Buried you alive in a fireworks display…

After throwing out a first volley in my argument about irony last Thursday night, I suppose I’m due to post the follow up. However, my attention has been elsewhere: today I delivered my first real academic lecture, to a class of 80 students in a course called Lit of Addiction for which I’m TAing. It’s not that I haven’t lectured before – I’ve given smaller lectures to smaller audiences (20-25 students) for classes I’ve taught – but I rarely if ever talk for the entire period (with small classes, it’s just bad pedagogy) and even then, talking to a small class is a different animal. Not that a lecture to 80 students should be just me talking either (it wasn’t) but it’s still inevitably more formal than something for a smaller class.

Anyway, that’s where my attention has been, and why certain other posts have been delayed. However, to fill in the gap, should anyone be interested in my lecture, which was primarily on three texts by Edgar Allan Poe – Berenice, Ligeia, and The Fall of the House of Usher – I’m reproducing it here. In Word it was 18 pages double spaced, and that’s without some of the quotes that I’ll be adding back in here, so do I really think anyone is going to read it all? I’m not sure. Maybe it’ll attract a Poe scholar or two…or a raven or something. Maybe someone worrying about how to write their first academic lecture. At a minimum, it’s a good skeletal version of the kind of things that interest me about texts.

As a side note, I thought the lecture went very well, it seemed very well received, and the experience of delivering it was exhilerating. All in all in a way that reminds me why I’m in the right profession.

Before I throw in the lecture, here’s some quick background:

  • The course is called Lit of Addiction, and while such a topic could cover a broad variety of texts of several historical periods, it’s actually limited to 19th century Brittish, French, and American essay and narrative running roughly from De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822) to Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). So no Surrealism or Burroughs (everyone who I talk to about the course want to know if we’re reading Naked Lunch), though in a sense the kinds of analysis we’re doing set things up for 20th century texts. Basically, Lit of Addiction is an excuse to read a tradition of 19th century literature that runs counter to the prevailing trends of realism and romance, and ends up looking more like the symbolists. In a sense, the choice of the 19th century comes first, and lit of addiction follows as a strategic selection principle in that field.
  • So far we’ve read only the De Quincey and, just last week, Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”
  • The Poe stories, or summaries thereof, can be found online:
    • Berenice is not one of Poe’s best – it certain lacks subtlety, but makes for a compelling read (text/summary)
    • Ligeia may be Poe’s best – he says so himself, at one point. Very similar to Berenice, but more refined (text/ summary)
    • The Fall of the House of Usher is of course one of Poe’s best known, and it’s not half bad (text/summary)
  • On a slightly unrelated note, Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars, which I read as background for the course (not specifically for the lecture) is highly recommended for anyone interested in Heidegger, Nietzsche, Flaubert, or drug narratives – playful, creative, fun, but also compelling and insightful

Here’s the written version of the lecture, which roughly anticipates the way it was actually delivered:

