Text: Leonard Cassuto, “Poe’s Force of Disorder: The Grotesque in Cultural Context,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 45-62 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 45, unnumbered:]


Leonard Cassuto

Just as defense plants have become ritual platforms from which presidential candidates deliver speeches on national security, so has Edgar Allan Poe’s work become a rostrum from which critics declaim on the grotesque. Poe’s clear concern with the idea of the grotesque as well as the effect (immediately evident from the title of his first collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque) makes his writing a likely site for such activity. Over the years, few theorists of the literary grotesque have failed to show how Poe fits into their schemes. For all of this activity, though, there has been little critical consensus on Poe’s treatment of the grotesque, reflecting not only Poe’s own coyness on the subject, but also the unresolved ongoing debate over the nature and definition of the grotesque generally.(1)

I analyze Poe’s grotesque here, centering on the way he exploits ideas of cultural category to work with the effect within his fiction. I will argue that Poe uses the grotesque to uncover the arbitrary — and often shaky — assumptions holding up social constructs. He does this by creating liminal characters and situations that shock by exposing the workings supporting our view of ourselves and by extension, our world. This line of reasoning may be extended; it is meant to be part of a larger cultural theory of the grotesque. I offer it in this forum because if any new analysis of the grotesque doesn’t fit Poe, then its soundness must be doubted. My method will be to move from the general to the particular; I will introduce a new anthropological view of the grotesque, and then use this perspective to analyze the workings of the grotesque in Poe’s fiction.


The Grotesque, Culturally Considered

The grotesque has historically been seen most often as a combination of the humorous and the horrible, with these terms receiving different definition and emphasis.(2) The tradition of “fear and laughter” definitions describes a long-running attempt to explain the anxiety the grotesque can cause. They use a framework based on individual effect, governed by the implicit assumption that individual [page 46:] responses lead naturally to social consensus about the grotesque. I question this underlying premise, and consequently will examine the grotesque within a social context. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White warn that “one cannot analyse the psychic domain without examining the processes of transcoding between the body, topography, and social formation.”(3) Following this reasoning, I would argue that the grotesque must be understood, defined, and explained as a cultural production, a product of collective consciousness which works at the level of the individual mind. Individual psyches will differ, but the grotesque has an influence that goes beyond individual apprehension; it violates norms, and norms are collective property.

I suggest, then, that no understanding of the grotesque is complete without an explanation of the friction it creates with the beliefs and traditions of the culture as a whole. Such a task must begin with an analysis of classification, for without the human tendency to classify, the grotesque could not exist as a descriptor. Before anything else, divisions are responsible for the grotesque. The grotesque is commonly viewed opposite the normal, shunted off into a corner where it need not be seen. It is a conflicting mixture of signals that intrudes upon the order of the world, “the ‘taboo-laden’ overlap between high and low discourse” (Stallybrass and White p. 26). This idea of disorder is central to the working of the grotesque. Tension is the common element to virtually every definition of the term, and transformation is its most common association. The grotesque is hard to apprehend because it doesn’t fit neatly into a category. From live burial to oddly twisted tree branches, it appears in the form of anomalies, departures from the norm that carry a peculiar power. These category problems disturb particularly because they question the way in which human beings impose order on the world. The grotesque causes profound distress by bridging and thereby attacking these categories.

Viewed in this way, categories are absolutely crucial to the origin and continuing existence of human society as we know it. They are the heart of order, for without them the essential distinctions (i.e., good and evil, us and them) — the ones that give rise to further divisions — would not be possible. For Claude Levi-Strauss, the first difference is between culture and nature, between “us” and “it.”(4) Except for this basic division, nothing can be predicted. Just as a baby begins with thisdivision and builds upon it, so must a culture ultimately construct a system on the basis of this fundamental distinction. Levi-Strauss begins [page 47:] with our antipathy for chaos and corresponding desire for order. Order is not just useful then, but preferable. We like it. Freud theorized that,

There is an intellectual function in us that demands unity, connection and intelligibility from any material, whether of perception or thought, that comes within its grasp. . .(5)

Though his own cultural analysis is at odds with Freud’s, Clifford Geertz nevertheless concurs on this point: “The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.”(6) Categories satisfy this demand for order. They form because they are both needed (for understanding) and wanted. Separation and division of knowledge, in this view, is more than the goal — it is the motive.

