The thrust of this study is to think together the concepts of trauma, testimony which ensures the imparting of the traumatic events ingrained unavailability to consciousness, the cognate concept of storytelling, and evil, in its banal instantiation (as proposed, among others, by Hannah Arendt  and Alessandro Ferrara  ) in relation to a selection of writings by Edgar Allan Poe.
My project sets out to reveal the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe's writings operate as testimonies to the reality of trauma with, however, some caveats attached: the tales will not be read as coded autobiography.
This amounts to a comprehensive blueprint for putting Poe's literary testimonials to trauma on a psychoanalytic footing. Cathy Caruth considers both psychoanalysis and literature events of speech: their testimony will be understood in both cases, as a mode of truth's realisation beyond what is available as statement, beyond what is available, that is, as a truth transparent to itself and entirely known, given, in advance, prior to the very process of its utterance. The testimony will thereby be understood, in other words, not as a mode of statement of, but as a mode of access to, that truth. In literature as well as in psychoanalysis, the witness might be the one who witnesses, but also the one who begets the truth, through the process of the testimony.
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The emergence of the narrative which is being read is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the cognizance, the "knowing" of the event is given birth to, with the reader, a party to the creation of knowledge de novo.
Calling upon psychoanalysis, I intend to draw on the work of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott to better understand Edgar Poe's narratives of dread.
The choice of author and methodology alike comes from a long-standing inquisition, starting from undergraduate years, into the possibilities of interpreting and most especially understanding and receiving Edgar Allan Poe's much debated writings. My latest attempt at construing the semantics of Poean fiction, which used the theoretical frame proposed by Jacques Lacan, seemed limited and insufficient for reasons which cannot be discussed at large in the present work. My belief is that this newest foray into Poe's (mostly) narratives of trauma will revive contemporary interest in a work which no longer seems only archaeologically significant, but very actual and consonant with issues raised in this post-Holocaust era.
In Shoshana Felman's words, "perhaps no [writer] has been so highly acclaimed and, at the same time, so violently disclaimed as Edgar Allan Poe." (Felman The Case of Poe 300) One of the most controversial figures on the American literary scene, perhaps the most throroughly misunderstood of all American writers, "hoaxer, fabulist, gothic hyperrealist," (Streeby 255) no other writer/ poet in the history of criticism has engendered so much disagreement and so many critical contradictions.
Deemed by some the paragon Gothicist,  Poe would call his tales "phantasy-pieces," a term he derived from Hoffman's Fantasiestücke and it will be Felman's contention that the "critical disagreement is itself symptomatic of a poetic effect," (Felman 301) and that the critical contradictions to which Poe's writing has given rise are themselves indirectly significant of the nature of his writing.
Columbia Literary History of the United States places him in a different category of Southern writers, in a chapter entitled, suggestively, "Poe and the Writers of the Old South": "throughout his career, he fought for an honest, independent criticism and sought to create a literary magazine free of regional bias." (Columbia Literary History 269)
In marked contrast to the ideas of William Gilmore Sims and the other writers whose main theme was the South, Poe's conception of letters is virtually devoid of regionalist sentiment. Only once in nearly one thousand reviews, articles, columns, and critical notices written over a fifteen-year period does Poe let the issue of Southernness get the better of a purely literary judgment; and the brief flash of Southern temper is revealing - in its very singularity - of Poe's conception of the profession of letters. (CLH 269)
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
The Columbia History of American Poetry reinforces Poe's lack of regional allegiances by making reference to his fictional idiosyncracies:
In all his experimentation in fiction, Poe manipulates conventions even as he parodies the literary formulas of the day. Moreover, he resists the coercive cultural politics of nineteenth-century America. As practical critic, Poe exposed shoddy work and literary theft; as practicing journalist, he stood against literary cliques that promoted inferior regional writing, especially those centred on (but not confined to) Northern periodicals. Poe defended not the cause of Southern letters but the American quest for literary independence. Yet, at the same time that he attacked slavish imitation of European models, he opposed the excesses of literary nationalism. (TCHOAP 186)
Among major writers of the American Renaissance, Edgar Allan Poe is the most appealing to psychoanalysts as well as literary critics of the psychoanalytic persuasion. Lacan's first collection of published essays, the Ecrits, opens with a chapter entitled "The Seminar on The Purloined Letter." This so-called "Seminar", which is in fact the written account of a year-long course, is devoted to the exploration of a short literary text, one of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Imagination.
Shoshana Felman said: "I will attempt to analyze both the difference that Lacan has made in the psychoanalytical approach to reading and the way in which the lesson Lacan derived from Poe is a lesson in psychoanalysis".
Poe's life story has been one of the main reasons why he so appeals to the psychoanalysts, who have, by and large, construed Poe's writing as a product of his morbidity (see Joseph Wood Krutch who tried to evaluate Poe's writings solely as manifestations of psychic conflict without regard to their aesthetic character) or tries to address the question of Poe's power over his readers, arguing that the pathological tendencies to which Poe's text gives expression are an exaggerated version of drives and instincts universally human, but which "normal" people have simply repressed more successfully in their childhood (see Marie Bonaparte, in The Life and Works of E. A. Poe: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation).
My own position on the issue of whether Edgar Allan Poe's own embattled life, fraught with personal dramas and traumas, suffered an unmediated transfer into his fiction and storytelling style is that, while partial reflections of the biography could be recognisable in Poe's choice of themes, for example, a conceiving of his fiction as a symptom of his dysfunctional psychic life is far-fetched.
Consequently, my working hypothesis for the ensuing analyses will stand in disagreement with the conjectures of the aforementioned psychoanalytical critics and will rest on and be informed by the assumption that violent emotions are a foundation stone of psychic structure and have a very important bearing on creativity. The assumptions are based on the conclusions reached by Joyce McDougall in a fairly recent essay ("Violence and Creativity", 1999).