Last Thursday, we talked about the dangers of “Rappaccini’s Daugther,” which is to say, the danger of a certain poisoned or poisonous character and a certain poisoned or poisonous or possibly even healing flower in a short story by Hawthorne which we also said was potentially dangerous—a poison or remedy—so much so that Hawthorne had to conceal his own authorship at times under a pseudonym that was really just a translation of his own name. The stories we read for today’s class—Berenice, Ligeia, The Fall of the House of Usher, and A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, all by Edgar Allan Poe—might also be said to be dangerous in a certain way. For me, for many readers of Poe, (for you too? you can tell me in a second if you agree) the danger of these stories is palpable. We might call them unsettling (yes?) or disturbing (yes?), disturbed (yes?) or unsettled (yes?) and thus open up the question of what they unsettle or disturb, but also what leaves them disturbed, what leaves us partially unable to settle them, to balance the equation, to put them down and walk away with all our problems solved or resolved. We might call them grotesque (yes?), as a genre (Poe reprinted Berenice and Ligeia in a volume entitled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque), grotesque coming from the word grotto, a dark, damp cave, which would mean we are talking about an illusion of depth, of something concealing or buried under the surface, perhaps something living, still alive or active, where we expect silence, stillness and even death—that is, we might, to a certain extent say that there is something not only buried, but buried alive in these texts.For this reason, I’m going to focus on the first three stories—Berenice, Ligeia, and The Fall of the House of Usher—and leave A Tale of the Ragged Mountains as the odd man out, perhaps as a good text to start fresh on in your papers. Berenice, Ligeia, and The Fall of the House of Usher each have quite a bit in common, not the least of which is that they are all three stories of burial alive, which is to say, first, that they are stories of the living dead, of the living found in the tomb, in the place of the dead; stories, in short, in which the living is somehow substituted for the dead, in which the signs of life and death become, in a certain way that we will observe, interchangeable. So, stories of burial alive are thus stories of life and death. They are also stories burial alive, stories of entombment, of enclosure, of the taking of a body into an inside where it perhaps does not belong, stories that draw, in short, on the opposition between inside and outside in a way that resembles the consumption of the drug. More on this later.So, Berenice, Ligeia, and Usher are tales of burial alive. They are the tales, in particular, of the burial alive of characters named in the title, of title characters, titled characters, characters with noble titles, of noble birth—there is a sort of obsession with the European aristocracy in decline, with the coming to an end of lineages which are said to be very long, indefinitely long. Berenice is cousin to her tale’s narrator, Egaeus, who says of their family “there are no towers in the land more time-honored than my gloomy, gray, hereditary halls” (225). The status of the narrator in Ligeia is less certain—he is affiliated with the aristocracy, but perhaps by marriage alone: after Ligeia dies, he says that he has no more need of wealth, that Ligeia has brought him more than “ordinarily falls to the lot of mortals,” which is a way of saying that she is the source of his wealth, possibly with the implication that he had none to begin with (269). That her status is noble, that her family “is of a remotely ancient date cannot be doubted” (262). We meet her, nonetheless, “first and most frequently in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine” (262): the structures that housed her legacy are in a state of decline, so much so that the narrator never even learns, even though he marries her, her “paternal name,” the name that is the guarantor of her lineage. Ligeia won’t exactly be buried alive in the same literal way as Berenice, but at the same time, she won’t exactly die off when she’s supposed to, when she’s laid down in her tomb—she’ll reappear in a variety of forms. Finally, of course, there is the “melancholy” House of Usher, the fissured, cracked dwelling—the crack house, if you will—pervaded by an “insufferable gloom.” The narrator is quick to point out that the name or “appellation” “House of Usher” “seemed to include … both the family and the family mansion” (319) both of which we know, as early as the title, are bound to fall, despite the longevity of the “time-honored” Usher race (318). In this story we have good reason to identify the narrator as also a member of the English nobility—he is a boyhood friend of Roderick Usher, thus likely of similar birth; he comes to the House of Usher so as to provide “society,” i.e. to comfort his ailing friend with his company, and, ultimately, to witness the burial alive of Roderick’s sister Madeleine, leaving Roderick “the last of the ancient race of Ushers.”

Now, what should we do with these stories, once we have classified them as burial alive stories? What should we do with them, in particular, in a class called Lit of Addiction? With respect to this question, after all, I’m sort of in the same boat as all of you. I didn’t pick these texts; the selection process, that separated these stories from the large body of tales by Poe and which therefore already classified them in a certain way by putting them on the syllabus, was not my selection process. That’s one of the unique aspects of my perspective in this class, one of the unique advantages of getting a lecture from your teaching assistant rather than your professor, and one you should keep in mind the next time the occasion arises in another class—I am, to a degree, in your position with regards to these texts; I am an intermediary between your reading and the professor’s, which is itself, in a sense, a bit of an intermediary between us and the text. I’m in the position of not knowing, at least in advance, what these texts have to do with addiction or drugs, and what that means is that I’m in a position not only to do a reading of some of these texts, but to walk you through the process by which one gets to a reading, to follow some blind alleys—which is essential to coming up with a good argument—to test out hypotheses, and eventually, to arrive. So I’d like you to pay attention (and this is good advice when you listen to your professors, as well) not only to the conclusions I arrive at, but to the questions I ask along the way.

The overarching question, then, is what do these three stories, which we’ve already characterized as stories of the burial alive of ancient names, have to do with the literature of addiction? What does the burial alive story have to do with the tradition of drug narrative inaugurated by De Quincey? There are a variety of ways of answering these questions, but they each have consequences. On the one hand, the connection is quite literal—opium is named explicitly in both Ligeia and Usher, and if this is not the case in Berenice, it is still possible to infer its presence in the narrator’s disease, especially since Berenice can be considered a preliminary study for Ligeia—the two narrators share symptoms, so it’s not unreasonable to make the jump.Ligeia is the only one of the three texts in which opium is explicitly used, while in Usher the mention is only ever in the form of a comparison—“an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium.” The comparison is framed in terms of the narrators own powers of description—“which I can compare”—so his familiarity with the drug is likely, and it suddenly becomes possible to read this as a confession and to infer the presence of opium in all sorts of places. Similarly, in the other mention of opium in Usher:

