Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “A Potpourri on Eureka,” Poe Studies, June 1976, Vol. IX, No. 1, 9:29-31


[page 29, column 2, continued:]

A Potpourri on Eureka

Richard P. Benton’ editor. Poe as Literary Cosmologer: Studies on Eureka. A Symposium. Hartford, Connecticut: Transcendental Books, 1975. 70 pp. and Appendix. 315.00.

There are in fact two books here. The first consists of the symposium named in the book-title. The second, which the table of contents alludes to merely as Appendix, was published separately in 1973. It consists of Eureka, a brief essay surveying its modern reputation, and an extensive bibliographical listing. These last two items are the work of Richard P. Benton, who appears to be responsible also for the claim made on the tide page that this is a “new edition with line numbers.” Adding line numbers at every fifth line may be a useful preliminary step in preparing a new edition, but if only that step is taken the edition is not significantly new. Literally, it is an old rather than a new edition that is made available, for the text of Eureka reproduced in facsimile is that of the deposit copy of the original, Putnam, edition of 1848. In his bibliographical notes Benton mentions that there exist two copies of that edition which Poe himself examined and corrected. One of these, the Price-Hurst-Wakeman copy, he corrected very minutely and extensively; and so it is this copy, surely, that [page 30:] carries authority. Why Benton did not, perhaps could not, use it for his facsimile text he does not say. Would Poe’s marginal annotations have collided occasionally with the added line numbers, and vice versa? But those evidences of Poe’s meticulous concern that his text be exactly right would, I think, be much more useful in arousing interest in Eureka than any scaffolding of numerotage.

And it was precisely to arouse interest in it, to bring the work under wider and more thorough scrutiny than it had yet received, that was the motive behind this “new edition” of 1973. In his accompanying essay Benton provides a concise summary of twenty-one different opinions about the work, from Auden’s in 1950 to Halliburton’s in 1973; and in the final paragraph Benton points to a variety of rubrics under which further inquiry might be organized. The results of this first stage of Benton’s Eureka project appear as the contents of the first half of the volume under review, a collection of twelve essays, only one of which — Burton R. Pollin’s checklist of contemporary reviews — is not concerned with explication and interpretation.

Of course it is banal to observe about any symposium, any collection of this kind, that there is some unevenness in it, that some contributions must be judged less satisfactory than some others. One expects this. The contribution of Kevin McCarthy, for instance, is a lightweight entry, occupied mainly with “Ligeia,” “Morella,” and “Berenice,” and with how these tales reflect some notions Poe derived from Locke about the nature of personal identity. On the evidence offered I saw no obligation to accept McCarthy’s conclusion that Eureka is “a compendium of ideas borrowed from Locke concerning unity and personal identity.” Another essay, Dawson Gaillard’s “Poe’s Eureka: The Triumph of the Word,” although oriented towards language, struck me as vaguely conceived and vaguely written; the author seemed content merely to embroider a tricky theme without first directly expounding it, the theme being A. Van Nostrand’s suggestion that Eureka is “about” the task Poe had in writing it.

Thin as they are, though, both essays are relatively magisterial when set up against the turgid farrago Perry F. Hoberg has assembled under the tide “Poe: Trickster-Cosmologist.” Hoberg’s “thrust,” as he puts it, is “to explore Poe’s role as a shamanic performer of cosmic ritual and as an intellectual explicator of cosmological/metaphysical theory; further, to determine the various mediating functions of the psychic/intellectual modalities as they relate to Eureka; in addition to explore the principle of negativism as it pervades and determines the philosophic, artistic, and experiential modes of Poe’s activities and creative expressions.” Those who can accept this invitation will in their explorations with Hoberg encounter many more such verbal thickets. It’s not only the jargon, though. Almost everything he writes Hoberg ties into knots. One more case: “While Richard Wilbur and Harry Levin are recognized as early proponents of the positive thrust of Poe’s negativity in the twentieth century, other advocates of this principle (Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Valery, to mention the French contingency [sic]) were influenced by this thinking and orientation.”

One wonders how Professor Benton qua editor could have given his imprimatur to such wretched specimens of expository prose. Conceivably he saw that Hoberg was getting [column 2:] at something new and important despite his barbaric way of doing so, and therefore let the text as written stand. As a case possibly in point, I notice that Hoberg, writing from his own idiosyncratic point of view, emphasizes Poe’s role as a “healer,” and describes Poe’s fiction and poetry as instrumental in “healing the social malaise.” In what specifically that malaise consisted Hoberg does not stop to say. No matter. The new proposition here is that Poe can be seen and maybe should be seen as some kind of healer and his work is in some way therapeutic. This is an idea whose time has apparently come, for Hoberg is not alone in opting for it.

