Appreciating Edgar Allan Poe (With a little help from D.H. Lawrence)

Edgar Allan Poe: Ecstasy junkie

3 minute read
I used to dismiss Edgar Allan Poe (born 200 years ago January 19) as a horror writer incapable of inducing fear. That changed when I read D. H. Lawrence.

In his 1919 essay on Poe in Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence argues that there are two laws of life. The central law of all organic life is that every organism is "intrinsically isolate and single in itself. The moment its isolation breaks down … death sets in." The second law is that each organism thrives only through contact with other life. Applied to the human world, the first law means that to be an individual is to be lonely. Each of us becomes "I" only by opening up, from the moment we become self-aware, an inner world that is mine alone, and which I must occupy alone.

The root of human loneliness, therefore, isn't the absence of others, but the presence of oneself. Loneliness, in the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, isn't a remediable condition. It "belongs to existence."

The first law, then, renders more acute the power over us of the second law— which, Lawrence says, drives us to contact with others and, beyond contact, toward intimacy. The ultimate point of intimate contact we call love.

When two isolated beings merge

The quest for love is the need for another consciousness to perform the great miracle of penetrating the lonely consciousness that I am. It's the miracle of the second law overthrowing the first law so that two isolated beings merge. That merging is ecstasy: the release, the relief, of no longer having to bear consciousness alone.

Edgar Allan Poe, Lawrence writes, is the man who, having once known such ecstasy, couldn't tolerate its loss. Poe is addicted to unity, to the ecstatic joy of union where loneliness is finally banished from the mind. He craves it like any junkie and will have it by every available means: through love, or through "alcohol and any drug he could lay his hand on. He also tried any human being he could lay his hands on."

A record of self-disintegration

Poe represents that in us that craves oneness, ecstasy, heightened sensation, and will have it, not temporarily, but for eternal duration. Lawrence insists this cannot be. Through the "exhilarating unison with the nerves of another being… man finds himself in glowing unison with all the universe. But as a matter of fact this glowing unison is only a temporary thing, because the first law of life is that each organism is isolate in itself, it must return to its own isolation."

This is the real-life horror tale of Edgar Allan Poe— not some scary story. Poe's best stories, says Lawrence"“"“ and for him these are Ligeia and The Fall of House of Usher "“"“ are the record of the self-disintegration of a man compelled to eternally abide in ecstasy, but who cannot.♦

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