The thesis thus thinks together the concepts of trauma, testimony, storytelling and (banal) evil in relation to a selection of writings by Edgar Allan Poe, an undertaking doubled by the yieldings of a further tier to the methodological grid, namely relational psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalytically-specific instruments are applied to core elements of the trauma studies-specific terminology, resulting in an enhanced understanding of such concepts.
By means of an example, the core element in the formulation and structure of the trauma event, the Nachträglichkeit, is defined by trauma studies theoreticians as delay in response, deferred reaction, yet such glossing seems insufficient for a correct fathoming of the catastrophic inner reality that it presupposes. Kleinian psychoanalysis will equate the phenomenon with a literal inhabiting of life by death, which considerably improves the perception of the dimensions of trauma events.
Another concept, largely squabbled over by scholars themselves, is the banal instantiation of evil. While the very conditions of existence of banal evil are sometimes questioned by scholars sociologists, relational psychoanalysis accurately explains and implicitly legitimates such an occurrence of evil, by recognising in its structure the seriality of splitting.
The choice in methodology, namely the employing of the tools put forth by relational psychoanalysis rests heavily on the fact that relational psychoanalytic models best contextualise the individual within a world in the aftermath of a traumatic episode, which is more often than not the case of Poe's characters.
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Having maintained that the traumatic condition is the key to understanding Poe's pieces of literature, my next question has been: what is the best way to understand the process which makes impossible the successful knowing of the event. It is at this point that I have contended that psychoanalytic theories, as laid down by Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott are most apt, because they offer an in-depth analysis of the traumatised psyche.
Consequently, I have put Kleinian theory to work on a selection of literary texts by Edgar Allan Poe in a relationship that will reveal itself to be mutually illuminating. Through a reading of Poe within the Kleinian dynamics, it will be possible to observe the subtle operations of phantasied aggression in his creation.
Klein is concerned with the projection of relations to internal objects onto an external world, with how the latter can be known through the coloured filter of phantasy. A reading of Poe in the light of Klein may enable an anchoring of the threads out of which the poetic construct is woven in traumatic narratives.
I then propose to examine the extent to which Poe's discourse of trauma inhabits the potential space between reader and writer, by resorting to a theoretical framework put forth by Donald Winnicott. I will suggest that the relationship between the writer and the reader is indirect and is mediated by the text, which must accommodate a limited shared reality and shared illusion.
Donald Winnicott's concepts of transitional phenomena, potential space, true/ false self, holding environment and his views on creativity have been as many conceptual reasons why they were deemed to articulate well with Poe's writings.
Winnicott's model of the tolerance for paradox and mirroring offers a new perspective on Poe's pieces of literature and on the fact that ambiguous reference in fiction does not result in its being perceived as meaningless. By being referential to a world to which it does not refer, fiction sets up the very condition which, according to Winnicott, founds the emergence of the self. Fiction thus may allow readers, in a paradoxical way (by their "non-interfering presence"), to experience the unspeakable as having a voice.
The thesis is divided into five chapters, all undertaking analyses of a selection of Poean writings, ranging from poems and Gothic stories to detective stories and even essays on the purpose of art.
The first chapter is informed by the recent developments in the domain of trauma studies, placing in the spotlight the paradoxical structure of the indirectness in psychic trauma, which belies the concept that best addresses the issue of the dynamics of trauma: Nachträglichkeit.
As I will argue, in relation to some of Poe's pieces, "the traumatised carry an impossible history within them, they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess" (Caruth Trauma and Experience 4).
The conclusion reached in the first chapter is that dividedness, fragmentariness, hybridity, ultimate nonbeing, all come to represent, textually, an instantiation of the ultimate trauma for Edgar Allan Poe, the trauma of meaninglessness.
How is the act of writing tied up with the act of bearing witness? Is the act of reading literary texts itself inherently related to the act of facing horror? Such questions will shape the proceedings of the second chapter.
The pervasive feeling of death and the obtrusive lethal imagery, often filling Poe's fiction to the point of excrescence, will be interpreted as much more than a pure literary technique. They will be shown to bear witness to the moment of the subject's unanticipated transposition in the deathly and inexplicable realm after his/ her already accomplished future, in an attempt at, and need for, overriding the event of psychic death and trauma.
Poe's work can thus be seen as archiving the "deep memory" or the subject's traumatic experience.
The problematics of trauma and testimony are perforce in a closely-knit relation with the issue of evil, hence my excursus through the problematics of evil will focus on recent propoundings on the subject, namely the strand of evil that made possible the concentration camps in Auschwitz.
Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, analysed in this second chapter, will be considered as primarily an event of speech, and its testimony will be understood as a mode of truth's realization beyond what is available as statement
What will emerge from the comments on Pym, from the explication of some of the death scenes, from the gratuitousness of the violence, and the nonchalance of Pym's report, is not the horror, but a sense of the casualness of death, the "banality of evil" that Poe opposes to the "grandeur of evil", looking ahead to Auschwitz and the Gulag.
In the third chapter, after having explored the dynamics of trauma testimonials and the problematics of banal evil in various samples of Edgar Allan Poe's discourse of trauma, I will attempt to assess the extent to which the unassimilable experiences are redeemed in the narrative, and with what consequences for the readership.
It will be my contention that such literary testimonials as evinced by Edgar Allan Poe's pieces bear witness to the fact that the truth behind traumatic episodes can only be alluded to, by faithful descriptions of it. It is Poe's own artistic principle to relinquish truth, while aiming at it indirectly, and favour the mode of its transmissibility - narrative, or, in Arendt's words, storytelling - hence ascribing the task of meaning-making to aestheticism.
The fourth chapter approaches the objects of Poe's creation from the perspective of the Kleinian seeking to orientate himself/ herself in relation to a world of objects invested with phantasy, and engaging in the struggle to negotiate his/ her relationship from them. I seek to reveal the aggression in Poe's literary project: that of creating objects that appear to invite an invasion in which the reader is rendered complicitous.
