Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Places influencing human mind in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

This is part two of a blog series by Alan D. D. exploring Edgar Alan Poe and the Gothic. You can read the first post discussing Poe's 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' in relation to death and immortality here


We humans are such a fragile thing: it takes only one second to end our existence or to change it, either on purpose or by accident. If we see it under a different lens, all that is human is easy to destroy. Yet, we tend to think about ourselves as all mighty, almost divine, eternal, when it is our own breed our worst enemy, even more when one has the ability to influence human mind. 

Edgar Allan Poe

However, there is also a chance for places to have the same effect on someone if the conditions favour it. When this happens, we’re speaking about psychogeography: ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ (Bauder & Engel-Di Mauro, 2008: p. 25) The concept was defined for the first time in 1955 by Guy Debord, but Edgar Allan Poe proposes something very similar on his tale ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ published in 1839. 


As a brief example of this, we could say that the beloved author was considerably ahead of his time as he states that, ‘beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us’ (Poe, 1839), which is a pretty similar way to explain the same idea Debord would ‘discover’ after more than a century. In this tale, an unnamed narrator arrives to the house of his friend, Roderick Usher, a building that serves as a presentation for the theme of the crumbling, haunted castle. The castle is an important feature in The Castle of Otranto, a novel by Horace Walpole published in 1764 and considered the start of the Gothic genre. In Walpole’s novel, the castle is also a symbol of a disintegrating human body, a prominent element in the later work of Poe, (Hutchisson, 2005) and an element we will see further in this article. 


Usher himself is presented as a character suffering a severe form of anxiety, one that grants him the condition of hypochondriac (Butler, 1993) due to his obsession with death and the tragedies present on the history of his family. His own house, plagued with these memories and ideas, serves as a reminder of what Usher expects to happen to him: ‘victim to the terrors he had anticipated’ (Poe, 1839). It also becomes clear that this friend of Usher, the unnamed narrator, experiences fear when he sees the house for the first time, asking himself ‘what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?’ (Poe, 1839). This becomes significant because it is implied that this character has either not been on said house for several years, or is watching it for the very first time, and therefore does not expect it to have such an effect on him, which could be compared to the more prominent influence it has become to his friend Usher. 

(House of Usher 1960, dir. Roger Corman)

Such is the effect of said house on its inhabitant that, despite the fact that he’s presented as a man terrified with the idea of his death, there is also a chance that Roderick Usher created a comfort zone around the thought of his life ending in tragedy, and so he causes his own destruction because he does expects it to happen one way or the other. This is the same reason for him to bury his sister alive: he expects to do so. (Butler, 1993). The fact that Poe included his poem 'The Haunted Palace’ in the story as if written by Usher reinforces both this idea of him ‘anticipating’ these happenings, since it proposes that: ‘evil things, in robes of sorrow, / Assailed the monarch's high estate’ (Poe, 1839). This leads the reader to consider that Usher finds a kind of joy within his own obsession and depression by thinking of himself as a martyr king. The poem could also be a sign that Usher has already seen his future, writing being a form of divination in the story: ‘travellers, now, within that valley, / Through the red-litten windows see/ Vast forms, that move fantastically / To a discordant melody,’ (Poe, 1893). These lines clearly resemble the last scenes of the tale. 

('The Fall of the House of Usher' by Harry Clarke)
I would also like to point to the similarity between the beginning of the story and the lines of the poem, where Poe, in the voice of Usher, says that: ‘Wanderers in that happy valley, / Through two luminous windows, saw / Spirits moving musically,’ (Poe, 1893). This implies once again that Usher knows about the first thoughts of his friend, which compares the windows of house with eyes when he first saw them. This leads us to conclude that this ability of divination is the result of Usher’s obsession, the house itself and the bond between its inhabitant and the visitor. The process fits the description of what is understood as a Possession Trance, in which a ‘spirit entity or force is believed to have entered or taken over the body of the human host’ (Stephen and Suryani, 2000, p. 9, as cited in Woods, 2009, p. 24), and that allows the individual to experiment ‘visions, hearing voices (pawisik), finding objects that possess special powers (paica), divination, meditation, and dreams’ (Stephen & Suryani, 2000, p. 9, as cited in Woods, 2009, p. 24-25). It is because of this, and Roderick’s hyperesthesia, which is a sensation of pain caused by non-noxious stimulus, (Noordenbos, 1959) that I’m inclined to conclude that he’s been possessed by the house. 



Some would think that it is impossible to be possessed by a place, but, given the subject, it would be interesting to examine ‘Sister of Darkness: The Chronicles of a Modern Exorcist’ by R. H. Stavis and Sarah Durand, in which Stavis, who is the exorcist referenced in the title, explains that there is a type of spirit classified as a ‘collector’ who in fact possesses buildings under certain conditions, and causes similar effects on those who interact with said place. Everything seems to point out that it is more than possible for places to produce such devastation in the human mind, although I prefer to remain in the safe margin of the theoretical aspects concerning this subject and not check the practice of it on my own. 


References

Bauder, H., & Engel-Di Mauro, S. (Ed.). (2008). Critical Geographies: a collection of readings. Praxis ePress.
Hutchisson, J. M. (2005). Poe, Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press.
In Budd, L. J., & Cady, E. H. (Eds.), On Poe: The Best from American Literature. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Noordenbos, W. (1959). Pain. Problems pertaining to the transmission of nerve impulses which give rise to pain. Amsterdam: Elsevier
Poe, E. A. (1839). The Fall of the House of Usher. Alex Catalogue.
Poe, E. A. (1839). The Haunted Castle. Alex Catalogue.
Stavis, R., & Durand, S. (2018). Sister of darkness. New York: Dey Street Books.
Woods, A. (2009). The use and function of altered states of consciousness within dance/movement therapy. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.571.4007&rep=rep1&type=pdf



Alan D. D. is an author, blogger and journalist who has been freaking the world since 1995. Hailing and writing out of Venezuela, Alan D.D. has worked with books, comics, music, movies and almost anything else that catches his attention. 99% of the time, it's something about witches. He's currently trying to get his first novel in English published and searching for a 24/7 chocolate supplier.

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