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Weird science, weirder unity: phrenology and physiognomy in edgar allan poe

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Erik Grayson

The complex relationship between the corporeal and the cerebral has been an intellectual conundrum ever since Aristotle first took issue with Plato’s dualism. Traditionally, a person either aligns oneself with the Platonic notion that the soul is distinct from the body or with the Aristotelian conception that body and soul are two aspects of the same substance. Of course, the Platonic and Aristotelian models begat numerous theoretical offspring, but the fundamental ideological positions have remained consistent over the millennia, steadfastly inviting great minds to propose new solutions to the dilemma. Though Edgar Allan Poe’s interest in such a popular intellectual quandary should not come as any surprise, his treatment of the theme presents a wholly original conception of the bifurcation of mind and matter. Rather than attempt to solve this ontological Gordian Knot using established conceptions of the mind’s relationship to bodily factors, Poe expands the scenario to encompass the psyche’s myriad relationships to all external factors, from the physical composition of one’s body to the ethereal nature of “airs.” Although Poe never specifically endorses the materialist conception of corporeal and spiritual unity, many of his most powerful tales and poems explore the inability of the individual to separate these two spheres without calamitous results. In Poe’s world, the mind cannot exist autonomously.

While Poe’s exploration of the relationship between the internal world of the individual and the external, physical world extends beyond the body/mind relationship, his writing continues to rely heavily upon physiognomical factors. Poe deliberately uses elements of both phrenology and physiognomy to enhance the authenticity of his characterizations and to emphasize the indissoluble bond linking the physical to the spiritual and psychological. In addition to their cranial protuberances, Poe’s characters reveal their spiritual and psychological tendencies via skin tone, hair texture, clothing, and “airs.” It is at this particular point that Poe deviates from established patterns of physiognomical classification and introduces his own vision of the complex interaction between interior factors and external elements. External objects assume “airs” as a result of a particular person’s internal psychological or spiritual condition. In turn, these airs affect the individual’s mental and emotional state, resulting in a circular pattern of influence. Poe expands this concept by showing situations where a person projects some aspect of his or her psyche onto an inanimate object or animal, which proceeds to affect the internal state of the projector. To reiterate his belief that the internal world of the individual cannot separate itself from the external world, Poe endows “The Fall of The House of Usher” with an allegorical representation of the cataclysmic effects of such a fissure.

Typically, when one encounters the term “phrenology,” he or she immediately envisions a mountebank touting some absurd system of “bumps” on the head as a means of predicting personality. However prevalent such a stereotype may be, it is not at all accurate. Phrenology as a science first gained attention after Franz Joseph Gall, a respected Austrian physician, established a link between the morphology of the skull and human character. Gall’s research actually provided the foundation for modern psychology since, until his theories appeared, few scientists believed the brain was the home of all mental activities. Gall’s ideas, coupled with those of Johann Gasper Spurzheim, formed the Physiognomical System, published by the latter as a book in 1815. (1). Their objective, according to Spurzheim, was to expand Gall’s interest in the functions of the brain into a science where “the possibility of distinguishing, by external signs, the different degrees of perfection in the nervous parts which are necessary to the manifestation of the special faculties of the mind, and to the activities of these faculties” (Introduction v-vi). In other words, physiognomy is an effort to ascertain an individual’s personality by examining physical traits such as nose width or cheekbone shape. Although phrenology remained the more accepted of the two disciplines, Poe’s fiction borrows information from each.

Poe’s interest in phrenology blossomed after he reviewed Mrs. L. Miles’s Phrenology and the Moral Influence of Phrenology” for the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1836. In the review, Poe boldly declares, “Phrenology is no longer to be laughed at. It is no longer laughed at by men of common understanding. It has assumed the majesty of a science; and as a science, ranks among the most important”(Essays and Reviews 329). Five years later, in a letter to Frederick W. Thomas, Poe confesses that “speaking of heads—my own has been examined by several phrenologists”(Letters 185). Clearly, Poe’s interest in phrenology extends beyond the superficial, so it is not surprising to find instances of phrenology’s presence in Poe’s fiction.

The narrator in “The Imp of the Perverse” provides the most obvious appearance of phrenology in Poe’s writing:

In the consideration of the faculties and impulses—of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who have proceeded them (Anthology 1514).

