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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe: Character Studies or Depictions of Aberrant Behavior?

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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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