Get up out of your comfortable bed inside your heated house and put on your rosy slippers, if you must. And place those puffy slippers on the clean crisp morning carpet and walk through the door out along the manicured front walkway, the brittle leaves prickle passed in the morning breeze poking about like sleepy spiders under your feet. Open your mailbox and yawn, your mind is dead, now start reading-this is your subscription to the resurrection, the Dutchman is approaching.
Let us now exhume the corpse of Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I will bring this work into the light from the dark recessed dungeons of scholarly contention, steal its meaning from under the haughty upturned nose of self-indulgent and absurd origins. Pym is not about a man tapping into his right brain in search of... art (Canada), it's not about King Solomon and Jerusalem (Kopley), it is not about slavery or hell. This is about the expiring mind of Edgar Allen Poe and his search for a higher meaning here on earth, or lack there of. It is about a brain confounded to tight circumstances by a foolish society screaming for more space, a way out of the proverbial box, his writing and thoughts bound by the contemporary dictum. It is a boy scrambling for meaning in his own life after the loss of a brother, it is a memorial of the brother, it is a reunion of the two and a rejuvenation of the man. We may yet be rescued, the man on that ship is smiling and waving.
Abandoned by Father just after his first birthday, Mother dead at his second-Poe went through this life starving, poor, drunk, and raving mad. Poe needed money, food, booze, and so he wrote. He married his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, who died two years later of Tuberculosis just after "The Raven" earned Poe notoriety, though, hardly any money. He watched his wealthy not-exactly-adoptive father John Allan pass, leaving a large estate to his second wife and three children, not a penny to Poe. Begin to imagine the building frustration inside this creative genius as he is surrounded by fools who publish the same old stories filled with allegory and didacticism-literary tools indeed, digging infertile land overwrought with manure. Jill Lepore, in her The New Yorker article notes Poe's opinion regarding the writing by his contemporaries, "The most 'popular,' the most 'successful,' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, persons of mere address, perseverance, effrontery-in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks." Is this man incapable of writing an absurdist treatise on the life that causes him constant pain? Paul John Eakin asks the important question in Pym, "if sensations are the great things after all, how is man to achieve an experimental knowledge of the secret places of the mind, to surrender to the forbidden drives that lie beneath the surface of rational consciousness, without sacrificing the power to know which reason confers," (19). This is the crux of Poe's only novel. It is his attempt to free his mind from the troublesome (confined) state of physical being and float as the raven, or seagull, above the earth and take it all in at once, to understand from afar. Then swoop in quickly and take a bite out of experience to see what it tastes like- The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Poe's bite, he writes about what he chews as he chews it (1). Through Pym Poe searches for Henry-if one cannot see that Poe is having this feast amidst a never-ending ocean of eternal damnation the Dutchman is still too far away.
Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket takes the advice of a drunker, older friend named Augustus at the
outset. This is Pym's last judgment and he will be dead before the end of the first chapter. He leaves the real world to enter the metaphysical ocean of Poe's mind. The friend is Augustus, two years older than Pym, just as Henry Poe was to Edgar, a teller of sea tales as Henry was, much drunker than Pym just as Henry was. Scholars like Richard Kopley credit Marie Bonaparte with the connection between Augustus and Henry Poe, "Both were ill. And just as Augustus died in Pym's presence, so did Henry die in Poe's presence. Finally, in this context, Bonaparte specifies the date of Henry's death, 1 August, thereby implying a further critical parallel between Augustus and Henry Poe," (32). And so the two Poe's, if you like, sneak out on an ill-advised alcoholic adolescent boating adventure. Poe was notorious for playing games with the reader through his writing, it is important to look closely at his wording to discover that Pym is dead, or more precisely that he never truly lived in the sense we define living. He is alive in Poe's mind, in a world to Poe and the reader, in the absurd world created by the master where normal rules do not apply. Let us first posit that a half-drunk teenager in shock can probably hold their breath for maybe two minutes. After the Ariel is dashed into pieces by The Penguin this discourse ensues, "Block grew angry, and, after a while, said that it was no business of his to be eternally watching out for egg-shells; that the ship should not put about for any such nonsense; and if there was a man run down, it was nobody's fault but his own-he might drown and be d-d,' (9). Regarding Pym it would be an understatement to say characters do not often speak at any length. This really is one of the longest speeches in the novel, the length being accentuated by Poe with commas, dashes-and finally a proclamation that the boys are probably dead already. For one to say the speech alone would take almost half a minute. Obviously the discourse did not begin the instant Pym and Augustus were hurled into the water, tack on another minute. Then a reply by the mates, finally Poe just tells us, "All this occupied nearly five minutes, and it was supposed to be hardly within the bounds of possibility that any individual could be saved-allowing any to have been on board the boat," (9). Yet they are saved by Providence. In the world of Pym Poe is God and savior, again, the rules do not apply and we are now following Pym on his journey through Poe's mind, Mark Canada brings neuroscience into the discussion:
The best evidence that the realm Poe describes corresponds to the right brain, however, lies in the features these regions share. These features-a remoteness from ordinary language and time, striking visual and sometimes surreal imagery, a capacity for arousing emotions, and finally impulses toward self-destruction-all suggest that what Pym and Poe discover is not the South Pole, but the right brain. (66).
