Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Fall of the House: A Reappraisal of Poe's Attitudes toward Life and Death

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Fall of the House: A Reappraisal of Poe's Attitudes toward Life and Death

Article excerpt

At the conclusion to "MS. Found in a Bottle," the narrator details the elements of his prototypical Poe death: "Oh horror upon horror; the ice opens suddenly to the right, and to the left, and we are whirling dizzily, in immense concentric circles ... we are plunging madly within the grasp of the whirlpool ... the ship is quivering, oh God! and--going down." (1) The images of concentering death and destruction, which everywhere punctuate Poe's writings, have led many critics to conclude one of two things: either that Poe intended his fiction as a "burlesque" of what was, in his view, a suicidal cosmic insanity; or that he meant for his writings to whole-heartedly embody the philosophy of cosmic and personal self-destructiveness which was, for him, an expression of the cosmos's underlying Neoplatonic plot. (2) The evidence for interpreting Poe's tales as allegories of "going down" either on a cosmic or personal level is strong. In the "general proposition" of Eureka, for example, Poe points specifically to the universal predisposition toward self-annihilation which has been evaluated in recent years from either an ironic or a philosophical Idealist position. "In the Original Unity of the First Thing," Poe writes, "lies the Secondary Cause of all Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation" (XVI, 185-86). The grand finale of cosmic emanation and contraction, according to Poe, is universal death. And the tales, therefore, which embody this cosmic scheme, either to burlesque or to endorse it, are, for the critics, expositions of the "Inevitable Annihilation" which governs cosmic order.

But if we look carefully at the full range of Poe's works, there are, it seems to me, a significant number of tales which are decidedly not paradigms of "going down." In "A Descent into the Maelstrom," for example, the hero experiences moments remarkably similar to those described by the diarist in "MS. Found in a Bottle." But whereas the diarist finds himself sucked irrevocably into the vacuous center of the whirlpool, the sailor in the "Descent" is safely, even lovingly, restored to the surface of the waters. The question which I think must be asked is whether there are not a number of stories in which the protagonist similarly avoids self-annihilation; tales in which the hero courageously resists the temptation to self-destruction which lures narrators like the diarist to their deaths, and in which the central character restores himself to sanity and to life. The present essay is an attempt to show how, in such tales as "A Descent into the Maelstrom," "The Oval Portrait," and "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe's protagonists preserve themselves from the fate of the doomed diarist. There is, Poe writes in one of his angelic colloquies, what might be termed a "redeemed" and "regenerate" imagination, an imagination which, he stresses in that essay and elsewhere, is emphatically "material" and "analytic" and sane. (3) In the tales which are our present concern, Poe undeniably charts the voyage which the individual must pursue to the brink of the cosmic abyss; but then he plots the path back again--from horror and destruction to what he calls "Beauty" and "Nature" and "Life" (IV, 203-204).

The narrative of "MS. Found in a Bottle" is not, in my view, Poe's model of what philosophical relevation must be like. Nor is it a burlesque of a man questing for "DISCOVERY" and discovering only that either he or the cosmos is absolutely insane. (4) Rather, the tale is the critical record of one man's misadventure into the terrain of Ideal knowledge and his misguided and therefore suicidal pursuit of oneness with God. But since the tale does present, in simplified form, a species of experience shared in outline by many of Poe's characters, the story can serve us well as a norm by which to measure significant deviation in other Poe tales. As I have mentioned, in "A Descent into the Maelstrom" Poe restates many of the problems considered in the "MS. …

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