“Weird Dominions of the Infinite”

Penumbra – No. 1 has several interesting critical articles I was tempted to review. One argued for the influence of William Hope Hodson’s The Ghost Pirates on Jean Ray’s “Le Psautier de Mayence.” However, since I have’t read that work by Ray, there’s probably no insight I can offer.

I have, though, read my Poe.

Review: “’Weird Dominions of the Infinite’: Edgar Allan Poe and the Scientific Gothic”, Sorina Higgins, 2020. 

Cover by George Cotronis

This is an interesting, insightful, and largely convincing look at two Poe stories Higgins argues should be read together: “Mesmeric Revelation” from August 1844 and “The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case” from December 1845. The latter story was retitled as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and slightly revised – three sentences were added to the ending – when it was republished. 

“Revelation” is presented as a philosophical dialogue with the hynotized Vankirk presenting revelations from beyond the veil of death since, at story’s end, he is revealed to have died. “Valdemar” has a very similar plot, depicted in more gruesome terms, with the final revelation that hypnotism has kept decay of Valdemar’s body at bay. 

The dialogue in “Revelation” is about “the nature of matter, spirit, soul, and God” with the final revelation that there is no such thing as spirit, only matter. Higgins claims that the story

postulates a monism whereby mind is God at rest, thought is God in motion, and death is ‘the ultimate life’. 

Both stories are Poe in hoaxer mode (and many people, for months, believed both stories were based on real events) and presented as real scientific investigations. “Revelation” ends with a strange expression crossing Vankirk’s face after he’s been delivering his revelations for hours. It is implied, says Higgins — reasonably I think — that Vankirk has been dead for at least six hours given his rigor mortis. His

tranquil conversation and deathbed smile suggest that the afterlife is a beneficent condition in which the perceived differences between matter and spirit fall away, allowing unity of the self with God. 

The three sentences added later to the story suggest “the perceived differences between matter and spirit fall away, allowing unity of the self with God”. 

Vankirk has been addressing the narrator “from out the region of shadows”. 

Higgins sees the major difference between the stories as “generic”. “Revelation” is a “pseudo-scientific philosophical dialogue”. “Valdemar” is Gothic horror. 

Higgins’ definition of “Gothic” is more expansive than mine (I fall into the category of thinking the genre is restricted to a “common setting”). She defines it as

evocation of horror, terror, suspense, or disgust of a very particular kind: fear of a supernatural or mysterious force beyond ordinary, material existence

regardless of whether that fear is revealed having only the “material existence” of the mundane world. Specifically, to Higgins, the Gothic suggests things “beyond sensual perception”. The Gothic is not the only genre with the supernatural, but it does feature characters who seek out the “malevolent beyond” even if it terrifies them and risks the consequence of “madness, death, or damnation”. 

Under that definition, both these Poe stories are Gothics. “Revelation” posits there is no hiding from “spiritual threats” because “spirit permeates all things but impels all things”. The implication is that there is no escape from the

malevolent Other, because there is no other. The supernatural element that is feared is of the ‘same nature as the self’.

“If God is mind and thought, then a terrifying thought is God.” 

Higgins disagrees with some critics that “Poe’s Gothic is merely psychological”. The more blatantly Gothic “Valdemar” brings Poe’s monism to us as a monster. 

Higgins also talks about the “narrative shifts” in both stories. In “Revelation”, the hypnotist becomes, in effect, hypnotised by Vankirk’s revelation. Along with the hypnotist, readers find themselves asking questions of Vankirk they don’t know the answers to. In “Valdemar”, (presented, in parts, as a catechism with Valdemar being asked if he’s asleep three times),  physicians warn the narrator not to intervene with Valdemar until he dies. That story, says Higgins, shows “the hostile Other . . . equated with the haunted human victim”. 

The person taking the notes in “Valdemar” passes out and, for an hour, doesn’t make observations on Valdemar. “No one is there to watch his metamorphosis from the rudimental body to the ultimate body.” 

Higgins makes a case for sexual/birth imagery in “Valdemar”. There are “ejaculations” “bursting” from Valdemar’s tongue. Secondly, the experiment with Valdemar has been going on for about nine months which, of course, is the gestation period for a human before birth. Vankirk’s death in “Revelation” is a “painful metamorphosis”. Valdemar’s death is a new, gruesome birth.

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