A Fissure of Mind: The Primal Origins of Poe's Doppelganger as Reflected in Roderick Usher
...also discussed: Poe's theories of art--"The Poetic Principle" and "The Philosophy of Composition"
"Great wit to madness is nearly allied."
E. Poe (from "Opinions," The Portable
Poe, ed. Philip Van Doren Stern)
Despite his distaste for the pedanticism of traditional literary allegory, Edgar Poe worked quite effectively on the allegorical level. His best tales teem with poetic strands that ebb and flow in illustration of Poe's cosmic ideal. Yet many critics ridicule Poe for his views concerning the creation of art, not considering just how far Poe held his tongue into his cheek when he penned his "Philosophy of Composition." Nevertheless, Poe seems to have subscribed to many of the "creative" tenets presented therein. This essay shall serve as a transition piece of dual function. First, Poe's theses regarding the creation of art, particularly the formulation of his own writing, will be examined in the light of Poe's own spirituality. Secondly, and appropriately, this essay will introduce Poe's treatment of the doppelganger, the divided self, first as revealed in "The Fall of the House of Usher," then in a subsequent essay, as demonstrated in several others of his tales.
II. The Spiritual Implications of Artistic Endeavor
Before proceeding with my discussion of Roderick's plight, I shall engage my readers in a brief summation of Poe's intentions as he wrote. Poe believed that an artist's finite mind should mirror as closely as possible the infinite mind of God. We found in Eureka that Poe believed that the plots of God reflect universal perfection, the only unified roundness. Thus, one can readily perceive that in his sublimation of the will of man within the will of the Creator, that Poe's conception of art assumes spiritual significance, both for the writer himself, and for the reader who discerns his mystification.
It is this mystical context in which Poe operated which makes much more plausible his insistence that all elements of a piece of writing work harmoniously toward an intended effect, for Poe believed that only a single focused effect could reflect the unity which the artist should endeavor to achieve. After all, no extraneous material encumbers the universe, God's creation. Similarly, Poe believed that the artist should make his creations as perfect as possible--in a godlike manner, unencumbered with baggage superfluous to the intended effect. The artist, Poe believed, should emulate the methods of God.
Poe's most striking characters are illustrative of Poe's mind, strangely depersonalized, reflecting, as best as Poe could describe them, the infinite realm of God-consciousness. They often seem ethereal, product of mind--mind aloof from, but tortured by its physical reality. As we read a work of Poe, we learn only the traits of his characters and settings that further the effect of the story. One might expect that such limitations would reduce the dimensionality of both character and plot. Yet Poe demonstrates that this need not be so, for he concentrates both character and plot by adhering to his literary credo. We find in "The Fall of the House of Usher" one of Poe's most vertiginous concentrations of effect, a story which describes simultaneously Poe's own mind, the mind of God, and the mind of the tale's protagonist Roderick Usher.
III. The Rationale of Creativity
Poe formulated specific criteria for obtaining the unity of effect that he intended his poems and stories to convey. In "The Philosophy of Composition," he delineates these unifying corollaries. The article could have as well been entitled, "How I wrote 'The Raven,'" and if we are to take Poe seriously in his postulates, we must attempt to understand how his master mind could simultaneously hoax and inform his readers. It might be useful to readers of Poe to recall from Eureka Poe's use of John Stuart Mill's demonstration that contraries can express equally valid truths, specifically Mill's example that a tree can be both a tree and "not a tree." If Poe accepted Mill's new method of examining apparent opposites, one should not be surprised that he could present, simultaneously, a spoof and serious literary theory. But more of this later.
So just what does unity of effect demand, according to Poe? First, brevity. A poem should be read in a single sitting, he said, so that the affairs of the world are not interposed to distract from the poem's unity. In addition, Poe stated that "all intense excitements are, by psychal necessity, brief." In "The Poetic Principle," Poe went so far as to say "a long poem does not exist..." Finally, Poe settles on the ideal length for a poem: one hundred lines, a golden mean for brevity. Secondly, Poe requires that the action of a poem or narrative be restricted to a close setting. Thirdly, "all details of a poem or narrative must be closely subordinated to the whole." (Asselineau 30) Employing his own guidelines for writing, Poe endowed his stories with a high concentration of intellectual energy.
Most striking in Poe's raven account are the assessed logical processes which he claims to have calculated--the choice of effect: melancholy; his selection of beauty as subject, beauty born of truth. Then his choice of the most beautiful of melancholy subjects, the death of a lover. Next, his choice of words reflective of the mood, etc. etc.
