This is the introductory essay from the forthcoming book THE ROOM, THE WHIRL, AND THE DEAD GIRL: translations of Edgar Allan Poe to swedish by Paul Soares. Based on three recurrent images in Poes authorship, out of which twelve of his short stories have been selected. Edited and annotated so as to mirror and deepen the understanding of both the images themselves and of the chosen short stories. This essay has been translated to English by Bruce McGinn.
The book will be published in late August 1999 by Vertigo Förlag.
The Room, the Whirl, and the Dead Girl
"To the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities"
– E.A.P. From the introduction to Eureka. A Prose Poem (1848)
Most know Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) as the author of horror stories. Though he would have considered himself first a poet.
Poe is doubtless one of the world's most gifted storytellers. His short stories are always through-composed creations: concentrated, driven and often highly sensational. But nonetheless I realised, when I began reading Poe two years ago, that I often didn't remember what the stories were actually about: what I remembered rather was an image, a movement, a mood, and what remained was an indistinguishable "feeling" – that word we use in our failure to define what we perceive. This likely due precisely to the fact that Poe is a poet. First, and always.
When I reflected upon this phenomenon, it became clear to me that it was largely the same images and movements which recurred time and again.
Poe told of the same things over and over again. Was it repetition, as in an artistic limitation? Unfinished, as in several sketches of one idea. Or merely "jingle"?1
Discussions of Poe always emphasise his clear and concentrated artistic consciousness; he worked after an explicit poetics (see his essay The Poetic Principle) and subjected his writings, from time to time, to the most exhaustive, all-encompassing revisions: in the intellectual work, he left nothing to chance.2 (And looking to the smaller format, his poems, we find the same themes recurring in even greater concentration.3) In this fashion, I read the "repetitions" with faith instead of scepticism, and this book springs from it.
The persistent return to the characteristic room. The whirling motion. The recurring portrait of the dead girl. When you read Poe's stories with these images in mind, a voice very soon appears, so to speak, within the voice. A voice speaking low and slowly "behind" the other one, about something else, something bigger. And it does so throughout the many different expressive forms his writing takes: the romantic (both light and dark), the arabesque, the grotesque, the crime story, the realism, the satire, the essay-story, the science fiction, the metaphysical. As if that which it speaks of will simply not permit itself to be formulated in a single story, in any one way, in a single genre, style or mood. Perhaps will not permit itself to be formulated at all.
In his slightly fantastic essay The Philosophy of Composition, Poe describes his literary creative process, using his poem "The Raven" as his starting point.4 His exposition on the choice of artistic grasp is of great interest here: the refrain, and the effects of its varying signification. After having fixed Beauty as the domain and melancholy as the basic mood, he chooses the refrain as the axle around which the entire structure revolves. "The pleasure of repetition," says Poe, "is deduced solely from the sense of identity" – it is the joy of recognition. The Raven, in the last row of each verse, monotonously repeats its rote "Nevermore". Poe decides, however, to persistently create new effects by varying the application of the refrain: retaining the refrain largely unchanged but – by placing it in new contexts – perpetually changing its signification.
Likewise, one can even read the recurring images, movements and portraits in Poe's authorship. These appear – whether intentional or not – forever formulating and reformulating, in the process fashioning of Poe's entire oeuvre a large collection of poetry – Untitled. (The characteristic impression of unity5 in Poe's writings is strengthened as we find in central short stories like "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Assignation" and "Ligeia" the recurrence of Poe's own poems, fictionalised, intact or slightly re-worked to suit the new context.) Poe's collective effort is plausibly also his ultimate poetry. And now we seriously start to wonder about the stories of the room, the whirl and the dead girl.
The idea is this: Poe tells of the same things over and over again. The result is an echo effect appearing in the text. Each story, however, is a unique context: a unique work with unique conditions (a certain story, a certain voice, style, mood, etc.). The individual contexts – the stories – thus come to condition the images and their constellations and in each instance to nuance them in a unique way. The light falls, so to speak, differently each time: certain things end up in shadow, new ones emerge, old ones are re-nuanced.