Canada's setting for Pym is very specific and while I do not necessarily agree in his conclusion that this is the story of a journey through Poe's mind to discover the most creative and artsy realm of the brain I do think his general findings are helpful (2). This issue of temporal incertitude haunts Pym throughout his journey, "In regard to myself-I was resuscitated from a state bordering very nearly upon death (and after every other means had been tried in vain for three hours and a half)" (12). Sorry Arthur, five to ten minutes under water and nearly four hours to resuscitate-you're dead.
One of the most often overlooked aspects of Pym's absurd nature is the result of his "near death" experience. He craves more adventure on the seas. I need not detail the unlikelihood of an adolescent remounting a horse that kicked him into a coma. "On the contrary, I never experienced a more ardent longing for the wild adventures incident to the life of a navigator than within a week after our miraculous deliverance," (13). Notice the biblical language, "deliverance," and prior, "providence." Poe is God; he has positioned himself in this world in search of higher authority, a "dream within a dream," as we will see later. In a reality aligned with our own no teenager knowingly risks his life after sniffing death. In the world of Pym the hero must continue on, for he is Poe and the Ocean is the heaven or hell, a solely metaphysical arena that Poe/Pym must navigate to restore order to his own life after Henry's death. This is why he seeks to get back "out to sea," he is finding meaning in cruel absurdity-to continue his life in pain despite the loss of a loved one, perhaps then, a nightmare within a dream.
The metaphorical link between Pym's spatial relations within the novel and Poe's mind begin to take shape aboard the Grampus. Just as Pym is plagued by tight confines amidst the vast ocean surrounding him so too is Poe's mind trapped in his head, inside his body, and within his physical being so eternally limited by wasteful earthly contemplation that both Pym and Poe are elated to go exploring somewhere, anywhere, else. "I proceeded immediately to take possession of my little apartment, and this with feelings of higher satisfaction, I am sure, than any monarch ever experienced upon entering a new palace," (18). This statement from Pym is reflective of Poe's characteristic punning about his mind being a wealth of currency (and the only currency he needed), "There are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest forever," (Lepore). It is here within this little box that the search for Henry begins, and through that search an attempt to define existence. You mean, we might be saved then?
Inside the box Pym is confounded by a wretched dream.
My dreams were of the most terrific description. Every species of calamity and horror befell me. Among the other miseries, I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect. Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes. Then deserts, limitless, and of the most forlorn and awe-inspiring character, spread themselves out before me. Immensely tall trunks of trees, gray and leafless, rose up in endless succession as far as the eye could reach. Their roots were concealed in wide-spreading morasses, whose dreary water lay intensely black, still, and altogether terrible, beneath. And the strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality and, waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair (21).
These are not the dreams of a happy man. These are not the images one sees after eating pot roast turned pretty art by dying the potatoes, Poe didn't have a craft beer with his entrée and then belabor his decision whether or not to have desert. He twisted in the wind, alone, his face a rictal monument of pain, torture, and sacrifice. Has Pym yet to become Poe's mind for you, dear reader? Shall we examine what might happen if Pym is freed from this box? Oh let the box be so obviously the mind and we will join Pym, pardon me- outside the box (3).
Poe releases Pym from the box dressed as a dead sailor, a zombie, his mind now reincarnated and free from earth's gravity to terrorize the small-minded souls aboard his ship. Some see this as a chuckle, a bit of comedy or the absurd, but they're blind to Poe's game. These are the people he kills and throws into the ocean of ignorance. What happens when a madman who contemplates the dark corners of knowledge is unleashed out into the world of complacent day worshippers?
The mate sprang up from the mattress on which he was lying, and, without uttering a syllable, fell back, stone dead, upon the cabin floor, and was hurled to the leeward like a log by a heavy roll of the brig.The two former were shot instantly by Peters, and I felled Parker with a blow on the head from the pump handle (4) which I had brought with me. In the mean time Augustus seized one of the muskets lying on the floor, and shot another mutineer (--Wilson) through the breast (68).
Poe has finally freed himself of that inscrutable box. He is absolutely absolved of earthly considerations-or at least what characterizes a 'good' novel. For Robert L. Carringer this does not work, "But almost from the moment Arthur Gordon Pym comes on deck and into the light of day the story begins to falter, and not long after it collapses entirely," (506). An interesting "theory," especially for an Orson Welles scholar, see: The Making of Citizen Kane ($25.00) or The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction ($17.00) (5) but why Mr. Carringer does it fail, and why use those same old critical terms and practices, why say falter, and ask if it 'works,' or not?