Although some may initially interpret the narrator’s statement as a criticism of phrenology, the passage merely points out that the science has neglected to catalogue the perverse. In fact, the narrator exhibits much more than a casual interest in the subject. Shortly after the initial appearance of phrenology in the tale, the reader encounters a barrage of phrenological terms. In the span of one loaded sentence, Poe’s narrator refers to Alimentiveness, Combativeness, Ideality, Causality, and Constructiveness. He proceeds to argue, as Hungerford observes, “that the phrenological Combatitiveness is not in essence to be confused with perverseness”(223).

Clearly, the narrator displays an understanding of phrenology complex enough to detect possible areas of confusion for the reader.

Although far from cursory, the mention of phrenology in “The Imp of the Perverse” reveals only an understanding of the science. For an example of the application of phrenological concepts in Poe’s writing, one should examine “Ligeia” or “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Each tale employs a variety of phrenological descriptions that aim to authenticate Poe’s characterizations. It is important to note that Poe assumed his audience would possess a familiarity with the general principals of phrenology and physiognomy since a great many of his physical descriptions contain subtle phrenological foreshadowing (Hungerford 209). In order to truly appreciate Poe’s acumen, therefore, one should review a few of Combe’s phrenological concepts.

The organ of Ideality, according to Combe, “is situated nearly along the lower edge of the temporal ridge of the frontal bone” and “produces the feeling of exquisiteness and perfectibility, and delights in the ‘beau ideal’”(Phrenology 63). The organ also “desires something more exquisitely lovely, perfect and admirable, than the scenes of reality” and relies heavily upon the initiative, creativity, and originality of Constructiveness to do so (35, 63). Constructiveness, as Combe points out, “is situated at that part of the frontal bone immediately above the spheno-temporal suture,” just below and in front of Ideality (35). Ideality dictates temple width while Constructiveness influences the morphology in the region directly above the eyes and creates the illusion of a larger temple. As Hungerford observes, a larger organ increases the “degree of intensity with which the individual possesses the quality” of the organ (211). A wider temple compounded with a noticeable protuberance in the forehead, therefore, indicates a creative individual inclined towards beauty.

Bearing the characteristics of Ideality and Constructiveness in mind, one will notice a number of interesting connections in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Significantly, the narrator’s initial impression upon seeing the “singularly dreary tract of country” is one of “insufferable” gloom “for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest images of the desolate or terrible”(Poe, Usher and Other Writings 138). One will recall that Ideality consists of a taste for the graceful, the beautiful, and the sublime. The fact that the narrator assumes human beings normally approach even the most desolate images with a poetic sentiment indicates that he possesses a developed organ of Ideality since he has evidentially become accustomed to such sensations. As Hungerford notes, “the scenery surrounding the House of Usher” is not such as will arouse pleasurable emotions in the mind of one who might be gifted with the organ of Ideality”(225). The narrator supports Hungerford’s assertion as he recalls, “there was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime,”(138). Clearly, the narrator struggles to fit his completely negative response to the milieu into a mindset accustomed to appreciating some element of the sublime in everything. For Hungerford, “Poe has been at some pains” to prompt the reader to wonder what “would be the effect of such a scene upon a man who had a highly developed organ of Ideality?”(225). Roderick Usher, as the reader soon discovers, provides the answer.

One immediately connects the gloomy exterior of the House of Usher to Roderick’s own melancholy when the narrator reveals that the “wildly importunate letter” prompting his visit “gave evidence of nervous agitation” (139). Suffering from an “acute bodily illness” and a “mental disorder,” Usher longs for the benefits of a friend’s Ideality (139). The narrator proceeds to discuss the characteristics of the Usher family at length:

I was aware that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, or musical science (139).

The most obvious manifestation of Usher’s brilliant musicality occurs when he extemporaneously sings “The Haunted Palace” for the narrator. In addition to the “wild improvisations of his speaking guitar,” Usher impresses the narrator with his skill as a painter (145). Recalling that a strong Ideality provides a “sense of exquisiteness and enthusiasm requisite for the conceptions of the poet, painter, and musician,” it isn’t surprising that Roderick Usher has “an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple”(Miles 86; Poe 142). Clearly, Usher’s large cranial protuberances lie precisely where Combe, Miles, and Gall place the organs of Ideality and Constructiveness. Additionally, the use of phrases such as “an excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous luster over all” reinforces Poe’s use of phrenology as a literary device (145, my emphasis).

