Text: Richard A. Fusco, “Chapter III,” Poe and the Perfectablility of Man (1982), pp. 56-72 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 56:]


Poe on Human History


As a critic Poe never equivocated. In opposing the optimism inherent in perfectibility theory, he interpreted human history with despondence. The perfectionists regarded historical analysis as the cornerstone of their argument. For them the annals of mankind prove that progress exists and induces further progress: history becomes a pageant — a grand causal chain that inspires confidence in man’s future. In a letter to Lowell, Poe challenged that notion: “Man is now only more active — not more happy, nor more wise, than he was 6000 years.ago.”(1) Poe continued this tone in his fiction. “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” “Some Words with a Mummy,” and “Mellonta Tauta” satirize perfectionist methodology and reevaluate historical data in a negative light. Not only does Poe assert that no generation ought to claim superiority over any other, he exposes man’s conceit in the matter. Each age deludes itself into believing that its lot is preferable to that of past generations. This egoism produces confused [page 57:] perception just as the present misinterprets the ideas and events of the past; the future promises to do the same in viewing the present. Rather than the logical and inevitable progression seen by Turgot and Priestley, history becomes distorted and absurd, more apt to prove man’s downfall than his apotheosis. As Poe told Lowell:

[t]he result will never vary — and to suppose that it will, is to suppose that the foregone man has lived in vain-that the foregone time is but the rudiment of the future — that the myriads who have perished have not been upon equal footing with ourselves — nor are we with our posterity.(2)

For Poe, this was the irony inherent in human advancement theory: in advocating the possibility of man fulfilling his destiny, the perfectionists downgrade the significance of all generations — including their own — that fall short of the ideal. This objection formed the central theme of the three tales discussed below.

”The Colloquy of Monos and Una”

In Monos’s first long declamation in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” which Poe uses to present his anti-perfectionist views, the spirit laments the obscurity of the wise philosophers who apposed perfectionism. To Monos’s delight he finds that heaven accepts his intellectual inclinations as obvious truths: The tenets of those beliefs include the “principles [page 58:] which should have taught our race to submit to the guidance of the natural laws, rather than attempt to control them.” Monos’s description of those who advocate such a position fit both Poe himself and his ideal of the poet:

. . . Occasionally the poetic intellect — that-intellect which we now feel to have been the most exaulted of all-since those truths which to us were of the most enduring importance could only be reached by that analogy which speaks in proof-tones to the imagination alone, and to the unaided reason bears no weight — occasionally did this poetic intellect proceed a step farther in the evolving of the vague idea of the philosophic, and find in the mystic parable that tells of the tree of knowledge, and of its forbidden fruit, death-producing, a distinct intimation that knowledge was not meet for man in the infant condition of the sou1.(3)

Such men view scientific progress with a wary eye, wondering if advances debase rather than enrich.(4) Either in obscurity or in spite of opprobrium,

these men, the poets, ponder piningly, yet not unwisely, upon the ancient days when our wants were not more simple than our enjoyments were keen — days when mirth was a word unknown, so solemnly deep-toned was happiness — holy, august and blissful days, when blue rivers ran undamned, between hills unhewn, into far forest solitudes, primaeval, odorous, and unexplored.(5)

The poetic vision is rare, however. Consequently; in questing for a better condition, man has mistakingly battled nature, a conflict that is Pyrrhic at best. [page 59:]

Monos’s speech parodies perfectionist methodology. Under Poe’s interpretation history becomes not the optimistic ascension of comforts and ideals as portrayed by Turgot; instead “the Earth’s records had taught me to look for the widest ruin as the price of highest civilization.”(6) Man has retrogressed primarily through art:

Alas! we had fallen upon the most evil of all our evil days. The great “movement” — that was the cant term — went on: a diseased commotion, moral and physical. Arts — the Arts — arose supreme, and once enthroned, cast chains upon the intellect which had elevated them to power.(7)

Monos asserts that art represents man’s inability to accept the supremacy of nature. As he learns to master more of nature’s elements, man’s humility turns into egoism, affecting his spirit:

. . . He [man] enwrapped himself in generalities. Among other odd ideas, that of universal equality gained ground; and in the face of analogy and of God — in despite of the loud warning voice of the laws of graduation so visibly pervading all things in Earth and Heaven — wild attempts in an omni-prevalent Democracy were made. Yet this evil sprang necessarily from the leading evil, Knowledge. Man could not both know and succumb.(8)

