The Mind of Poe

Edgar Poe thinks very, very quickly, and can test many hypotheses simultaneously. Like Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, he can read type upside down and backwards as well with ease. Word puzzles resolve themselves within his head without any effort as he reads. He intelligence is obvious to contemporary interlocutors, several of whom comment upon his pronounced forehead (surely indicating an oversized brain), but just how smart is he?

Poe is smart enough to grasp almost any concept in any field intuitively merely through the process of reading, yet he is not at the very highest levels of intelligence (percentile 99.9 is unattainable), and knows it (stuck at a mere percentile 99). This irritates him to no end, and he is hyper-sensitive to any intellectual challenge. He gets almost everything, but wants to get it all. He is fluent in French, but German not so much; Latin and Greek less. He cannot synthesize and categorize the universe like Aristotle or his contemporaneous hero von Humboldt  because he always wants to skip ahead restlessly, possibly due to attention deficit disorder. Following down details is soul-killing work; conceptualization is sheer fun — and quite easy, unbidden in fact. The unbidden images of what can be never stop for Poe.

Killis Campbell’s 1925 assessment that “Poe’s reading was extensive, but uneven; that is, that he had read widely, but that much of his reading was either desultory or superficial”1 has been taken as damning for all time. If footnoted scholarly articles are the ProfCrit equivalent of case law, then the matter is settled entirely. Why? Does this shortcoming (he’s no scholar! not one of us! vulnerable!) demonstrate the laziness of a smart man who wants to be beyond brilliant but can’t quite cut it, or the acts of a brilliant man who knows that wisdom and knowledge are not always (Poe would say “almost never”) found within the established bounds of academic learning? After all, the academy is far closer in structure and function to a trade school than it is to an artist’s studio: rules and rote are the order of the day every day, with little speculation, certainly nothing earth-shaking, allowed to blossom.

I proclaim all this even though I have no medical or psychotherapeutic training, which puts me on a par with nearly every other commentator on Poe and certainly all of the professor-critics, many of whom speculate on his alcoholism (Poe gets tipsy on a sip of wine and is a scurrilous reprobate; Hemingway drinks seven double martinis [14] a night and is the ultimate in American macho), lust for his beautiful teenage (teenage!) cousin (cousin!), latent homosexuality, and endlessly, his racism. Apparently, Poe turns super-racist around 1990. Even Toni Morrison says so, and her credentials are ... unquestionable? Why?

Poe never lets us into the inner workings of his mind, much less his “soul” or essence, only his productions. Any Poe text that is intended by Poe for publication is by definition and by default a private affair made public for a fee. Fee, not price, for Poe deals in artworks, not commodities. The equivalent of pap television, the success of some truly awful effusions is mystifying and insulting to the sensibility. Yes. profit is being made “unjustly” from a certain point of view, but why do we default to thinking that Poe is hungry for money and jealous? Perhaps the true Poe is the thinking Poe who has to interact with the day-to-day living Poe who must first of all ensure his own existence on this Earth. The Poe who creates the hoaxes is not the same Poe who trundles through clerking duties on a magazine by necessity, avoiding mechanical repetitions whenever possible and grateful to let loose upon a sloppy contemporary. Work is work, and it buys time for thinking and writing, some books. Pens, ink, and paper are in plentiful supply at the office.

Where does he roam when he dreams? Certainly further and in different realms than previously thought and definitely not in the stilted commentary-like poetry-prose that he generates for remuneration. Poe hears the spheres sing, and tries to replicate that in tintinabulous concordant systemic rhyme. Yet he cannot resist gilding the rhythm with a little nickel plate to show that it is indeed just a show.

There is great power in systems, yet they are necessarily defined by limits. Twisting a system into knots is the greatest of intellectual sports, and Poe is the king of this game, his own invention. There is overwhelming power in the complete control one can exercise over the idea of the system, but is not The Universe, just a simulacrum, of course. Still, one may sport about the notion that one does indeed have such astounding powers:

Indeed phenomena have there occurred of a nature so completely unexpected, so entirely novel, so utterly at variance with pre-conceived opinions, as to leave no doubt on my mind that long ere this all Europe is in an uproar, all Physics in a ferment, all Dynamics and Astronomy together by the ears.

Yes, that is exactly what this phrasing decodes as. Poe in his narrative voice reveals the attributes of his private truth, but of course not the essence. He has twisted “Hans Phaall” into a knot, defeating physics, dynamics and astronomy (in the “First Cause” sense) by the ears — lovely image, that (like pigs!) — through the means of “phenomena,” for which of course one reads/subsitutes via double reading — Poe’s typographical forte — “The Bouleversement within The Biblioscape.”

Today we laugh at Princess Marie Bonaparte’s interpretation of the white sea at the bottom of Pym’s world as revealing Poe’s repressed longing for “mother’s milk.” After all, she was Freud’s girlfriend, and he is discredited, to say the least. But now Poe the Racist sells handsomely and cartoon PoeClosed is the engine of professorial careers.

In time the tide will change, because the professor-critics have given up on literary discovery via actual research into the works themselves, in favor of data-driven themes matching the accidental incidents of Poe’s life to what is proclaimed to be his Art: 468, 688 words, according to Pollin (“The number of words in his fiction, my computer printout shows, is 468, 688, which merge into a total of 25,907 entries or indexed words.”2), arranged into 67 tales, one published novel, an execrable play, and much mediocre poetry. Plus some oddities we’ll call hoaxes.

In place of findings, we are served high school-style themes (state a proposition and prove it) developed using the costly and largely unattainable research resources available to a professor with a blazing fast Internet connection and research assistants, but still, mere themes, even with 1,000,000 horsepower behind them. Make it complex and sophisticated, the more the better. Maybe bigger. And abstruse. Definitely make it hard to understand, with little-known or unfamiliar allusions to demonstrate scholarship or learning. Again? Must we?

Yet by definition themes remain fashionable only for a time; things evolve, or perhaps are merely swapped out, “ringing the changes.” For example, “Homosexuality in Poe” has been played out; conferences on the topic won’t draw anymore because, well, it’s boring now. All the articles have been peer reviewed and the content pushed out to servers and publishers for one more go-around. Doctoral candidates have a new round of bibliographic entries to add (thank the gods for automation!). The audience, restless consumers that they are, is bored again. It’s all been done. Therefore ...

New themes! And push aside that which we cannot decipher.

After all, Poe the man may be something like a genius but is also quite apparently a kook and a poseur to an indeterminable degree. We’ve known that for a long time, since at least 1925. Case law: Campbell established that. Did he? Or is it simply easier to slip into Griswold’s travesties as the basis for evaluating this man named Poe, and let Griswold’s characterization stand unexamined? Is Poe a lazy pretender or is he instead playing by an entirely different set of rules? Campbell is agnostic and presents mostly facts. You fit the facts into your own assumptions. Try changing the assumption.

What to do instead of thematizing? 

  1. Solve the hoaxes.

  2. Re-examine the mind of Poe.

  3. Re-think the work and the life.

That re-thinking will require a very long time, but it’s been done before.

Melville looks at the texts sideways in proper fashion and steals handily from Poe’s bag of tricks (forget the Grampus and Moby-Dick; pronounce Pierre “peer” and then confront Herman’s text). Henry James is well onto him. Borges is obsessed, and invents the infinite library after Poe. For an online interpretation, visit the Library of Babel .