing so rapidly away. It is this wild longing – it is this eager vehemence of desire for life – but for life, that I have no power to portray, no utterance capable of ex- pressing.
Well, that is ghastly enough, in all conscience.
‘And from them that have not shall be taken away even that which they have.’
‘To him that hath life shall be given life, and from him that hath not life shall be taken away even that life which he hath.’
Or her either.
These terribly conscious birds, like Poe and his Ligeia, deny the very life that is in them; they want to turn it all into talk, into knowing. And so life, which will not be known, leaves them.
But poor Ligeia, how could she help it? It was her doom. All the centuries of the SPIRIT, all the years of American rebellion against the Holy Ghost, had done it to her.
She dies, when she would rather do anything than die. And when she dies the clue, which he only lived to grasp, dies with her.
No wonder she shrieks with her last breath.
On the last day Ligeia dictates to her husband a poem. As poems go, it is rather false, meretricious. But put yourself in Ligeia’s place, and it is real enough, and ghastly beyond bearing.
Out – out are all the lights – out all!
And over each quivering form
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm?
That the play is the tragedy, ‘Man’,
And its hero, the Conqucror Worm.
Which is the American equivalent for a William Blake poem. For Blake, too, was one of these ghastly, obscene ‘Knowers’.
“‘O God!” half shrieked Ligeia, leaping to her feet and extending her arms aloft with a spasmodic movement, as I made an end of these lines – “O God! O Divine Father! shall these things be undeviatingly so? Shall this conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who – who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigour ? Man cloth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”‘
So Ligeia dies. And yields to death at least partly. Anche troppo.
As for her cry to God – has not God said that those who sin against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven?
And the Holy Ghost is within us. It is the thing that prompts us to be real, not to push our own cravings too far, not to submit to stunts and high-falutin, above all, not to be too egoistic and wilful in our conscious self, but to change as the spirit inside us bids us change, and leave off when it bids us leave off, and laugh when we must laugh, particularly at ourselves, for in deadly earnestness there is always something a bit ridiculous. The Holy Ghost bids us never be too deadly in our earnestness, always to laugh in time, at ourselves and everything. Particularly at our sublimities. Everything has its hour of ridicule – everything.
Now Poe and Ligeia, alas, couldn’t laugh. They were frenziedly earnest. And frenziedly they pushed on this vibration of consciousness and unison in consciousness. They sinned against the Holy Ghost that bids us all laugh and forget, bids us know our own limits. And they weren’t forgiven.
Ligeia needn’t blame God. She had only her own will, her ‘gigantic volition’ to thank, lusting after more consciousness, more beastly KNOWING.
Ligeia dies. The husband goes to England, vulgarly buys or rents a gloomy, grand old abbey, puts it into some sort of repair, and furnishes it with exotic, mysterious, theatrical splendour. Never anything open and real. This theatrical ‘volition’ of his. The bad taste of sensationalism.
Then he marries the fair-haired, blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine. That is, she would be a sort of Saxon-Cornish blue-blood damsel. Poor Poe!
In halls such as these – in a bridal chamber such as this – I passed with the Lady of Tremaine, the unhallowed hours of the first month of our marriage – passed them with but little disquietude. That my wife dreaded the fierce moodiness of my temper – that she shunned me and loved me but little – I could not help perceiving but it gave me rather pleasure than otherwise. loathed her with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man. My memory flew back (oh, with what intensity of regret!) to Ligeia, the beloved, the august, the beautiful, the entombed. I revelled in recollections of her purity . . . etc.
Now the vampire lust is consciously such.
In the second month of the marriage the Lady Rowena fell ill. It is the shadow of Ligeia hangs over her. It is the ghostly Ligeia who pours poison into Rowena’s cup. It is the spirit of Ligeia, leagued with the spirit of the husband, that now lusts in the slow destruction of Rowena. The two vampires dead wife and living husband.
For Ligeia has not yielded unto death utterly. Her taxed, frustrated will comes back in vindictiveness. She could not have her way in life. So she, too, will find victims in life. And the husband, all the time, only uses Rowena as a living body on which to wreak his vengeance for his being thwarted with Ligeia. Thwarted from the final KNOWING her.