My analysis is founded upon this desire for order, and its persistent violation by the grotesque. Individuals seek order in their own lives, and cultures do the same, banning threats to their own order via taboo. But the grotesque always manages to evade these thought police. It is a constant intrusion on order, an anomalous agent of chaos. Violating accepted boundaries represents an attack on the entire culture. Likewise, it becomes a threat to the entire learning endeavor, for it questions the context of knowledge. As Freud points out, “Our conceptions arise through comparison.”(7) A threat to established categories is an attack on the basis of comparison. The grotesque mounts precisely this threat, which makes it a phenomenon of great social consequence. Because the grotesque is felt in the form of anomalies which bridge categories and resist integration, it consequently questions the basis on which knowledge rests.

How is the grotesque (or any anomaly) handled? The first response to a stimulus that does not fit existing categories — the potential threat — is to create a new slot for it. Levi-Strauss says that this procedure is normal and expected, for “it would be a remarkable coincidence if a harmonious synthesis of the social and natural order were to be achieved at once” (p. 95).

But what if the contradiction cannot be resolved? What if the tension it creates within the system will not go away? When classified, a thing is defined by being given a place in relation to other things. The threat to the organization of people and things is ameliorated. Ambiguity is averted, and order is saved. If this rescue fails, the tension between system and anomaly remains — and the threat is renewed with [page 48:] force all the greater for its continuing resistance. The grotesque, with its unresolved tensions and its tenuous perch on the fence dividing the acceptable and the forbidden, thus constitutes an attack on the fundaments of culture itself.

In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas describes the ways in which cultures protect themselves against anomalies. Douglas sees anomalousness as “essentially disorder” (p. 2), a threat to an order imposed upon “inherently untidy experience” (p. 4). Ambiguity is a pernicious threat to dirty up the clean mechanism of category and definition. Like Levi-Strauss, Douglas sees a basic cultural need for order, postulating that “It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts” (p. 162).

Douglas says that progressively more stringent lines of defense are thrown up against the exceptions to the rules of the system. The first attempt, as noted, is to attempt to create a new category. If this strategy does not resolve the conflict, the possible solutions become more drastic. Another possibility is to resolve the ambiguity through arbitrary brute strength, forcing the issue in favor of one interpretation of the anomaly. This tactic can take extreme forms in some cases, such as the strategy of the Nuer tribe for dealing with deformed births. In the words of E.E. Evans Pritchard, they “treat monstrous births as baby hippopotamuses, accidentally born to humans, and with this labeling, the appropriate action is clear. They gently lay them in the river where they belong.”(8) Such practices illustrate the lengths to which cultures may go to ward off anomalies.

The grotesque qualifies as an anomaly of the most fundamental sort. A condition of its definition is that it cannot be banished, erased, or resolved. In Poe’s “Berenice,” for example, Egaeus attraction to Berenice’s teeth fits no known category of desire, and her teeth, when removed from her body, gain a forbidden power and status. According to Douglas’s terminology, such phenomena are labeled “dangerous,” and assume a forbidden status. They are thus rendered separate, and placed outside the whole: unable to be exterminated according to the rules of the system, they are instead exiled from it.

The position of the grotesque on the boundary between the accepted and the dangerous (and therefore taboo) means that it is always with us. Its liminal position is the source of the anxiety and upset that it can cause. The grotesque attacks fundamental assumptions, those categories that form the foundation of the system of belief. Taking up one of Poe’s most famous examples, Madeline’s resurrection [page 47:] in “The Fall of the House of Usher” disturbs because it blurs the boundary between the living and the dead. When people are buried, they are supposed to stay that way. If we cannot depend on that, there is little else we can count on. Poe uses the grotesque to make our dependence on such expectations abundantly clear.


Poe’s Grotesque

Poe’s attraction to the grotesque is rooted in his desire to manipulate, reflected in his stated concern for aesthetic effect over all. Cognitively speaking, the grotesque is an effect, with a basis in violation. But the grotesque is also an aesthetic category. It has been viewed opposite the beautiful since classical times, before it had a name.(9) Since the beautiful is usually tied to harmony, the grotesque commonly finds itself paired with ugliness and disharmony.

Poe’s use of the grotesque suggests a myriad sense of its possibility, ranging from the Horacian view of the imagination at play to the more modern emphasis on dread, disgust, and black humor.(10) The categories of “beautiful” and “ugly” require each other for the necessity of definition. This mutual connection helps to explain why Poe — who tried to define the beautiful in literary terms — would also want to dip into the muddy waters of the grotesque.(11) Unifying his aesthetic inquiry is an awareness that both depend on category divisions — with the grotesque driven by violation of these divisions.

