Saturday, September 30, 2006

On the Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's Death: A Channeling


Greetings, I’m Edgar Allan Poe. This is what I have to say about my life and my life’s work…. History has betrayed me. People think I was drug fiend, an alcoholic, a laudanum-addled madman. That is simply untrue. I am a man of extremes. My mind explores the limits. I am interested in the limits of the irrational as well as the limits of the rational. If you accept that about me, you will be able to understand my writing, and you will see how I blend the two extremes together. So, if you read my detective novels, you see a rational, logical, deductive individual confronted by crimes of passion, and by irrational, bizarre forces. The rational and the irrational come together, and the blend fascinates and disturbs.

I exist at the confluence of two streams of thought and influence. On the one hand, I am the aesthetic extension of the opium-addicted poet in the British writer DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I come from the gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe and Sheridan LeFanu, who wrote highly popular gothic tales of vampyres, mad monks, and ghoulish forces. I also echo the romanticism of German authors such as Goethe and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann's tales mesh the fantastic with the real world, and they admit the possibility that our consciousness transcends the body, and that there are states of mind that explore boundary regions between madness and sanity, life and death.

On the other hand, I am known as the father of the detective novel. I am a scientist of the human mind, and of human motivation. I observe signs, symbols, and patterns, and I seek to place events in logical sequences, and to locate them within their causal chains. I was writing my fiction at the same time that Charles Darwin was developing his theory of natural selection. Natural selection, as you know, is process that is fundamentally based on cause and effect. If the climate is cold, the species with thick fur coats will survive. The species evolves in response to causal forces and environmental triggers. My detective, Auguste Dupin, who appears in "The Murders of the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Mystery of Marie Roget," uses deductive logic. He is a careful observer of evidence and he avoids the emotional excesses that one finds percolating through my gothic tales and my poems.

If you think about it, it is not surprising that I am caught in cross-currents of divergent thinking. I am the dark counter to the bright, optimistic mainstream approach to life that came to be known as an American vision. While the Americans around me gloried in the feats of engineering such as the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, which would provide a passage through waterways from New York City to the Great Lakes, and they spoke of "Manifest Destiny," which suggested that it was the Europeans' destiny to find America and to "civilize" it, I wondered where those technologies would really take us. I am a classicist at heart, and I studied work in its original Greek and Latin. There was something about the culturally philistine jocularity of the expansionists that troubled me. We assume our travels are to a destination of our liking. I question that assumption when I find myself traveling roads constructed in the service of conquest.

The American writers I meet in Baltimore, New York, and in Boston often trouble me. They adhere to a new philosophy of life, an aesthetic code, a philosophy which seems too good to be true. They are transcendentalists. They believe in a "self-reliant" neo-platonism. What do I mean by that? They pull themselves up to heaven, to unity with God and the heavens, by their own bootstraps. When I read the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson (especially his essay, "Circles"), Henry David Thoreau, or Walt Whitman, I recoil. Their boundlessness, their enthusiastic belief in interconnectedness, and their self-assured belief that mix, merge, and become all of humanity, strike me as distressingly invasive. Emerson thinks he envelopes and that he includes all of humanity when he thinks about himself and the world. To the contrary, I think he invades and engulfs. His energy is, to me, essentially violating and transgressive (but masked as virtue). Emerson frightens me. Manifest Destiny seems to somehow emerge from a transcendentalist ideal, and seems morally wrong to me. My characters live the antithesis of boundlessness. They experience the dark side of expansion. They have been engulfed, possessed, and controlled by forces larger than themselves. In my American psyche, I counter the cheery optimism that the Erie Canal and Westward Expansion engender with zombies, ghosts, demonic forces, and people possessed by the spirits of houses and the past.

I am known for things I was never guilty of. My real vices are less well-known. I was expelled from college for unpaid gambling debts. I enlisted in the military, did well and was promoted. But later, I was dishonorably discharged from West Point. Even my death has been used against me. No one really knows how or why I died. It remains a mystery. And yet, posterity has it that I died from extreme intemperance. That was just not true.

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