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ABJECTION, SUBLIMITY, AND THE QUESTION OF THE

UNPRESENTABLE IN POE, BAUDELAIRE, AND LOVECRAFT

by

Vivian Ralickas

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Centre for Comparative Literature

University of Toronto

© Copyright by Vivian Ralickas, 2006


Abjection, Sublimity, and the Question of the Unpresentable in Poe,
Baudelaire, and Lovecraft
Doctor of Philosophy, June 2006
Vivian Ralickas, Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto

Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft: what do these three

authors have in common, aside from superficial similarities prevalent to the “damned artist”

type, such as a turbulent life marked by social alienation and an early death? Their respective

statuses at the margins of the literary establishment during their lifetimes and their espousals of

reactionary social and political perspectives (Poe championed slavery, Baudelaire was a

misanthrope and an anti-Semite, and Lovecraft was, during the first part of his adult life, a

proponent of Nazi eugenics) point to affinities than run deeper than merely biographical

coincidences: all three were beholden to, yet distanced themselves from, the widespread

currents of thought of their respective epochs. This tension that characterizes their worldviews

informs their art: in defying the status quo, Poe and Baudelaire were committed to uncovering

a new way of seeing that would radically change our relation to the world; Lovecraft, on the

other hand, adopted a reactionary aesthetics in an attempt to ward off the horrors of modern

life. In examining the critical and literary works of each author, this thesis argues that Poe’s,

Baudelaire’s, and Lovecraft’s common ground is aesthetic: each bases his critical theory on the

sublime and engages aspects of sublimity in his literature. However, the subjective position

conveyed in the poetry of Baudelaire and the fiction of Poe and Lovecraft is conditioned by the

abject. In other words, a tension arises between the sublime that defines their poetics and the

abjection that founds their fictional personae. Ultimately, by outlining the limits of the sublime

experience by means of the abject, their literature explores the question of the unpresentable

and enlists them as contributors to the modernist avant-garde project.

ii
Unless otherwise indicated, emphasis in citations is present in the original source. All citations
are unadulterated except for typographic symbols, which have been modified for consistency.
In parenthetical references Poe’s complete works are cited as CW; Baudelaire’s are identified
as OC. When quoting or paraphrasing critical works, parenthetical references provide the title
of the scholarly text the first time it is cited; all other entries contain only the name of the
author and the page number, except for cases in which I cite more than one work for a given
writer. In such instances, in addition to the author’s name and the page number, the abbreviated
title of the work appears in parentheses in all subsequent entries.

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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION...........................................................................................................................................6

THE SUBLIME: LONGINUS, BURKE, AND KANT............................................................................................6


POE, BAUDELAIRE, AND LOVECRAFT: THE ABJECT AS A COMMON GROUND ..............................................9
ABJECTION AND THE SUBLIME IN POE, BAUDELAIRE, AND LOVECRAFT: THE STATE OF CRITICAL
ENQUIRY ...................................................................................................................................................11

CHAPTER 1: THE SUBLIME AND THE ABJECT....................................................................................13

TRANSCENDING RHETORIC: THE LONGINIAN SUBLIME .............................................................................13


THE BURKEAN SUBLIME: SUBLIME TERROR OR ABJECT HORROR?...........................................................20
THE KANTIAN SUBLIME: AT THE LIMITS OF THE EXPERIENCING SUBJECT ................................................29
THE ABJECT ..............................................................................................................................................40

CHAPTER 2: EDGAR ALLAN POE...........................................................................................................52

PART 1 — JUSTIFYING A SUBLIME READING OF POE: THE CRITICAL CONTEXT ........................................52


PART 2 — THE ABYSS OF UNITY: THE SUBLIME AND POE’S PRAGMATIC CRITICAL THEORY ...................68
The Genealogy of the Sublime in Poe .................................................................................................70
Poe’s Pragmatic Theory of Poetry and the Sublime ............................................................................72
Unity of Effect ................................................................................................................................72
Beauty .............................................................................................................................................76
Genius .............................................................................................................................................77
Imagination and the Grotesque .......................................................................................................80
PART 3 — FIGURING THE ABYSS: AN ANALYSIS OF SELECTED SHORT STORIES .......................................84
Mesmerism and the Limits of Experience: “Mesmeric Revelation” and “The Facts in the Case of
Mr. Valdemar”.....................................................................................................................................84
“Ligeia” and “Usher”: The Horror of Abjection..................................................................................89
Sacred Art and “The Domain of Arnheim” .........................................................................................98
PART 4 — POE IN PERSPECTIVE...............................................................................................................108

CHAPTER 3: CHARLES BAUDELAIRE .................................................................................................110

PART 1 — SITUATING THE SUBLIME IN BAUDELAIRE ..............................................................................110


PART 2 — THE SUBLIME AND BAUDELAIRE’S EXPRESSIVE THEORY OF CRITICISM ................................117
Modern Art ........................................................................................................................................117
Art and the Marketplace................................................................................................................117
“Romantisme”...............................................................................................................................118
Heroism and Modernity ................................................................................................................123
The Sublime and “le Malheur” of Baudelaire’s Modern Beauty ..................................................125

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The Sublime Nature within the Artist................................................................................................129
The Imagination ............................................................................................................................132
The Poetics of the Abject: “Une Charogne” .................................................................................136
PART 3 — THE FIGURE OF THE ARTIST ...................................................................................................142
The Dandy .........................................................................................................................................145
Laughter: The Cry of the Abject........................................................................................................156
The Abject Hero ................................................................................................................................162
PART 4 —BAUDELAIRE IN PERSPECTIVE .................................................................................................168

CHAPTER 4: HOWARD PHILLIPS LOVECRAFT .................................................................................171

PART 1 — LOVECRAFT AND THE QUESTION OF THE SUBLIME .................................................................171


PART 2 — ROMANTIC ART AND “COSMIC INDIFFERENTISM”: LOVECRAFT’S AESTHETICS .....................175
Situating Lovecraft: Poe and Baudelaire ...........................................................................................175
Romantic Art and the Mechanist Materialist .....................................................................................180
Mechanist Materialism and “Cosmic Indifferentism”: The Grounds of Lovecraft’s Nihilism ..........184
“Authentic Art” and Lovecraft’s “Cosmic Horror” ...........................................................................190
PART 3 — THE QUESTION OF “COSMIC HORROR” AND ITS RELATION TO THE SUBLIME .........................201
A Language that Fails to Describe.....................................................................................................203
A Refutation of the Sublime ..............................................................................................................205
“Cosmic Horror” as Abjection of Self: “The Outsider”.....................................................................211
Laughter: Symptom and Displacement of Abjection.........................................................................214
PART 4 — AT THE LIMITS OF THE LOVECRAFTIAN SUBJECT ...................................................................216

CONCLUSION ...........................................................................................................................................219

WORKS CITED..........................................................................................................................................225

PRIMARY SOURCES..................................................................................................................................225
SECONDARY SOURCES.............................................................................................................................226
Introduction .......................................................................................................................................226
Chapter 1............................................................................................................................................226
Chapter 2............................................................................................................................................228
Chapter 3............................................................................................................................................234
Chapter 4............................................................................................................................................237
Conclusion .........................................................................................................................................240

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Introduction

Sublime de l’océan calme ou déchaîné, du désert qui anéantit toute idée


de vie, des montagnes invincibles, du ciel étoilé au-dessus de nous…
Sublime des grandes métropoles vues à distance, des rites dont la
solennité remonte à la nuit des temps, d’une musique qui pénètre l’âme,
de ruines insolites… Sublime des poèmes où les mots s’animent, de
systèmes philosophiques qui osent penser les principes et les fins, de
conceptions religieuses et morales dénuées de complaisance… Sublime
d’un acte ou d’un comportement qui font croire à l’existence d’une
liberté radicale qui outrepasse et subvertit la distinction commune du
bien et du mal, et dont le souvenir se réveille parfois comme un défi…

Baldine Saint Girons, Fiat lux: Une philosophie du sublime 10

Elevated above all other beings, he is also degraded below all; man is
sublime and abject, great and wretched, strong and powerless, all in
one. His consciousness always places before him a goal he can never
reach, and his existence is torn between his incessant striving beyond
himself and his constant relapses beneath himself.

Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment 143


(Explaining Pascal’s defence of religion in Pensées)

The apparent dichotomy that the sublime and the abject represent is not restricted to the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to anthropological studies, they are trans-
historical facets of the sacred;1 the duality they represent is as ancient as the human condition.
One may ask why, given the all-encompassing possibilities that a study of abjection and
sublimity offers, I have chosen to focus on literature and, in particular, on two authors of the
nineteenth century and one of the first half of the twentieth century: Edgar Allan Poe, Charles
Baudelaire, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. There are three predominant reasons for my
choice: the first concerns the sublime’s history, the second has to do with the aesthetic
orientation of the three authors in question, and the third pertains to the state of current
scholarship on these three authors’ engagement with the sublime and the abject.

The Sublime: Longinus, Burke, and Kant


Literature has been integral to any discussion of sublimity since antiquity. The sublime, most
commonly referred to in classical scholarship as the grand style in treatises of rhetoric that
primarily discuss elocution, is indebted to Longinus for its extension beyond the realm of

1
For an insightful dialogue on the sacred, see Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva’s published
correspondence in Le Féminin et le sacré, Paris: Éditions Stock, 1998.

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rhetoric. In On Sublimity, a work that engages the notion of sublimity through a comparative
analysis of classical Greek, Roman, and Hebrew literatures, Longinus sets the groundwork for
the development of the sublime as an aesthetic category in the eighteenth century by means of
his notion of consensus, his understanding of genius (or the innate qualities a sublime writer
must possess), and the necessary relationship he establishes between the listener or reader and
the speaker or writer by means of the sublime utterance.
Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft inherit their respective understandings of the sublime
from the eighteenth century, the period when, as a result of Boileau’s translation of Longinus’
treatise, published in 1674, the concept re-emerges in intellectual thought after a long period of
relative silence. Among the eighteenth-century philosophers who engage the notion of the
sublime, Burke and Kant are the most relevant to my analysis of the authors in question,
primarily because of Burke’s influence on literature and the visual arts, and Kant’s pivotal
position in the defence of metaphysics as a philosophy of limits. In Burke’s A Philosophical
Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and Kant’s Critique
of the Power of Judgment (1790), the sublime is defined as an aesthetic category opposed to
the beautiful. Their respective positions signal a significant shift in perspective from Longinus,
for whom sublimity served as a means for the audience to commune with the great mind of an
orator capable of producing sublime utterances; for Burke and Kant, the emotional experience
to which the sublime gives rise is an end in itself. Although there exists a basic similarity in
their understanding of aesthetics, that is, the feeling of pleasure or pain foregrounds
experiences of the beautiful or sublime, in Burke’s case “aesthetic” refers to the relation
between the subject’s sensations and a quality inherent in a particular object or phenomenon in
nature, whereas for Kant, it is the interplay between a priori subjective dispositions and the
self’s representation of an object that defines an aesthetic experience. (According to Kant, the
self has no unmediated access to the world through sensibility.) The perspective Burke adopts,
prevalent in the eighteenth century well before his Enquiry, is a product of empiricism’s claim
that knowledge is gained through the senses’ unmediated contact with an object. Although
Burke trivializes the beautiful as an aesthetic category by treating it as though it were equatable
with the merely pretty, from the standpoint of my analysis the most intriguing facet of his
Enquiry lies in its inadvertent conflation of the sublime and the abject, both sources of negative
pleasure he calls delight, through the primacy he attributes to unmediated sensations in his
definition of the sublime. In other words, Burke outlines the limits of the sublime by providing
categories of sensible experience that exceed its constraints; according to Jean-François
Lyotard, “the [Burkean] sublime was not a matter of elevation […] but a matter of
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intensification” (Lyotard, The Sublime and the Avant-Garde 40). As Baldine Saint Girons
astutely remarks in her introduction to Fiat lux: une philosophie du sublime, Burke attempts a
genesis and an archaeology of the sublime that approximates psychoanalytic methods of
research (Saint Girons 33). From that perspective, Burke’s Enquiry anticipates the modern
subject, one who is conditioned by an ontological void and in whose being the sublime and the
abject have their origin.
Kant’s transcendental metaphysics, in contrast, attempts to strike a balance between
rationalist and empiricist perspectives: he grounds the subjective disposition upon a priori pure
elements of cognition; moreover, he holds that the mind possesses a certain structure that
determines the limits of what we can both know and experience. Although it may seem
contradictory, aesthetic judgments of the beautiful and the sublime are, according to Kant,
reflective, a priori, and necessarily universal. They are reflective in that they are not based
upon a quality inherent in the object but upon a subjective disposition, as mentioned above;
they are universal in that the feeling of pleasure one derives from an experience of the
beautiful, for instance, must be universally communicable to all (all people are presumably
capable of experiencing the beautiful or the sublime because, as human beings, our minds are
structured in the same manner). This postulation classifies the notion of consensus as a priori: it
cannot be demonstrated empirically, yet it is a necessary hypothesis to ensure the
communicability of the feelings inspired by specific aesthetic judgments.
It is significant, however, that in the case of both Burke’s Enquiry and Kant’s “Critique
of Aesthetic Judgment,” the articulation of the sublime as an aesthetic category allows for the
possibility for art to assume a privileged position in aesthetics, as demonstrated by the German
Romantics, who subvert nature’s pre-eminence in aesthetic judgments (a position defended by
Kant in the Third Critique) and posit art as a means to obtain access to the divine. The root of
such a trajectory is already present in the works of both Burke and Kant: Burke devotes the last
section of his Enquiry to the virtues of poetry and its capacity to inspire a sense of the sublime
as a consequence of poetic language’s opacity; Kant’s notion of genius, on the other hand,
attributes a privileged status to the avant-garde artist and his creations. A contemporary
example of the repercussions of the sublime’s designation as an aesthetic category is evident in
Lyotard’s understanding of modern art, on which I will have more to say in the conclusion of
this thesis.
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Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft: The Abject as a Common Ground


The Oxford English Dictionary defines abjection as “the action of casting down; abasement,
humiliation, degradation”; it is derived from the past participle of the Latin verb “abicere,” “to
throw away.” In Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Julia Kristeva elaborates on the significance of the
abject to psychoanalysis by underscoring its centrality to a human being’s development and
constant negotiation of both corporeal and psychic identities. As her examples suggest,
literature, particularly that of the modernist avant-garde, occupies a privileged place in the
history of humanity’s confrontation with the abject. Avant-garde writers defy the literary and
social conventions of their epochs; their works assume new, unprecedented forms and often
delve into the dark recesses of the human psyche. This breaking of taboos, however, is not an
end in itself; while it is true that anyone can write fiction that shocks its audience by subverting
the constraints of the common taste, this does not guarantee that the book will contain any
insight into the human condition or be of any literary merit. In rejoicing in the materiality of
the sign, the avant-garde probes the most intimate depths of emotional identity—the
unrepresentable ground of subjectivity—through style. Avant-garde literature, according to
Kristeva, presents us “le point sublime où l’abject s’effondre dans l’éclatement du beau qui
nous déborde” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 248). Her argument underscores the idea that a
confrontation with the void of their innermost selves compels the avant-garde to produce
objects of beauty—they are driven to affirm an identity through the creation of cultural
products, even if that identity is provisional and mutable. Hence, following the initial horror
abjection arouses in them, the experience calls them to action—to assert their humanity; in this
affirmation which takes place after the “abject turn,” the abject is similar to the sublime. From
the chaos of the abject new forms and an emerging consciousness are brought to light. While
the abject was not a factor in the considerations of Longinus, Burke, and Kant, nor was it a
characteristic of their contemporaries’ responses to an experience of the sublime, the proximity
of the two experiences is implicit in the parallel structure of their respective dynamics. As I
endeavour to explain in the first chapter, at one stroke an experience of the sublime, Longinian,
Burkean, or Kantian, can collapse into the abject.
In my view, no one understood the propinquity of the sublime and the abject better than
Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. All three were “rogue”
writers in their day, situated at the margins of the literary establishment. Each, moreover, was
beholden to and yet resisted the dominant aesthetic and ideological currents that shaped their
epochs. Poe was strongly influenced by German Romanticism early in his career; however,
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over time, the nature of his indebtedness assumes a more complex character since in his fiction
and critical writings he often parodied its doctrines as well as its American and continental
adherents. Neo-Platonism and Idealism were two of the currents of thought prevalent in
Baudelaire’s cultural milieu; nevertheless, his poetics and literary practices betray his unease
and eventual dissociation from them. Lovecraft’s worldview conveys his avid engagement
with the scientific developments occurring in the early twentieth century and the strong
influence exerted on him by nineteenth-century nihilist philosophy (Nietzsche and
Schopenhauer), yet, in spite of his openness to new ideas in science and philosophy, he decried
his modernist contemporaries’ experimentation with form in the literary and plastic arts.
Their relationship to one another, moreover, constitutes an important aspect that unites
these three authors. Baudelaire and Lovecraft’s debt to Poe is no small matter, and it is from
this vantage point that any affinity between the two can be discerned: Baudelaire was so
enthralled by the few stories and poems by Poe that were accessible to him that he avidly
sought out more texts and devoted many years to translating his work (Baudelaire’s
translations were originally published over a span of nine years, from 1856 to 1865); in
addition, he identified so readily with the version of Poe he created for himself—he saw Poe as
a damned artist-genius at odds with the American culture of his day—that he adopted Poe as a
spiritual brother to whom he prayed for support. For his part, Lovecraft counted Poe among his
earliest and most eminent influences, and much of his early fiction bears the mark of his
predecessor. There exist, of course, cultural, historical, and idiosyncratic differences that
distinguish these writers, which I address in their respective chapters. However, the common
aspect all three share is primarily aesthetic: the present study contends that Poe and Baudelaire
both ground their respective poetics on the sublime, whereas Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic
horror” implicitly denies the possibility of an experience of the sublime. Furthermore, I
elucidate how all three posit an experiencing subject who explores the limits of his culture as a
means to come to terms with his ontological status. Received ideas on morality, philosophy,
literary genres, and artistic forms are subverted in an effort to understand the crisis of modern
subjectivity: a self-reflexive, knowing subject who has no access to the origin of his self-
knowledge. Their texts disturb the relation between the self and its objects—the nature of
representation is thrown into question in their attempts to represent what cannot be presented:
the grounds of selfhood.
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Abjection and the Sublime in Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft: The