His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision –that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation –that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement (p. 322)

Roderick Usher’s voice is said to have certain characteristics which “may be observed in the lost drunkard or the irreclaimable eater of opium.” The narrator doesn’t come out and call him a drunkard or an opium eater, but it isn’t clear that the reference is just a metaphor either—he describes Roderick voice as “that species of energetic conclusion … which may be observed in the lost drunkard”—not a voice like a drunkard, but a voice that can be observed in a drunkard, a drunkard’s voice, a voice that we observe whenever we find a drunkard (though this doesn’t logically mean that we find a drunkard whenever we observe the voice). So it’s not clear if this is a way of saying that Usher’s disease has something to do with opium or wine, and if it is, it’s not clear what, according to the sentence, Usher’s disease has to do with opium or wine, and even if it’s saying precisely that his disease is an addiction to opium or wine, it’s not clear whether it’s opium or wine. Even then, this is own half the story, only what his voice sounds like some of the time—the passage says that “his voice varied rapidly” between this opium-like quality and, what? (indecision!)

So it’s never clear at any moment in particular, or really at any moment at all, whether we’re supposed to read Roderick or the narrator as under the influence of opium, under some other influence (like the influence of the dream or the influence of fiction), or stone cold sober. Do Roderick and the narrator really hear the details of the story they read echoed in the real world? Has Madeline really returned? Does the physical building of the House of Usher really collapse into the earth? Or are these a certain kind of hallucination that the narrator, fleeing in haste, doesn’t wait around long enough to verify? And are these even the right questions to be asking? In a fiction, in a text that doesn’t even claim, like De Quincey’s confessions, to be a true to life, what does it even mean to say that something the narrator narrates isn’t “real,” is a hallucination, when in fact the entire story isn’t real, and the narrator doesn’t give us any way of deciding for certain?

Let’s take a look at Ligeia. As I said, the use of opium is much clearer in Ligeia, but that doesn’t make things any easier. The word opium is used 6 times in the text. In the first part of the story, it is used as a metaphor to describe Ligeia:

p. 263: The beauty of her face “was the radiance of an opium dream”

Calling Ligeia’s beauty an “opium dream” means, among other things, that it’s addictive, its loss (when Ligeia dies) needs to be compensated, and it is compensated by a more literal opium. The next two mentions:

p. 270 [after Ligeia’s death]: “I had become a bounden slave in the trammels of opium,”

p. 272 “In the excitement of my opium dreams (for I was habitually fettered in the shackles of the drug,) I would call aloud upon her name, during the silence of the night, or among the sheltered recesses of the glens by day, as if, through the wild eagerness, the solemn passion, the consuming ardor of my longing for the departed, I could restore her to the pathway she had abandoned — ah, could it be forever? — upon the earth.”

Already bound to the opium dream of Ligeia’s beauty, already bound to be bound to something, the narrator turns to opium in the hope that it will bring his love back, “restore her to the pathway she had abandoned … upon the earth.” The process is made possible by the repetition of two words: “opium,” which can compensate for what has been called opium, and the calling aloud of the name, Ligeia, from the Greek “ligys” meaning “clear-voiced, shrill, whistling”—in a sense, calling aloud. Ligeia is the name screamed aloud. When you shout out Ligeia, you produce a clear-voiced, shrill whistling (Ligeia), you summon a Ligeia, the name names what it does (kind of like when you say “I promise” you actually promise—that’s how one promises, by saying I promise—but at the same time you observe or describe the fact that you are promising). So calling the name out loud works, in a sense, in that it brings back the thing named, but only sort of, because the name names two things (a person, and a shrill cry) and it brings back the wrong one (kind of like when you say “hey you,” and the wrong person turns around). The question is whether or not the name, the act of calling out the name, can bring back the thing named, and the answer, at least initially, is that no, it cannot, because the name names too many things—it is a proper name, but also a word in Greek, and also the act of speaking itself (like the word “hey,” which is a word that has no content, but still communicates something like “look at me, I’m speaking”). Even the improper meaning, the loud cry, which is definitely summoned, isn’t effectively named, because we don’t usually read proper names as having meaning—in a sense, we don’t hear the Greek etymology at first; it isn’t shouted loud enough for us to hear. The narrator hopes his passionate cry will bring back his love, but instead we get the mute silence of a cryptic name, we get this fascinating moment which reveals so much about language but so little about human emotion.