Just what is it that these refrains, woven and re-woven together in persistently new ways with endlessly varied content, are trying to express?
Of Poe's approximately seventy short stories, I have chosen twelve (which also include three of his poems). My intention with these twelve Poe stories has been to create a sort of mirror chamber where the images nuance and thus deepen the reading of one another. At the same time, this ought to deepen the reading of the short stories themselves.
It is about Poe as a poet in his art of storytelling. I have aimed a light at a point in his imaginary universe: a small – but central – fixation on image and movement, which yields a glimpse at Poe's poetry: the tales of The Room, the Whirl and the Dead Girl.
One question I've had to answer: to edit thematically or chronologically? Doing it thematically, one risks overlooking the development over time; doing it chronologically, one risks ascribing that too great importance.6
My intention is to edit a path into Poe's poetry; my choice is thus to edit thematically. In my anthology, this has the great benefit of facilitating the reading by taking the form of an introduction and deepening. At the same time, I have included dates to thereby give the reader the opportunity to read the thematic chronologically.
Irregular architecture. Excessive interior décor: cluttered with expensive ornaments and contradictory fragrances. Thick, beautiful rugs. Walls covered in heavy expensive draperies and tapestry. High ceilings. Windows: unbroken panes, fragmented with lead, or fitted with bars; preferably tinted or coloured. These are the typical characteristics of Poe's Room.
In the irregular architecture and the fashion crimes of the excessive interior décor, we find the anomaly so core to Poe – the asymmetrical, the deviation. From this anomaly, which is also the core of his conception of beauty (see IV, The Dead Girl), we can even stem his obsession with deviation in general: boundary crossing, the extraordinary, crime, perversion, dualism, manifoldness, nuance, extent, shifting, oscillation. In his essay-story, The Philosophy of Furniture, which ends with an unmistakable description of the room, Poe – in contempt for the vulgar uniformity of his native USA – launches a diatribe against the hegemony of the straight line.
In The Room, I feel as if I see a depiction of Poe's view of the cosmos. On one hand particularity, distinction, individuality, life, time. On the other hand unity, dissolution, pantheism, death, eternity. And no boundary in between. Alternatively, a continual and eternal boundary crossing. This is probably also where the daydreaming comes in.
The glossy, shimmering, or silent deep black: ebony, coal black/raven black, ink black. Water/the flowing, the liquid. (On a higher plane, related to dissolution: breaking down boundaries, mist, vagueness, languishing, etc.) The shallows/the deep. The currents, preferably pronouncedly contradictory. The descent (either diving, falling or drawn down). The spinning, rotating, spiralling. Time: the altered perception of time, or just its marked presence – or absence. When some or several of these images or movements recur, we are very likely in the immediate presence of Poe's Whirl.
The wind is also a part of the anatomy of the whirl.7 Poe was interested in and knowledgeable about natural science, in particular the laws of physics, which can explain why the wind is part of his fantasy of The Whirl.8 For ocean currents namely arise primarily from the influence effected by winds blowing in the same direction: the close contact between the lowest layers of air and the surface of the sea first pulls the upper layers of water along; these spread the impulse of motion downwards to the lower layers, and if the driving force of the air is steady and powerful enough, these currents, which were originally only generated on the surface, can reach so deep that they eventually set the whole body of water in motion. At the same time, these currents can move by themselves imperceptibly under a never-so-mirror-calm water surface9; as, for instance in "The Assignation", where the oarless gondola rides undercurrents in the total stillness of the Venetian night.
The climbing spiral constitutes a sort of contrary equivalent to the whirl. We find this in Poe's tales of balloon journeys. The staircase is another of its images: in "William Wilson" (with its pronounced thematic development around "ascent"-"descent"), Poe tells of the spiral staircase and how it gave the students a notion of eternity. Remarkably enough, we also find a sense of this movement in Poe's clearest tale of descent, namely "A Descent into the Maelstrom". While the first part of the descent is characterised by a strong suction downwards, a similarly strong feeling of still, airy hovering pervades the second part, giving the whirling downward movement traits of the opposite: a spiralling ascent.
