Poe’s Psychic-Atomist Critique of Wayward Modernity – Part II

Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 -1851) - Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

PART TWO. The worldwide, instantaneous ekpyrosis of “Eiros and Charmion” illustrates Poe’s thesis dramatically.  In “Eiros and Charmion” Poe wrote the first cosmic-collision story, to be followed fifty years later by H. G. Wells in “The Star,” and popular ever since.  Cosmic-collision stories tend to be end-of-the-world stories, a pattern set by Poe’s dialogue.  Earth passes through the tail of a large comet, the chemistry of which draws the nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving only the oxygen, at which point everything combustible, including the human body, bursts into flame.  Eiros, who died in the extinction-event, narrates the last moments of life to Charmion, who had graduated to “Aidenn” by ordinary death prior to the cataclysm: “For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things”; then – “the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name.”  Eiros quotes the Apocalypse of St. John and remarks on the hauteur with which the humanity of the time dismisses the ancient lore of comets.  In those passages subsists the criticism of wayward modernity: The mentality of the End-Times adhered only to “science” and rejected its connection to the cosmos – to God.  Comets once signified, but they have become mere phenomena, “divested of the terrors of flame.”  The awe that people once felt in respect of cosmic manifestations the final generation will need to re-learn in the moments before its demise.

Powers, Richard M. (1921 - 1996) - Mountains Of The Sun (1974)

Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996) – Mountains of the Sun (1974)

The worldwide human combustion turns out to be more a shift to a higher realm, or what “Mesmeric Revelation” calls “metamorphosis,” than destruction.  Another fitting word, initiation, names a quality that the future society, dedicated to an etiolated self and never-ending diversion, conspicuously lacks.  Anthropology recognizes the importance of symbolic death in rituals of promotion; the initiand must always die in order to be reborn, that is, to proceed from a lower to a higher level.  These same motifs pervade “Monos and Una” although Poe articulates his judgment of trends in the 1841 dialogue more explicitly than in the 1839 dialogue.  The phrase mellonta tauta, which Poe extracts from Sophocles’ Antigone, serves for the epigraph of “Monos and Una” and thus glances ahead to the two items from 1848.  Una plays the role assigned to Eiros in the previous installment of the dialogic sequence – the last of the two to die.  Her question as she opens her eyes in Aidenn is, “Born again?”  Monos affirms that Una is indeed born again and helps her to orient herself in the new-to-her environment of the unparticled ether.  He remarks in addition that, “Unquestionably, it was in the Earth’s dotage that I died,” and logically then so too Una.  The idea of “Earth’s dotage” accords itself with the social and cultural deformations of Poe’s fictional future, that decadence being the ultimate result of trends already in evidence in Poe’s own mid-Nineteenth Century.

Monos rehearses the crisis of his and Una’s time, more for the reader than for Una: “You will remember that one or two of the wise among our forefathers – wise in fact, although not in the world’s esteem – had ventured to doubt the propriety of the term ‘improvement,’ as applied to the progress of our civilization.  There were periods in each of the five or six centuries immediately preceding our dissolution, when arose some vigorous intellect, boldly contending for those principles whose truth appears now, to our disenfranchised reason, so utterly obvious – principles which should have taught our race to submit to the guidance of the natural laws, rather than attempt their control.”  Monos dismisses the “utilitarian” mentality as retrogradation, but he praises “the poetic intellect,” extolling it as the approach to reality “which we now feel to have been the most exalted of all.”  Only the “poetic intellect” could achieve, by its investigative subtlety, “that analogy which speaks in proof tones to the imagination alone and to the unaided reason bears no weight.”  The word analogy in “Monos and Una” looks forward to the word intuition in “Mellonta Tauta.”  Intuition and analogy belong not to standard logic; that is to say, they belong not to the restrictions on thought imposed by the reigning pseudo-philosophical schools, Utilitarianism being exemplary.  The earlier reference to “natural laws” defines a quality of depth in cosmic reality that “unaided reason” cannot reach and in which it arrogantly and volubly disbelieves.

Monos continues: “The great ‘movement’ – that was the cant term – went on… a diseased commotion, moral and physical.  Art – the Arts – arose supreme, and, once enthroned, cast chains upon the intellect which had elevated them to power.”  By “arts,” Poe means industry.  He writes in Blakean images of “huge smoking cities… innumerable”; and of how “green leaves shrank before the hot breath of furnaces.”  Humanity sickened itself with “system” and “abstraction.”  Ignoring the hierarchic principle in the cosmic structure, “wild attempts at an omni-prevalent Democracy were made,” and “among other odd ideas, that of universal equality gained ground.”  Contributing to the plague of cultural degeneration was “the perversion of our taste, or rather in the blind neglect of its culture in the schools.”  Monos argues that “taste alone could have led us gently back to Beauty, to Nature, and to Life.”  He ends his peroration by calling on “the pure contemplative spirit and the majestic intuition of Plato.”  Presumably the conditions in Aidenn validate Plato’s insights.  Ascending from Earth to Aidenn, one climbs out of the shadowy Cave and into the sunlight.  Poe read Edmund Burke and draws some of his socio-political analysis from that source.  Poe had probably not read Joseph de Maistre, but he echoes the Savoyard theorist nevertheless.  What impresses the reader, however, is Poe’s forecast of those reactionary critics of the first half of the Twentieth Century such as René Guénon and Julius Evola, who might well have been familiar with his work.