The last three mentions of opium in Ligeia take us back to the influence of opium, to narrators and characters under the influence, to the problem of hallucination. Again, unlike in Usher, the narrator in Ligeia is a confirmed consumer of opium: he is inherently unreliable as a narrator, but this only means that he is equally unable to convincingly either that what he sees is a hallucination or that it isn’t:

I had felt that some palpable although invisible object had passed lightly by my person; and I saw that there lay upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich lustre thrown from the censer, a shadow –a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect –such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade. But I was wild with the excitement of an immoderate dose of opium, and heeded these things but little, nor spoke of them to Rowena. Having found the wine, I recrossed the chamber, and poured out a gobletful, which I held to the lips of the fainting lady. She had now partially recovered, however, and took the vessel herself, while I sank upon an ottoman near me, with my eyes fastened upon her person. It was then that I became distinctly aware of a gentle footfall upon the carpet, and near the couch; and in a second thereafter, as Rowena was in the act of raising the wine to her lips, I saw, or may have dreamed that I saw, fall within the goblet, as if from some invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room, three or four large drops of a brilliant and ruby colored fluid. If this I saw –not so Rowena. She swallowed the wine unhesitatingly, and I forbore to speak to her of a circumstance which must, after all, I considered, have been but the suggestion of a vivid imagination, rendered morbidly active by the terror of the lady, by the opium, and by the hour.

Yet I cannot conceal it from my own perception that, immediately subsequent to the fall of the ruby-drops, a rapid change for the worse took place in the disorder of my wife; so that, on the third subsequent night, the hands of her menials prepared her for the tomb, and on the fourth, I sat alone, with her shrouded body, in that fantastic chamber which had received her as my bride. –Wild visions, opium-engendered, flitted, shadow-like, before me. I gazed with unquiet eye upon the sarcophagi in the angles of the room, upon the varying figures of the drapery, and upon the writhing of the parti-colored fires in the censer overhead. My eyes then fell, as I called to mind the circumstances of a former night, to the spot beneath the glare of the censer where I had seen the faint traces of the shadow. It was there, however, no longer; and breathing with greater freedom, I turned my glances to the pallid and rigid figure upon the bed. Then rushed upon me a thousand memories of Ligeia –and then came back upon my heart, with the turbulent violence of a flood, the whole of that unutterable wo with which I had regarded her thus enshrouded. The night waned; and still, with a bosom full of bitter thoughts of the one only and supremely beloved, I remained gazing upon the body of Rowena.

It might have been midnight, or perhaps earlier, or later, for I had taken no note of time, when a sob, low, gentle, but very distinct, startled me from my revery. –I felt that it came from the bed of ebony –the bed of death. I listened in an agony of superstitious terror –but there was no repetition of the sound. I strained my vision to detect any motion in the corpse –but there was not the slightest perceptible. Yet I could not have been deceived. I had heard the noise, however faint, and my soul was awakened within me. I resolutely and perseveringly kept my attention riveted upon the body. Many minutes elapsed before any circumstance occurred tending to throw light upon the mystery. At length it became evident that a slight, a very feeble, and barely noticeable tinge of color had flushed up within the cheeks, and along the sunken small veins of the eyelids. Through a species of unutterable horror and awe, for which the language of mortality has no sufficiently energetic expression, I felt my heart cease to beat, my limbs grow rigid where I sat. Yet a sense of duty finally operated to restore my self-possession. I could no longer doubt that we had been precipitate in our preparations –that Rowena still lived.

[At this point, we worked through the passage together as a class, attempting to determine the exact extent of the influence of opium in the passage, or at least to note the features of Poe’s language which make such a determination impossible: the conflict between senses (feeling vs. hearing vs. seeing), real experience vs. real event (“I had heard” vs. “a sob … startled me”), use of introductory clauses (“it became evident that” as opposed to a direct statement of whatever was evident) and litotes (the use of double negatives in place of affirmation, as in “I could no longer doubt that” )] Summary: even though there is a clear influence of opium here, it’s impossible to delimit its reach. Whenever we’re tempted to call something a hallucination, the narrator insists on the reality of the sensory experience, but always in a way that leaves us uncertain about the reliability of the senses.