This violation can be temporary or permanent, corresponding to Mary Douglas’s description of cultural strategy for warding off anomalies. The grotesque is essentially a breach of the category system through the introduction of a new and difficult-to-apprehend phenomenon. Of Poe’s many stories that evoke the grotesque, the detective stories tend to restore order, while the Gothic tales (among others) leave the questions unanswered and the state of things permanently disturbed. I will examine a paradigmatic example of each.


”The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the Racial Grotesque [page 50:]

Dupin is Poe’s agent for epistemological order. The sleuth’s role in the detective stories is not so much to solve the crime as it is to save the entire category system, the reliability of which the crime has called into question. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe’s first detective story, centers on a series of particularly brutal and vicious homicides. Significantly, Poe has Dupin describe the killings as “a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity” (M 2: 588, Poe’s emphasis). This separateness from human experience is precisely the point of entry for the grotesque. The acts are anomalous. How could such things happen in a civilized world? The assumption is that any human being who could commit such a crime could only be a monster.(12) (This association is, I would argue, at the root of the modern fascination with real and fictional serial killers.) Dupin essentially shows that the killer is not a monster, deducing that the acts were perpetrated by an escaped orangutan. By supplying an explanation from within the realm of the known and normal, Dupin banishes the threat to an order which is built on the contents of that realm.

In creating “Murders,” Poe reifies a particular category problem of his time and place. As Richard Kopley has shown, Poe invented the story by conflating reports in the Philadelphia Saturday News of three incidents in 1838 and 1839, the first of an escaped orangutan, the second of the murder of a New York woman by a razor-wielding black man, Edward Coleman, and the third about an escaped baboon that briefly terrorized the inhabitants of a house on Elizabeth St.(13) By collapsing these accounts into one scenario, Poe creates a grotesque whole, centering on an anomaly whose liminality originates partly in racist attitudes (which Poe unfortunately shared). For most of the story the author confronts the reader with an “atrocious,” savagely antisocial criminal, but one who offers no clue to either his motive or his method. Because its acts of inhuman cruelty are assumed to have human motivation, Poe’s dark and murderous ape enters a liminal state between human and animal until its identity is discovered. Poe’s construction of the tale as a mystery story emphasizes that the perpetrator of these crimes challenges the boundaries of the human category. Indeed, Kopley notes that in earlier versions of the story that Poe replaced the pronouns “its” and “it” with “his” and “he” (p. 9). The final version cites the “outré” quality of the mystery, describing it as “something altogether irreconcilable with our common notions of human action, even when we suppose the actors the most depraved [page 51:] of men” (M 2:557). This alien-ness is what confuses the police and keeps the murders from being solved.

The mystery of the Rue Morgue builds its grotesque associations on prevailing nineteenth century attitudes toward race and insanity. Both grow from the assumption that the murderer is a human being, but one whose behavior is for some reason inhuman. When Dupin discovers the truth, the facts don’t entirely erase the assumptions that the characters have been operating under, or the associations that the reader may receive from them. Specifically, there is a lingering sense of a merger between the categories of Negro and ape, a linkage which follows a contemporary pseudoscientific belief of Negro evolutionary inferiority that was popular on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line during Poe’s time and afterwards.(14) The apparently motiveless crime also suggests a connection between animalism and irrationality, an Enlightenment belief that retained its adherents during the nineteenth century.(15) Like the ape-man, the madman also breaches categories to become a powerful grotesque monster.

“Murders” shows the grotesque to be a social phenomenon reflective of social attitudes and beliefs, the sources of which are cultural categories. In pushing at the outer edges of the human category, Poe uncovers a fear of monkeys, who menace us because they lie so uncomfortably close to it, and of blacks, who at that time were being artificially kept out of it. Dupin resolves the anomaly — in effect restoring the man and monkey to their proper places — but only after the system has been out of commission for some considerable time, leaving a light precipitate of doubt and unreliability.(16) Still, we may follow prevailing critical opinion and view Poe’s detective fiction as an attempt to restore equilibrium to the world. My point here is that for Poe, this order is of a fundamental kind. It is the order based on epistemological certainty, and its violation creates a threat: the grotesque.

