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The Philosophy of Decomposition: Poe and the Perversity of the Gothic Mind

Posted in Ancient Greek, anxiety, Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Christianity, Consciousness, ecology, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, fiction, French Revolution, Freud, God, Goth, Gothic, Horror, horror fiction, irrational, Jesus, Literature, Morality, Philosophy, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, Romanticism, Science, Speculative fiction, terror, tragedy, Uroboros, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2013 by Uroboros

Whether you think Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are expertly-crafted explorations of the dark side of human nature or morbid, overwrought  melodramas, there is no doubt his work has had a tremendous impact on Western culture. Probably his most important contribution, apart from establishing the contemporary short story format and inventing the detective genre, is revitalizing the Gothic genre and pushing horror fiction in a more philosophically interesting direction. His stories are so enduring and influential because of the conceptual depth he added to generic tropes, redefining literature in the process. He accomplished this feat by perverting the Gothic.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

By the time Poe arrived on the scene, Gothic fiction had already fossilized and become fodder for self-parody. What started with the fantastic absurdities of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and culminating in the speculative complexity of Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had eventually led to Northanger Abbey (1817), Jane Austin’s metafictional send up of what had become pretty stale conventions by then: crumbling castles, tormented heroines, supernatural entities, and family curses. Although the external trappings of Gothic plots may have fallen into ruin, its themes remained relevant. According to Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the genre in her own right, Gothic fiction explores the fragmentation of the alienated mind by inscrutable historical and biological forces that can overwhelm one’s ability to rationally understand the world and make intelligent choices, a critical antidote to naïve utopian visions of the future inspired by the Enlightenment and of particular interest to American culture, the intellectual basis of which is rooted in the rational pursuit of happiness. ‘Gothic’ suggests the fear of something primal and regressive that threatens to undermine mental and social stability. In order to be a culturally relevant again, though, Gothic literature needed a writer who could reanimate its tropes. It needed a morbid, hypersensitive, and arrogant genius named Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s key twist is turning the tropes inward and starting with the macabre landscape within—“the terror of the soul,” he calls it. By the 1830s, Poe is focused on composing short fiction, crafting tightly-constructed tales, rendered in dense, pompous prose, spewing from the cracked psyches of unreliable narrators. This is the dark heart of many of his best stories: “Ligeia” (1838), “William Wilson” (1839),  “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), just to name a few (of course, his most accomplished story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), flips this dynamic: an unnamed and relatively reasonable narrator details the psychic disintegration of Roderick Usher). Poe’s disturbed, epistemologically-challenged protagonists aren’t the true innovation. Marlowe and Shakespeare pioneered that literary territory centuries before. The element that Poe adds—the novelty that both revitalizes and Americanizes the Gothic—is, what Poe himself calls, “the spirit of the perverseness.”

-d328znhThe narrator in “The Black Cat” puts forth this concept to explain his violent deeds. He says perversity is “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties…which give direction to the character of Man.” What is its function? It is the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself,” the narrator says, “a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment” to commit a “vile or a silly action” precisely because we believe it to be ‘vile’ or ‘silly.’ In “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), the narrator claims that perversity is “a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment,” so deep and pervasive, that it is ultimately immune to the prescriptions of the analytical mind. In other words, Poe identified the disruptive and neurotic effects of ‘the Unconscious’ half a century before Freud burst onto the scene.

While these narrators claim that philosophers have ignored man’s irrational inclinations, we shouldn’t assume Poe, himself a well-read scholar, wasn’t influenced by obvious precursors to ‘the spirit of perverseness,’ namely Aristotle and St. Augustine. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posits his theory of akrasia, the vice of incontinence, i.e. the inability to control oneself and do the virtuous thing even when one knows it is the right choice. This is his corrective to the Socratic-Platonic dictum that to know the good is to do the good: no one willingly does evil. To Aristotle, this is a distorted view of the human condition. We can know theoretically what the virtuous choice is—wisdom Aristotle calls sophiabut that doesn’t automatically compel us to have phronesisor practical wisdom, which is the ability to do the good. In other words, there is a gap between knowledge and action, a notion that surfaces again in Aristotle’s Poetics. In his analysis of drama, Aristotle identifies hamartia as a key characteristic of the tragic hero, referring to the flaws in judgment that lead to a character’s ultimate downfall. An archery metaphor that means “to miss the mark,” hamartia becomes the main word New Testament writers use to translate the Jewish concept of sin into Greek (they weren’t the first to do this: writers of the Septuagint, the 2C BCE Greek translation of Hebrew scripture, had already made this move). By the fifth century CE, St. Augustine, the most influential Christian theologian of late-antiquity, formulates his doctrine of original sin, describing humanity’s lack of self-control as innate, embodied depravity. For Augustine, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they condemned their progeny to bondage, chaining the human spirit to this corrupt, uncontrollable, and ultimately decaying flesh. Only Christ’s sacrifice and God’s loving grace, Augustine assures us, can liberate the spirit from this prison.

