Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Light and Colour (1840)
Many people know of the “Big Bang” or singularity theory of cosmic origin, but far fewer know that the author of the singularity theory was a Belgian scientist-priest, Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), who, in addition to his work in mathematics and physics, served as an artillery officer in the Belgian Army in World War I. The name Lemaître rarely crops up in textbook discussions of the singularity theory although it does appear in the Introduction to the Wikipedia article on that topic. The name of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) goes absent in the Wikipedia article about Lemaître, where it would in fact assume some relevance, an observation that one can extend to Lemaître’s own published writings. Lemaître enjoyed broad cultivation. A typical Jesuit, he knew the humanities and arts as well as the sciences. He could hardly have remained unaware of Poe’s self-described masterpiece, the “prose-poem” Eureka (1848), which Charles Baudelaire had translated into French in 1863. To Poe belongs the actual invention of what Lemaître would call, in a popularizing essay of that name, “The Primeval Atom” (1946). Even the details of “The Primeval Atom” find anticipation in Eureka, which formed the basis of lectures that Poe gave to bewildered audiences in the last year of his life. One wonders whether Lemaître’s omission of Poe’s name was calculatedly prudential. Disclosing the inspiration of Poe’s cosmology would no doubt have occasioned supercilious commentary. Better not to complicate the issue by tying the theory to a bizarre literary text by a known eccentric, full of heavy satire and laced throughout with manifold irony. Better not to adduce the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Masque of Red Death.”
Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996) – Untitled Abstraction (1979)
PART ONE. Eureka, whose second subtitle after “A Prose Poem” is “An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe,” has a retro-active relation to Poe’s other work although Poe composed it simultaneously with his late story “Mellonta Tauta,” in 1848. Eureka and “Mellonta Tauta” share a number of devices and themes: For example, transcribing a letter penned a full millennium in the future, in which the epistolarian satirizes the partiality of knowledge in a past and primitive age; and in which again he addresses, now with levity and now with gravity, matters of metaphysics, epistemology, and cosmology. Poe’s work being of a piece, however, the reader familiar with the totality of the Poe-esque authorship will readily perceive that the “prose poem” takes up threads first exposed in earlier entries of the Baltimorean’s oeuvre and completes them. While Eureka takes as its thesis “the Universe,” and thus qualifies itself mainly a cosmological disquisition, its range of topics stretches wide. “Mellonta Tauta” declares no topic, but rummages among a seemingly arbitrary congeries of topics, related only associatively, in the flighty mind of the letter-writer. In his temporal displacement, in both Eureka and “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe achieves symmetry in points of view. Modernity considers itself as the overcoming of medievality, which commences around the year 1000; but the year 2848 considers itself as belonging to an era that has recovered from the intellectual fallacies that disabled the mind during a period beginning a thousand years previously, the impression of which still tells. Eureka takes its title from Archimedes, the Syracusiac physicist who, when he suddenly intuited the principle of buoyancy from his bath, shouted, “I have found it,” but in Greek, thus uttering the titular tri-syllable that Poe borrows. Intuition figures prominently in both texts.
Poe begins Eureka with a confession of inadequacy: “It is with humility really unassumed – it is with a sentiment even of awe – that I pen the opening sentence of this work; for of all conceivable subjects I approach the reader with the most solemn – the most comprehensive – the most difficult – the most august.” When discoursing on matters “Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical”; when directing his inquiry to “the Material and Spiritual Universe,” to “its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny” – this strikes Poe as indeed the only permissible attitude. In its blandness, what goes by the name of science fails to connect with the sublimity of nature, which is as much unseen as seen. Science accumulates facts and arranges them in neat tables. It reduces Nature to a description of phenomena. Science uses the word theory, but according to Poe, or rather to his future letter-writer, the meaning of theory remains foreign to contemporary or Nineteenth Century thought, but this is to leap ahead of Poe’s exposition. Poe writes: “And now, before proceeding to our subject proper, let me beg the reader’s attention to an extract or two from a somewhat remarkable letter, which appears to have been found corked in a bottle and floating on the Mare Tenebrarum – an ocean well described by the Nubian geographer, Ptolemy Hephestion, but little frequented in modern days unless by the Transcendentalists and some other divers for crotchets.” The sentence exemplifies the density of Poe’s prose, and the complexity of irony, satire, and critical acuity that dwells within his carefully crafted periods. Mare Tenebrarum, for example, an archaic denominator of the unexplored South Atlantic, constitutes a self-reference to “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), two early publications by Poe that point ahead to Eureka and “Mellonta Tauta.” The reference to “the Transcendentalists” implicates not only the American school of thought of that name but also the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whom the letter-writer invokes, if somewhat obliquely.