State of Critical Enquiry
Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft engage the sublime in their poetics, yet their literary texts
subvert this aesthetic category and present readers with instances in which a body, textual or
otherwise, fails to signify. An analysis of the interrelation that exists between the abject and the
sublime in Baudelaire’s poetry, the fiction of Poe and Lovecraft, and each writer’s critical
writings is essential if we are to gain a better understanding of the paradox at the crux of their
aesthetics. A precedent exists insofar as it concerns a study of the sublime in Poe, Baudelaire,
and Lovecraft, respectively. In general, scholars have sought to trace the impact primarily of
Burkean and Kantian notions of sublimity in the works of these authors (with scant exceptions,
if Longinus is mentioned it is in passing). This type of enquiry can assume a thematic approach
that seeks to identify, on the one hand, tropes common to literary representations of the
sublime (a character’s confrontation with an object that is foreboding and not clearly
discernable, formless, or infinitely powerful) or, on the other hand, textual examples of the
artist-genius capable of creating sublime art. Readings of this kind explore the implications of
either—in the context of the author’s other texts possessing a similar aesthetic orientation; in
the entire corpus of each writer in the more ambitious studies; in the writer’s positioning vis-à-
vis his contemporaries; or in a combination of these. Another method considers the
repercussions of the sublime in Poe’s or Baudelaire’s poetics and critical writings. (I exclude
Lovecraft from this category for one reason: of the two published studies to date that deal with
the sublime in Lovecraft, both focus on his fiction.) Studies of this sort situate Baudelaire’s or
Poe’s poetics within the broader scope of the history of ideas or the intellectual currents that
held sway during the nineteenth century. Some scholars working in this vein maintain a
distinction between the beautiful and the sublime in their analyses, in spite of the conflation
that occurs between the two in the critical writings of Poe and Baudelaire. The originality of
my contribution to research on the sublime in these three authors is based on a demonstration
of the following key points: the beautiful according to Baudelaire and Poe’s supernal beauty
are predicated on the Kantian and Longinian notions of sublimity, respectively, whereas
Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic horror” engages aspects of the Burkean and Kantian sublimes;
contrary to Poe’s and Baudelaire’s fictional characters or poetic personae, for whom an
experience of the sublime remains possible as a consequence of the type of subjectivity
concomitant with each writer’s aesthetics, Lovecraft’s fiction implicitly denies the possibility
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of the Burkean or Kantian sublimes by negating the human-centered viewpoint requisite to an


experience of sublimity.
As a category worthy of analysis in literature, abjection has received little attention until
very recently. Nevertheless, several critical enquiries have addressed symptoms of the abject in
the literature of the three authors in question—but without reference to abjection proper—by
probing their breaches of the moral, ideological, formal, and thematic conventions that define
canonical literature. Some critics indicate the limits of the sublime experience as it is manifest
in the fiction of Poe, and their analyses constitute a starting point for my own interpretation of
his work. Critical readings that deals directly with the abject and any one of the three authors
are few in number, and, in spite of their merits, not one seeks to explicate the dynamic that
exists between the sublime and the abject in Poe, Baudelaire, or Lovecraft, respectively, much
less to provide a comparative exegesis of these three authors with respect to the irreconcilable
tension that grounds their literature and critical writings.
The present study aspires in some measure to fill this lacuna by first tracing the
genealogy of the Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian sublimes in the critical works of each author
and outlining Poe’s, Baudelaire’s, and Lovecraft’s respective poetics to pinpoint the origin of
the dialectic of the sublime and the abject. This is followed by an examination of selected
fictional or poetic texts to identify the kind of subjectivity each writer posits, and to show how
the dynamics of abjection and sublimity are manifest in their respective literary practices. A
divisive and irreconcilable tension arises between Poe’s, Lovecraft’s, and Baudelaire’s sublime
poetics and the type of subjectivity each asserts: one for which abjection constitutes the
founding experience.
Chapter 1: The Sublime and the Abject

Inasmuch as all human knowledge is a more or less arbitrary


unification of experience from the limited perspective of a knowing
subject, and inasmuch as all man’s ideas of unity ultimately derive
from the unity of the human body, the process of knowledge is in a
sense man’s discovery of the hieroglyphical outline of his shadow on
the world, that image of organic unity derived from the limits of his
own body that he projects on the world in order to render it intelligible.

John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphs 62

Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and
awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts,
freezes, and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither
Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his
reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the
sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where
lies the great difference between terror and horror, but in the
uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the
dreaded evil?

Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry” 6

Transcending Rhetoric: The Longinian Sublime


Given its fragmentary state and the uncertain identity of its author, Longinus’ treatise has been
open to much speculation and debate in terms of its classification and purpose. For instance,
W. K. Wimsatt has gone so far as to argue that the treatise is completely unintelligible,
claiming it obscures elemental categories such as nature and art, as well as the five sources of
sublimity. In contrast, Elder Olson’s lucid reconstruction of Longinus’ argument holds On
Sublimity to be a literary and technical treatise differing from Platonic, Aristotelian, and
scholastic rhetoricians’ modes of thought, “inquir[ing] into the methods by which a certain
quality of literary composition may be achieved” (Olson, “The Argument of Longinus’ ‘On the
Sublime’” 235). The advantage of his speculative reconstitution of the treatise’s lacunae rests
in its attribution to Longinus’ work of the logical rigour required in a reasoned structure. More
contemporary criticism focuses on the fluidity of Longinus’ categories and the violent,
ostensibly transgressive force of the sublime. In particular, the readings of Paul H. Fry, Neil
Hertz, and Michel Deguy progress along similar lines of thought, revealing a certain suspicion
of Longinus’ proclaimed purpose and methodology. Their interpretations complement each
other, since they primarily sidestep the treatise’s ostensibly central argument by drawing

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attention to the rhetorical scaffolding that sustains On Sublimity. Paul H. Fry frames his
analysis by an overview of Wimsatt and Olson’s readings, observing that the critical
shortcoming shared by these two diametrically opposed analyses culminates in their inability to
appreciate the opacity of Longinus’ categories. To demonstrate that the latter’s fluidity is “a
highly desirable approach to theory,” Fry compares On Sublimity to Aristotle’s Poetics,
concluding that a poetics of disruption governs the Longinian sublime: the latter “threatens
more than it consoles autocracy of all kinds,” since, as he perceives it, the sublime’s function is
“to keep interpretation from closure” (Fry, “Longinus at Colonus” 48, 51, 82).
In a similar vein, Neil Hertz addresses the sliding of categories in Longinus’ treatise;
however, he aims to reconcile “the rhetorician’s argument conducted with great intelligence
and energy” and Longinus’ particular use of citations that “draws one into quite another system
of relationships” (Hertz, “A Reading of Longinus” 2). This tension informs Hertz’s analysis; he
likens Longinus to Walter Benjamin since he detects mutual concerns and methodological
correspondences in their writings: “Both would seem, at moments, to be writing out of a deep
nostalgia directed ambiguously toward certain great literary works and toward the traditional
culture out of which they sprang” (Hertz 14). Within the context of this nostalgia, the
Longinian sublime and Benjamin’s notion of “aura” share one common trait: they are “richly
equivocal” words that situate the “peculiar quality of the texts” each admires “in relation to
something beyond literature” (Hertz 14). Moreover, not only are the authors “drawn to texts
that bear the marks of the disintegration of order,” but both Longinus and Benjamin fragment
the texts they cite from, reconstituting them through their own writing (Hertz 14). Ultimately,
Hertz displaces the Longinian sublime as the central thesis of On Sublimity and obliquely
suggests that the sublime turn, “the movement of disintegration and figural reconstitution”
(Hertz 14)—a concept central to discussions of the sublime (Kantian in particular)—is the
underlying concern of the treatise.
Michel Deguy, on the other hand, offers a more radical analysis than either Fry or Hertz
in his deconstructive reading of Longinus’ argument. Unlike Fry, who, in defending his notion
of the sublime’s subversiveness, struggles to find a foothold in Longinus’ fluid categories and
ultimately argues that they are practically interchangeable,1 Deguy’s analysis carries the latter
assertion to its ultimate conclusion. By pursuing the implications and assumptions underlying
Longinus’ statements and methodological approach, he argues that the Longinian sublime

1
Fry at first observes that “it is much the same, though never wholly the same, whether one speaks
of nature or art, author or audience,” and later concedes that Longinus’ “technical categories so
readily dissolve” (Fry 49, 59).
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supposes a myth of an origin outside of language, and that the aim of the sublime is to simulate
this origin by obfuscating the binary divisions that are frequently said to maintain Longinus’
categories (Olson, Guerlac, and Deguy are notable exceptions to the critics who have held this
view). The dichotomy that maintains Longinus’ categories has no ontological foundation since
it is based on a myth of origin that falsely distinguishes between original and copy or nature
and art. Of language’s negativity underscored by the sublime, Deguy concludes that there is a
“dénégation [...] au cœur même du dire”; “une sorte d’autodestruction travaille au cœur des
‘mots’” (Deguy, “Le Grand-Dire” 34, 35). Later articulations of the sublime, notably by Burke
and Kant, are symptomatic of what the interpretative convergences of Fry’s, Hertz’s, and
Deguy’s analyses make evident: the impossibility of confining the Longinian sublime to a
proposition or a representation, as well as its obscuring and displacing of the lack upon which
it is predicated. Certain peripheral remarks that the latter three critics offer in their respective
readings of Longinus’ treatise are consequently noteworthy with respect to both subsequent
formulations of sublimity and the sublime’s relation to the abject.
According to Longinus,2 sublimity “is a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse”
that transcends time (Longinus 1:3).3 He divides his definition of sublimity into an author-text-
reader triad that focuses on the effect the sublime produces on its audience, the attributes of the
speaker or writer capable of producing sublime utterances, and the qualities a sublime
elocution or text must possess. Sublimity, which “produces ecstasy rather than persuasion in
the hearer,” occasions a lack of self-control in the audience; the “amazement and wonder” it
provokes “exert invincible power and force and get the better of every hearer,” since,
“produced at the right moment,” sublimity “tears everything up like a whirlwind, and exhibits
the orator’s whole power at a single blow” (Longinus 1:4). The audience’s almost complete
identification with the speaker ensues: “It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true
sublimity. Filled with joy and pride, we come to believe we have created what we have only
heard” (Longinus 7:2). This whirlwind must strike every time the sublime passage in question
is read or heard, for Longinus contends that “real sublimity contains much food for reflection,
is difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the
memory” (Longinus 7:4). Thus, the sublime as expressed through language—characterized by
its immediacy, excess, self-displacement, aggression, and a communion between the speaker
and audience—must withstand the alienating force of time and prompt future hearers or readers

2
Since I am not concerned with the genesis of On Sublimity, I will refer to the author of the
treatise as “Longinus.”
3
I provide the sections and subsections of Russell’s translation in parentheses.
16

to reflect upon its import. The audience’s identification with the speaker and the sublime
passage’s spellbinding appeal, however, both rest on Longinus’ contentious notion of taste,
which he defines in passing at the end of section seven:
In a word, reckon those things which please everybody all the time as genuinely and
finely sublime. When people of different training, way of life, tastes, age and manners
all agree about something, the judgement and assent, as it were, of so many distinct
voices lends strength and irrefutability to the conviction that their admiration is rightly
directed. (Longinus 7:4)

Taste remains one of the more vulnerable points in subsequent articulations of the sublime. The
difficulty in objectively grounding Longinus’ argument in defence of the universality of taste is
tied to the fact that, since the sublime is not a property of language (it is not objectively
demonstrable), but a quality inherent in our humanity, its identification depends on implicit
culturally and historically specific values shared by the audience. Fry accurately observes of
the Longinian sublime that “taste can be defined, very plausibly, as a superior force of habit, an
informed, at least partly voluntary self-hypnosis” (Fry 75).
Nobility of soul, by far the most important quality a writer must possess, informs the five
sources of sublimity. As an innate characteristic susceptible of cultivation and development, it
presupposes the first two sources of the sublime: the speaker’s ability to form grand
conceptions and be inspired by powerful emotions. Longinus’ formulation of this primary
source of sublimity as an a priori human characteristic has several implications: first, it sets the
Longinian sublime apart from previous definitions of the grand style as a purely rhetorical
trope; second, it both situates the sublime’s point of origin outside of language and adds a
moral dimension to the sublime; third, it allows the sublime to manifest itself through silence,
as exemplified in the reference Longinus makes to Ajax in the Odyssey (however, we are made
aware of Ajax’s silence by means of Homer’s words). In spite of its importance, nobility of
soul alone does not suffice: Longinus expounds two requisite criteria to supplement this innate
gift. On the one hand, since a noble mind—the only mind capable of producing the sublime—
is necessarily devoid of baseness and depravity,4 writers must train their minds to form grand
conceptions by “mak[ing] them always pregnant with noble thoughts” (Longinus 9:1). On the
other hand, a thorough command of language, the medium in which sublimity is
communicated, is equally important; as Longinus remarks, “nothing is possible without it”
(Longinus 8:1). Thus, in Longinus’ view, sublimity is the ultimate human attribute that is given
full expression by the knowledge and discrete application of rhetorical tropes and figures,

4
Longinus affirms that “sublimity is the echo of a noble mind […] Those whose thoughts and
habits all their lives are trivial and servile cannot possibly produce anything admirable or worthy
of eternity. Words will be great if thoughts are weighty” (Longinus 9:2-3).
17

according to certain conventions that are, as will be shown, difficult to ascertain. To put it
another way, one must be sublime to be able to communicate sublimity, and one must master
the art of rhetoric to be capable of conveying sublimity to the audience. As Olson astutely
observes, “Art thus in a sense is a double discipline, being both moral and aesthetic; but its
literary function is ultimately only to provide some suitable medium which the spirit of the
writer transcends and illuminates” (Olson 258). Longinus is consequently justified in
privileging instances of “grandeur attended by some faults of execution” over “a modest
success of impeccable soundness”; the former are preferable “if for no other reason, because of
the greatness of spirit they reveal” (Longinus 31:1; 31:4).
Longinus’ lengthy discussion of the other three sources of sublimity that pertain directly
to language—the proper formation of “certain kinds of figures (these may be divided into
figures of thought and figures of speech),” “noble diction,” and “dignified and elevated word-
arrangement” (Longinus 8:1)—is arguably the most controversial part of the treatise. Contrary
to Olson’s point of view, as far as offering the “practical help” Longinus claims his
predecessor, Cecilius, failed to provide, his attempt to indicate “how and by what methods we
can achieve” sublimity in discourse necessarily falls short of this aim (Longinus 1:1). As Fry
notes, “the sublime cannot be taught as a rhetoric” (Fry 72). No hard and fast rule can exist to
determine how to use each trope to guarantee “some degree of greatness” (Longinus 1:1). That
is why Longinus qualifies each illustration he provides of a particular figure with exceptions
and cautions:
All […] lapses from dignity arise in literature through a single cause: that desire for
novelty of thought which is all the rage today. Evils often come from the same source
as blessings; and so, since beauty of style, sublimity, and charm all conduce to
successful writing, they are also causes and principles not only of success but of
failure. (Longinus 5:0)

