Text: Kermit Vanderbilt, “Poe to the Seventh Power,” Poe Studies, June 1973, Vol. VI, No. 1, 6:30-32


[page 30, continued:]


Poe to the Seventh Power

Daniel Hoffman. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972. xvi + 335 pp. $7.95 cloth; $2.50 paper (Anchor Book, 1973).

Before the reader can admire the considerable achievement of this new study of Poe, he may have to overcome, as I did, a fair amount of irritation with the offbeat, confessional approach. The style seems at first Daniel Hoffman imitating D. H. Lawrence’s provocative and impish Studies in Classic American Literature. D. H. stalking D. H. The Poe Doppelganger. On his own, Hoffman reveals the impulse to autobiography that may also irritate the reader who is turned off by the current rash of print from people of no very great interest who presume to make themselves the subject of our attention. In the case of Hoffman, a poet-scholar, the style and first-person impressions may come, however, as a welcome antidote to the oppressive PMLA style and scholarship. But even here, many of us have long since inoculated ourselves and our students against the scholarly life-style amply footnoted in the Establishment journal. Besides, Mailerism in Poe studies would seem a dubious alternative to PMLA.

A further difficulty with this book will arrive for those who have lost Hoffman’s enthusiasm for tracing mythic formulae or solving algebraic puzzles of the divided “self” in the literary work. Perhaps a more original and needed study would have traced the evolution of Poe’s aesthetic theory and performance, particularly into the 1840’s. Hoffman, instead, terms “Usher,” written in 1839, the “culmination” of Poe’s oeuvre. His apology for such a conclusion is not readily acceptable:

Convinced that Poe’s donnée was such that a web-work of consistent imagery overspreads the whole, in which there is the exploration and elaboration of his given themes, I have treated that body of work as though all were coterminous, paying little heed in my arrangement of the tales and poems to the actual order of composition.

Unburdened of these objections, I admit that when I granted Hoffman his own donnee, somewhat grudgingly, the reward was a stimulating and, more often than not, an illuminating tour through the descents and send-ups and misty mid-regions of Poe. This is not to say that the annoying mischief disappears. When Hoffman opposes Fiedler on Pym, for example, one reads, “I respond to these characters in a different way, a way I think truer to Poe’s own response.” But this also sounds increasingly the note of an urgent probing that moves beyond mere [column 2:] self-congratulation and therefore becomes forgivable. Hoffman’s Poe is radically sound criticism. He was haunted in boyhood by this “wild, eccentric, audacious, tortured, horror-haunted, sorrowing, beauty-loving” author. From that firm basis of response, he has come to explore the technique and vision which produce the “garish grandeur” of Poe’s art — even to the seventh power. And the egocentric note turns out more and more a successful narrative device, not unlike Poe’s, to engage the reader. Above all, Hoffman moves from chapter to closely linked chapter of his preconceived design with a deliberate care that Poe himself would have applauded.

Hoffman begins with an extended re-examination of the poetry and laces it with a sketch of Poe’s personal and paradigmatic sufferings. This is the book’s longest chapter and establishes the critical approach in the pages to follow. Recurring motifs and issues begin with the starscape of the Ideal in “Al Aaraaf.” Here the early Poe emerges as his own mythmaker, trading on Christian and Neoplatonic snippets but finally creating a world of evanescent beauty untouched by either vision. The poetic journey toward Poe’s bower of bliss is beset with terror and death. The Vulture Time preys on the spirit of Romance and Intellectual Beauty as Poe builds to his most powerful poetic image, “the End of Everything.” Two other motifs in the poetry fore-shadow the tales to come: the epic ascents and descents, and Poe’s intolerance of earthly passion.

Hoffman admits his debts here to Richard Wilbur. His own study of the poetry becomes original, however. in the valuable critique of Poe’s language. Heroically straining for transcendence, did Poe obfuscate rather than purify the language of the tribe? Hoffman risks the anger of Poe’s French admirers and terms this diction too often contrived, banal, gross, sentimental. In the poetry (more so than in the tales) “Poe isn’t always in as full control of his language as he is of his vision,” says Hoffman, and convinces the reader that the two are indeed separable. For all the uncertainties in his diction and music, Poe, like his later Symbolist disciples, can still move us toward spectral encounters with the ineffable. His best poetry re-ignites in us deep hypnagogic flashes of recognition.