And at last from the corpse of Rowena, Ligeia rises. Out of her death, through the door of a corpse they have destroyed between them, reappears Ligeia, still trying to have her will, to have more love and knowledge, the final gratification which is never final, with her husband.
For it is true, as William James and Conan Doyle and the rest allow, that a spirit can persist in the after-death. Persist by its own volition. But usually, the evil persistence of a thwarted will, returning for vengeance on life. Lemures, vampires.
It is a ghastly story of the assertion of the human will, the will-to-love and the will-to-consciousness, asserted against death itsel� The pride of human conceit in KNOWLEDGE.
There are terrible spirits, ghosts, in the air of America.
Eleanora, the next story, is a fantasy revealing the sensational delights of the man in his early marriage with the young and tender bride. They dwelt, he, his cousin and her mother, in the sequestered Valley of Many-coloured Grass, the valley of prismatic sensation, where everything seems spectrum- coloured. They looked down at their own images in the River of Silence, and drew the god Eros from that wave: out of their own self-consciousness, that is. This is a description of the life of introspection and of the love which is begotten by the self in the self, the self-made love. The trees are like serpents worshipping the sun. That is, they represent the phallic passion in its poisonous or mental activity. Everything runs to consciousness: serpents worshipping the sun. The embrace of love, which should bring darkness and oblivion, would with these lovers be a daytime thing bringing more heightened consciousness, visions, spectrum-visions, prismatic. The evil thing that daytime love-making is, and all sex-palaver.
In Berenice the man must go down to the sepulchre of his beloved and pull out her thirty-two small white teeth, which he carries in a box with him. It is repulsive and gloating. The teeth are the instruments of biting, of resistance, of antagonism. They often become symbols of opposition, little instruments or entities of crushing and destroying. Hence the dragon’s teeth in the myth. Hence the man in Berenice must take possession of the irreducible part of his mistress. ‘Toutes ses dents etaient des idees,’ he says. Then they are little fixed ideas of mordant hate, of which he possesses himself.
The other great story linking up with this group is The Fall of the House of Usher. Here the love is between brother and sister. When the self is broken, and the mystery of the recognition of otherness fails, then the longing for identification with the beloved becomes a lust. And it is this longing for identification, utter merging, which is at the base of the incest problem. In psychoanalysis almost every trouble in the psyche is traced to an incest-desire. But it won’t do. Incest-desire is only one of the modes by which men strive to get their gratification of the intensest vibration of the spiritual nerves without any resistance. In the family, the natural vibration is most nearly in unison. With a stranger there is greater resistance. Incest is the getting of gratification and the avoiding of resistance.
The root of all evil is that we all want this spiritual gratification, this flow, this apparent heightening of life, this knowledge, this valley of many-coloured grass, even grass and light prismatically decomposed, giving ecstasy. We want all this without resistance. We want it continually. And this is the root of all evil in us.
We ought to pray to be resisted, and resisted to the bitter end. We ought to decide to have done at last with craving.
The motto to The Fall of the House of Usher is a couple of lines from Beranger.
Son coeur est un luth suspendu:
Sitot qu’on le touche il resonne.
We have all the trappings of Poe’s rather overdone, vulgar fantasy. ‘I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down – but with a shudder even more thrilling than before – upon the remodelled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.’ The House of Usher, both dwelling and family, was very old. Minute fungi overspread the exterior of the house, hanging in festoons from the eaves. Gothic archways a valet of stealthy step, sombre tapestries, ebon black floors a profusion of tattered and antique furniture, feeble gleams of encrimsoned li’rht throuch latticed panes. and over all ‘an air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom’ – this makes up the interior.
