Poe’s Affective Faces

From: Poe Studies
Volume 49, 2016
pp. E6-E8

The Johns Hopkins University Press colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Poe’s Affective Faces
Adam Frank. Transferential Poetics, from Poe to Warhol. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2014. 200 pp. $27.00 cloth.

The scope of Adam Frank’s Transferential Poetics, from Poe to Warhol is both wide and deep, emblematic of a project that weaves together analyses of literature and film through the lens of affect theory to traverse a range of historical periods. Over the course of four chapters, Frank explores the poetics of Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Andy Warhol; beginning in the 1840s and ending in the 1980s, Frank takes an unorthodox approach, but what unites these writers, thinkers, and artists, he argues, is “an acutely receptive and reflexive attention to the movement of feeling across and between text and reader, or composition and audience” [1]. Frank calls this phenomenon “transferential poetics,” drawing on Silvan Tomkins’s affect theory to develop the concept fully. Tomkins’s system, he explains, is composed of “eight or nine innate affects as the more general biological motives in humans”: “the negative ones, fear-terror, distress-grief, anger-rage, shame-humiliation, and contempt-disgust; . . . the positive ones, interest-excitement and enjoyment-joy; and the reorienting affect of surprise-startle” [5]. Tomkins locates affective responses primarily on the face rather than within the bodily organs; the face then is “the primary organ of affect, just as the lungs are the primary organ of respiration and the heart the primary organ of the circulation of the blood” [7].

Frank’s chapter on Poe maps the facial dynamics of Poe’s tales through this lens [52]. He quirkily begins with a reading of a comic strip from Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, focusing on the character of Sadly-Sadly, whose supremely sad-looking face produces “a kind of instant contagion of affect” [49]. This invocation of Sadly-Sadly in the November 1949 strip is a refreshing way to begin a chapter on nineteenth-century affect—and representative of Frank’s larger methodology of putting unlikely objects of study in conversation with one another. While the study as a whole appeals to a theoretically minded audience, readers of a historical bent will also benefit from the novel readings of canonical literary writers this methodology produces.

Frank tracks the peculiar and frequent description of faces throughout a number of Poe’s tales, including “Ligeia,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter, “The Man of the Crowd,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and [End Page E6] others; for Frank, “these long, mostly visual descriptions are bizarre, somehow never quite adding up, for what Poe’s narrators seem to want to make perfectly clear is less a picture of a person than a problem with expression” [53]. Poe’s narrators frequently “offer a minutely detailed depiction of the face of some beloved or compelling person within the tale’s first few paragraphs, directly after confessing to the difficulties he has remembering origins” [53]. Anyone who has read “Ligeia” will find this observation thoroughly convincing: “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia”; or, “Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classic regularity—although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it” [Works, 2: 310, 312]. What is the enigma of Ligeia’s face, what is its strangeness? This question gets at what the chapter never fully articulates: the racial component of the face and its expressions. No one book can cover all topics, and while it is out of the scope of Frank’s study, an analysis of the racial component of affect and facial expression would only enrich such a reading of Poe given the enigmatic ways in which Poe’s stories often broach the topic of race.

Frank applies Tomkins’s concept of the four “General Images” that guide the affect system described above to understanding Poe’s technique. In Tomkins’s affective constellation, the first Image seeks to maximize positive affect, the second minimizes negative affect, the third minimizes affect inhibition, and the fourth maximizes power to the other three...