Text: Eric Carlson, “Poe: Visionary in a Deceptive World,” Poe Studies, June 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:10-12


[page 10:]


Poe: Visionary in a Deceptive World

David Ketterer. The Rationale of Deception in Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979. 285 pp. $17.50.

On a first reading, I was much impressed by this study as a significant contriburion to Poe criticism — as admirably analytical and integrative in method, comprehensive in scope, and mainly sound in its insights. To offer a developmental and detailed account of Poe’s work as a whole, with a recognition of Poe as primarily a transcendentalisr — “above all else, the writer I recognize is a visionary“ — seemed a highly commendable accomplishment. Ketterer is surely the first to have studied out in great, though not exhaustive, detail the richly suggesrive and significant “arabesque dimension” of Poe’s “full design.” (The ground for this study was prepared by Patricia C. Smith’s 1970 Yale dissertation on the arabesque in Poe, but only her article in Poe Studies, 7 [1974], 42-45, is cited.)

Now, six months later, after a second reading, I am more aware of the limitations and failures, as well as the merits and successes, of this study. Troubled by “the current confusion in Poe interpretation,” Ketterer purposes to present a unified theory of Poe that will account for the “genuinely horrific element,” the “deliberate” and “tricky” irony, and “a sensed visionary reality.” He attempts to do so by a study of “deception” as method and theme. Immediately the reader is faced with the semantic problem of having to reconcile a term that implies deliberate deceit or duplicity with those many other and more fundamental acts of imaginative perception and forms of symbolic indirection by which Poe transcends the rational and the mundane. Not only that, but for many expert readers, Poe is not a “tricky ironist“: even his hoaxes consist of playful, witty, or satiric make-believe, more often than not easily recognized as such. The title phrase, “The Rationale of Deception,” therefore, seems an unfortunate, one-sided misnomer.

Although dissociating himself from G. R. Thompson’s view of Poe as a nihilist, Ketterer seems to have accepted the mistaken notion that much of the time Poe is a clever, delusive hoaxer. Overtly at least, and also like Thompson in this respect, Ketterer rejects the consensus of Poe criticism of not only the last “twelve years or so” but of the past thirty (since 1949) — the import of the pioneering essays by Floyd Stovall, Allen Tate, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Mooney, James Gargano, Barton Levi St. Armand, and others and of the essays and volumes by T. O. Mabbott, Roberr Jacobs, Stuart Levine, Eric Carlson, and David Halliburton, which ought to be added to Ketterer’s list (Davidson, Hoffman, Pollin, Moldenhauer, [column 2:] Patrick Quinn, Thompson, John Lynen). To be sure, Ketterer’s study does not attempt to incorporate the thought of these critics, as an academic treatise would; his consists largely of a personal reading, wirh only minor and occasional source-note attribution. For lack of a bibliography, one can only judge from footnotes as to his acquaintance with Poe studies, but not his grasp. The lapses in insight are sometimes serious, and regrettable because unnecessary; all the missing links in his visionary thesis are on record. And at certain stages, the argument breaks down into speculations, ambiguities, presumed ironies, and specious biographical conclusions. In stating these shortcomings, I inrend to qualify, not in the least to deny, Ketterer’s valuable exposition of Poe’s arabesque vision and design.

In an excellent first chapter, he describes and illustrares how Poe dealt with the problem of perception. Like Emerson and Melville, in his “perceptual perspective” Poe moved from an attack on insular rationalism and the “regulated life” (as in “The Devil in the Belfry”), with its deceptions of space, time, and self, to an imaginative intuition of the truth and beauty beyond appearances. Intuitions of “the half-closed eye” destroy the reasoned world and penetrate to the underlying “ideal” reality. Arabesque settings in “The Assignation,” “Ligeia,” “Usher,” and “The Philosophy of Furniture” effect a dizzying transcendence of the mundane, a “fusion” of experience into a new psychal unity marked by whirl, vertigo, and indefiniteness. Here, in this fluid, kaleidoscopic continuum of the arabesque experience, I detect the beginnings of Vorticism in art and literature. (Poe’s use of this hypnotic stylistic technique has been analyzed to a degree in several articles by Donald Stauffer and in Patricia Smith’s dissertation, neither source mentioned by Ketterer.)

