Text: Milton C. Petersen, “Poe and the Void,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1968, vol. I, No. 1, 1:14-16


[page 14, column 2:]

Poe and the Void

Robert Martin Adams. NIL: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of the Void During the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford university Press, 1966.

It may be appropriate to begin this review of a book about Nothing by stating what the book is not. It is not, though the subtitle may seem to imply it, a developing history of the efforts of some nineteenth-century writers to banish or otherwise overcome the nightmare of meaningless life in an empty world.

Adams finds in this clean, well-lighted place of the twentieth century a preoccupation with Nothing: we live in a “void-haunted, void-fascinated age.” He says at the beginning that his purpose is to indicate the “stages” by which we got this way, but at the close he confesses that the concept of Nothing “resists the interpretation of a consecutive history.” It does not “ripen as men mull it over”; it never presents anything but “a flat conception, a sudden blank.” The subtitle says “Episodes,” and that is what it means. I should have felt less frustration as I read if I had not been looking for developmental stages, the rise and fall as it were, of the void. The book does have its development of course: it presents a continually widening exploration of the concept of Nothing, of the infinitely expanding void.

A definition of Nothing would be convenient, but one [page 15:] does not define the infinite. It can be described, talked about, or presented as part of an artistically conceived experience. (And this, by the way, is all that Adams means by the “literary conquest” of the void: the domestication to the purposes of literary art of an “unpromising theme . . . refractory to any sort of artistic treatment whatever.”) But any attempt to define Nothing seems to become a word game of paradoxes, for after all, Nothing, as a concept in its own right, is some thing.

Of course, absolute Nothing, or void, cannot be experienced; experience can only approach it by degrees, by a series of subtractions. Adams says that in common speech Nothing may be merely “a high ratio of expectation to experience,” that when one anticipates much and experiences little, “the trajectory of one’s disappointment is, vulgarly, Nothing.” I take this conception of Nothing to be more significant than Adams does: I believe that he has pointed out the source of the void in man’s experience. Disappointment is the cancelling, the subtracting, of hopeful expectation. A series of jolting subtractions of this sort can produce in some temperaments not mere skepticism but a thoroughgoing disbelief in his hopes and the habit of believing only in his fears. The empirical confrontations that one may have with a piecemeal Nothing, morsels of disappointment, can be turned into evidence for a devout faith in an absolute Nothing. Most of the writers Adams looks at are men with such a faith; those who lack it are only slightly agnostic. His book is a chart on which their explorations into the void are marked out. Although these explorations can be no more than approaches toward a vast unknown area, a great range of implications for human thought and feeling begins to unfold. Its locus, says Adams, is cosmic, “whether amid the stars, or within the heart.” The Nothing-knower apprehends the void in one or both of two places: within himself, in his own empty, isolated soul; or outside himself, in what he perceives as a Godless universe, or rather a non-universe, a meaningless welter of events. But ultimately he perceives the void to be the Nothingness of a Godless Everything.

Yet, I believe Coleridge was right:

We receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live:

Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

And would we aught behold, of higher worth,

Than that inanimate cold world allowed

To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,

Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth

A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

Enveloping the Earth —

And Adams, too, I think would agree: “If outer space is not filled with moral schemes and benevolent intentions, it can be fairly described as containing a lot of carbon molecules responsive in the main to Newton’s three laws of motion; and this is either a ghastly aching void or a tidy, busy little cosmos, depending on the eye with which one regards it. One man’s void is another man’s plenum.”

The manifestations of void that Adams finds in the works he discusses are these: Of the inner void — loneliness, alienation, self-absorption, purposelessness, inability to love, boredom, and the inability even to fear, which [column 2:] results when one simply waits to exchange the Nothing of life for the Nothing of death. Of the outer void — the dreary, nonmeaning physical world of sequential but nonconsequential facts through which the human spirit moves, the sense that physical fact is a flimsy facade which scarcely conceals an infinite void.

Among the writers Adams discusses are Novalis, Poe, Gogol, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Melville, and Mallarmé, and (briefly, in a short chapter, “Ironic Voyages”) Coleridge, Lewis Carroll, Henry James, and Emile Verhaeren. For Poe and some of the others, especially Gogol, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé, Adams ’ approach is illuminating and stimulating.

One unique possibility which Nothing as a literary subject offers the writer is the inherent tension or conflict between a man’s perception of Nothing and the pragmatic arrangements he must make in order to continue his day-to-day existence. The degree to which a particular writer chooses to exploit this possibility can be one of the salient characteristics of his work. This tension between pragmatic activity (the necessity of doing some thing) and the meaninglessness of all activity, as considered from the void, Adams believes to be the informing principle of most of Poe’s fiction. To grasp Poe, one needs to see both the intellectual Poe who “asserts pugnacious dominion over the practical world” and the Poe obsessed with the awful blank of Nothingness, which is vouchsafed by the fact of death. “Fascinated as he is with . . . postmortem survival, Poe has no faith or interest in the immortal soul; he is exercised by the corpse, not the spirit. . . . Wormy circumstance, along with the mind’s unaided struggle to accommodate to it, is all.”

The pretense of universal erudition and, especially in the ratiocinative stories, the display of rational mind brilliantly coping with “puzzling or hostile circumstance” create a facade beyond which lies the void. “Montressor the coldly rational French narrator of ‘The Cask of Amontillado, ’ tricks and holds with contemptuous ease (despite his own warnings and pleadings) and finally buries alive the drunken Fortunato, walling him up with a click of rational bricks, and discovering in the process that under the drunkard is a human being — as it were, a portion of himself.”

