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POE AND THE REVENGE OF THE EXQUISITE CORPSE Judith E. Pike Salisbury State University Although Poe' s debt to the Gothic genre is documented in his tales with numerous references to Gothic texts and occult literature, Poe' s "architecture of death"1 is not merely a case of belated romanticism.2 The resurgence of the Gothic architectures of death in Poe should instead be read as a literary response to cultural attempts to raze those very structures and replace them with a new ideology of death. By Poe' s time, death was being sublimated by a whole new industry and aesthetic of mourning, which in effect commercialized and domesticated death. Although numerous cultural historians have surveyed the shift in the iconography of death from the eighteenth century through to the Victorian period in America, they have failed to theorize fully how the nineteenth-century cult of mourning reveals a profound cultural ambivalence toward the unsublimated dead body, especially the female dead body.3 Poe's writings not only expose this ambivalence but reinvest the dead body with the corporeality that the cult of mourning attempts to eradicate. Poe figures the female living dead as an embodiment of the Lacanian real, which dismantles the nineteenth century's emergent fetishism of the exquisite corpse. At the heart of the nineteenth-century romantic cult of the dead lay a profound ambivalence towards the dead body. On one hand the dead body achieved a certain stature with its own elaborate memorials— death bed scenes, wakes, monumental tombstones—and even, with the garden cemetery movement, its own private property, a fenced-in private plot.4 On the other hand, the dead body was at the height of its exclusion from public view. One ofthe period' s most popular funerary sculptures, the urn, privileged a pile ofashes—the disembodied body— as the figure of death. The more the dead body was memorialized, the more it was forgotten. Phillipe Ariès cites numerous examples of how memorial representations, such as mourning pictures, replaced the natural body; mourning pictures, he argues, "played the role of the tomb, of the memorial, a sort of portable tomb adapted to American mobility ."5 The body was everywhere immortalized but nowhere to be found. 172Judith E. Pike The profound ambivalence toward the dead body inherent in the cult of mourning gave rise to new technicians of death and sublimation . While garden cemeteries and funerary sculptors had successfully rid themselves of any reminders of the dead body, other aestheticians of death were reclaiming the dead body. With the 1839 invention of the daguerreotype, photographers created a new technological means of disavowing death, through postmortem photography. While the deceased are most often portrayed as sleeping, some postmortem photographs display the dead in more lifelike poses, sitting up in a chair or gazing out at the viewer.6 Later in the century, with improvements in embalming techniques, morticians began vying amongst themselves for the best looking corpse. There was even a competition announced by the National Funeral Director's Association for the best looking corpse after sixty days, with a prize worth $1,000.6 Morticians became another genre of body snatchers whose task was to replace the natural body with a sublime one that could survive death, at least up to sixty days. This effort to deny death and the decomposition ofthe dead body nurtured what I am calling the fetish of the exquisite corpse. However, all these elaborate techniques to sublimate the dead body and transform it into a "sleeping beauty" or an exquisite corpse led to a shocking conclusion: the nineteenth-century tombstone no longer marks the site of the dead body nor of the bereaved living, but of the living dead. By the time the body is ready for burial, it has been revived by the photographer's and mortician's arts; in a sense, it is buried alive. All these nineteenth-century technicians were trying to give the dead body a decent burial. Decent burials, however, are all too often premature burials, replacing the naturalistic dead body with the sublime body of the exquisite corpse that hovers somewhere between life and death. It can neither be too alive, for then...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 171-192
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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