Yet, if his readers buy into the methodology which Poe penned in "The Philosophy of Composition," they might adjudge that Poe utilized processes more mechanical than inspirational. In fact, his insistence upon connecting cause and effect "made D.H. Lawrence protest that Poe was 'rather a scientist that an artist.'" (Asselineau 31) But Lawrence failed to discern the ironies of "The Philosophy of Composition" and its ambiguity of tone. While Lawrence takes the work too seriously, other critics have assumed the work to be only a hoax and nothing more. Nevertheless, Poe cannot be accused of lacking imagination, even if his espoused mechanistic methods for achieving unity of effect are applicable to his own writing. One wonders, though, about Poe's contentions that he wrote "The Raven" by so mechanical a method. Was he allowing his ego to glorify his coup? Was he rubbing George R. Graham's nose in his misassessment of the poem (Hoffman 80), or was he putting his readers on, or both? This reader opts for all three purposes, and yet even these interpretations seem unresonate when one considers the spiritual dimension of his artistry.
Poe, the artist, engages in the illusion that he controls his own suffering. In fact, Poe's writing to some degree served as therapy for his soul's own trials. Thus, controlling his writing became tantamount to controlling the suffering. Applying Rationales and Philosophies and Principles to his own creativity represents Poe's quest to martial "the pain-entertangled pleasures" of existence into perfect unity, into the Oneness of the Spirit Divine. For Poe, the ratiocinative aspect of man is not utilized just for logic. As we saw in Eureka, thought "is the activity by which man most resembles God." (Hoffman 93) Seen from this vantage, one perceives why examining Poe's essays on artistry cannot be lightly dismissed as hoaxie or egoistic. When the reader experiences many of Poe's major works, he glimpses into the soul of a man who dwells in "mournful and never-ending remembrance," and who seeks deliverance from the pain through his own government of it. Poe's angst should not be ignored in evaluating his principles which, he believed, harmonize with the unity of the godhead. Furthermore, critics who object to Poe's insistence on his having composed his poems as rigidly as one might solve a mathematical problem should realize that although such calculation represents a retrospective borne of logic, Poe's dreams and phantasms certainly did not stem from mere calculative schemes.
IV. The Formulation of Effect: The Gloom of Psychic Dissolution
The most common effect of his best stories is gloom. Even the minutest descriptions of many of his best narratives fairly drip with it, and yet Poe cannot quite convince a reader that he is serious. Perhaps Poe was latently fearful of being taken too seriously. Remarkably, he conveys the excitement of a child, as he impresses his expansive imagination upon his audience. Such irrepressible enthusiasm causes an ambiguity of effect. I laugh heartily when I read Poe, even in his tales of horror, not because he is gloomy or melancholy, but because he is a delight to read. If there be inconsistency in the tone of Poe's writing, it involves this ambiguous relationship between Poe's pall of gloom and his irrepressible sense of humor. Anyone who doubts Poe's sense of humor should make the acquaintance of his neglected satirical works.
Eureka, Poe's account of the double motion of the universe, holds the key for scoping his peculiar theories of art. Poe's notion that art should mirror God's creation is decidedly idealistic. But Poe lived ideals to a great extent. His attempts to live his ideals were not without their conflicts. It would seem that Poe waged war with himself; his soul (imagination) loved to roam free, but his mortal self longed to join the soul in its flights. The diffusion of atoms throughout the universe represented to Poe all of the frustrations that he endured. He longed for his reunion with an undifferentiated body, one that would not suffer. Poe would completely lose himself in dreams and visions; he would employ almost any vehicle through which he and his characters could lose individuation.
Most of his stories transpire in a deteriorating environment, reflecting the impending psychic collapse of his main character--himself.
The typical Poe story occurs within the mind of a poet; and its characters are not independent personalities, but allegorical figures representing the warring principles of the poet's divided nature.... The action of the story is the dreaming soul's gradual emancipation from earthly attachments.... Poe's typical story presents some such struggle between the visionary and the mundane; and the duration of Poe's typical story is the duration of a dream. (Wilbur 117)
The fissured mind of Poe demonstrates his own conception of the resonating universe. He enacts, along with his characters, the tension between Being and Nothingness, between corporeality and cosmic reunion, between waking and sleeping, life and death, sanity and madness.
