- Cadaverous Intimacies: Disgust, Desire, and the Corpse in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Valdemar”
In February 1806, the Philadelphia Medical Museum published a vivid “Account of the Dissection of a Young Man.” The article graphically details the man’s postmortem appearance, describing “ten or eleven pints” of light-brown fluid and “one pint of pus” in his abdomen; his liver “thickly coated with yellow matter”; his “inflamed” rectum; and the “blackish red colour” of his penis.1 Nineteenth-century medical journals published scores of articles like this one, presenting the dissected innards of animals, infants, and afflicted bodies.2 Mesmerism3 likewise laid the nineteenth-century body bare. In Facts in Mesmerism (1840), Chauncey Hare Townshend prophesized that mesmerism would reveal “the exact and peculiar state of every organ and function of the human body” and that “[b]y mesmerism we best dissect man.”4 Adam Crabtree notes that medical clairvoyance—“the somnambulist’s apparent ability to diagnose disease, predict its course, and prescribe effective remedies”—ranked as “the most frequently reported” magnetic phenomenon.5 Somnambulist Cynthia Gleason, for instance, could purportedly perceive disorders of the human heart, blood, lungs, liver, and stomach.6 These discourses represent a mass cultural interest in exposed, dead, and disgusting bodies. The corpse was integral to the rise of dissection, anatomy illustration, the rural cemetery movement, consolation literature, postmortem photography, mourning mementos, and funerary practices.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) reflects its culture’s fixation on the dying and dead body. Presented as an experiment in mesmerism,7 the story details M. Valdemar’s eighteen-month surrender to tuberculosis, the magnetic suspension of his death, and the dissolution of his body when the trance ends. “Valdemar” testifies to Poe’s fascination with liminal ontologies: living death, ostensible death, and mistaken death.8 Yet “Valdemar” remains most distinct for its unchecked investment in disgust. The story painstakingly catalogs [End Page 565] gross elements of Valdemar’s physical death: his “swollen and blackened tongue”; his “distended and motionless jaws”; his “gelatinous” voice; the foul-smelling, yellow discharge from his eyes; and the “detestable putrescence” of his rotten frame.9 Kenneth Silverman deems “Valdemar” Poe’s “most gruesome tale.” Jonathan Elmer applauds its evocation of “shock and disgust and uneasiness.” And Thomas Mabbott calls it a “repulsive masterpiece.”10 “Valdemar” is a story of ooze, decay, and repugnance.
Valdemar’s body and the disgust it elicits center my inquiry. “Valdemar” stages nineteenth-century medicine’s intercourse with the cadaver, historical anxieties about corpse contact, and the unsettling of medical detachment with revulsion. Valdemar’s corpse disturbs P (his mesmerist) with a persistent, excessive force. Excavating that disturbance, this essay makes two interrelated arguments. First, I contend that P’s reaction reflects disgust’s primary instigators: a helter-skelter mess of life and death, the perils of stickiness, and a treacherous proximity to the other. With his disgust, P rejects the odium that could penetrate his body and self as he attends Valdemar’s death. And, second, I hold that P’s revulsion underscores a procreant relationship between disgust and desire. Valdemar’s corpse activates queer, homoerotic, and necroerotic yearnings. And the interworkings of mesmerism intensify the dying body’s seductive clutches. In effect, P’s disgust betrays the awfulness of his own sexual hungers.
We cannot understand P’s attraction to Valdemar’s body—and the force of Valdemar’s queerness—without an excavation of P’s disgust. And the elements of disgust that “Valdemar” sensationalizes11—rot, degradation, proximity, and otherness—can be illuminated through the recent theorization of disgust as affect. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg explain that affect studies investigate “a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected.”12 Affect theory sees emotion as a cultural discourse, a historical construct, a subjective experience, a bodily phenomenon, and a negotiation of extant sociopolitical realities. My understanding of disgust is informed by the work of William Miller, Colin McGinn, and others. While this is a contemporary lexicon, historical studies of nineteenth-century death culture, mesmerism, and dissection ground my analysis in early American contexts.13
This essay also deepens a body of scholarship...