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Mangled Body and Depraved Soul: On the Corporeal and the Spiritual in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The soul projects meaning onto a world that resists it. This is the plight of existence for Poe.

The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Tales
Edgar Allan Poe
Oxford University Press
Nov 2018

Reviled by some (T.S. Eliot and Henry James among others) as lacking in seriousness and skill, consigned by others to the rank of “children’s author” alongside Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, and revered by others (primarily the French decadents such as Charles Baudelaire but also Walt Whitman) for his penchant for the lurid, the sickly, and the accursed, Edgar Allan Poe remains a troubling figure for American literature. Despite the philosophical heft brought to readings of some of his stories by such luminaries as Jacques Lacan, Stanley Cavell, and Jacques Derrida, Poe lingers as the guilty pleasure of the literate, a writer of aggrandized campfire tales, more at home in the slightly campy filmic renditions of Vincent Price than with the prestige miniseries created for Charles Dickens (also sometimes dismissed as a children’s author, but one of greater talent and worth). It would seem somewhat ridiculous to have Dickens chase a serial killer in his final days in a Hollywood production; and yet that’s precisely what one finds Poe (John Cusack) doing in the bizarre and rather dull 2012 film The Raven (directed by James McTeigue). Well…it still feels wrong, but not all that surprising.

Poe’s faults manifest most clearly in his poetry. One can’t avoid being somewhat embarrassed by the sing-song, rollicking rhythms of even his most touching poetic works. A personal favorite of mine is Annabel Lee. I’ve loved the poem from a rather young age and think of it often, but try reciting it aloud with a straight face: “It was many and many a year ago/ In a kingdom by the sea/ That there lived a maiden whom you may know/ By the name of Annabel Lee”. The scansion is eerily (and disappointingly) similar to children’s poetry like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and other bits of doggerel. Notice his habit of relying on repetition for rhythmic effect (count the times “kingdom by the sea” appears in Annabel Lee). Far worse is his tendency to create a rhyme through banal repetition; witness For Annie, where we find: “Sadly, I know/ I am shorn of my strength/ And no muscle I move/ As I lie at full length /But no matter!—I feel/ I am better at length”. A more familiar example comes from Ulalume (a far more interesting poem than For Annie but guilty of the same sins—perhaps to an extreme where they almost appear inspired): “Here once, through an alley Titanic/ Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul/ Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul/ There were days when my heart was volcanic/ As the scoriac rivers that roll/ As the lavas that restlessly roll”.

The stories, far more celebrated and justly so, share many of the same faults. Harold Bloom, in what must be seen as a depreciation of Poe’s writing [Introduction to a selection of critical assessments of Poe in the “Modern Critical Views” series; Chelsea House Publishers, 1985], suggested that the Poe tale “somehow is stronger than its telling, which is to say that Poe’s actual text does not matter” (p.4). While it’s true that Poe’s work, more than others and primarily because of its campfire tale quality, lends itself to retelling, I think Bloom’s excoriation goes a bit too far. For all of its failings (and there are plenty), there is something about Poe’s prose that manages to both burrow into one’s sub-conscience (hence, the urge to repeat the tales to others in one’s own words, from the memory of those details that attached themselves most unshakably to one’s worldview) and to reveal a peculiarly haunting view of the relationship between the body and those faculties which Poe takes to be bound up with the soul (but that we might think of as being the effusions of consciousness on the one hand and the unconscious on the other). The latter aspect of Poe largely relies upon his own wording, his own obsessive asides, and thus fails to appear in retellings (including cinematic adaptations)—and yet, to my mind, this is Poe’s most compelling insight. In short, as a handsome new collection of Poe’s short stories—The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Tales, edited by David Van Leer (Oxford University Press, 2018)—reveals, Poe navigates the borders between the corporeal and the non-corporeal (what is often termed the spiritual) in a way that both obfuscates their boundaries and undermines our more quotidian understanding of their capacities, their strengths and weaknesses, and their unforeseen penchant for self-destruction.

