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Brian Yothers Terrors of the Soul: Religious Pluralism, Epistemological Dread, and Cosmic Exaltation in Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville Few critics have drawn our attention to the significance of doubt, irony, ambivalence, and skepticism for the study of dark romanticism as forcibly as G. R. Thompson. I suggest that an often-overlooked source of the epistemological uncertainties that pervade the gothic works of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville is the frequently chaotic religious pluralism of nineteenthcentury America. Nineteenth-century Americans faced a bewildering variety of religious options that offered widely disparate ontological, ethical, and epistemological bases for understanding their world. The proliferation of new religious denominations and sects within the United States offered a multitude of angles from which to view mainstream Protestantism (and to depart from it), while American travelers and intellectuals increasinglyencountered worksfrom religrous traditions that were strikingly different from Protestantism, including not only Roman CatholicismandJudaism but alsoIslam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. As the writingsof the transcendentalists attest, the experience of religiouspluralismcould be p r e foundly liberating and exhilarating, but this same experience could also be the source of tremendous intellectual and psychological vertigo. Poe, Hawthorne, and Melvilleeach explore the terrors and promises of religious pluralism in distinctive ways in their works. Poe’s prose poem Eureka, a curious pastiche of philosophyand farce, plays out the problem of pluralism on a grand scale. Hawthorne ’s engagement with religious pluralism is more explicit,both in hisaccountsof the Puritans’ persecution of Quakers and Anglicansin colonial New England and in his deeply ironic discussion of American spiritual diversity in “The Celestial Railroad.”Melville,meanwhile,puts the problems and promisesof pluralismat the center of hiswork, from the interaction of Ishmaeland Queequeg and the sinister role played by the Parsee Fedallah in Mob-Dick to the anguished interreligious debates in his long poem Clarel:A Poem and Pilgrimagein the Holy Land. Terms like “pluralism”and “dialogue” are often tossed aboutcasuallyas if they represent solutionsto religiousdifference in themselves.Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville,each in his own way, explore the anguish, fear,and uncertainty attendant on any effort to think seriouslyand systematically about religious difference. Myfocusin this essaywillbe on Poe’srepresentation of the euphoria connected with pluralism in Eureka and “MesmericRevelations,”Hawthorne’s skepticismabout the liberalization of religiousbelief prompted by religiouspluralism in “TheCeles tial Railroad,”and Melville’s anguished grappling with both the allure and the terrifylnguncertainty associated with religious pluralism in Clarel. EDGAR ALLAN POE: PLURALISM AS POSSIBILITY IN ~ m m AND “MESMERIC REVELATIONS” Edgar Allan Poe might seem to be detached from the religious concerns that shaped the careers of Hawthorne and Melville, but he offers severalstrikinglysubtle readings of the difficulties associated with religious pluralism. In “Mesmeric Revelations” and Eureka, Poe’s treatment of pluralism operates at a high level of abstraction, but mingled anxiety and euphoria about the possibilities indicated by multiple approaches to truth are clearly central to both texts. “MesmericRevelation”brings a richly ironic note to the discussionof religious pluralism. Poe’s narrator begins by asserting: T m s o f the Soul 137 There can be no more absolute waste of time than to attempt to pw,at the present day, that man, by mere exerciseof will, can s oimpresshis fellow, as to cast him into an abnormal condition, of which the phenomena resembleveryclosely those of death,or at least resemble them more nearly than they do the phenomena of any other normal condition within our cognizance; that, while in this state, the person so impressed employs onlywith effort,and then feebly,the external organs of sense,yet perceives,with keenly refined perception, and through channels supposed unknown, matters beyond the scopeof the physicalorgans;that,moreover, hisintellectualfacultiesarewonderfully exaltedand invigorated that hissympathieswith theperson soimpressinghimare profound; and, finally, that his susceptibilityto the impression increaseswith itsfrequency,while, in the same proportion, the peculiar phenomena elicited are more extended and more pronounced. (Work, 3:1029-30) Surelyany one of these clausesprovides even the most trusting reader with rather a lot to swallow, and the combinedeffectof the clausesis to brand the narrator as both pompous and unreliable. It is noteworthy, nonetheless, that the narrator adopts the tones associated with the certitudes of nineteenthcentury religion and nineteenthcenturypseudescience , and does s owith flawless aplomb. His assertionsare deeply...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 136-144
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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