After these pages on inruition, “fusion,” the arabesque, and Poe’s affiniries with transcendentalism, the discussion abruptly shifts to a group of three chapters under part one, “Deception.” The first of these “isolates those elements in Poe’s career rhat, in combination, may have encouraged him to formulate his philosophical rationale of deception.” In twenty-three pages Ketterer presents the following selected circumstances and incidents: the insecurity of his parents’ theatrical life; Poe’s lies about finances and the dates of his early poems; his obsession wirh plagiarism, including his attacks on Longfellow and Osborn; the Sgt. Graves’ affair; the Boston Lyccum “hoax“; his paranoia, personal dishonesty, and “perversity“; his dreams undercut by treacherous fact; his name-calling; the Mrs. Osgood-Poe-Mrs. Ellet affair; his relations with Mrs. Whitman and Mrs. Richmond; his final months and death (and after his death, the Griswold forgeries). From these selected instances Ketterer draws the conclusion that Poe believed “chicanery and dishonesty [to be] prevalent in the world,” everyday reality to be illusory, and dishonesty to be an analogue for the deceptiveness of the human condition. Not only does the usual biographical fallacy inhere in this conclusion, but the inferences are tenuous at best in view of omitted contrary evidence, the experience of others, common practices of the day, and Poe’s love of rhetoric, hyperbole, and playful posing — not to be confused with “deception” in the sense of conscious deceit. [page 11:]

In chapter three, “Grotesques and Politian,” Ketterer adds to the discussion of nine comic-satiric tales in chapter one his analysis of twenty-four more humorous tales of deception classified into four types. Actually only three of these groupings relate to deception as theme and technique. The fourth group (“William Wilson,” “The Man of the Crowd,” three of the murder tales, “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “Hop-Frog”) is treated as tales of the split self and the doppelganger theme, not without some forcing of resemblances in theme. If this group does not belong under grotesques — most of them are psychological and impressionistic and therefore qualify as arabesques — the first three categories do: the satires of chicanery (“Lionizing,” “Diddling,” and so forth), the hoaxes, and ten tales illustrative of the deceptive nature of reality, that is, appearances. Of the two hoaxes, “Hans Pfaal” receives a lengthy analysis which concludes that it is the reader who is “most definitely hoaxed if he believes the story to be about a journey to the moon” and that “the supposed human condition itself is a hoax.”

In chapter four, “Sybils of the Future,” the sea tales are regarded as the transition stage from grotesque deception to arabesque vision. “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “Descent into the Maelstrom” are read as “allegorical journeys through life and into death, where the deceptions of reason are traumatically exposed.” As a rigid rationalist, the narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle” suffers the limitations of conventional reason until his arabesque experience (the sea functioning as “a perfect symbol of marginal awareness”) opens his eyes to a new sense of reality, the sea, the ghost ship, and its crew serving as mediating conditions. In “Descent,” the arabesque “writhing wall” of water and the rainbow have a similar symbolic function; through them the Norwegian is saved by his realization of reality, the factual explanation (of the cylinder) being but one of Poe’s deception devices. In Pym, “the narrator journeys through the mundane world of multiple deception toward an apocalyptic vision of arabesque reality.” Where the story is disjointed, or the ink invisible, or the epilogue missing, the reader is asked to draw upon his imagination for completion.

Part two, “Fusion,” consists of three chapters, the first of which deals with the poems, which are likened to “a writhing arabesque tapestry.” Taken as a whole, the poems are viewed as sequentially structured and as psychedelic in their arabesque fluidity or impressionism, through the fusion devices of repetition, refrain, hypnotic sound, and symbolism. Four sequentially assimilated cycles make up an organic whole. The first, the “Tamerlane” cycle, consists of eleven poems. The rifle poem is analyzed at some length as a deathbed confession by Tamerlane of his failure to achieve his vision of arabesque reality; ideally, love and ambition are one, but on earth, waking reality displaces dream reality. In the next sequence, the “Al Aaraaf” cycle, art as “dream reality” is opposed to the power of time, knowledge, science, and passion. The next two cycles include poems both early and late. “The Raven” complex continues the theme of the “waking reality” of death in “The Raven,” “The Spirits of the Dead,” “Stanzas,” “Lenore,” and “The Sleeper,” of which only “The Raven” is given close attention. To Ketterer this poem is a brilliantly [column 2:] conceived drama in which the narrator represents a student of science or knowledge, and the raven “the quest of the intellectual for knowledge.” In the “Ulalume” group, Poe’s best effort to imagine a supernal world, the four cycles converge into one before their “arabesque release.” Although useful insights are scattered through these pages, the chapter concludes with what I feel to be misreadings of “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee,” and “For Annie,” based on the mistaken notion that this group constitutes “a happy monody of death.”