My discussion of Poe's characters' traumatic encounters will attempt to foreground the struggle to separate from and discern that which is other. Their adventures in nightmarish, alienated environments constitute a series of encounters with phenomena that could be said to express projected, expelled parts of the self, which threaten the narrator and profoundly disrupt his sense of reality. Through seeking to write and transform these alienating encounters into language, Poe's characters in The Tales could be read as fictional representations of projective identification through an undulating succession of narrative sequences. In pursuing the Kleinian reading of Poe, I will seek to illuminate the processes involved in writing trauma and suggest the possible location of reparation in the text.
In the last chapter, I use the theory of Donald Winnicott and the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe to examine how a work of fiction provides a transitional area between writers and readers.
In his tales, Poe provides his readership with a framed potential space. This suggests one feature of trauma narratives as a psychological genre: it can demonstrate the failure of psychic strategies (or defenses) while strengthening its readership's abilities to manage those strategies. Poe's tales occupy our own potential space (thereby filling it) with manifestations of its own violation, closure, or emptiness.
My project, then, is a literary-critical and psychoanalytical approach to the event of trauma. The purpose of my analysis of sampled texts authored by Edgar Allan Poe is to explore the implications of the association between trauma, (banal) evil and (literary) testimonials, involved by the disclosure of the trauma mechanics in Poe's literary work.
Partial Cognizance and Delayed Inscription in
Edgar Allan Poe's Discourse of Trauma. Caruth, Lifton and
the Representations of Dread
"Whereof one cannot speak..."
In the first chapter, my analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's work will be tailored on the recent developments in the domain of trauma studies and will rest exhaustively on the theoretical elaborations of psychic trauma propounded by Cathy Caruth, Robert Jay Lifton and Dori Laub.
First off, there is an unfaltering consensus among theorists of trauma and its psychic accoutrements, that the deleterious impact on the human mind is a consequence not so much of a bodily injury, (though the originary meaning of trauma itself, deriving from the Greek trauma originally referred to an injury inflicted on a body), but of a mental hiatus. Caruth bases her understanding of trauma on Freud's suggestions in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, thus stating accordingly that "the wound of the mind - the breach in the mind's experience of time, self, and the world - is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event that is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known" (Unclaimed Experience 2)
This Freudian-informed psychoanalytic theory of trauma is itemised in by and large similar, yet more systematic terms, by Bainbridge and Radstone, as presupposing two moments: the first refers to the moment of trauma itself, while the second involves "the memory, or rather the perception of the event." (Culture and the Unconscious 109) In other words, the "unpleasurable event...has not been given psychic meaning in any way, [because] the outside has gone inside without mediation." (Unclaimed Experience 59)
In their seminal work History beyond Trauma, Davoine and Gaudillière report this failure of the human mind to assimilate the event as it happens as a lack of inscription (a term which I will hark back to throughout my analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's work), while questioning the very conscious presence of the subject at the site of the "catastrophe": "The catastrophe has already happened but could not be inscribed in the past as past, since in this respect the subject of speech was not there. Totally cut off, the truth was unable to be transmitted. The information remained a dead letter, outside the field of speech." (History Beyond Trauma 28) It is precisely this crisis of truth, the ontology and epistemology of truth as it emerges from the traumatic experience that is felt to pose the greatest challenge to trauma studies and is at the centre of trauma disquisition and it is this crisis that will shape the corpus of my textual analyses later on in the chapter.
But since the complexity of any textual analysis can only be premised on and vouchsafed, at the same time, by a fully fledged exploration of the instruments it employs, I will dwell for a while longer on the concept of trauma and the paradoxes that it is attended with. The most conspicuous paradox, lying at the very heart of the traumatic experience is, in Caruth's words: "that in trauma the greatest confrontation with reality may also occur as an absolute numbing to it, that immediacy, paradoxically enough, may take the form of belatedness." (Trauma and Experience 7) This belatedness is the very underpinning of the traumatic nature of the first moment of trauma, which "can only be ascribed to it after the fact. This is the principle of Nachträglichkeit or deferred action". (Bainbridge and Radstone 109)
Similarly, Henry Kristal, calling on the work of Cohen and Kinston posits the impact of an event in which "no trace of a registration of any kind is left in the psyche, instead, a void, a hole is found" (qtd. in Trauma and Experience Caruth 7), while Dori Laub has suggested that psychic trauma "precludes its registration"; it is "a record that has yet to be made" (Laub, 1991). (qtd. in Trauma and Experience Caruth 7). At this point in the theoretical outlining of the traumatic event, one question cannot be averted: what are the conditions of possibility of the arrested time that passes before the trauma can be inscribed/ registered? We find a satisfactory resolution of this temporal prevarication in Freud's own account and understanding of the phenomenon:
The breach in the mind - the conscious awareness of the threat to life - is not caused by a pure quantity of stimulus, but by "fright," the lack of preparedness to take in a stimulus that comes too quickly. It is not simply, that is, the literal threatening of bodily life, but the fact that the threat is recognised as such by the mind one moment too late. The shock of the mind's relation to the threat of death is thus not the direct experience of the threat, but precisely the missing of this experience, the fact that, not being experienced in time, it has not yet been fully known. (qtd. in Unclaimed Experience 61)
This blankness, latency, or "space of the unconsciousness" - the latter denomination is nothing short of a self-certifying myth in Caruth's theoretical meditation on trauma - which is "paradoxically what precisely preserves the event in its literality" is thus by no means to be equated with mere forgetting: "The experience of trauma, the fact of latency, would thus seem to consist, not in the forgetting of a reality that can hence never be fully known, but in an inherent latency within the experience itself. The power of the trauma is [that] only in and through its inherent forgetting is [it] first experienced at all. (Trauma and Experience 7)
The entailed paradoxical structure of the indirectness in psychic trauma belies the concept which best addresses the issue of the portentous dynamics of trauma, and which was mentioned earlier on: Nachträglichkeit. The problem of both knowing and of representing the event that it poses will best be tackled in the fourth chapter of the thesis, when the wielding of the insightful instruments put forth by object relational psychoanalysis generally, and by Melanie Klein specifically, will add unsuspected depth to this Freudian term.