(The Dead Girl)
In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe says that the most poetic subject in the world is the death of a beautiful (young) woman.
Some of the Dead Girl's foremost characteristics: The ethereal beauty (with the mocking, mystical, transient). The transition between girl and woman (Eleonora, who is 15 when she dies, the nameless girl in "The Oval Portrait", who is described as "a young girl just ripening into womanhood"). Sometimes also the eyes: bottomless depth, liquid, with enchanting lustre and traits of something novel, unfamiliar. (Poe's ideal of beauty appears as a vivid combination of the Appolonian and the Dionysian: the moderate Greek harmony, broken by traits of something distinctly asymmetrical10; which makes beauty sublime instead of aesthetic – and the sublime is that which Poe in The Poetic Principle says he means by Beauty. With Ligeia, this trait resides in her eyes.)
The ethereal makes her a fay, an angel and poetry, all in one. As poetry, she returns in "The Oval Portrait" together with another Poe image: the shut-in, captured in art. (Among the shut-in/sealed-off images we find the coffin, the box and the case, all preferably of wood, in thematic variations such as floorboards, envelopes – or frames.)
The portraits also have a secretive erotic trait, though strongly restrained or, in the ethereal, sublimated to a poetic-sexual level.11 In "Eleonora", the narrator tells of how he and Eleonora have lured the God Eros up out of the water and that they (with a formulation borrowed from Dante on Paolo and Francesca) "spoke no more that day". In the next section, Eleonora feels that "the finger of Death was upon her bosom". This is to say that she has felt Death figuratively put his finger upon her chest. But "bosom" is also a description of an "innermost" and the pointing finger a universal phallic gesture. The metaphorical imagery castles: The finger "upon her bosom" becomes literal, and death becomes figurative. This regrettably difficult-to-translate ambivalence is not crucial for understanding "Eleonora", but it is possibly important for understanding Poe's fixation with The Dead Girl and undoubtedly for understanding his oft and eagerly analysed eroticism.
So, what does all this "mean"?
Among Poe's ideas about poetry, we find the poetic sentiment (see The Poetic Principle). Poetry is not bound to any form or genre. Poetry is a quality (in music in its purest form): that which lends us an intuitive sensation, lifting our soul and putting us in the trance-like state where we catch short glimpses of Beauty "above" the sublime (or as JS Bach expressed it: "the higher order").
As an undercurrent in Hans Ruin's Poesiens mystik, the idea of poetry develops similarly to the idea of religion. Religion in its deepest, unsullied sense: a re-ligation (literally); a way to both relate to and to experience Creation. Central here becomes the metaphor: "the image or the metaphor [is] the finest weapon in the poet's technical arsenal."12
Ruin talks about the image as a key, "which opens a perspective upon a much wider reality". Through the image, an object can "burst out of its shell and move relative to a reality beyond itself...; [the images] permit dilated perspective, spanning bridges, annulling isolation – if anything they make of the isolated thing a door out into the universe." "Where the little thing throws light upon all correspondences, wakes within us a quivering acuity of how everything is a unity, comparable and cast of the same mould. Surely a great deal of the inner mysticism of poetry lies here. And who knows, if we do not in secret listen breathlessly to its voice because it so persistently drives in this direction, as if it wanted to lay bare a spring running from the flow of everything, from the deepest foundations of equivalencies."13
And as Poe talks of poetry as a quality with an "entrancing" effect on the reader (or listener, or viewer), Ruin speaks – from the other direction – about hypnosis: "the poet allows himself to be hypnotised by the isolated thing, makes himself hypersensitive to its dictation, and look! – that which moments before was a trifling, insignificant thing, something completely commonplace, suddenly lights up for him a vast perspective."14
My experience of reading Poe's tales of The Room, the Whirl, and the Dead Girl has been precisely that that which is depicted in the story becomes a poetic image: an image that elevates above the context and "opens a perspective upon a much wider reality."
