Text: James W. Gargano, “Poe from Jungian Perspectives,” Poe Studies, June 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 14:14-17


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[page 14, column 2:]

Poe from Jungian Perspectives

Martin Bickman. The Unsounded Centre: Jungian Stsudies in A‘nerican Romanticism. Chapel Hill: University of Norrh Carolina Press, 1980. 182 pp. $14.50.

David R Saliba. A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formsula of Edgar Allan Poe. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1980. 267 pp. Cloth $18.50, Paper $10.25.

Two new and noteworthy books, one by Martin Bickman and the other by David R. Saliba, make perceptive use of Jungian psychology to interpret some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most enigmatic works. In The Unsounded Centre: Junguan Studies in American Romanticism, Bickman has three clear purposes: first to illuminate stories, poems, and essays by Poe, Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson with the aid of Jungian concepts and insights; second, to explore and amplify Jung’s psychology by the light shed on it by the American authors; and lastly, to show how these writers, with their similar basic assumptions about man’s relation to nature and the cosmos, serve to clarify one another’s works. Bickman elaborates his design with authority and without dogmatism, and his “mythodology,” as he archly calls it, achieves some impressive results. With a distinctly narrower scope than Bickman’s study, Saliba’s A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe attempts to prove that Poe invented a new fictional genre, the nightmare story. For all his scholarship and his often rewarding analyses of Poe’s tales, Saliba sometimes applies his Jungian learning with forbidding literalism; experiences which Poe presents with a suggestiveness that ultimately discourages formulation, Saliba explains away as actual nightmares with a too specific content.

Bickman does not find the source of Poe’s themes and obsessions in an unhappy childhood, the early death of his mother, his nagging poverty, or “disinheritance” by his foster father. Instead, Bickman’s Poe has his primary affinities with a literary-philosophical movement which sought to discover unity and purpose behind the apparenr fragmentation and incoherence of quotidian existence. In other words, Poe, like Emerson and Whitman, saw man as originating in, splintered from, and longing to return to, a celestial or transcendent Oneness. With their ego-cenrered rationalism, the male protagonists of Poe’s tales represent separateness or the divided and consequently unfulfilled human condition; conversely, the women to whom these men attach themselves more or less satisfactorily represent the Jungian anima that can restore them tO wholeness. Of course, the anima-figures have little substance in themslves because as shadowy symbols of Ideality they have mysterious connections with the supernal; however, [page 16:] they afford alienated man a teasing or occasionally maddening glimpse into the elusive ultimate meaning of life, or, to express it more psychologically, they put him in touch with the unplumbed resources of the unconscious. Poe’s stories, in the final analysis, can be translated into quests on the part of the main characters for an expansion of consciousness leading to a fusion into the undifferentiated All or God from which they have become estranged.

Bickman methodically begins his interpretation of Poe and his fellow romantics with an examination into the richly connotative meanings of the word “symbol.” Etymologically, a symbol signifies a fragment or “half” which stands for something that cannot be fully explained; it provides a concrete sign for the ineffable, a way of knowing and talking about the elusive revelations that seem to emanate from what Bickman, following Jung, refers to as “rhe unknown core of the self and the universe.” According to Bickman, a symbol incorporares the tangible and the mysterious, the conscious and the unconscious, and it may yoke paradoxical elements and reconcile disparities; in other words, it fuses those contradictions that Emerson and Whitman notoriously embraced as messages from equally valid ontological sources. Clearly, Bickman’s discussion of symbolism prepares the way for his later view of Poe’s female characters as essential though often rejected parts of the male characters’ psyches.

Bickman employs what psychologists call “amplification” as a method for elucidating the highly symbolic crearions of Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson. Simply stated, the method undertakes to clarify given symbolic texts by viewing them from the perspective of pertinent myths, analogues, or other illustrative or complementary material. Of course, the supporting texts do not supersede or explain away theuoriginal one; on the contrary, they give the primary texts new facets of light, fresher purport and reverberations, and, above all, universality. Bickman succeeds in surrounding the works he discusses with a wealth of apposite commentary, much of it, though by no means all, drawn from Jung and his disciples. This method gives the impression of a fascinating flow of dialogue carried on by literary artists and critics, psychologists, and mythmakers. Readers who condemn Jungian criticism as tautological or reductive will find that Bickman’s amplifications provide a surprising access into a literature that resists precise restatement.

