- Narration and Reflection: The Search for Grounds in Poe's "The Power of Words" and "The Domain of Arnheim"
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 45, Number 3, Autumn 1989
- pp. 1-22
- View Citation
- Additional Information
JOHN MICHAEL Narration and Reflection: The Search for Grounds in Poe's "The Power of Words" and "The Domain of Arnheim" Self-reflection as an attempt to establish certainty in the unmediated relationship of the self to itself is the foundation of "modern metaphysics as a metaphysics of subjectivity."1 Poe's tales belong to this post-Cartesian metaphysics of subjectivity which searches for the foundations or grounds of moral and epistemological certainty in itself. In tales like "The Domain of Arnheim" and "The Power of Words" Poe both participates in and subverts the grounding of thought in subjectivity . In these tales Poe explores the problem of reflection and finds the act of narration to be essential to it. In Poe, the necessity of narration reveals the incoherence and the indispensability of attempts to ground certainty in an unmediated relationship of self to self. In Poe, the foundation of moral philosophy in the analysis of subjectivity appears cracked. An imp of the perverse, a principle of conflict within the self, ungrounds speculation. Reflection in Poe's tales usually involves an irreducible alterity that constitutes the subject. Stories like "William Wilson," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and the tales of ratiocination, enact the conflicts of consciousness most obviously. But in the tales that focus on language and aesthetics, which the philosophy of reflection in Poe's era especially valued, the ineluctable link between self-reflection and self-antagonism—the flaw Poe finds in the foundation of moral philosophy—appears most clearly. In this connection, Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 3, Autumn 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 John Michael "The Domain of Arnheim" and "The Power of Words," which are usually considered minor in the canon of Poe's works, actually stand at the limit of his thinking. In these tales, which are closely related, reflection at once establishes and ungrounds the self. They manifest both Poe's engagement with the moral philosophy of his own era and his continued importance for the theoretical and philosophical debates of ours.2 In "The Mystery of Marie Roget" Auguste Dupin suggests a link between the aesthetics of the sublime and the analytical processes of reason when he observes that "it is by prominence above the plane of the ordinary, that reason feels her way, if at all, in her search for the true" (520).' One might, therefore, feel one's way into "The Domain of Arnheim" by considering three passages that rise above the plane of the ordinary, naturalistic, if uncannily quiet, descriptions of Ellison's garden to approach the prominence of the outre, the elevation of the sublime. The first two passages describe the two boats that will carry the narrator toward the final vision of Arnheim's domain, the third is the description ofthat vision itself, which ends the tale. Each of these is remarkable for its "prominence above the plane of the ordinary," which is to say, that each ascends to the elevation of the sublime. Together these three passages trace a movement from metaphorical ornamentation to literal realization, and therein lies their significance. Of the narrator's first boat Poe writes that: At every instant the vessel seemed imprisoned within an enchanted circle, having insuperable and impenetrable walls of foliage, a roof of ultra-marine satin, and no floor—the keel balancing itself with admirable nicety on that of a phantom bark which, by some accident having been turned upside down, floated in constant company with the substantial one, for the purpose of sustaining it. (866) There is nothing odd about this figuration of a boat's reflection in the quiet water of a slowly moving stream except the choice, in this descriptive tale which is remarkable for its flatness, its absence ofhighly figured ornament, to present reflection in so arch a manner. Boats tend to draw Poe's attention in this tale, for the same surprising twist within the figurai stillness of Arnheim's diction occurs when the narrator— taking his readers along with him—moves from his first to his second Narration and Reflection in Poe vessel. This second vessel is the realization of the figure in Poe's first...