Friday, October 31, 2014

Poe's Stories of Dream and Reality: "Descent into the Maelstrom" and "Pit and the Pendulum"

Today is Halloween, and I can't resist a post about my favorite writer of "alternate reality" short stories, Edgar Allan Poe, who has not always been taken as seriously as he should be. Sometimes dismissed, at best, as a creator of creepy potboilers, or at worst, as a drunk and a child molester, Poe has been sneered at by many critics, even as he has been hailed as an inspiration by many fiction writers.
Edgar Allan Poe was interested in all human experiences which challenged or undermined the easy assumption that everyday reality was the only reality worth attending to.  Although some readers may think that this preference for alternate realms of experience was part of his psychological makeup, it is much more likely that it grew out of his acceptance of the German romantic tradition of short fiction as a vehicle for presenting experiences that break up the ordinary.
One of the most common such "alternate" experiences, of course, one that is accessible to every human being, is the experience of dream.  However, Poe was not only interested in presenting dreams as if they were reality, he was also interested, as was typical of the Blackwood fiction of the day, in presenting experiences that were so extreme that they seemed to have the nightmarish quality of dream.  To present dream as reality and reality as dream was, for Poe, to blur the lines between the two forms of experience.  It was to give the human construct of a dream the hard feel of the external world and to give the seemingly hard contours of the external world a sense of being a human construct. 
Two of Poe's best-known stories which blur this dream/reality distinction are "Descent into the Maelstrom" (May 1841) and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842).  Both present characters placed in an extreme situation; however, the situations differ in a crucial way.  In the first the extreme situation is a natural phenomenon, in spite of the fact that by its extremity it seems unnatural. It is a favorite Poe technique to create the extreme situation by pushing the ordinary situation to extraordinary lengths, to suggest the supernatural by pushing the natural to extremes. 
In the second story, the ontological status of the situation is ambiguous, for although  the character knows physically where he is, he does not know psychically what state he is in.  The stories also differ in terms of what motivates the extreme state.  In "A Descent into the Maelstrom," Poe devotes most of the story to setting up the situation, normalizing it, locating it in space; once the situation is established the story is almost over.  In "The Pit and the Pendulum," how the character got to his present situation is left vague; a great deal of the story is spent considering whether he is in is a dream or a waking state.  However, the means by which the two characters cope with their situations is similar; both make use of careful and lucid observation to try to escape their fate.
"Descent into the Maelstrom" begins in the typical Blackwood magazine manner by presenting a character who has undergone an "event" which has never happened to a human being before and who needs, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, to tell about it.  Moreover, Poe follows the device common to romantic dramatic lyric poetry of having the narrator tell the story while located the self at that point where the events of the story took place, informing his wedding-guest-like auditor: "I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned--and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye."  However, the teller also makes use of the eighteenth-century technique of verisimilitude, using a "particularizing manner" to give  precise details of the physical phenomenon he is describing.  The listener adds to this particularizing technique of authenticating the event by quoting from written sources such as Rasmus and the Encyclopedia Britannica, but asserts that no matter how "circumstantial" or detailed the descriptions are, they fall short of conveying the horror, the magnificence, or the "sense of the novel" which the scene of the whirlpool elicits, noting, however, that he is not sure from what "point of view" previous commentators viewed the whirlpool.  It is this notion of point of view that motivates the story, for, as the teller has said at the beginning, no one has had the viewpoint he has had--the typical romantic perspective from within rather than from without.
The storyteller presents himself as an inadequate teller, for he often claims the inability of his words to capture the event; he says it is "folly to attempt describing" the hurricane which hits, and when he knows he is close to the whirlpool, he says, "no one will know what my feelings were at that moment".  However, if his feelings of horror are indescribable, his feelings when he loses his sense of horror are calm and logical.  Indeed, when he makes up his mind to hope no more, he becomes composed and begins to reflect on how magnificent it would be to die in this manifestation of God's power, becoming obsessed with the "keenest curiosity."