Before limiting further consideration of The Unsounded Centre to the author’s smdy of Poe, I must acknowledge Bickman’s large scope and impressive critical skills. Yet, his method finally offers a fuller account of Emerson’s and Whitman’s works than it does of Poe’s. It reveals little about Poe’s occasional comic exuberance. ironic incisiveness, and ratiocinative genius and swagger Bickman’s Poe becomes a sort of quintessential Poe — the author of the poetic-philosophical Eureka, of “To Helen,” “The Assignation,” “Morella,” “Berenice,” and “Ligeia.” Admittedly, these works lend themselves more effectively to Jungian exploration than do “The Purloined Letter,” “King Pest,” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article”; Bickman’s careful selectivity, however, betrays a definite [column 2:] limitation — something he often appears to concede — in his approach.

Like many other critics, Bickman recognizes the danger of interpreting the tales in terms of the ideas in Eureka, a prose-poem written near the end of Poe’s career. Bickman wisely decides to treat Eureka as a “retrospective analysis,” as Poe’s discovery of a system that gave coherence and order to his earlier, scattered insights. In short, all roads lead to Enreka. In a sense, then, Poe’s definitive cosmogony affords a way into his fiction and poetry while, at the same time, lacking the tensions and excitement of his previous works; for example, what is implicit and hauntingly imaginative in “Morella” and “Ligeia” takes on the fixity of literalness and resolution in Eureka. Still, Bickman feels that Eureka usefully expounds Poe’s vision of a primordial unity from which all individualized and particled substances emanate and to which they “long” to return. Caused by diffusion from the original Oneness and maintained by what Poe denominates “attraction” and “repulsion,” diversity and multiplicity can thus be regarded as resulting from an unnatural separation of wholeness into unstable and “unsatisfied” parts. Existing in alienarion and incompleteness, human beings sense their diminished natures and naturally yearn to be assimilated into their original and, it seems, divine state. God will satisfy man’s desires; the universe now existing as individualized fragments will, in time, achieve a blessed homogeneity of which man will be, in some inexplicable way, an exalted parr. In harmony with providential plan, the universe will go through cycles of expansion and contraction designed to lead to increasing spiritualization of “life.”

Making judicious use of Eureka, Bickman relates its insights to the Jungian notion that “each person is psychologically androgynous, and that the contrasexual element represents the unknown, unrealized part that has to be integrated with consciousness.” Because of the awesome intellectualism of Poe’s women, Bickman relaxes Jung’s view of man as Logos or reason and of woman as Eros or intuition. Nevertheless, he sees Poe’s Morellas and Ligeias as symbols of Ideality, as the lost, potentially fulfilling parts of Poe’s questing, maddened men. These shadowy female aspects of Poe’s male protagonists may lure their ego-driven “counterparts” to destruction, or they may, in rare cases, bestow upon them the blissful rewards of integration. Bickman, then, attributes to Poe’s women either a negative value ( their role as the elemental Terrible Mother) or a positive value (their role as the transformative anima). In a true sense, however, the male characters’ psychological condition will determine the effect their women will have upon them; the persona in “To Helen” will be serenely led to self-realization while the narrator in “Morella” will be lost in self-created misery.

Bickman’s discussion of “To Helen” and four of Poe’s tales follows logically and impressively from his examination of the symbol as containing two parts of a whole, of Eureka as a cosmogony concerned with heterogeneity and unity, and of the Jungian concept of man’s androgynous [page 16:] nature. Since Bickman intends his critical study to be provocative rather than complete, he understandably limits the number of works by Poe that he analyzes. I believe that the critical excellence and interest of The Unsounded Centre justify its author’s method, but I cannot help wondering how much of the method’s success depends upon the study’s discreet selectivity. Would a more comprehensive treatment of Poe necessitate that Jungian formulations, somewhat strained as they are, be excessively stretched and possibly compromised?

In any case, students of Poe will certainly profit from Bickman’s sensitive interpretations and amplifications. Although readers of “To Helen” will not be much enlightened by learning that it presents the “anima in its unambiguously positive aspect,” they will be able to read the poem more freshly when the Jungian comment is enlivened by Bickman’s surrounding references to Keats’ “Ode to Psyche,” Thomas Taylor’s translation of Plotinus’ Concerning the Beautiful, and Apuleius’ treatment of Psyche as “at once a mortal transformed into a goddess and as the soul itself.” Indeed, because of its greater interest and appositeness, this scholarship comes close to making the Jungian commentary irrelevant. After all, Bickman himself asserts that his quotations from Taylor enable the reader to recover some of the “original resonances” of Poe’s imagery. This may be an instance in which Jung clarifies less than he is clarified.