The inmates of the house, Roderick and Madeline Usher, are the last remnants of their incomparably ancient and decayed race. Roderick has the same large, luminous eye, thc same slightly arched nose of delicate Hebrew model, as characterized Ligeia. He is ill with the nervous malady of his family. It is he whose nerves are so strung that they vibrate to the unknown quiverings of the ether. He, too, has lost his self, his living soul, and become a sensitized instrument of the external influences; his nerves are verily like an aeolian harp which must vibrate. He lives in ‘some struggle with thc grim phantasm, Fear,’ for he is only the physical, post-mortem reality of a living being.
It is a question how much, once the true centrality of the self is broken, the instrumental consciousness of man can register. When man becomes selfless, wafting instrumental like a harp in an open window, how much can his elemental consciousness express? The blood as it runs has its own sympathies and responses to the material world, quite apart from seeing. And the nerves we know vibrate all the while to unseen presences, unseen forces. So Roderick Usher quivers on the edge of material existence.
It is this mechanical consciousness which gives ‘the fervid facility of his impromptus’. It is the same thing that gives Poe his extraordinary facility in versification. The absence of real central or impulsive being in himself leaves him inordinately, mechanically sensitive to sounds and effects, associations of sounds, associations of rhyme, for example – mechanical, facile, having no root in any passion. It is all a secondary, meretricious process. So we get Roderick Usher’s poem, The Haunted Palace, with its swift yet mechanical subtleties of rhyme and rhythm, its vulgarity of epithet. It is all a sort of dream-process, where the association between parts is mech- anical, accidental as far as passional meaning goes.
Usher thought that all vegetable things had sentience. Surely all material things have a form of sentience, even the inorganic: surely they all exist in some subtle and complicated tension of vibration which makes them sensitive to external influence and causes them to have an influence on other external objects, irrespective of contact. It is of this vibration or inorganic consciousness that Poe is master: the sleep-consciousness. Thus Roderick Usher was convinced that his whole surroundings, the stones of the house, the fungi, the water in the tarn, the very reflected image of the whole, was woven into a physical oneness with the family, condensed, as it were, into one atmosphere – the special atmosphere in which alone the Ushers could live. And it was this atmosphere which had moulded the destinies of his family.
But while ever the soul remains alive, it is the moulder and not the moulded. It is the souls of living men that subtly impregnate stones, houses, mountains, continents, and give these their subtlest form. People only become subject to stones after having lost their integral souls.
In the human realm, Roderick had one connection: his sister Madeline. She, too, was dying of a mysterious disorder, nervous, cataleptic. The brother and sister loved each other passionately and exclusively. They were twins, almost identical in looks. It was the same absorbing love between them, this process of unison in nerve-vibration, resulting in more and more extreme exaltation and a sort of consciousness, and a gradual break-down into death. The exquisitely sensitive Roger, vibrating without resistance with his sister Madeline, more and more exquisitely, and gradually devouring her, sucking her life like a vampire in his anguish of extreme love. And she asking to be sucked.
Madeline died and was carried down by her brother into the deep vaults of the house. But she was not dead. Her brother roamed about in incipient madness – a madness of unspeakable terror and guilt. After eight days they were suddenly startled by a clash of metal, then a distinct, hollow metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled, reverbera- tion. Then Roderick Usher, gibbering, began to express himself: ‘ We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I no tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them – many, many days ago – yet I dared not – I dared not speak.’
It is the same old theme of ‘each man kills the thing he loves’. He knew his love had killed her. He knew she died at last, like Ligeia, unwilling and unappeased. So, she rose again upon him.
But then without those doors there 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.
It is lurid and melodramatic, but it is true. It is a ghastly psychological truth of what happens in the last stages of this beloved love, which cannot be separate, cannot be isolate, cannot listen in isolation to the isolate Holy Ghost. For it is the Holy Ghost we must live by. The next era is the era of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghost speaks individually inside each individual: always, for ever a ghost. There is no manifestation to the general world. Each isolate individual listening in isolation to the Holy Ghost within him.
The Ushers, brother and sister, betrayed the Holy Ghost in themselves. They would love, love, without resistance. They would love, they would merge, they would be as one thing. So they dragged each other down into death. For the Holy Ghost says you must not be as one thing with another being. Each must abide by itself, and correspond only within certain limits.