Poe’s stories, it would seem, resolve the tension between the immediate practicality of events and the ultimate meaninglessness of the void. Not that they bring about a resolution; rather the stories always assume a man’s sense of the void to be at least a partial cause for the intensity of his devotion to rational and practical activity. The resolution is in the image of a man fending off vertigo by building scaffolds of intellection over the void — the tarn, the pit, the maelstrom.

But the image of the facade is perhaps better; it suggests not only the flimsy, not quite real barrier standing before the cosmic void, but also the face prepared to meet the faces — behind which is the psychic void. Adams compares the personality of the Poe hero to a “defensive palisade poised at the brink of a precipice, furiously assaulted from in front [by hostile circumstances, I take it] and, as the earth crumbles underfoot, in perpetual danger of sliding into the black abyss behind.” So constant is the threat, so constant must be the maneuvers to delay the ultimate, [page 16:] “that all human relations are often eaten out by it, becoming artificial and rhetorical.” The notion of personality that emerges from Poe’s fiction is “exoskeleton — thin, fragile, and under furious attack,” and it makes necessary the bluff and facade.

The case for Poe as a writer whose fiction “transcends vaudeville” must eventually, Adams believes, become a “defense of his flats and facades,” on the ground not that they “impress or deceive” us, but that “in seeing around or through them, we are fulfilling Poe’s authorial intention,” for he did not intend “an artistic surface where the reader could repose untroubled.” Adams feels that the character of Poe’s Nothing is one of his major achievements; possessing a “remarkable variety of colorings,” it has been “imaginatively apprehended.” But more important it calls for a new kind of reader, one “who can no longer be a placid, substantial gentleman, sitting in an overstuffed library chair, to be tickled with entertainment, edified with instruction. He becomes an antagonist, a collaborator, a fellow-victim. All his potential energies and inertia are tapped. . . .”

I should like to go on to discuss some of the other varieties and manifestations of the void Adams finds, and also the perspectives his approach affords him on the other writers examined in this stimulating book, but further remarks must be brief. Flaubert, one finds here, could not entertain Poe’s amused, ironic tolerance of the complacent reader. For Flaubert, such a man was the very representative of a monstrous void — a void of the middle distance, neither cosmic nor psychic. The notion of absolute void held no terror for Flaubert, nor did a sense of his own emptiness appall him. He felt it to be a part of the grander, infinite void. For Flaubert, the cosmic void had an “icy dignity,” and in giving man a sense of his insignificance, its effect was “aseptic.” Man’s failure to see the emptiness without and within engendered self-importance — an inflated, bloated emptiness which Flaubert found vile and hateful.

One might expect such a man to cultivate the void, and evidence from his correspondence and fiction shows that this was what he did, in his life as well as his books. He aspired, he said, to write a book about nothing, a book sustained only by its own inner force of style. Though each successive book seems to be “about more and more [and to be] documented with greater and greater particularity,” Adams finds that the “notion of Nothing [expands] from patches and pockets of void in the early books . . . to a perfect globe of complacency and folly in the last novel.” Their progress is toward the “discovery of Nothing” in the “exploration of everything.”

Some of the other varieties and manifestations of void can only be mentioned in passing: the static journeys, for example, presented by Verhaeren, which go from nowhere to nowhere; the great event which Henry James ’ John Marcher awaits as he marks time toward the discovery of Nothing; Moby Dick, who emerges from a sea of rhetoric and suggestion as a palpable Nothing which “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe”; Baudelaire’s “l ’Ennui,” bearing the same image of swollen complacency to be found in Flaubert but now the face of the yawning spectator “heightened to vindictive cruelty.”

Adams’ book functions as more than a critical study [column 2:] of a little-examined aspect of nineteenth-century literature. Because its subject is immediately relevant to many of today’s attitudes and maladies, it is a more stimulating book than one has a right to expect. My inclination is not to find fault with it, but there are difficulties which should be noticed. Some are inherent in the subject; one is sometimes puzzled to know what one is talking about when the subject is Nothing; English syntax was not made to deal with such a subject. But even taking these matters into consideration, there are, along with many felicities of expression which contribute greatly to the book’s virtue, occasionally obscure passages which lead one to wonder whether the author has stopped sending or the reader has stopped receiving.

Another difficulty, however, has to do with the relation between a writer’s life and his works. This can be illustrated with an example dealing with Poe (who certainly deserves, at last, commentators who will make the proper distinctions between the man and his works): “To these images of void — the long fall through empty space, the long descent into the grave — Poe’s mind clings in fascinated horror; when reason proves powerless, these are the vortices down which he is hurled.” And again: “Creature of threadbare exteriors, threatened by void without and vertigo within, Poe always raises the cracked house of reason next to the tarn of death and despair; his narcissism finds expression not merely in the repetition of his own name and features under the guise of his heroes, but in the heroes ’ mirroring of themselves in the water.”

Nonetheless, I believe NIL to be well worth the time of any intelligent reader, whether literature is his profession or not. For the Poe reader and student, it presents an approach which yields, in barely ten pages, insights that more detailed studies of Poe yet to come will undoubtedly confirm.

Milton C. Petersen


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]