This accumulation of knowledge, on which the perfectionists based their optimism, becomes in Poe’s eyes an evil. The advances in science, technology and the arts have only produced [page 60:] “the Art-Scarred surface of the Earth,” a surface replete with “huge smoking cities” while nature withers. By instinct man is a tampering creature: if he knows the secrets of the universe, he will manipulate them. His control, however, is like that of the sorcerer’s apprentice — well-intentioned, grandiose, but nihilistic. Poe distills his anti-progress argument to one criteria:

. . . But now it appears that we had worked out our own destruction in the perversion of our taste, or rather in the blind neglect of its culture in the schools. For, in truth, it was at this crisis that taste alone — that faculty which, holding a middle position between the pure intellect and the moral sense, could never safely have been disregarded — it was now that taste alone could have led us gently back to Beauty, to Nature, and to Life.(9)

Enough evidence exists in the “Monos and Una” passage to suggest that Poe wrote it to rebut perfectionist theory. He attacks Turgot’s notion that the growth of knowledge has benefitted man. Priestley’s concept of the utility of liberty becomes an “odd idea” unfounded in heaven. Price maintains that religion advanced to truer beliefs with each successive generation; Poe claims that man “stalked a God in his own fancy.”(10)

The supposed stimuli to a better future — art and science — become in Poe’s perspective the catalysts to man’s [page 61:] self-degradation. Thus, the “great movement” becomes human progress theory, and the poetic few that are scorned include Poe. Poe tries to justify his pessimism over the human’ race by making it axiomatic in heaven. Despite the celestial unquestionability of such an interpretation, though, only Poe the poet and his meager compatriots see.without delusion the proper place of man in the universe.

”Some Words with a Mummy”

By interfusing past and present in “Some Words with a MumMy,” Poe again debunks perfectionism. Whereas “Monos and Una” had only one anti-progress passage, Poe devotes the entirety. of “Mummy” to the theme. His diatribe can be categorized into six levels. First, Poe ridicules the process by which man accumulates knowledge. His next three criticisms deal with various historical inaccuracies. Time obscures facts about ancient civilizations; therefore, the present has insufficient data to know the past. The incomplete extant information is often misinterpreted.(11) Moreover, most of society — those fitting Poe’s definition of the “mob” — do not even read the classics. Each manner of ignorance contributes [page 62:] to a fifth criticism — contemporary man’s delusion of his society’s grandeur, at which he arrives by comparing his detailed knowledge of the present with his fragmentary vision of the past. Finally, Poe implies tacitly that previous cultures pursued this same ill-founded self-aggrandizement.

The ludicrous means by which the investigators in “Mummy” discover truths reveal Poe’s sarcasm. Poe begins the tale after the narrator has consumed Welsh rarebit by the pound. Folklore attributes nightmares to the dish. Implicitly, then, when the past confronts the chimeras of contemporary society, the results can only be nightmarish. The agent of truth is himself bizarre — a resurrected mummy. The scientists revive him accidentally, again suggesting a sorcerer’s apprentice motif. On a whim they conduct an electrical experiment on the supposed cadaver, having no preconception about any utility in the effort. In their surprising success, they unleash potent challenge to their self-perceptions of a superiority. Initially, the investigators suffer differing levels of fright at the circumstance. The most intrepid of the group is the narrator, who is intoxicated. Nightmares, whimsy, intoxication — such characterize discovery. In his first act, Allamistakeo, the revived Egyptian, physically kicks Doctor Ponnonner, but also symbolically attacks [page 63:] this spirit of science.(12)

The essence of Poe’s inversion of Turgot’s historical perspective lies in his comments on the mutability of history:

. . . An historian, for example, having attained the age_ of five hundred, would write a book with great labor and then get himself carefully embalmed; leaving instructions to his executors pro tem.,that they should cause him to be revivified after the lapse of a certain period — say five or six hundred years. Resuming existence at the expiration of this term, he would invariably find his great work converted into a species of hap-hazard [sic] notebook — that is to say, into a kind of literary arena for the conflicting guesses, riddles and personal squabbles of whole herds of exasperated commentators. These guesses, etc., which pass under the name of annotations or emendations, were found so completely to have enveloped, distorted, and overwhelmed the text, that the author had to go about with a lantern to discover his own book. When discovered, it was never worth the trouble of the search.(13)

Rather than accumulating truth, history “degenerat[es] into absolute fable.”(14)