In addition to the phrenological indicators Poe employs, the reader will notice additional physiognomical characteristics in Roderick Usher as well. Combe, in his lectures, identifies four temperaments and describes their physiognomical manifestations. The nervous temperment, described by Combe as characterized “by fine, thin hair, small muscles, thin skin, paleness of countenance, and brightness of eye” often accompanies the “great vivacity of mental action” common to people with highly developed organs of Ideality (Lectures, 113). Poe, expecting his readers to identify elements of phrenology and physiognomy in his writing, hints at Usher’s temperament with the “nervous agitation” seen in Roderick’s letter to the narrator (139). The phrenologically aware reader, therefore, would have borne Poe’s clue in mind when the narrator, in describing Usher, says, “the now ghastly pallor of his skin, and the now miraculous luster of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me”(142). Additionally, Usher’s hair displays “a more than web-like softness and tenuity” and “in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face”(142-43). Clearly, familiarity with Combe’s classifications enhances the richness of Poe’s characterization by providing obvious physical symptoms of Roderick’s internal state. Though modern readers may express skepticism at Poe’s intentional use of phrenology and physiognomy, the author’s intent is clear. The fact that the narrator prepares himself for Usher’s gloom “no less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and by conclusions deduced from his particular physical conformation and temperament” undoubtedly announces the relevance of physiognomy to the reader (143).

A second, less explicit use of phrenological characterization by Poe occurs in “Ligeia.” Here, rather than use phrenology to bolster the authenticity of his character, Poe exploits the ambiguous cranial partitioning of phrenology to create suspense. Initially, Poe’s application of phrenology and physiognomy appears rather obvious. One of the narrator’s first descriptions of Ligeia recalls the “thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language” and her intensely intriguing “large eyes”(110). The narrator variously describes Ligeia’s unique eyes as “far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race,” “fuller even than the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of the Nourjahad,” and as “large luminous orbs”(112-13). Later on, the reader learns that Ligeia was extraordinarily proficient in classical languages as well as in “the modern dialects of Europe” and her poem, “The Conqueror Worm,” exemplifies the verbal genius that her bereaved husband alludes to (114, 116-17). The narrator’s reiteration of Ligeia’s linguistic ability and his frequent mention of her eyes attunes the reader to their significance. Not surprisingly, “the eyes are the external index” of the phrenological organ of Language (Hungerford, 229). Such a clear phrenological connection, in addition to strengthening Ligeia’s characterization, reinforces the authority with which Poe borrows from the pseudo-science. Thus, as Hungerford writes, “the reader would recognize at once that Poe knew what he was about”(229). Bearing this in mind, the reader would be remiss not to pay attention to the many phrenological indicators elsewhere in the tale. When scanning Ligeia’s face for “some strangeness in the proportion” of her features, the narrator describes “the contour of the lofty and pale forehead” as displaying a “gentle prominence in the regions above the temples”(111). Significantly, the prominence in Ligeia’s forehead encompasses a number of phrenological “regions” rather than a single area. As such, one cannot be entirely certain which areas Poe intends the reader to identify as Ligeia’s prominent organs.

In Combe’s Lectures, a convoluted phrenological chart identifies a number of organs contributing to the morphology of the regions above the temples. The aforementioned Constructiveness, which would account for Ligeia’s creativity, lies just below the temples, so one can rule out the organ. Ideality, on the other hand, resides precisely in the region described. However, since Poe uses the plural “regions,” the comment implies the development of at least one organ besides Ideality. In addition to the aforementioned Ideality and Constructiveness, three other large organs reside in regions above the temples. The first, Acquisitiveness, originally called “Covetiveness” by Spurzheim, indicates an avaricious nature. Adjacent to this organ, one finds Secretiveness and Destructiveness, neither of which seems to characterize Ligeia any more than Acquisitiveness (Combe, Phrenology 38-39). Ruling these three major organs out leaves two very tiny organs not commonly recognized by readers armed only with a cursory understanding of phrenology. The first, Alimentiveness, refers to gluttonous appetites for food and does not seem likely in a woman of Ligeia’s lithe countenance (Fowler 1). This leaves one tiny organ, identified as “6b” or “The Love of Life” on Combe’s chart, as a possibility (Hungerford 229). Clearly, as the tale hinges on Ligeia’s revivification, a phrenological organ indicating a tenacious will to live fits Poe’s characterization perfectly. Thus, “Ligeia” exemplifies Edgar Allan Poe’s adroit use of the physiognomical discipline of phrenology to create suspense and authenticity in his writing. The ambiguity Poe creates with Ligeia’s phrenological description intensifies the suspense of the tale by leaving the reader to consider a variety of unrelated tendencies when attempting to comprehend Ligeia’s character. Only when Poe reveals Ligeia’s revivification does the reader understand the significance of the beautiful woman’s cranial irregularity and, as the recognition of this characterization coincides with the climactic end of the tale, Poe brings about a very powerful and memorable experience for the reader.