The chief point of interest in Longinus’ discussion of the remaining three sources of sublimity,
therefore, has less to do with the particulars of the advice he dispenses than with the principles
underlying the effect he is trying to achieve. Longinus makes it evident that it is the union of
nature and art that occasions the sublime: “Art is perfect when it looks like nature, nature is
felicitous when it embraces concealed art” (Longinus 22:1); since what he calls “nature” is
privileged over art, all use of tropes and diction must seem candid and spontaneous, without
exceeding the bounds of credibility (Longinus 15:8). The sublime, moreover, must be
grounded in realism, as Longinus’ persistent critique of Homer’s Odyssey demonstrates. As a
result, in the lengthy examples of how to make correct use of figures, tropes, and diction, it is
clear that all sources of the sublime are co-dependent and it is the sum of the parts that forms
18

the whole. “To see in Longinus’ treatment of figures and diction simply one more catalogue of
linguistic devices is to misunderstand his argument,” explains Lawrence Kerslake: “The result
is to find in his treatise a dichotomy between the natural and the technical, the aesthetic and the
rhetorical” (Kerslake, Essays on the Sublime 31). Longinus’ notion of unity is one whose light5
obfuscates the audience’s perception of its constitutive pieces and the artifice required to
achieve a sublime effect: “As fainter lights disappear when the sunshine surrounds them, so the
sophisms of rhetoric are dimmed when they are enveloped in encircling grandeur” (Longinus
17:2). To elaborate:
I come now to a principle of particular importance for lending grandeur to our words.
The beauty of the body depends on the way in which the limbs are joined together,
each one when severed from the others having nothing remarkable about it, but the
whole together forming a perfect unity. Similarly great thoughts which lack connexion
are themselves wasted and waste the total sublime effect, whereas if they co-operate to
form a unity and are linked by the bonds of harmony, they come to life and speak just
by virtue of the periodic structure. (Longinus 40:1)

The Fiat lux passage cited by Longinus is a fitting example of his understanding of the
sublime. It translates into language the noblest conception the human mind can form, the power
of the Divine Being, in a simple and direct manner whose brevity is inversely proportional to
the magnitude of the power unleashed. According to Longinus, it “represent[s] divinity as
genuinely unsoiled and great and pure” (Longinus 9:8).
In spite of this emblematic example of divine creation, what are we to make of the
majority of the excerpts Longinus discusses? Fry observes that “the sublime seems always to
have been viewed as a trial confrontation with death” (Fry 78); Deguy echoes this sentiment
when he declares that “la condition mortelle et le moment du périr sont en jeu avec le sublime”
(Deguy 17). It is of paramount significance that the treatise, which reveals a deep nostalgia for
a bygone era, was written in response to the decadence Longinus attributes to the Greek people
during his epoch; it would seem that decadence and abjection are integral components of the
Longinian sublime. The complementarity of nature and art that Longinus establishes as the
foundation of the sublime appears to suggest this: “Sublimity and emotion are a defence and a
wonderful aid against the suspicion which the use of figures engenders. The artifice of the trick
is lost to sight in the surrounding brilliance of beauty and grandeur, and it escapes all
suspicion” (Longinus 17:2). This remark unequivocally associates the sublime with deception.
The sublime, as Longinus is eager to tell us in the first chapter, does not persuade, but

5
It is significant, in comparison to Burke especially, that the Longinian sublime privileges light
over obscurity: “The choice of correct and magnificent words is a source of immense power to
entice and charm the hearer […] It is indeed true that beautiful words are the light that
illuminates thought” (Longinus 30:1 [emphasis added]).
19

entrances; the figures’ ruse must be complete and undetectable, otherwise we risk arousing the
audience’s wrath. Longinus admonishes that this is particularly true if the listeners happen to
be absolute rulers such as kings and despots. Their reactions to the “suspicion of a trap, a deep
design, [and] fallacy” the sublime engenders are quite extreme: “He takes the fallacy as
indicating contempt for himself. He becomes like a wild animal. Even if he controls his temper,
he is now completely conditioned against being convinced by what is said” (Longinus 17:1).
The usurpation of power attempted by the speaker is lost because it is discovered by the
audience. When the sublime succeeds, the self-displacement occasioned by the speaker’s
words is so complete that the audience remains entirely unaware of it, to the point of
recognizing the other as the self (Longinus 7:2). The manner in which the sublime enslaves the
unsuspecting hearer is manifestly abject: the stability of the self is surreptitiously disrupted,
merging the listener’s and the speaker’s identities. Nonetheless, what distinguishes the
Longinian sublime from the abject is the elation listeners feel in the instant of false self-
recognition prompted by the sublime, and their unqualified embracing of the usurper’s identity.
In another passage pertaining to the complementarity Longinus establishes between art
and nature, he compares what is kept out of sight, or obscured by the sublime, to the body’s
“private parts” (Longinus 43:5). Hertz’s explication of the original Greek wording is
particularly revealing of the specific aspects of nature art conceals. Although Longinus uses the
plural ta apporeta, signifying “those unmentionable parts,” Hertz points out the significance of
the noun’s singular form, to apporeton: “The noun can mean that which is forbidden, the
unspeakable, a state secret, hence something mystical and sacred” (Hertz 18). The “private
parts” Longinus mentions should not be concealed merely out of modesty; these abject orifices
represent a taboo, a forbidden source of sacred power. As the analogy in section 13 of On
Sublimity affirms, it is from sacred orifices that the sublime’s “divine vapour” originates
(Longinus 13:2). When figures succeed in obscuring nature’s forbidden parts—when figures
signify—“the combination of [nature and art] may well be perfection” (Longinus 36:4). Hence,
the abject is “sublimated”—it is reintegrated into a signifying system. Conversely, when
figures fail by drawing attention to their materiality and to their function as signs—when the
unmentionable of nature comes into view—the body of sublimity is fragmented and its unity is
disrupted: it is abject.
Longinus’ On Sublimity provides the blueprint for subsequent notions of sublimity, and
its influence cannot be underestimated. Since it is a quality intrinsic to humanity and not an
objectively verifiable property of language, the Longinian sublime exists only within a
relational structure, that of speaker-text-author governing Longinus’ five sources of sublimity.
20

With Burke and Kant, the sublime preserves its essential structure as a mediatory principle,
transforming into a relation between the senses and external objects in Burke, and sensible and
intelligible objects in Kant. Furthermore, the prevailing emotions of pleasure and pain that
buttress the movement of elevation Longinus attributes to the sublime—characterized by
aggression on the part of the speaker, as well as the displacement and problematic
reconstitution of the listener’s self—are underscored in Burke and Kant, becoming the pain and
pleasure dichotomy in which their respective notions of sublimity are grounded. Likewise, both
the Longinian sublime’s negativity and its immediacy remain central to its re-articulation as an
aesthetic category whose ultimate purpose is to compel the subject to reflect upon his own
existence. Finally, the problematic a priori notion of consensus Longinus establishes as
requisite to any recognition of the sublime remains fundamentally unadulterated in both Burke
and Kant; as the ensuing discussion will demonstrate, their notions are also developed within a
moral framework, whereas the universality of the judgment of taste continues to be contingent
upon unverifiable arguments.
Nonetheless, there exists a crucial distinction between the Longinian sublime and
sublimity defined as an aesthetic category: the former is a means to an end, this end being the
elevation of the human spirit through the communion the sublime occasions between the noble
mind of the sublime orator and his audience. In contrast, the Burkean and Kantian sublimes are
ends in themselves, in the sense that the aesthetic experience provided by their notions of
sublimity draws our attention to the humanity within us. “In bringing the death instinct rather
than the pleasure principle close to the surface,” however, the Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian
sublimes “risk the irresponsible and exhibitionistic courtship of danger” (Fry 79). The peril
here is none other than that of falling over the precipice into abjection. The Longinian sublime
escapes on account of the finely balanced, complementary relation he establishes between
nature and art, as well as the nobility of character it presupposes in the speaker.

The Burkean Sublime: Sublime Terror or Abject Horror?


In his influential treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime
and Beautiful (1757), Burke posits the sublime as an aesthetic category opposed to the
beautiful. Instead of arising from the interaction between two human beings through the
medium of an utterance, the sublime is the outcome of the relation between a viewing subject
and an object (from here on the sense of sight is privileged above others in the sublime). Since
Burke espouses an empiricist viewpoint, he sets out to demonstrate how aesthetic judgments
are a product of our senses’ response to stimuli; any cognitive activity occurs a posteriori
21

because the human mind does not possess a predetermined structure that would interpret the
stimuli in a given way. His treatise therefore attempts to classify the sensations certain kinds of
external objects produce and explain their respective effects on the body and mind; it amounts
to a quixotic task in light of the sheer excess of categories Burke establishes and their
resistance to precise definition.6 The impact of Burke’s idea of the sublime, however, cannot be
overestimated. For example, in his analysis of specific eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century
paintings that depict apocalyptic subjects and their relation to the Burkean sublime, Morton D.
Paley affirms that by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, “Burke’s ideas were as
generally familiar as Freud’s are today,” and that “Burke’s notion of the sublime passed into
the general intellectual currency of the age, and it turned out to be as applicable to the visual
arts as it was to the literary texts that Burke himself used as examples” (Paley, The Apocalyptic
Sublime 1, 2).
Twentieth-century critics nevertheless have not failed to observe the problems posed by
Burke’s strategy: in spite of attributing originality to Burke’s method,7 in his historical analysis
of Burke’s treatise Samuel H. Monk apologizes for “the crudeness of [Burke’s] attempt,”
conceding that it “may be excused by recalling Burke’s youth and the difficulty in pioneering”8
(Monk 161). In his exploration of the ideological underpinnings of Burke’s aesthetics, W. J. T.
Mitchell is both generous and incisive when he attributes the opacity of Burke’s categories to
“the principle of dialectical reversal, a process in which oppositions seem to change places”
(Mitchell, Iconology 128). In the introduction to the 1990 Oxford edition of Burke’s treatise,
Adam Phillips is more sceptical of Burke’s ability to navigate his own categories, and argues

6
Samuel Monk provides a historical justification for the profusion of categories in Burke’s treatise,
explaining that “the vagueness of past speculations impels [Burke] to that thorough and minute
analysis which characterizes his work, and which leads him into statements that are often absurd”;
absurdities notwithstanding, from a historical perspective Burke’s Enquiry remains “one of the
most important aesthetic documents that eighteenth-century England produced” (Monk, The
Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England, 86, 87).
7
“[Burke] does not seek sublimity by way of the well-beaten path that led through Boileau to
Longinus. He, too, is standing aside from tradition, is eager to study the problem realistically, and
consequently he boldly takes the discussion into the realm of the psychological and the physical”;
Monk later concedes that the temptation to ridicule Burke’s system “is irresistible to anyone who
does not study the Enquiry in its historical relation to aesthetic thought in general” (Monk 106,
161).
8
Monk takes the Kantian sublime to be the apex against which he measures all previous treatises
on sublimity; as a result, his observations on Burke’s contribution to studies on the sublime—or
any one else’s, for that matter—need to be taken with a measure of caution. As Kerslake observes
of Monk’s study: “The unacceptably teleological aspect of Monk’s approach is laid bare by the
assertion that ‘eighteenth-century aesthetic has as its unconscious goal the Critique of Judgment’
(p.6). The Critique acts thus as the final cause determining the development of earlier writings on
the sublime, and texts are viewed favorably or unfavorably to the extent that they approach or fall
short of a Kantian subjectivism” (Kerslake 17).
22

that “Burke was drawn to the clarity of opposition, but the Enquiry became an ominous critique
of the possibility of clarity” (Phillips, Introduction xv). To illustrate just how elastic Burke’s
categories are in the context of his explications of beauty’s and sublimity’s effects on the body,
Suzanne Guerlac argues that “beauty itself becomes a terrifying idea and hence a source of
sublimity” (Guerlac, The Impersonal Sublime 95). My point in outlining Burke’s
understanding of sublimity is twofold: to underscore its relation to the Longinian and Kantian
sublimes and to show how the distance separating the Burkean sublime from an experience of
the abject is a slight one. Were it not for his recourse to the Deity as the origin of the sublime,
Burke’s focus on the materiality of phenomena would suggest that he posits the feeling of
delight in terms analogous to an experience of the abject. Put another way, without the idea of
God as a guarantor, what determines that sublimity and not abjection is the source of the
“delightful horror” (Burke II.VIII.67) 9 we feel when confronted with objects which exhibit the
objective properties he lists?
The foundation of Burke’s argument rests on his re-articulation of Locke’s assessment of
the interdependence of pleasure and pain. Burke refutes Locke’s line of reasoning by
convincingly demonstrating that pleasure and pain are positive principles operating
independently, where the mediatory principle of stasis, or in Burke’s terms, “indifference,”
stands between them (Burke, Enquiry I.II.30). This indifference is the foundation of sensation,
marking the absence of pleasure or pain. It allows Burke to reason that no removal of pain is
necessary to allow a person to experience pleasure, and no addition of pleasure is required to
stop the feeling of pain. More importantly, it is precisely through the latter distinction, where
the cessation of pain does not necessarily issue from or occasion positive pleasure, that Burke
formulates his understanding of the sublime. Whereas the positive pleasure we experience from
the beautiful10 inspires a kind of ideal love free of lust and causes our bodies to relax, the
sublime, on the other hand, in exciting terror and causing the body to contract, elicits a
negative pleasure Burke calls “delight.” In a telling example of a person’s state of mind “upon
escaping some imminent danger or on being released from the severity of some cruel pain,”
Burke holds that rather than inspiring a feeling of positive pleasure, flight from such
circumstances rouses a passion he defines as “delight,” characterized by “much sobriety,

9
I provide the part number, followed by the section number and the page number when citing
Burke.
10
Although Burke attempts rigorously to maintain the distinctions he creates between the sublime
and the beautiful, their correspondences are difficult to ignore: “Both are coercive, irresistible,
and a species of seduction. The Sublime is a rape, Beauty is a lure. Both the Sublime and the
Beautiful induce a state of submission that is often combined with the possibility of getting lost.
They disorientate and undermine purpose” (Phillips xxiii).
23

impressed with a sense of awe [...] a sort of tranquility shadowed with horror” (Burke I.III.32).
Burke’s notion of the sublime is grounded in negativity: delight is distinguished from positive
pleasure because it is dependent upon the feeling of pain. It is the pleasure obtained from the
removal of pain or danger, creating an objective distance between the experiencing self and the
cause of the sensation. Delight, however, is not to be mistaken for sublimity: according to
Burke’s definition of the sublime, the object that excites delight is sublime. Unlike Longinus’
definition of sublimity, where a text will inspire a sense of the sublime because of the nobility
of the author’s soul it communicates to its reader, in Burkean terms, sublimity is a quality
inherent in the object capable of exciting delight in the experiencing self: “Whatever excites
this delight, I call sublime” (Burke I.XVIII.47).
Taste, which Burke defines as “no more than that faculty, or those faculties of the mind
which are affected with, or which form a judgment of the works of imagination and the elegant
arts,” is universal (Burke, Introduction: On Taste 13). In spite of exceptions resulting from
customs that run counter to the “natural pleasures,” from a disorder of the senses, or simply
from wrong taste, Burke reasons that “the standard both of reason and Taste is the same in all
human creatures,” since we all possess the same sensory organs and are roused by stimuli in
similar ways (Burke, Introduction 14, 11). Thus, Burke maintains that although there are
differences of taste in the degree of affection from person to person, differences that arise
“either from a greater degree of natural sensibility, or from a closer and longer attention to the
object,” insofar “as Taste is natural, it is nearly common to all” (Burke, Introduction 21, 20).
He reasons that
Taste, in its most general acceptation, is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a
perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the
imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various
relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners and actions. All this is
requisite to form Taste, and the ground-work of all these is the same in the human
mind; for as the senses are the great originals of all our ideas, and consequently of all
our pleasures, if they are not uncertain and arbitrary, the whole ground-work of Taste
is common to all, and therefore there is a sufficient foundation for a conclusive
reasoning on these matters. (Burke, Introduction 22 [emphasis added])