Because of poor data and misinterpretation, the investigators in “Mummy” find many discrepancies in their knowledge of ancient-Egypt.(15) Upon examining the body, the group discovers that the process used to mummify the specimen does not tally with any contemporary theory. Later, Allamistakeo corrects, among other matters, Buckingham’s assumption about [page 64:] the preservative employed. The age of the mummy “had been grossly misjudged.” Scarabaeus, which Gliddon thought to signify an Egyptian god, turns out to be “the insignium, or the ‘arms,’ of a very distinguished and a very rare patrician family.”(16) Allamistakeo informs the group that their biblical Adam derives from the Egyptian word meaning “Red Earth.” When Gliddon mentions that the ancients worshipped many gods, his astonished subject lectures the group that “[n]o nation upon the face of the earth has ever acknowledged more than one god.”(17) With every point Allamistakeo proves that modern history, anthropology, and archaeology promote more fiction than fact.

Compounding misinformation is the ignorance of the mob, which is represented in the tale by the narrator. Pricked by the challenge to his pride in the present, he questions Allamistakeo on the ancient world’s knowledge of astronomy, artesian wells and steam. To his dismay the narrator discovers that antiquity’s surviving literature — which he has not read — as well as recent archaeological findings substantiate Allamistakeo’s knowledge on such subjects. Because he is so ill-informed, the narrator’s perception of the past is the [page 65:] most ill-founded in the group.(18)

As an essential part of asserting its superiority, the present seeks to degrade the past. Exposed before the scrutiny of Allamistakeo, the affectations of Poe’s time seem absurd. After dressing the mummy in current fashion, which Poe describes with obvious cynicism, Ponnonner delights in passing cigars, ludicrous because of the absence of tobacco in old Egypt. Gliddon and Buckingham must strip even language itself of artificial “images entirely modern” in order to communicate with Allamistakeo. To explain the word politics, for example, Gliddon draws “a little carbuncle-nosed gentleman, out at elbows, standing upon a stump, with his left leg drawn back, his right arm thrown forward, with the fist shut, the eyes rolled up to Heaven, and the mouth open at an angle of ninety degrees.”(19) To illustrate wig Buckingham removes his.

The moderns try to deprecate the past by boasting of their advances in science and society, but Allamistakeo counters all their premises. With surprise the group learns that the Egyptians toyed with hypnotism and phrenology. Ponnonner offers contemporary architecture, particularly the Capitol building, as evidence of the present’s superiority. [page 66:]

The mummy’s rebuttal consists of a description of an “inferior palace” in Carnac, which had six times more columns than the Capitol as well as occupying a larger space: “[Count Alla-mistakeo] would not pretent to assert that even fifty or sixty of the Doctor’s Capitols might have been built within these walls, but he was by no means sure that two or three hundred of them might not have been squeezed in with some trouble.”(20) Modern mechanics and transportation systems also pale against Allamistakeo’s portrait of Egyptian counterparts. Possibly reacting directly to Condorcet’s arguments on the advancement of the health sciences, Poe proposes through his spokesman that even medicine seems to have declined: the mummy claims that the average lifespan in old Egypt was eight hundred years. On the “Great Movement or Progress” advocated by the transcendentalists in the nineteenth-century, “[t]he Count merely said that Great Movements were awfully common things in his day, and as for Progress it was at one time quite a nuisance, but it never progressed.”(21) With obvious allusions to American history, Poe’s fictional social critic deals with democracy:

We then spoke of the great beauty and importance of Democracy, and were at much trouble in impressing the Count with a due sense of the advantages we enjoyed in living where there was suffrage ad libitum, and no king. [page 67:]

He listened with marked interest, and in fact seemed not a little amused. When we had done, he said that, a great while ago, there had occurred something of a very similar sort. Thirteen Egyptian provinces determined all at once to be free, and so set a magnificent example to the rest of mankind. They assembled their wise men, and concocted the most ingenious constitution it is possible to conceive. For a while they managed remarkably well; only their habit of bragging was prodigious. The thing ended, however, in the consolidation of the thirteen states, with some fifteen or twenty others, into the most odious and insupportable despotism that ever was heard of upon the face of the Earth.

I asked what was the name of the usurping tyrant.