As one can see, Edgar Allan Poe perceives a strong link between a person’s internal being and his or her physical appearance. Poe further develops his conception of the mind’s relationship to the world without in “The Man of the Crowd.” One of the most noticeable aspects of the short story is the narrator’s system of physiognomical classification. With unfaltering consistency, the narrator variously identifies clerks by their “supercilious lips,” gamblers by “a certain swarthiness of complexion, a filmy dimness of eye, and pallor and compression of lip,” Jewish merchants by their “hawk eyes,” alcoholics by their “lack-lustre eyes” and “thick sensual lips,” and dandies by their “long locks and smiles”(181-82). A mere glance of a person’s face, according to the narrator, allows him to “read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years”(183). Evidentially, the human face acts as a sort of personal palimpsest for each individual, retaining biographical information from the past as well as the present. The narrator’s ability to read people, however, extends beyond the corporeal index of psychological traits when he begins to catalog people by their clothing. Using “The Man of the Crowd” as a departure point, the reader will notice that, in Poe’s world, the mind actively interacts with non-bodily factors.

The most tangible external manifestations of a person’s interior state are clothing and related accessories. The narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” eagerly identifies aging women pining after youth by their “bejewelled and pain-begrimed” appearance, lower-echelon clerks by their “well-oiled hair” and by the “tight coats” and “bright boots” they wear, and upper clerks by their “coats and pantaloons of black or brown, made to fit comfortably, with white cravats and waistcoats, broad solid-looking shoes, and thick hose or gaiters”(181-82). The narrator continues to identify the latter by observing their “slightly bald heads” and “watches, with short gold chains of a substantial and ancient pattern”(181). In addition to these concrete indicators of personality, the narrator’s observation of the upper clerks allows him to notice the “affectation of respectability” which the men exude. Pickpockets, too, reveal their internal state through less concrete means, as the narrator observes an “air of excessive frankness” surrounding the petty criminals (181). In other words, the internal character and identity of a person manifest themselves both physically, through facial features and clothing, as well as through what can perhaps be called “auras.”

However, the relationship between atmosphere and the human psyche is reciprocal, each influencing the other in turn. An excellent example of this reciprocity appears early in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The narrator immediately establishes the atmospheric qualities enveloping “the melancholy House of Usher” by informing the reader of the clouds hanging “oppressively low in the heavens” above and the “white trunks of decayed trees” scattered about the house (138). Shortly after he arrives, the narrator notes:

[A]bout the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity – an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn – a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernable, and leaden-hued (140).

The immediate effect of the environment upon the narrator is that of an “insufferable gloom” which causes “an utter depression of soul”(138). As a result of the “shadowy fancies” the milieu invokes in the narrator’s mind, he concludes that “there are combinations of simple natural objects which have the power” of affecting one’s mood, although “the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond” human comprehension (138­39). In other words, the narrator perceives an insidious tendency to affect the human mind in external factors, but he cannot precisely pinpoint its modus operandi.

This singular correlation between the internal and the external flourishes in the peculiar relationship Usher has with his house. Although Usher initially identifies “the severe and long-continued illness” and “approaching dissolution…of a tenderly beloved sister” as the catalyst prompting his “peculiar gloom,” he attributes the bulk of his melancholy to a far less concrete source:

[A]n influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit – an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at great length, brought about upon the morale of his existence (144).