The Gulf Beyond: Examining the Chasm Between Body and Soul

Poe addresses the distance between the corporeal and the spiritual in what might seem, at first reading, like a throwaway passage from ” The Pit and the Pendulum“. Having been condemned to torture and death, the narrator swoons. But he insists that he never lost all of consciousness and indeed posits that such total loss must be an impossibility or else there would be no afterlife, no immortality of the soul. He then describes his return to full consciousness:

In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages: first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly, that of the sense of physical, existence. It seems probable that if, upon reaching the second stage, we could recall the impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. And that gulf is—what? How at least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb? (p.136)

In Poe’s ontology we exist on two levels. The primary one, in the sense of being foundational, is the spiritual level. It is theinforming stuff of the self that transcends death, the eternal constant but also the hideous invariant that remains no matter how far we are removed from anything we might recognize as reasonable existence. I call it a hideous invariant insofar as one could hardly take comfort in Poe’s vision of the spiritual and its afterlife as they appear here. The remainder, the bit of “me” that survives my corporeality, is unrecognizable to me and exists on a level that obtains before the possibility of any actual experience. When reduced to that remainder, to that foundational core, “I” am a mere nothing. “I” (as an experiencing agent in the world) do not really exist at that level; this pointless quantum is all that persists. Furthermore, I have no direct access to that core of the self. Impressions of that first stage, Poe asserts, “come unbidden, while we marvel whence they come.” We are haunted by the presence of the self as ineluctable but incomprehensible Other.

The other level, the corporeal, can also be seen as the primary level, but from the point of view of experience. We have no proper purchase on the spiritual level (except in states of delirium, in dreams, and in moments of uncanny wonder), but we operate in full awareness of the corporeal. If the spiritual level persists (existing both before and after our ability to perceive anything, to register our own existence—a strange thing for Poe to label as “consciousness” indeed) but is ultimately hidden from us, the corporeal has but a tenuous purchase on existence and yet is nevertheless the ground of experience. We may live forever in some sense but it can hardly be called living. Thus, the spiritual is the primary level with respect to the rather depressing “truth” of our being but the corporeal is primary with respect to our understanding of being. While in this passage Poe emphasizes the gulf between the corporeal and the spiritual, much of his writing in the short stories (particularly in those peculiarly alluring passages that get left out in our retellings of those tales) explores the way in which body and soul navigate the gap that both defines them and disarms them.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” continues this exploration. The narrator awakes to find himself in total darkness. Groping in that darkness, he encounters a wall and follows it in an irregular path, convincing himself he is in an enclosed space. This total darkness operates as a powerful registering of the isolation of the spiritual self. The body here is limited to the sense of touch in order to convey information across the chasm between body and soul. Finally, the narrator decides to move toward the middle of the space that lurks invisibly before him, to move away from the security of the wall and into the unknown. As he begins to lurch his way forward, he falls prostrate on the floor. As he again regains mental control over himself after the shock of his collapse, he assesses his corporeal state: “my chin rested upon the floor of the prison, but my lips and the upper portion of my head, although seemingly at a less elevation than the chin, touched nothing” (p.139). By sheer accident, the narrator discovers a pit in the middle of the dungeon, a pit that was meant to be the author of his doom.

The body registers the horror of the situation. Desperate for information, the narrator’s forehead has inscribed upon it the clamminess of the air welling up from the pit. Impressions are written upon the body; reality engraves itself on our skin and senses. But the body has no means in itself of interpreting those inscriptions. The narrator dislodges a stone and drops it into the void, listening closely to ascertain its depth. His mind struggles to translate the inscriptions of the senses into usable information. Of course, his captors soon change tactics. After he is drugged again, he awakens to find himself bound to a table. But the first thing that the narrator does is to look around his prison, now illumined, in order to gauge the accuracy of the perceptions he had while in darkness. He is disappointed to see how mistaken he was in many details—including the size and shape of the room. He acknowledges that these mistakes are trivial in comparison with his dire plight, and yet they matter very much to him in that moment. To my mind, this is the real point of the story. It is not really about the gothic torture the narrator undergoes, or the sheer horror he experiences; rather, the tale is concerned with the manner in which one obtains knowledge and the unreliability of much that we take to be direct information concerning the world around us.