Hoffman bridges the poetry and the prose with a chapter on Poe’s critical theory. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe analyzed the process by which the poet unleashes the uncontrollable obsessions of the heart and at the same time controls them “by making of these passions an intricate mechanism for the production of the effects of passion in another person’s soul.” (Put another way, Poe created a Jamesian aesthetic distance without severing his passionate rapport with the hypocrite lecteur.) An internal difficulty, even contradiction, persists in Poe’s theory and practice. To pursue and express the sublime evanescence of Beauty, he attempted to wed the precision of mathematics with the indefiniteness of music, “the sensuous experience nearest to mathematical proportions.” In his Romantic agony, Poe’s mathematician-artist hero aspires at last “to crack that Ultimate Secret Code” of the universe. And the same heroic effort provides the central thrust of Poe’s other writings.

Which leads us to the chapter on Poe’s heroes of ratiocination and detection. Hoffman enters a few cavils with Wilbur, but more or less allows that his approach to Legrand [page 31:] and Dupin — the detective as intuitive poet and analytic intelligence — is substantially Wilbur’s. Even the detective as the Doppelganger of his adversary comes from Wilbur. But Hoffman revisits “The Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Gold Bug” so vividly that his readings are effectively his own. He is particularly suggestive where he pairs the “creative” genius of Poe’s criminal with the “resolvent” intellect of the detective.

Poe’s detective, whose associative processes of intellection reach at times into “preconscious” thought, carries us by a natural continuity into a chapter on the “voyages” of Poe, perhaps the finest in Hoffman’s study. Poe’s voyagers arrive at their heroic conclusions about the universe through a “Dupin-like intuitive ratiocination, applied with mathematical precision to the observation of physical phenomena.” Hoffman’s discussion here is a model of lucid and imaginative criticism. He orders the Poe voyages in four segments: “Going Down,” “Sent Up,” “Counter-clockwise,” and “Beyond Apocalypse.” Hoffman reminds us that whether the journey is into the maelstrom, aloft with Hans Pfaall, into the soul’s shadows with Valdemar, or beyond the grave with Monos and Una, we are approaching the same final discovery. These voyages into and beyond space and time arrive at the threshold of unparticled matter, to the province of the Mind of God.

Contrasting sharply to Poe’s autonomous world of art with its frequently mesmeric revelations is the workaday life which he endured with remarkable self-discipline. Hoffman’s next chapter is titled “Dull Realities.” Here he treats Poe’s satiric ventures into money, politics, and the contemporary social order. To an American democracy that found its universal rhythms not on a happier star but on the planet of Yankeedom, with its stampeding gold rushes and the rhetoric of Whig politics, the aristocratic Poe served up his disguised bitterness in clownish satires. At their extreme, these satirical pieces anticipate a Marat/Sade allegory of human society as a self-governed madhouse. Poe’s satiric vision, in short, extends into the boundaries of his Grotesque.

The next two chapters, “Grotesques and Arabesques” and “The Marriage Group,” follow in logical sequence within Hoffman’s unfolding design. Some of Poe’s strongest portraits are here in his unfamilied heroes who encounter doubles, madness, self-destruction, murder, and marital fears of incest, castration, and impotency. Despite the power of this fiction — ”William Wilson,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “Ligeia,” and more — Hoffman’s separate readings, many of them, turn out curiously uneventful. The most valuable pages are his introductory distinctions between the grotesque and arabesque. In the former, Poe establishes a present reality, firmly peopled, and then transforms their world into something monstrous. In the arabesque, he treats relatively fewer characters (often Poe madmen) who survive more vaguely in time and place. These useful distinctions, however, do not bear much fruit. A rewarding new insight or two appears only in the analyses of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Ligeia.”

Hoffman completes his book with three related chapters focused on a mighty trio of Poe’s work: “Body of the World” (Pym), “The Mind of God” (Eureka), and “ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ “ [column 2:] These chapters coordinate Poe’s quest for ultimate answers through Body, Mind, and divided Self (or “bodied Soul”). Again, one is not taken by any novelty of revelation in Hoffman’s separate readings so much as by the imaginative unity of his comprehensive design. Pym’s five voyages describe a cumulatively perverse and regressive “longing of the living body to die, of the organic to become inorganic, of the differentiated consciousness in the agony of its separateness to experience the frightening ecstasy of its reintegration into the unity from which it has been exiled — the unity of personal annihilation.” The split consciousness, the perverse annihilation of the self, the obsessively willed rebirth, all of these are more or less commonplaces in our current understanding of Poe. But Hoffman sustains these human themes in his reading of Pym and then allows them to crescendo into the universals of Eureka. There they become “part of this perfect plot of God [wherein] all being, inorganic and organic alike, desires its own destruction. The longing of creation for its own apocalypse!”