It is precisely this obsession to observe which saves the narrator.  The nearer he comes to the bottom of the whirlpool, the keener grows what he calls his "unnatural curiosity."  It is a combination of memory and observation of the geometric shapes which are less apt to be drawn down in the whirlpool that marks the means of his escape.  Lashing himself to a cylinder-shaped barrel, he throws himself off the fishing boat into the whirlpool and hovers half-way between the top and the bottom, between chaos below and salvation above, until the whirlpool--which is, after all, limited in time, subsides.  At this point, the teller ends his tale by  moving from the past to the present-tense, reflecting on the tale itself, becoming transformed by the experience from participant to manipulator of his own discourse, for he says his companions on shore "knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land."
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is much more ambiguous about the epistemological or ontological state of the extreme situation than "A Descent into the Maelstrom."  Although the entire story takes place inside a prison cell into which the narrator of the story, and indeed the story's only visible character, has been thrown, the story does not indicate what the nameless narrator has done to deserve the tortures he endures in the pit, nor does it deal with any of the religious or social implications of the Inquisition responsible for his imprisonment.  It simply recounts, in excruciatingly exact detail, the step-by-step means by which the torturers try to break the protagonist's spirit and his own methodical attempts to escape each new horror that they put in his path.
Although "The Pit and the Pendulum" only focuses on one character, the reader actually discovers very little about him.  We do not know his name, what he has done, whether he is guilty, whether he is a criminal, what he misses about life in the everyday world--in short, we know none of those things about the character that we might expect to learn if this were a novel in which a man spends several years in prison.  Although such a lack of knowledge would make readers quickly lose interest if they were reading a novel, it is indeed all that it is necessary to know to become involved with Poe's short story.  For this is not a realistic story of an individual human character caught in an unjust social system, but rather a nightmarish, symbolic story about every person's worst nightmare and an allegory of the most basic human situation and dilemma.  Harry Levine has described the story as such an allegory, and David Hirsch has further argued that the character's situation embodies the modern existential experience:  "the surface of Poe's world has broken and cracked, and man stands at the edge of the bottomless abyss."
The story is a Poe paradigm.  Focusing on a character under sentence of death and aware of it, it moves the character into a concrete dilemma which seems to "stand for" a metaphysical situation in an ambiguous way that suggests its "dreamy," "indeterminate" nature.  In this story we find the most explicit statement in Poe's fiction of his sense of the blurry line between dream and reality.   The narrator considers that although when we awake even from the soundest sleep, "we break the gossamer web of some dream," the web is so flimsy that a second later we forget we have dreamed at all.  However, sometimes, perhaps much later, memories of the details of the dream come back and we do not know where they have come from.  This sense of having a memory of that which did not in fact occur is central to the story's ambiguity, for as the narrator tries to remember his experience, it is not clear whether the memory is of a real event or a dream event that has been forgotten.
He does not know in what state he is; the only thing he does know is that he is not dead, for he says "Such a supposition, notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence;--but where and in what state was I?"  The narrator's task is simply to save himself, but in order to survive he must know where he is, and the first crucial task he undertakes is to try to orient himself.  However, his efforts are complicated by his moving back and forth between sleep and waking; each time he falls asleep, he must reorient himself all over again.  This explains why even after trying to demarcate his position, he awakes and, instead of going on forward, retraces his steps and thus overestimates the size of his cell.
Like the protagonist in "A Descent into the Maelstrom," he is preoccupied with curiosity about the mere physical nature of his surroundings, taking a "wild interest in trifles."  However, in spite of his deliberative efforts, it is the accident of tripping that saves him from the pit the first time.  Waking from another interlude of sleep, he is bound down, and this time above him is a picture of time, synonymous with death, carrying not the image of a scythe, but rather an actual pendulum which sweeps back and forth.  In this situation, surrounded by the repulsive rats, with the scythe of time and thus death over his head, he again moves back and forth between the states of sensibility and insensibility. 

This pattern of moving in and out of consciousness is typical of Poe, for in such an alternating state, consciousness has some of the characteristics of unconsciousness and vice versa; one state is imbued with the qualities of the other state.  As a result, Poe's stories are neither solely like the consciousness of realism, nor the projective unconsciousness of romance.  As the narrator totters on the brink of the pit, the walls rush back and an outstretched arm catches him as he falls.  The ending is not an ending at all, but rather the beginning of waking life, the movement from the gossamer dream or nightmare which constitutes the story itself.       

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