Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Addendum: Poe and the Patristics

I misspoke a bit on the podcast yesterday—if you haven’t listened to it yet, what are you waiting for?—when I said that the Church Fathers play virtually no role in American literature. (If you didn’t notice, I had actually forgotten about Updike’s Roger’s Version until the second before I brought it up.) In fact, there’s at least one other major American author who leans on them from time to time: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe was not a religious man. The quote you see on atheist websites from time to time (“No man who ever lived knows any more about the hereafter than you and I; and all religion is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry”) seems to be more or less an accurate statement of his views. But the man was something close to obsessed with subjective experience, which leaves a space open not only for semi-traditional mysticism but for Kierkegaard-style religious existentialism. (My first paper in my PhD program was on this topic.)

So when Poe brings up the Church Fathers, which happens only very rarely, it’s generally to serve a higher purpose—to demonstrate a character’s intense subjectivity. The most famous instance is in the short story “Berenice,” one of his very best. Our narrator is one of Poe’s typical hyper-sensitive artist types, this time named Ægeus. He’s a half-cousin to Roderick Usher, sickly and gloomy. Indeed, his entire existence seems bound up in his family’s enormous library, in which his mother died giving birth to him.

His cousin Berenice, on the other hand, is “agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy . . . roaming carelessly through life with no thought of the shadows in her path.” It takes a paranoid and neurotic subjectivist like Ægeus to see the shadows, of course, and he watches as his cousin develops an illness that strips her of her personality and identity. His own illness, at this point, “grew rapidly upon me, and assumed finally a monomaniac character of a novel and extraordinary form . . . This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive.” He has become a hysteric—or a mystic.

His monomania is fed by his choice of reading material, which consists primarily of “St. Austin’s great work, the ‘City of God;’ and Tertullian ‘de Carne Christi.’ ” The operative sentence in the latter, of course, is the famous “Mortuus est Dei filius; credibile est quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile est”: “The Son of God died; it is wholly credible because it is unsound. And, buried, he rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.” Ægeus’ hypersensitive mind takes this paradoxical statement to heart, and when Berenice dies and is buried, he unconsciously slinks out to the grave, exhumes the corpse, and uses dental equipment to pull out his cousin’s teeth.

That’s when we learn that Berenice hadn’t died after all; she was merely in a swoon, and this act of amateur dentistry has brought her out of it. (Biblical scholars: When did the “swoon theory” against the resurrection first enter theological conversation?) Her cousin’s monomania, fueled by the absurdist writings of the most unpleasant of the Church Fathers, has saved her, albeit in a horrifying way.

(I have the vague sense that the Patristics pop up in another of Poe’s tales, but I can’t place which one. I had assumed it was “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” a heavily philosophical conversation between two corpses buried in the same grave, but I was wrong. So this may be Poe’s lone reference to the Church Fathers.)

What this demonstrates is that the attitude we described in the podcast as typical of Evangelicals is by no means exclusive to Evangelicals. If the Church Fathers are our crazy uncles to whom we are related but to whom no one wishes to speak at the family reunion, we’re in good artistic company in thinking so. Poe asserts here that they have something valuable, perhaps even life-saving, to say—but in saying it they threaten our souls and our sanity.


Undine said...

To be fair to Poe, there is no proof that he actually made that statement about religion being based on "chicanery, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry." While he was not conventionally religious, he studied the subject in great depth, and obviously had some sort of personal belief in spirituality. ("Eureka" was hardly the work of an atheist.)

Michial said...

Yes, I agree--he was against organized religion but clearly believed in some sort of organizing principle. I'd argue that "madness" in his protagonists is really a heightened religious sensibility.