Dupin’s heroics have generated a lot of critical press, but they are hardly representative of Poe’s grotesque praxis. Poe doesn’t usually allow a detective to save the day by pulling the story back from disorder at the last instant. More often, he allows the anomaly to resonate within the category system it questions. In other words, he uses the grotesque to create unresolvable epistemological problems. The best example in the Poe canon of this kind of disruption may be “Valdemar.” If “Murders” focuses on the boundary between human and monster, then [page 52:] “Valdemar” examines the line separating the living from the dead, and thus questions the division between human and thing. Like “Murders,” “The Facts Concerning the Case of M. Valdemar” illustrates the danger that results from an anomaly pressing on crucial boundaries. But “Valdemar” has no detective, and presents no discrete solution. Though presented in the disciplined and scientific form of a case study — and thought to be based on actual events by many of Poe’s readers at the time — the case of Valdemar yields none of the insight brought by Dupin’s rational inquiry. Instead, the story calls attention to a gaping hole in the human system of knowledge and belief, and then proceeds to leave this hole wide open.


M. Valdemar: The Ultimate Category Problem

“Valdemar” draws on the then-science of mesmerism, popular in Poe’s time, to explore the question of where life ends and death begins (an interstitial point which technology has made increasingly volatile today).(17) In the tale, Poe concentrates on what Arnold Van Gennep has termed “the liminal state.” To Van Gennep, liminality means transition, the act of becoming, or moving from one stage to another.(18) The grotesque, so often born of transformation, is one kind of liminal process. It takes place inside and outside of categories, on the edges — and for the study of liminality, the edges are where the action is.

In the advanced stages of tuberculosis, Valdemar allows himself to be mesmerized at the point of his death, which makes him liminal in two ways: he hovers not only between consciousness and unconsciousness (or wakefulness and sleep), but also (and most potently) between life and death. Betwixt and between, Valdemar becomes an unclassifiable anomaly — and a powerful grotesque. Poe emphasizes the character’s position on the margins by depicting him literally as a living skeleton (“the skin had been broken through by the cheekbones” (M 3: 1233) who somehow survives without breathing (“the mirror afforded no evidence of respiration” (M 3: 1241).

Poe’s explicit treatment of Valdemar’s liminality results in what is easily the most grotesque of Poe’s fictional treatments of mesmerism. Filled with stink and decay, the story is one of Poe’s most palpably disgusting efforts. Even Valdemar’s voice is somehow gooey (M 3: 1241). [page 53:] In the throes of his trance, he comes to resemble monster more than man:

The eyes rolled themselves slowly open, the pupils disappearing upwardly; the skin generally assumed a cadaverous hue. . .The upper lip, at the same time, writhed itself away from the teeth, which it had previously covered completely; while the lower jaw fell with an audible jerk, leaving the mouth widely extended, and disclosing in full view the swollen and blackened tongue. (M 3: 1239)

Such an appearance raises problems of definition. Is Valdemar alive? Is he a person at all? Gaps which cannot be filled by knowledge threaten it, and are consequently annexed by fear: “there was a general shrinking back from the region of the bed” (M 3: 1239). Valdemar frightens because he is impossibly suspended between two states; his utterance, “I am dead” would normally be a logical fallacy, but not so here.(19)

Interestingly, Poe’s audience was quick to embrace this fantastic union of life and death, with the result that “Valdemar” was briefly taken as true, thus becoming another of Poe’s literary hoaxes. Poe may well have sought that outcome (he did, after all, write it in the form of a scientific case study), but the fact remains that his readers took the bait.(20) In trying to discern what made them do so, we again encounter the paradoxical attraction of the grotesque.

As Doris Falk has documented in her essay on Poe’s mesmeric tales, beliefs concerning mesmerism in Poe’s time centered on the concept of “animal magnetism,” a mysterious physical force liberated within the hypnotic state. The key point is that this magnetism is a “unifying and illuminating force,” forming the basis for “a pervasive organizing principle” that brings a sweeping order across mind and body, and time and space.(21) Hypnotism, the vehicle for this grand synthesizing impulse, thus becomes a source for the elusive epistemological order sought by human beings within their cultural belief systems.

In the 1840s then, mesmerism was no conjurer’s trick, but rather a living window through which to glimpse the kind of unearthly unity that would preclude ambiguity, uncertainty, and anxiety. Given the deep human desire for order, we can perhaps understand why Poe’s [page 54:] readers chose to believe that “Valdemar” was true. It is Poe’s triumphant irony that the vehicle for this “mesmeric revelation” (to use his own phrase) is an undead character whose physical appearance makes him one of the most disgusting and anxiety-provoking figures in the author’s fictional canon. Valdemar’s very grotesqueness becomes the source of the insight he provides into the deeply held desires and limitations of the human condition.