But where does all this suspicion about opium hallucination get us? Again, what does it mean to decide what is “real” and what is a hallucination in a story that makes no claim to be real in the first place? What difference does it make whether the narrator could or could not have been deceived by an opium-engendered vision? It’s not enough to observe the unreliability of the narrator and to say, along with him, that the final scene of Ligeia “must … have been but the suggestion of a vivid imagination,” since in a sense we already knew this: the vivid imagination of Poe, or the readerly imagination that conjures visions where there are only words. We’re talking about an imagination of an imagination, or an imagination of an imagination of an imagination, if we’re trying to imagine Poe imagining the narrator as imagining the scene. Calling the scene a hallucination is in a certain sense a way of defending ourselves from the these palpably threatening images, a way of avoiding being disturbed by a disturbing vision which we can try to say definitively isn’t ours, belongs to a disturbed narrator, doesn’t disturb our understanding of fiction or of opium but rather confirms them. It’s a way of containing the threat by deciding where to locate it—in a sense, burying it alive in the inanimate body of a fictitious narrator. If the impossible, supernatural scene is his hallucination, then we can still call the story realistic in a sense, and we’re much more comfortable with realism, because we usually have a good idea of how the relation between a realistic story and the world is supposed to work—Poe would be representing the psyche of the opium eater, so our job would be to figure out what he has to say about the psyche or about the effects of opium, and maybe to figure out if what he’s saying is actually realistic or merely claims to be. But if the story isn’t a hallucination, or, worse still, if we can’t decide whether it is or is not a hallucination, then the very nature of the relation between story and reality is in question. So the question of hallucination is sort of a question of where we locate the fiction—is fiction or imagination a constitutive element of reality, a mode of perception that intervenes in our experience of the world, something that is involved in subjective experience, which may itself be a kind of fiction; or is it something radically incompatible with experience: does the gap between fiction and reality effect the story at even the most basic level?

To summarize, if we try explain these stories as drug narratives by calling their supernatural moments hallucinations, we run into a whole series of questions because we can’t tell what is and is not a hallucination, and we can’t decide what it means to call something in a fiction a hallucination. We also run into a second problem, which is that we’ve taken a very narrow view on opium. Yes, opium is a hallucinogen, but that’s hardly its only symptom. The focus on hallucination is convenient for a certain strain of readings of Poe—like I just said, calling the end of Ligeia a hallucination makes Poe’s stories into stories about the psyche or the nature of experience, or subjectivity, however you want to say it—but that’s not the whole story. There’s another major symptom of opium that’s important to Ligeia, that has a role to play in Ligeia in part because it’s modeled in part on Berenice, where the symptom is named explicitly. Who can tell me what that symptom is? (monomania):

In the mean time my own disease –for I have been told that I should call it by no other appelation –my own disease, then, grew rapidly upon me, and assumed finally a monomaniac character of a novel and extraordinary form –hourly and momently gaining vigor –and at length obtaining over me the most incomprehensible ascendancy. This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive. It is more than probable that I am not understood; but I fear, indeed, that it is in no manner possible to convey to the mind of the merely general reader, an adequate idea of that nervous intensity of interest with which, in my case, the powers of meditation (not to speak technically) busied and buried themselves, in the contemplation of even the most ordinary objects of the universe (227).

What is monomania? It is a fixation of attention on the object. It is described as a subjective experience—a particular mode of encountering the world—but it is a subjective experience that is controlled by the object, rather than the depths of the psyche. Objects are still subjective experiences, to an extent, in that they are produced by “properties of the mind,” by a certain kind of “attention” or “interest,” but it is a very limited kind of attention, a diseased attention. Notice the sorts of objects that call the narrator’s attention:

To muse for long unwearied hours with my attention riveted to some frivolous device on the margin, or in the topography of a book; to become absorbed for the better part of a summer’s day, in a quaint shadow falling aslant upon the tapestry, or upon the door; to lose myself for an entire night in watching the steady flame of a lamp, or the embers of a fire; to dream away whole days over the perfume of a flower; to repeat monotonously some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind; to lose all sense of motion or physical existence, by means of absolute bodily quiescence long and obstinately persevered in; –such were a few of the most common and least pernicious vagaries induced by a condition of the mental faculties, not, indeed, altogether unparalleled, but certainly bidding defiance to anything like analysis or explanation (227).

  • “some frivolous device on the margin or … the typography of a book,” the actual ink on the page, the way the letters appear; before we get into meaning, which is more subjective, more hallucinatory; monomania focuses us on what we might call the material features of writing, the letters themselves, which are there for everyone, even the illiterate
  • “a quaint shadow falling aslant upon the tapestry,” “the embers of a fire”: signs, rather than meanings—monomania doesn’t follow the shadow back to the object from which it is cast, it doesn’t recall or imagine the fire that left the embers, it just looks at the shadow or the embers themselves, the sign rather than the thing it signifies
  • “the perfume of a flower,” which can be a sign for rhetoric (often said to be “flowery”) falls into this same list: the use of rhetorical devices—a metaphor, for example—falls into the character of objects; we’re talking about the metaphor itself and not it’s meaning
  • “to repeat monotonously some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any ideas whatever to the mind”—the sound of the word, not the idea

Monomania is an experience of loss: it highlights the object, but only by preventing them from signifying or representing anything, from conjuring up an image or an idea. Objects are signs stripped of their meanings. That is what monomania gives us.