If we read enough Poe, we eventually find that his artistry mirrors a colossal crack in the universe, a point at which universal consciousness, having radiated to its utmost expansiveness, begins to collapse--a time in the psychic affairs of man when the radial arms of the mind begin to fall inward in disarray. As a result, the psychic climate of Poe's characters constitutes a disparity from the existence of the ordinary waking world.
Almost never, if you think about it, is one of Poe's heroes to be seen standing in the light of common day; almost never does a Poe hero breathe the air that others breathe; he requires some kind of envelope to be what he is; he is always either enclosed or on his way to an enclosure. (Wilbur 103)
Recall that one of Poe's requisites for the writer is a close setting. We find Poe's characters trapped in the holds of ships, walled into cellars, tortured in dungeonal chambers, buried prematurely, descended into maelstroms, "and above all [as in 'Usher'] we find them sitting alone in claustral and richly furnished rooms of remote and moldering mansions." (103) Poe's story settings are contrived to portray mortal man rejoined with his soul in dreamland, in the womb of the mother, or in the tomb. The stories themselves serve as allegorical vehicles for the intrigues between the imagined ideals of the soul and the self in mortal chains.
V. Poe's Prototypical Character: The Plight of Roderick Usher
Roderick Usher yearns to free himself from his mortality. Every aspect of his gloomy existence transpires in his house from which he never ventures forth. The house encloses him as if it were a burial vault in which he has been laid to rest prematurely. There he resides with his twin sister Madeline. They are the last in a long line of Ushers; the decayed condition of the house corresponds to the decline of the once flourishing family. From the top of the mansion to the bottom runs a fissure, a barely discernible crack, manifestation that the dissolutionary seed has sprouted; soon, all that is Usher will be decimated.
Just what constitutes Usher? Is it simply a family, just Roderick, the house itself, the universe? The possible interpretations are many. Some critics have succumbed to the temptation of ascribing cosmic significance to "Usher," contending that the story is merely a symbolic representation of the theories that Poe eventually penned in Eureka. I am one of this view, as the reader may have guessed, and it seems to me that the collapse of a universe or of a psyche points to the same primal impulse. My previous essay focused on perversity (the compulsion to psychic emolation) in several of Poe's best known characters. Perversity, the force which Poe attributed to his characters' destruction, is merely the universal tendency of contraction or collapse as it applies to the mind of man. While contraction of the universe involves the Mind of God, perversity constitutes God's imprint upon the contracting human mind; thus, Poe's character Roderick reflects God consciousness as it collapses into Oneness. After all, the house itself was only reflection in the dark tarn where all houses, all minds, all universes must eventually lose their individuation.
Keeping in mind Poe's artistic theories (especially his concern that the mind of the artist mirror the mind of God), we can see how all subjects in the cosmos are but elements of God's thoughts. To Poe the
completed short story, like the completed universe, remains unified in that every element depends upon the others.... In the ideal short story, like the universe, everything is related and nothing is irrelevant. "The Fall of the House of Usher," many critics have found, is a nearly perfect illustration of Poe's theory of totality. (Beebe 123)
All of the details--the fissure in the house, the oppressive decor, Roderick's wild guitar improvisations, the violent storm of that last night--contribute to the general effect of the story and to its final calamity.
Appropriately, Roderick Usher is himself an artist. He paints, plays guitar and writes poems. But all of his art, in fact, Roderick's entire existence, produces only one effect upon the story's narrator--pervasive gloom. He represents an enactment of Poe's ideal protagonist, a collapsing god with God, "within the Spirit Divine." (Poe, Harrison, ed. 314) We find Roderick strangely in touch with his fate. He performs on the guitar a song, his poem "The Haunted Palace." It describes Usher first in its glory, then in its decline and ruin.
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace--
Radiant Palace--reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion--
It stood there!
Never a seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This--all this--was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odour went away,
Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute's well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travelers now in that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms which move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door;
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh--but smile no more. (Poe 238-39)
VI. The Realm of Usher: Plot and Character Analysis
At the surface, "The Haunted Palace" serves as a description for Roderick's house. Just below the surface resides Poe's symbolic portrayal of the head, and ultimately, the mind of Roderick. The symbols have been noted often enough by critics: the eye-like windows; "the fair palace door"; describing Roderick's mouth from which in the "old time" had issued forth "voices of surpassing beauty," but now only "the laughter of a jangling and discordant mind." (Wilbur 106) At some juncture, and for reasons unclear, the House of Usher, the mind of Roderick was invaded by "evil things." Described in the poem's final stanzas is the ensuing decay which manifests both in the physical description of the House, and in the decline of the palace of Roderick's mind.