Thus, contrary to Longinus and Kant, Burke determines the universality of taste on empirical
grounds. He does concede, however, and in a manner common to the other two notions of
sublimity in question, that our taste can be improved upon by “extending our knowledge, by a
steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise” (Burke, Introduction 25).
The import Burke ascribes to the natural in his defence of the universality of the
judgment of taste anticipates the distinction he creates between the sublime in nature and in art:
he contends that nature’s capacity to inspire delight is immediate and overwhelming, since it
24

appeals to humanity’s instinct of self-preservation; conversely, art can rouse delight only
indirectly, by representing objects that are terror-inducing in nature. The underlying argument
can be summed up in the following terms: the more true a likeness the representation, the more
likely it is to inspire delight. The arts, specifically the representative arts such as painting,
evidently remain at a disadvantage. Language constitutes an interesting exception, whose non-
mimetic opacity Burke praises as perhaps capable of exciting a delight greater than nature
itself:
[Words] seem to me to affect us in a manner very different from that in which we are
affected by natural objects, or by painting or architecture; yet words have as
considerable a share in exciting ideas of beauty and of the sublime as any of those, and
sometimes a much greater than any of them. (Burke V.I.149)

The underlying rationale behind this stress on language’s power lies in its proximity to one of
the paramount sources of the sublime: obscurity.
In light of the centrality of the physical sensation of pain in Burke’s articulation of the
sublime, it is not surprising that terror (synonymous with fear in Burke’s treatise), the
prevailing emotion in inciting the instinct of self-preservation and consequently one of “the
most powerful of all the passions,” is so important (Burke I.VI.35). As “an apprehension of
pain or death, [fear] operates in a manner that resembles actual pain” (Burke II.II.53); an object
that elicits fear, specifically in the form of astonishment, is sublime for Burke, insofar as
the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by
consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of
the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and
hurries us on by an irresistible force. (Burke II.I.53)

The sublime is the antithesis of reason: in overwhelming the subject’s senses, it “robs the mind
of all its powers of acting and reasoning” (Burke II.II.53). The basis of the sublime’s
compelling power is one of sensory privation: Burke privileges sight over other senses for its
apparent immediacy, which he equates with a proximity to “the original natural causes of
pleasure”11 and pain: “Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too,
whether this cause of terror, [sic] be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is
impossible to look on any thing as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous” (Burke
II.II.53). In nature, Burke lists might, obscurity, and infinity as principal sources of terror that
arguably encompass all other sources he cites. As a source of terror, Burke defines might in

11
In the introduction on taste, Burke explicitly gives priority to sight above all other senses: “The
pleasures of the sight are not near so complicated, and confused, and altered by unnatural habits
and associations, as the pleasures of the Taste are; because the pleasures of the sight more
commonly acquiesce in themselves; and are not so often altered by considerations which are
independent of the sight itself” (Burke, Introduction 15).
25

terms of a dichotomy of mastery and subservience akin to what one finds in the Longinian
sublime; however, in Burke it is generally a question of potential material enslavement rather
than a loss of identity. When it is beyond our power to resist something in nature, and we will
forcibly be subjected to a greater power—“For pleasure must be stolen [...] but pain is always
inflicted by a power in some way superior”—the threat posed by might is a source of the
sublime: “Strength, violence, pain, and terror are ideas that rush in upon the mind together”
(Burke II.V.60). Thus, whenever strength suggests that it will not be servile to our desires and
“act in conformity to our will,” but would instead destroy us, it is sublime (Burke II.V.61).
The Enquiry’s exhaustive sources of fear, symptomatic of Burke’s unsuccessful attempt
to contain his categories, are subsumed by three dominant properties. Might and infinity both
anticipate Kant’s dynamical and mathematical sublimes. Obscurity, on the other hand, marks a
pronounced shift away from the Longinian notion of sublimity, which privileges light and its
attending connotations such as enlightenment, elevation, and, ultimately, divinity. Nonetheless,
to construct a binary opposition between the Longinian and Burkean perspectives on light and
obscurity would be an oversimplification of their respective positions: we must keep in mind
that the blinding force Longinus attributes to light can be interpreted as a kind of obscurity.
Obscurity, on the other hand, is a paramount source of the sublime, and is intimately linked to
infinity in Burke: it does not simply suggest visual privation, but intellectual blindness as well.
Of obscurity, Burke holds that “when we know the full extent of any danger, when we
can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of apprehension vanishes” (Burke II.III.54). Yet,
in utter darkness, it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand; we are
ignorant of the objects that surround us; we may every moment strike against some
dangerous obstruction; we may fall down a precipice the first step we take; and if an
enemy approach, we know not in what quarter to defend ourselves; in such a case
strength is no sure protection; wisdom can only act by guess; the boldest are staggered,
and he who would pray for nothing else towards his defence, is forced to pray for light.
(Burke IV.XIV.130)

Here Burke explicitly refers to a citation from the Iliad central to Longinus’ analysis of
sublimity: in the Greeks’ battle against the Trojans, Ajax asks Zeus for light so that he can
continue fighting. Longinus’ interpretation of this passage focuses on the nobility of character
expressed through Ajax’s request, as a source of the sublime: “He does not pray for life—that
would be a request unworthy of a hero—but having no good use for his courage in the
paralysis of darkness, and so angered at his inactivity in the battle, he asks for light, and
quickly: he will at all costs find a shroud worthy of his valour, though Zeus be arrayed against
him” (Longinus 9:10). Burke views the call for light as a consequence of the sublime, not its
cause. Undoubtedly, the relevance of obscurity to the Burkean sublime cannot be
26

overestimated. Notwithstanding one of the many examples of dialectical reversal observed by


Mitchell, wherein Burke concedes to light the ability to inspire delight in exceedingly restricted
circumstances,12 Burke manages to convert light “by its very excess,” “into darkness,” and
defends his position by means of a physiological argument whose metaphorical implications
are fully explored in his justification of infinity as a source of the sublime: “Extreme light, by
overcoming the organs of sight, obliterates all objects, so as in its effect exactly to resemble
darkness” (Burke II.XIV.74).
Infinity, furthermore, is akin to obscurity since it presupposes the boundlessness of
objects in our immediate apprehension: “To see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds,
is one and the same thing,” “but the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things,
they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so” (Burke
II.IV.58, II.VIII.67). Nonetheless, the power of the notion of infinity lies in our mind’s
inability to grasp its full meaning: “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration
[...] The ideas of eternity, and infinity, are among the most affecting we have, and yet perhaps
there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity” (Burke
II.IV.57). By grounding epistemology on sight—we cannot know what we cannot see—Burke
concludes, in a statement that is decidedly antithetical to the view of sublimity espoused by
Longinus, that “a clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea” (Burke II.IV.58). That is
why Burke praises poetry above other arts; its negativity renders it obscure:13 “So that poetry
with all its obscurity, has a more general as well as a more powerful dominion over the
passions than the other art [Burke is referring to painting]” (Burke II.IV.57).
Secondary to the intense passions occasioned by the instinct of self-preservation are
those roused by what Burke distinguishes as society: society of the sexes and society in
general. Society of the sexes is quickly dismissed for its inability to inspire delight, since its
chief objective, according to Burke, is procreation, consequently allying it with “gratifications
and pleasures” (Burke I.VIII.37). Society in general, on the other hand, can excite delight
indirectly, according to the three following categories: imitation, sympathy, and ambition. The

12
“Mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind, and without a strong
impression nothing can be sublime. But such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the
eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea. Light of an inferior strength to this, if it
moves with great celerity, has the same power; for lighting is certainly productive of grandeur,
which it owes chiefly to the extreme velocity of its motion” (Burke II.XIV.73).
13
Monk explains the historical significance of Burke’s privileging of obscurity over clarity as a
decisive repudiation of the aesthetic qualities favoured by neoclassicism: “Burke’s objection to
clarity, his insistence on the essential pettiness of ideas that reason can grasp, arises from his
preoccupation with the non-rational element in art” (Monk 94).
27

first two sources of delight occasioned by society, imitation and sympathy, are analogous. The
first, imitation, functions in a way similar to sympathy: “As sympathy makes us take concern
in whatever men feel, so this affection prompts us to copy whatever they do; and consequently
we have a pleasure in imitating” (Burke I.XVI.45). The arts are subsumed under the category
of imitation, and true likeness to nature is Burke’s dominant aesthetic criterion. He affirms of
tragedy: “The nearer it approaches to reality, and the further it removes us from all idea of
fiction, the more perfect is its power” (Burke I.XV.43). A real tragic spectacle commands more
of our interest than a fictitious mise en scène. The crux of Burke’s ideas on art as imitation lies
in the distinction he draws between objects in nature that, on the one hand, have no intrinsic
sublimity and, on the other hand, are inherently sublime: the first can become sublime through
artful imitation, whereas the second do not need the support of imitation to explain their
appeal, since they are self-sufficient (Burke I.XVI.45). Imitation hence underscores the notion
that Burkean sublimity is an objective quality.
Burke defines sympathy, the second source of delight occasioned by society, as a kind of
substitution “by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects
as he is affected” (Burke I.XIII.41). If a person is afflicted by a grave loss or pain, our
sympathy for that person’s situation and the fact that the tragedy did not occur to us inspire
delight.14 The reason we are fascinated by others’ misfortunes lies in the fact that “the pain we
feel” on such occasions “prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer” (Burke
I.XIV.43); thus, a moral feeling is roused within us by the witnessing of a tragic occurrence
from a safe distance. There would be, however, a subversive context to sympathy, if it were not
inscribed in the Christian context of Burke’s argument. Burke defines curiosity as “whatever
desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in novelty,” and states that “curiosity blends
itself more or less with all our passions”; he argues that we are prompted to seek stimuli for our
passions beyond “those things which a daily and vulgar use have brought into a stale
unaffecting familiarity” (Burke I.I.29). Others’ calamities, a thrill in which Burke’s spectator
infrequently engages, can easily be included in things that transcend the “unaffecting
familiarity” of everyday life; in such a light the category of sympathy appears far from
virtuous, and can be construed as a voyeuristic, thrill-seeking experience at the expense of the
other. In the broader context of eighteenth-century thought, this explanation is not limited to

14
The idea of being able to appreciate calamities in which we are not involved dates back
Lucretius’ De rerum natura, and it plays a major role in eighteenth-century aesthetic thought; see,
for instance, J.-B. Du Bos’ Réflexions critiques (1719).
28

the sublime; for example, Du Bos discusses the attraction of gladiatorial combats. Burke has
applied a widespread idea to the specific phenomenon of the sublime.
In contrast, ambition, “whatever either on good or upon bad grounds tends to raise a man
in his own opinion, produces a sort of swelling and triumph that is extremely grateful to the
human mind” (Burke I.XVII.46), drives us to excel in tasks valued by our peers, and thus
breaks the circular constraints of imitation. By means of his assimilation of an aspect of
Longinian sublimity, Burke affirms that “this swelling is never more perceived, nor operates
with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects, the mind
always claiming to itself some part of the dignity and importance of the things which it
contemplates” (Burke I.XVII.46). Instead of the communion that arises between the listener
and the noble mind of the orator as a consequence of the former’s identification with the
latter’s utterance, in Burke we see, as Linda Marie Brooks explains it, “the self’s exaltation [...]
brought about almost exclusively by the imagination, through whose boundless activity we
seem to ascend or expand to meet the sublime object, and to embrace, ultimately, the divine”
(Brooks, The Menace of the Sublime 18). According to Brooks, the imagination’s power
constitutes, moreover, a decisive difference that sets the Burkean sublime apart from Kantian
sublimity and defines the former as a “positive” theory of the sublime: “Confronted with the
sublime object, the subject’s imagination responds actively, positively, and effectively”
(Brooks 19). Furthermore, although the imagination “cannot produce a sensible image, or
cannot ground a rational cognition of the sublime force that confounds our empirical
perception, it nevertheless ‘lifts’ us through its labor and creates a process of transcendence by
which we meet and participate in the overwhelming object” (Brooks 19).
Although the Burkean sublime is inscribed in a dynamic of vertical movement, it is akin
to the abject in that its effects on the subject are equally subversive. The structure of Burke’s
argument, specifically the “dialectical reversal” Mitchell identifies, is a symptom of the
confluence of the abject and sublime at work in the Enquiry, a confluence where, in Burke’s
own words, “two ideas as opposite as can be imagined [are] reconciled in the extremes of both;
and both in spite of their opposite nature [are] brought to concur in producing the sublime [...]
which in all things abhors mediocrity” (Burke II.XIV.74). Burke’s formulation of sublimity
focuses exclusively on the materiality of phenomena and on the moment of terror, a moment
that awakens our instinct of self-preservation. As Saint Girons observes, “Burke a beau
professer la foi chrétienne, il élabore une théorie de l’origine du sublime, sans recourir à Dieu
autrement qu’occasionnellement, parce qu’il s’interroge sur les causes efficientes, et non sur la
cause finale du sublime” (Saint Girons 32 [emphasis added]). Is not the fear attendant on the
29

sublime prompted by a species of abjection, a sensation that marks the subject’s attempt to
separate himself from phenomena he cannot control or contain?15 Obscurity and infinity
converge on the limits of a subject’s knowledge, and the fear of being overpowered that
grounds the Burkean sublime implies a loss of selfhood. However, the major distinction that
separates abjection and the Burkean sublime lies in what the sublime attributes of objects and
the delight they occasion signify: according to Burke, they are symptoms of the Divine will.
Hence, the “delightful horror” (Burke, II.VIII.67) Burkean sublimity occasions after the
sublime turn signals the subject’s re-incorporation of the abject into a signifying system.

The Kantian Sublime: At the Limits of the Experiencing Subject


The aesthetic category of the sublime is briefly defined by Immanuel Kant in the first section
of the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790); the beautiful, by comparison, is Kant’s main
concern in his critique of aesthetic judgment. Within the larger context of his critical
philosophy, which sought to rescue the possibility of metaphysics from empiricist scepticism
and dogmatic rationalism, Kant defends immanent metaphysics by means of the notion of a
priori judgments (knowable independently of experience), such as time and space, that give
form to our intuition of the phenomenal world. Although the Kantian system precludes the
possibility of any sort of transcendent or suprasensible knowledge of the world, Kant creates an
analogy between his approach and Copernicus’ revolution in astronomy regarding the impact
of a priori forms of cognition on determining what can be known: instead of following the
empiricist claim that our minds conform to objects, Kant posits that objects must necessarily
conform to the a priori structure of our minds. Although the notion of “real” objects is
maintained, it plays no part in “accounting for the possibility of objects for us” (Gardner, Kant
and the Critique of Pure Reason 39). Thus, Kant is recognized in current criticism as a
philosopher of limits, because his metaphysics determines the boundaries of epistemology.
Arguably, the function of aesthetic judgments of the beautiful and the sublime is to ground
Kant’s moral imperative and the possibility of God in our relation to the world.

15
This is especially significant for Burke’s section XXI of Part Two titled “Smell and Taste: Bitters
and Stenches.” I question how “excessive bitters and intolerable stenches” can produce “a grand
sensation” akin to the sublime (Burke II.XXI.78). Burke claims that “when they are moderated, as
in a description or narrative, they become sources of the sublime as genuine as any other, and
upon the very same principle of a moderated pain” (Burke II.XXI.78). Gaining objective distance
from a foul smell or repugnant taste does not suggest sublimity, nor is “”the whole composition
supported with dignity” if the abject smell or taste is associated with “images of an allowed
grandeur” (Burke II.XXI.78); instead, a dialectical tension is produced. Here is an instance where
the trajectories of the sublime and the abject are confounded in Burke.
30

A pure aesthetic judgment of the beautiful in Kant refers not to a property an object
possesses, but to the viewing subject’s particular mental state prompted by his or her
disinterested contemplation of the form of a particular object in nature.16 For example, my
disinterested contemplation of a chrysanthemum (suggesting that I have no interest in the
flower’s existence,17 a premise that has been much contested by critics18) occasions my
imagination to combine my intuitions of the flower into a presentation. My imagination’s
presentation of the chrysanthemum harmonizes with the understanding; Kant calls this the
“free-play” of the cognitive powers (Kant §9:5:217)19; however, this does not cause the
imagination’s presentation to be subsumed under a concept, since a judgment of the beautiful
presupposes that the object’s purpose cannot be known.20 My aesthetic judgment of the
beautiful (as with aesthetic judgments in general) provides me with no knowledge of the
chrysanthemum, but only of my inner state, evidenced by the feeling of pleasure I experience
as a result of the free-play of my mental faculties. Thus the beautiful is reflective, since by
means of the pleasure I feel, I become aware of my cognitive powers: “A judgment of taste
[…] determines the object, independently of concepts, with regard to satisfaction and the
predicate of beauty. Thus that unity of the relation [between the cognitive powers] can make
itself known only through sensation” (Kant §9:5:219).