The Eureka letter concerns itself with the methods by which the moderns – or, to him, the ancients, the men of Poe’s Nineteenth Century – sought to arrive at truths metaphysical and thus to set the foundation for their world view. These men of a millennium ago inherited, from even earlier in history, two erroneous views. From “the night of Time” a “Turkish philosopher,” one “Aries… surnamed Tottle” or “the Ram,” postulated the dogma of “what was termed the deductive or à priori philosophy.” According to the Ram, the path to certain knowledge commenced “with what he maintained to be axioms, or self-evident truths.” For the letter-writer, Aristotle constructed a closed, a purely syllogistic game. Thus “his most illustrious disciples were one Tuclid, a geometrician… and one Kant, a Dutchman, the originator of that species of Transcendentalism which, with the change merely of a C for a K, now bears his peculiar name.” Then came “Hog” or “the Ettrick shepherd,” who insisted on “an entirely different system, which he called the à posteriori or inductive.” Whereas Aristotle founded the picture of nature on “noumena”; Hog (that is, Bacon) founded the same on “phenomena.” Hog at first displaced the Ram, but Hog’s immediate successors reconciled the two and put equal emphasis on deduction and induction, to the exclusion nevertheless of any third path. In the view of the letter-writer – which reflects the conviction of Poe – this exclusive alliance of deduction and induction “confined investigation to crawling” and to an endless accumulation of “facts” which could never actually consummate itself, or reach its goal. Mankind plodded along intellectually with the gait of a “tortoise.” What about the third path?
Alizey Khan (born 1988) – Crab Nebula (2012)
In Eureka and “Mellonta Tauta” the third path appears, not in codification but in praxis, in the achievement of Johannes Kepler, Poe’s scientific genius par excellence. After a complex traversal of the attitudes of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which the letter-writer, speaking no doubt for Poe, regards as stupefaction, the discussion comes around to the indices of Truth. “Is it not,” the missive asks, “an evidence of the mental slavery entailed upon those bigoted people by their Hogs and Rams, that in spite of the eternal prating of their savants about roads to Truth, none of them fell, even by accident, into what we now so distinctly perceive to be the broadest, the straightest and most available of all mere roads – the great thoroughfare – the majestic highway of the Consistent?” Indeed: “Is it not wonderful that they should have failed to deduce from the works of God the vitally momentous consideration that a perfect consistency can be nothing but an absolute truth?” To Kepler the enlightened owe their noetic liberation. Kepler, a great theoretician in the etymological meaning of the term, took cognizance of the whole rather than the parts. When he solved the problems afflicting the Copernican model of the universe, he did so through intuition: “Yes! –These vital laws Kepler guessed – that is to say, he imagined them.” If anyone had questioned Kepler how he arrived at his vision – that is, which route he had taken, Ramish or Hogish – his answer would have been: “I know nothing about routes – but I do know the machinery of the Universe… I grasped it with my soul – I reached it through mere dint of intuition.”
Having bushwhacked through Poe’s lapidary prose thus far, the reader will now be able to make sense of a bizarre figure in the opening paragraphs of Eureka before the quotation of the Mare Tenebrarum letter. How might the tourist, standing on the lip of Aetna, properly appreciate the wholeness of the scene? The answer – by spinning rapidly about on the pivot of his heel! Poe acknowledges the danger. The spinner could very easily precipitate himself into the caldera. Assuming good balance, however, the gyrating onlooker would have grasped Aetna and its surroundings as a panoramic totality, with his visionary self as the theatrical concentrum. Poe writes, apropos of epistemology, “We require something like a mental gyration on the heel.” Only by such could men make the minutiae of our cluttered worldview “vanish” and thereby have access to “the imperishable and priceless secrets of the Universe.” Mankind would rise, through such access, to the “cosmical family of Intelligences”; whereas mankind remains a diffident and tortoise-slow gatherer of facts and details. Poe judges the situation as not only intellectually, but also as morally deficient. In “Mellonta Tauta,” the correspondent assesses how, “It cannot be maintained… that by the crawling system the greatest amount of truth would be attained in any long series of ages, for the repression of imagination was an evil not to be compensated for by any superior certainty in the ancient modes of investigation.” People whose mental habit signals itself by “their eternal prattling about roads to Truth” are, in fact, “bigoted people” who “have failed to deduce from the works of God the vital fact that a perfect consistency must be an absolute truth!” Notice that, in adulation of “crawling,” men turn away from the divine principle. In Eureka, with these preliminaries out of the way, Poe launches his exposition of how the universe springs from a primordial Unity; how it consists of atoms and the void; and how, when repulsion exhausts itself, the cosmos will return, by attraction, to its hyper-mono-atomic form – only to begin again.
