Poe vs Enlightenment by Alex Tarbet

One of our students, Alex Tarbet, wished to share some interesting reflections on Poe and the Enlightenment.  Here is his brief write up of what is a larger paper:

Dr. Crumbley’s Poe class this semester is philosophically fascinating. At the end of his life, Poe wrote an enormous treatise called Eureka! It claims to explain the nature of God, the origin of the cosmos and, well, everything else. Some say it’s evidence of Poe losing his mind to alcoholism (I think they’re wrong) while others say it’s a massive satire mocking encyclopedia-writing Enlightenment geniuses who may have reduced knowledge to naturalism and, therefore, poetry to simian apings or fowl drippings. Quoth the Raven, nevermore. So, is it a satire? 

​”​To the few who love me and whom I love — to those who feel rather than to those who think — to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities — I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: — let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.”​

Though one of the most meticulous wordsmiths of all time, Poe dumps alliteration on his masterpiece as if it were gin. “What terms shall I find sufficiently simple in their simplicity – sufficiently sublime in their simplicity – for the mere enunciation of my theme…?” Poe had an excruciatingly dry wit. He enjoyed hoaxing everyone into thinking The Raven was the only half-decent poem ever written, in his so-called Philosophy of Composition. So what would prevent him from depressively writing a philosophical treatise just to backhandedly mock academic bloviators?

Is he really becoming a no-nonsense metaphysician in his last days, or just having some fun leading on Transcendentalist academics and German know-it-alls, whom he sees as pretentious threats to a poet’s expressive freedom? Probably both. The rest of the 40,000-word treatise seems to be a serious getting down to philosophical business. He does ground themes in his famous short stories and poems in a cosmic order of things.

So Poe wrote metaphysics. It gets more interesting when we look at his fiction. He was philosophical in other ways, notably the dark romanticism that runs in his stories, fighting back against the wide-eyed optimism of Emerson and the knowledge-hungry reductionism of the Enlightenment.

Poe was deeply concerned (in my reading) with Biblical themes in his stories, particularly ​the Fall of Man and the danger of naturalism to poetry and the Ideal (the Godhead), as we see in the tension between worldly wisdom and and the transcendent from Genesis to Paul, but also in Plato; we’re constantly reminded by his thinking that Poe was classically educated.

Here’s a poem called the Sonnet – to Science that illustrates Poe’s counter-Enlightenment wit.
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
With that in mind, re-reading the Tell-Tale Heart under Dr. Crumbley’s guidance has revealed something interesting. The blind old man with the Vulture eye (see line 4 of the poem above) also happens to by a hyper-rationalistic sort with an explanation for everything (“nothing but the wind in the chimney, only a mouse crossing the floor, merely a cricket which has made a single chirp”) and his heartbeat resembles a watch ticking.

It’s not too much of a stretch, as Crumbley points out, to say that this one-eyed old bastard is a sort of Isaac Newton, complete with a watchmaker-understanding of nature ​without an Ideal realm in which Beauty might exist; that is, a blind eye.

Newton’s murder – tellingly on the eighth night – is a sort of art-form, a redemption of Beauty; the artist-murderer suspends the ethical in order to redeem the Ideal, in Abrahamic fashion. The first word of the story is ‘True’; at the end, the lying chatter to cover up the murder cannot supress the mechanical sound of “naturalism” – knowledge – at work again as the murderer’s own perversity longs for expression and confession. In good Poe form, the murderer blurts out his crime, bungled by the same forces that drew him into it to begin with – that original sin, as it were.

In Poe’s formula, rationality (knowledge of good and evil, we might say) always leads to Perversity, which is then redeemed by confession via spiritual forces. See the Imp of the Perverse, which brings phrenology and the insanity plea defense into a horrid struggle between confession and Kantian ethics. Or read The Black Cat, which involves the intricacies of feline dismemberment as part of good housekeeping.

Anyway, it’s clear Poe was ahead of his time, embedding counter-Enlightenment themes in clever puzzle-box stories for American readers in the 1840’s. Poe’s dark romanticism was in part a rebellion against Emerson and the poofy Transcendentalists, but he was a contemporary of Kierkegaard and writing years before Dostoevsky.


Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

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