Text: Judy Osowski, “Poe Phenomenologically,” Poe Studies, December 1974, Vol. VII, No. 2, 7:51-52


[page 51:]

Poe Phenomenologically

David Halliburton. Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. 428 pp. $15.00.

In this phenomenological study of Poe, Halliburton effectively involves himself with the process of Poe’s works by relating himself to the personal pronouns of Poe’s language system and working as critic from within Poe’s art. By involving himself Halliburton is able to show the way the characters operate within the individual works, and by adding his exterior perspective as critic he can step back and view the design of the whole of Poe’s canon. This does not mean that Halliburton has achieved the ideal union of author-work-reader, there are shortcomings in his criticism. But he does show the process of a coherent design in Poe’s universe.

Halliburton’s perception of this process of design is the result of his close readings of individual texts to discover “the way they go” and then to place them in the context of the overall reality of Poe’s universe and further to consider their existential situation. In the “Foreword” and “Introduction” Halliburton presents his critical theory of phenomenology which he draws in part from European critics and philosophers such as Poulet, Sarrre, Heidegger, and from Americans such as J. Hillis Miller, Kenneth Burke and so on. Essential to Halliburton’s theory of phenomenology is the belief that no work is whole by itself — it cannot be separated from the author’s intention or from the canon of that author without distortion of the integrity of the text. In practical criticism, however, one must choose a limited horizon of material in order to understand “the way they go” and then expand the horizon to see more of the whole. Halliburton’s method of delimitation is to analyze a set of specific works, draw them together and then move on to another set of specific works and repeat the process. He gives us a chapter on “Poems,” one on “Tales,” and one on “The Dialogues and Eureka.” In the “Conclusion,” he discusses the whole of Poe’s artistic universe. Halliburton is successful at drawing us into what he perceives to be Poe’s universe, but he tends to direct his readers with too much theory so that the natural process of discovery that he is presenting for us is sometimes lost.

According to Halliburton, man’s struggle with the “other” is especially apparent in Poe’s poems where “the constant element is the necessity of relating to something larger than oneself” (p. 46). The ways of relating to this “other” vary with the subjects. The “other” of “To Helen,” for example, influences the narrator within a common sphere and in “The Raven” the “other” is an “ominous presence” that forces the “I” to suffer. In “Tamerlane” Tamerlane is victimized by an “other” by willing to be possessed. He yields himself and at the same time reigns over himself; this combination of passive state and action “is the enigma of the servile will, of the will that makes itself a slave” (p. 60) . Halliburton sees “Stanzas” as Poe’s attempt to make Tamerlane’s experience more universal by claiming that nature does not want to victimize man, but man may not listen to nature’s guidance and thus becomes victim. In fact, as in the lovers of “Al Aaraaf,” [column 2:] man may not be able to hear in time to save himself. The one thing man can be sure of is that an “all-powerful other” does exist. According to Halliburton this subjection to an “other” which begins in the early poems recurs in all of Poe’s works. The negative confrontation with the “other” reduces man to helplessness and makes him yearn, and I would add fear as an important factor here. The positive confrontation is adoration and fascination.

Halliburton ingeniously shows how man becomes angel in an earlier version of “Israfel” by “intervolving” himself with Israfel before expressing a desire to change places with him. The first person humanizes heaven. But the spatial separation between heaven and earth and the distinction of being cannot be bridged. In the revision the human wish to be super-human is made conditional; “could” becomes “might.” Halliburton claims that Poe’s revision of “The Sleeper” in “Irene” is an attempt to make “The Sleeper” more holy. I think it is more like the revision of “Israfel” — a more subtle confrontation, a safer road. Allen Tate is probably right to point out the metaphysical skepticism of this poem, which seems to me to be more ironic than “holy” in the revision.

There is a group of poems in Poe’s canon that mentions a previous better time that has been degraded by the attack of evil things (that is, the sleeper poems and city poems) . In “The Haunted Palace” Halliburton explains this change as the loss of consciousness to the will of another. And in “Sonnet — Silence” the last line, “commend thyself to God!” shows that the power of silence can be overcome by submission to God — to a greater “other.”

Halliburton’s analysis of “The Raven” is a good example of how phenomenological criticism “works.” He helps us to hear more than a squawking bird by showing how we can hear “the merging of its utterance with the utterance of the human speaker through whose voice the story evolves” (p. 136) . The speaker takes on the burden of the work so that they become his words too. This happens because the speaker is willing to be victimized — he is a good example “of that servile will that seeks perfection in the purity of a bondage that can never end” (p. 142). Halliburton sees the confrontation in Poe’s poems as for the most part good, as affirmative. because confrontation with an “other” means the breakdown of separation.