Asher Durand (1796 - 1886) - God's Judgment on Gog (1852)

Asher Durand (1796 – 1886) – God’s Judgment on Gog (1852)

In The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Time (1945), in the chapter on “The Postulates of Rationalism,” Guénon writes: “The moderns claim to exclude all ‘mystery’ from the world as they see it, in the name of science and a philosophy characterized as ‘rational,’ and it might well be said in addition that the more narrowly limited a conception becomes the more it is looked upon as strictly rational.”  Guénon adds that, “Since the time of [the] encyclopaedists of the eighteenth century, the most fanatical deniers of all supra-sensible reality have been particularly fond of invoking ‘reason’ on all occasions, and of proclaiming themselves to be ‘rationalists.’”  According to Guénon, the modern mentality restricts itself by denying the existence of the unobvious.  By so doing, it deprives itself of the organ of theory, a designator which by its etymology suggests the apperceptual penetration beyond phenomenality into the deeper structures of cosmic reality.  Guénon’s “mystery” names the cosmic liminality which makes itself available neither to direct sensory perception nor to logical deduction, but which language can capture in figure and story, as in Plato’s “true myths.”  When Poe invokes “the poetic intellect,” he names the same thing.  When Guénon condemns modernity as reducing everything to quantity, he reproduces Poe’s criticism of democracy and industrialism, both of which demote the human being from a person to a unit, whether in the voting mass or on the factory work-floor.

In Ride the Tiger (1961), in the chapter on “The Procedures of Modern Science,” Evola writes: “One of the principal justifications for Western civilization believing itself, since the nineteenth century, to be the civilization par excellence is natural science.  Based on the myth of this science, preceding civilizations were judged to be obscurantist and infantile; prey to superstitions and to metaphysical and religious whims.”  Evola adds that, “None of modern science has the slightest value as knowledge; rather, it bases itself on a formal renunciation of knowledge in the true sense.”  For Evola as for Poe, knowledge implies a degree, at least, of participation.  There is moreover in Evola’s view a ladder of knowledge that one ascends by initiation, as in Plato.  Evola like Guénon wrote books on initiation, which he observed to be strikingly absent from the modern social fabric.  Modernity replaces initiation with public education, so-called.  Modernity indoctrinates rather than teaches; it actively suppresses curiosity and favors the inculcation of an impoverished mental conformity based wholly on denial of the transcendent.  At the same time it stokes its own pride in its spiritual paltriness.  Poe’s rapier-like satiric jibes in “Mellonta Tauta” demonstrate his irate opinion in respect of parochialism and abstraction in the modern outlook.  Poe equates stupidity with a lack of taste and a failure to recognize beauty.  “Taste alone” might have forestalled the decadence of the nations that both Monos and Una experienced in their earthly lives, where “taste” is the attunement to beauty.  The homage to Plato in “Monos and Una” shows that Poe took seriously the philosopher’s claim that the search for wisdom is also the search for beauty – that it is the beauty of wisdom that exerts its erotic effect in drawing the spirit upward.

The third and shortest installment of Poe’s “Aidenn” sequence takes the name “The Power of Words,” and it gives to its colloquists the monikers of “Oinos” and “Agathos.”  In this dialogue Poe brings his initiatic theme to the fore.  He also attaches his psychic-atomist theory of the minded cosmos to tradition of the Logos-Philosophy, as the title might suggest.  “Oinos,” the more recent death, awakes in the angelic domain with an utterance that attests a need for immediate instruction: “Pardon, Agathos, the weakness of a spirit new-fledged with immortality!”  Oinos – who despite the name appears to have been female in her earthly sojourn – acknowledges herself as having assumed the role of initiand, with Agathos as her initiator.  Oinos had expected that, translated to a post-mortem life, she “should be at once cognizant of all things, and thus at once be happy in being cognizant of all,” but Agathos corrects her.  He says: “Ah, not in knowledge is happiness, but in the acquisition of knowledge!  In forever knowing, we are forever blessed; but to know all were the curse of a fiend.”  Not from knowledge, but from discovery as when Archimedes shouted “Eureka,” comes the boon of happiness, yet only fleetingly.  The sustenance of happiness consists in a quest never completed.  But what of the final clause?  It points to the hubris of pretended knowledge and to the conceit of the modern mind, which thinks itself omniscient.  The modern truncated mind well deserves the satanic epithet of “fiend.”