In chapter six, Ketterer treats tales under the heading “Arabesques” in a manner similar to my own chronological and thematic grouping of them in Introduction to Poe: A Thematic Reader (1967). Also similar is the stress on their arabesque surface, “as convoluted and fluid as an arabesque tapestry,” on their “mind-expanding decor,” and on their “fluidity of form, technique, or structure.” Regarding “Ligeia” and “Usher” as Poe’s masterpieces, Ketterer discusses chronologically and thematically four tales that lead up to and four that lead away from these high points. In “Metzengerstein,” a serious tale of metempsychosis, the arabesque tapestry functions “to overcome the barrier between life and death.” In “The Assignation,” the symbolism of water, mirror, and arabesque decor supports the theme of death as a transition to potential rebirth. The heroine of “Berenice” symbolizes Egaeus’ dream, “a dimly remembered arabesque state,” and the teeth represent for Egaeus “the culmination of that return to arabesque unity which she is undergoing.” These tales themselves culminate in “Ligeia,” with its conflict between the arabesque ideal (Ligeia) and the mundane world (Rowena), between the will to live and death’s finality. Ketterer is at his besr here in explicating evidence of Poe’s transcendental philosophy, with the narrator’s arabesque experience the key to it all. In his essay on “Usher” Ketterer holds that no single-minded interprerations can be adequate; he views the tale as “a sentient ideogram, and Poe’s finest experiment in the rechnique of fluid form,” with a “shifting arabesque surface.” Madeline symbolizes that in Usher which pulls him toward arabesque reality, and the narrator that which tries ro keep him in the everyday world. This mortal division or tension is “healed” by the waters of the tarn (the arabesque world) when those waters “close over the grotesque human state as symbolized by the actual house, after Madeline falls, vampirelike, over Usher.” The “arabesque” metaphor works well for the tales thar follow — “Eleonora,” “The Oval Portrait,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” But in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which Ketterer considers the climax to the subdety, fluid form, and meaning characteristic of these arabesques, the metaphor is elaborated in ways that ultimately strike me as strained and unconvincing.

In chapter seven, “The Ultimate Life,” the subject is the supernal life understood as a matter of “correcred perception,” of heaven as “altered perspective and not above, or beyond, Earth” nor of physical distance or space. The landscape pieces arrange nature artistically so that the arabesque vision relates to ideal innocence and beauty, to a new-world Eden or “New Jerusalem,” with the technical aid of “fused fluidity” of scene, and in “Landor’s Cottage” [page 12:] also of point of view and “compass-point identification” or “fixes” that are so frequent and specific as to have a dizzying effect. Further reflections of Poe’s interest in the arabesque dimension are found in three mesmeric tales: “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation” and “Valdemar.” Two apocalyptic colloquies describe the events leading up to the fiery end of the earth (“Eiros and Charmion”) and the transition to the ultimate life of heightened and fused perception, altered perspective, and mystical union (“The Colloquy of Monos and Una”).

Part three, “Intuirion,” consists of rhree concluding chapters. In chapter eight, “The Powers of Causality,” Poe is seen as “a deeply divided personality” plagued by conflict between his imagination and his reason. His powers of rational analysis are held subject to “idiopathic limitation,” personal bias, rationalization, deception of others, and selfdeception. In a paragraph or two on each, Ketterer comments incisively on “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” “Secret Writing” (cryptography), “A Chapter on Autography,” and “The Literati of New York City” (phrenology). In his literary criticism, Poe’s analytical abilities are represented by his essay on Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, by his theories of fiction, poetry, fancy and imagination, “taste,” and “ideality,” by his views of the relation of beauty to indefiniteness and truth, of causality to ideality, by his discussion of the creative process (“The Philosophy of Composition”), and by his practical criricism. Four pages on “The Rationale of Verse” develop fallacies and significances to the point where Ketterer finds it difficult to distinguish between “Poe the victim of deception and Poe the visionary or intuitive perceiver of truth.”

