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Laughing Androids, Weeping Zombies, and Edgar Allan Poe
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Laughing Androids, Weeping Zombies, and Edgar Allan Poe

Hegel mentions an ancient Egyptian sacred statue, which, at every sunset, as if by miracle, issued a deep reverberating sound—this mysterious sound magically resonating from within an inanimate object is the best metaphor for the birth of subjectivity.

—Slavoj Žižek1

The relationship between Poe’s creative work and his cosmology, as expressed in his tales of mesmerism and, more directly, in Eureka, has long been a matter of critical debate. Much of the discussion has concerned the place of materiality in Poe’s vision, and what this materiality might have to do with Poe’s bodies, which—sometimes tragically, sometimes farcically—suffer a broad array of depredations. In 1861, Fyodor Dostoevsky suggested that “Poe’s fantasticalness . . . seems strangely ‘material,’” rather than ideal while, more recently, Daniel Hoffman has complained that Poe’s metaphysics “is . . . all physics” that “has nothing to do with mankind” because of its uncompromising materiality.2

Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe is a wide-ranging document that is difficult to categorize, and—like so much of Poe—is serious and playful by turns. It is equivocally prescriptive at best. “I design but to suggest,” writes Poe, “and to convince through the suggestion.”3 Nevertheless, Poe adheres to certain specific claims throughout his treatise, a key one being the extension of material substance to encompass all, including the spiritual domain. He characterizes his universe [End Page 257] of fundamentally material distribution quite clearly in Eureka’s closing paragraph:

All these creatures—all—those which you term animate, as well as those to whom you deny life for no better reason than that you do not behold it in operation. . . These creatures are all too, more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious, secondly and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak—of an identity with God. Of the two classes of consciousness, fancy that the former will grow weaker, the latter stronger, during the long succession of ages. . . Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness—that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life—Life—Life within Life—the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.

(CW, 16:314–15)

The basic point being made here is that what one typically takes to be the absolute distinction between matter and spirit is actually a distinction between different concentrations of the same element. The universe, consciousness included, is of a single substance. It follows that the subject is purely material. However, Poe’s stories do more than simply demonstrate bodies whose materiality is exposed as they are drawn into “Jehovah” through a “metaphysics all physics.” As we shall see, this materiality, while total, is not uniform, and the seams in this material universe generate uncertainties about the place of the individual in society, and of human society itself in Poe’s cosmos.

Current criticism seems to be more at ease with the possibility of a wholly material universe, perhaps partly because of [End Page 258] the common acceptance of a cybernetic model of the human, as implied by the human genome project. Matthew A. Taylor argues convincingly that Poe’s panpsychic cosmology “insists on the overcoming of the subject by the object that it uncannily resembles, the loss of the putative individual’s life to the world such that the ‘I,’ too, becomes a thing.” He adds that Poe’s tales of mesmerism demonstrate that “the self’s identity—its putative independence and integrity—[is] disturbingly fragile, if not altogether illusory.”4 It is worth noting that while Poe’s panpsychism might, as Taylor and others argue,5 anticipate the advent of the post-human with its “overturning of the subject of liberal humanism,”6 it also reconfigures the place of the undead in literary history as a potential cultural strategy of disavowal. Through Poe, the undead plays a...