The discussion will return to relevant passages from Eureka as necessary, but for now those items of Poe’s authorship that articulate explicitly his little-appreciated critique of modernity will occupy the focus of attention. The explicit minded atomism of Eureka will prove itself to have functioned as an implicit basis for Poe’s analysis of things physical, metaphysical, political, cultural, and sociological from as early as the 1830s. Two classical sources, contradictory in themselves, serve Poe as models of the cosmological-psychological-sociological or psychic-atomist critique: The Timaeus of Plato and the Rerum Naturae of Lucretius. Both exemplify intellectual qualities that Poe admires, foremostly Imagination and Intuition. Poe will borrow from Plato the literary-dialogue model and the presumption of a minded cosmos that originates in the intention of a benevolent Creator; he will borrow from Lucretius the literary device of a first-person didactic exposition addressed to a specific but fictitious person and the regular recursion to a singular intuitive idea – the atomic substratum of everything that exists. Poe stands yet closer to Plato than to Lucretius, who rejected the minded cosmos hypothesis in favor of a materialist causality. “Mellonta Tauta,” so bound up with Eureka, will provide a good starting-point in the survey of Poe’s fiction. Poe endows on his epistolary narrative a Greek title. The two words mean, “These Things Shall Be,” and the story (or discourse – there is not much of a story) thus partakes in eschatology. The topic of “Last Things” circulates widely in Poe’s authorship from its commencement.
Paul Lehr (1930 – 1998) – Untitled (1978)
“Mellonta Tauta” depicts a dystopian future. Mankind has made the discovery of the epistemological third path, it is true, but this remains known only among an esoteric coterie. The year 2848 exhibits malign traits that trace their origins to Poe’s time. Readers learn that massive overpopulation has thronged the world, leading to a diminished appreciation for the individual person. “Pundita,” Poe’s letter-writer, remarks how, traveling by balloon over the ocean, she witnessed a drag-rope knock a man from the deck of an overcrowded barge: “The man, of course, was not permitted to get on board again, and was soon out of sight, he and his life-preserver.” She then further describes the sacrificial principle of the socialism under which the global humanity exists. “I rejoice,” as she writes, no doubt with irony, “that we live in an age so enlightened that no such a thing as an individual is supposed to exist”; rather, “it is the mass for which the true Humanity cares.” These conditions began a thousand years ago, with the American or “Amriccan” Republic. Pundita might well be commenting on 2020 rather than 1848: “They started with the queerest idea conceivable… 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.” In the Amriccan Republic, “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.”
Elsewhere in “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe has Pundita address the sins of the ancient tribe of “Knickerbockers.” The annals of the Knickerbockers tell of a giant named “Mob.” This Brobdingnagian “was… insolent, rapacious, [and] filthy”; he “had the gall of a bullock with the heart of a hyena and the brains of a peacock.” He ran wild, made much destruction, until he petered out, as mobs do. “Nevertheless, he had his uses, as everything has, however vile, and taught mankind a lesson which to this day it is in no danger of forgetting – never to run directly contrary to the natural analogies.” Analogy operates in “Mellonta Tauta” as it does in Platonic lore: Order finds its pattern in the celestial movements and in nature in general. Whatever flouts the pattern of order dooms itself to extinction. Pundita writes: “As for Republicanism no analogy could be found for it upon the face of the earth – unless we except the case of the ‘prairie dogs,’ an exception which seems to demonstrate, if anything, that democracy is a very admirable form of government – for dogs.” The satire must be understood in context and by analogy. When in Eureka Poe adduces the qualities of the primordial atom, he asserts that it has none, for “Unity is Nothingness.” Only in radial dispersion, prompted by the “Volition of God,” does the cosmos acquire qualities, including that of mind. The mob, which heeds solely the unifying promptitude of its feelings, conspicuously lacks the quality of mind. Pundita testifies, by the way, inconsistently. The barge incident gives evidence of a mob-like presence in 2848. Despite Pundita’s claim, then, the masses of the future “run directly contrary to the natural analogies.”
“The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841), “The Power of Words” (1845), and “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) should be considered in close association to one another, not least because the first three make a noticeable sequence. “Mesmeric Revelation” for its part links the three Pseudo-Platonic dialogues to atomistic universe of Eureka. The dialogic sequence puts itself at odds with “Mellonta Tauta” in that “Eiros and Charmion” tells of the destruction of humanity; and “Monos and Una” suggests a date for that event about five centuries hence, thus cancelling the year 2848. “Eiros and Charmion” also invokes a realm of spirit, the setting again of “Monos and Una” and “The Power of Words,” that proves itself impervious to accidents of gross matter, and to which consciousness migrates when released from the body by death. “Mesmeric Revelation” purports to be an interview between “P,” a Mesmerist, and one Mr. Van Kirk, who, on the brink of death from a heart infection, seeks asylum in the hypnotic trance. He speaks from his reverie of occult lore. He lectures “P” about the gradations inherent to the cosmos that Poe will invoke four years later in Eureka and “Mellonta Tauta”: “There are gradations of matter of which man knows nothing”; and these “increase in rarity or fineness, until we arrive at a matter unparticled – without particles – indivisible – one.” This foreshadowing of quantum foam “is God,” and “what men attempt to embody in the word ‘thought,’ is this matter in motion.” Consciousness, for Poe, is continuous with matter but at the same time it transcends matter.
[Continued in Part II]