The structure of traumatic experiences, which testifies to an "encounter with death" (Unclaimed Experience Caruth: 7) begs the question of what it means to transmit "a crisis that is marked, not by simple knowledge, but by the ways it simultaneously defies and demands our witness." (Unclaimed Experience 2). A tentative answer to this question and to another one, co-extensive with it, namely the mode of this transmission, the story of the unbearable nature of the event, will be hammered out, in extenso, in the second and third chapter of the thesis. As I will argue, in relation to some of Poe's pieces, and echoing Caruth's words, "the traumatised carry an impossible history within them, they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess" (Trauma and Experience 4), which emphasises a laudable "peculiar strength", according to Harold Bloom, "to say what could not be said, or to at least attempt to say it, thus refusing to be silent in the face of the unsayable." (qtd. in Trauma and Experience Caruth 9)
This impossible saying is addressed in particular by one theorist of the psychic trauma, the clinician Dori Laub, who dealt extensively with victims of the Holocaust and who becomes aware that it primarily derives from a built-in impossibility of knowing, altogether, a "collapse of witnessing", in his own wording. Hence the conundrum: "How does one listen to what is impossible?" And the answer is reflective of a most surprising finding: in order for the psychic trauma to have a history, its belatedness notwithstanding, for it to be acknowledged and perceived as such, for it to "take place", someone has to be able "to listen to the impossible, before the possibility of mastering it with knowledge." (qtd. in Trauma and Experience Caruth 11) And therein lies its danger, too, "the danger, as some have put it, of the trauma's "contagion," of the traumatisation of the ones who listen" (Terr, 1988 qtd. in Trauma and Experience 11). But it is also its possibility for transmission. I will desist from further expounding upon the conditions of testimony and the transmissibility of trauma at this point, since its applicability to literary instantiations of trauma, as the textual analyses of Poe's work will reveal themselves to be, requires additional theoretical tiers. A detailed discussion of these aspects will therefore, as announced, be relegated to the next two chapters of the thesis.
So far, the mechanics of trauma have revealed a certain incomprehensibility, a resistance to meaning, at the heart of the traumatic event, due by and large to the fact that the death encounter is central to such a psychological experience. Robert Jay Lifton terms it "numbing", "the experience of a decreased or absent feeling either during or after trauma," a "matter of feeling what should have been but was not experienced" ("An Interview with Robert Jay Lifton" in Trauma and Experience Caruth 142), but he distinguishes it from repression, which ousts an idea, by means of forgetting, from consciousness.
Rather, numbing writes off the typical psychical pathways taken by undesired events on their way to the realm of the deleted and instead leaves the mind "severed from its own psychic forms, [because] there's an impairment in the symbolisation process itself." (An Interview with Robert Jay Lifton 142) The impossibility of successfully assimilating the traumatic event, on account of the hampering by numbing is what makes the confrontation with death in trauma to break radically with any kind of knowledge or experience, for that matter: "In trauma one moves forward into a situation that one has little capacity to imagine; and that's why it shatters whatever one had that was prospective or experiential in the past, whatever prospective consolations one brought to that experience. And being shattered, one struggles to put together the pieces, so to speak, of the psyche, and to balance that need to reconstitute oneself with the capacity to take in the experience." (An Interview with Robert Jay Lifton 147) And that's what trauma is all about.
Consequently, since willed access is denied and the literal registration of the event escapes full consciousness as it occurs, trauma does not simply serve as a record of the event, but it registers the force of an experience that is not and cannot be yet fully owned or cognised. Pierre Janet adumbrated, as early as 1889, the difference between "narrative memory", which is defined as the automatic integration of new information into consciousness and what he calls "traumatic memory", evinced by a subject who proves unable to make the necessary narrative "that we call memory" (Janet, qtd. in Recapturing the Past Caruth 159) regarding the event.
This distinction shores up Lifton's recent insights into the traumatic event. Expectable experiences are assimilated without much attention being paid to details, whereas frightening events may not easily fit into existing cognitive schemes, that could have been used as referential landmarks, thus resisting integration: "Under extreme conditions, existing meaning schemes may be entirely unable to accommodate frightening experiences, which causes the memory of these experiences to be stored differently and not available for retrieval." ("Recapturing the Past" in Trauma and Experience Caruth 159)
The unavailability for retrieval, translatable by the impossibility of the subject to organise its experience on a linguistic level and thus to master or successfully order it to an extent, by sealing off the mechanisms of "knowing" the event, of cognizance by the subject, leaves the traumatised prey to a "speechless terror" (van der Kolk, 1987 qtd. in Repression and Dissociation Caruth 172). As Piaget pointed out: "It is precisely because there is no immediate accommodation that there is incomplete dissociation of the inner activity from the external world. As the external world is solely represented by images, it is assimilated without resistance (i.e., unattached to other memories) to the unconscious ego." They therefore cannot be easily translated into symbolic language necessary for linguistic retrieval. ("Repression and Dissociation" in Trauma and Experience Caruth 172)
Such a linguistic breakdown occurring at the mental site of trauma whenever death or death equivalents (as will be listed and detailed upon in connection to Poe - like ultimate meaninglessness, to give just one example) are confronted, has doublefold consequences: it creates a second self within the self of the traumatised, as Robert Jay Lifton's theory of the traumatised self proposes, and it relegates the task of registering and understanding what actually took place to the listener/ reader, as Kevin Newmark alleges in a study of traumatic poetry. (Traumatic Poetry Newmark in Trauma and Experience Caruth)
Lifton departs, in his conceiving of the second self, from the core tenet of the trauma theory regarding the lack of registration, of inscription - "numbing", in his own words - at the moment of the occurrence per se, when the self "capitulates completely to the uniquely disruptive impact of it." (Judgment, History, Memory Lee-Nichols 317) The concept of the second self seems thus to have been a previously uncharted path that awaited disclosure: "[...] to the extent that one is in anything there's a self-involvement. But in extreme involvements, as in extreme trauma, one's sense of self is radically altered. And there is a traumatised self that is created. Of course, it's not a totally new self, it's what one brought into the trauma as affected significantly and painfully, confusedly, but in a very primary way, by that trauma." ("An Interview with Robert Jay Lifton" in Trauma and Experience Caruth 147) He bases his insight on the testimony of people who underwent extreme trauma, as is the case of Auschwitz survivors, who pointed to this form of doubling by saying that they were different persons in Auschwitz. It entails that a recovery from trauma can only occur after this doubling has ceased to exist and the traumatised self has been reintegrated. I will put the spotlight back on this reintegration by resorting to the explanatory means of relational psychoanalysis, throughout the fourth chapter of the thesis.