Confrontation with, or refusal to confront, an “other” continues in Poe’s tales. In “Berenice,” for instance, the “I,” Egaeus, is never able to grasp what he intends and never breaks out of the boundaries of his own consciousness. “Ligeia,” on the other hand, is, according to Halliburton, a story of the use of consciousness to extend beyond oneself to an “other.” Halliburton sees “Ligeia” as Poe’s most affirmative story because in it we see a human using vital and conscious force to survive death and thus show the indestructibility of life (p. 209) . “Morella” is the story of an “other” controlling the fate of the narrator. Morella is his fare: “Morella has transcended the condition of womanhood; she is an incantation, a primal timeless rhythm, a name: it is with the enunciation of Morella’s name that each of the last three sentences end” (p. 222). In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the paired elements are related so intimately that they nearly reach mutuality of adaptation — complete mutuality [page 52:] is only possible for God. Halliburton claims that even the detective tales show a confrontation with an “other.” For example, in “The Purloined Letter” Dupin becomes like a man possessed when he is in a reflective mood and the design of the reality of the story itself embraces divine creation.

In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the narrator confronts an “other” within the Usher mansion. He joins Usher in Usher’s system of relationships, but the confrontation is negative; the only way the narrator can be free of the oppression is to change his relation with it. The first sentence of the tale reveals the process of the narrator coming to consciousness of the intimacy of the relations in the house. The ontological economy of Roderick and Madeline is so complete that it takes up all of the available space. When the narrator enters, the balance is upset. The upset extends beyond consciousness and is made external. When the storm comes “Usher is no longer a man changing in a world; he is a man in a world changing” (p. 294) . The narrator is no longer in Usher’s system and becomes an eternal observer.

In “The Masque of the Red Death” Prospero consciously attempts to become God. His attempt to be all in his creation is an attempt to supplant God’s creation similar to the attempt at model-building in “Al Aaraaf.” Man is not yet ready to be God: “Before a greater power, the Prince’s auronomous creations — his attempt to extend time through space — are as nothing” (p. 316).

Halliburton points out that in the landscape tales man comes very close to becoming God. In “The Domain of Arnheim” Ellison’s creative work nearly merges the human with the divine, but he does not, as he admits, quite equal God’s creativity; “he allows for the possibility that the results of his labor may look very different from a higher perspective” (p. 361) . Design is always important in Poe, for design in Poe’s cosmology is the universe, and in “The Philosophy of Composition” he seems to say that his art is his world and he will design it as he pleases. In “Landor’s Cottage” he anticipates “the notion of lawful cosmic design which will be a central element in Eureka” (p. 366).

Poe’s characters who aspire to become God do not quite make it, though Ellison is nearly the author of a divine creation. Most pseudo-God characters in Poe, such as Prospero, are doomed to failure and seem to be controlled by a force greater than themselves. Sometimes the God-figures appear as women, such as Morella, Ligeia and Eleonora. The landscape tales show the greatest advance toward closing the gap between man and God. “They suggest that the creativity of God and the creativity of man are somehow parallel, and that man is most godlike when he is most fully himself” (p. 373). Halliburton says that Poe, the creator of all these tales and poems, comes the closest to becoming God.

The most direct confrontation with God Himself is in the dialogues and Eureka, where we find that the disappearance of the world lays bare the universe itself. But this is dangerous because the supplanting of deity cannot be reversed, as we see in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” where the arts created by man turn against him: “Even while he stalked a God in his own fancy, an infantine imbecility came over him” (p. 381). Charting one’s [column 2:] way through the texts is like a journey through the universe — a way of getting “beyond divine restrictions” (p. 401). In Eureka Poe confidently charts the plot of the universe and he wants to be heard. The style of Eureka merges with the style of the universe: “The rhythm of Eureka, with its repetitions and reversals, its darkness and its power, is the rhythm of breathing, the life-sustaining process central to so many of the tales, and indivisible from the beating of the heart that, here and in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is the seat of life” (p. 410). In contrast to the tales, the universe cannot oppress because the universe is God and God is man. According to Halliburton’s interpretation of Poe, it is through words that man as interpreter of the universe speaks through God and thus becomes God. In Poe’s universe language is the phenomenon that causes complete mutuality of adaptation for God and man.

Still, there are important unanswered questions. Also involved in this process of man becoming God, as Halliburton presents it, is the process of man becoming possessed and seeking salvation. For example, according to Halliburton, Tamerlane wills to be possessed so that he can later be saved by divine intercession (p. 69). And of Dupin he says that his “reflective moods are trances; at such times he is, for all practical purposes, a man possessed” (p. 238). In Pym he sees a rhythm of “peril and deliverance” through which “Gradually we see that the function of the great risk is nothing less than the great salvation” (p. 252). Halliburton effectively concludes that man’s salvation is implemented in Poe’s work in his theory of unity — a theory that Halliburton sees as “literally synonymous with God” (p. 416). But what happens to the process of man becoming possessed or demonic in Poe’s theory? What happens to Tamerlane whose supplanting of deity, says Halliburton, cannot be reversed? Halliburton ingeniously works out the overall design of salvation in Poe’s works, but the demonic strain within that design remains in question. Do the possessed become Satan in Poe’s work? or does Poe unite God and Satan? or does man overpower both forces? Halliburton’s interpretation of Poe is finally one-sided, neglecting to solve the problem of that damnation or disappearance into Nothingness that the interpretation itself poses.

Judy Osowski, Stout State University

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