Valdemar is a physical manifestation of a category problem. He occupies the margins of existence, and that is what makes him grotesque. His marginality is graphically shown at the resolution of his liminality; when he finally dies, he literally falls apart:

[H]is whole frame at once — within the space of a single minute, or less, shrunk — crumbled — absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence. (M 3: 1243)

This sudden decomposition of a corpse is a favorite trick of Poe’s. He uses it on another occasion (in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, when Augustus dies and instantly rots). The disintegrations of both Valdemar and Augustus show how permeable are the barriers governing existence. The barrier itself is no ideal place to live, either. Valdemar, for one, cannot endure it. He begs for his own ambiguity to be resolved: “For God’s sake! — quick! — quick! — put me to sleep — or, quick! — waken me!” (M 3: 1243). Human discomfort with anomalies can find no more stark expression than to have the anomaly himself (“itself”?) plead for extinction over liminality.

Consider Valdemar’s appearance also. Its horror, the narrator tells us, was “beyond conception” (M 3:1239), and indeed, that is undoubtedly part of Poe’s objective here — to skirt the ineffable, to get as close to it as possible, and then try to render it in silhouette. Poe’s grotesque plays with the idea of knowing things which are normally denied to human consciousness, of invading the uncategorized territory of the unknown. More than one critic has honed in on the statement by the narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle” that “we are hurrying onward toward some exciting knowledge — some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction” (M 2:145). That tale is Poe’s most succinct offering on the nature of forbidden knowledge: to achieve it means ceasing to exist. [page 55:]

Poe’s characters flirt with this precept constantly, and the grotesque is usually the means they use to do so. If Valdemar were dead and alive at the same time, he would (by definition) cease to exist as a human being. Furthermore, if he (or the subject in “Mesmeric Revelation”) were somehow able to explain what being dead is like, then the knowledge would cause the auditors (us) to reevaluate our whole world view, in effect calling our own existence — as we have defined it — into question. Poe’s fiction abounds in characters who attempt to extend the limits of human categories. Pym, perhaps the most inexorable of the lot and certainly the most naive, charges tirelessly after adventure, always seeking to know more, to go further, apparently always oblivious of the danger involved. Hans Pfall goes to the moon. The mesmerism narrators go to the boundaries of human life. One could even argue — as Jules Zanger has — that the sexually motivated narrators of tales like “Ligeia” and “Morella” also chase something forbidden, though they unconsciously project it onto their wives. These characters want to do the undoable, show the unshowable, even speak the unspeakable.(22) Their desires (whether known or unconscious) recur again and again, giving frequent rise to the grotesque discoveries that drive the stories Poe tells. Nor are Poe’s comic pieces exempt from this striving — they just adopt a different strategy for breaking into a closed box. Stories like “The Man That Was Used Up,” “King Pest,” and “A Predicament” explore the same problems as Poe’s more disturbing works, but they do so from an assumed posture of mastered fear, a comic superiority that is artificial (in the sense that the difficulties aren’t actually resolved). “The Man That Was Used Up,” for example, may be read as a disquisition into the same problems as are raised by “Valdemar,” centering on the biological boundaries of humanity.

For Poe, the grotesque becomes an imperfect key to forbidden knowledge. It allows human beings to get as close as possible to the limits of their own perception without being able to exceed them. Once there, Poe allows the grotesque to show the deficiencies of knowledge, and of ways of knowing. The narrator-hypnotist of “Mesmeric Revelation” never gets an answer to his most fundamental question (M 3: 1033):

P. What, then, is God?

V. [Hesitating for many minutes.] I cannot tell. [page 56:]

The reply is significantly ambiguous: Vankirk (the subject) may not know the answer — or he may be refusing to give it. The nautical narratives of Pym and “MS. Found” both abort conspicuously short of the moment of presumed secret truth. The secrets (if there are any) remain protected, the integrity of the category system preserved. Sometimes, (as in Pym), the narrator must die in order to preserve the boundary separating the knowable from the unknowable.

