Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Egaeus, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's “Berenice: A Tale,” which was published in the March 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, was considered, by some of the story's “early readers” to suffer from “monomania.” Indeed, Egaeus identifies this malady as the “disease” that afflicts him; the condition, he admits, is aggravated by his “immoderate use of opium,” a drug the use of which, for recreational or other purposes, was legal in Poe's day (although Poe himself did not use the drug):
. . . my own disease . . . . monomania . . . consisted in a morbid irritability of the nerves immediately affecting those properties of the mind, in metaphysical science termed the attentive. . . . I fear that it is . . . in no manner possible to convey to the mind of the general merely reader, an adequate idea of that nervous intensity of interest with which, in my case, the powers of meditation (not to speak technically) busied, and as it were, buried themselves in the contemplation of even the most common objects of the universe.
Eventually, his gaze falls upon the teeth of his cousin, who suffers from catatonia and who, Egaeus believes, is dying. As he beholds her wasted image, contemplating “her thin and shrunken lips,” Berenice smiles. For Egaeus, her smile is one “of peculiar meaning, [revealing] the teeth of the changed Berenice.” Egaeus reacts with horror, proclaiming, “Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!”
At the time, psychology, as a science (even today, this classification is suspect among many scientists), was considered a division of philosophy. In Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786) Imamnuel Kant (1724-1804) had recognized that psychology is unscientific because the object of its study (first identified as the psyche, or soul, and then as thought, or cognition, and then, later still, as human behavior) cannot be quantified. Later, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper (1902-1994) suggests that any scientific hypothesis should be falsifiable through experimentation or observation (the empirical method), a test that psychology often fails.
Be that as it may, even today, perhaps for the want of anything else, psychology retains authority in courts of law and other social venues. In Poe's time, the better educated among the general public might have been persuaded by the claims of early psychologists, just as they were by the pronouncements of phrenologists. In general, however, many of Poe's readers would have been ignorant even of the rudimentary psychology of their day. To them, Poe's accounts of the effects of certain clusters of behavior now considered to be symptomatic of particular mental disorders to which contemporary psychologists (but not their predecessors) have put a name would have seemed mysterious, because their causes were unknown (as, indeed, is the case with regard to many such conditions even now), which is why therapy frequently avails little as a method of “treatment.” (Drugs have proven a more effective means of treatment, in some cases, a fact which seems to support Dr. Thomas Szasz's contention, in The Myth of Mental Illness, that “mental illness,” as such, does not exist; what does exist, he claims, is aberrant behavior caused by organic problems.)
We may not understand the workings of the soul or cognition or human behavior or whatever psychologists claim to study any better today than our ancestors did, but many members of the general public are satisfied by their belief that we do. By identifying the symptoms Poe's characters display, some contemporary literary critics and others have diagnosed the mental disorders from which these characters seem to suffer. However, again, these concepts and their bases would have been unknown to Poe and his readers.
The narrator of “Berenice: A Tale,” therefore, was not suffering from monomania. Instead, he suffers “from what is now called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),” a type of “anxiety disorder” characterized by
. . . recurrent, disturbing, unwanted, anxiety-producing obsessions (insistent thoughts or ruminations that at least initially are experienced as intrusive or absurd) or compulsions (repetitive ritualistic behaviors, or mental actions such as praying or counting, and purposeful actions that are intentional, even though they may be reluctantly performed because they are considered abnormal, undesirable, or distasteful to the subject.) The compulsion may consist of ritualistic, stereotyped behavior or it may be a response to an obsession or to the rules that the person feels obliged to follow. The obsession often involves the thought of harming others or ideas that the subject feels are gory, sexually perverse, profane, or horrifying (Campbell's Psychiatric Dictionary, ninth edition).
Admittedly, this summary of the disorder describes Egaeus's behavior almost to a “T.” He is undoubtedly obsessed with the teeth of his cousin, Berenice, so much so that, visiting her tomb, he rips the teeth from her jaws. As horrific as this revelation is, it is not the most horrible shock that awaits Poe's reader at the end of this tale of terror. For that disclosure, one must read the story for him- or herself.
In earlier posts, we've considered how an author, by withholding the cause of the bizarre effects he or she presents at the beginning and middle of a story (and continues to depict well into the final division of the narrative), before revealing, at last, the cause of these effects, can repeatedly generate fear while maintaining or heightening suspense. Partly by sheer luck—being active as a writer during a time when psychology had not yet made an attempt to identify, describe, and categorize mental disorders as a way of diagnosing and treating them—and, possibly, by design (Poe often does not identify the causes of his effects, leaving them mysterious through the lack of a complete context)—Poe accomplishes just these ends. “Berenice: A Tale” seems all the more mysterious, macabre, and horrific to those modern readers among us who are not well-versed in psychology. By dint of the narrator's strange conduct, which is not explained by the outdated concept of “monomania,” we are left in the dark as to the cause of Egaeus's bizarre behavior, making it seem all the more mysterious. (The same is true of those who reject the claim that psychology is a science and continue to regard it as little more than unfounded speculation.) There is no reason that writers today cannot, again, follow in the footsteps of Poe, emulating his genius as a storyteller who was given to the creation of horror stories in a class by themselves: present bizarre behavior without explaining (or explaining away) its cause.
For critics of psychology, including disbelievers in its mythological aspects, who reject the study of the soul, or of cognition, or of human behavior, or of whatever psychologists claim to study, as having a scientific basis, such “disorders” as OCD, can still have value, as types of exercises of the sort that the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC) developed in his Characters. Its pages describe thirty types of characters, including “The Flatterer,” “The Garrulous Man,” “The Boor,” “The Reckless Man,” “The Gossip,” and “The Superstitious Man.” The descriptions summarize the behaviors of these various characters, much as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (now in its edition) describes the symptoms of various “mental disorders.” Indeed, looking upon the DSM not as a clinical source, but as a writing resource similar to Theophrastus's character sketches, can provide a similar useful resource, minus the DSM's psychological trappings.
In future posts, we will consider more of the character types (i. e., “mental disorders”) among Poe's cast of grotesques.