- Abstracts for the Poe Panel at the MLA
Experience Claimed: The Trauma of Knowing in Poe's Angelic Dialogues
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Central Michigan University
In Cathy Caruth's famous formulation, trauma is "Unclaimed Experience." Using an understanding of trauma derived from Freud's studies of shell-shocked World War I soldiers, Caruth discusses trauma as a kind of missed event—an experience so overwhelming that it bypasses conventional integration into narrative memory. Although not remembered, trauma nevertheless asserts itself though symptoms including nightmares and neurotic behavior. Recollection, then, becomes key to resolving the debilitating symptoms associated with trauma.
In Poe's "angelic dialogues," however, he inverts this formulation by associating trauma not with forgetting but with recollection and knowledge. In "Eiros and Charmion," Eiros recalls for Charmion the destruction of the earth as a consequence of a collision with a comet (over fifty years earlier than H. G. Wells's similar story, "The Star"). In "Monos and Una," Monos recalls for Una the experience of death and his postmortem sensations. And in "The Power of Words"—like "Eiros and Charmion," a postapocalyptic narrative—Agathos reveals to the "fledgling" spirit Oinos a picture of the universe in constant flux and motion.
In each of these three tales, recollection and knowledge do not resolve psychic trauma but rather precipitate a more profound crisis of knowing. The revelations of "Eiros and Charmion" and "Monos and Una" are essentially Lovecraftian—and very modern—in their articulation of cosmic dread: in "Eiros" the world is literally destroyed by cosmic forces, while in "Monos" the human is humbled by the notion of duration—what we might call today "deep time." Put into the terms introduced by contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton, one might say that each narrative stages a confrontation between the human and a "hyperobject"—something vastly extended in space and time that humiliates human knowing. And "The Power of Words" introduces what is essentially chaos theory through the notion that even the tiniest of vibrations and motions have eternal ripple effects. The knowledge revealed in each of Poe's three angelic dialogues as the spirits recall their past lives and their new revelations, therefore, results in a profound rupture—the traumatic undoing of anthropocentrism. Knowledge claimed thus undercuts assumptions of human autonomy or special status in the universe. We are undone by knowing. [End Page 319]
Traumatic Reenactments: Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic Vicious Circle
Cristina Băniceru, West University of Timişoara
Both in his seminal book The Literature of Terror and in his introduction to A New Companion to the Gothic, David Punter defines the Gothic as a response to trauma. This connection is not far-fetched since the Gothic has always been a metaphorical "reenactment" of personal, domestic, or historical traumatic events. Invariably, the Gothic speaks of various ghosts and "hauntings": trans-generational hauntings, the ghosts of the past and of history. Thus combining the psychoanalytically derived trauma studies with Gothic criticism can be a valuable tool in analyzing Gothic fiction. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Sigmund Freud writes about the compulsive reenactment of traumatic events experienced by patients in attempts to heal themselves. Gothic fiction is inherently repetitive and retrospective as the ghostly traumatic past haunts the present, creating "a sense of imminent doom."
Therefore, linking Poe's traumatic personal life with his macabre stories has become a critical trope. This paper argues that Poe's Gothic fiction, while definitely influenced by his life (the deaths of his parents and foster mother; his wife's long battle with tuberculosis, followed by her premature death), is also the reflection of a deeper wound—the fear of personal annihilation. Poe is also the product of a historical malaise, an industrial, post-Christian modernity that witnessed the secularization of death and the rise of individualism. Since, according to Rudolph Binion, people who suffered "a traumatic experience do not find closure easily," in "Ligeia," "Morella," "The Black Cat," and "The Masque of the Red Death," Poe reenacts his traumatic life and fears under various guises. Within the frame of the Gothic vicious circle, traumatic experiences are metaphorically reiterated through images of entrapment, buried women that refuse to stay buried, reincarnation, vampirism, and...