This is part of the philosophical lineage behind perverseness, despite his narrators’ claims to the contrary. There is, however, some truth to the critique if seen from a mid-19C perspective. From Descartes right through to Locke, ‘Reason‘ is heralded as humanity’s salvation (of course, Hume and Rousseau poke skeptical holes in 18C Europeans’ over-inflated, self-aggrandizing mythology. Kant manages to salvage some of the optimism, but has to sacrifice key epistemic conceits in the process). But enlightened humanistic confidence looks like hubris to Romantic writers and artists, especially in the wake of the French Revolution and the international traumas it spawned. This is the mindset Poe resonates with: one that is highly skeptical of the ‘Man-is-the-rational-animal’ mythos. Anyone familiar with his biography can see why he gravitates toward a dark worldview. As a critic, he loves savaging fellow writers whose dispositions strike him as too sunny, and as a storyteller, his characters often confront—sometimes ironically, sometimes tragically—the limits of reason, a capacity Poe calls (I think with a tongue-in-cheek ambivalence) ‘ratiocination.’

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

The ‘spirit of perverseness’ implies that neither divine ‘Grace’ nor humanistic ‘Reason’ can save us from a life of terror and suffering, especially when we ignore and repress our essential sinfulness. Whether you view history through a biblical or Darwinian lens, one thing is clear: humans aren’t naturally inclined to seek rational knowledge anymore than we are given to loving and respecting each other universally. Modern cognitive science and psychology have shown us that the mind evolved to assist in feeding, procreation, and, of course, to protect the body from danger—not to seek objective truths. It evolved to help us band together in small tribal circles, fearing and even hating those who exist outside that circle. Over time we’ve been able to grasp how much better life would be if only we could rationally control ourselves and universally respect each other—and yet “in the teeth of our best judgment” we still can’t stop ourselves from committing vile and silly actions. Self-sabotage, Poe seems to argue, is our default setting.

Poe shifts Gothic terror from foggy graveyards and dark abbeys to broken brains and twisted minds. The true threats aren’t really lurking ‘out there.’ They’re stirring and bubbling from within, perturbing and overwhelming the soul, often with horrifying results. A Gothic mind lives in a Gothicized world—personifying its surroundings in terms of its own anxious and alienated disposition. ‘Evil’ only appears to be ‘out there.’ As literary and ecological theorist Timothy Morton points out, evil isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of beholder who frets over the corruption of the world without considering the perverseness generated by his own perceptual apparatus. It’s an Uroboric feedback loop that, left to its own devices, will spin out of control and crumble to pieces. The most disturbing implication of Poe-etic perversity is the sense of helplessness it evokes. Even when his characters are perceptive enough to diagnose their own disorders, they are incapable of stopping the Gothic effect. This is how I interpret the narrator’s ruminations in “The Fall of the House of Usher:”

 What was it…that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression…There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition…served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy…so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued…

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

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Frankenstein: Forbidden Fruit and the Promethean Mirror

Posted in Creature, Ethics, Frankenstein, History, Horror, Knowledge, Literature, Mary Shelley, Monster, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Writing with tags , , on April 20, 2012 by Uroboros

Prometheus Bound

Mary Shelley subtitled Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus,’ invoking the mythic archetype of the titanic transgressor, the rebellious figure who pursues forbidden knowledge and power and has to pay for his hubris. Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man. His punishment is to bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again.

The Modern Prometheus, as envisioned by Shelley, pursues nature’s greatest secret. Victor Frankenstein wants to grasp “the principle of life” so he can “infuse a spark of life into [a] lifeless thing.” He says, “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should break through.” The idea of breaking through boundaries is, of course, key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth.

Through Victor’s grand ambitions, Shelley explores the power humans have to imagine possibilities beyond what our senses reveal about the world. We perceive unseen forces at work in the cosmos; we infer law-like principles at play in nature. Humans are uniquely skilled at imagining everything from spirits and gods to mathematical abstractions and geometric forms. We can’t help but be curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous even to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be, ignoring the fact that the same scripture which tells us we’re made in ‘His’ image also says we see through a looking glass, darkly.

Modern Prometheus at work

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. Victor Frankenstein articulates this ambivalence when he says a “human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility,” the pursuit of knowledge being no exception. But, he adds, if “this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit to interfere with the tranquility,” great advances and historical accomplishments would’ve never happened. In other words, if we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals.

Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. We’ve pursued the principle of life down to its fundamental molecular formula and are beginning to re-write the code. With the power of genetic knowledge, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. Global temperatures and sea levels are rising—the whole planet could be doomed.

Are we already trapped on the mountaintop?

If popular culture is a mirror, it certainly casts an anxious image. Over the last decade or so, there’s been an explosion of dark conspiracy theories festering in Internet chat rooms. There are countless apocalyptic movies and dystopian novels, as well as TV shows about zombie hordes and viral pandemics and alien invasions. Superhero epics now get two hundred million dollar budgets because Hollywood knows it’s a relatively safe investment. Why? More than ever the public enjoys the archetypal fantasy these modern myths tap into: the collective dream that a determined individual will rise up or sweep in and set the world right—reorder a culture that has gone too far, that has crossed an important but imperceptible boundary and can’t find its way back.