But if Arthur Gordon Pym is unusual in these ways, in other ways it is perfectly typical. Pym himself bears a number of specific resemblances to one or another of Poe's standard narrators. (6) Four times during his adventures he experiences moments of incredibly heightened sensation, brought on by extremely violent events such as shipwreck or extremely grotesque acts such as cannibalism (7), all reported either in Poe's genuine rhetoric of terror or in that annoying hyperbolic style he frequently uses as a substitute.
Perhaps then Poe should have described the terror in a more placid voice, he should have remained calm and realistic in his discussion of being buried and starving with no knowledge of time and no hope of rescue. Maybe Mr. Carringer would be pleased with, or less annoyed by, 'naturally, to scare the pants off the other sailors I dressed myself in the finest corpse-fashion materials of the day and smeared a healthy amount of Peter's blood on my face to shed a more believable light on the aspect. Of course being thusly frightened to death we were able to kill the lot of them and drop their rotten bodies into the sea.' It is very unclear what Carrington seeks in Pym and being dismissive and vague for the sake of 'scholarship' is something Poe would never have stood for. Ironically, the publication of such work as this is something Poe struggled against his entire life. Though, this is a common mistake in reading Poe. To gloss over meaning and forget the possibility of meaning simply because something is "extremely" grotesque is limiting and lazy. Under such extreme circumstances, for both Poe and Pym, extreme actions are necessary and if he is wont to use extreme hyperbole to describe fright and death, murder and absurdity, then let him. It is the true psychopath that describes insanity with that eerie aura of tranquility.
For Pym there is nothing more satisfying than escaping the hold below the Grampus. He is satisfied with the murderous overthrow and it is exactly here that the book begins to take its true form-the smell creeps toward us, a thousand rotting corpses from all eras piled up, chewed and compressed by angry giants with no teeth, mashing the flesh to a soft edible mush with their gums alone and throwing them back down when they reach the bone.
Shortly after this period I fell into a state of partial insensibility, during which the most pleasing images floated in my imagination; such as green trees, waving meadows of ripe grain, processions of dancing girls, troops of cavalry, and other fantasies. I now remember that, in all which passed before my mind's eye, motion was a predominant idea. Thus, I never fancied any stationary object, such as a house, a mountain, or anything of that kind; but windmills, ships, large birds, balloons, people on horseback, carriages driving furiously, and similar moving objects, presented themselves in endless succession (74).
These are the thoughts and dreams of a man at ease, a mind at ease. A wonderful transitional duality in the nature of its occurrence-the mind of Pym is displayed to transform during a sleep state, and Poe's mind mirrors Pym's through the writing of this novel-a dream within a dream. Pym is dream incarnate inside of Poe who is dreaming inside a world he struggles to understand. Poe and Pym are both moving, theoretically speaking, rhetorically Pym is still on a ship and Poe is still, well, on earth. But here movement is progression, Poe's intentional usage of "movement" in the passage refers to the mind's movement toward an answer, or away from that which will confound thought and prevent an answer-the dead mutineers bobbing in the sea, the black box of the Grampus, his home, family, the pressure of money are all behind him, they are nothing but the underlying circumstances of his existence. It is exactly NOW that Poe's mind takes full reign of this narrative. Wake up.
I looked down upon them then, fools at sea, surrounded as it were by nothing at all but the stench of awakening. A smell so putrid and thick with realization I cackled for some time. They see a death boat and pray to God, calling him their savior as I gorge flesh from a man's back formerly considered the savior then spit a piece of his body at their feet. The quartet writhes in horror, I call out to them, "CAWWW, Cawww." It is only moments later that they concede to the surreality of their situation and decide to devour one of their own, (8) wholly and happily they chew the human flesh in the sun. Their dead brother's soul uprooted for some sick and twisted need, a human body as means of subsistence-is this such a foreign concept? I'd choose to be the eaten. I can see it all now, having freed myself from the myriad traps and schemes of blind and dumb existence. To glide in the cool air above being, no longer trapped on that floating box, with no control, in an ocean of incalculable girth and even greater insignificance.
South they go through the ice chunks. Is it time to inform them? Show them more then? Let them have a last look at the evil of humanity, the black biting teeth of deception and death. Oh flee death then, seek life, look at the whiteness in front of you, see it looming-let them think they can grasp it, run to it! Paddle fast the water is boiling beneath you. They think it will show them something, they run away but want to understand. They think they are working toward something, some truth, but sadly they move away, away, further and further they lose themselves on the journey until they become nothing but bodies engulfed by the sea, joining their herd like goats and inconsiderate cows gnawing at blades of grass until their time has entirely past. I can see them as I fly above, forever watching yet still may cast out my knowledge in rhyme, landing to have a closer look inside some other's mind, from time to other time, say my peace, stand on the beach, eating your flesh while you run six abreast, a silly vacuous flee from absurd reality, I will never end.
Take the kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is it all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
-Edgar Allen Poe (1849)