Though he wrote long before theoretical anthropologists invented the field, Poe nevertheless shows how category theory informs the study of the grotesque. Reading his fiction means experiencing a violation of cultural categories. The resulting anomalies disturb because they are alien and familiar at the same time; they border our world, and yet they are foreign to it.(23(

Anomalies are cultural productions, for they arise from the violation of the categories of meaning which all members of a society share. The irreducible liminality of Poe’s anomalous characters leads to a difference I have with Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s classification of the grotesque in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, a book which is nevertheless the finest discussion of the subject to come along in some time. The authors propose two varieties of grotesque: simple (the grotesque as Other); and complex, in which the grotesque is a liminal mixture of self and other (p. 193). I think that any division between the two is artificial. The Other invoked by Stallybrass and White is essentially the Lacanian version of the concept, projected on a cultural scale. But Lacan’s Other, a lost part of the self reconceived through the shaping agency of language, is unavoidably connected to that self. The preceding analysis of category theory further emphasizes that the (cultural) self and Other are part of the same whole, for the Other is derived from the self, and is assigned its opposing status by virtue of a connection which cannot be escaped. The undead Valdemar is a tabooed Other, but he is also M. Valdemar, member of society. The two Valdemars cannot be separated. The grotesque always enmeshes self and other in this way — and that is the source of its anomalousness (also of its paradoxical attraction, which is a subject for another day). Poe’s art shows that the grotesque is an inherently liminal phenomenon, expressive — as White and Stallybrass themselves say — of the cultural unconscious, an unalterable part of the cultural self. [page 57:]



1.  The closest Poe ever came to a definition of the grotesque was in his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, when he said that “The epithets ‘Grotesque’ and ‘Arabesque’ will be found to indicate with sufficient precision the prevalent tenor of the tales here published” (M 2: 473). All citations hereafter will be given in the text by volume and page number.

2.  Though this most popular definition of the grotesque probably begins with Victor Hugo — in the preface to Cromwell (Famous Prologues, Harvard Classics Series, New York, 1910) — it receives its first systematic treatment by John Ruskin in his influential “Grotesque Renaissance,” in The Stones of Venice (London, 1853). This fusion thesis has been updated variously over the years. See Philip Thomson’s The Grotesque (London, 1972) for a good summary of most major attempts to define the term. Wolfgang Kayser’s vast compendium of information and examples, The Grotesque in Art and Literature (Bloomington, 1963), ends with a definition that also fits the fear and laughter model, albeit indirectly. Kayser’s book is less satisfying as a history of definition, but the author’s vast learnedness makes it an invaluable resource.

Of course not all treatments of the grotesque focus on the fear and laughter thesis. Two ambitious recent analyses of the grotesque, Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s On the Grotesque (Princeton, 1982) and John Clark’s The Modern Satiric Grotesque and Its Traditions (Lexington, Ky., 1991), place little emphasis on definition. Both acknowledge the workings of the grotesque within the cultural sphere, but are mainly concerned with using it as an exegetical tool. Mikhail Bakhtin, in an important treatise, argues that the grotesque must be understood as a carnivalesque breach of the boundaries of the body (Rabelais and his World (Amherst, 1968) Chapter Five). The only sustained treatment of the grotesque as a socially constructed phenomenon is Peter Stallybrass’s and Allon White’s excellent book, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression (Ithaca, N. Y., 1986), which has a strong Bakhtinian influence.

3.  Stallybrass and White p. 144. Future citations will given parenthetically within the text.

4.  The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1966) p. 91, e.g. “Us” is culture, or the social realm, while “it” is nature, or the undomesticated world outside of society. Future citations will be given parenthetically within the text.

5.  Totem and Taboo (New York, 1950) p. 95.

6.  The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973) p. 140. [page 58:]

7.  “The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words,” On Creativity and the Unconscious (New York, 1958) p. 59.

8.  Nuer Religion (Oxford, 1956) p. 84, as quoted by Mary Douglas; Purity and Danger (New York, 1966) p. 39. Another telling example is the killing of twins at birth in certain West African cultures to avoid having to confront the uncanny phenomenon of doubling (Douglas p. 39).

9.  The word “grotesque” was coined in the fifteenth century, but long before then, Horace warned in Ars Poetica against images in which “savage should mate with tame, or serpents couple with birds, lambs with tigers.” He compared such fancy to “a sick man’s dreams,” and cautioned aspiring poets to let their work be “simple and uniform” (Horace’s Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica [Cambridge Mass., 1926] pp. 451-453). Ruskin’s view of the grotesque rests on a similar moral/aesthetic judgment.