The self in Poe is deeply divided between its necessary corporeality and the semi-removed soul that is hidden within that corporeality. The body makes perceptions that are, in themselves, incorrigible. That is to say the body, on its own terms, is incapable of deception. It merely reports the sensations that it experiences. For example, the body registers pain—say, by being cut—but it doesn’t offer information beyond the immediacy of the pain. It faithfully registers being burned but it can’t measure the degree of the heat that burned it. It is consciousness, or the soul, that interprets the immediacy of the body’s sensation in order to assess causality, contextuality, and other forms of the information it desires but is unable to obtain on its own.

Ontologically, in Poe, the body and the soul occupy distinct realms. The body is a quivering mass of flesh that presses up against the world and is impacted by objects in that world. It bears the marks, the inscriptions, impressed upon it from the outside. And those inscriptions, by re-forming the flesh, by scarring our sensitive surfaces, de-forms us. The body cannot refute experience. It merely registers and is slowly mangled by that registration. As the body experiences through the insinuations of the outer world on to its sensitive flesh, bearing the scars that denote past encounters, it slowly (and sometimes quickly) becomes mangled. It is the pure sensitivity of experience but it is worn down and eventually destroyed by that experience. The body longs to protect itself from the outer world but this is only a game of delay; the body must succumb to the insistence of experience in all its destructive eloquence.

The soul is incapable of anything beyond the experience of itself or vicarious and indirect experience through the body. Poe seems to argue that even experience of the self is vicariously attained through the body—that is why that scrap of consciousness that must eternally remain is not experienceable, and thus has no real significance for our awareness of existence. The soul longs not for protection from the outside world but rather for engagement with it. It longs for externalization but is forever cut off from all that surrounds it. The soul occupies a void, receiving naught but scraps of data from the body. It attempts to turn those scraps into information, into a means of assessing its situation and the situatedness of things in the world. It is cut off from the immediacy experienced by the body; indeed, it cannot adequately cognize immediacy insofar as cognition is always a form of mediation, always a way of seeing something as something else. It interprets the sensation of pain experienced by the body as cutting by a knife held by an assailant or as the incautious burning of a hand on an open flame. The soul can never escape its own “as-structure”, or better, its own “as-structuring”. The soul is an operation upon the world rather than a participant in it. It is agency without efficacy. The body is the sufferer of impacts by the assaultive effluvia of the world, the sufferer of inflictions perpetrated by the world. It is efficacy without agency.

This manner of thinking about the fraught relationship between body and soul can be found in Aristotle, in Descartes, and several other thinkers of higher caliber than Poe. What Poe manages in such inimitable fashion is to make the dread of the abyss that separates body and soul palpable; he captures the despair of the divided self, of the sufferer who longs to act, of the agent decrying his inefficiency. Thus, we encounter Poe’s schematism of the two primary forces/materials in existence—what Descartes terms the res extensa and the res cogitans. Notice the relative agency Descartes assigns these “things”: res extensa, the extended thing, versus res cogitans, the thinking thing. The first, what we typically call “matter” or “body” is not the extending thing, it has no active quality but is inherently passive (relating to the Latin passio, meaning “suffering”). It is acted upon but does not act. The second, what we typically term the “soul” or “mind”, is actively doing something (namely thinking) but is unable to effectuate itself except through the passive stolidity of the body. The divide between body and soul is thus starkly ontological: one is passive while the other is active; one is present in the world, the other presents itself only obliquely; one is localized in space, the other is not; one is mortal, the other eternal. These things seemingly have nothing to do with one another; an unbridgeable ontological gap yawns between them. And yet, our existence depends upon the seemingly impossible union of body and soul over a seemingly impassible boundary.