Kevin Newmark explores the effects of the same lack of registration at the moment of the trauma, and of the linguistic unavailability that attends it, but this time from the standpoint of the listener/ reader, in an extensive study on traumatic poetry - within the same collection of studies on trauma edited by Cathy Caruth and published under the title Trauma and Experience - featuring poets like Baudelaire and Nerval. "Because the trauma is hidden," Newmark contends, "it is accessible only by way of a necessary process of reading and interpretation." ("Traumatic Poetry" in Trauma and Experience Caruth 253) On this occasion Newmark coins  the term "textual trauma", warning about the danger of a transgression by trauma of the confines of the text and spilling over its effects, "reproducing" them, in Newmark's words, on the reader "who erroneously believes it possible to remain forever sheltered from them. Traumatic poetry, to the extent that it necessarily confronts the reader with these issues, also suggests how the language we speak in order to understand the experience of trauma is also irretrievably marked by it." (Traumatic Poetry 253)
Such a meta-contagion of the reader, who - I construe - becomes the locus of trauma registration, of trauma inscription, while it risks proliferating incomprehension in language, lays down, unwittingly, the regulations of the dynamics between the traumatic text and its reader. Without determining to what extent does the traumatic transference, at the time of the inscription in the reader, take place, it nods towards the leaving of traumatic residues, once the reader is attuned "to the language of traumatic events through which, with trembling lips, [traumatic events] begin to speak." (253)
Missed Encounters with Death
The overarching opinion among a majority of Poe critics, one that has garnered wide and evenly-distributed consensus and according to which most of Edgar Allan Poe's work is a trauma-generated narrative, has seldom come under threat of rebuttal. Assumptions predicated on the critical statement that the tales and poems authored by Poe find their potential for terror in biographically-informed content were largely shored up by unfortunate circumstances and details of his life. Hermeneuts who have stopped short of labelling Edgar Allan Poe a "traumatophile"  and who evince no qualms about tracing the provenance of textual horrors in the author's embattled life have, more often than not, found themselves steeped in slovenly, wayward and noticeably far-fetched theories, often deliberately in disregard of the author's strategies of artistry or aestheticism.
My excursus on trauma and trauma-related studies is meant to steer my argument away from the neat compartmentalisation of Poe's work under the heading of trauma-informed or trauma-generated narrative, which abuses, in my opinion, by inadvertently factoring in, the biographical content and thus fallaciously deems fiction a mere epiphenomenon. While listing, tangentially, and briefly looking into some studies evincing the aforementioned pitfalls, I will try to establish, for reasons which will be detailed all throughout the thesis, that Edgar Allan Poe's work is not a purpose-built fictional discharge of personal predicament, the sort that would "destine him to re-enact his early traumas" - as Panter and Virshup allege, in a statement that encloses the widely-held misconception delineated above (Creativity and Madness 113) - but can also be construed in terms of an astute trauma-structured narrative, a discourse not about, but of trauma, avowedly pandering to Gothic conventions and pragmatically unoblivious of the pecuniary gain that such a fiction would incur.
In his "Preface" to The Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1939), Poe himself argues that its contents are "the results of matured purpose and very careful elaboration." In an attempt to posit a similar intent shared by tales that may appear to differ in terms of composition history, Poe underscores "a certain unity of design" characterising the volume, asserting that "these many pieces are yet one book." (129) In defining the book's theme, he says: "If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul." (129) He stipulates that he deduces "this terror only from its legitimate sources" and claims to urge it "only to its legitimate results" (129). Duncan Faherty, in a study bearing the very name that Poe used to characterise his collection, A Certain Unity of Design, discusses: "Figuring terror not as the manifestation of external horrors, Poe defines it as the revelation of the evil contained within. In effect, he implies that his tales are not the foreign "species of pseudo-horror," which some critics have labelled them." (Faherty 4)
James Werner shares the opinion that Poe designed fictional "interiors" to have unsettling "effects" upon the readers who temporarily "inhabit" hell. Channelling another one of Poe's statements of artistic purpose, The Philosophy of Composition, Werner remarks in his book, American Flaneur: "Always keeping the primacy of "effect" in mind, Poe constructs mental and physical interior states replete with a haunting "suggestiveness," an "under current, however indefinite of meaning," hinting at what might lie beyond or within the surface "reality" (Philosophy of Composition 24). As in many of Poe's tales, the reader can adopt his/her own stance of "analytic detachment," dismissing such outré ideas and events as the hallucinations of a deranged mind. But the "verisimilitude" or realistic detail Poe employs in depicting these events complicates such an easy rejection. Furthermore, the lure of an incompletely solved mystery - the terrific and terrifying promise of a face that never fully opens itself, or an enclosure that never completely closes - "keeps us on the threshold, making us want to speculate, to question our own perceptual limitations as much as the narrator's sanity." (American Flaneur 133)
In fact, what is easily dismissed as the narrator's "madness" could be precisely the key to interpreting the surfaces with more accurate (and more disturbing) results. This is a possibility Poe raises in many tales, but articulates most dearly in "Eleonora": "whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence-whether much that is glorious-whether all that is profound-does not spring from disease of thought-from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect" (468). Werner concludes: "Poe stages his incomplete readings to expand the reader's imaginative horizons, to question the very basis of our comfortably neat and logical explanations of the world-the very concepts of "outer" appearance and "inner" reality." (American Flaneur 133)
I argue, consequently, that the fictional events in the overwhelming majority of Poe's work lend themselves to a construal in terms of trauma. Poe both thematises and instantiates modernity, for example, as trauma, specifically in his late poem, "The Bells," as argued in Jonathan Elmer's essay The Jingleman: Trauma and the Aesthetic, which I will make reference to in what follows.
"The poem's inventiveness would seem to consist in the containment of the contingent and harshly impinging. Some irritating bells, madly ringing, or perhaps only ringing irregularly, will be submitted to a poetic form which will, as it were, ring programmatic changes - both semantic and rhythmic - on this contingent piece of the real "the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells."" (Elmer, 136) The bells Poe hears are intrusive in an initially obstructing way - let us characterise them, in concurrence with Elmer's argument, as an instance of modernity as shock:
Hear the tolling of the bells -
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of the tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people - ah, the people
They that dwell up in the steeple
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone -
They are neither man nor woman -
They are neither brute nor human,
They are Ghouls: -
And their king it is who tolls: -
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls
A Paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the Paean of the bells!
And he dances and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the Paean of the bells -
Of the bells: -
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells -
To the sobbing of the bells: -
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
To the rolling of the bells -
Bells, bells, bells -
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells. (437-8)
It is difficult to know whether repetition is the method or the theme of this extraordinary poem. Semantically, it is organised into four parts - moving from the tinkling of the silver bells to the tolling of the iron bells - certainly to Poe's lugubrious obsessions. The accretive, additive nature of the poem is also to be remarked: the repetitions get more insistent and numerous as the poem progresses, and recycle more rapidly in both smaller and larger units. It is certainly the case here, as it is also in "The Raven," that the semantic drift of the poem and its rhythmic energies seem at odds: for as we move toward the darkening close of the funereal "iron bells," the poem's repetitions become more and more agitated, even ecstatic.
We have here, I would argue, echoing Elmer's analysis, an instance of the trauma of modernity, "in which an initially obstructing or impinging shock - the bells ringing - comes to feed the very work it seems to obstruct." (Elmer, 138) If trauma is a useful term of analysis it is not only by virtue of the formal paradoxes it brings to light - the return to and defense against the missed encounter. We might also introduce a no doubt slippery distinction between "reality" and "the real", one derived from "Lacan's puzzles on the behaviour associated with trauma: his central example concerns the interpretation of a dream reported by Freud at the beginning of the seventh chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams:" (Elmer, 138)
A father had been watching beside his child's sick-bed for days and nights on end. After the child had died, he went into the next room to lie down, but left the door open so that he could see from his bedroom into the room in which his child's body was laid out, with tall candles standing round it. An old man had been engaged to keep watch over it, and sat beside the body murmuring prayers. After a few hours' sleep that father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: 'Father, don't you see I'm burning?' He woke up, noticed a bright glare of light from the next room, hurried into it and found that the old watchman had dropped off to sleep and the wrappings and one of the arms of his beloved child's dead body had been burned by a lighted candle that had fallen on them. (qtd. in Elmer 138)
Freud argues, Elmer contends, that the father dreams of his son's appearance so as to keep from waking up, to keep the son alive for a few more moments, as it were. Lacan thinks, on the contrary, that the father wakes up in order to be released from the trauma at the heart of the dream. The crucial distinction for our purposes is the status of the outside impingement, what Lacan calls the "accident, the noise, the small element of reality" (60): the burning candle, the smoke, all that is transpiring in the next room as the Father sleeps and dreams. This little piece of impinging reality in fact resonates with, re-evokes or re-lights, the most painful "reality in abeyance" inside the Father's unconscious - namely, the collection of feelings, motives and ignorances surrounding the son's death, that other, earlier "burning up" of the son for which the Father will always feel guilty because he could never have anticipated, no matter how much he tried, its eventuality: the son's death, in its overwhelming traumatic nature, always arrives out of time, will always have been a "missed encounter."
Lacan's reading of the dream suggests that trauma involves a kind of temporal resonance between the real and reality: between an outside that is always missed, that remains forever latent, "in abeyance, awaiting attention, en souffrance," and the reality which is the object of our representations. The father wakes up in order to break out of the agonising resonance set up between the real of the trauma of his son's death and the reality of what is happening in the next room which, as Lacan remarks, can only be experienced by the father as a great relief: here at least is something against which one can take steps (59)!
Lacan's interpretation of the dream suggests, then, "another dimension of the model of trauma: namely, the fact that the repetitions involved, the compulsive return to the missed encounter, can be understood as involving a species of resonance between reality - the present impingement, the locatable contingency - and the real, a temporally syncopated reality that lies outside the reach of conscious representation but not of unconscious memory and desire." (Elmer, 139)
In her essay on American literary history "Playing in the Dark," discussed in Elmer's essay, Toni Morrison claims that "[n]o early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe" (32). "She makes this claim having just invoked the bizarre conclusion to Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in which the white characters' terrifying descent to the South Pole takes them through regions of darkness, and a narrow escape from the fierce black savages on the Island of Tsalal." (Elmer, 139)
Here, at the end of their journey, their sole Tsalalian captive, Nu-Nu, dies just as "we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin was of the perfect whiteness of the snow." Morrison takes this moment as "paradigmatic for a general relation in American literature between the white imagination and the "dark and abiding presence" of Africans; this is why she can say Poe is central to the concept and argument she is developing." (Elmer, 139)
The "shrouded human figure" is the prime example for Morrison of the "figurations of impenetrable whiteness that surface in American literature whenever an Africanist presence is engaged." Such figures "clamour...for an attention that would yield the meaning that lies in their positioning, their repetition, and their strong suggestion of paralysis and incoherence; of impasse and non-sequitur" (33).
"It is certainly true," Elmer argues, "that the conclusion of Pym is rather confusing: with an expired Nu-Nu in their boat, Pym and Peters seem at once to speed up and come to a standstill, since their rush into the "embraces of a cataract" is also a rush into the obstructing presence of a shrouded white figure. In the most abstract sense, then, the conclusion to Pym reminds us of the structure of traumatic repetition, as we have seen it in "The Bells": incessant return to obstruction and impasse - paralysis in motion." (Elmer, 140)
In Pym Poe clearly avails himself of Gothic conventions in order to explore forms of repetition and trauma brought on by the "language of affectionate appropriation," of what could be called the symbiotic antagonism between property and affect. For Poe, this antagonism leads to depictions of the kind of psychic paralysis figured at the close of Pym: "Poe is preoccupied with repeated and varied postures of enfeeblement, a deliberate weakness that leaves only feeling" (189). (Toni Morrison, qtd. in Elmer 134).
I want to return to my argument about traumatic repetition in suggesting that what Poe returns to so regularly is beyond either the pleasure or the reality principle, beyond anything that could be owned in a subjectively coherent fashion. What he returns to are dramas of affect - a "weakness that leaves only feeling" after the collapse of the cognitively secured frameworks of reference. To return obsessively to such scenes of paralysed intensity of feeling and cognitive breakdown suggests that the traumatic "missed encounter" in Poe's work "is less a punctual event than a generalised condition in which a psychal structure of distinctions cannot adequately manage or program the feeling or affect subtending that structure. Affect here would be associated with an obstacle to meaning, but in the mode of an overdetermination of meaning rather than its lack." (Elmer, 141)
As with modernity and the contingent outside, Poe's obsessive return to states of affective undoing, then, is undertaken as a paradoxical seeking out of that which one must defend oneself against.
Elmer qualifies the state described here as a state of "suspension." It is this state which, for Poe, constitutes the traumatic condition "which both compels and undoes his aesthetic strategies of containment and defense." (Elmer, 141) It is this condition, for which the ringing of the bells becomes the "small element of reality" seized upon as something to work on, to represent, much as the burning candle in the next room is awakened to as an at least representable reality, painful and insistent, to be sure, but preferable to the "real" traumatism that exceeds representation.
The bells, then, in the poem are "allegories of affect," standing in not for a traumatic event but rather for a condition that must always be missed, because it "suspends the normativising representations it solicits". (Elmer 142) But such an allegory of affect must necessarily also signify the aesthetic containment and reduction of such an overwhelming condition: it both signals something profound and sublime, and does so "with an insistence which shadows the sublime with the bathetic: affect can only be allegorised." (Elmer 142) If Poe is a "technocrat of art," then, what he evokes via his obvious, obsessive allegorising of affect is the bad faith we sometimes evince vis-à-vis the aesthetic.
In what follows I will tackle another instantiation of the fictional rendering of the mechanics of trauma, along the theoretical lines glossed over at the beginning of the chapter. The analysis is dedicated to the question of what a trauma narrative is and how the subject of/ in trauma is constituted. I begin with the assumption that what we are looking for in a literary work of art is not simply its meaning but the way in which that meaning is produced. In his story "The Pit and the Pendulum", Poe uses the fictional account of the narrator's imprisonment and torture by the Spanish Inquisition "to explore the limits of human experience in consciousness and unconsciousness," as Jennifer Ballangee contends. (Ballangee 12)
The gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories emerges from a mysterious "evil" whose root becomes exposed whether by the ratiocinations of a detective-narrator or the chilling explanations of the clever criminal himself. The horrifying mystery is thus often ultimately identified as a specific crime, its perpetrator marked clearly as the guilty party. Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," however, avoids this pattern by establishing its narrator as the victim of an unsubstantiated sentencing for an unspecified crime - a victim of the wilful judgment of the Spanish Inquisition. Thus, in the story, the investigation, no longer having an elusive crime to pursue, explores the nature and the limits of the experience itself.
In the manner of Poe's more typical detective stories, his narrative exploration of this problem depends upon visible evidence presented by the narrator to the reader. He describes first his very brief trial by the Inquisitors, which ends in his being sentenced to death. Following the shock of this sentence, he then relates his encounter with death in a series of tortures inflicted upon him in the vault of his dungeon prison. The increasingly dire torments climax with the narrator escaping a fall into an abysmal pit only to encounter a scythe-like pendulum that emerges from a work of art etched upon the walls of the dungeon. The pendulum swings mesmerizingly above him, its razor-sharp edge dropping ever closer to his body bound beneath it. Juxtaposed with the ponderously regular shocks of each swing of the pendulum, the pit looms next to the narrator/ prisoner as a sublime, unfathomable suggestion of the unknown fate that continues to remain horrifyingly proximate yet held in abeyance.
Poe's narrator, who is also a writer, survives his trial, passing on the story of his death, but examining the traces that are left - that is, examining the possibility of storytelling, or, in other words, what of experience can be communicated. Poe's narrator swoons, and loses almost all of consciousness; of what remained of it, he avers, "I will not attempt to define, or even describe it." (Poe, 232) Yet, driven by memory he does describe it - in the gruesome terms of a torture inflicted by the Inquisition. Thus Poe's victim marks with his own body the ineffable knowledge of "memories which will not suffer themselves to be revealed", putting in visual terms for his witnessing audience the shocking experience of the traumatic encounter with death itself.
The scenes of torture that follow this passage - culled from the Inquisition and the Gothic sources - point toward the knowledge of the "gulf beyond" sought in the story, a theme with which Poe's work demonstrated a steady fascination. The recurring theme of death in Poe's work rarely involves the straightforward end of existence, but rather centres around the process of dying, a state of being proximous to death, or, often, returning to life from death or even experiencing some aspect of death while still alive. Most commonly, this latter experience expresses itself in various manners of being buried alive.
Poe is perceived as developing a method of recovering impressions perceived while sleeping (or, in other words, while not conscious) that involves him struggling for awareness on the threshold of sleep. For, as he notes, even though he is able to transfer the visions into memory, he can still only briefly consider them in the logic of analysis. Poe's note of this limitation implies that he feels the impressions remain in memory, but inaccessible to conscious, analytical consideration. Thus, it follows, he is positing a level of experience with this experiment that falls into neither consciousness or unconsciousness. Poe distinguishes these impressions as "psychal" rather than intellectual, noting that they arise in the soul at the threshold of sleep or consciousness.
If we were able to convey these "psychal impressions" - to recover the experience designated by only a trace of memory - he feels that they would be supremely novel material, both in themselves and in what they would consequently suggest. With this, he continues, others would acknowledge that "I have done an original thing". The originality of his art would derive from the uniqueness of the forgotten thing. Accomplishing such a task would enable Poe to achieve one of his primary aesthetic goals: by recording these experiences in writing, he might create something utterly unique.
Poe allows the surprising shock of death itself to determine his aesthetic: this is the "completely new thing" he hopes to offer to his audience. The convergence of death and uniqueness lies at the heart of Poe's sense of beauty. In his essay "The Poetic Principle", Poe designates beauty as the object of poetry, rather than truth. Dividing the mind into three parts - pure intellect, taste, and moral sense - he locates the realm of taste as that which alone determined Beauty. Thus freeing his idea from any moral restrictions, Poe can associate beauty with an immortality devoid of spiritual ideals. The desire for beauty becomes a physical longing, an "immortal thirst" toward which we strive, "inspired by an ecstatic prescience of glories beyond the grave..."
Thus poetry excites our souls, enabling us to glimpse this "supernal Loveliness" of an immortality that extends beyond physical death. Yet, since Poe refrains from associating his idea of beauty with a moral sense of immortality, the approach to beauty must be closely linked to death, which thus assumes the position of a gateway to what lies "beyond". Correspondingly, Poe indicates intense melancholy as being most thrilling to the soul; it follows, then, that "...this certain tint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty." (Poe, 889) "Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the political tones". Having established melancholy as the ultimate poetic mood, Poe goes on to designate death as the most melancholy topic; thus, he concludes, death may provide the most beautiful and appropriate subject for poetry.
Shifting Poe's theories of the beautiful in poetry to his prose, then, "The Pit and the Pendulum" appears as a story, a work of art, in which the proximity of death produces a creative act that is both horrifying and liberating. In it, the human thirst for beauty merges with what Poe calls elsewhere (in an analysis of his poem "The Raven") the "human thirst for self-torture", a perverse and melancholy desire to bring death near.
The self-same traumatising proximity of death, with its delayed inscription and numbing effects can be recognised in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", which dabbles in the portentous topic of mesmerism. Poe's interest in mesmerism is well known and corroborated by the several articles and presentations that he composed on the subject. As a state that seems also on the threshold between consciousness and unconsciousness, mesmerism appears as another facet of Poe's fascination with the luminal experience of death in life.
From deep within a mesmeric trance, M. Valdemar is able to speak - without the aid of his blackened and swollen tongue, one presumes - the impossible: his own experience of death. If all is "not lost" even in death, then a recoverable experience of death would "prove" in some way the possibility of existence after death. In this sense, the recoverability of that experience includes both its presence in memory and its accessibility to the intellect - for the proof depends upon its being repeatable to others - in writing, as Poe hopes to do - as the locus of its inscription - or in speech, as M. Valdemar succeeds for a moment in doing. Like in "Pit and the Pendulum", then, with each successive fall, and with each new torture, the body of the narrator revisits the unconscious, which occupies for Poe in this function the position of death (whose proximity is manifested by the threat of torture).
Elsewhere, Benjamin ascribes this same sort of dehumanisation to the crowd described in "The Man of the Crowd": "The people in his story behave as if they could no longer express themselves through anything but a reflex action. These goings on seem even more dehumanised because Poe talks only about people. If the crowd is jammed up, it is not because it is being impeded by vehicular traffic - there is no mention of it anywhere - but because it is being blocked by other crowds." (The Writer in Modern Life 30) In this passage, the crowd takes the place of machines, embodying the overwhelming stimuli from which they must shut themselves off, in a movement that is at once dehumanising and saving. As Benjamin suggests in a footnote to the "Motifs" essay, "[t]he daily sight of a lively crowd may once have constituted a spectacle to which one's eyes had to adapt first." (On Some Motifs 21) The overstimulus of the technological crowd seems thus to produce a deadening effect upon those subjected to it. The overwhelming experience is shut out, and what is left to experience is something like a residue: "In shutting out this experience the eye perceives an experience of a complementary nature in the form of its spontaneous after-image, as it were". (21) This numbing serves the purpose of defense from shocks or trauma.
The new awareness of the narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum" appears now in the light of art: even as he realises the gravity of his predicament, his nerves thrill at the sight of these glowing paintings. Moreover, this sudden imposition of art corresponds with an awareness of the witnesses, his audience. Suddenly, the story has become self-referential - a story "in which art plays a role in the experience of death and in which this exchange is performed before a witnessing audience." (Ballengee 195) At this point, the pictures appear for the first time in their full definition: the artwork that glows with increasing intensity on the wall, the narrator realises with horror, depicts his own imminent death by torture: "A richer tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood. I panted! I gasped for breath..." (Poe 253) Thus, in a further exaggeration of its own self-referentiality, the story that professes the goal of exploring the "gulf beyond" through the recollection of a series of tortures culminates in an artistically rendered depiction of its own agenda: an illustration of death in the midst of torture.
Convinced of the certain death that the pit offers, the narrator moves irresistibly toward it, as an escape from the torments that bear down upon him. Yet, poised over the pit, straining to see into its depths, he struggles unsuccessfully to recognise its meaning. After a moment, the significance of the pit ultimately overwhelms him: it "burns" itself upon his reason. The violence of this communication conveys the meaning of the pit, relieving the narrator (and Poe) from struggling to define the impossible words to describe it. The repeated failure of language here - indicated by his cry "for a voice to speak" - recalls the tongueless and impossible utterance of M. Valdemar, speaking his own death, and the linguistic unavailability at the time of trauma identified by theorists. At such moments, where the radical novelty calls for the giving of a name to inscribe what is happening, there is always a great risk that the tool of names will break. "Then the continuity of transmission is interrupted on this point, and into this we