10.  There have been a number of attempts to cut a path through Poe’s semantic jungle of the grotesque and arabesque, but none completely satisfies. In the most thorough and far-ranging of these, G.R. Thompson argues that Poe’s understanding of the terms comes from German Romantic theories of Gothic irony, and his use of them describes a sense of “tension between opposites, and a sense of the transcendent ironic vision” (Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales [Madison, 1973] pp. 117-118, and more generally, Chs. 4 and 5). Patricia Smith concentrates on nineteenth century sources, concluding that “‘grotesque’ often appears in its extended sense of ‘exaggerated’ or ‘out of place’” (“Poe’s Arabesque,” PoeS 7 [1974] 43). She suggests that Poe sometimes used the word “grotesque” casually in comparison with the more rarely seen “arabesque.” Daniel Hoffman, Smith, and later Harpham all make a possible distinction between grotesque and arabesque in Poe on the basis of the presence or absence of the human form. The arabesque, according to this taxonomic guide, features flora but not fauna, while the grotesque blends both. Harpham argues that this division exemplifies the binary nature of Poe’s thought, striving to unity (p. 112). The most famous example of this would be the House of Usher, where the structure blends with its inhabitants until the two ultimately become indistinguishable.

Hoffman offers an approach to the confusion which completely ignores all of this analysis of diction. He opts for his own definitions, specially customized to Poe’s work: “A grotesque is a satire, an arabesque the prose equivalent of a poem” (Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe [New York, 1972] p. 207). Using this division, Hoffman pairs off Poe’s tales according to theme. Thus, “The Premature Burial” is a grotesque treatment of the theme addressed in the arabesque “The Cask of Amontillado”; “King Pest” (grotesque) addresses the same matter as “The Masque of the Red Death” (arabesque), and so on. Of the tales [page 59:] considered here, “Valdemar” could easily be paired with “The Man That Was Used Up.” Hoffman’s method makes for an interesting way of linking certain of Poe’s stories to gain insight into them, but it’s not at all useful for investigation of the grotesque itself. The definitions are arbitrary, and they are obviously limited to Poe. Taken overall, the range of this speculation about Poe’s use of the grotesque (and arabesque) matches Poe’s own evidently broad view of the terms and their meanings.

11.  Some proof of this connection is offered by Poe’s marginalia, in which he writes that “The pure imagination chooses, from either Beauty or Deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined. . .” (P 2: 369).

12.  In his recent analysis of the horror genre, Noel Carroll draws on Mary Douglas when he defines a monster as a category violation, the embodiment of threatening ontological impurity; see The Philosophy of Horror (New York and London, 1990) Chapter One.

13.  Edgar Allan Poe and the Philadelphia Saturday News (Baltimore, 1991). By close textual comparison, Kopley gives near-irrefutable proof that Poe borrowed details from all three accounts when he composed “Murders.” Among other possible sources of the story are a comic account of an ape in woman’s dressing room that appeared in Blackwood’s in 1823; see Benjamin F. Fisher, “Poe, Blackwood’s, and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’,” AN&Q 12 (1974) 109-110 and another from a Renaissance jokebook (which Poe may have gotten secondhand) of a clever cobbler who tricks an ape given to mimicry into cutting its own throat — see E. Kate Stewart, “An Early Imitative Ape: A possible Source for ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’,” PoeS 20 (1987) 24. Stewart seeks to pinpoint the original source of a similar folktale first connected to Poe by Thomas Ollive Mabbott in the annotations to his edition of Poe’s works.

14.  For documentation of nineteenth-century scientific racism, see, for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (New York and London, 1981, Chapter Two); George Fredrickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind (New York, 1971) pp. 71-90; and Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South 1830-1860 (Baton Rouge, and London, 1981), which contains primary sources.

15.  For a discussion of what Foucault calls “the reason-madness nexus” during the Enlightenment, see his Madness and Civilization (New York, 1965). Poe’s mad narrators amply show his concern with the relationship of reason to criminality, but the most shocking depiction of the madman as animal is probably Charles Brockden Brown’s [page 60:] Wieland (an early influence on Poe), in which a man loses his rational bearings and takes an axe to his family.

16.  I suggest in this essay that Poe’s use of the grotesque in this detective story offers a clue (as it were) to how to read the rest of his work. Dennis W. Eddings argues similarly that the language problems in Poe’s detective stories are likewise paradigmatic of the worldview put forth in his other fiction (“Poe, Dupin, and the Reader,” UMSE n. s. 3 [1982] 128-135). Kenneth Silverman also extrapolates Dupin outward to Poe’s other work, depicting the detective as “the hero the Gothic world needs to understand and oppose its evils” (Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance [New York, 1991] p. 191).

