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Barbara Cantalupo Poe’sVisual Tricks The act o f seeing plays a pivotal role in many of Poe’s short stories. Its significance is sharply evident in “The Sphinx,” “The Purloined Letter ,”“The Spectacles,”and perhaps most notably “Ligeia”-when the narrator offers, at the tale’s denouement, a description of Rowena’s death and Ligeia’s transformative reincarnation that is overwhelminglysuspect,asishis horror atLigeia’s reappearance. The ending of this tale does not immediately lend itself to rational explanation, but if the potential for aerial optical illusions in the elaborately decorated bedchamber is taken as corollary to the explicit reference to anamorphosis found in the text, then Ligeia’sreappearance might not be as fantastic as it first appears, and the narrator’srole as an innocent bystander can be called into question.Anamorphosis,quite simply, is the manipulation of perspective to create an image that is distorted or hidden except when seen from a specific point of view or with a special mechanical device; Poe purposefully inserts the former definition of anamorphosisin “Ligeia” (W h , 2:322). The narrator’s ability to repress the potential of the bridal chamber’sdeliberatelyconstructed decoration,his subsequent innocent response to the seeminglysupernatural occurrencesthat prompt the retellingof what he presentsasa horrific experience,and the obvious, though not initially apparent, widowed status he sustainsevenafterthe “miraculous”reappearance of Ligeia-all this suggestsanother entry of Poe’s “imp of perverse” and with it a decided critique of antebellum readers’ vulnerability to fictional and visual manipulations,the same susceptibility that attracted those readers to the productions of “veiledladies”and mesmerists. Poe was keenly aware of the public’s attraction to fantasticvisual phenomena despite David Brewster’spopular L.etterson NaturalMagic, which reveals the mechanical underpinnings of many such “miraculousevents.”’ Reprinted numerous times in the United States,beginning withJ. &J. Harper in 1832, Brewster’streatise was a rich resourceforPoe .As LauraSaltzsuggests,“Poe’sdebt to Brewsterextends from 1833, with ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle,’ till the end of his career,with the publication of Poe criticized those whodid not take advantageofsuchvisual tricksAmerican theater directors, in one instance: “Enslen,a German optician, conceived the idea of throwing a shadowy figure, by optical means, into the chair of Banquo. .. . Intense effect was produced; and I do not doubt that an American audience mightbe electrified by the feat. But our managersnot onlyhave no inventionof their own, but no energyto availthemselvesof that of others” (Writings,2:165; also see 2:14). The popularity of Brewster’s Letterswent hand in hand with the increaseduse of suchinventionsasthe kaleidoscope (1815), the diorama (18204, the thaumatrope (1825), the phenakistoscope(1830s),the zoetrope and the stroboscope (mid-l830s), and the stereoscope (late 1830s). Not only were these visual “toys” highlyentertaining, but, asJonathan Crary proposes,theyalsomarked the “reorganizationof vision in the first half of the nineteenth century ...especiallyin the 1820sand 1830~.”~ As in “Ligeia,” Poe incorporatesvisual trickery in varying ways in The Narrative o f Arthur Gordon pVm (1838), especiallythe effect of the Antarctic phenomena that create the “white shrouded figure,”and “TheSphinx”(1846),with itsopticalillusion bug/monster, as well as in many other stories. He makes fun of those who will not see in “Spectacles”(1844) and mocks those who cannot see what is “inplain sight”in “ThePurloined 54 Poe StudiedDark Romanticism Letter” (1844).All of these tales show Poe’skeen interestin demonstratingthe human propensityto see what is desired and not what is actuallythere. However,since no one can escape this flaw, Poe’s citingit asif he could himselfescapeit constitutes an anamorphic fiction that further complicates the reader’s response to the effectsof the writer’s manipulation^.^ “The Sphinx,”first published in the January 1846 issue of Arthur’s Ladies’ Magazine, depends on the narrator’s visual confusion. Curiously,Poe was working on refinements to his favorite tale, “Ligeia”(firstpublishedin 1838),at thesametime; he published the final, revised version in the 27 September 1845issue of his BroadwayJournal, and according to Thomas 0.Mabbott, “OnAugust 9, 1846, Poe wrote to Cooke that he had improved the story”(Wmks, 2:307).It isworth noting that Poe “improved”“Ligeia”near the time he wrote the seemingly insignificant “Sphinx,”since a “fantastic ”visual occurrence is central to both stories.In both, Poe uses a visual event...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 53-63
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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