Short Story Study: Edgar Allan Poe and Flirting with the Impossible

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Edgar Allan Poe is always an adventure to read. It seems that all of the “common sense” psychology of guilt descends from his writing. What can be said about Poe with more certainty than this: He has a connection to a descent into madness. I actually read two short stories, namely, The Tell-tale Heart and The Black Cat. While both stories explore what guilt does to a person’s sanity, I wanted to try to read something else out of the texts.

The Neil Degrasse Tyson’s of the world preach a scientism that people increasingly find themselves unthinkingly subscribing to. What I find most intriguing about this is its relation to the rise of Superhero movies. On the one hand people want to seem intelligent and in touch with the actual reality (We’re made of stardust, etc.), but on the other hand we have a passionate love for the impossible and literally superhuman. This betrays a culture that’s unconscious is at war with its consciousness. It can easily be argued that this is simply due to societal gravitation towards what is entertaining, but I think that is an oversimplification.

The interest in science has gone up, and this is evidenced by pop culture revivals such as The Cosmos and the most popular sitcom being The Big Bang Theory. There was the highly watched debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, science vs. creationism. But if it were simply science that was being popularized then it wouldn’t be the Bill Nye’s and Neil Degrasse Tyson’s of the world making headlines. Forget sex, certainty sells, and men like these two give it away in spades. The mere fact that I must now express that I do indeed trust scientific findings and I do not doubt theories is evidence of a bigger problem within a culture that has adopted a new religiosity.

But what does that have to do with Edgar Allan Poe? It’s simple: Poe flirts with the impossible. Poe takes us beyond coincidence into a realm beyond the rational. When he does this, he chooses to scare us. What can go wrong will go wrong, and there’s nothing that can be done about it because it is out of control. It’s out of control because it’s out of this world. It doesn’t have to terrify us. This brings me back to the rise of the superhero movies. They are not horror flicks; they are exciting action movies. Why? Because they flirt with the impossible. They are wholly irrational and are loved for it.

Poe’s madman in Tell-tale Heart is not terrified that the police don’t know, but rather that they could. The murderer in The Black Cat is not undone by superstition, but is instead betrayed by the cold rationality of a cat wailing beyond a brick wall. Perhaps what is truly horrifying is not the unknown, but is instead something that could be known.

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