Poe and Pleasure

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This post comes a day late, since the man it intends to honour was born yesterday in 1809, but I will simply have to beg his forgiveness. I spent the day with my anthology of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s his complete works of poetry and short stories, so I had plenty to work with, and I ended up choosing four short stories more or less arbitrarily. “The Fall of the House of Usher” I remembered vaguely from high school, and one of the characters is named Madeline. I wandered through the table of contents and found “The Black Cat,” “Byron and Miss Chaworth,” and “The Power of Words.” By pure coincidence, these four shorts proved to be fairly representative of the body of Poe’s work. The first two had the traditionally gothic and grotesque settings for which he is famous, and the latter two were more philosophical in nature. “Byron” is, in some respects, a literary criticism– although it theorises about a person instead of a work.

Perhaps it’s because I’m reading Lolita right now (more on that in the near future), but the theme that jumped at me was Poe’s understanding of pleasure in perversity. He addresses it, if only briefly, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat.”

The respective narrators of these two stories are drastically different, particularly in terms of their perspectives. In “House of Usher,” the narrator is more or less a witness to the disturbing goings-on, without ever participating directly. In “Black Cat,” the narrator is not only a participant, but the instigator. Intriguingly, the witness delivers his tale in a far more hysterical and superstitious fashion, while the instigator deliberately clarifies more than once that he offers only facts, implying a cause-and-effect chain of events without overtly voicing his suppositions.

In “The Black Cat,” the narrator tells a story of his fall from sensitivity and humanity into the habits of drunken violence. As a child he had loved animals, as a young newlywed he had his wife kept several pets, and as a drunk he hung his cat for the sheer sake of “committing a sin.” In explanation, the narrator speaks eloquently of a “spirit of perverseness” that compels man to perform vile actions simply “because he knows he should not.” When I initially read this passage, I thought of St. Augustine’s Confessions, when he relates a story of stealing fruit for no better reason than the pleasure of doing wrong.

The theme is less apparent in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but there was one passage in the story that kept drawing me back to it:

I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

I love this passage. I think Poe manages to capture an emotion that many would deny– that tendency we have to revel in righteous anger or justified sorrow. It’s the concupiscent allure of angst and indulgence in melodrama that most people grow out of, or at the very least learn to repress.

Poe’s theory of poetry was focused on Beauty, by which he meant “the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul.” When he says “poetic,” then, in the above quotation, he means beautiful. He speaks of the Beauty typically found in the “desolate or terrible,” a beauty that is notably absent in the House of Usher, and I think this pleasure we encounter in viewing something terrible but beautiful is the same perverse pleasure that the narrator generates with his misbehaviour in “The Black Cat.”

In writing of the allure of sin and the beauty of the desolate, Poe offers us a tangible theory for the pleasure we find in reading and rereading the most famous of his works. His stories have no happy endings, they rarely offer any catharsis, they shock us and scare us and yet we go back to them time and time again, as we have for 150 years and will for many centuries more. There’s a delicious indulgence in the shivers of madness we feel in classics like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Raven.” We like dancing on that edge between sanity and insanity, we like to be startled and disturbed. There’s a world of darkness that many of us won’t dare to wander near, and through Poe, we can experience that dangerous exhilaration anyway.

Thank you, dear Edgar, for daring to tumble into an imagination’s hell so that the rest of us can taste it and shiver. Happy birthday.

The following are links to the works available online, along with the citation for the volume I used:

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“The Black Cat”

“Byron and Miss Chaworth”

“The Power of Words”

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Fall River, 2012. Print.

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