Paul Lehr (1930 - 1998) - Parapet in Golden Light (1975)

Paul Lehr (1930 – 1998) –  Parapet in Golden Light (1975)

As Agathos leads Oinos “step by step” toward familiarity with her vita nuova, readers learn along with her.  The universe, Agathos explains to Oinos, is a secondary creation.  Oinos asks, “Do you mean to say that the Creator is not God?”  Agathos responds how: “In the beginning only, he created.”  In Eureka, Poe employs many times the phrase “the Volition of God,” which God imparted to the singularity in order to call forth the universe in the radial dispersion of the atoms. Thus, “The seeming creatures which are now, throughout the universe, so perpetually springing into being, can only be considered as the mediate or indirect, not as the direct or immediate results of the Divine creative power.”  The date of “The Power of Words,” 1845, places it chronologically close enough to Eureka to make plausible that what obtains in the later text obtains in the earlier one.  The reader may therefore presume that in “The Power of Words” the Divine Principle inheres in thought, just as it does in Eureka.  In “The Power of Words” thought, itself, inherits the creative impulse of “the Volition of God.”  Agathos leads Oinos through space to show her a newly born sun that leapt into being from the loving ardor of their earthly attraction.  “This wild star,” says Agathos – “it is now three centuries since, with clasped hands, and with streaming eyes, at the feet of my beloved – I spoke it – with a few passionate sentences – into birth.”  The proclamation of Agathos amalgamates Thought and Word, Nous and Logos, and lets the alloy of them permeate the cosmos as an underlying vital tissue.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” writes John in his Gospel.  According to Poe, as he phrases it in the concluding paragraph of Eureka, everything in the universe possesses by its nature a suspicion of partaking in the universal vitality.  The “Intelligences” that populate the cosmos are “conscious, first, of a proper identity,” and “conscious, secondly and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak – of an identity with God.”  Not to enjoy this hunch requires the assumption of a prideful repudiating stance in regard to the sublimity of Creation.  Modernity’s quintessence is to view the cosmos as a dead object to which it has nothing but a manipulative relation.  Modernity holds this view in the mode of bad faith.  It must constantly suppress the suggestions of order and meaning in phenomena while at the same time denying to itself that it undertakes such suppression.  Modernity therefore consists, in part, of an attack against language – against the Logos.  Poe’s usage of the word cant speaks to his awareness of modernity’s determination to evacuate language so as to make it purely instrumental, a tool for barking orders.  In one syllable, cant assembles the anti-qualities of an age and a mentality drunk on themselves: The hypocrisy, sanctimony, pietism, covetousness, and vulgarity of a new, materialist Puritanism that thirsts after power.  In his satirical “How to Write a Blackwoods Article” (1838), Poe notes that the meaning of cant has undergone a modern appropriation-reversal: “No profundity, no reading, no metaphysics – nothing which the learned call spirituality, and which the unlearned choose to stigmatize as cant.”  That describes the linguistic environment of journalism in Poe’s day.  Poe should get some of the credit that goes to George Orwell for his “Newspeak,” the principle of which Poe grasped one hundred years prior to the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A Note on the Gallery. Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) became increasingly interested in the last two decades of his life in light effects.  Through Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848), Turner influenced the “Luminist” offshoot of the Hudson Valley School, as visible in the work of George Inness (1825 – 1894), Thomas Moran (1837- 1926), and Frederick Edwin Church (1826 – 1900).  Turner, under the influence of Goethe’s color theory, explored in his oils-on-canvas and his watercolor sketches the character of light under diffusion and refraction in the atmosphere – most famously, perhaps, in his breakthrough painting Rain, Steam, and Speed (1840).  The treatment of light in Turner’s work and in that of the Hudson Valley School shows a parallelism with Poe’s atomist cosmology.  In a canvas like Turner’s Light and Color or Rockets and Blue Lights (both 1840), the painter equates the diffusion of the solar rays with the pervasion of spirit in a minded cosmos; the directionless bright glare resembles what Poe in Eureka describes as the unparticled matter, and which he identifies with mind, spirit, life, and God.  A Similar effect appears, to name but one example, in the canvas Sunset in the Yosemite Valley (1868) by Alfred Bierstadt (1830 – 1902), where the sublimity of the immense palisades seems to draw in the light, as if by a living affinity.  In her study of George Inness and the Visionary Landscape (2003), Adrienne Baxter Bell writes: “With little sign of an artistic presence, of a mortal architect originating and engineering the representation, we begin to attribute the Luminist’s fixation on order and structure, not to the artist’s own unique, potentially capricious temperament but rather to the implied presence of a more powerful organizing force operating above and through the artist, operating through and in concert with nature herself.”