The best tales all have the same burden. Hate is as inordinate as love, and as slowly consuming, as secret, as underground, as subtle. All this underground vault business in Poe only symbolizes that which takes place beneath the consciousness. On top, all is fair-spoken. Beneath, there is awful murderous extremity of burying alive. Fortunato, in The Cask of Amontillado, is buried alive out of perfect hatred, as the lady Madeline of Usher is buried alive out of love. The lust of hate is the inordinate desire to consume and unspeakably possess the soul of the hated one, just as the lust of love is the desire to possess, or to be possessed by, the beloved, utterly. But in either case the result is the dissolution of both souls, each losing itself in transgressing its own bounds.
The lust of Montresor is to devour utterly the soul of Fortunato. It would be no use killing him outright. If a man is killed outright his soul remains integral, free to return into the bosom of some beloved, where it can enact itself. In walling- up his enemy in the vault, Montresor seeks to bring about the indescribable capitulation of the man’s soul, so that he, the victor, can possess himself of the very being of the vanquished. Perhaps this can actually be done. Perhaps, in the attempt, the victor breaks the bonds of his own identity, and collapses into nothingness, or into the infinite. Becomes a monster.
What holds good for inordinate hate holds good for in- ordinate love. The motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, might just as well be Nemo me impune amat.
In William Wilson we are given a rather unsubtle account of the attempt of a man to kill his own soul. William Wilson the mechanical, lustful ego succeeds in killing William Wilson the living self. The lustful ego lives on, gradually reducing itself towards the dust of the infinite.
In the Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Gold Bug we have those mechanical tales where the interest lies in the following out of a subtle chain of cause and effect. The interest is scientific rather than artistic, a study in psychologic reactions.
The fascination of murder itself is curious. Murder is not just killing. Murder is a lust to get at the very quick of life itself, and kill it – hence the stealth and the frequent morbid dismemberment of the corpse, the attempt to get at the very quick of the murdered being, to kind the quick and to possess it. It is curious that the two men fascinated by the art of murder, though in different w ays, should have been De Quincey and Poe, men so different in way of life, yet perhaps not so widely different in nature. In each of them is traceable that strange lust for extreme love and extreme hate, possession by mystic violence of the other soul, or violent deathly surrender of the soul in the self: an absence of manly virtue, which stands alone and accepts limits.
Inquisition and torture are akin to murder: the same lust. It is a combat between inquisitor and victim as to whether the inquisitor shall get at the quick of life itself, and pierce it. Pierce the very quick of the soul. The evil will of man tries to do this. The brave soul of man refuses to have the life- quick pierced in him. It is strange: but just as the thwarted will can persist evilly, after death, so can the brave spirit preserve, even through torture and death, the quick of life and truth. Nowadays society is evil. It finds subtle ways of torture, to destroy the life-quick, to get at the life-quick in a man. Every possible form. And still a man can hold out, if he can laugh and listen to the Holy Ghost. – But society is evil, evil, and love is evil. And evil breeds evil, more and more.
So the mystery goes on. La Bruyere says that all our human unhappiness viennent de ne pouvoir etre seuls. As long as man lives he will be subject to the yearning of love or the burning of hate, which is only inverted love.
But he is subject to something more than this. If we do not live to eat, we do not live to love either.
We live to stand alone, and listen to the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost, who is inside us, and who is many gods. Many gods come and go, some say one thing and some say another, and we have to obey the God of the innermost hour. It is the multiplicity of gods within us make up the Holy Ghost.
But Poe knew only love, love, love, intense vibrations and heightened consciousness. Drugs, women, self-destruction, but anyhow the prismatic ecstasy of heightened consciousness and sense of love, of flow. The human soul in him was beside itself. But it was not lost. He told us plainly how it was, so that we should know.
He was an adventurer into vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul. He sounded the horror and the warning of his own doom.
Doomed he was. He died wanting more love, and love killed him. A ghastly disease, love. Poe telling us of his disease: trying even to make his disease fair and attractive. Even succeeding.
Which is the inevitable falseness, duplicity of art, American art in particular.Share It