16
Kant privileges an object’s form over what he considers to be accessory attributes such as colour.
17
There are two kinds of aesthetic judgments: an aesthetic judgment of sense has to do with our
interest in an object and therefore pertains to the agreeable (for instance, we may judge an apple
agreeable because we are hungry, or we may judge a car pleasing because we wish to own it);
whereas the beautiful requires a pure aesthetic judgment of taste that is necessarily disinterested,
which supposes that we have no interest in the object beyond the pleasure we derive from judging
it to be beautiful. Moreover, the beautiful must be free of subjective interest otherwise it becomes
a judgment particular to the human being making the observation.
18
Mitchell claims that a disinterested aesthetic experience is impossible because it presupposes an
“innocent eye,” itself an ideal construct: “This sort of ‘pure’ visual perception, freed from
concerns with function, use, and labels, is perhaps the most sophisticated sort of seeing that we
do; it is not the natural thing that the eye does (whatever that would be). The ‘innocent eye’ is a
metaphor for a highly experienced and cultivated sort of vision” (Mitchell 118).
19
In parenthetical reference I provide the chapter, section, and subsection of Kant’s Third Critique.
20
Although the beautiful is not objectively purposive, Kant affirms that the pleasure we enjoy “has
a causality in itself, namely that of maintaining the state of the representation of the mind and the
occupation of the cognitive powers without a further aim. We linger over the consideration of the
beautiful because this consideration strengthens and reproduces itself” (Kant §12.5:222). Thus,
the beautiful is subjectively purposive. Kant explains the specific way in which the cognitive
powers harmonize in the following terms: “Taste, as a subjective power of judgment, contains a
principle of subsumption, not of intuitions under concepts, but of the faculty of intuitions or
presentations (i.e., of the imagination) under the faculty of concepts (i.e., the understanding),
insofar as the former in its freedom is in harmony with the latter in its lawfulness” (Kant
§35:5:527).
31

At this point, my perceiving and judging the chrysanthemum “with pleasure” “is an
empirical judgment” (Kant §37:5:289); nevertheless, Kant further ties the experience of
pleasure we derive from the mind’s active contemplation of the beautiful to a sense common to
all human beings, hence attributing a necessary yet subjective universality to pure aesthetic
judgments of taste.21 The premise for such universality is the assumption that since we all share
the same mental faculties as well as a priori forms of cognition, and pure aesthetic judgments
are a free-play of these same faculties (the imagination and understanding), then all human
beings ought to be capable of experiencing the pleasure derived from the harmony of these
mental powers. Since “the universal communicability of a feeling presupposes a common
sense,” Kant argues that “the latter must be able to be assumed with good reason, and indeed
without appeal to psychological observations” (Kant §21:5:239). The shared structure of our
minds consequently implies the possibility of a common sense, in which case my aesthetic
judgment of the chrysanthemum’s beauty is a priori because such a judgment of taste entitles
me to “require that satisfaction of everyone as necessary” (Kant §37:5:289). Marc Jimenez
explains Kant’s argument in the following terms: “Quand je dis: ‘ce poème, cet édifice sont
beaux,’ je m’adresse simplement au sens commun, en supposant chez chacun la même aptitude
à se représenter ce que je ressens” (Jimenez, Qu’est-ce que l’esthétique? 136). Aesthetic
judgments of taste are therefore universal, not because a particular object must inspire a sense
of the beautiful in all people, but because they suppose that all people are capable of
experiencing the beautiful. Kant’s notion of common sense is an ideal standard, in which my
singular judgment of the chrysanthemum as beautiful has “exemplary validity” (Kant
§22:5:240). Moreover, the common sense is necessarily a priori because a pure judgment of
taste demands the assent of everyone and cannot be made without recourse to this universal
agreement, since “only under the presupposition of such a common sense [...] can the judgment
of taste be made” (Kant §20:5:238).
One significant aspect of Kant’s notion of the common sense is akin to that of his
predecessors, Longinus and Burke: he cannot define taste as a fixed standard. Taste, whose
“judgment is not determinable by means of concepts and precepts” must be cultivated (Kant
§32:5:283): the grounds of its possibility lie in all of us, but to achieve pure judgments of taste,

21
Kant repeatedly stresses the point that “this universality cannot originate from concepts,”
explaining that “there is no transition from concepts to the feeling of pleasure or displeasure
(except in pure practical laws, which however bring with them an interest of the sort that is not
combined with the pure judgment of taste)” (Kant §6:5:212). It follows that, since a judgment of
taste involves the consciousness that all interest is kept out of it, it must also involve a claim to
being valid for everyone, but without having a universality based on concepts. In other words, a
judgment of taste must involve a claim to subjective universality (Kant §6:5:211).
32

to be able to declare something beautiful, we must train our minds in “the development of
moral ideas and the cultivation of the moral feeling” (Kant §60:5:356). This cultivation of
taste, moreover, is of extreme importance, since it binds Western culture by naturalizing its
moral values and social bonds, which Kant perceives as culturally superior to their antecedents.
Kant conveys this sentiment in a statement that echoes Longinus’ outlook in the last section of
his treatise: “Among all the faculties and talents, taste is precisely the one which […] is most in
need of the examples of what in the progress of culture has longest enjoyed approval if it is not
quickly to fall back into barbarism and sink back into the crudity of its first attempts” (Kant
§32:5:283).
As my example of the chrysanthemum demonstrates, the above elucidation is accurate
insofar as it relates to the beautiful in nature; however, Kant claims that a pure aesthetic
judgment of taste can also apply to art. The basic difference Kant posits between art and nature
is analogous to the distinction between an original and a copy: “A beauty of nature is a
beautiful thing; the beauty of art is a beautiful representation of a thing” (Kant §48:5:311). To
get around the fact that objects of art, unlike their originals in nature, are made with a specific
purpose in mind since they are created by human beings22 (this purpose being either to please
through the senses as with aesthetic art in general or, as with mechanical art, to perform “the
actions requisite to make [a possible object] actual” (Kant §44:5:305)), Kant not only
distinguishes between craft (labour that is a means to an end, not an end in itself), science
(knowledge and theory), and fine art, but devises the notion of genius through which he
grounds his understanding of fine art.
The category of fine art designates “a production through freedom, i.e., through a
capacity for choice that grounds its actions in reason” whose aim exceeds that of merely
providing sensory stimuli to the subject: it is fine art “if its end is that it accompany
[representations] as kinds of cognition” (Kant §43:5:303, §44:5:305). Ultimately, Kant defines
the category of fine art in accordance with the requirements he establishes for pure aesthetic
judgments of taste, asserting that fine art is “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself
and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for
sociable communication”(Kant §44:5:306). Thus, Kant declares the following, in a turn of
phrase that echoes Longinus’ explanation of the complementary relation shared by art and
nature: “Nature was beautiful, if at the same time it looked like art; and art can only be called

22
Therefore such objects cannot cause the imagination and understanding to harmonize because our
knowledge of the object’s purpose will cause our intuition of the object to be subsumed a priori
under a concept of the understanding.
33

beautiful if we are aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature” (Kant §45:5:306). To
get around the issue of fine art’s evident objective purpose as a result of its being crafted by
human hands, Kant maintains that although objects of fine art must necessarily be created
according to the precepts of academic rules and are consequently directed by an artist’s
acquisition of technique,23 they nonetheless exhibit a “spirit” that sets them apart. This spirit
Kant defines as “nothing other than the faculty for the presentation of aesthetic ideas,” a
capacity that only human beings blessed with genius possess (Kant §49:5:314).
The similarities between Kant’s understanding of fine art and Longinus’ notion of the
sublime are unmistakable. First, Kant maintains that an aesthetic idea is a “representation of the
imagination that occasions much thinking though without it being possible for any determinate
thought, i.e., concept, to be adequate to it”; it cannot be reduced to a mere proposition, since
“no language fully attains [it] or can make [it] intelligible” (Kant §49:5:314). As with the
Longinian sublime, an aesthetic idea for Kant provides, in the words of Longinus, “much food
for reflection” and will not, “when dissected, prove vain and hollow” (Longinus 7:1-2).
Second, Kant’s notion of genius, whose foremost quality is originality, and whose products
must be exemplary, serving others “as a standard or a rule for judging,” is nothing short of
nature working through the artist,24 “the talent (natural gift) that gives the rule to art” (Kant
§46:5:308, §46:5:307). This echoes what Fry affirms of Longinus’ notion of the sublime: “Art
cannot be an activity we perform but must be instead an activity that takes place in us—like
nature” (Fry 56). Kant’s notion of fine art agrees with Longinus’ claim that “there ought to be
something overlooked” in works of genius (Longinus 33:2); Kant echoes this sentiment when
he affirms that “the deviation from the common rule” suited to genius “remains in itself a
defect which one must seek to remove, but for which the genius is as it were privileged, since
what is inimitable in the impetus of his spirit would suffer from anxious caution” (Kant
§49:5:318). The function of taste, according to Kant, “like the power of judgment in general, is
the discipline (or corrective) of genius,” since it introduces “clarity and order into the
abundance of thoughts [thereby making] the ideas tenable, capable of an enduring and
universal approval” (Kant §50:5:319). The “sublime impulses” of Kant’s notion of genius
require, in Longinus’ words, “the curb as well as the spur” (Longinus 2:2). The following

23
Kant considers the artist’s acquisition of technique as requisite, otherwise the object of fine art is
merely the product of chance: “Genius can only provide rich material for products of art; its
elaboration and form require a talent that has been academically trained, in order to make a use of
it that can stand up to the power of judgment” (Kant §47:5:310).
24
Artists who possess genius, moreover, are utterly unaware of how they came by the ideas for their
work, nor would they be able “to communicate to others precepts that would put them in a
position to produce similar products” (Kant §46:5:308).
34

passage from Kant echoes in part the two principal categories from which the five sources of
the Longinian sublime spring: an innate gift and the mastery of rhetoric.
Thus genius really consists in the happy relation, which no science can teach and no
diligence learn, of finding ideas for a given concept on the one hand and on the other
[of] hitting upon the expression for these, through which the subjective disposition of
the mind that is thereby produced, as an accompaniment of a concept, can be
communicated to others. (Kant §49:5:317)

The similarities between the Longinian and Kantian sublimes cease at the point at which
Kant anchors genius in his Idealist metaphysics. Since the rules of fine art are imparted by
nature and not by the human being producing the work, Kant holds that they are discernable
only once the work is created; fine art, like nature, is not objectively purposive, since “the
concept of beautiful art […] does not allow the judgment concerning the beauty of its product
to be derived from any sort of rule that has a concept for its determining ground” (Kant
§46:5:307). Nevertheless, since it is defined as necessarily capable of evoking the free-play of
the subject’s imagination and understanding, fine art can therefore be judged aesthetically in
the same way as nature. Thus, fine art is created by nature and not the artist, who acts merely as
an intermediary between nature and the finished product; it is consequently “superhuman” and
necessarily beautiful, because it is judged by the viewer in the same way as a beautiful object
in nature (Kant §48:5:312).
Ultimately, Kant associates the beautiful with morality by means of an analogy,
maintaining that the beautiful is “the symbol of the morally good” (Kant §59:5:353). The two
are comparable in that the form of each reflection, and not their respective content, is
essentially the same: whereas the beautiful is disinterested, the interest connected with the
morally good proceeds from our judgment, and therefore can be considered as “disinterested”
to begin with; the beautiful engages the freedom of the imagination, and in a moral judgment
“the freedom of the will is conceived” (Kant §59:5:354); finally, both the beautiful and the
morally good are universal—the first, however, is not “knowable by any universal concept”
(Kant §59:5:354), whereas the second is. In addition, “since we do not find [the purpose of the
beautiful] anywhere outside us, we naturally look for it in ourselves; namely, in what
constitutes the ultimate purpose of our existence: our moral vocation” (Kant §42.168). Our
reason’s “totalizing function,” its constant search for final causes, inevitably leads us to
associate the beautiful with the morally good since the latter constitutes “the intelligible,
toward which […] taste looks, with which, namely, even our higher faculties of cognition
agree, and without which contradictions would emerge between their nature and the claims that
taste makes” (Kant §59:5:353). Two discernable consequences for aesthetic judgments of taste
35

arise from this apparently inexorable association, an association discernable also in Kant’s
notion of the sublime albeit for different reasons: on the one hand, we not only require the
assent of others when we judge something beautiful, but also oblige them to make the same
analogy between the beautiful and the morally good; on the other hand, to say that someone
has no taste is akin to claiming that person to have no moral scruples, since Kant upholds that
the mind “esteems the value of others in accordance with a similar maxim of their power of
judgment” (Kant §59:5:353).
There are telling differences between the Kantian notions of the beautiful and the
sublime: the first he associates with the furtherance of life as a result of the potentially endless
free-play in which the imagination and understanding engage, whereas the second he links to
death, based on the temporary check of the vital powers it induces; second, in contrast to the
beautiful, the sublime is not considered by Kant to be a judgment of taste since, as a
consequence of the emotion to which it gives rise, in which “agreeableness is produced only by
means of a momentary inhibition followed by a stronger outpouring of the vital force,” the
sublime requires “another standard for judging than that on which taste is grounded” (Kant
§14:5:226). Nevertheless, both aesthetic categories share analogous structures. Both require
singular, disinterested judgments of reflection whose feelings of pleasure are necessarily
universally valid, and both refer the imagination to indeterminate concepts (of the
understanding in the case of the beautiful, and of reason with regard to the sublime). In a
suggestive passage concerning the type of viewing required for the sublime, Kant likens our
disinterestedness to the poetic gaze, where concern for the object’s purposes is excluded; using
the sea as an example, he compares observations of the sea as “a wide realm of water
creatures,” with perceiving it as “a clear watery mirror bounded only by the heavens” when it
is calm (Kant §29:5:270). Evidently, this type of viewing is less a matter of what is manifest to
the eye, than of culturally determined associations of ideas.
Unlike the beautiful, however, which is connected with the presentation of quality, the
Kantian sublime is associated with the presentation of quantity (which includes the notion of
power). Consequently, an object that can inspire a sense of the sublime can be formless,
“insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a
totality” (Kant §23:5:244). That is why “it is mostly rather in its chaos or in its wildest and
most unruly disorder and devastation, if only it allows a glimpse of magnitude and might, that
[nature] excites the ideas of the sublime” (Kant §23:5:246); in such a state, nature’s form
appears “contrapurposive for our power of judgment, unsuitable for our faculty of presentation,
and as it were doing violence to our imagination” (Kant §23:5:245). It is therefore not
36

surprising that as a consequence of its immediacy and formlessness, nature takes precedence
over fine art in inspiring a sense of the Kantian sublime; the latter, as a representation, is
always bound by form. Nonetheless, although the sublime spectacle in nature is actually
horrible, since it “cannot be contained in any sensible form, but concerns only ideas of reason,”
that is, because the imagination cannot provide an intuition of the sublime, the mind is induced
to “abandon sensibility and to occupy itself with ideas that contain a higher purposiveness”
(Kant §23:5:246). Thus, as with the beautiful, the sublime provides no knowledge of the
object; however, insofar as the conflict that arises between the faculty of reason’s capability of
thinking the totality and the imagination’s inability to present it, the sublime is subjectively
purposive, because it alerts us to reason’s superiority over the sensible. One crucial distinction
must be underscored here—between the sublime and the beautiful’s relations to nature:
whereas in the beautiful, “we must seek a ground outside ourselves,” the source of the sublime
is to be found within us, “in the way of thinking that introduces sublimity into the presentation
[of nature]” (Kant §23:5:246). The sublime has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of
nature’s purposiveness essential to the second part of Kant’s third critique, the critique of
teleological judgment.
There is both pain and pleasure in the Kantian sublime—it both attracts and repels us—
which highlights a subtle distinction from the negative pleasure, or delight, of the Burkean
sublime: the imagination’s failure to present the sublime spectacle in its totality elicits pain,
causing a checking of the vital forces; whereas reason’s ability to think the totality causes
pleasure, and produces a stronger outpouring of these same forces as a result of its supremacy
over the imagination, and by extension, the sensible. This pleasure, on the contrary, cannot be
conceived as positive because it is roused by a lack; thus, Kant qualifies this negative pleasure
as admiration and respect for our mind’s suprasensible, that is to say moral, vocation. Kant
maintains that since the sublime requires the mind to be receptive to moral ideas, both our
aesthetic power of judgment and the cognitive powers engaged must be far more cultivated.
Although the sublime is the product of culture and cannot be readily experienced by all—“In
fact, without the development of moral ideas, that which we, prepared by culture, call sublime
will appear merely repellent to the unrefined person” (Kant §29:5:265)—he contends that it is
more than a mere convention. The sublime “has its foundation in human nature, and indeed in
that which can be required of everyone and demanded of him along with healthy
understanding, namely the predisposition to the feeling for (practical) ideas, i.e., to that which
is moral,” “for just as we reproach someone who is indifferent in judging an object in nature
37