Albert Bierstadt (1830 - 1902) - Sunset in Yosemite Valley (1868)

Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902) – Sunset in the Yosemite Valley (1868)

The Hudson Valley School oriented itself to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism.  Poe’s Eureka, however, is very much a response to Emerson’s Nature, written by a tougher and more acerbic mind than Emerson’s, to be sure, but not without continuity with the precursor text.  It should be remembered, moreover, that Emerson too was in some ways a critic of modernity.  In typical romantic fashion, he characterized the existing civilization as something of a dead weight and he remarked the uglification that went along with spread of industry.  The great vital intellects belonged to the past; they had expressed themselves in figurative language incomprehensible to the contemporary, badly schooled mentality and they participated in the cosmos rather than standing back from it in hopes of manipulating phenomena for profit.  Emerson held Plato in high esteem, as did Poe; and he drew on Immanuel Swedenborg, as did Poe.  Poe therefore seems to be wrapped up in the spiritual art of the American school of painters as much as Emerson.  Emerson and Poe both show traits of pantheism.  The pervasion of light in the works of Cole, Inness, and Asher Durand (1796 – 1886) has a similar pantheistic implication.  In Durand’s Judgment on Gog (1851), the jurisprudence comes not only from God the Orator, standing on the slab and looking out over the nation, but even more so from the manifestations of nature, including the light that He draws from the sky and fills with oracular birds. In Revelations, Gog is a reference to the Satanic mob that will challenge the Reign of Christ. The Biblical Gog and Poe’s “Mob” in “Mellonta Tauta” are one in the same.

To illustrate Poe’s dialogue sequence – “Eiros and Charmion,” “Monos and Una,” and “The Power of Words,” I have selected one of Turner’s depictions of the great fire that consumed the Houses of Parliament in London in 1834 and a selection of Twentieth Century illustrations produced by artists associated with science fiction.  (The invention of science fiction has, in fact, been attributed to Poe.)  Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1998), in his semi-abstract Mountains of the Sun (1974), recreates the special optical effects of Turner’s study in a Twentieth-Century, science-fictional style. His painting could well have taken its inspiration from “Eiros and Charmion.”  A kind of cosmic fire seems to be consuming a world.  Power’s abstract figures provide a commentary on contemporary civilization: Man has become abstract through the pervasion of his own abstractions; he has become device-like and expressionless.  Paul Lehr (1930 – 1998) also paints in a semi-abstract style although his images are more decipherable to the viewer than those of Powers.  His Parapet in Golden Light (1975) strikes me as a glimpse into Poe’s “Aidenn,” the Spiritual Realm in which the dialogue sequence takes place.  Something of Luminism inhabits Lehr’s forms: The light in the grand architecture seems organic, as if it were indeed spiritually sourced illumination.  Both Powers and Lehr achieve a mythopoeic iconism in their illustrations of fantastic texts.  In Poe, the loss of contact with mythopoeia weakens humanity in that it restricts the access to meaning in the cosmic structure.  Science fiction, when it functions at its highest level, tends to be, not only mythopoeic, but also eschatological.  There is no real tension in placing Durand and Lehr side by side (so to speak) as graphic material relevant to the exotic prose of E. A. Poe.

Wiener Dog

2 thoughts on “Poe’s Psychic-Atomist Critique of Wayward Modernity – Part II

  1. Modernity therefore consists, in part, of an attack against language… Poe’s …awareness of modernity’s determination to evacuate language so as to make it purely instrumental, a tool for barking orders.

    More than barking orders, but to foster general confusion. Once confused you have to do what you are told. What else can be expected? Whether it is always intentional, or simple laziness compounded by ignorance must be decided. Probably both. It’s nothing new, and I’m reminded of Kung (or Kong, or however you want to say/write it):

    1. Tzu-lu said, “The ruler of Wei is waiting for you to administer his government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”

    2. The Master replied, “The needful thing is to rectify names.”

    3. “Why must there be such rectification?”

    5. “If names are not correct then language will not mirror the truth of things. If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, order and harmony will not manifest in either individual or public affairs, and nothing can be successful.”

    The destruction of language in discourse makes one want to avoid anything modern that is written. News reports (really, ‘stories’ in the widest and loosest sense of that term) along with governmental proclamations are likely the most prevalent offenders. Then it filters down in to a mass consciousness delimited by a 280 character ‘tweet’, and you find that you don’t even want to speak to anyone, anymore.

    The trick in dealing with it all, of course, is to not wind up like Edgar Poe.


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