As a result of this strange influence, Usher “was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted…an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy” for the narrator to repeat (144). Clearly the physical arrangement of the House of Usher has an unsettling and horrifying effect on all who dwell within. However, as Usher also informs the narrator of “the nature of his malady,” the reader learns Roderick’s melancholic affect is “a constitutional and a family evil” passed from one generation to the next (143). Herein lies the unusual nature of Poe’s conception of the relationship between mind and matter. The hereditary aspect of Roderick Usher’s mental illness prompts the reader to consider the possibility that, over the many generations of Ushers, the family’s mental anguish has influenced the décor and atmosphere of the House.

The possibility that the Ushers have influenced the atmosphere seems plausible since, as the narrator recalls, Roderick hangs “dark draperies” around his chamber because “his eyes were tortured by even a faint light”(142-43). Usher also lives without the healthy effects of domestic flora since “the odours of all flowers were oppressive” to him (143). Roderick, in allowing his mental illness to influence his choice of décor, “failed to give any vitality to the scene” and creates “an atmosphere of sorrow” characterized by “an air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom”(142). This atmosphere contributes to the “vague sentiments” of gloom the narrator experiences (140). As one can see, mind and matter are consistently engaged in a circular pattern of reciprocal influence. Poe’s supernatural version of the “chicken-or-the-egg” dilemma may initially appear as an unanswerable quandary for the inquisitive reader, but further treatment of the motif elsewhere in the Poe canon provides helpful insight into the matter. An examination of the relationship between one’s mental condition and the external environment in “The Raven,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” reveals Poe’s belief that the root of these complex interactions lies in the psyche.

In “The Raven,” as Poe explains in “The Philosophy of Composition,” the young scholar “delights in self-torture” and despair (487). Poe’s narrator, in other words, possesses a somewhat masochistic predilection for mental anguish. While some readers may attribute the youth’s grief to the death of Lenore, a penchant for misery is obviously an internal, psychological condition and Lenore’s death can only exacerbate such a preexisting malady. As such, the narrator’s psyche must initiate any interaction between his internal state and elements of the physical world around him. The arrival of the Raven illustrates this point nicely. The narrator, as the reader ascertains early in the poem, feels a great “sorrow for the lost Lenore”(10). As a result of his mental anguish, the most pedestrian of household occurrences—the rustling of a curtain in the breeze—fills the narrator “with fantastic terrors never felt before”(14). Clearly his predisposition towards misery leads the narrator to pessimistically imagine that the innocuous rustling of a curtain is something terrible. Not surprisingly, then, the harmless pecking of a domesticated bird fills the scholar with “dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before”(26). One could argue, of course, that the Raven acts as an external stimulus for the narrator’s neurosis to work upon, but given the fact that the student is predisposed towards dark imaginings, virtually any noise could have elicited a similar reaction. In fact, as Poe explains, the narrator seeks a mechanism to achieve “the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair” and sees an opportunity in the Raven’s trained utterance, “Nevermore”(487). The narrator’s “thirst for self-torture” leads him to “propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer ‘Nevermore’”(491). Knowing full well that the Raven has “learned by rote” to utter ‘Nevermore,’ the narrator poses questions which, if answered negatively, will torture him (487). His misery culminates when he inquires whether or not Lenore resides among the angels in Heaven. Deciding that the Raven is a “thing of evil” sent to remind him that he and Lenore shall remain eternally asunder, the narrator asks if the bird will leave his chamber (91). Obviously, the bird replies “Nevermore,” achieving the narrator’s masochistic aim of enveloping himself in a melancholy that “Shall be lifted – nevermore!”(108). Clearly, the extreme misery the narrator experiences in “The Raven” originates from within his own psyche rather than from the activity of the purported aviary catalyst.

A second example of the ways in which one’s mind causes external objects to affect the psyche appears in “The Black Cat.” Unlike the lonely scholar in “The Raven,” however, the narrator of “The Black Cat” does not use external objects to deliberately affect his psyche. Rather, “on the eve of his execution for the murder of his wife,” the narrator projects elements of his severe mental disorder onto entities wholly separate from himself in order to assert his innocence in a number of horrific events (Amper, 475). Unfortunately, in Poe’s world, the internal state of a human being cannot separate itself from the physical world and the narrator’s exteriorization backfires. The narrator’s tendency to externalize his neuroses first appears to the reader when he attributes his cruelty to “the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance”(321). Refusing to admit that the surfeited lifestyle he chooses to live has caused a number of problems, the narrator places the blame on an entity entirely separate from himself. A short while later, rejecting the notion that his alcohol-inspired violence frightens his pet cat, the narrator imagines animosity causes Pluto to avoid him. Angered, the narrator seizes the feline and receives “a slight wound” on his hand when the terrified Pluto bites him (321). Refusing to accept responsibility for his belligerence, the narrator claims that his “original soul [took] flight from my body” allowing “the fury of a demon” to possesses him (321). In his “gin-nurtured” malevolence, the narrator produced “a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!”(322). During Pluto’s convalescence, the narrator regrets his violence, “but this feeling soon gave place to irritation,” causing the narrator to brutally and pointlessly hang Pluto from a tree outside his home (322). An “irrevocable overthrow” by “the spirit of PERVERSENESS,” according to the narrator, causes his vicious act (322). Once again, the narrator refuses to acknowledge the horrible nature of his psyche in favor of assigning culpability to an outside force.

Having thus established the narrator’s tendency to externalize the internal symptoms of his psychological illness, Poe proceeds to examine the boomerang effect of such behavior. Not long after the narrator hangs Pluto, he befriends a stray cat “closely resembling [Pluto] in every respect but one” (324). After a brief period of mutual fondness between the second cat and himself, the narrator experiences a drastic change of heart:

For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated; but I know not how or why it was – its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed. By slow degrees, these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into bitterness and hatred…I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence (324-25).

Furthermore, the affectionate cat, “like Pluto, had been deprived of one of its eyes”(325). The uncanny resemblance of the second cat to Pluto evokes a “sense of shame” in the narrator, as the feline reminds him of his “former deed of cruelty”(325). Additionally, a patch of white hair resembling “the image of a hideous—of a ghastly thing—of the GALLOWS!” just below the cat’s chin renders the animal a constant reminder of the man’s maliciousness (326). The animal’s continued warmth towards the narrator meets with “an absolute dread of the beast,” which he soon identifies as the embodiment “of Horror and Crime – of Agony and Death!”(325-26). Here, the narrator’s increasing sense of guilt prevents him from enjoying “the blessing of Rest any more,” but rather than acknowledge his mounting shame, the narrator begins to perceive the cat as his tormentor. To the narrator, the animal is no longer a pet cat, but “an incarnate Night-Mare” and his “Arch-Fiend”(326, 328). As Fred Madden explains, the “intimation that the black cats in the story possess supernatural abilities results from the narrator’s internal, psychological repression” of his true emotion (55).

In discussing the nature of the second cat, Richard Badenhausen notes that the narrator’s “horror heightens when [Pluto] is eliminated and the anxiety returns” with his successor (495). As this angst returns, the narrator experiences “a certain sense of shame” because he begins to recognize that the anxiety Pluto had inspired in him actually originates within his own neurosis (325). In order to avoid this unpleasant realization, the narrator must construct a “hollow self-assurance” by attributing his current discomfort to the second cat (Badenhausen, 495). As a result, “the narrator denies his true emotion, he fabricates a supernatural level which becomes for him the manifest or surface level of the tale and which causes the narrator…to see himself as the victim of ‘dark powers’ beyond his control”(Madden, 55). In other words, when projected onto an external object, the internal state of the narrator only acts as a catalyst for additional anxiety. As Poe constantly reminds the reader, the two states cannot remain asunder. Poe reiterates the inseparability of the internal and the external in the story’s culminating uxoricide scene.

After murdering his wife, ostensibly in an effort to kill the second cat, the narrator buries her body and, believing the cat to be frightened off, rests “soundly and tranquilly”(328). However, when investigators arrive to probe the disappearance of the narrator’s wife, he learns that he “had walled the monster up within the tomb” as its purring prompts the police to uncover the corpse of the dead woman (329). The walling up of the cat with the narrator’s wife, for Madden, illustrates his assertion that the reappearance of the man’s “repressed hatred” is a failure of “the recurrent exteriorization of repressed emotions”(58-59). Once again, Poe presents a world where any effort to separate one’s mind from the physical self collapses into calamity. Similarly, the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” cannot escape the return of his exteriorized malevolence when his story results in a similar personal catastrophe.