The Obtrusive Body

Consider then, in its starkest terms, the familiar schematism of Poe. His stories are rife with two essential elements. On the one hand, we find all of those troubling bodies and their various parts: the obnoxiously disturbing eye of the victim in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the eponymous and irrepressible organ that announces the villain’s crime; Fortunato’s recalcitrant corpulence in “A Cask of Amontillado”, walled into its moldy tomb; the walled-in corpse of the wife in “The Black Cat”; the threatened corporeality of the narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. There are non-human bodies that are desired, pursued, and deformed: the letter sought after by the police in “The Purloined Letter”; the ape in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”; the castellated abbey, the baleful clock, the costume of the infiltrator to the ball, and the dagger with which the prince threatens that infiltrator in “The Masque of the Red Death”. On the other hand, we find those scheming designs of a disturbed mind (and in Poe, by implication, all minds are disturbed) and the insistence on rebirth of departed souls: the exacting plans of the murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart”; the uncanny doubling of “William Wilson”; the living mansion and undead sister in “The Fall of the House of Usher”; the infusion of the first wife’s soul into the second wife’s body in “Ligeia”.

Bodies in Poe are obtrusive. They require great effort in order to dispose of them. As is the case with the disconcerting eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, they have effects that are independent of the souls that mysteriously accompany them—the narrator in that story assures us that he bears no ill-will toward the owner of the eye, only to the hated eye itself. And yet bodies are not so easily dispatched; the heart in that same tale refuses to desist from its customary beating. Souls have a tenuous purchase on experience; they insist on the rightness of their point of view while being condemned to a foreclosure on knowledge. They meticulously plan their actions and yet cannot foresee the obstacles that will inevitably arise. Few plans are executable in their original formulation; the soul is fated to fail.

Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is a grotesque meditation on bodies human and non-human, their powers and deficiencies, and the inevitability of their demise. In order to avoid the plague, Prince Prospero moves his court to a constellated abbey that he has sealed so none of his retinue may leave and no outsiders may enter. Thus, he believes that he has vouchsafed himself and his followers from the ravages of the disease. The abbey’s fortifications resist incursions from the outside world and within its walls the prince hopes to remain impervious to the assaults of the plague. The abbey becomes the stone manifestation of the dream of the impenetrable and eternal body, indifferent to disease and unsusceptible to death.

But even before the figure of Death enters in his robe and mask, the abbey reveals its susceptibility to the morbidity it attempts to evade. In the black chamber at the western-most point in the building, an ebony clock hourly emits “a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that… the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confessed revery or meditation” (pp.130-131). At each hour, when the clock clangs forth its mournful call, the revelry ceases, the riotous mood becomes momentarily sullen. The clock marks the encroaching insistence of time, the ineluctable demand of Death. When the masked and blood-spattered figure intrudes upon the party, it does so at midnight as the lugubrious clock rings out its longest mournful tintinnabulation, revealing that the earlier chimes were pre-echoes of Death’s arrival, not so much a prefiguration of that arrival but rather the reverberations of present calamity into the past, wherein time’s inexorable march is retroactively understood as the foretelling of our inevitable doom.

Bodies in this tale are easily misled. Prior to Death’s entrance, the revelers entertain in their minds the suspicion that the prince may be mad but they are dissuaded from that notion by their bodily senses: “It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure he was not [mad]” (p.131). But, of course, the body, which merely suffers impressions but cannot interpret them, can know nothing about the prince’s sanity or lack thereof. As long as the revelers accede to the blandishments of the body, they blithely ignore the dangers that surround them. But the clock’s call from beyond the fleeting immediacy of the joyous present forces them into a state of reflection, a state in which Death makes its presence palpable as a foreclosure of pleasure. Bodies are also evanescent; they cannot persist. The most telling revelation of the body’s impermanence is masked Death itself. The prince attempts to slay the intruder with his dagger but it falls to the ground along with the man who wielded it—inert, useless, inefficacious. When the prince’s followers, whose bodies had been in a state of torpor previous to the prince’s demise, finally lay hands upon the intruder and rend from him his garments, no body persists beneath the costume. Death, whose bodily presence was so concretely manifested as to have been the downfall of the haughty prince, is revealed to be the absence of body, the nothingness that lurks behind the suffering vehicle of earthly delight.

A similar nothingness lurks behind the bodily assemblage in the far more amusing tale “The Man that was Used Up”. The narrator longs to get better acquainted with the celebrated Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C. Smith. Every interlocutor the narrator encounters has some vague sense of the general’s importance but no one provides a clear account of his accomplishments. The general makes a striking impression: a tall, commanding presence, with flowing dark locks, impressive teeth, lustrous eyes, booming voice, broad chest and shoulders, and well-modeled limbs. In his effort to better know the general, the narrator calls upon him while the great man is dressing. Entering the room, he accidentally kicks what appears to be a small sack.

The sack, in a grating whistle of a voice, proclaims its displeasure and as the narrator watches in astonishment, the general’s servant attaches a leg, arms, bosom, teeth, hair, eyes, etc., to what had seemed to be a mere lump of matter. Slowly, before the narrator’s eyes, the general is assembled. The impressive physicality of the general was merely the result of mechanical, lifeless parts brought together in machinic assemblage. The original body had fallen apart, was used up and what remained of the general—that piping voice, that malformed lump of matter—was simultaneously comical and hideous, an uncanny reminder of Poe’s endorsement of the Cartesian view that the soul is a kind of unmoored ghost that haunts the bodily machine.


The Indomitable Soul That Nonetheless Fails

Of course, that unmoored ghost is the other side of the ontological coin for Poe and it stands in a similarly horrific position. The body belongs to the world but can do nothing in it apart from suffering the incursions of that world, to be inscribed by the violence of externality upon the soft tissue of its flesh. The soul, however, yearns to exteriorize itself, to breach the ontological gap that separates it from worldly existence, to register its presence among things, to impact directly the world that it can never actually touch. The soul, in Poe, is most characteristically emblematized by the will, the faculty that decides and attempts to execute its decisions, to effect change within the world that will reflect the elusive presence of the soul, to mold the world in the shape of the soul’s desires.

Because we are nearly always privy to the tactical maneuvering of the will in these stories, it’s misleading to construe Poe’s surrogates as representatives of that overused device, the “unreliable narrator”. Poe’s narrators are all too reliable. They may not always be the best judges of their own characters, but they never seem to hide their thought processes, their understanding of a given situation, or even their assessment of their own mental competency. The narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle” declares his own “deficiency of imagination” precisely in order to counterbalance the fabulous character of the tale his will soon convey. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” insists that he is not insane, not because he is trying to fool the reader but rather because he truly rules insanity out as a possible explanation for his actions. Whether or not we deem him insane hardly matters. We read the story for his account of his experiences, and in conveying those he strikes one as an utterly reliable narrator.

His reason for dismissing what seems to the reader as the most plausible cause of his murderous rage lies precisely within the calculating strength of his will. He can’t be insane, on his account, because he is too effective in his planning, his cunning, his ability to carry out his designs. If to be insane is to be irrational, then surely the narrator’s demonstrable grasp of reason’s structures ought to nullify any diagnosis of mental illness. Rather, the narrator believes he suffers from nervousness, which results in a heightening of the senses (Roderick Usher endures a similar ailment)—primarily hearing, so that he is forced to bear witness to all audible things “in the heaven and in the earth” (p.193). The ailment that so disturbs the soul then is too close a connection with a bodily sense that has become overly acute. The problem for the narrator is that the body impinges too closely upon the soul, not allowing it the distance that it wants to overcome and yet relies upon for some semblance of placidity.

But if the soul is discomfortingly proximate to, yet ontologically removed from, the body, it also bears a rather tenuous connection to its own self—for the soul is the vehicle of self-knowledge but that manner of knowing in Poe is always fraught with a destabilizing contradiction. If the soul is the Subject—the thinking thing in Descartes, the thing that knows—in self-knowledge it must also be the Object—the thing known, even a manner of the extended thing insofar as it is laid out for our examination. This, of course, stakes out a site of impossibility for Descartes (the thinking thing and the extended thing are two separate ontological fields, a substance cannot move from one state to the other) and yet for Poe this is the harrowing ontological instability that the soul must always endure.

Poe postulates a neo-Platonic amnestic connection to our previous existence, our existence prior to being encapsulated in this earthly and earthy body. In “Berenicë” he writes of our connection to this pre-corporeal existence: “There is, however, a remembrance of aerial forms—of spiritual and meaning eyes—of sounds, musical yet sad; a remembrance which will not be excluded; a memory like a shady—vague, variable, indefinite, unsteady” (p.13). Even this existence cannot escape a bodily connection however insofar as there are sounds and sights—indeed, even the sight of the incorporeal eyes themselves. Note the odd adjectival use of the phrase “spiritual and meaning”, not “meaningful”. The eyes of the soul (surely a contradiction in terms altogether) are not “full of meaning” but rather productive of it—or, even better, projective of meaning. Insofar as they cast their gaze upon the dead matter of the world, they project meaning onto that empty screen as the emblem of the soul’s will. But this projection does not occur only with the dead matter of bodies; it is operative in whatever strange realm lurks behind the corporeal. There, however, projection becomes self-projection. The eyes of the soul bear witness to those eyes. Self-contemplation produces a feedback loop that engorges itself on its own attempts to produce meaning.

This amnestic vision does not lead the narrator of “Berenicë” toward the luxury of speculative daydreaming. Rather, it makes him morbidly attached to objects in the world, but objects seen in their most banal and trivial detail. The daydreamer is concerned with an object of importance and in an enjoyable rumination upon it moves further away from that object into a revelatory reflection that reaches further out into the possibilities of the mind and existence. The narrator, on the other hand, becomes obsessed with trivial objects in their triviality. And instead of the object disappearing into the reflection (as it does for the daydreamer), it obtrudes even further upon the contemplative horror of the soul, attaining a “refracted and unreal importance” (p.16). If the soul is, in a sense, a meaning-producing machine, its mechanism easily runs amok, excavating meaning out of the banal, transforming all matter into an enigma that insists upon the urgency of knowledge while thwarting absolutely the accomplishment of that knowledge. Our insistent will longs to project understanding onto a world and a self that contumaciously resist being known.

For all its failings, the will in Poe has the distinct character of being indomitable when it realizes its true nature as the all-pervasive force underlying existence itself. “Ligeia” opens with an epigraph that Poe attributes to Joseph Glanvill defining God as “a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness” and that man only dies owing to “the weakness of his feeble will” (p. 26). Provided sufficient strength, the will can conquer even death. Understanding this strength, connecting with the amnestic memory of the unshackled previous existence of the soul, requires occult knowledge, a form of knowledge to which the ill-fated Ligeia initiates her adoring husband. Ligeia is the emblem of the brilliance of soul over the dullness of body. Her husband, as obsessed as he is with her after her untimely demise, can hardly muster the memory of her embodied existence—he cannot recall her maiden name and even his description of her eyes veers almost immediately away from the physical toward the spiritual:

The ‘strangeness’, however, which I found in the eyes, was of a nature distinct from the formation, or the color, or the brilliancy of the features, and must, after all, be referred to the expression. Ah, word of no meaning! behind whose vast latitude of mere sound we intrench our ignorance of so much of the spiritual. (p.28)

Whatever their allure, the eyes found their significance not in their bodily existence but rather in whatever mysterious existence underwrites the corporeal. Notice the term Poe employs (italicized in the original): expression. The soul ex-presses; that is, it presses itself out into the world. The eyes in Poe are not merely the windows onto the soul, they are the portals through which the soul attempts to externalize itself through the force of will. The eyes project meaning (a term closely associated with “expression”) outward as an act of defiant self-proclamation.