Yet let me not be misapprehended. –The undue, earnest, and morbid attention thus excited by objects in their own nature frivolous, must not be confounded in character with that ruminating propensity common to all mankind, and more especially indulged in by persons of ardent imagination. It was not even, as might be at first supposed, an extreme condition or exaggeration of such propensity, but primarily and essentially distinct and different. In the one instance, the dreamer, or enthusiast, being interested by an object usually not frivolous, imperceptibly loses sight of this object in a wilderness of deductions and suggestions issuing therefrom, until, at the conclusion of a day dream often replete with luxury, he finds the incitamentum or first cause of his musings entirely vanished and forgotten. In my case the primary object was invariably frivolous, although assuming, through the medium of my distempered vision, a refracted and unreal importance. Few deductions, if any, were made; and those few pertinaciously returning in upon the original object as a centre. The meditations were never pleasurable; and, at the termination of the reverie, the first cause, so far from being out of sight, had attained that supernaturally exaggerated interest which was the prevailing feature of the disease. In a word, the powers of mind more particularly exercised were, with me, as I have said before, the attentive, and are, with the day-dreamer, the speculative (227-8).

What distinction is Poe making here? Monomania is not what “persons of ardent imagination” do, it is not imagination. It is not “exaggeration,” and it is not what the “dreamer” does, who “loses sight of the object.” In short, monomania is a sort of counter-symptom to hallucination. Monomania and hallucinations are two opposing ways of thinking or experiencing the world, and they reveal different aspects of the world, different aspects of experience. Instead of moving away from the object in the direction of a dream or a vision, the monomaniac’s attention stays focused on the object. But—and this is a subtle but important distinction—it’s not that the attention never leaves the object. What does Poe say about deductions?

Few deductions, if any, were made; and those few pertinaciously returning in upon the origin object as a center

If deductions can return upon the object, it must mean that they’ve left the object. This is why monomania involves few deductions—deductions are a way of moving away from the object, which would be counter to the logic of the disease, unless of course the disease limited the attention to deductions returning upon the object. So even if monomania is opposed to hallucination, in that hallucination moves away from the object, it permits or even requires a certain kind of hallucination, or something like a hallucination which Poe calls a “deduction,” that leaves the object in order to return to it. Objects can make the monomaniac think, deduce, learn, as long as he ultimately thinks, deduces, and learns only about the object itself. This helps explain how Poe can say that monomania is opposed to ideas (remember, the narrator repeats words until they stop conveying any idea) but can also say after fixating on Berenice’s teeth “que tous ses dents etaient des idées,” (231) that all her teeth were ideas.

How can we reconcile these two statements? Following what Poe says about deduction, we might say that Berenice’s teeth can be ideas only if they are ideas about teeth, only if the narrator’s attention turns back upon the teeth. The teeth have to be more than just another object in the story—they have to be the object of the story, they have to be the point. In effect, Berenice, which was originally titled “The Teeth,” has to be about teeth, not just as incidental props that enhance the stakes of a horrifying story of death and dismemberment, but as themselves horrific. And this is, in effect, exactly what happens—the teeth are already horrifying even before they are violently extracted from a corpse that isn’t dead yet. The end of the story can be read—indeed has to be read—as merely the unfolding of the horror already contained in the obsessive attention to the teeth. Consider the passage where the teeth are first discussed. Egaeus has just asked Berenice’s hand in marriage, and their wedding is approaching, when one day, looking at her gives him a sudden chill:

Was it my own excited imagination –or the misty influence of the atmosphere –or the uncertain twilight of the chamber –or the gray draperies which fell around her figure –that caused in it so vacillating and indistinct an outline? I could not tell. She spoke no word, I –not for worlds could I have uttered a syllable. An icy chill ran through my frame; a sense of insufferable anxiety oppressed me; a consuming curiosity pervaded my soul; and sinking back upon the chair, I remained for some time breathless and motionless, with my eyes riveted upon her person. Alas! its emaciation was excessive, and not one vestige of the former being, lurked in any single line of the contour. My burning glances at length fell upon the face.

The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once jetty hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with innumerable ringlets now of a vivid yellow, and Jarring discordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupil-less, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!