I am not persuaded that the last chapter on “Usher” properly completes this trio of works in Hoffman’s scheme. His imp of the perverse triumphs here, I believe, and to somewhat poor effect. Determined not to read Poe in sequence, he misses the opportunity to write a satisfying climactic chapter on Eureka. For that work inevitably depends upon the precedents not only in Pym but also in “Usher.” Poe’s governing motifs were orchestrated and tested in the human participants of “Usher” and thus were necessarily of lesser magnitude than in Eureka. If the House of Usher, via Hoffman, embodies the profound mystery of the human soul, the allegory then readies us for the correspondingly larger mystery of Eureka. Roderick and Madeline as doubles combine, in miniature, to anticipate the incestuous One. As Hoffman avers in his intricate reading of sister and brother as divided parts of the unconscious self, their story becomes “a testament to the autonomy of the unconscious, by whose inexorable powers are revealed the deepest truths of the soul.” Surely it follows that the divine autonomy of the Creator in Eureka evinces similar, but considerably higher, powers. Again, the dependent relationship between the hypersensitive Roderick and the cataleptic Madeline of the tell-tale heart points to what Hoffman eloquently discovers in Eureka as the alternating “double truth” of cosmic expansion and contraction, parallel to the principle of breathing, of the sexual act, of Life into Death — the veritable “rhythm of beating of the tell-tale Heart Divine.”

Lastly, “Usher” properly anticipates rather than “completes” the clinching aesthetic truth of Eureka. Poe as artist and maker transcends his fictional materials in a manner not unlike, but also not equal to, the supreme Maker. Hoffman’s adroit analogy here suffers from anticlimax: “Like God, the artist is both embodied in and apart from the destruction of the creatures of his will. Like God, he outlives the annihilation of his self-created universe and can at will construct another plot containing yet again the necessity of its own destruction.”

Readers of this study will be indebted to Hoffman then, in many respects. While he cavalierly dismisses chronological order, he does persuade that a profound unity dwells among his selected works of Poe. Equally [page 32:] valuable, he re-enacts, with a lively irreverence, the range of expression that converges into that unity of Poe’s cumulative vision. He unmasks for us Edgar Elan Poet, Hoaxiepoe, Idgar, Funny Edgar, Oedgar, Poe the Pundit, and Edgar the Metaphysician. And he discloses their common identity.

Most valuable of all, Hoffman inspires the reader to make his own further excursions into Poe. I have found myself of late fashioning a resolvent intellect to disentangle, Dupin-like, the origin and logic of Montresor’s systematic plot of unobtrusive injuries directed at Fortunato, sharply interrupted by his impromptu punning on the brotherhood of Masons, and climaxed by Fortunato’s entombment in masonry. Montresor has surely patterned this punishment after his adversary’s “crime.” First had come Fortunato’s train of mental injuries to him. These, in turn, had been interrupted by the fatal “insult,” parallel to Montresor’s Masonic pun and thus revealed by it. In some foolishly offensive way, Fortunato must have offered a Masonic slur on the Catholic Montresors which culminated in Montresor’s en-Masoned psychic suffering. Montresor’s largely psychological punishment of Fortunato, then, not only fits the crime. It duplicates the crime. In effect, it is equal to, it becomes that same crime. But in this reversible equation, it then doubles back on itself “at length” to become its own punishment. For Montresor to re-savor his crime over fifty years has meant also to relive not only the parallel injuries and insult of Fortunato’s crime but also the torment his brother-mason suffered more briefly in the duplicating punishment.

Such is the contagious effect of Hoffman’s free-spirited book. His own brief reading of “Cask,” as well as other of Poe’s tales, does not tempt the plagiarist in me. Instead, I am in his debt for a catalytic treatment of Poe overall. This refreshing study will bring the jaundiced expert and the casual student to renew an equally delighted rapport with the haunted Poe hero and with all the seven men in the name Poe Poe Poe. . . .

Kermit Vanderbilt, California State University, San Diego


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[S:0 - PS, 1973]