that we find beautiful with lack of taste, so we say of someone who remains unmoved by that
which we judge to be sublime that he has no feeling” (Kant §29:5:265).
It is our duty, according to Kant, to develop and exercise the mind’s ability, which is
itself sublime, because it provides us with the only access we have to the origin of our selves:
through the negative presentation25 the sublime offers, we become aware that our mind must
dispose of a suprasensible power whose “idea of a noumenon, which itself admits of no
intuition,” can be considered as “the substrate underlying what is mere appearance or our
intuition of the world,” as well as our ability to think (Kant §26:5:255). By inspiring respect
“for the idea of humanity in our subject,” the sublime enables the mind to feel “itself elevated
in its own judging” as a result of its conformity to a suprasensible will (Kant §27:5:257,
§26:5:256). In spite of Kant’s arguments to the contrary,26 I believe that the sublime is far more
important that the beautiful, precisely because it points to the grounding of subjectivity to
which we otherwise have no access.
The attraction and simultaneous repulsion governing the sublime, which Kant qualifies
as the mental agitation occasioned by the sublime in the aesthetic judgment of an object in
nature, are of two kinds: mathematical, pertaining to the cognitive power; and dynamic, which
regards the power of desire. The mathematically sublime is an applicable concept only when
something is absolutely large, that is, large beyond comparison, as far as “a multitude of
homogeneous elements constitute a unity” (Kant §25:5:248). Kant stresses that the judgment of
something absolutely large cannot be a logical judgment of magnitude (mathematically
determinate) because such a judgment yields to infinite comparison and cannot provide a
determinate concept of any given magnitude (one unit of measure always stands in relation to a
larger or smaller unit). Rather, it is an aesthetic judgment that is universally valid, “a subjective
standard grounding the reflecting judgment on magnitude” (Kant §25:5:249). This aesthetic
estimation of the magnitude of a basic measure “must consist simply in the fact that one can
immediately grasp it in an intuition and use it by means of [the] imagination for the
presentation of numerical concepts,” and consequently has a maximum: “An absolute measure,
beyond which no larger is subjectively (for the judging subject) possible” in one intuition (Kant
§26:5:251). Hence, since “nature is sublime in those of its appearances the intuition of which

25
“The subject’s own incapacity reveals the consciousness of an unlimited capacity of the very
same subject, and the mind can aesthetically judge the latter only through the former” (Kant
§27:5:259).
26
“The concept of the sublime in nature is far from being as important and rich in consequences as
that of its beauty,” since it “indicates nothing purposive in nature itself, but only in the possible
use of its intuitions to make palpable in ourselves a purposiveness that is entirely independent of
nature” (Kant §23:5:246).
38

brings with them the idea of its infinity,” our liking has nothing to do with the object presented,
but is related to “the enlargement of the imagination in itself” (Kant §26:5:255, §25:5:249).
What happens in the mathematically sublime is that, although the imagination can apprehend
an absolute magnitude through a mathematical progression (infinite comparison), it fails to
comprehend it (in the sense of collecting or holding it together) in its totality. This shortcoming
on the part of the imagination elicits pain as a result of the purposelessness of the object’s
incomparable magnitude with regard to the imagination’s power of presentation. Conversely,
the sublime is subjectively purposeful and elicits a feeling of pleasure insofar as it calls
attention to reason’s supremacy over the imagination, for when the imagination fails to
comprehend the absolutely large, reason is “able to think the given infinite without
contradiction,” indicating, as mentioned above, “a faculty of the mind which surpasses every
standard of sense” (Kant §26:5:254).
The dynamically sublime is the category that most explicitly echoes previous notions of
sublimity: on the one hand the function of fear is analogous to Burke’s understanding of
delight; on the other hand, its reference to human dignity recalls the Longinian sublime. To
begin with, Kant defines the dynamically sublime in terms of a certain kind of resistance to
nature’s might of which our minds are capable, whereas our physical inability to withstand its
power inspires fear. The source of this fear, nevertheless, cannot be tangible—it must be born
only out of the imagination because “it is impossible to find satisfaction in a terror that is
seriously intended” (Kant §28:5:261). Thus, Kant echoes Burke in affirming that for an
aesthetic judgment of the dynamically sublime to be possible, we need to be in a safe place
contemplating the terrible spectacle of nature’s might, so that we can “consider an object as
fearful without being afraid of it, namely, we judge it in such a way that we merely think of the
case in which we might possibly wish to resist it and think that in that case all resistance would
be completely futile” (Kant §28:5:260). Not everything that inspires fear rouses a sense of the
dynamically sublime, however; only in cases where “the strength of our soul” is elevated
“above its usual level” and we become aware of another sort of resistance to nature’s might
which we possess that is not sensible, and therefore not grounded in nature, can the aesthetic
judgment be properly called dynamically sublime (Kant §28:5:261). This strength, Kant
maintains, enables us to perceive the threat to our natural concerns (Kant lists the categories of
life, property, and health as examples) as less significant than the upholding of our highest
principles. In making us aware of a power we possess that is independent of nature, the
dynamically sublime “gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-
powerfulness of nature” (Kant §28:5:261). Nature, although mighty beyond our physical
39

abilities to withstand, nevertheless has no dominion over us; our mind’s own sublimity, its
vocation which raises it over nature, prevents the humanity in our person from being demeaned
(Kant §28:5:262). In light of this, the dynamically sublime demonstrates that we are stronger
than the influence of nature without by virtue of our awareness of our mind’s supremacy over
nature within.
In a manner analogous to his aesthetics of beauty, the Kantian sublime is a normative
category: it is dependent upon and serves to affirm Western culture and history, without which
an experience of the sublime becomes impossible. As with the Longinian and Burkean
sublimes, it is bound to a prescriptive morality that contains potentially subversive elements of
sensibility and cognition. The Kantian sublime presents two interrelated pitfalls, however.
First, it renders manifest Kant’s failure to unite cognition and sensibility or the noumenal and
phenomenal realms;27 the result, observes Brooks, is a fragmented, “negative” theory of the
sublime in which subjectivity is denied synthesis. Kant’s is an aesthetics of difference, contrary
to Longinus and Burke, in whom the subject unites or assimilates the power of the sublime (in
Longinus, the listener identifies with the speaker; in Burke, our imagination soars and enables
our participation in the power of sublimity). Second, it “rests on an inherent hostility to the
sensuousness of the human being” (Brooks 25). The primacy attributed to the reason, that
suprasensible, noumenal vocation within us, denies the “rest of what constitutes us: our body,
our desires, our relationship with others, our membership in communities—our basic human
understanding” (Brooks 2). In a word, it amounts to an aesthetics of self-sacrifice and self-
abnegation (commensurate with Baudelaire’s Dandyism, as my discussion of his work will
make evident). Kant’s is an Idealist position that denies the world of phenomenon and
sensibility any importance; the Platonic influence on his philosophical system is unmistakable.
In the sublime, he negates the basis for our objective knowledge of the world: “The remaining
‘knowledge,’ a purely subjective one, throws us back upon a self which possesses no
comprehensible relation to the world” (Brooks 26-7). What the Kantian sublime affirms at the
expense of the subject’s humanity is an Idea, an abstract moral law. The result is a subjectivity
that is alienated from itself and its social context, two factors whose importance is paramount
to Baudelaire.

27
See Brooks’ second chapter in The Menace of the Sublime.
40

Although Kantian sublimity is arguably the most indeterminate of the three theories of
the sublime in question,28 the etymology of the sublime underscores the indeterminacy of any
formulation of sublimity and its necessary proximity to an experience of the abject. In her
introduction to Fiat lux: une philosophie du sublime, Baldine Saint Girons observes that the
Latin “sublimis” is derived from the adjective “limus” or “limis,” “oblique, qui regarde de côté
ou de travers, qui monte en ligne oblique ou en pente” (Saint Girons 18). More significantly,
she points to “limen” as another possible etymology that relates the sublime to a limit, by
means of which the idea of the crossing of a threshold or a transgression comes to mind. The
sublime, explains Saint Girons with reference to alchemy, purifies and liberates the
“sublimated” body of its heterogeneity. She contends that all notions of sublimity share one
irreducible commonality: a dynamic of ascension. However, the sublime is risky: the
movement of elevation concomitant with an experience of the sublime requires a displacement,
characterized by a transgression of boundaries (as the etymology of the Latin word suggests)
and a provisional destabilization of our world. This temporary instability poses a danger: “Si,
en effet, sa dynamique est insuffisante et n’accomplit pas la tâche d’arrachement, d’élévation et
d’extase qui lui est impartie,” what ought to have appeared sublime “prend un aspect atroce ou
pathétique, quand il ne sombre pas dans le dérisoire” (Saint Girons 19). In one movement, “le
paradis s’effondre, le narcissisme s’abolit, le monde se disloque” (Saint Girons 19): at one
stroke the sublime collapses into the abject.

The Abject
In light of the genealogy of the sublime I have undertaken thus far, in which I have outlined the
basic principles grounding the Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian notions of sublimity, as well
as traced the historical paths of influence from one thinker to the next, the apparent leap from
the sublime to the abject, particularly the form under which that leap appears at this junction—
a transition from Kant to Kristeva as an object of discussion—is both necessary and consistent
with the methodology of this chapter. Kristeva inscribes her psychoanalytic approach to
literature and aesthetics within the French post-structuralist tradition. The Kristevan subject
comes into being only through language: according to a psychoanalytic view of subjectivity,
language operates as a symptom of the inaugural loss that founds being. Thus, her work
necessarily contests the transcendental subject at the centre of Kantian metaphysics in favour

28
Brooks underscores that the lack of a transcendental deduction, a deduction which would, as with
the judgment of taste, guarantee the universality of the sublime, “seriously weakens his argument
for judgments of the sublime as pure aesthetic judgments” (Brooks 34).
41

of a view of subjectivity that posits the notion of self in terms of an ontologically empty centre
in a perpetual state of crisis. In particular, Kristeva’s understanding of abjection needs to be
understood in the context of Freudian and Lacanian theories of subjectivity, in which the
Oedipal triangle of mother-child-father stands as the matrix enabling a person’s development
both as an individual and a member of society. Luke Ferretter provides an illuminating
synopsis of how Kristeva conceives of an experience of the abject as integral to an infant’s
process of individuation:
Abjection is a psychic process of expulsion that the pre-Oedipal infant performs on the
way to becoming a subject in the linguistic and social symbolic order. Before it
conceives of itself as an individual subject opposed to individual subjects, not having
fully distinguished itself from its mother, the infant rejects that in this dyadic
relationship which it loosely perceives as threatening to its nascent sense of being a
self. The pre-Oedipal infant’s world consists of its own and its mother’s bodies, not yet
perceived as two, and abjection is the first stage in the process by which the position of
individuality begins. The “abject,” that which is psychically rejected in the process, is
that in this duality of bodies which seems to disturb the boundaries of individuality. It
remains in adult life in the feelings of disgust, horror and abhorrence, and it is above
all experienced in relation to that which makes the borders of individual corporeal
existence imprecise, such as food, excrement, skin disease, or the corpse. (Ferretter,
“Histoires de l’Église: The Body of Christ in the Thought of Julia Kristeva” 145-6)

Our experience of the body, both as a physical entity with its drives and biological processes
and as a psychical space, is at stake in the abject. Ferretter’s explanation highlights corporeal
identity, but an individual’s psychical integrity is also undermined through a confrontation with
the abject because the two are integral and mutually defining aspects of an individual’s sense
of self, according to a psychoanalytic reading of subjectivity. For Freud, explains Elizabeth
Grosz, “the outline of the ego, its ‘form,’ is a psychical projection of the erotogenic surface of
the body” (Grosz, “The Body of Signification” 82). For Lacan, the mirror stage provides the
subject with an imaginary anatomy, “a psychical map or image of the body which is
internalized by the subject and lived as real” (Grosz 84). This fantasized image, underscores
Grosz, “is not a photographic or realist representation of the body, nor is it a scientifically valid
representation, one capable of accounting for the body’s physiological functions”; instead, it is
a product of “cultural and libidinal investments in the body” (Grosz 84). The body must
therefore possess psychical meaning for the subject to assume “a stable, sexually coded
speaking position” (Grosz 85). According to Grosz, Kristeva’s specific contribution to
Freudian- and Lacanian-based psychoanalysis is her acknowledgement that not only is
abjection necessary to any kind of identity, but that the threatening element it represents can
never be excluded “with any finality” (Grosz 87).
42

The pre-symbolic infant-mother relationship brings to light another aspect crucial to


Kristeva’s elaboration of subjectivity: the maternal. The maternal does not presuppose a
subject in Kristeva’s view. In pregnancy nature works through the woman; bearing a child is
not a process willed by an individual:
Les cellules fusionnent, se dédoublent, prolifèrent; les volumes augmentent, les tissus
se distendent, les humeurs changent de rythme—s’accélèrent, se ralentissent: dans un
corps se greffe, immaîtrisable, un autre. Et personne n’est là, dans cet espace à la fois
double et étranger, pour signifier. “Ça se passe, or, je n’y suis pas”; “Je ne peux le
penser mais ça a lieu.” —Impossible syllogisme de la maternité. (Kristeva, “Maternité
selon Giovanni Bellini” 409)

“Like abjection,” observes Grosz, “maternity is a borderline phenomenon, blurring yet


producing one identity and another” (Grosz 95). Kristeva’s evacuation of the woman from
maternity is contentious: Grosz points out the irony in her problematization of the “concepts of
‘man,’ ‘woman’ and ‘identity,’ seeing them as forms of metaphysics of presence, when, at the
same time […] [Kristeva] concedes the relevance of biological, physiological, genetic, and
chromosomal structures in her discussion of maternity” (Grosz 97). The problem is that in
denying a sex to the maternal body, Kristeva appears “to accept an essentialist notion of
maternity as a process without a subject” (Grosz 97). This ostensible disavowal of the category
of woman informs much of the feminist scholarly backlash against Kristeva: Mary Caputi
observes that many “interpret Powers of Horror and Tales of Love as blatant capitulations to
the status quo, writings which buy into masculinist principles, endorse patriarchal structures,
and have lost all political edge” (Caputi, “The Abject Maternal” 2). Some perceive Kristeva’s
elaboration of abjection as pertaining to men only: Alice Jardine observes that “Kristeva
explored what she sees as the fundamental condition of late-twentieth century man—and by
man, she means men” (Jardine, “Opaque Texts and Transparent Contexts” 28). Similarly, Kelly
Oliver remarks that in Pouvoirs de l’horreur, “the child is always the male child” (Oliver,
“Nietzsche’s Abjection” 55).29 Judith Still’s comments on the conservative nature of the
examples Kristeva chooses as a means to illustrate the workings of the abject in textuality echo
Caputi’s paraphrase of the objections that have been levelled against Kristeva: “Kristeva’s
work on abjection is highly appropriable for analyses of horror movies—and has indeed been
appropriated for that purpose, although most of Kristeva’s chosen examples in Powers of
Horror have a strangely old-fashioned (and what some would term elitist) air: literature, high
culture” (Still, “Horror in Kristeva and Bataille” 222). Kristeva’s infant is not necessarily a
child of the male sex; however, her study of exclusively male authors in Pouvoirs de l’horreur

29
These observations become problematic if viewed in light of Kristeva’s more recent work on
Colette (2004), Hannah Arendt (2001), and Melanie Klein (2001).
43

(Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, Borges, Artaud, and, more extensively, Céline) does lead one to
suspect that the abject as she elaborates it pertains to men in particular. Although the Freudian
and Lacanian basis of her work necessarily distinguishes the masculine from the feminine as a
result of the girl’s and the boy’s differing positions during the process of Oedipalization (the
feminine is constituted by a lack—of the penis, if one is to reduce her difference to a biological
criterion—and hence she becomes the phallus—the object of male desire), Toril Moi
emphasizes that femininity for Kristeva is not exclusive to girls (and is therefore not reducible
to biological constraints): it “comes about as the result of a series of options that are also
presented to the little boy” (Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics 165). In addition, although the
maternal does not presuppose a woman if we understand “woman” in terms of a metaphysical
category, it is nonetheless closely allied to the feminine if we understand both in terms of their
marginality. Toril Moi clarifies this point by explicating what she considers to be a common
misreading of Kristeva. To associate
the semiotic with the feminine is thus based on a misreading. The fluid motility of the
semiotic is indeed associated with the pre-Oedipal phase, and therefore with the pre-
Oedipal mother, but Kristeva makes it quite clear that […] she sees the pre-Oedipal
mother as a figure that encompasses both masculinity and femininity. This fantasmatic
figure, which looms as large for baby boys as for baby girls, cannot […] be reduced to
an example of “femininity,” for the simple reason that the opposition between
feminine and masculine does not exist in pre-Oedipality […] Femininity and the
semiotic do, however, have one thing in common: their marginality. As the feminine is
defined as marginal under patriarchy, so the semiotic is marginal to language. This is
why the two categories, along with other forms of “dissidence,” can be theorized in
roughly the same way in Kristeva’s work. (Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics 165-6)