The value of Bickman’s commentary on Poe’s tales depends on the richness with which he applies his method. The treatment of “The Assignation” as an example of “uroboric incest” suffers because it relies almost exclusively on Jungian insights while the more extensive study of “Morella” benefits from its combination of Jungian insights, close textual analysis, the use made of Eric Carlson’s suggestive view of the story, and the philosophy contained in Enreka. In short, Bickman’s success seems to be related to the amplitude of his amplifications.

The punning title of Bickman’s examination of Poe, “Animatopoeia: The Sirens of the Self,” indicates the direction his criticism of “Morella” and “Ligeia” will take. Attention focuses on each narrator’s divided being, his split into an intense, probing, ego-bound male and an anima that symbolizes the unconscious, the ideal, or the transcendent. In both tales, the male refuses to accept the Oneness that would result from his union with the feminine “other,” and as a consequence he is desrroyed by the repressed, externalized feminine part of the self. Bickman’s discriminating perception of the differing forms assumed by the anima keeps his criticism from lapsing into reductiveness; each of the stories he looks into retains its distinctiveness as a work of art. But as I have noted, questions inevitably arise: how would Bickman contend with such perhaps intractable works as Poe’s detective tales and farces; and how would he deal with such masterpieces as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which both the protagonists and antagonists are male? What, in the latter instances, becomes of the anima? Does not the author of The Unsounded Centre simplify his problem [column 2:] by avoiding discussion of stories which contain three or more characters, usually, as in “Hop-Frog,” two men and a woman? Can Prince Prospero and the mysterious figure of the Red Death be accommodated to Bickman’s formula? A more detailed and varied study of Poe might give convincing Jungian answers to these questions, but, as it is, a large part of Poe’s oe?‘vre stands ready to testify against Bickman’s image of Poe.

II

David R. Saliba’s A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe focuses on Poe’s “actual method for arriving at a workable formula for eliciting the response of fear in his reader.” Saliba builds his case with care by trying to harmonize Edmund Burke’s theories on the sublime with the practice of Gothic novelists and the insights of many psychologists, among them Jung and Freud. Basically, he contends that in such apprentice works as “The Assignation” and “MS Found in a Bottle” and in such masterworks as “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe invented a new fictional genre, the nightmare tale. He further maintains that Poe’s conscious fictional strategies, never divulged to his audience — as if Poe could keep such a secret — crystallized into the following formula: “1) the isolation of the reader; 2) the stunning of his sensibility; 3) the victimization of his emotions; and 4) the premature burial of his reason.” According to this formula, then, Poe deliberately places his reader in such oppressive enclosures as remote houses, castellated abbeys, dungeons, or catacombs. Unable to escape from the imposed circumscription and confinement, the reader succumbs to the logic and plausibility of the appalling and circumstantial tale told by Poe or his narrator. Thus “stunned” into belief, the reader identifies with the victim’s anguish and, in turn becomes victimized. Saliba declares that Poe provides his reader no possible escape from horror because the victim’s version of events cannot be challenged by external or contrary authorities. So, forced to endure and accept what he cannot explain away, the reader submits to his vicarious terror and allows his reason to become atrophied or prematurely buried. If the reader reacts as Poe calculated, the method has been successful.

Before addressing himself to Poe’s works, Saliba learnedly and with exemplary clarity undertakes to show the kind of fear experienced in actual nightmares. He then shows how effectively Poe simulates nightmares in “all” — a very inclusive word — his Gothic tales. The loss of control and the threat of ego-dissolution experienced by the sleeper in real nightmares occur in Poe’s tales; so, too, do the defense mechanisms by which the sleeper opposes the aggression he feels directed against him. Indeed, Poe’s stories even incorporate the same fearful symbols that rise from the depths of the unconscious during a nightmare. Saliba argues that Poe appeals, with remarkable literary skill, to his reader’s own irrationality and compels him “to [page 17:] experience a nightmare of Poe’s own conscious artistic creation.”

Saliba’s whole book can be seen as an analysis of Poe’s growing artifice in creating nightmares that would fully engage his reader’s emotional attention. As he progresses from “Metzengerstein” to the more accomplished “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “Berenice,” Poe gradually learns his craft and perfects his formula. Despite its excellent identification of the castle with its owner’s dreaming mind, “Metzengerstein” fails, in Saliba’s opinion, because of its use of a detached narrator who reports the Baron’s nightmare in a clumsy and indirect manner; since the events in the legend presumably take place in the Baron’s consciousness, the reader would experience them more vividly if Metzengerstein had spoken for himself. Moreover, in his early groping toward his formula, Poe does not seem to have developed the concept of the premature burial. Saliba praises Poe’s creation in “MS. Found in a Bottle” of a protagonist-narrator with whom the reader can empathize. Still, although its narrator is effectively isolated and its atmosphere and psychology are compelling, Poe’s story does not utilize his formula to perfection because the main character contends with a natural and concrete danger, a maelstrom, that may not arouse the reader’s unconscious fears. In “Berenice,” however, Poe confines his characters in an enclosure and taps his reader’s unconscious fears, but he only partially succeeds in effecting a “premature burial.”