In this way, we can call these stories poetic tales.
But we can also reverse the reasoning.
Horror literature can often be described as extended metaphors. And the same applies especially to Poe's stories to a great degree. These may instead be described as poetic images, drawn out to become complete tales. (Because when Poe writes a story about the Dead Girl, he knows he is also writing about "the most poetic topic in the world".) However, Poe's stories can hardly all fall under the concept horror. Rather the uncanny with him follows from the extremely long drawn-out metaphors, the nearly manic, minutely drawn poetic images that make the reading itself a hovering above the widening Abyss.
What it "means" then?
It is unspeakably beautiful. It is unspeakably terrible.
Every reductionist attempt at a more determined interpretation than that would make me sick with disgust.
In other words:
Read for yourself.
translation from Swedish by Bruce McGinn
1"The jingle man" was contemporary American Emerson's take on Poe.
2See Gunnar Bjurman. Edgar Allan Poe: En litteraturhistorisk studie. Lund 1916. pp. 141+. And of course: the introduction to TO Mabbot's critical Poe collection. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge, Mass. II:xxv.
3See for instance Poe's own favourite poem, "The Sleeper" (1831-1845).
4Critics from all directions are uncertain as to how this essay should be understood. Hans Ruin has commented on it in his treatise on poetry as mysticism, exhaustive and nuanced reflecting, and he takes from The Philosophy of Composition Poe as an example of a poet (alongside Mallarmé, Valéry, and Baudelaire) who is the "triumph of methodical working intellect over chance circumstance." The spring point is the concurrence of conscious and unconscious (which explains that Poe's essay also contains occasional traits suggesting post-construction). Poe is called a logician and geometrician, "but being the true poet that he is, there is always something within himself upon which he is trying to encroach, which makes him choose and reject, move and rephrase, add and remove; he entreats an impulse, which likes and dislikes, gives impulses and indicates guiding principles, but which in itself is not an intellectual fact however much it requires intellectual work to find expression... The intellect baits its hooks, but the lines to them run from deep strata within our being." – Hans Ruin, Poesins mystik [The Mysticism of Poetry], Stockholm 1935 and 1978. "Jaget på djupet" ["The Depths of the Self"] pp. 205 and 199-201.
5Gunnar Bjurman (among others) also describes Poe's body of writings as a largely harmonised oeuvre; he does so in detail, in part using Poe himself: "Foundational to Poe's imaginary universe is the idea of the organism for which the will is the inner essence of existence. Poe imagined the Universe as emanating from a Divine Will; and when the single Divine Will created the world as a unity, its manifoldness becomes, at its root, a unity" (op. cit. pp. 132-145). In the same way as the Universe emanated out of a Divine Will, Poe's imaginary universe can be seen as emanating out of his Artistic Will.
Marie Bonaparte speaks in her 1933 Poe study about an unconscious unity: the unity of fantasy (though reduced in her conception to something psychologically conditioned). Gaston Bachelard, in a dialogue with Bonaparte, points also to a conscious unity: a means of expression (which dictates that Poe's poetry is at its depth a dreaming of water – the deep, sleeping, the dead "heavy" waters), which gives all of Poe's works an ingenious monotony. (Vattnet och drömmarna [The Water and the Dreams], Hägersten 1991 (1942). pp. 73+.)
Even Baudelaire, a great admirer of Poe, speaks in the foreword of his first Poe translation of an oeuvre with a concentrated lunge: an endless climb towards infinity.
