Saturday, May 16, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Poe, "Fall of the House of Usher"

"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) is, in many ways, the complete Poe paradigm because it pulls together so many of his basic themes and embodies so many of his innovative techniques.  As usual, the major controversy which has been carried on about the story centers on the ontological nature of the events--either that Roderick is mad or the narrator is mad, although significant discussions of the story's allegorical embodiment of the ideas presented in Eureka have also been written.  One important technique Poe uses in the story is to separate his central protagonist, the embodiment of obsession and desire, from his observing self, much the way he did by introducing a secondary narrator for the Dupin stories.  The story begins with the entrance of the narrator into the world of Usher, which is the world of the story itself.  The landscape he enters which surrounds the house--the "rank sedges," "the white trunks of decayed trees," the "singularly dreary tract of country"--are archetypal oneiric images  found in Turgenev's "Brezhin Meadow" and Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
However, it is the house itself that causes the narrator, and the reader, the first "reading" difficulties:  "I know not how it was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."  He himself poses the hermeneutical questions: "what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?  It was a mystery all insoluble." The narrator knows that there are combinations of natural objects which have the power of affecting one in such a way, but he knows that the "analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth."  He considers that maybe a "different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression."  Thus he tries the experiment of looking at the house from the perspective of its reflection in the tarn, but the inverted reflected image, much like a distorted image in one of Poe's own stories, gives him a shudder more thrilling than the house itself.            
It is one of the most famous openings in all of literature, for the narrator simulates the process by which the reader enters into the patterned reality of the art work, obviously affected but puzzled as to what could have created such an effect.  Looking into the tarn deepens what the narrator calls his superstition, for when he lifts his eyes to the house itself, he seems to perceive "that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity--an atmosphere that had no affinity with the air of heaven." Indeed, what he has perceived is what short-story writers such as Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Bowen have called the "atmosphere" of the story--something intangible, for which Poe reserves the term "mystic," given off like a "story glow," which Marlowe describes in "Heart of Darkness."
Although the narrator tries to shake off this dream-like sense and observe "the real aspect of the building," he notes a further fact about its construction that points to its reality as an aesthetic object.  No portion of the masonry has fallen, but "there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones."  The only other element of the building's "instability" is a fissure which runs from the roof to the base of the house in the tarn.  Indeed, the instability of the house is like the instability of the art work itself, which gains life not because of its parts but because of its structure, but which in turn always carries within itself the means of its own deconstruction. 
The narrator cannot connect Roderick with any idea of "simple humanity" because he is what W. H. Auden has called a unitary state, an embodiment of desire.  Like the House, there is an "inconsistency about Usher, an "incoherence," a sense that the parts do not fit together.  Usher suffers from a disease characterized by an unusual attentiveness or focus, what the narrator calls "a morbid acuteness of the senses."  He finds all but the most bland food intolerable, can wear garments of only certain textures, finds the odors of flowers oppressive, cannot bear anything but the faintest light, and cannot listen to anything but some peculiar sounds from stringed instruments.  It is clear that Roderick is the artist who cannot tolerate any sensory input at all, has indeed cut himself from any stimulus from the external world, much as Prince Prospero wishes to do in "The Masque of the Red Death." 
Usher's fear is of no particular thing, as indeed it could not be, for he embodies that fear of ultimate nothingness faced by the protagonist in "The Pit and the Pendulum."  It is not a plausible psychological fear, but a fear that can only be understood in aesthetic terms.  His obsession centers on a family superstition about the relationship between the house and the self, in which the house affects 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 length, brought about upon the morale of his existence." And this superstitious fear is complicated by the shadowy existence of Madeline, his sister, a figure the narrator regards with the same unspeakable dread with which he regarded the house, for both house and sister represent Roderick's own inherently flawed and detested physicality.
Although we know little about Roderick, we do know that he is an artist: he paints, he improvises on the guitar, and he writes poetry.  His work is characterized by what the narrator calls a "highly distempered ideality" which throws a "sulphurous lustre over all."  Of his paintings, the narrator says, "if ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher."  Concerned only with the purest of abstraction, with no relation to objects in the world, Roderick's paintings are hermetically sealed, like the one painting the narrator describes of a rectangular vault or tunnel under the earth with no outlet and no artificial light, yet which still is bathed in intense rays. 
 Usher's poem aesthetically mirrors the story itself because it identifies the haunted palace of art with the person of Usher, complete with images of eyes as windows and pearl and ruby as teeth and lips at the door.  The poem reflects the underlying motivation of the story which so haunts Roderick--that of the "sentience of vegetable things," an obsession which Usher pushes to the extreme theory of the "kingdom of inorganization," that is, the sentience of the structure of non-living things, specifically the house itself, "fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones--in the order of their arrangement.... Its evidence--the evidence of the sentience--was to be seen, he said (and I here started as he spoke), in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. A crucial statement about the aesthetic pattern being the source of sentience, the passage reminds us that as an artist, Roderick has cut himself off from any external sensory source for his art; thus all that he has left to feed on is himself.  This is a story about the ultimate romantic artist who, like Kafka's hunger artist, devours himself.
when the narrator reads to Roderick a romance entitled the "Mad Trist," sounds described in the fiction are echoed in Roderick and the narrator's own fictional world.  The shriek of the dragon in the "Mad Trist" is echoed by a shriek in "The Fall of the House of Usher," as is the terrible ringing sound of the romance hero's shield.  This is what Jean Ricardou has called the mise en abyme in the story--that point in which the story refers self-reflexively to its own structure. "It is by the microscopic revelation of the total narrative, therefore, that the mise en abyme challenges the preliminary order of the story.  A prophecy, it disturbs the future by revealing it before its end, by anticipation."  It is an example of Poe's revealing the spatial nature of the story in the midst of its temporal unravelling, for in spite of the fact that it seems to be "continuing," it is already complete. 

This interface between fiction and reality brings the story to its climax when the doors swing open and Madeline, with a moaning cry falls inward upon Usher and, like falling cards, he falls to the floor, and the house falls into the tarn.  The instability of the house, the fissure that splits it, widens, and the story deconstructs just as the house does, as everything collapses back into unformulated pre-creation nothingness and the tale ends on the italicized words of its own title.

No comments: