Tag Archives: allegorical literature

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”

Few writers manage to personify the pangs of life as well as Edgar Allan Poe.  While many of the Romantics-themed writers of his day focused on encapsulating what they perceived as the quasi-transcendence of life and nature, and the beauty beheld by it, Poe set his sights past the glitter, and sought to present the (at the time) oft-neglected darker themes surrounding human existence.  More than mere pessimism though, his writing betrays a delicate understanding in the balance that exists between beauty and the grotesque, joy and pain, light and dark, life and death.

By artistic extension, the theme of helpless inevitability regarding the dynamic between life and death defines a great deal of the macabre tone Edgar Allan Poe creates in his prose.  Death has a special place in Poe’s work, and often takes center stage as the primary character underlying the plot of the narrative; always in the role of an unspoken, absolutist sovereign whose authority has no equal.  “The Conqueror Worm” is not the first (nor the last) poem in which Poe explores the persona of Death as the sole sovereign before which all life and imagined existence must ultimately bow, but it is a key work illustrating the poet’s deeper understanding of the phenomenons relation to life, and the human experience of it.

Lo! ’t is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

The described scene is one in which even angels, servants of God and guardians of man, must humble themselves to the role of mere spectators before the play of life; the outcome of who’s plot they have no say over, and can do little but cry at the sight of the tragedy for the actors on stage.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

The characters of the play are mimes, in the form of God–symbolizing man, said to have been made in the image of God–trapped in a continuous roundelay, chasing intangible matters they have no hope of catching, but cannot help but go after like puppets being pulled by their strings.

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

This path man is set to repeat, brings him nothing but despair and hopelessness, as he is doomed to always return to the same scene in his plot.  A fate so dire that even if he recognized the vicious circle he’s in, he’d still be bound to carry on acting through the futility of his existence.  However, although neither man nor divine intervention can free him from his plight, a bittersweet recourse does emerge to finally cut the puppet strings forcing him through his acts.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

In the end, while man obediently gives chase to the phantoms keeping him trapped as an actor in the play of life, Death emerges from out of the scene to devour the actor, and finish the play for good.

Death’s intrusion in man’s scene is fatalistic, in that it signals the drawing of the curtains, and the end of his life:

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,

But it also signals the end to his grief, by being able to finally conquer the root that is keeping man chained to his relentless despair.  In that view, Death is not the villain in the play called life: he is the hero, in the tragedy called Man.

While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.


Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake is a fascinating character in the world of literature.  A deeply spiritual man, whose writings seek to promote what he saw as the ideals of Christian virtue, but equally antagonistic towards all churches and established expressions of religion.  It is this sort of irony that is raised repeatedly in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), which explores ideas of traditional theology and ethical logic, to uncover what the poet thought to be the true spark of man’s divine spirit.

Anyone looking to seriously discuss the doctrine of Contraries set forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, must first grasp the rhetorical, and perhaps more importantly, the theological implications that come along with realizing that notions such as good and evil are not and cannot be described as antitheses of one another.  Plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, firmly calls on the reader to reflect on how s/he could honestly be able to fully comprehend positive components (such as attraction, reason, and love), unless there exist negative contraries (in this case, repulsion, energy, and hate) that must be known and understood to truly see the goodness of its opposites.  If these negatives (i.e. Evil) are absent, then there is no rational way to detect the positives (i.e. Good), thus gaining an understanding of evil is detrimental in recognizing good.  Plate 3 goes on to imply that Evil is the driving force of knowledge; it is the active factor that through its guiding principle, energy, focuses the senses of the passive recipient, Good, and allows its guiding principle, reason, to judge a given situation.  Blake finishes by affirming, “Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell”, a clear attempt to distinguish between the two concepts.  But, while it is certainly true that the existence of Heaven is not contingent on there also being a Hell, any description associating Heaven with Good will lose all meaning in the absence of Hell.  If Heaven is the sole transcended plane, then to label it Good (or anything else for that matter) is an arbitrary description, akin to saying that Color is Heaven.  In such a case, what would anything outside Heaven be, non-Color, but what would that describe?—Nothing, which is precisely why it is vital for us to be able to articulately conceive of the Evil of Hell, so that we may understand the Good of Heaven.

It must be kept in mind that in Blake’s spiritualist view, these traditionally divine and damned settings are considered to be more psychologically real, than physical representations of actual places (as the churches teach).  Thus, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, are dependent on one another to ensure the promulgation of both entities in human consciousness.  A fact that is acknowledged and plainly stated by Blake, and (in his view) secretly acknowledged but never stated by the churches.  In plate 4, the voice of the Devil is presented in the form of a rational argument (even though reason is a component of Good), articulating Blake’s stance that although transcendent experience is real, any attribute we give to it is limited by the imagination of our minds, thereby making this real entity imaginary when we aim to analyze and categorize it rationally.  Resulting in irony, because whereas reason is supposed to be a principle of Good, it becomes entrenched by our energetic drive to grasp it (energy being the principle of Evil), which ultimately takes us further away from the divine truth but also gives us our only possible insight to divinity.  Meaning that, unlike what the church or organized religion teaches us, our physical and mental cravings are neither sin nor salvation, but manifestations of one transcendent property incapable of being dissevered.  Our projection outward towards the heavens is in truth just a reflection inward—where Heaven truly resides—towards our soul.

John Keats’ “Lamia”, and the Power of Human Imagination

It’s been awhile since I’ve read my collected writings of John Keats.  I admit many of his earlier poems are mediocre, but this only adds to the joy of seeing the development of his prose through the short time that he wrote.  By far Keats’s masterpiece is his poem “Lamia”, where he demonstrates his growth as a poet by taking his time to let the characters breath and roam free through well-paced narrative.

The title character, Lamia, appears to be beyond any consistent description:  “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, Vermilion-shaped, golden, green, and blue; Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d”(Keats, John. “Lamia,” lines 47-50).  Her appearance, both as serpent and woman, is filled with allegorical affirmations of her beauty, but it is a surreal beauty that lacks any real substance.  Akin to a pleasant dream, where the dreamer is engulfed by the euphoria overtaking his sleep, but cannot grasp the images around him because no matter how vivid and enticing they are, they are still simply imaginary.  This is the reality in which Lamia exists, completely dependent on a dreamer’s slumber to give her substance, which in essence is not much of a reality at all.  Even after being turned human by the god Hermes, Lamia’s entire existence rests on having others, namely her lover Lycius, unquestionably recognize her as the human being she is pretending to be.  And she knows that once the spell is broken, so is any claim she has to the material world:

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into a noisy world almost forlorn.

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want

Of something more, more than her empery

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell (lines 32-39).

Lamia exists as a thought, a passion, made real by the mind of the person that holds her image as true, but just as any thought, it can only be sustained for as long as a person is willing to, before it vanishes or is replaced.  Lamia’s existence appears to be just as capricious.

Keats’s Lamia is a creature whose entire interaction with the material world is determined by a person’s faithful acceptance of her human form.  Which is why all it takes to destroy Lamia is for the skeptical Apollonius to refuse to be mystified by her trance, “More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel: Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs; There was no recognition in those orbs” (lines 258-260).  And due to Apollonius’ wakeful eyes, Lamia’s fate is sealed, “Than with a frightful scream she vanished” (line 306).  Therefore, through this final exchange, Keats’s supernatural being turns out to be a nonbeing.  The fact that Lamia was endowed with the finest beauty and imagery might serve, in Keats’s view, to enhance man’s spiritual soul, but it does not change the fact that no matter how enticing or soul-fulfilling, Lamia is not material—hence not real.

Much of Keats’ personal convictions can be found in the text.  Where the mysteries and anomalies of life are accepted and revered–as Lamia’s character is revered throughout the poem–but the underlying cause of this experience is not externalized to an outside source, existing beyond the imagination of the individual person that has dreamed up the image.  Rather it is a reflection of man’s deep struggle with the mysteries of life, and his attempt to cope with his inability to sufficiently account for them.  Though despite all of this uncertainty, the unimaginable still has to be understood as being imaginary.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Depravity of the Human Animal

The great feats of reason and resourcefulness of mankind is a cherished topic in literature.  Innumerable tales have been written (and will continue to be written) testifying to the way in which our ability to rationalize and contemplate the reality around us definitively separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (indeed, some might even say, gives us dominion over it).  In defiance to this sentiment lies Jonathan Swift’s 1726 adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels, whose title character (Lemuel Gulliver) starts the story as an optimistic representation of human ingenuity, and finishes as a bitter misanthrope, disgusted at the innate depravity of his species.

Gulliver’s Travels is made up of four different voyages taken on by Lemuel Gulliver, an honest, kindhearted English ship’s surgeon, who has a tendency to find himself in fantastical situations and lands every few years.  The adventure most recognizable to the popular audience is probably Gulliver’s first voyage to the land of Lilliput, where the inhabitants stand only six inches high (the memorable depiction to readers is the part of the novel where Gulliver is lying down on the beach, bound down by billions of tiny ropes, as hundreds of miniature people are surrounding him).  The impression of Gulliver in this first story is that of a curious and reasonable man, who genuinely cares about the well-being of all human life he comes into contact with (from the very small inhabitants of Lilliput, to the gigantic natives of Brobdingnag he encounters on his second voyage).  However, a vital turn in the narrative occurs in Gulliver’s fourth and final voyage, when he finds himself stranded on an unknown land inhabited by an extraordinary race of intelligent horses (referred to as Houyhnhnms) who possess a superb capacity to reason (surpassing, in Gulliver’s opinion, even that of the human species he belongs to).  The Houyhnhnms are not the only inhabitants of this unmapped land; there also exist a species of savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos, which are used by the Houyhnhnms in similar fashion to how Gulliver’s society uses barnyard animals.

Gulliver’s immediate reaction towards the Yahoos is to deny that such an obvious brute could be a member of the human species.  Being devoid of this sort of sentiment about human dignity, the more rational Houyhnhnms easily point out to Gulliver the anatomical similarity between himself and the Yahoos, forcing the narrator to reflect:

The beast and I were brought close together, and our countenances diligently compared, both my master [referring to the Houyhnhnm who takes Gulliver into his dwelling partly out of an anthropological curiosity to learn about (what is to him) the “peculiarly reasonable Yahoo”] and servants, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo.  My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure (pg. 249).

Thus, Gulliver is forced to admit to himself that he does indeed share a biological tie with the savage animals of this undiscovered land.  Yet, this does little to sooth the repugnance he feels towards the Yahoos (of which he now knows himself to be one; no matter how tamed and civilized of a variant):

Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at the time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitivity being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in this country (pg. 250).

Noteworthy is Gulliver’s mention that “at the time” there existed few greater lovers of mankind, because it foreshadows the shift in sentiment the character will experience towards not just the Yahoos of this land, but the human species as a whole.  However, first one must explore how equally amazing Gulliver must seem to the Houyhnhnms, giving that there only exposure to humans are the Yahoos; whose intellectual capacity Gulliver’s “master” describes as, “the most unteachable of all brutes” (pg. 254).  To the dominant species of Houyhnhnmland, a Yahoo who possessed the ability to reason and communicate [with some struggle Gulliver eventually manages to learn the Houyhnhnm language] is perplexing beyond belief.  This gives hope to Gulliver that he can demonstrate to the noble Houyhnhnms that he is of a different disposition that the brutish Yahoos of their land, as he tries to satisfy his master’s curiosity by offering extensive descriptions of the various facets of civilized human society.  Unfortunately, this does little to dissuade the apparently obvious physical resemblance between himself and the Yahoos in any meaningful way.  The narrator’s Houyhnhnm master even goes so far as to point out the practical imperfection of Gulliver’s human form in comparison to both the savage Yahoos and his own horse-like shape:

He said I differed indeed from other Yahoos, being much more cleanly, and not altogether so deformed, but in point of real advantage he thought I differed for the worse.  That my nails were of no use either to fore or hinder-feet; as to my fore-feet, he could not properly call them by that name, for he never observed me to walk upon them; that they were too soft to bear the ground / He then began to find fault with other parts of my body, the flatness of my face, the prominence of my nose, my eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head; that I was not able to feed myself without lifting one of my fore-feet to my mouth; and therefore nature had placed those joints to answer that necessity (pg. 261-62).

The importance of this exchange on Gulliver’s perception of humanity, and its place within the natural world, cannot be overstated.  Undoubtedly, Gulliver has spent his whole life with the presumption that the human form is the epitome of natural perfection (or, if not complete perfection, as close as any living being could ever hope to get).  Now, under scrutiny of an animal as distinct in form from humanity as any other creature, but whose ability to reason rivals the most educated of the human specimen, Gulliver is faced with the innumerable faults and imperfections of the human body–essentially shattering any inherent exceptionalism the man may have still held for his own species.  [This critique about the human form may have been one motivation for Jonathan Swift, a devout Anglican clergyman, to publish his book under a pseudonym, as it might have blasphemous implications to imply that man is no different/less perfect than any other animal.]  Moreover, the Houyhnhnm is so unimpressed by the human form, that he finds it impossible to imagine such a creature rising to any level of dominance and civility in any possible environment, due partly to the distrust we garner from other animals:

He observed every animal in this country naturally to abhor the Yahoos, whom the weaker avoided and the stronger drove from them.  So that supposing us to have the gift of reason, he could not see how it were possible to cure that natural antipathy which every creature discovered against us (pg. 262).

But more so due to the great cruelty human beings exhibit towards there own kind:

The Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned was the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves (pg. 280).

It is therefore established that, without ever even having laid eyes or possessing any prior knowledge of human societies, this Houyhnhnm still managed to deduce through the sheer use of his innate reason, how the deadliest predator to man, is man himself.  Furthermore, he points out to Gulliver that the roots of the conflict amongst the members of the human species are trivial conceits over inconsequential vanities that no other living being would bother quarreling over.

Unlike the human society Gulliver came from, the Houyhnhnms have no concept of politics, religion, art and literature, or tribal affiliations (though, according to Gulliver, there does seem to exist a social hierarchy amongst the Houyhnhnms, akin to a caste system); nor can they contemplate the need for such things.  It is for this reason that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master remarks that “instead of reason [humans] were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices” (pg. 267).  The human development of government and law to mediate our daily affairs is to the Houyhnhnms further indication human nature is antithetical to proper reasoning faculties:

That our government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature (pg. 279).

Houyhnhnms live in an anarchistic social structure; there are no formal laws, but there is complete orderliness, maintained by the animals’ unwillingness to be stirred by emotive factors when it comes to evaluating the reality of life.  They have no interest in deceit (lacking a proper word for lying or evil), and while they do express joy, friendship, and hatred, they do so without the indication that there lies any deeper meaning behind their emotions besides a reaction to the workings of the natural world.  Thus, to the Houyhnhnms, the great innovations of human intellect–created to shelter, protect, inspire, and entertain us–are testaments to out depravity; our inability to be satisfied with what nature has given us.  We need a supervising authority, because we cannot trust ourselves to behave orderly.  To Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master, human gluttony is an ideal indication of our shortcomings as a species:

For if [the Houyhnhnm said] you throw among five Yahoos as much food as would be sufficient for fifty, they will, instead of eating peaceably, fall together by the ears, each single one impatient to have all to itself (pg. 280).

My master continuing his discourse said there was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious than their undistinguishing appetite to devour every thing that came in their way (pg. 281-82).

The reader must keep in mind that Swift’s novel is written as a satire against the conceit of his own society, thus the prose often takes on a hyperbolic tone whenever Gulliver affirms the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm species.  The purpose of this is more than likely to further point out the contrasting flaws of the human animal, when forced to look past its self-credited righteousness.

Gulliver’s time spent with the Houyhnhnms causes him to development an intense hatred of not just the Yahoos of this unknown land, but humankind as a whole.  He sees human interests as being predominantly preoccupied with vanities and trivialities, whereas the Houyhnhnms concern themselves with more virtuous pursuits:

As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with the general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions of ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it (pg. 288).

How exactly the Houyhnhnms manage to maintain this level of ultra-stoicism, is left rather vague by the author, but a possible explanation is presented by Gulliver:

It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot be either.  So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown amongst the Houyhnhnms (pg. 288).

The Houyhnhnms do not muse or speculate about abstract mental concepts, therefore they possess no means by which to fall prey to ideological quarrels.  This causes Gulliver to pine for the tranquility enjoyed by his hosts, and emulate their behavior for his own betterment.  He has no desire to return to human society, and be surrounded by vain Yahoos (let alone interact with them).  Even the very knowledge of his Yahoo nature stirs in him shame at belong to this repulsive species:

When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than my own person (pg. 300).

Unfortunately for Gulliver, the Houyhnhnms eventually concluded that the innate nature of the Yahoos renders them an unteachable brute, thus to have him live amongst the Houyhnhnm as an equal would be unimaginable.  However, since Gulliver has demonstrated some capability of reason, he was potentially even more dangerous on account that he might be inclined one day to organize the Yahoos against the Houyhnhnms.  Thus, he was exhorted to leave Houyhnhnmland and return to his own place of origin, which he did–begrudgingly.  Upon his return to England, Gulliver is a shell of the humanist he was at the onset of his first voyage; disgusted at the sight of his own kind, and unable to bring himself to bear the stench and presence of even his own family (who to him are now no different from any other Yahoo), he finds some level of peace conversing to his horses (whose anatomy fondly reminds him of the Houyhnhnms), living his life with the modest goal “to behold my figure in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature” (pg. 317).

As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s is a work of satire, and should be read as such.  The obvious criticism of human conceit and vanity is the most overt message contained within Gulliver’s final voyage, but what needs to be mentioned is also the apparent lifelessness that comes along with the Houyhnhnms’ dedication to reason.  Devoid of emotional appeals, they do not quarrel, but they also lack imagination, and insight no aesthetic inspiration.  So, to me, the subtler point found hidden in Swift’s prose is that even if the impossible was to be done, and the depravity of human nature could be overcome, and man could learn to be as reasonable as the noble Houyhnhnm, if we remove ourselves of the very facets in life that give us the most meaning and value–despite their contributions to our faults and irrationalities–will we also be giving up the very things that make us human to begin with?


Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels, (Signet Classics: NewYork), 1726.  1960 reprint.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and the Theme of Class Inequality

Edgar Allan Poe is the undisputed master of horror fiction [suck on it, Stephen King].  In his short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe explores the depth of self-indulgence, health paranoia, and the futility of the affluent members of society attempting to survive a social crisis by gating themselves off from the rest of the suffering masses.

Poe begins the plot of his story by informing the reader how, “The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country.”  The severity of this disease is so dire that for those unfortunate enough to contract it:

There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.  The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

The last words in that passage are particularly important to the narrative.  Unlike many of the stories being composed at the time (and even now), in which social turmoils are depicted as experiences of moral growth for most of the characters, Poe is willing to explore the limited extend of our moral virtues; concluding that there exists a point at which human decency and empathy will be easily abandoned in favor of self-preservation.  The sovereign of the land, Prince Prospero is the base embodiment of the aristocratic, affluent few in society, who in time of need do not reach out to alleviate the suffering of their subjects, but instead find it more convenient for their own survival to horde the necessities to survive from the dying masses:

When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

The Prince, and his aristocratic peers, closed themselves off in happy oblivion within their gated community, indifferent and unconcerned about the horrors that dwell beyond their blissful experience.  So lost do they become in the fanciful, carefree world they have created for themselves that, years into the epidemic, “while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad,” the now fully secluded Prince still manages to, “entertain his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.”  It is important for a reader to pause and reflect at the message the author is trying to convey.  The world is literary dying around the last few people who have the means to fortify against the affliction, and their primary interest is in vainly entertaining themselves with balls and masquerades.  Not worrying about finding a cure to the ailment, or constructing a plan by which society is to be preserved and protected through the crisis.  Nothing but a relentless desire to indulge in the splendors of life with equally heedless peers.  Never have the words out off sight, out off mind been more apropos than they are to this scene.

Throughout the prose, Poe spends a significant amount of time detailing the eloquent and expensive features of the castle the aristocracy has confined itself in.  Primarily, this is done to fully draw the reader into the features of the plot; secondarily, it serves to demonstrate the vanity of the upper-class characters, who see no peril, no anguish, no need, as important as their want to remain undisturbed and unaware about the worries of the sickly masses.  However, behind this mode of self-sustained obliviousness, lies a state of constant paranoia for the affluent citizens.  This is best illustrated by the way Poe uses the motion of a gigantic ebony clock (time serving the role of a commodity that no amount of wealth or power can control) as a source of anxiety for the masqueraders.  With every noise and movement emitted by the ebony clock, “it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”  And with the passing of each such moment, the occupants of the castle vowed mirthfully to each other not to let the ominous thing have the same affect on them again, only to fail as soon as, “there came yet another chiming of the clock.”

Having demonstrated the state of badly concealed apprehension exhibited by the party guests, the narrative goes on to suggest how the main distraction that exists for the masqueraders is Prince Prospero’s eccentric decorative feats created specially for the evening.  Both the Prince, and his fashionable embellishments of the seven chambers making up the ballroom halls, are described as “bold and fiery,” but also repeatedly referred to as mad (either directly, or by implication).  To suit his taste for the evening, the Prince had made it a requirement for the masqueraders to disguise themselves as grotesquely as possible; a request that appears to have been wholly lived up to by the attendees.  (The reason for this request appears to have little cause other than for the Prince to further illustrate his eccentric flair, but it cannot be ruled out that the underlying cause could have something to do with the Prince’s desire to show how he is unaffected by the nervousness about death that his fellow aristocrats seem to be displaying.)

As the night wanes on, the aristocratic masqueraders find themselves more and more confined, as they densely pack into one chamber, while abandoning others.  The source for this behavior is the arrival of a guest no one had previously noticed, despite his striking appearance:

And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive, of disapprobation and surprise–then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

The physical appearance of the mysterious figure was one that deeply disturbed the otherwise grotesquely shrouded party attendees, because, “his venture was dabbed in blood–and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”  His costume was that of the Red Death.  Here, the aristocrats, who have spent years hiding away blissfully from the terror and despair that surrounds them, are at last forced to see firsthand the image that is the cause of their self-imposed confinement–the real source of their relentless anxiety.  Prince Prospero’s reaction towards the stranger was immeasurable rage:  “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery?  Seize him and unmask him–that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise.”  This expression of outrage is noteworthy, because it is coming from a man who showed no consideration for the suffering of his own subjects, who holds no regard for anything beyond his own self-indulgence, but is now screaming in all righteousness about being mocked–about being offended–eager to uphold to some murky semblance of principle.  Nonetheless, despite the Prince’s stern command, no one dared move towards the intruder, causing the Prince himself to “rush hurriedly through the six chambers / He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure.”  The chase did not last long, as the figure suddenly turns to face the Prince, “upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero.”  All pretense has now been abandoned by the masqueraders, for the stranger was not a costumed intruder, for “now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.”  The disease the inhabitants of the castle had spent so long to shelter from had at last penetrated through their iron gates, “and the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired.  And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

If there is one theme that Poe pointedly captures in his haunting story, it is that, ultimately, when it comes to disease carrying pathogens, it doesn’t matter how much wealth or power you possess.  It doesn’t matter who–or what–you are, or where you reside in your social pecking order.  Disease does not, and cannot, care about the arbitrary caste system or social mores your particular culture has decided to embrace; it is nature’s perfect equalizer.  The only thing disease knows is to spread and kill indiscriminately.  And once the pathogen carrying corpses of the lower classes begin to pile up all around your gated community, no amount of affluence will protect you from the fate that it carries.  It’s very poetic, in an eerie way.

Goethe’s Prometheus and the Heretical Legacy of the Enlightenment

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stands as a unique figure in modern intellectual thought.  A polymath in the true sense of the word, it is difficult to ascribe to him one conclusive description without leaving out an array of equally apt titles.  His was an artist, a poet, a politician, an amateur scientist, and (by proxy of the collective legacy of all of the above) a philosopher.  Equally remarkable is the man’s place in history as a thinker heralded by both the materialist strands of the Enlightenment tradition, and the counter-Enlightenment Romantics of the 19th Century.  By all accounts, the fact that Goethe personally embodied the various opposing ideals of his times probably went a long way in fostering such a bemusing repute amongst his admirers.

He was (by 18th Century standards) a religious heretic, meandering between pantheism, Abrahamic estoricism, and a great deal of what would now be called classic humanism.  Yet, although his spiritual beliefs were heterodox, his politically leanings rested largely within the  conservative tradition, always viewing the revolutionary efforts of his days with a high degree of suspicion, and a consistent aloofness.  Regardless of where the man’s personal leanings stood on an issue, it is undeniable that Goethe’s widespread appeal to such varying audiences stems from his foresight in capturing the mood of the era he was living in for the sake of aesthetic posterity, and the intellectual benefit of the generations molded by the developments of said era.

As mentioned, Goethe himself held to rather undefinable religious positions throughout his active life.  Nevertheless, he had no difficulty in identifying the ideological struggle between traditional religious structure and the emergence of various heretical ideals that have come to symbolize the Enlightenment for many modern observers.  Published in 1789 (just as the Bastille was about to fall in France), “Prometheus” stands as a poetic allegory to the spiritual transition/tension sweeping through religious and politically revolutionary circles throughout Europe.

Conspicuously composed as a diatribe by the rebellious deity Prometheus against an uncharacteristically impotent Zeus (i.e. God), the work begins by declaring the sky Creator’s feebleness in comparison to the earth-dwelling Prometheus.

Now you must leave alone
My Earth for Me,
And my hut, which you did not build,
And my hearth,
The glowing whereof
You envy me.

The divergence from Greek mythology here is of no small significance.  Goethe’s Prometheus is not the tortured deity of antiquity, but a stand-in for the Enlightened spirit of mankind.  During this era the intellectual and technological advances were often seen as either moving away from Divine interpretations, or standing in outright opposition to religious orthodoxy (though it should be noted that many of the figures of the time did draw on their firm religious convictions as inspiration for their work, albeit usually more from a spiritually individualistic, rather than a strictly traditionalist perspective).  Like Enlightened man, Prometheus reclaims the title of Creator away from Zeus (“Now you must leave alone My Earth for Me”–note the capitalization of Me, apropos to the Western custom of using He when referencing the Almighty), and affirms his position as the keeper of his house (“my hut, which you did not build…”).  Furthermore, he accuses the God of envy against the dominance he–Prometheus (i.e. mankind)–has secured for himself on Earth, in direct contrast to the traditional Abrahamic position that man is granted dominion on Earth by God.

I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, you Gods!
Your majesty
Is barely nourished
By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations,
And should starve
Were children and beggars not
Fools full of Hope.

Goethe is illustrating the popular sentiment amongst the irreligious sects of his days, comparing the growing turn away from the Divine as a starvation of the gods, except for “children and beggars” still foolish enough to turn to prayer in time of need.  The allusion here is twofold; firstly, it draws on the growing Enlightenment critique that supernatural matters are too childish and superstitious for those with intellectual depth to concern themselves with.  Secondly, it implies how Gods, exhibiting a constant demand for worship and sacrifice from on above, are therefore the more dependent entities in comparison to Prometheus (i.e. man), since their relevance rests on recognition from the earth-dwelling mortals.

Should I honour you? Why?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?
Was I not forged as a Man
By almighty Time
And eternal Fate,
My masters and thine?

The misotheistic aspersions at the start of the quote are a rhetorical framing of the fatalistic powerlessness endemic to existence; in which the concept of omnipotence is rendered incoherent, as gods and men are left equally susceptible to the entropy of time and fate (referred to as masters of both the Divine and the mortal).  However, despite the recognition of cosmic fatalism, the tone of Goethe’s poem elicits a staunch resolve to stand high in defiance to the harsh realities of life:

Do you somehow imagine
That I should hate Life,
Flee to the desert,
Because not every
Flowering dream should bloom?

With these lines, the prose is drawing on the mindset that harsh reality is preferable to wishful thinking, and that one’s life is better spent creating order out of the inevitable destitute amongst us.  This is a reflection of the optimism that surrounded the mood of the Enlightenment, where the leading belief among prominent thinkers was how man had reached the time to cast off the restrictive practices of old, that he can revere himself through investigation of the natural world, and use his knowledge to create a better world in life, rather than praying for one to come hereafter (whether or not in hindsight the terrors of the later French Revolution serve as a testament against this Enlightenment era notion is another matter altogether).

Prometheus finishes his monologue by affirming the greater spirit of man, to not deny his greater and (one would presume) earthly faculties, but above all else to not look towards the heavens on which to bestow one’s reverence.  In short, it proclaims man as the heir to the counter-Divine legacy of Prometheus:

Here I sit, I form humans
After my own image;
A race, to be like me,
To sorrow, to weep,
To enjoy and delight itself,
And to heed you not at all –
Like me!

It ought to be remembered that Goethe is simply putting into prose a dramatized sentiment that captures one facet of the era he lived in, and it would be a mistake to conflate the poet’s personal convictions with those found throughout “Prometheus.”  The Enlightenment was a time of great progress in human understanding, but it also stood as a transitional phase where revolutionary ideals threatened to collide (and, indeed, did collide) with traditional austerity.  Goethe’s role as both a participant, detractor, and historian of the era survives as an invaluable transcription of an intellectual tradition all of us in the modern world have inherited (for better or worse).