Hence, if we follow the logic of her theoretical standpoint, Kristeva’s choice of authors has
little to do with their biological identification as members of the male sex, and everything to do
with their feminine—that is to say, marginalized—position with reference to the symbolic.
Instead of defining the maternal as a subjective position, Kristeva aligns it with what she
identifies as the “chora,” a term borrowed from Plato’s Timæus. The chora is a kind of
receptacle, the site of heterogeneous pulsions and fluxes; it both prefigures and resists
symbolization. It designates
une articulation toute provisoire, essentiellement mobile, constituée de mouvements et
de leurs stases éphémères […] en tant que rupture et articulations—rythme—[la chora]
est préalable à l’évidence, au vraisemblable, à la spatialité et à la temporalité […] Sans
être encore une position qui représente quelque chose pour quelqu’un, c’est-à-dire sans
être un signe, la chora n’est pas non plus une position qui représente quelqu’un pour
une autre position, c’est-à-dire qu’elle n’est pas encore un signifiant; mais elle
s’engendre en vue d’une telle position signifiante. Ni modèle, ni copie, elle est
antérieure et sous-jacente à la figuration donc à la spécularisation, et ne tolère
d’analogies qu’avec le rythme vocal ou kinésique. (Kristeva, La révolution du langage
poétique 23)
44

As a corporeal and a psychical reality to the infant, the mother is important to it not as a
subject, but as the site of heterogeneous pulsions and fluxes. For Kristeva, the loss of the
maternal, requisite to the subject’s entry into the symbolic and marked by the infant’s process
of individuation and subsequent language acquisition, haunts it throughout its life as a speaking
subject, since language expresses a desire that can never be sated: a desire to recover a pre-
objectal state of heterogeneous pulsions associated with the mother. “Language remains
forever enmeshed in the initial loss of the mother’s body, precipitated by the oedipal,” explains
Caputi (Caputi 3). Thus Kristeva’s notion of subjectivity stands against “logocentric claims
regarding the metaphysics of presence” since “the speaking subject acclimated to the Symbolic
announces a lack, not fullness or closure, in the act of speech” (Caputi 3). “The subject never
is,” observes Thea Harrington; “the subject is only the signifying process and he appears only
as a signifying practice, that is[,] only where he is absent within the position out of which
social, historical, and signifying activity unfolds” (Harrington, “The Speaking Abject” 5). The
subject’s desire, moreover, is neither for a lost object nor for a lost self, since what is lost
prefigures subjectivity and subject-object relations: it is an a priori, an origin that cannot be
articulated since it is beyond the reach of symbolization. It is within this context that the
experience of abjection according to Kristeva is to be understood.
The abject is first and foremost synonymous with ambiguity: “L’entre-deux, l’ambigu, le
mixte” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 12). The word itself, used in Pouvoirs de l’horreur as a noun,
“l’abject,” an adjective, “abjecté,” and a verb, “il abjecte,” denotes what is cast out, the quality
of having been cast out, and the act of casting out. Furthermore, Kristeva provides three
categories of abjection: oral, corporeal, and sexual. This first pertains to food taboos, “la forme
la plus élémentaire et la plus archaïque de l’abjection,” and it is a symptom of the subject’s
repudiation of his30 own corporeal limits (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 10). The second manifests itself in
the subject’s disgust with bodily fluids, and it suggests his rejection of the body’s materiality
and mortality. As a sign or corporeal abjection, the cadaver, a concrete, material presentation of
the dissolution of subjective integrity, is the most evident example of the vulnerability of
identity: “Si l’ordure signifie l’autre côté de la limite, où je ne suis pas et qui me permet d’être,
le cadavre, le plus écœurant des déchets, est une limite qui a tout envahi. Ce n’est plus moi qui

30
I use the masculine pronouns “he” and “him” to designate the subject for a specific reason: in
light of her Freudian and Lacanian heritage, the feminine is not a subject proper for Kristeva. The
feminine is the site of a lack, an absence, and where “he” is the subject of Oedipalization, “she” is
its object. For a compelling critique of Freud’s relegation of the feminine to the status of man’s
specular other, see Luce Irigaray’s Le Spéculum de l’autre femme. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit,
1974.
45

expulse, ‘je’ est expulsé” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 11).31 The third pertains to sexual prohibitions
implied in proscriptions against incest and menstrual blood, both of which she elucidates by
means of an analysis of Jewish Levitical law: incest breaks down culturally sanctioned barriers
between parent and child and therefore suggests a return to the non-differentiated state shared
by the infant and his mother during the pre-Oedipal phase, whereas the taboo against menstrual
blood insists on the subject’s disavowal of the mother as the site of his corporeal genesis. All
three types of abjection presuppose that for the body to be fully symbolic it must be clean and
proper: “Le corps ne doit garder aucune trace de sa dette envers la nature” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs
121). Its boundaries must be clearly defined for the self’s relation to its objects to be stable.
The crisis of abjection gives prominence to what is discarded from the symbolic order to
guarantee its stability: what Kristeva calls the semiotic, that is, the heterogeneous pulsions and
drives that prefigure the infant’s entry into the symbolic and which are necessarily repressed
through Oedipalization. Abjection is not an objective property: an object is not “abject”;
instead, it inspires the feeling of abjection in the subject:
L’abject n’est pas un ob-jet en face de moi, que je nomme ou que j’imagine [...]
L’abject n’est pas mon corrélat qui, m’offrant un appui sur quelqu’un ou quelque
chose d’autre, me permet d’être, plus ou moins détachée et autonome. De l’objet,
l’abject n’a qu’une seule qualité—celle de s’opposer à je. (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 9)

The abject, moreover, gives rise to a strong emotional reaction; it both repulses and fascinates
the subject. An overwhelming visceral reaction overtakes him: “Un spasme de la glotte et plus
bas encore, de l’estomac, du ventre, de tous les viscères, crispe le corps, presse les larmes et la
bile, fait battre le cœur, perler le front et les mains. Avec le vertige qui brouille le regard, la
nausée me cambre” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 10). He is overcome by an intense outburst of emotion,
both agonizing and pleasurable: “La jouissance seule fait exister l’abject comme tel. On ne le
connaît pas, on ne le désire pas, on en jouit. Violemment et avec douleur. Une passion”
(Kristeva, Pouvoirs 17). An experience of the abject disrupts our ontological stability by
forcing us to confront the limits of our subjectivity: it compels us to realize that the boundary
distinguishing us from the outside—whatever we think of in terms of “not me”—is tenuous,
flexible, and mutable.
Not only is the individual self undermined, but an experience of the abject brings into
question the very possibility of any form of permanent categorization. The abject is reason’s
antinomy; it cannot be comprehended: “À chaque moi son objet, à chaque surmoi son abject”

31
For insightful commentaries on an artistic depiction of the abject corpse see Kristeva’s analysis of
Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521-22) in Soleil noir: Dépression et
mélancolie as well as Deborah Caslav Covino’s commentary of Holbein’s work and Kristeva’s
reception of it in “Abject Criticism.”
46

(Kristeva, Pouvoirs 10). Paradoxically, we confront a material presence that signifies our own
lack; in other words, abjection originates in the subject. We are abject:
L’abjection de soi serait la forme culminante de cette expérience du sujet auquel est
dévoilé que tous ses objets ne reposent que sur la perte inaugurale fondant son être
propre. Rien de tel que l’abjection de soi pour démontrer que toute abjection est en fait
reconnaissance du manque fondateur de tout être, sens, langage, désir. (Kristeva,
Pouvoirs 13)

From the bias of psychoanalytic criticism, identity can be developed only through exclusion; an
experience of abjection underscores the impossibility of the subject’s permanently rejecting
what he considers to be outside his self. The boundary that separates self from what is not self
demands constant negotiation. Hence, the abject has no positive presentation; it manifests itself
only in the symptom. For example, in signifying “ce qui n’arrête pas de se séparer d’un corps
en état de perte permanente pour devenir autonome, distinct des mélanges, altérations, et
pourritures qui le traversent,” feces, blood, and urine constitute symptoms of the abject
(Kristeva, Pouvoirs 127). These substances underscore the permeability of identity by drawing
attention to the instability of the limit they transgress: “C’est au prix de cette perte seulement
que le corps devient propre” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 127). Abjection calls attention to subject’s
risk of being swallowed up by the heterogeneity of life processes, the abyss from which the
subject originated: this abyss, which the abject represents, “is the locus of the subject’s
generation and the place of its potential obliteration” (Grosz 89).
Religion, the assuming of a position within culture (through Oedipalization), and art are
all means by which the subject (and society) attempts to come to terms with the abject by
inscribing the in-between inside an ostensibly stable discourse or signifying system. Kristeva
holds that religion displaces abjection, Oedipalization represses it, and art sublimates it
(according to the psychoanalytic definition of sublimation, in which the energy of a particular
drive is channelled into cultural production). Art and religion, observes Grosz, perform inverse
operations: “If the poetic challenges and transgresses the present ‘bounds of sense’ with its
open-ended deferral of meaning and its refusal to congeal into a symbolic identity, this is the
opposite process revealed in sacred discourses” (Grosz 99). “The poetic,” explains Grosz,
“anticipates a language to come,” whereas “the sacred attempts to stabilize a situation of decay
or breakdown”; moreover, “where the poetic engenders a semiotic breach of the symbolic, the
religious presents a semiotic recorded in symbolic terms” (Grosz 99).
According to Kristeva, although made up by language—the symbolic repression and
displacement of the lack upon which the subject is founded—not all literature and not all
writers engage the abject. It is specifically modern literature
47

[qui] constate l’impossibilité de la Religion, de la Morale, du Droit—leur coup de


force, leur semblant nécessaire et absurde. Comme la perversion, elle en use, les
contourne, et s’en joue. Pourtant, elle prend ses distances par rapport à l’abject.
L’écrivain, fasciné par l’abject, en imagine la logique, s’y projette, l’introjecte, et
pervertit le langage—le style et le contenu—en conséquence. Mais d’un autre côté,
comme le sentiment d’abjection est à la fois juge et complice de l’abject, ainsi l’est la
littérature qui s’y confronte. Aussi pourrait-on dire qu’avec cette littérature-là
s’accomplit une traversée des catégories dichotomiques du Pur et de l’Impur, de
l’Interdit et du Péché, de la Morale et de l’Immoral. (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 23)

Writers such as Céline subvert moral, ideological, religious, aesthetic, and formal codes while
nevertheless operating within the framework each affords. The point, however, is not in the
transgression itself. Instead, in bringing about a collapse of meaning, a “Crise du Verbe,” as
Kristeva calls it, and in rejoicing in the materiality of the sign, Céline probes the most intimate
depths of emotional identity through style:
Céline cherche à décoller la langue d’elle-même, à la dédoubler et à la déplacer d’elle-
même […] Cette osculation amoureuse est imaginée essentiellement comme une
descente vers un dedans caché, vers une authenticité enfouie. Là est pour Céline la
vérité innommable de l’émotion, là est ce vide qu’il désigne aussi parfois, de manière
moins naturelle ou substantielle, où viennent se tisser le rythme d’une musique ou les
gestes d’une danse. (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 223)

The abject—Céline’s racism, misanthropy, misogyny, scatology, his perversion of French


grammar, syntax, and the accepted literary genres and themes of canonical fiction—is thus a
means to an end. Céline’s prose both hollows out and hallows abjection by proclaiming the
writer’s humanity: “D’occuper sa place, de sa parer donc du pouvoir sacré de l’horreur, la
littérature est peut-être aussi non pas une résistance ultime mais un dévoilement de l’abject.
Une élaboration, une décharge et un évidement de l’abjection par la Crise du Verbe” (Kristeva,
Pouvoirs 246). Abjection therefore functions as an alchemy that transforms the death drive into
a beginning of life, a new significance (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 15).
Abjection consequently has a positive, constructive side: the subject’s constant
negotiation of boundaries discourages the congealing of his identity and encourages what
Kristeva describes as a softening of the superego—a more flexible internalization and
negotiation of symbolic law (or what Lacan calls “la Loi du Père”). It offers the possibility for
what Gilles Deleuze advocates in his anti-Oedipal “schizoanalysis,” in which he takes the
schizophrenic condition as a paradigm for subjectivity: the subject’s embracing of an
experience akin to abjection as a “line of flight” provides him with the means to “destratify”
his self and make room for new possibilities of being (Lorraine, Irigaray and Deleuze). As
Deborah Caslav Covino explains, abjection is both a form of body repudiation and a critique of
such repudiation since it obliges the subject to be “discharged of illusions of self-purity” as a
48

consequence of his painful awareness of “the presence of disorder, filth, and difference that
resides within his own body”:
Faced with the inseparability of body and waste, abjection finds no objects whose
repudiation can permanently save it […] Flesh is never so much delivered of its waste
as it remains immersed in it. Because the corpse is the waste (the wasting) from which
the subject cannot in the end separate, he lives in a constant state of failed aversion
from his own atrophy. (Covino, “Abject Criticism” 12)

The repercussions of the subject’s inability to separate himself permanently from what he
identifies as outside his corporeal and psychical topographies have a profound impact on our
received ideas about ontology and offer a new perspective on subjectivity. As Grosz observes,
“only if the body’s psychical interior is projected outwards, and its material externality is
introjected as necessary conditions of subjectivity, can the dualism of our Cartesian heritage be
challenged” (Grosz 82). Abjection, therefore, is a form of indefinite catharsis (a catharsis with
no closure) in which the subject abreacts—expresses an emotional discharge of semiotic
material by verbalization. Since, however, abjection has no finality save in death, the
narcissistic crisis the subject experiences defines him as a “constructeur de territoires, de
langues, d’œuvres,” since he, “le jeté,” “n’arrête pas de délimiter son univers dont les confins
fluides—parce que constitués par un non-objet, l’abject—remettent constamment en cause sa
solidité et le poussent à recommencer” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 16). Thus, in calling for an
acceptance of the other by forcing the subject to come to terms with his own heterogeneity—in
denying the self-identical subject posited through a metaphysics of presence—abjection has an
ethical component.
Kristeva’s most significant observation about the abject with regard to my study is its
proximity to an aesthetic experience of the sublime. Although both originate in the same
subject, she explains that “dans le symptôme, l’abject m’envahit, je le deviens. Par la
sublimation, je le tiens. L’abject est bordé de sublime. Ce n’est pas le même moment du
parcours, mais c’est le même sujet et le même discours qui les font exister” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs
19). In terms of their similarities, both the abject and the sublime overwhelm the subject; he
experiences pain and pleasure in both. Like the sublime, the abject is a mediatory principle
existing only in a relational structure: an object cannot properly be called abject, but it can
inspire a sense of the abject. Hence the abject and the sublime are both negative presentations
of being that challenge the limits of selfhood; both in a sense constitute moments of self-
revelation. Specifically, the violence of our recognition of the Longinian sublime (it strikes us
like a thunderbolt), the self-displacement it occasions, wherein the ideas of another invade our
consciousness and are viewed as our own, and the pleasure of this identification, can be
49

