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Vigorous Currents, Painful Archives: The Production of Affect and History in Poe’s “Tale of the Ragged Mountains” CHRISTINA ZWARG The vigorous current that infused these stories ran through the body itself, carrying morbid symptoms away with it like so much detritus. Pain . . . only initially withstood the narration but . . . later, as the narration gained strength, was undermined and swept into the sea of oblivion. —Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood A s we turn to the question of pain in Poe, we might return to Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, which describes how effectively his mother’s stories drained away all of his morbid symptoms.1 Given the relief attributed to the “vigorous current” of those tales, we could ask if the current coursing through Poe’s work also targets some feverish pain abroad in the land of his upbringing. Many scholars now find Poe’s engagement with painful issues of his day undeniable, particularly as they relate to traumas of slavery and the racism driving imperialism at home and abroad. Yet those same scholars continue to debate how to interpret that engagement, particularly when it takes the indirect, ghoulish, and splenetic form so characteristic of his work. If some still question whether Poe was a racist, most assume that some degree or kind of racism was unavoidable for a man of his time. While initially useful, efforts to pinpoint Poe’s position on the spectrum of racist ideologies of his day have been superseded by recognition that his writing constitutes an archive with broad implications for an anatomy of racism’s conflicted and contested operations.2 Poe exposes slavery’s impact well beyond the experience of its most immediate victims and perpetrators, and this extended traumatic environment generates a range of response whose effects are worth studying with care. This last is particularly the case when we discover how often the vigorous currents of Poe’s work invite us to consider the broader traumatic relays alive in their very production. Thus if we consider the deeper resonances of Benjamin’s association between storytelling and pain, we may find another way to approach some of the C  2010 Washington State University P O E S T U D I E S , VOL. 43, 2010 7 C H R I S T I N A Z W A R G questions productively engaging contemporary Poe scholarship. Benjamin’s “vigorous currents” relate to trauma theory, as we shall see, and they do so through the hypnotic power of storytelling. As Poe was writing, of course, this rapport was more commonly associated with the mesmeric trance, part of the science Poe embraced in a number of his provocative tales. We now know from studies of the brain that hypnosis can actually separate the sensation of pain from the feeling of pain, an insight already reflected in Poe’s day in the use of mesmerism for surgery.3 One might say that Poe’s stories generally work hypnotically, allowing his readers to endure without discomfort what normally would produce unacceptable feelings. While we cannot know why Poe chose to work this way, we can learn from his canny deployment of mesmeric relays, especially when they expose the tendency of collective histories to circulate and obscure new archives of feeling. For example, if we take seriously the palliative quality of Poe’s stories, we can imagine him as a surgeon deploying the emerging science of hypnotism to better probe the body politic. While repair of cultural wounds often seems beside the point in Poe’s writing, recent trends in trauma theory may help us to rethink his avid interest in the production and management of psychological investments. As I hope to show, in fact, Poe’s immersion in the traumatic mimesis of the mesmeric crisis can be enlisted to analyze certain unevenly shared experiences of history. And these experiences can be said to include the production of silences associated with the central slave insurrection of Poe’s century, the Haitian Revolution.4 While not concerned directly with the aftermath of that revolution in Poe’s work, this essay follows Poe’s lead in exploring the production of archives informing the aura of insurrection so much a part...