Without looking ahead, what is it about the teeth that frightens him? Since he doesn’t really say, what might you guess? The thing is, it isn’t what you’d expect. It’s not that she has bad teeth or is missing teeth—in fact, it’s quite the opposite:

The shutting of a door disturbed me, and, looking up, I found that my cousin had departed from the chamber. But from the disordered chamber of my brain, had not, alas! departed, and would not be driven away, the white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth. Not a speck on their surface –not a shade on their enamel –not an indenture in their edges –but what that period of her smile had sufficed to brand in upon my memory. I saw them now even more unequivocally than I beheld them then. The teeth! –the teeth! –they were here, and there, and everywhere, and visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development.

What’s terrifying about the teeth is that they’re perfect: white, spotless, exactly as they were “in the very moment of their first terrible development.” On the one hand, this line can be read as referring to the previous passage that we read—their first terrible development, the first time I saw that they were horrible; they remain stuck in my brain from that moment, unchanged. But everything adds up to another meaning as well: the perfection of the teeth is at least surprising in the context of Berenice’s disease, her “pale” and “writhing” lips, the word “changed” in the first description of the teeth (“the teeth of the changed Berenice”). What is surprising and ultimately horrifying about the teeth is that they remain unchanged, despite Berenice’s disease.

Why might this be horrifying? Why would you imagine that a disease that was withering Berenice’s flesh would leave her teeth unchanged? What is it about teeth that protects them from the withering effects of the disease? Call it their enamel, their hardness: they are objects, in a certain sense dead matter, emitted from the living body. This is the same reason that things like hair, nails and bones end up playing a rather significant role in the imagery of horror films. They’re already sort of horrific. One hardly needs a ghost story to conjure up the living dead. It’s already inside your mouth. This, by the way, is one of the things that drug narratives, or narratives of disease as is the case here, can do particularly effectively: namely, blur the line between the organic and the inorganic, the living and the dead, since both the drug and the disease require us to imagine the body as inert matter that can be acted upon from without. You obviously don’t get depictions of neurotransmitters and the interplay between organic and inorganic chemicals in the 19th century, but it’s the same problem. Life is made up out of the same stuff as dead matter, and that has a rather disturbing effect as much on language as on the imagination. That’s why a story on something so awful that it allegedly, according to Poe, started out as “a bet that [he] could produce nothing effective on a subject so singular,” ends up so compelling.

If this is all true, if the horror of the story is already contained in the teeth of the living Berenice, then the ending is, in a sense, excessive, too much, “far too horrible” as Poe will concede in a letter to a friend. Remember, above we said that monomania allowed or even required a certain kind of hallucination, a hallucination that moved away from the object in order to turn back upon it, and in a sense this is how we have to read the ending, and not only because of the narrative arc, which does technically take our attention away from these teeth to describe Berenice’s death and burial, only to recall the teeth in the final lines of the tale. The larger point is that the horror of the ending is nothing more than an exaggerated, narrative version of something already horrific about teeth, that the narrator is simply unable to describe or define except by turning to narrative. Remember, in the story, after Berenice’s death, the narrator is some sort of haze or trance and find himself sitting in his room, next to a little box, unable to remember what happened. Before he has a chance to open the box, whose contents we already suspect to be Berenice’s teeth, which is already excessively horrific, the narrator is summoned to Berenice’s tomb only to discover that she was buried alive, meaning that the narrator has actually extracted her teeth, one by one, with a spade, while she was still alive. What is fascinating about this ending is that this utmost horror, when the dead, dismembered body turns out to be living and turns out to have suffered painfully through the extraction of the teeth, is that it is really just an amplification of what is already horrible about extracting the teeth from the dead corpse, which is itself just an amplification of what already horrible about teeth themselves. The teeth are horrifying because they are neither exactly living nor exactly dead, because they constitute a sort of dead part of the living body and thus they disturb the line between life and death. What is horrifying about the removal of the teeth, when we assume Berenice to be dead, is that suddenly the status of the whole body enters into this same category as the teeth—the corpse itself is horrifying, because it is still resembles, and is still a sign for, the living being which has departed it, even though that being no longer lives. In fact, the dead body is made up out of the exact some stuff as the living body; too much monomaniac fixation on the corpse just further blurs the line between organic and inorganic matter, life and death. That’s why dismembering the body is nearly as horrific when the body is presumed dead, in that moment where we suspect the teeth are in the box and don’t yet know that Berenice has been buried alive. The body remains a sign of life even as a sign of death, and the final horror, which reanimates the corpse as the living dead, the buried alive, is nothing other than the dramatization of that feeling that the dead body still resembles the living one.