In the first essay, one of the good ones of the symposium, Barton Levi St. Armand argues that Eureka is essentially a work in the genre of Natural Apologetics — “an uncommissioned ninth Bridgewater treatise” — and that, seen in this light, it bears out Eric Carlson’s contention that in Poe’s work it is not death and annihilation that make up the central theme but, rather, spiritual rebirth along psychological lines, a rebirth “essential to every man and artist seeking his fullest self-realization.” John P. Hussey is chiefly interested in placing Eureka as a work in the established rhetorical tradition, but the nature of this very argument compels him to emphasize what he sees as the therapeutic mission of Poe’s work — and not just Eureka but most of it. Poe, he says, “believed in an art which would calm strengthen, and renew its audience”; and in the final pages of Eureka we hear a man of “transcendent vision, who speaks as prophet, healer, lover, and redeemer, announcing the divinity within each person and the joy such awareness must generate.” Is Hussey describing the finale of Eureka or the final stanzas of “Song of Myself”? All that he says here brings Whitman, rather than Poe, to mind. However, instead of clarifying this dual image Hussey moves on to his concluding generalization: that Poe “in all his earlier work” had been trying “not to terrify but to heal his audience.” And so too in his last work. In her essay, Julia W. Mazow follows much the same line, contending that Eureka was Poe’s final attempt at a presentation of the “wholeness” to which man has access because of the law of periodicity which Eureka pos tulates.

David Halliburton in his phenomenological reading of Poe took the line that Poe was basically on the side of life, or anyway wanted to be. This is not implausible, but the ante is raised considerably when Poe is cast in the role of healer, whose art is, in Hussey’s extravagant word, “redemptive.” William Drake takes a similar position, calling Eureka “a breath-taking leap into self-unification and self-healing . . . a final act of psychological integration.” He virtually sabotages these and like assertions, however, in the second thoughts of his second-to-last paragraph. There Drake takes the more cautious position that the intense need for unity expressed in Eureka may well have been symptomatic of “profound insecurity” on Poe’s part, and that his last ditch effort “to pull himself together for once and all” was, ironically, only the “prelude to collapse and death.”

Although Poe the ironist is currently a more familiar image than Poe the healer, only one of the contributing essayists, David Ketterer, brings irony to the fore in his reading of Eureka. I garnered a number of valuable incidental insights from his essay, which is a long one and one [page 31:] of the two or three best, but I remain unpersuaded of his central thesis that Eureka “is a work of complex irony.”

Poe’s remarks about Eureka in his correspondence are prima facie evidence that he believed absolutely in what he had written. Ketterer makes this very point, but then, in effect, by-passes it in order to demonstrate “protective irony” on the basis of internal evidence. The crucial point here is how Poe meant the term intuition. Is it to be understood as a visionary power, an autonomous imaginative faculty? Or is it simply the end-product of extremely rapid inductive or deductive reasoning? Poe — or, as some sticklers keep insisting, Poe’s narrator — seems to endorse the latter view, unqualifiedly. But the allusion to this view by the writer of the letter dated 2048 A.D. is made, according to Ketterer, with heavy irony. The result is a contradiction in the way the basic concept is handled, which contradiction Ketterer describes as “the most illuminating aspect of Eureka, revealing Poe torn between the desire to throw out reason entirely in favor of imagination or to accommodate reason, in disguise, by an ambiguous conception of intuition.” The Ketterer thesis and his careful elaboration of it appear to rest on one flat take-it-or-leave-it premise: that Poe intended irony in the passage mentioned in the faked letter. I, for one, leave it. I do not intuit irony there.

Nor does Curtis M. Brooks, whose essay — “The Cosmic God: Science and the Creative Imagination in Eureka “ — is, despite the pretentious tide, the one I found most worth reading, as it was also the one most thoroughly researched and documented. Brooks almost succeeds in what may be the impossible task of showing that Poe, in a way, was right — that Eureka, for all its scientific appearances, “is a poem, a romance, a dream, an exercise of the creative imagination, an intuitive leap toward the center of truth.” On the key matter of intuition Brooks notices that it is twice defined by Poe, but in the same terms, by allusion in the fictitious letter and later by explicit statement in the text proper. What this comes to, Brooks suggests, is an atomic theory of intuition. He discusses this notion briefly in the body of the essay and gives it detailed attention in his notes.

As mentioned at the outset of this review, part of the apparatus found in Benton’s 1973 edition of Eureka is his round-up of nearly twenty-five years of commentary. Benton appended no conclusion to his survey, but the implication is that as of 1973 there was not much in print that could be sorted out as, in effect, received opinion, commanding general assent. More work, obviously, needed to be done. The work that has been done in the interim, as represented by the essays in this volume, is, some of it, valuable. But if Benton had hoped that the participants in this symposium could put together the makings of a consensus, he must have been disappointed. My speculations take this whimsical turn in part because of the unlikely epigraph chosen for the book’s title page. What might be a suitable epigraph for a collection of pieces by divers hands? I can only think of, for instance, “Many are called but few are chosen.” Benton looked further afield, and I infer at least some editorial chagrin is reflected in the line he chose to quote from Kierkegaard: “A ‘crowd’ is the untruth. . . . For only one attains the goal.”

Patrick F. Quinn, Wellesley College


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