Thursday, 28 June 2018

Artistic vampires, obsession and reality denying mechanisms in ‘The Oval Portrait’


This is the third and final part of a blog series by Alan D. D. exploring Edgar Alan Poe and the Gothic. You can read his first post discussing Poe's 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' in relation to death and immortality here, and his second post examining the human mind in 'The Fall of the House of Usher' here.

('The "Thompson" Daguerreotype' by William A. Pratt)
Many have written about the effects of art on humankind. One could not even imagine what life would be with no creative objects to be appreciated, with no paintings, no music, no drawings, nothing at all. A person may not have the ability to create, but everyone appreciates a descent sensitive distraction depending on personal likes. Art is defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2018.). It is interesting to note that creativity, evidently, is linked with the words creator and creation, and one could even go further and assume it is also a connection to the concept of a Creator, be it a deity, a mysterious force behind life itself or a scientific event like the Big Bang, but the association couldn’t be more obvious.

However, it is also reasonable that the power to create also confirms the power to destroy. Is art, no matter its many forms and shapes, capable of destroying as much as it is capable of creating? Edgar Allan Poe seemed to think so, and I am a sceptic to the idea that this was just a coincidence to find such a proposal in one of his stories.

‘The Oval Portrait’ presents a rather unsetting plot: an anonymous traveler, who is also injured, finds refuge in an abandoned mansion in the Apennines, and in the night discovers a painting with a disturbing story, that of an artist that turned the soul of his wife, which was also the model, into a piece of art and so killing her: ‘the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak.’ (Poe, 1845). The first thing I can think about is that this is clearly some form of obsession-leaded vampirism. It is not enough for this artist, this husband, to slowly steal his wife’s life in an attempt to immortalize her, so he needs and has to complete the painting, not even aware that he would widow right away, making an artist, which also means a creator, a destroyer of life as well (Meyers, 2000.).

('The Oval Portrait' by Jean Paul Laurens)
Vampires have also been linked with obsession by different psychological conditions. Medicine has a term for this mania to drink blood: Renfield Syndrome. This syndrome is named after a character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it is interesting to note that individuals who are part of vampire cults ‘may also demonstrate certain psychopathologies such as dissociation, obsessive thought, delusional thinking, and hallucinations’ (White & Omar, 2010: p. 192.). This becomes relevant when we discover that Poe’s first version of this tale, titled ‘Life in Death,’ published in Graham's Magazine in 1842, included details on how the narrator had been wounded and that opium was used to relieve the pain. However, the author eliminated this part of the narration for considering it made the story be seen as a hallucination (Sova, 2001.).

It doesn’t matter if the narrator is living this or only imagining it. Either way, it is clear that this characters has some kind of mental imbalance just like the artist, for it is stated that the narrator ‘thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait’ and more explicitly that ‘in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest’ (Poe, 1845.).Yet, I’m inclined to think that maybe there was something worse, something Poe tried to avoid and process, when he wrote this tale, if we consider that ‘horror stories are a means through which artists implicitly comment on the state of human affairs at a particular moment’ (George & Green, 2015: p. 2345.).

It was around this time, when ‘The Oval Portrait’ was written, that Poe’s wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, started a health decline that would end on her dead in 1847, (Silverman, 1991,) and which the writer himself stated made him ‘insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity’ (Poe, 1848.). This could suggest that Poe had an ambiguous, bittersweet relationship with his work: although it offered him a distraction from reality, an escape from the inevitable event that would cause him a severe depression, maybe he felt his art was somehow murdering his own wife. He didn’t need to be part of a vampire cult, for in his mind he was a vampire already.

These creatures have been linked with sexuality, sexual desire and liberation (Hughes, 2012,) but it is clear that obsession, death and life also play an important role on the figure of the vampire, which, apparently, is also capable of becoming an artist, ‘the creator of beautiful things,’ (Wilde, 2014,) given the impact and influence this tale had. Some may be familiar with a certain Mr. Gray, which story was inspired by this tale of Poe, and whose writer praised Poe’s work five years before Gray was born (Sova, 2001.).


References
Sova, D. B. (2001). Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File.
Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Letters - E. A. Poe to G. W. Eveleth (January 4, 1848). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.eapoe.org/works/letters/p4801040.htm
George, D. R., & Green, M. J. (2015). Lessons Learned From Comics Produced by Medical Students: Art of Darkness. Jama, 314 (22), 2345-2346.
Hughes, W. (2012). Fictional Vampires in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. In D. Punter, A New Companion to The Gothic (pp. 197-210). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Meyers, J. (2000). Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press.
Oxford Dictionaries. (2018). Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/art
Poe, E. A. (1845). The Oval Portrait. Alex Catalogue.
Silverman, K. (1991). Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial.
White, M., & Omar, H. A. (2010). Vampirism, vampire cults and the teenager of today. International journal of adolescent medicine and health, 22(2), 189.
Wilde, O. (2014). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved June 13, 2018 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/174/174-h/174-h.htm



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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