Text: Richard A. Fusco, “Chapter IV,” Poe and the Perfectablility of Man (1982), pp. 73-75 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 73:]



Poe’s attitude toward perfectionist theory and the manifestation of that opinion in his fiction should not surprise Poe scholars. The character of the perspective presents interpretive problems, however — particularly in placing such a theme within proper context of the Poe canon. Poe’s creative impulses can be classified into the poetic, the fictional and the critical. In most of his work, he intermixes all three. As I have demonstrated previously, Poe’s anti-perfectionism derives in main from his critical stance. Curiously, it is not an intuitive response, spurring his imagination. Instead, it is reactionary: he could only rebut point by point the arguments of his philosophical opponents. Whereas on one hand, for example, Poe the connoisseur-critic could advance the theory of the short story in reviewing Hawthorne’s fiction,(1) on the other Poe the cynical critic must methodically and, at times, obsessively challenge every contention made by Turgot, Priestley, Price, Condorcet and de Staël. In the former instance, Poe allowed [page 74:] his imagination to thrive; in the latter he restricted himself to confronting the vision of his rivals.

One consequence of this intellectual confinement is that Poe could not conceive a rigorously constructed alternative to perfectibility theory. This failure becomes evident in the unsatisfactory conclusions to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.” Pym ends his journey by encountering “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”(2) In his imagery Poe implies that the humanoid is superior to man,(3) but when confronted by the task of describing such perfection, Poe’s imagination abandons him — hence the anticlimatic ending of the novel. Likewise, Hans Pfaall promises, among other matters, to report on the culture of the moon creatures. Poe avoids such descriptions, though, by having earth science judge Pfaall’s manuscript as a hoax.(4) Pym and Pfaall journey far to discover better worlds, yet when [page 75:] they arrive at their destinations, Poe’s imagination could not soar because it was impeded by his disbelief in perfectibility. He had no alternatives to describe; he could only attack the dreams of others.

Undoubtedly, Pym, “Pfaall,” and anti-perfectionism represent preliminary versions of Poe’s annihilation principle in which he found paradoxical solace in Eureka.(5) In a collapsing universe where even God is doomed,(6) the affectations of society and of human destiny have negligible significance. Consequently, Poe the critic could not conceive ethereal civilizations, for such dreams dissipate into gossamer delusions — beautiful to observe, but all too prone to disintegrate.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 73:]

1.  Complete Works, 11:108.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 74:]

2.  Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Burton R. Pollin, vol. 1: The Imaginary Voyages (Boston: Twayne, 1981): 206.

3.  Edward H. Davidson believes the reverse — that the white world represents total primitivism; see Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1957), p. 178.

4.  Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, 1:425-26.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 75:]

5.  William Drake suggests that Eureka culminates many aspects of Poe’s artistry; see “The Logic of Survival: Eureka in Relation to Poe’s Other Works,” in Poe as Literary Cosmologer, Studies on Eureka: A Symposium, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford, Connecticut: Transcendental Books, 1975), p. 16.

6.  Allen Tate writes: “Thus, says Poe at the end of Eureka, not only is every man his own God, every man is God: every man the non-spatial center into which the universe, by a reverse motion of the atoms, will contract, as into its annihilation. God destroys himself in the eventual recovery of his unity. Unity equals zero. If Poe must at last ‘yield himself unto Death utterly,’ there is lurid sublimity in the spectacle of his taking God along with him into a grave which is not smaller than the universe.” See “The Angelic Imagination,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism since 1829, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1966), p. 252; [Tate’s italics].



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