Mary Shelley

The prophetic genius of Shelley’s 200 year old novel is that it asks us to contemplate the  motivations and emotions that drive us to such extremes in the first place. Victor is a brilliant, ambitious medical student who sees what he’s doing and why he’s doing it in a highly distorted way. His intentions are complex to the point of contradiction and self-delusion. He wants to “banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death,” which sounds like a noble Promethean motivation. However, his research and experiments eventually fuel a desire that sounds less altruistic and more about his own vanity: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” This is the essence of hubris: crossing the taboo boundary in search of personal glory. This isn’t tempting fate in order to provide warmth and comfort for humanity. It’s wanting people to praise you because you had the gall and ingenuity to pull a fast one on Zeus.

If Victor would have been more Promethean, he would’ve been willing to accept the full consequences of his actions. And that’s the real tragedy in  the novel. He’s able to master the principle of life and bring a new being into existence, but he is unwilling to take care of the Creature—to be its parent and nurture its potential humanity. Victor is too immature. He   rejects his artificial son because, well, it’s ugly. More than anything Victor wants to ‘play’ God. He fantasizes and courts the idea, but when it comes   to dealing with the long-term responsibilities, Victor’s performance is a   one night stand. He’s God, the Creator, but not God, the Father.

By the time he realizes it, though, it’s too late. The Creature has become The Monster, and the horror plays out with a chilling, law-like precision. The Latin root of the word ‘monster’ means ‘warning.’ The message is clear: selfish creation begets absolute destruction. And all of it could have been avoided, Shelly suggests, if Victor could have looked into the Promethean mirror clearly and been more critical, more honest, about his true intentions.

Monster means 'warning'

Frankenstein holds the same mirror up to its readers. And as we push deeper into this undiscovered country opened up by modern science and technology, are we going to make the same mistakes as Victor? Shelly’s novel implies that it’s not the Promethean urge itself that’s problematic. The sin isn’t in wanting to explore hitherto forbidden territories. It’s in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it to.

In Praise of the Greatest Goth Chick Ever!

Posted in Entertainment, fiction, Frankenstein, Goth, Gothic, Horror, Literature, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Pop Cultural Musings, Romanticism, Science fiction, Writing with tags , , on April 5, 2012 by Uroboros

She was the daughter of the controversial philosopher and novelist, William Godwin, and the even edgier social critic and feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to her. Her famous lineage garnered the attention of the notorious Romantic poet and original emo-bad boy, Percy Shelley, who, although already married, had to have her.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (1797-1851)

She was Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. When it came out in 1818, readers were disturbed by the story of a brilliant science student who is determined to engineer a living creature, but emotionally unable to handle the consequences. Most readers didn’t have a clue that this Gothic shocker was penned by an eighteen year old young woman. But if you get to know Mary’s biography, you can see why she was capable of writing not only one of the greatest horror novels of all time, but the first work of science fiction ever. It’s one of the great stories in modern literature: the inventor of the greatest myth of the modern age was a teenage goth girl.Why so gloomy? First, Mary couldn’t help but feel like she had caused her famous mother’s passing. It haunted her. She used to visit her mother’s grave where she read the late woman’s works and tried to commune with her spirit. Percy, her equally gloomy soul-mate, used to meet her there and, well, let’s just say they probably did more than recite poetry on those graves. Darkness and going to extremes really seemed to turn them on.

Their elopement was, of course, a scandal and their (open) relationship brought her relentless heartache, starting in 1815 with her first child by Percy: born two months premature, Clara died within two weeks. (She would lose two more children, William in 1819 and another girl named Clara, and eventually her husband Percy 1822 to a boating accident.)

In 1816, she and Percy spent the summer in Switzerland with the infamous poet and playboy, Lord Byron. It was a stormy, gray summer and the rebellious young gang reveled in the dark vibe. They stayed up all night, getting high and telling ghost stories. Legend has it Byron offered a challenge, a contest for the creepiest, most chilling tale. Soon after, the image of Victor Frankenstein came to Mary, supposedly in a dream: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

I think we can safely say, she won the Bryon Horror Challenge. Two hundred years later we are still reading her hideous literary progeny, not because it reflects her times, but because it still prefigures and haunts our own. If you want to talk about technology running amok and destroying its creator, you can use the term ‘Frankenstein’ and people will know exactly what you mean, even if they’ve never read the novel, which, if you haven’t, you should. If and when you do, always keep in mind the novel’s creator, a feisty young lady who knew how to turn personal pain into fodder for public debate—knew how to turn tragedy into timeless art. Don’t forget that this masterpiece was written by Mary Shelley…

Greatest Goth Chick EVER!

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