The reader’s first impression of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” forms as the man opens his case:

TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard many things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? (277)

This statement informs the reader of the narrator’s preexisting nervous condition. Like the aforementioned Roderick Usher, whose illness also causes a “morbid acuteness of the senses,” the narrator of the “Tell-Tale Heart” suffers from an ambiguous mental ailment (143). As a result of his mental imbalance, the narrator decides to murder the old man whose dwelling he shares. Initially the narrator claims not to know “how the idea first entered [his] brain,” but rather than admit the murder stems from his mental illness, he externalizes his animosity:

Once conceived, [the idea] haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever (277).

Within the span of a few short lines and with unsettling spontaneity, the man decides an “Evil Eye” necessitates his callous crime (278). Having thus externalized his warped maliciousness, the narrator calmly slaughters the elderly man and conceals the body beneath some floorboards. Like the narrator of “The Black Cat,” the murderer’s braggadocio leads him to flaunt his handiwork in front of police investigators. Suddenly, the narrator “felt [himself] getting pale and wished them gone” (281). Accompanying this sense of discomfort is a faint sound, increasing proportionately to the man’s distress. Whether or not the popular notion that the sound is the narrator’s own heart furiously beating out of fear or guilt, the man attributes his inner torment to an external object, “the beating of [the old man’s] hideous heart!”(282). Harboring the paranoid belief that the police also hear the heartbeat, the narrator admits his guilt and resigns to his fate. Once again, Edgar Allan Poe depicts a situation where a diseased mind projects its undesirable characteristics onto an external object which, in turn, causes the downfall of the person seeking to separate elements of his psyche from the physical self.

An allegorical reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher” provides an interesting summation of Poe’s notion of psychological and physical unity. For Edward H. Davidson, Poe’s tale is “a study not only of the interrelationship of mind and body,” but also “of the rapid disintegration of [the individual] when one aspect of the self becomes hypertrophied”(98). In the symbolic reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick represents the hypertrophied body while his twin sister literally embodies the physical. Not surprisingly, “many books and musical instruments lay scattered about” Roderick’s chamber, emphasizing the man’s love of intellectual pastimes (142). Indeed, the narrator “painted and read” alongside Roderick to fill the gaps between other intellectual pursuits (143). Despite Roderick’s extremely active mind, his “cadaverousness of complexion,” “thin and very pallid” lips, and “ghastly pallor of skin” plainly presents the man as the antithesis of a living body (142). As Davidson notes, Poe depicts a “diseased mind which has too long abstracted and absented itself from physical reality” to be anything but a pure, hypertrophied intellect (97). Madeline Usher, on the other hand, “is the sensual or physical side” of her twin brother (Davidson, 97). Unlike Roderick, who resembles a speaking corpse, the silent Madeline even has “a faint blush upon the bosom and the face” when dead (151). As such, Madeline’s body appears to be the only living aspect of her being. For Roderick, whose illness confines him to a chamber utterly devoid of “vivacious warmth,” the “physical world, even the physical side of himself, fills him with such repugnance that he can maintain his unique world only by destroying his twin sister or the physical side of himself ”(Poe 142; Davidson 97). To achieve this end, Usher places his sister “in the subterranean family vaults…in a place as far remote as possible from the place of aesthetic delight wherein the mind of Roderick lives”(Davidson 98). Unfortunately for Roderick, the laws of Poe’s universe forbid the complete separation of body and mind. Thus, when Madeline “fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse,” the forcefully reunited “body and mind…die together”(Poe 157; Davidson 98). Roderick and Madeline’s dramatic twofold death serves to drive home Poe’s axiomatic belief that the mental and physical cannot exist autonomously.

Critics of Edgar Allan Poe have long delighted in exploring the many recurrent motifs in the writer’s canon. A great deal of attention has been given to the variety of psychological issues treated by Poe, yet one of the most intriguing areas of Poe’s psychosomatic exploration remains largely overlooked. Poe’s writing probes the many complex and interrelated correspondences between one’s mental condition and various aspects of the physical world. Exploring areas from the fringe of science to questions integral to Western philosophy and ethics, Poe’s literature seeks to understand the relationship between mind and matter and warns the reader of the calamitous effects of tearing the two asunder.


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