Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
. . . getting in touch with one's feelings is not always a great thing.
— Kevin J. Hayes, The Annotated Poe
Just as those who subscribe to theories concerning mental illness pigeonhole the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” as a schizophrenic, if not a paranoid schizophrenic, and Egaeus, the narrator of “The Pit andthe Pendulum,” as suffering from the obsessive-compulsive disorder, they view Roderick Usher, of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as a victim of bipolar disorder.
According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, DSM-5, two symptoms must be present to warrant a diagnosis of bipolar disorder: “elevated or irritable mood” associated “with increased energy/activity.” Apparently, the two symptoms must be associated with one another; if they occur, but are not associated with one another, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder presumably is disallowed.
The American Psychological Association's change of the definition and description of this mental disorder is nothing new; the APA changes such definitions and descriptions of mental disorders all the time, which is one reason for the multiplicity of DSM editions. Mental disorders, it seems, are nothing if not mutable.
In any case, Usher is considered to suffer from bipolar disorder, which was once known as manic depression (the disorder was renamed because, among other reasons, “bipolar disorder” is considered both more accurate and less stigmatized and less “emotionally loaded”).
According to the “diagnosis” of Usher, then, he must be both of elevated or irritable mood” and exhibit “increased energy/activity” associated with such altered mood. Edgar Allan Poe's story certainly suggests that Usher experiences both these symptoms. Nevertheless, Kevin J. Hayes, the editor of The Annotated Poe, challenges this claim:
Whereas Usher's alternating moods of vivacity and sullenness may suggest that he suffers from what is now called bipolar disorder, his other symptoms—sensitivity to light, sound, taste, and texture, in addition to his sleeping disorder, and minimal social interaction—meet today's diagnostic criteria for the developmental disorder known as autism.
Poe himself never attempts an explanation of Usher's condition—or conditions. Instead, he describes the character's behavior—in some detail, in fact, devoting pages to his narrator's reports of Usher's conduct. In doing so, Poe maintains the mystery of Usher's behavior, so that Usher's actions continuously evoke not only readers' curiosity, but also generate, maintain, and heighten the story's suspense. (As mentioned in previous posts, withholding explanations of events [or behaviors] prevents them from being demystified and made, thereby, to seem mundane.) This is a technique which Poe, like other writers of horror fiction, uses frequently and one in the execution of which he is so superb as to be incomparable among other authors of his field.
For Poe, Usher need not be explained; in fact, to explain (or to explain away) the character's bizarre behavior is to detract from its grotesquery. Today, we can learn from Poe's example. Rather than regarding psychology as a science that can explain all behavior, all thought, all emotion, all beliefs, all attitudes, all values, and all motivations, we'd do well to consider its diagnostic criteria as denoting nothing more than specific characteristics of behavior which, together, comprise the particulars of a type of person or, in the language of literature, a type of character, much as in the manner of Theophrastus's apt named, ancient book of character sketches, Characters.