A Man’s Guide to One of the Great Writers
In America, we’re brought up with the sunny ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, democratic egalitarianism, being all you can be. Laudable ideals all—but as we all know, they’re only part of the picture.
There is another side to life that we get glimpses of in the daily news—madness, murder, mayhem. Tragedies whose terribleness is directly proportional to their senselessness.
It takes a real artist to make sense of this senselessness, and that artist happens to be Edgar Allan Poe, Devil’s Advocate for the Dark Side.
A Life in Brief
Poe lived a life in some ways analogous to his stories. Precious little sunshine there.
Born in Boston in 1809. Deadbeat dad, dead mom. Raised by a family friend. Dropped out of college, kicked out of West Point.
Started writing poetry, then fiction, literary criticism, and journalism. Kept moving around the major cities in the Northeast.
Married his 13-year-old cousin, who later died of tuberculosis. Found literary success with his poem “The Raven.”
Became an alcoholic.
In 1849, was discovered sick and raving on the streets of Baltimore—clad in somebody else’s clothes and calling out the name “Reynolds.” Died a few days later.
To add insult to death, one of his enemies became his literary executor.
Why You Should Read Him
Poe is a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism. The Romantics rejected the Age of Reason—they felt truth and beauty could only be felt through the emotions. Rationality only gets you so far, they said.
What Poe did was bring the brooding emotionality of people like Percy Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and combine it with the “true crime” perspective of the newspaper reporter.
And like the Romantics, Poe thought that human nature was basically irrational. But irrational in a mostly bad way—he didn’t seem to share in the Romantics’ hopefulness about the human spirit. He believed there was something within us which was attracted to annihilation.
Poe had a special name that he gave to this irrational, self-destructive force within us: the Imp of the Perverse. From the story of the same name:
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… If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.
Examine these similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them because we feel that we should not.
This flies in the face of the Enlightenment and our American brand of optimism. Contrary to what economists and social theorists say, humans do not always look out for their own best interests. In fact, sometimes they directly oppose them. Self-destructiveness, in Poe’s world, outweighs self-interest.
Should we celebrate the Imp of the Perverse? Of course not. Should we ignore it? Only at our own peril.
The Tell-Tale Heart.
As far as psychological insight and a deep reading into human nature go, Poe beat the Russians to the punch. His characters seethe with an emotional and intellectual intensity that we would not see till years later with Dostoevsky. The story begins thus:
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
Throughout the tale, the narrator tries his darnedest to persuade the reader that he (the narrator, that is) is not crazy when it’s entirely clear that he’s exactly that.
The narrator’s insistence on his sanity is oddly funny, too. Poe doesn’t get nearly enough credit for having a great sense of humor. It’s a type of gallows humor, of course—but when you think about it, all humor is gallows humor. It’s an attempt to stave off the stark inevitability of the grave.
The narrator also rather chillingly explains the motive for his atrocious act:
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye!… Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
This of course falls in line with Poe’s Imp of the Perverse. Too often, when people do unspeakable acts, there is a frantic repetition of the query “How could this happen?”
Poe would answer, “Precisely because it seems so senseless. That’s the attraction.”
After That, You Should Read…
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
In this story, we have a nameless man going to visit an old childhood friend named Roderick Usher. Roderick requested that his friend visit him because he’s been rather blue lately.
When the dutiful friend arrives, he finds Usher to be in more than just a simple funk. A ponderous melancholy pervades every inch of the Usher home:
I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.
The tale is a Goth’s wet dream. It includes a haunted house, pale, aristocratic types sitting around reading poetry, a latent incestuous relationship, people being entombed alive, madness, and murder.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” also has a deliciously over-the-top ending that will delight fans of opera, camp horror, and Surrealism. Nature, heredity, and even architecture all seem to conspire in the destruction of the House of Usher, in both the literal and metaphorical senses.
Additionally, the story perfectly captures how, to a depressive, everything is depressing—everything a confirmation of impending doom.
If you find yourself greatly sympathizing with Roderick Usher as you read the story, please get help quick. His fall should be a warning, not a model for imitation.