As we observed above, the question of whose hallucination this is, the rather improbable suggestion that the narrator can really be said to have imagined everything that happens in the last two pages of the story is not the point. The point is that the fictitious or imaginary narrative is a way of unfolding a contradiction already inherent in the object. Narrative augments description because it’s able to say two contradicting things at the same time without any attempt to reconcile them: narrative gives you a series of events, one after another, which means you can go back and forth between saying one thing and saying its opposite: the body is living, the body is dead, the body is living again; whereas, with description, you sort of have to say everything at once, to say the unspeakable: the body is both living and dead. In short, Berenice gives us an alternative way of understanding hallucination: no longer as a realistic representation of the effects of opium, or as an expression of a subjective experience of the world, the hallucination is a literary device that produces a narrative, a back and forth movement between irreconcilable alternatives, in place of the static symbol where everything seems united, harmonious. We see the same thing at the end of Ligeia, though we won’t have time to go into it in depth—basically, the endless back and forth movement between two perspectives on the same scene … which ends only because the sun eventually rises, in other words because an outside force imposes an end on the narrative.

In short, what hallucination and monomania give us is a model for allegory. Allegory is more than just a system of metaphors. It’s not just that everything in an allegory stands for something else, that Hawthorne’s flower stands for nature or Poe’s teeth stand for the body (clearly, as we just saw, the relationship is more complicated). Allegory adds narrative, time, progression to the system, which makes allegory capable of revealing things about objects or signs that can’t be revealed otherwise. From a distance, the object, the sign stripped of its meaning—in this case, the teeth—appears stable. We seem to know what it is, what to call it. We seem to know the difference between life and death. The opposition appears stable. Monomania means looking too closely. Under the close gaze, the analytical gaze, the object loses its coherence. It takes on significations, meanings it cannot contain, meanings that are revealed through succession, through allegory. Monomania produces hallucination—that two are not opposed, but necessarily related.

In a sense, there are two allegories here: there’s the allegory of the teeth and the body, the one where the teeth are horrific because they’re both living and dead, and then the body dies, and the corpse is horrific because it’s both living and dead, the extraction of the teeth is horrific because the dead body is both living and dead, and in fact, in the end, the body was never actually dead. This by itself, without the frame of monomania and hallucination, works as an allegory, reveals something about the object—the tooth or the body—specifically reveals what it can’t say about the body: whether it’s living or dead, or what the difference is between life and death, organic and inorganic. But then there’s the frame of monomania. There’s an allegory about how allegory works: fixation of the attention on the object, the deduction or hallucination that moves away from the object only to return to it. There’s a story being told about how language works. In a sense, we knew this from the start. Let’s read one paragraph further in Poe’s description of Berenice:

My books, at this epoch, if they did not actually serve to irritate the disorder, partook, it will be perceived, largely, in their imaginative and inconsequential nature, of the characteristic qualities of the disorder itself. I well remember, among others, the treatise of the noble Italian Coelius Secundus Curio “de Amplitudine Beati Regni dei”; St. Austin’s great work, the “City of God”; and Tertullian “de Carne Christi,” in which the paradoxical sentence “Mortuus est Dei filius; credible est quia ineptum est: et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile est” occupied my undivided time, for many weeks of laborious and fruitless investigation (228).

The ultimate object of monomania, hallucination, allegory is language itself. It’s the word that is broken down to typography or to sound.

Now, there’s a lot of work left to be done on these stories in this respect. We have to ask what happens, for example, to all of these foreign words and quotations that the narrator calls paradoxical, that make even the most laborious investigation into their meaning in a certain way fruitless. We have to ask, in other words, about all of these living and dead languages that find their way into everything Poe writes, all of these words and names that can be traced back to indefinitely long lineages, like the European aristocrats that are the principle characters of these stories, names like Berenice [be-re-NEE-see], which perhaps Poe took from the French “Bérénice” [be-re-NEES], the title of a play by Racine, or from the Italian “Berenice” [be-re-NEE-chee], a name which goes back to Egypt, where it was a common name in the dynasty of Ptolemy, and which goes even farther back to Greece where it comes from pherein + nike, bringer of victory. Berenice is, in short, a name that signifies it’s own heritage—perhaps it was chosen to show the lineage of Ptolemy, but also because it sounds old, because it is a word that has been handed down from one language to another until the point where its only recognizable meaning is another version of the name that precedes it. Or we have the problem of the way that reading works at the end of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where things in a book suddenly start happening in reality. These are some of the questions I’ll be taking up in section. For now, I want to leave you with the conclusion that there is a lot of work left to be done with these texts, that more questions have been raised than have been answered, and I hope you’ll make an effort to answer some of these questions for yourself.

Thank you.

[And thank you, reader, if you made it this far in the post!]


~ by Matt on January 31, 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: