Article: Edgar Allan Poe: The Visionary Genius

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By Sandro D. Fossemò

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(Translation of Rossella Cirigliano)

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There are things you know about,
and things you don’t, the known and the unknown,
and in between are the doors – that’s us.
(Jim Morrison)

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For a long time, psychoanalysis has found out that, in a conflicting but creative way, there can be a psychological link between a “gifted perception” and a “mental dissociation” in the artist who, in his neurosis, suffers from perception problems. On the contrary, the mechanistic conception of positivistic psychiatry has labeled “abnormality” as “mental illness,” thus denying the creative aspects so deeply connected to the perception field. Exactly as it occurs to the oyster that, thanks to a slight flaw in its shell, let a grain of sand inside to produce a pearl, for those who have a perception problem, their pearl is their art.

Jungian psychoanalysis in particular applies to a study that connects the unconscious to the neurotic and genial expression of the dreamer, where perception is directly influenced by the archetype.

Even though I do not intend to analyse the complex and genial mind of the well-known poet, I can try to imagine a psychological path, only intuitive and hypothetical, of his remarkable artistic creativity and state undoubtedly that the most brilliant minds are often the most sensible and, in a sense, the most ‘wrecked’ because of a peculiar perception of reality aiming at going beyond the common one, in order to examine the ‘hidden’ one.

Poe, in “Marginalia,” writes about perception:

That intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge, when reason herself falters and abandons the effort, appears to resemble the sudden glancing at a star, by which we see it more clearly than by a direct gaze; or the half-closing the eyes in looking at a plot of grass, the more fully to appreciate the intensity of its green.

Besides, I also consider the most part of Freud psychoanalysis unreliable, so I do not agree at all with Maria Bonaparte (1882-1962)’s absurd interpretations. I also believe it is wrong and deterministic to go back to the author’s psyche, merely starting from a critical analysis of his works, or analysing the dream expression just as an unconscious revelation of the ‘repressed.’ We can never be sure of the psychoanalytical solutions for the complicated human psyche, in particular if it is gifted. Before analysing the visionary experiences, we have to stress that Poe was on drugs, such as laudanum, which certainly changed his predisposition to mental dissociation* to an enhanced perception of reality, able to release those very symbolic contents of the unconscious in Poe’s fiction. It is obvious that those drugs only helped his creativity, but did not cause it.

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Meta-Symbolic Art
If the artist, as psychoanalysis asserts, through imagination can simulate the dream and become an interpreter of the unconscious, he can observe and amplify the dream hemisphere of reality through its perception. The dream intertwined with reality becomes a means to examine and reveal the riddles of reality.

If we live inside a dream but we are not aware of it for our limited perception, then we can go beyond our perceptive limit through a surreal art. In Poe’s art, the dream changes into a symbolic language, aiming at showing the soul metaphysical delirium in a ‘meta-symbolic’ synthesis coming from the archetype of the collective unconscious. Thus, Poe’s art becomes a meta-symbolic one that creates the mythopoeic imagination that unconsciously reveals itself in reality. If myths reveal our real hidden identity, it is obvious that the archetypical imagination living and reigning inside us is not only a means to get to know ourselves, but also it is above all a perceptive key to understand the world.

Dream and art are linked to the myth universe and, much less, to that of the repressed, but if psychoanalysis considers art as an action of balance between the needs of the unconscious and conscious world, then we can consider mythopoeic expression as a human desire to go back to the primitive as a reaction to a morally and rationally repressive reality. So, myths are a kind of primordial force which unconsciously takes part in the artistic expression, just as it used to happen with gods in ancient Greece.

An example is the story, “The Devil in the Belfry,” where a mysterious character, through a clock deception, puzzles a functional and mechanistic society.

The obscure and demonic destroyer that acts against a ‘perfect system’ can be seen as the god Pan grappling with an inhuman technicist world. Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman (1926-2011) explains imagination and world above all from the mythological point of view, where archetypes organize our imaginary and dream activity. It is limited and also inappropriate to consider art as the expression of a dimension between an oppressive reality and a consequent imagination that satisfies and compensates our deep desires.

Art can also be a metaphysical projection of myths into reality, through a meta-symbolic expression, where reality is transcended to leave room for a dream imagination of the ‘ancient’ or ‘ancestral,’ represented by the very archetype.

Dream Is Death
Death is depicted by Poe as a psychological nightmare, where reality melts into dream in the mental dissociation of the main character who, immersed in a timeless labyrinth, acts with lucid insanity, according to a diabolic plan of death. Soul and death are madly and rationally intertwined in the nightmare. The deeper we are in the soul abyss, the clearer we catch sight of death, as Hillman states: “Dream is Soul and Soul is Death.” **

The link between dream and death dates back to the primitives, for whom the dream world was the death world. Such a concept is also in Hillman’s psychoanalysis, which definitely rejects the Freudian or Jungian idea of the unconscious as an expression of daily repressions, and that a peson in dreams only sees Hades, the realm of the dead, the ‘underworld,’ ruled by the gods and myths of Ancient Greece.

In my opinion, Poe’s art suits that mythological imagination suggested by Hillman with his “Old Age Psychology,” in which dreams emerge from that realm of the dead where the soul dwells. In the short story, “Ligeia,” for example, at night, the main character sees a shadow behind the glare of an incense burner, almost to show the soul wandering in the realm of the dead. In fact, in Poe’s dream universe, the ancestral myth often lingers as a symbolic call of death where the “dread of soul” develops.

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The Visionary
For Poe, he who daydreams develops a lot of creativity and can understand the complexity of reality at the price of a visionary dissociation state, aiming at expressing a “supreme form of intelligence.” Altered states are a means to develop creativity, for they allow the unconscious to emerge frenetically in the perceptive field.

The secret of genial perception consists in the interpenetration between dream and reality, determined by altered mental states caused by psychological traumas, where dissociation from reality occurs.

C.G. Jung (1875-1961) brilliantly analyses the event when a person loses any awareness of reality to leave space for the unconscious:

The forces erupted from the collective psyche bring confusion and mental blindness. A consequence of the dissolution of persona is that imagination gets loose; that is what collective psyche does. This break-in of fantastic elements violently spreads into the conscious materials and impulses of whose existence nobody had any doubts. All the treasures of thought and mythological feeling are found out. It is not always easy to resist such overwhelming sensations. This phase is listed among those representing a real danger during analysis, danger not to be underestimated. It is easy to understand that this condition is so unbearable that a man wants to end it as soon as possible, as its resemblance with mental alienation is that strong. The most common form of madness, early dementia or schizophrenia, basically consists of the unconscious expelling and replacing the functions of the conscious mind. The unconscious seizes the functions of reality and substitutes them with a reality of its own. Unconscious thoughts are audible as voices, or are perceived as illusions or bodily hallucinations. They show themselves as senseless yet unmovable decisions, made in opposition to reality.

As persona dissolves into collective psyche. The unconscious is similarly yet not identically driven into consciousness. The only difference from the mental alienation state is that the unconscious is brought to the surface through conscious analysis; at least, this is what happens to the principle of analysis, when strong cultural resistances are still to be overcome. Then, after overthrowing the barriers set up for years, the unconscious spontaneously intrudes upon the conscious and sometimes bursts into the mind like a torrent. In this phase, the resemblance to mental alienation is very strong. But it would be about real madness only if the unconscious content became a reality that replaced conscious reality; in other words, if the subject gave credence to them.*** (Italics are mine.)

Only a mind as well-prepared as Poe’s is ready to receive unconscious invasions without giving in completely to mental alienation, because the writer can brilliantly use perceptive dysfunction as a cognitive means of reality through the rational analysis of his own imagination. As a consequence, Poe is not a schizophrenic, who has completely lost all sense of reality, but an intense visionary, talented and able to consciously control his own visions. Jungian analysis about dissociation from reality with peculiar visions is confirmed when the writer describes his mental state when he “day-dreams” in the essay, “Marginalia,” making imprecise reference to some sudden “fancies.”****

There is, however, a class of fancies of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word ‘fancies’ at random and merely because I must use some word, but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychic than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquillity – when the bodily and mental health are in perfection – and at those mere points of time ‘where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these ‘fancies” only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time – yet it is crowded with these “shadows of shadows” – and for absolute thought, there is demanded time’s endurance.

These ‘fancies’ have in them a pleasurable ecstasy, as far beyond the most pleasurable of the world of wakefulness, or of dreams, as the Heaven of the Northman theology is beyond its Hell. I regard the visions, even as they arise, with an awe which, in some measure, moderates or tranquillises the ecstasy.*****

A very important analysis appropriate to the American writer’s artistic bent and similar to Jung’s, where the psychic neurotic dissociative state helps the artist to more deeply understand the labyrinth dimension of reality, is described by the psychoanalyst Augusto Romano in an essay referring to Poe:

Out of metaphor, the treasure is the unconscious libido, the creative energies lying in the deep, and that the structures of an orderly world and of a steady conscience tend to refuse. Such refusal has plenty and valid reasons, for the risk is serious, and it is called “psychic inflation” and “psychosis.” On the other hand, life gradually dries up and burns out if it is not supplied by new energies. In fact, Jung has stressed the positive function of neurosis, as an extreme attempt by the psyche to lead the ego to a greater integration of unconscious procedures and, consequently, to a more articulated view of reality. The human condition is, from this basic point of view, dramatic and contradictory, as Man struggles between the need to keep contact with the unconscious and the risk of being absorbed by it.******

Schizophrenia
I think that his very dissociative disturbance allowed Poe to be a great commentator on the psyche. I mean that the writer, as also described in “Marginalia,” consciously, yet involuntarily, dissociated from reality (also, through the use of certain drugs). He did so without being a victim of his psychic alteration, analyses and studies of the soul that he used to understand, in a paradoxically dissociative way, the dark side of the psyche described in the schizophrenic characters of his short stories. So, it is completely false and absurd what Maria Bonaparte says:

In order to prevent his strange, unstable and obsessed nature from being really criminal or insane, Edgar Allan Poe had also an unusual “drug”- ink, with which he impressed on paper his beautiful and well-finished writing, macabre “images,” horrible but comforting, that relieved him of his grief.*******

Instead, the writer does not use his dissociation to save himself from insanity but to examine that of others. Writing wasn’t a means to escape his own insanity but to sink into other people’s insanity. He might have been a talented psychologist, who used his own neurosis to understand human schizophrenia. Poe is mentally the healthiest of all because he is good at getting to know himself and others. Only a mentally sane person can understand when reason changes into “lucid madness,” because it becomes too instrumental or obsessive, for a serious perceptive problem doomed to result in schizophrenia. About mental illness, Poe defines the “evil genius of deception” as a kind of “imp of the perverse,” or of an inner drive in the human soul, aiming at making us do cruelties for the very pleasure to do evil. We do horrible things without a valid reason, just for the fun of it.

Analytical Imagination
The creative power of imagination allows the genius to exploit the messages of the unconscious: In fact, the analytical imagination is the mental ability to organize those unexpected thoughts, made up of images or emotions that apparently seem insignificant and messy, and change them into complete art.********

Poe developed what he defined as “analytical imagination” to examine the obscure nightmares of the human soul and immerse them in creative and striking surreal darkness. Nietzsche also believed in analytical rationality as a basis of creative inspiration:

In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker constantly produces good, mediocre and bad, but his power of judgment, most clear and practised, rejects and chooses and joins together, just as we now learn from Beethoven’s notebooks that he gradually composed the most beautiful melodies, and in a manner selected them, from many different attempts. He who makes less severe distinctions, and willingly abandons himself to imitative memories, may under certain circumstances become a great improvisator; but artistic improvisation ranks low in comparison with serious and laboriously chosen artistic thoughts. All great men were great workers, unwearied not only in invention but also in rejection, reviewing, transforming, and arranging.*********

The writer’s analytical imagination is connected to Schelling’s (1775-1854) aesthetical idealism, where the genius can understand the vital energy of nature in an artistic sense through conscious psychic activity, which allows him to find out the art of nature in the unconscious. According to Schelling, nature is a sublime universal artistic expression, an unconscious poem able to inspire the genial artist’s conscience. A similar conscience can also be found in the Kantian transcendental idealism of S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834), where the artist’s imagination comes from a creative elaboration of unconscious elements. Schelling and Coleridge are ideal authors to understand Poe’s aesthetical development.

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Creativity
The writer reveals the key of creative and perceptive intelligence in the introduction to his short story “Eleonora,” where the creative quality of “madness” is explained:

I AM come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, 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. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only by night. In their grey visions, they obtain glimpses of eternity and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom that is of good, and more of the mere knowledge that is of evil. They penetrate, however, rudderless or compassless, into the vast ocean of the “light ineffable,” and again, like the adventures of the Nubian geographer, “agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi.” We will say, then, that I am mad. I grant, at least, that there are two distinct conditions of my mental existence: the condition of a lucid reason, not to be disputed, and belonging to the memory of events forming the first epoch of my life – and a condition of shadow and doubt, appertaining to the present and to the recollection of what constitutes the second great era of my being.**********

And the conscious analysis of unconscious thoughts allows Poe to use his unconscious dimension productively, through a logical analysis of his own analytical creativity.

Poe also expresses that in his short story, “Berenice:” “The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, not the material of my everyday existence, but, in very deed, that existence utterly and solely in itself.”***********

This is to show that art, as it cannot reveal itself only within “rationality,” ends up being a direct consequence of unconscious impulses that need a rare and strong perception flexibility beyond “normality.”

Therefore, “genius and intemperance” interpenetrate when dissociation from reality paradoxically creates that dissociative intelligence, which allows dream to emerge as a creative “visionary ecstasy” in reality.

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Notes:

* For those who want to analyse the effects hallucinogenic drugs have on perception of reality, even though Poe was on opium and not on mescaline or LSD, I suggest the popular book by Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, and the research of the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof.

** J. Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, Est, 1996: p. 9.

*** Carl Gustav Jung, Inconscio, Occultismo e Magia, Newton Compton Publisher, Roma, 1985: pp. 167-168.

**** We have to pay attention to the correct translation of the word ‘fancies,’ which we also can translate as ‘imaginations.’ The English text of the article can be found on the following website: “Marginalia by Edgar Allan Poe” (Graham’s Magazine, March, 1846) at this link: http://www.4literature.net/Edgar_Allan_Poe/Marginalia/3.html. However, in the text Poe clarifies the term “fancies” as “Psychic Impressions.”

***** “Marginalia,” in Filosofia della composizione e altri saggi, Napoli, Guida, 1986: p. 89.

****** Augusto Romano, “Poe e la psicologia analitica junghiana: nostalgia delle origine e immagini del femminile,” in E.A. Poe dal gotico alla fantascienza, Mursia: p. 267.

******* M. Bonaparte, “Edgar Allan Poe. Studio analitico,” Newton Compton, Roma 1976, vol. I, pp. 96-97 in Daniela Fargione, Giardini e labirinti: l’America di Edgar Allan Poe, Celid, 2005, p. 82.

******** See the introduction by Carlo Izzo to Tutti i racconti e le poesie, Casa Editrice Le Lettere, Firenze, 1990, p. XXIV.

********** F. Nietzsche, “Belief in Inspiration,” in Human, All too Human.

********** “Eleonora” in Poe, Racconti del terrore, Oscar classici Mondadori, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milano, VII rist. 1999, p. 196.

*********** “Berenice” in Poe, Racconti del terrore, idem, pag. 74.

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