6In reading, for instance, the depictions of the girl-women – cousins, sisters, and wives – who suddenly fall ill, waste away and die, it would seem this demands a chronological reading based on the biographical. Poe himself, namely, married his 13-year old cousin, Virginia, who fell ill with tuberculosis and died shortly thereafter. Yet it is just that several of the depictions appear before they became lovers and married (1836), many before she fell ill (1842), and all long before she died (1847); and looking to Poe's earliest youthful writings, we find the theme even there. That the biographical has an influence on the short story "Eleonora" (1841) can likely be contended without doubt, but reading that story (about what Poe himself calls "the most poetic topic in the world") biographically-chronologically would obscure its poetic qualities. Just as much as if one reads "Eleonora" as the last in a series of clearly very similar stories. With that perspective, the risk becomes namely that the others, artistically complete pieces with distinctive qualities of their own, are reduced to sketches in a stipulated developmental process. Which is not necessarily either the most adequate or fruitful thesis. (Compare, for instance, Baudelaire who thinks, on the contrary, that Poe's many different female portraits together amount to an unclear but tangible unity.)
7The wind as a purely physical phenomenon – air in motion – is important for Poe generally, everything from the metaphysical to the purely sensual (preferably both at the same time). In The Power of Words, it is about sound as the effect of air put in motion, about the spoken word's physical impulse on the air (and later transferred to thought and the cosmic ether): sound is motion, all motion is creative, and the first word spoke the existence of the first law. "The Colloquoy of Monos and Una", about death and eternal life, tells of the physical sensations experienced by the dead Monos, while Una "sat gently by my side, breathing odour from your sweet lips." In "Eleonora", the changing wind sweeping over the valley is a breath, and the murmur climbing up from the river grows and becomes a lulling melody, more beautiful than the music of the wind through the leaves on the trees (surpassed only by the music of Eleonora's voice).
8In Harlod Beaver's foreword to The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin 1976) there is a biography of works about Poe's natural science/physics, both his contemporary and his fictitious (included here is a study of Poe's cosmogony Eureka, which compares his theories with Einstein's theory of relativity, a connection first noted by Paul Valéry).
9The description builds largely on a chapter about ocean currents in OH Dumrath's Universum: Det oändligt stora och det oändligt lilla [The Universe: the Infinitely Large and the Infinitely Small] Stockholm, 1914. pp. 148+.
10Astronomer Peter Nilson discusses the following in an essay on the conditions for the creation of the universe; asymmetry here is absolutely central:
Cosmic space is literally the empty space remaining after a primordial world fell apart. There was, scientists believe, matter and antimatter in nearly exactly equivalent quantities. But still, these were not exactly the same: there was a tiny surplus of matter, a scant percent; and it is that little surplus which makes up the entire material world, all stars and galaxies... Why wasn't there perfect symmetry between matter and antimatter? How could a few more grains end up on one side of the scale? Presumably, it was a little peculiarity of the innermost forces of nature, a little 'lack' of symmetry revealed only in a short moment in the earliest history of the universe. Our entire material world exits only as a 'memory' of how the universe once appeared in the deepest depths of time – that it was tightly compressed and incredibly hot and that it later cooled and expanded. And all this happened so that the forces of nature could reveal their inherent dis-symmetry and leave a trace whose existence would endure many billions of years.
("Fallet med den osynlige ryttaren: om minnet, evolutionen och glömskan" ["The Case of the Invisible Rider: on memory, evolution and forgetfulness"], Mitt i labyrinthen [In the Middle of the Labyrinth], Stockholm 1983, pp. 204+.)
This all becomes interesting when we consider how Nature in "The Colloquoy of Monos and Una" is described as a fair face, how the descriptions of nature in "Eleonora" and "The Island of the Fay" reveal traits of Poe's room descriptions, and how furniture and inventories recur in the whirl in "A Descent into the Maelstrom".
11Compare more generally with Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, New York 1992 and her chapter on Poe. (Although Paglia with her biological-psychological perspective probably would not formulate it "sublimated to a poetic-sexual level" but rather stop at "sublimated".)
12Hans Ruin, op. cit. p. 89.
13Ibid. pp. 79, 98.
14Ibid. pp. 90+. (Further from the chapter "Närvarokänsla and hypnos" ["Sense of Presence and Hypnosis"]: "When in a poem we glide over strange, unfamiliar words, it is as if we find ourselves in a trance and hear far away the empty shroud of sound of something whose meaning we no longer understand. We are lulled, but only to awaken more aware than ever and to see reality in the eye." p. 229)