Chapter nine, “Tales of Ratiocination,” clarifies further the nature of “reason” as it evolved from 1835 to 1844. In the tales of ratiocination, “actually about the artistic process,” Dupin becomes “a viable Usher,” an artistanalyst intuiting the arabesque trurh. Dupin’s powers of identification make him both victim and criminal. By defeating the police prefect, by establishing his superior reason and arabesque truth over convenrional reason and truth, Dupin is, in a sense, the “murderer.” And in reference to “The Gold-Bug,” we are rold that “Poe once again is pointing out that the attainment of arabesque riches implies the murder of the everyday world.” The crime in all the Dupin tales consists of “that necessary disturbance of everyday reality which allows the perception of arabesque reality.” What is “arabesque” about the realiry or the riches is not made clear. In “The Purloined Letter,” “Dupin is detective, victim, and criminal in one.” Not only Dupin but Poe is himself all three. If Dupin is Minister D — in this doppelganger tale, so the argument goes, “such a correlation might indicate rhat the intellectual synthesis expressed in the tales of ratiocination was achieved at the cost of personal schizophrenic breakdown.” But if Poe must be idenrified with his persona Dupin, why not assume, instead of breakdown, an intellectual synthesis and an imaginative enjoyment of arabesque riches?

In the final chapter, “The Full Design,” Ketterer makes much of the change in Poe’s view of intuition from 1845, when it was synonymous with imagination, to 1848, when it ambiguously incorporated or discarded reason, it seems. If, one might ask, Poe did not claim access to intuitive [column 2:] knowledge until Eureka, why did he praise that faculty in “Letter to B — ” (1831), “The Poetic Principle” (1838) and “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841)? In discussing Eureka, Ketterer becomes preoccupied with apparent ambiguities and ironies, although he does divorce himself from Thompson’s “irony-cued” reading of Eureka as mocking transcendentalism. Given the tricky problem of tone, in the tales “Poe probably couched a visionary philosophy in the trappings of Gothic horror,” and his apprehension of “the deceptive material world” is “secondary to his faith in ideality.” Yet, Ketterer adds, Poe’s “intricate play of irony” in Eureka, as in Pym, is “protective” because of “the possible alternatives to the primary positive position taken.” In the dozen pages that follow, Ketterer analyzes the three-part argument in Eureka: the “descent” in the past, through “diffusive Volition,” to the present universe of solar systems, nebulae, and so forth, into the probable future. This cogent summary, however, is marred by occasional misreadings and by another gratuitous claim that because Poe is a conscious artist, Eureka is “deliberately ironic” and gives evidence of “analogic mania” and “paranoia,” even though Poe is “artist enough not to be ruled by it” and “himself raises every logical objection to his own objections.” Ketterer admire doubt as to the targets of Poe’s irony and to the extent to which it is addressed to his readers and to himself. But he is sure that Eureka can be read as “a vaguely adumbrated historical ‘allegory,‘” that it reflects Poe’s alienation from a culturally divided America. Ketrerer quotes Marshall McLuhan’s 1944 article describing Poe as cut off from his European heritage. But since then, increasing attention has been given to Poe’s American roors and American identity; none of that evidence is considered here. More interesting and perrinent is the two-page comparison of Poe and Blake — “Poe is an American Blake“ — in their distrust of reason, their faith in the unifying imagination, their association of woman with will. “All Poe’s women might well be called emanations.” For lack of evidence of direct influence of Blake on Poe, similarities are attributed to common Neoplatonic and Gnostic sources — the only allusion to these as Poe sources.

Ketterer caps this chapter and the book with what I find to be inconclusive specularion about “Poe’s understanding of man’s liability to deception.” Furthermore, the idea and the term “arabesque” play no part in his final discussion of Eureka despite the dynamic and visionary implications of its key concepts: “the reciprocity of adapration,” interdependence of cause and effect, the “ether” of “spirituality” identified with “vitality, consciousness thought,” and the unity of matter and spirit, of man and God. Ketterer might better have been fully guided by what he calls “the excellent case for unity” in E. W. Pitcher’s “Poe’s Eureka as a Prose Poem,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 29 (Winter 1976), pp. 61-71 to which he is much indebted. Indeed, despite his disclaimers in notes 3 and 14, he has allowed himself to be overinfluenced by the mistaken thesis that regards Eureka as pervasively ironic. The result, in a generally useful and insightful book, is a conclusion more muddled and ambiguous than anything in Poe.

Eric W. Carlson, University of Connecticut


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]