The projection of that meaning is insistent, and it registers with the husband. Yet it ultimately is doomed to failure:

[I]n our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember. And thus how frequently, in my intense scrutiny of Ligeia’s eyes, have I felt approaching the full knowledge of their expression—felt it approaching—yet not quite be mine—and so at length entirely depart! (p.28)


Connecting with the distancing Other is not unlike attempting to penetrate the haze that surrounds our amnestic grasp of the distinctly a-corporeal nature of our own soul. The narrator-husband is reminded of this quality of Ligeia’s eyes not by encountering glowing orbs or resplendent sources of light but rather when he sees a “rapidly-growing vine”, a “chrysalis, a stream of running water…in the ocean; in the falling of a meteor” (p.29). These are all objects in a state of flow. They are objects that are superseded by an underlying dynamic motion or force. Poe makes the connection utterly clear moments later when he italicizes the word “intensity“.

In contrast to the extension of bodies, the soul is an intensive force. Intensity is irruptive. It cannot be adequately mapped by the mind; it is not directly measurable. Heat, for example, is an intensity. If I have a burning coal and I cut it in half, the two parts are half the size of the former whole but both parts retain the same heat as the former whole. I cannot “cut” the heat in half (I can cool the coal, of course, but that is altering its state). We don’t directly measure heat; we measure the rise and fall of the mercury in a thermometer. But to do so is not to measure heat; rather we are measuring the effect of heat upon something else. Those effects are not merely incremental; they contain event-moments or phase shifts. I can heat water gradually, of course, but the difference between water at 199°F and 203°F matters to the thermometer but has little bearing on the state of the water. But the distinction between 211°F and 212°F is momentous. At one moment, the water is still, at the next moment (one degree higher according to the mercury in the thermometer) it changes state—it boils. Shifts in intensity are qualitative, not (or not directly) quantitative.

And yet the soul is perceived to exist only owing to its effects, the half-successful emergences into the corporeal world. The harrowing miracle of Ligeia’s return does not find its force simply by overcoming death; the marvelous aspect of the tale is that the soul can emerge at all, that it can make itself effective in a world that remains so indifferent to its desire when all that it can be said to be is the intensive force of desire. This is the plight of existence for Poe. We are trapped in an indifferent world; corporeal matter is the principle of indifference. It cares not a jot for what is done to it; it simply registers the often-random collisions of body against body. Things happen in this world but they are inherently meaningless, occupying a causal landscape derived from happenstance and thus without commitment, without morality, without purpose. Things here are knowable (available for knowledge) but pointless. On the other hand, the soul is the principle of desire, the principle of longing. The soul projects meaning onto a world that resists it. In the soul, everything is meaningful but nothing can actually occur and nothing can be properly known. The soul is a swirling force of intensity without an adequate conduit into the world of efficacy. It is shot through with purpose but struggles to manifest a causal force upon matter.

The existential struggle between these two ontological states is precisely what gets lost in our “campfire” retellings of these stories and it is precisely what gets lost in Harold Bloom’s misguided abuse of Poe as an author. Behind all of those deaths and returns from the dead, behind the corpses and the revenants, behind the murders and resurrections, lies the truly bizarre realization of the Poe story: that something occurs at all in a world so hopelessly divided between a desire for efficacy and meaning and the indifferent and empty matter that resists the blandishments of the soul while remaining indispensable to its projects.

* * *

Oxford University Press reissues this wonderful collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The book itself is an attractive purple volume that will adorn any bookshelf. It includes the stories mentioned here along with several other celebrated works. The collection opens with a penetrating essay by Van Leer, well worth rereading in tandem with the stories themselves.