As well as the Count could recollect, it was Mob.(22)

The mummy’s audience could only challenge him with ludicrous, insubstantial areas for comparison: the ancient world had nothing like Ponnonner’s lozenges, Brandreth’s pills, pantaloons, and the Bowling-Green Fountain in New York. In Poe’s eyes these curios have become the ridiculous hallmarks of progress.(23)

Interestingly, the Count suffers from the same generational conceit as his rescuers Throughout the conversation he assumes an arrogant tone, replete with condescending smiles and well-timed astonishment. He chides the group about manners. He reconstructs a positive image of his civilization, yet that society did commit errors. It experimented with the fringe sciences. There was a disastrous experience with democracy. [page 68:] Egypt’s theory of creation was just as fabulous as the nineteenth-century conception. Allamistakeo himself was erroneously entombed. For Poe, then, each age perceives itself egotistically, for men seek to promote their own sense of worth by exaulting their civilization.

”Mellonta Tauta”

In “Mellonta Tauta”(24) Poe explores the other half of the time continuum: the future’s perception of the present. Nevertheless, he arrives at the same conclusions contained in “Mummy.” As the past has been misperceived by the present, so will the future distort the history of the present. The twenty-ninth century will corrupt nineteenth-century language. Facts will be jumbled, coalescing into fiction rather than truth. The data that survives a thousand years will be misinterpreted. Most significant, despite obvious social faults, the next millennium’s citizens will not lose their conceit over their condition.(25)

The tale begins with emphasis upon the narrator’s dissatisfaction. Pundita’s comments about the filth and slowness of balloon locomotion are obviously a comic allegory of [page 69:] railroading in Poe’s day, suggesting that regardless of technological advances man will never be satisfied with his circumstances. Pundita’s world contains deeper flaws, though. It is an age when things are bigger, not better.(26) Because of overpopulation her civilization adopts a necessary philosophy;(27) “I rejoice, my dear friend, that we live in an age so enlightened that no such thing as an individual is supposed to exist. It is the mass for which true Humanity cares.”(28) This anti-individualism leads to the corollary: “Is it not really difficult to comprehend upon what principle of interest our forefathers acted? Were they so blind as not to perceive that the destruction of a myriad of individuals is only so much positive advantage to the mass.”(29)

Nonetheless, Pundita considers her era superior to the nineteenth century. This vanity originates in historical distortion.(30) Even geographic and national appellations become [page 70:] twisted: Atalantic, Africia, Yurope, Ayesher, Jurmain, Vrinch, Inglitch, Amriccan and Kanadaw.(31) Like the theoretical errors on mummification in “Mummy,” Pundita’s concept of early ballooning is hilarious:

. . . Our captain said that if the material of the bag had been the trumpery varnished “silk” of five hundred or a thousand years ago, we should inevitably have been’ damaged. This silk, as he explained to me, was a fabric composed of the entrails of a species of earth-worm [sic]. The worm was carefully fed on mulberries — a kind of fruit resembling a water-melon [sic] — and, when sufficiently fat, was crushed in a mill. The paste thus arising was called papyrus in its primary state, and went through a variety of processes until it finally became “silk.”(32)

Later, the narrator mistakes airship pioneer Charles Green’s name as “Yellor or . . . Violet.”

Philosophy suffers similar mishandling. The French utopian Fourier becomes Furrier, “an Irish philosopher [who kept] a retail shop for cat-peltries and other furs.” Pundita divides Aristotle to Aries Tottle and proclaims him either “Turkish” or a “Hindoo.” Because of the bisection of the name, the narrator associates Aristotle to the zodiacal ram. Pundita then curiously yokes Euclid and Kant (“one Neuclid and one Cant”) to Aristotelian philosophy. Thomas Hobbes becomes “Hog” and is confused with Scottish poet James Hog and [page 71:] with Francis Bacon. Besides linking humorously Hog and Bacon, Pundita’s faulty knowledge ironically conflates Bacon and his secretary Hobbes. In addition, the narrator inaccurately ascribes the formation of induction theory to Hobbes rather than Bacon.(33)

Similar to the present’s mistaken view of the past. in “Mummy,” the future of “Mellonta Tauta” will misinterpret relics from the present. From an 1847 cornerstone Pundita concludes that Lord Cornwallis was “no doubt some wealthy dealer in corn.” Because Cornwallis was “surrendered,” Pundita assumes “Amriccans” were cannibals. Also, “Cornwallis was surrendered (for sausage) ‘under the auspices of the Washington Momument Association’ — no doubt a charitable institution for the depositing of corner-stones [sic].”(34) Despite such temporally induced distortions, Pundita still has sufficient data to attack the American notion of-democracy:-

