Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision Author(s): Joseph J. Moldenhauer
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MURDER AS A FINE ART: BASIC CONNECTIONS BETWEEN POE’S AESTHETICS, PSYCHOLOGY, AND MORAL VISION BY JOSEPHJ. MOLDENHAUER ONLY in Eureka, his late cosmological treatise, but throughout his literary career, Edgar Allan Poe pursued a unitary theory of metaphysics, nature, art, and the human mind. He conducted his search with astounding vitality and persistence, and surely, by the time he had written Eureka, he believed he had arrived at the goal. Yet his writings, both imaginative and discursive, exhibit extreme contradictions of thought and feeling.
Between and sometimes even within individual works Poe appears as a Shelleyan romantic and as an eighteenth-century rationalist, as a neurotic escapist and as a broadly social figure, as a neo-Platonic visionary and as a severe logician or a commonsense realist, as a selfless devotee to artistic ideals and as a calculating exploiter of literary fads. It has therefore been the challenge of his critics, particularly in recent years, in turn to seek the essential Poe, the central principle of his art and thought, amid the welter of attitudes his writings display.
I His sensibility seems to me divided between two distinct phases. The first might be labelled the “active,” “self-assured,” or “manic” phase, and is most clearly represented by the tales of ratiocination and the literary criticism. The protagonist-persona of these works, whether detective or landscape architect or litterateur, masters every enigma and places every discordant fragment of his experience into a coherent design, no less satisfying to the taste than to the reason.
The governing impulse here is what Allen Tate describes, in an essay appropriately subtitled “Poe as God,” as hypertrophy of intellect, “the intellect moving in isolation from both love and the moral will, whereby it declares itself independent of the human situation in the quest of essential knowledge. “‘ The mind of the hero or persona in this mode displays a genius for creating formal order, a controlling and shaping power, which strikes us as “archangelic” or “divine.
” As reviewer of the works of other artists he is always imperious and often cruel; as the “ideal author” in the more theoretical essays he looms as a mesmerist or medicine man, a supreme magician and inquisitor, who manipulates at his pleasure the undefended emotions of his audience, pressing the “stamp” onto the NOT reader’s passive “wax,”2or consciously dreaming into the reader his own special wish-fulfillment or his own peculiar cauchemar. In the second group of works, including the most famous poems and almost all the tales of terror, Poe’s imagination exhibits its “submissive,” “self-pitying,” or “depressive” phase.
Hypertrophy of feeling constitutes, for Tate, the essential character of the terror tales: in them, he writes, “A nightmare of paranoia, schizophrenia, necrophilism, and vampirism supervenes, in which the natural affections are perverted by the will to destroy. “8 Such poems as “The Sleeper,” “Annabel Lee,” “Ulalume,” “The Raven,” and “Lenore” display the same exaggeration of emotion and dramatize the same aberrations. In the creations of this phase the protagonist is all feeling: his sensibility is so narrowly channeled, his emotions honed to so keen an edge, that his mind cannot be violated by a normal idea.
Reflecting on these fictions, Paul Elmer More called Poe the writer “of unripe boys and unsound men,” and Henry James asserted that “to take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self. “4 The protagonist, who is also typically the narrator of the piece, is driven by inner compulsions or beset by horrific external forces, or both; he seems to assert no control over his acts, and moves inexorably toward destruction.
“Going down,” the concluding words of one of Poe’s earliest tales, is an apt figure for that destiny: the hero descends into swoon or coma or death; or he is sucked into a vortex or an antarctic Symmes’ Hole; or he is placed living into the grave or some coffin-like enclosure. Sometimes his catastrophe is associated with the death of a beautiful woman-an unworldly and compelling creature to whom the protagonist stands in “The Angelic Imagination,” currently reprinted in The Man of Lettersin the Modern World (New York, 1955), p. 115. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York, 1902), xiii, 152.
Quotations from Poe will hereafter be drawn from this edition and will be identified parenthetically in the text. 3 Tate, p. 115. See also D. H. Lawrence, “Edgar Allan 2 The Complete Worksof EdgarAllan Poe, ed. James A. Poe,” in Studiesin ClassicAmerican Literature (New York, 1923). More, “A Note on Poe’s Method,” in The Demon of the Absolute, New Shelburne Essays, I (Princeton, N. J. , 1928), 86; James, French Poets and Novelists (London, 1893), p. 60. www.jstor.org.