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  • The Dome of the Mind: Monticello in Weimar
  • Susan Bernstein

At the opening of Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator encounters a lugubrious double of Roderick Usher in the form of his house. The “vacant and eye-like windows” are remarked upon twice; the parallel is reinforced by the connection between the “minute fungi” growing in a “web-work” across the eaves and Roderick’s “web-like” hair, grown “all unheeded,” and even between the “moulded chin” and the moldy bricks. The mutual interpenetration of spirit and matter in Poe’s prose drags spirit into the tarn of signifying matter, confines the loftiness of reason in what eventually appears, in Roderick’s painting, as a sealed underground vault. The passage between body and mind in the figure of the house allows the commingling of the inorganic and the organic, of death and life. If the body is the temple of the spirit, it is also its casket and dungeon. The dome of the mind becomes the skull of the brain.

The figure of the dome of the mind was suggested to me by a visit to the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.1 This lofty dome, built in reminiscence of the Pantheon in Rome, originally housed the library and was the place where examinations were held. Thomas Jefferson, the self-proclaimed “father” of the University, an epithet he ordered to be inscribed on his tombstone, positioned the Rotunda at the “head” of the Lawn, the rectangular green structuring the original campus. Jefferson envisioned the Rotunda as a “temple of knowledge,” a secular structure replacing the more traditional chapel.2 The white dome billows up, suggestive of a translucent forehead or a projecting pate. The dome of the mind suggests a Rod Serling-like genius [End Page 981] (E=mc2 floating through the heavens) or the strangers encountered in Star Trek whose bald elongated heads mark their superiority over human intelligence. The figure of the dome points upward towards the sublime transcendence of this world in the vaults of the cathedral, but it also points to the adherence of mind and matter in the head or the brain. The skull stands as the memorial of this meeting place: the dome turned inwards.

The location of the self or the mind in the head or brain is consonant with the translucence of the symbol and the reversibility of inside and outside common in the eighteenth century. At the same time, the isomorphism between self and body reaches back to the Biblical suggestions that the body is the temple of the spirit.3 Architecture and physiognomy cooperate to house the spirit. Vitruvius formalizes the parallel between building and the human body in the concept of symmetry: “Symmetry is a proper agreement between the members of the work itself, and relation between the different parts and the whole general scheme, in accordance with a certain part selected as standard. Thus in the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings.”4 The organic symmetry of the body serves as the model for building symmetry. Palladio, too, postulated a homology between the body and the house: “The handsomeness will arise from a fair form, and the correspondence between the Whole and its Parts, of the Parts among themselves, and of them to the Whole: because of that a Building ought to appear an entire and perfect Body.”5 The harmony of parts and whole attributed to the body reiterates a harmonic correspondence between the body and the building. At the same time, the body encloses and entraps the spirit. The various forms of knowledge, writes Sir Philip Sidney, “by the Greeks called architectonike . . . draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of . . . to lift up the mind from the dungeon of the body . . . .”6

There is thus a strange complicity between the ideals of Classicism and the entrapment in flesh that takes on a more Gothic hue. Poe’s story, of course, is driven by the collapse of...


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pp. 981-1005
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