In a biographical argument relevant to my own, Frances Winwar says that Dupin recreates order in order to fight a fear of going insane — a fear shared by his creator. Dupin has to prove his sanity again and again through detection, in what might be viewed in the present context as an eternal battle against the disorder represented by the grotesque (The Haunted Palace: A Life of Edgar Allan Poe [New York, 1959] p. 210). J.A. Leo Lemay sees the disorder in “Rue Morgue” in terms of repressed libido in his reading of the tale (“The Psychology of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’,” AL 54 [1982] 165-189), but most critical work on Dupin centers on the combination of reason and imagination (or emotion) that the sleuth brings to his work. For example, David Ketterer argues that Dupin actually is a kind of artist (The Rationale of Deception in Poe [Baton Rouge, 1979 p.243]), while Robert Giddings sees him a typically American imaginative pragmatist — “Was the Chevalier Left-Handed?” Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order ([London and Totowa, N.J., 1987]) pp. 88-111.

17.  As with many of Poe’s other tales, the criticism of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” amounts largely to notes on the sources. These confirm Poe’s reliance on current accounts for the foundations of his fiction, giving particular resonance to the story’s title (“Facts”). Sidney Lind, finds that Poe drew extensively on Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend’s Facts in Mesmerism “Poe and Mesmerism,” PMLA 62 (1947) 1077-95. “Valdemar,” says Lind, incorporates an actual case documented in that book. Steve Carter adds that Poe may have worked also from an 1845 pamphlet by Rev. Gibson Smith entitled “Lectures on Clairmativeness, or Human Magnetism” “A Possible Source for ‘Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’,” PoeS 2 (1979) 36. Many of Poe’s biographers describe how the story became one of Poe’s hoaxes when it was briefly accepted as fact. The best known reading of “Valdemar” is probably Roland Barthes’s dissection of it, “A Textual Analysis of M. Valdemar,” a shorter version of the work he does on Balzac’s “Sarrasine” in S/Z.

18.  Arnold Van Gennep analyzed existence as “a succession of stages with similar ends and beginnings.” These include (but are not limited to) birth, maturity, parenthood, and death. Van Gennep’s classic [page 61:] study, The Rites of Passage (Chicago, 1960), focusses on the rituals (some of them very involved) accompanying the transitions between stages in traditional societies. Modern examples include circumcision (a birth rite), marriage, or the Catholic ceremony of Extreme Unction given to the dying.

Of special significance here is van Gennep’s discovery that that the period of liminality (the time of actual transition) carries special power. Most of the time an individual is either one thing or another (e.g., married or unmarried, childless or a parent), but during the rite of passage, he is neither — he occupies a liminal state and therefore has no category. Van Gennep’s analysis underscores the importance of liminality to the power of the grotesque, which arises from such category problems.

19.  Derrida is among those who have recognized the power of this paradox. Not surprisingly, the margins he focuses on are linguistic ones. (See Harpham p. 213). Jeffrey Meyers recently discovered a key pun in Valdemar’s full exhortation, “For God’s sake! — quick! — quick! — put me to sleep — or, quick! — waken me! — quick! — I say to you that I am dead!” Meyers notes that in Poe’s time, the word “quick,” besides indicating speed, also meant “life” or “alive” (Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy [New York, 1992] p. 179).

20.  Benjamin F. Fisher makes a good case for Poe’s intent to hoax, arguing that the ultra-rational scientific beginning of the tale clashes comically with the breathless tone of the narration in the last section — “Blackwood Articles a la Poe: How to Make a False Start Pay,” Revue des Langues Vivantes 39 (1973) 422- 423 rpt., revised, Perspectives on Poe, ed. D. Ramakrishna (New Delhi, 1996) 63-82.

21.  See Doris V. Falk, “Poe and the Power of Animal Magnetism,” PMLA 84 (1969) 537, 538.

22.  “Poe and the Theme of Forbidden Knowledge,” AL 49 (1978) 533-543. Taylor Stoehr argues that Poe’s horror emerges from his notion of “the power of words” — “Unspeakable Horror in Poe,” SAQ 78 (1979) 317-332. Characters speak the unspeakable (such as the name of Ligeia or Morella) and somehow succeed in making it come true.

23.  The grotesque is inherently a bordering phenomenon — the original art that gave rise to the word “grotesque” refers to a particular sort of ornate decoration which borders a scene. If the scene could be said to depict the “normal” world, then the picture and the decoration together comprise a metaphor for liminality: the grotesque exists at the borders of the world, both insulating it from the unknown and at the same time extending out into that territory itself. [page 62:]

I thank Jeanne Campbell Reesman for bringing this correspondence to my attention. The background to the idea is explored thoroughly by Harpham.






[S:0 - MMM, 2006] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (Poe's Force of Disorder: The Grotesque in Cultural Context)