The narrator, a childhood friend of Roderick's, finds his comrade in deep trouble, afflicted by his own collapsing cosmos. His senses have already become morbidly acute. From the narrator we learn that Roderick resides in a shadowy realm, eerily aware of his plight. Roderick's unconscious mind would like to relieve him of the strain of carrying on in the flesh, yet there is little the narrator can do but stand back and witness the unfurling of an inevitable process.
As long as Roderick's mortal side lives, his palace remains standing because the "House of Usher is, in allegorical fact, the physical body of Roderick Usher, and its dim interior is, in fact, Roderick Usher's visionary mind." (Wilbur 107) His twin sister Madeline, the only other surviving Usher, is ill, and will soon die. While she lives, Roderick must remain in his mortal shell, for Madeline represents not so much a character in the story as a symbol of the last vestige of electrical, repulsive energy which keeps the body and soul of Roderick and his palace in a differentiated state. Roderick knows that when she dies, he can unburden himself of his body, rejoining a more primitive state, nearer to the Unity for which he rages. Finally, he performs a premature burial of his twin sister, oddly aware that she might not be "entirely" dead. She had long suffered from catalepsy, and, Roderick is destined to battle what he had previously called "the grim phantasm, FEAR." Like the narrator of "The Premature Burial," who, too, feared that he might himself suffer interment while catatonic, Roderick, in a creepy empathy heightened by his close kinship with Madeline, and frenzied by a rampaging storm, listens to Madeleine's escape from the vault and footfall upon the stairs. As the narrator reads a tale of Ethelred's conquest of a dragon, she returns to take Roderick with her to the darkest space of his mind. Madeline's return from the tomb and his attendant depiction of the storm, his pacing of Roderick's descent into the maelstrom of his own fear, may be Poe's finest moments of horror.
The narrator escapes the house so that he may later recount his experience. Most electrifying is his description:
From that chamber and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernable fissure of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, the fissure rapidly widened--there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind--the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight--my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder--there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters--and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "HOUSE OF USHER." (Poe 245)
Even with its computer-enhanced special effects, Hollywood pales before an imagination ignited by the scene Poe strums into the minds of his readers in the conclusion of "The Fall of the House of Usher." All elements come crashing inward, consummating yet another dance in a cycle of dances, a cycle which itself constitutes the "Spirit Divine."
The dissolutionary tendencies of the visionary Roderick mirror the reclaiming of matter by God in His collapse sequence; likewise, Roderick's darkened artistry reflects a perversity of Mind. His entire life illustrates how a person may be born into a perverse cycle over which he can exercise little control. Poe likely identified heavily with Roderick. Like Roderick's, Poe's universe did seem to collapse about him. The blood-red moon shining through the ever-widening fissure of his mind suggests once again that other Red Death, the consumption that badged the kerchiefs of his lost mother. If there be any truth to the postulate that a person creates his own reality, then perplexing questions arise, begging answers. Poe's heroes create their own ruinations, but do they will to do otherwise? Do his sufferers really have any choice? Extending this, did Poe believe that he could entertain any hope of escaping the "fierce breath of the whirlwind," the dissolutionary forces which drove him to the abyss?
VII. Conclusion: The Creation of "The Other"
The best answer, for me, resides in the divided natures of many of Poe's characters. Many possess an oppressive judging half, which foils their ability to control their realities. The judging half causes these protagonists, and also Poe himself, to operate in a cosmos where they can exercise little control; for their contrapuntal wills are whirled into psychic collision with their own duality. Their wills become, finally, subordinate to the will of God, and only in God's unity can they find release from their conflicting natures. As we shall see in my next essay, Poe's characters often wage psychological warfare within their minds, and usually, they lose the wars. For now, though, we shall leave Roderick Usher, Poe's prototypical victim, now a corpse among the rubble which had been his domain, now settling to the depths of the tarn.
Asselineau, Roger. "Edgar Allan Poe." Pamplets on American Writers,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970.
Beebe, Maurice. "The Universe of Roderick Usher." Poe, Robert Regen, ed.,
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1967.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1972.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Eureka. James A. Harrison, ed., New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell and Co., 1902.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc. 1966.
Wilbur, Richard. "The House of Poe." Poe, Robert Regen, ed., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1967.