. . . [The ancient Amriccans] started with the queerest idea conceivable, viz:-that all men are born free and equal — this in the very teeth of the laws of gradation so visibly impressed upon all things, both in the moral and physical universe. Every man “voted,” as they called it — that is to [page 72:] say, meddled with public affairs — until, at length, it was discovered that what is everybody’s business is nobody’s, and that the ‘’Republic” (so the absurd thing was called) was without a government at all. It is related, however, that the first circumstance which disturbed, very particularly, the self-complacency of the philosophers who constructed this “Republic,” was the startling discovery that universal suffrage gave opportunity for fraudulent schemes, by means of which any desired number of votes might at any time be polled, without the possibility of prevention or even detection, by any party which should be merely villainous enough not to be ashamed of the fraud. A little reflection upon this discovery sufficed to render evident the consequences, which were that rascality must predominate — in a word, that a republican government could never be anything but a rascally one.(35)

Poe could not resist the temptation to proclaim democracy ill-suited for all time.


In the three tales discussed above, Poe hopes to negate two critical axioms of perfectionist theory: that contemporary society is superior to all previous cultures, and that the future promises even greater social advancements. For Poe, only the poet realizes that progress is an illusion conjured by human vanity and aided by time’s ability to obscure. Turgot and company were wrong: man cannot ascend through pyramiding knowledge for even recorded data will mislead if improperly interpreted. Moreover, another significant theme underlying each of the three tales is that man willingly misperceives the past in order to assert his own esteem.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 56:]

1.  Letters, 1:256.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 57:]

2.  Letters, 1:256.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 58:]

3.  Collected Works, 2:609.

4.  Judith D. Suther suggests that Poe’s views on the matter resemble those of Rousseau; see “Rousseau, Poe, and the Idea of Progress,” Papers on Language and Literature 12 (Fall 1976): 469-75.

5.  Collected Works, 2:609-10.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 59:]

6.  Collected Works, 2:611.

7.  Ibid., 2:610.

8.  Ibid.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 60:]

9.  Collected Works, 2:610.

10.  Ibid.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 61:]

11.  David Ketterer arrives at a similar observation in New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974), p. 72.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 63:]

12.  Collected Works, 3:1177-82.

13.  Ibid., 3:1189.

14.  Ibid.

15.  Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception, p. 22:

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 64:]

16.  Collected Works, 3:1187.

17.  Ibid. , 3:1188.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 65:]

18.  Collected Works, 3:1191;.1193-94.

19.  Ibid., 3:.1184-85.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 66:]

20.  Collected Works, 3:1192.

21.  Ibid., 3:1193.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 67:]

22.  Collected Works, 3:1193-94.

23.  Ibid., 3:1192-95.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 68:]

24.  Poe revised a number of paragraphs from “Mellonta Tauta” and included them in Eureka, entitling the passage “A Remarkable Letter.”

25.  Ketterer, New Worlds for Old, pp. 72-73.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 69:]

26.  Burton R. Pollin comments that “in ‘Mellonta Tauta,’ Poe is again predicting the decline of civilization that can ‘pack’ Manhattan island with twenty-storey [sic] houses, erected by the ‘Knickerbocker tribe of savages.’” See “Politics and History in Poe’s ‘Mellonta Tauta’: Two Allusions Explained,” Studies in Short Fiction 8 (Fall 1971):627.

27.  Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception, pp. 23-24.

28.  Collected Works, 3:1293.

29.  Ibid., 2:1294.

30.  Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception, pp. 22, 24.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 70:]

31.  Mabbott identifies these corruptions as respectively Atlantic, Africa, Europe, Asia, German, French, English, American and Canada; see Collected Works, 3:1306-07n.

32.  Ibid., 3:1292.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 71:]

33.  Collected Works, 3:1293, 1295. Most translations of Poe’s deliberate corruptions are from Mabbott. Mabbott makes one curious omission, however: Poe obviously intended Hog to be derived from Hobbes.

34.  Ibid., 3:1304-05.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 72:]

35.  Collected Works, 3:1299-1300. Compare Pundita’s Comments with those of Allamistakeo’s quoted on pp. 66-67.



[S:0 - PPM82, 1982] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Poe and the Perfectability of Man (R. A. Fusco) (Chapter III)