Many critics may object that Saliba gives a daunting literalism to what Poe meant to be suggestive. Losing their aura and evocativeness, metaphor and symbol therefore flatten into denotation, resonance turns into equal signs, and poetry comes dangerously close to being converted to case history. “Metzengerstein” may not fully succeed as an imaginative tale designed to induce wonder, but it fails almost completely as a “nightmare story.” I do not believe that Poe intended his narrator, as Saliba implies, to be either doting or insane; nor do I believe that the story could have been improved by making — a near impossibility in this case — the protagonist into a narrator. Obviously, Poe’s use of the detached narrator is dictated, not by Poe’s amateurishness, but by the fact that the Baron does not live to tell his tale; in fact, “The Masque of the Red Death” has an extraordinary dreamlike quality even though the doomed Prince Prospero does not (and, in artistic terms, could not) act as narrator. “Hop-Frog,” an even more nightmarish tale, creates a gruesome and powerful effect in spite of a strange, ironic narrator only peripherally involved in the main drama. Saliba’s rigid thesis forces him, for the sake of consistency, to evaluate Poe’s fiction by inappropriate and constricting standards. Thus even his assured and admirable commentary on “MS. Found in a Bottle” breaks down when he “explains” the imaginative and fascinating conclusion as merely the end of a nightmare.

Saliba’s strong, uncompromising stand in regard to Poe’s narrators will also invite widespread disagreement. Critics, myself among them, may have erred, unintentionally, in promoting the notion that all Poe’s narrators function in the same way. In attacking these critics, Saliba invokes one of the assumptions in a formula to which Poe [column 2:] probably never subscribed: that the reader must accept everything that the narrator puts forth as truth or conjecture. Certainly, the narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum” must be allowed what Henry James called “authoriq,” but it would be naive to grant the same authority to the narrators of “William Wilson” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In “William Wilson,” another story full of dream imagery, the reader cannot identify with the narrator because the narrator is essentially fragmented into two inharmonious parts. It is almost impossible to concede that Poe wanted his reader to see events so unequivocally from the narrator’s point of view that he misses the meaning of Wilson’s double, an important half of the author’s creation. Wilson knows so much less than the reader that the latter must, unless he agrees to hoodwink himself, be superior to his informant. Again it must be asked, who can fail ro see through the unconsciously self-incriminating narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart“? Does not anything that Montressor narrates about himself and Fortunato have the ring of falsehood or self-deception, or should the charged irony of “The Cask of Amontillado” be disregarded? Does not Poe’s narrator in “The Black Cat,” another nightmarish tale, cast doubt on the reality of his own version of the “household” incidents he reports? Does he not even encourage his reader to attempt to arrive at explanations different from his own? To declare without qualification, as Saliba does, that Poe intended to “stun” the reader presupposes that he desired the reader to participate in the tales with only half his consciousness.

Saliba weakens his position immeasurably when he asserts that there is “no way to obtain from any of Poe’s gothic tales an objective viewpoint because every word is relayed to the reader through the narrator.” One might answer that any dramatic monologue or fiction recounted by a first-person narrator betrays, often through the use of irony, a great deal about the speaker. Everything in Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” for example, “is relayed to the reader” by the Duke, but the reader learns to judge the Duke as that nobleman would not have cared to be judged. At least as old as Greek tragedy, irony has been a favorite technique of dramatists, poets, and fiction writers. Poe himself used it with subtlety in “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” and sometimes, as in “How to Wrire a Blackwood Article” and “The Spectacles,” with ostentation and obviousness. Might it be incautious to suggesr that irony invades even some of Poe’s most serious works?

After these demurs, I wish to say that, when he does not insist too strenuously on his questionable thesis, Saliba writes with acuity and good taste. For instance, although his study of “Ligeia” follows an almost classic Jungian line — with its negative and positive animas and the inevitable fascination with the abyss and the unconscious — it contains novel and rewarding insights. The thorough considerations of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” leave even the dissenting critics grateful for their many fine perceptions and their intellectual vigor.

James W. Gargano, Washington and Jefferson College


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1981]