compared to the immediacy and power of the abject experience, our recognition that in the
abject, an other has always prefigured the self, and the “jouissance” we feel in the throes of
abjection. Similarly, the abject shares certain affinities with the sublime as an aesthetic
category. In these two formulations of our encounter with the negativity that grounds selfhood,
the subject confronts a spectacle whose might or infinite extension exceeds limits. For Burke,
these limits are empirical: the eye cannot take in what appears to extend infinitely nor can our
bodies resist prodigious strength; for Kant, these limits are cognitive and concern our powers
of presentation. Moreover, the aesthetic sublime evokes, like the abject, a strong emotional
outburst characterized by an initial feeling of pain; a turn follows, culminating in a feeling of
pleasure that is analogous to the “jouissance” the subject feels in the abject. As Covino
remarks, according to Kristeva “the sublime emerges as abjection sublimated, as a religious
and aesthetic strategy for coping with and mastering abjection” (Covino 5).
Another important aspect shared by the abject and the sublime pertains to culture. All
three notions of sublimity are products of culture. Aside from training in the art of oratory,
education in the moral conventions of civilized society is a prerequisite to the Longinian
sublime. Otherwise, how are we to recognize a grand idea, as Longinus understands it?
Furthermore, without moral instruction, does the spectacle of another in peril always produce
respect for our own frail mortality and compel us to help, as Burke claims? In Kant’s view,
without a certain cultural refinement a sublime spectacle in nature will be experienced as
simply terrible. Although the abject is bound to a specific socio-historical context as a
consequence of the discourse which gives rise to it as an experiential category, Kristeva
problematically maintains that the abject has universal and trans-historical validity. While the
human condition may be discerned as a constant throughout the ages, the mapping of
subjectivity cannot be taken for granted as stable and continuous: like all discourses, in
identifying what it considers to be the ground of subjectivity psychoanalysis also brings this
ground into being by shaping our experiences into a certain narrative. The abject is true not
insofar as it is understood as a discovery or revelation of absolute reality, but as an explanation
that accounts for subjectivity from the perspective of our modern paradigm, to borrow a term
from Thomas Khun. Just as we can never understand fully the worldview of previous
paradigms, we cannot lay claim to deciphering the experience and dynamic processes of pre-
modern subjectivity. All our attempts will be approximations at best; hence, Kristeva provides
an explanation of cultural phenomena, such as the prohibitions in Leviticus, which reflects our
modern reality and subjectivity. Thus, contrary to Judith Still’s contention that the universality
of the abject can be qualified in terms of its assuming “different forms in different times and
50

places” (Still 223), I hold that the very notion of abjection—and not simply its varying
manifestations—is, like the Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian sublimes, the product of a
specific cultural context.
In spite of their shared trajectory, the abject and the sublime serve opposite purposes: in
transcending the sensible the sublime elevates and affirms our humanity (or, in Kant’s case, our
connection with something beyond the world of phenomena); conversely, the abject diminishes
us by forcing us to confront our materiality. It compels us to come to terms with the
permeability and finitude of being by presenting us with a limit we cannot assimilate: it forces
us to face up to the impossibility of fixed boundaries and immutable identity. Perpetually
displaced, the subject creates new limits, albeit transient ones, in order to live. Whereas the
sublime, bound up with the notion of death signified, expands our imagination, the abject,
death’s signifier, keeps our minds fixed on the material, and forces us to contemplate the idea
that we are bound to a process of non-being. The imagination is compelled to represent a
void—the same void that constitutes the experiencing subject. Hence, in asserting our
humanity the sublime also affirms our culture: particularly in Kant, it separates us from nature
by underscoring the mind’s ability to reason. The abject, on the other hand, subverts culture by
reminding us that not only are we inseparable from that nature we seek to dominate, but that
our culture, from which our idea of mastery originates, is simply a fiction, a story we tell
ourselves to anchor our identities. Thus, the subject creates new narratives to come to terms
with the lack that founds his being.
As the next three chapters elucidate, if Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft problematize the
sublime by outlining its limits, it is because their works point to a crisis in subjectivity explicit
in their respective worldviews that rejects the aesthetic and ontological discourses of their age
without being fully extricated from them. All three were situated at the margins of the literary
establishment during their respective epochs; the misanthropic attitudes, misogyny, and racial
prejudices of all three, moreover, place them at the limits of what we generally consider as
moral. “Écrit-on autrement que possédé par l’abjection, dans une catharsis indéfinie?” remarks
Kristeva in the conclusion to Pouvoirs de l’horreur: something maternal acts on “cette
incertitude que j’appelle abjection, éclaire l’écriture littéraire du combat essentiel qu’un
écrivain (homme ou femme) a à livrer avec ce qu’il ne nomme démoniaque que pour le
signaler comme la doublure inséparable de son être même, comme l’autre (sexe) qui le travaille
et le possède” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 246). “The writers of ‘limit texts’,” elucidates Still, “will try
to maintain their fragile hold on the symbolic through violent racism or misogyny as they
explore the fascinating but lethal abject, the other within/without themselves” (Still 226).
51

Baudelaire and Poe have acceded into the canons of French and American literature
respectively, fulfilling what Kristeva defines as death’s role as the housekeeper in our
contemporary universe: “Ce n’est qu’après sa mort, éventuellement, que l’écrivain de
l’abjection échappera à son lot de déchet, de rebut ou d’abject. Alors, soit il tombera dans
l’oubli, soit il accédera au rang d’idéal incommensurable” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 24). Lovecraft’s
own rise to immortality has yet to take place; still wavering at the edge of the American canon,
his reputation is nonetheless gaining momentum in light a resurgence of learned interest in his
work and the publication of his texts in scholarly editions.
Chapter 2: Edgar Allan Poe

The meaning is not in the words but in the “horror” that defies words;
the meaning resides in feeling.

Monika Elbert, “Poe’s Gothic Mother and the Incubation of Language”


22

Yet in his quest for self-definition, for the absolute limits of self-
consciousness, man attempts to transcend his relational condition, to
leave his position between the polar opposites and, by journeying to
one extreme or the other, to establish an absolute upper or lower limit
through an ascent into the sublime or a descent into the abyss. Both
poles are, however, simultaneously the sublime and the abyss, for what
one seeks in moving toward one polar opposite or the other, is to
transcend the mediate and reach that unmediated ground where the
bipolar oppositions of language are fused, to reach the totality of
undifferentiated Being that, because it is without differentiation, can
only be experienced as a kind of nothingness—a sublime that is an
abyss.

John Irwin, American Hieroglyphs 51

Part 1 — Justifying a Sublime Reading of Poe: The Critical Context


Edgar Allan Poe: was he merely a drunken magazine critic and hack who carelessly played the
part of the erudite gentleman writer, and whose vituperative attacks on established authors such
as Longfellow and the Boston Transcendentalists betray an effort to stir controversy in his
favour? Or was Poe the sensitive Romantic artist at odds with the America of his time, who fell
prey to ill fate and his own “imp of the perverse”? These two radical and seemingly
irreconcilable views cast long shadows in Poe criticism, and it is easy to understand their
appeal in light of Poe’s tragic personal life, turbulent professional career, and diverse body of
work. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, contributed in large part to the
posthumous misperception of Poe as a drunk, conceited, morally weak man yearning solely for
recognition. In stark contrast, Poe’s French defenders hailed him as a literary genius:
Baudelaire adopts him as a brother in spirit and confers upon him the title of “poète maudit,”
and Mallarmé dedicates a sonnet to Poe’s tomb in 1876. His influence extends to the
Symbolists and Decadents; they claim him as their aesthetic predecessor, a Decadent avant la
lettre. Among rare decadent Latin texts that Roderick Usher or “Berenice”’s Egaeus would
have envied, Des Esseintes’ library in Huysmans’ À Rebours contains Poe’s complete works.

52
53

As Patrick F. Quinn observes in 1968, “there is scarcely one French writer from the time of
Baudelaire to the present who has not in one way or another paid his respects to Poe” (Quinn,
“The French Response to Poe” 67). He cites Marie Bonaparte’s three-volume psychoanalytic
study of Poe’s work, appearing in 1933, as a landmark achievement in Poe studies. In spite of
the issue many scholars may take with her approach to Poe’s literature,1 she displays “wide
erudition and a high degree of literary sensitivity” (Quinn, “The French Response” 73). French
interest in Poe did not wane: during the 1970s several influential essays by renowned scholars
define Poe as a serious writer whose fiction lends itself to semiotic, psychoanalytic, and
postmodern interpretations. Roland Barthes’ semiotic analysis of “Valdemar” appeared in 1973
(translated in 1977); Lacan’s Écrits, published in 1966 and translated into English in 1972,
begins with an exegesis of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”; in response to Lacan’s essay Jacques
Derrida published “Le Facteur de la vérité” (1975) (Barbara Johnson’s critique of Derrida’s
reading of Lacan’s interpretation of Poe appeared in 1977). Evidently, Poe’s writing lends
itself to the kind of polarized views that the two camps represent. Contrary to the French’s
adulation, the responses his fiction elicited from the likes of T. S. Eliot, Henry James, D. H.
Lawrence, Yvor Winters, and Aldous Huxley are suggestive in their reprobation of Poe’s work;
to quote one notorious and often-cited example, although James admits to enjoying Poe’s
fiction in his youth, he nevertheless contends that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a
decidedly primitive stage of reflection” (James, “Comments” 82). Poe’s contemporary James
Russell Lowell echoes this sentiment: “There comes Mr. Poe, with his Raven, like Barnaby
Rudge, / three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge” (Lowell, “A Fable for Critics”
141-2).
To find a genre category that suitably describes the gamut of Poe’s stories, which range
through tales of ratiocination, Gothic romances, parodies, grotesqueries, allegories,
philosophical dialogues, and pseudo-scientific treatises, is a challenge even to the keenest
critic. In addition, the classification of individual tales themselves is open to debate: did Poe
intend the “The Fall of the House of Usher” to be read as a Gothic romance, a
Transcendentalist allegory, or a parody of both genres and the intellectual tradition from which

1
Bonaparte’s premise assumes that all of Poe’s work is motivated by his experience of an intense
childhood Oedipal crisis; according to her diagnosis, he became a “sado-necrophile.” Roger
Forclaz sums up the shortcomings of Bonaparte’s approach in the following terms: “Bonaparte’s
thesis proceeds less from a true scientific spirit than from an exaggerated confidence in science
and from a desire to explain everything ‘scientifically.’ A system that pretends to explain
literature only by means of the unconscious and of early childhood, without taking into account
literary movements or the intellectual climate of an era or of a country, can hardly be called
scientific” (Forclaz, “Psychoanalysis and Edgar Allan Poe: A Critique of the Bonaparte Thesis”
188).
54

they spring?2 The publication history of the ostensibly serious “Silence—A Fable” serves as
another example of the difficulty in ascertaining authorial intention when approaching Poe’s
work. As Robert Regan points out, it was originally published as “Siope—A Fable,” with the
subtitle “In the Manner of the Psychological Autobiographists”; however, in response to the
praise it won “for virtues it never pretended to,” it seems that Poe “decided to make the best of
being misunderstood” and subsequently omitted the subtitles (Regan, “Hawthorne’s ‘Plagiary,’
Poe’s Duplicity” 73). Poe’s fiction is manifestly polyphonic; it is “compulsively polarized,”
“generates antitheses,” and “divides readers,” to cite the words of Shawn Rosenheim and
Steven Rachman in the introduction to the collection of essays titled The American Face of
Edgar Allan Poe (1995). Daniel Hoffman’s often flippant Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe Poe
(1972) is one example of critical response that explicitly addresses the multiplicity of voices in
Poe’s work; the title itself is a reference to the seven faces of Poe he identifies, and Hoffman
nicknames the most prevalent faces “Hoaxie-Poe” and “Edgarpoe.” The notion of two Poes—
the earnest and the trickster—is rooted in the contrast between, on the one hand, his stance as a
scholarly editor, poet, and writer of “serious tales,” and, on the other hand, the ironic gestures
evident in his many grotesque parodies and hoaxes spanning the length of his career. Other
interpretive quandaries stem from psychological readings of Poe that problematically conflate
Poe’s narrators with Poe himself, as though the former’s diseased thought processes were in
some sense manifestations of the author’s own mental and emotional aberrations.3 Likewise
contentious is the notion that Poe necessarily believed in the ideas he dramatizes in his fiction.
The vigilant interpreter would do well to heed T. S. Eliot’s sarcastic (and perhaps unfair)
reminder that Poe had no fixed opinions but rather swung from one intellectual fad to another:
“All of his ideas seem to be entertained rather than believed” (Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry”
213). According to Eliot, Poe’s emotional immaturity made him incapable of developing
convictions. The same can be said for the relationship between Poe and his narrators: their
adoption of masks is linked to Poe’s pragmatic poetics rather than any sort of psychological

2
Clark Griffith reads “Usher” as a parody that pits English Romanticism, in the figure of Rowena,
against German Romanticism, embodied by Ligeia (“Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and the English Romantics”).
Conversely, Thomas S. Hansen and Burton R. Pollin attempt to sidestep the possibility of an
ironic reading of “Usher” by outlining its debt to an uncredited adaptation of H. Clauren’s “Das
Raubschloss” that appeared in the December Blackwood’s of 1828 under the title of “The
Robber’s Tower” and signed by John Hardman. While Poe’s “Usher” “transcends its sources in
every way,” the “potentially comic or baffling Gothic elements” critics discern are present “partly
because many an original brick from Poe’s source is occasionally still visible in his construction”
(Hansen and Pollin, The German Face of Edgar Allan Poe 66).
3
Marie Bonaparte’s Edgar Poe: Sa vie—son œuvre: Étude analytique is the most significant study
of this genre.
55

correspondence between the artist and what would be ostensibly his fictional Doppelgänger.
According to John P. Hussey in his elaboration of Poe’s probable familiarity with the general
tenets of classical rhetoric and the ramification of this tradition in “Eureka,” through the
speakers in his tales Poe adopts different facades to elicit a variety of desired effects in his
audience (Hussey, “Narrative Voice and Classical Rhetoric in ‘Eureka’”).4 In addition, Hansen
and Pollin elaborate on the indiscriminate and heterogeneous nature of Poe’s process of
composition to illustrate how “his displays of erudition are, frequently, imaginative inventions,
more closely related to his fictional imagination than to any scholarly purpose” (Hansen and
Pollin 2-3):
At the most “re-creative” level Poe did not essentially distinguish the act of filling
newspaper columns with pensées trouvées, from the imaginative recombination of
material that produced an “original” literary text […] Poe’s treatment of intellectual
property—be it linguistic or factual—is symptomatic of his process of literary
invention. The recombinative method he employs in his texts makes it sometimes
difficult to separate authentic factual material and scholarly insights from elements of
absolute fiction. (Hansen and Pollin 23-24)

In answer to the methodological and interpretative challenges that Poe presents, some
scholars have sought to view the relation between Poe’s life and his work in terms of textual
performances. Thus Poe’s histrionics, his adoption of masks in his literary and editorial careers,
constitute a vital part of his creative process. In “Poe and His Circle,” Sandra M. Tomc
maintains that what she terms Poe’s professional “dysfunctional behaviour,” such as his attacks
on Longfellow and reputation for vitriol, was a strategy by which men of Poe’s social set—
ambitious men lacking the means and status of gentlemen writers—gained fame and notoriety
in a highly competitive industry; interestingly, she interprets Griswold’s defamation of Poe in
this light—as the former’s attempt to stir controversy in an effort to gain public attention. With
regard to Poe’s famous harangues against the American Transcendentalists—he calls them
“divers for crotchets” in “Eureka” (CW XVI.188)—Kent Ljungquist notes in “The Poet as
Critic” that Poe attacked them primarily on stylistic grounds, yet his objections were in part
dictated by a class bias:

4
However, I take issue with the effect Hussey assumes Poe aims to impart in “Eureka,” which he
explains in terms of his “ultimate attempt at creating a vision and a voice which would clarify all
his earlier work, and force us to acknowledge that he spent his life endeavoring not to terrify but
to heal his audience” in “showing us the way out” of the madness and murder many of his tales
dramatize (Hussey, “Narrative Voice and Classical Rhetoric in ‘Eureka’” 42). To demonstrate
this point Hussey divides Poe’s tales along the lines of fulfilled and failed “rhetoricians,” in
which the fate of the latter serves as a lesson illustrating the merits of moral conduct: “clear-
sighted, sternly-controlled, and capable of creating a redemptive art,” they stand in contrast to
their antitheses, “blind, deluded, artistes-manqués [who] are unable to control their presentation
of themselves and hence heal their audiences” (Hussey 37).
56

Poe attacked stylistic excesses, but his irreverence extended to the social philosophy of
the Transcendentalists. Fashioning himself a member of the Virginia gentry, a social
class to which he could only aspire, he objected to the Transcendentalists’ views on
abolition and reform. Adopting a hostile stance once again because of regional bias, he
hardly discriminated among individual literary figures and social thinkers. He referred
to Boston as the Frogpond or as headquarters of “the Humanity.” (Ljungquist, “The
Poet as Critic” 15)

As Tomc’s and Ljungquist’s essays reveal, progressively scholars have sought to situate
Poe in the historical context of mid-nineteenth century America and the particular milieu in
which he earned his living, the literary magazine industry. This shift in focus is in part due to
American critics’ desire to reclaim Poe from the tradition of continental scholarship, whose
greatest shortcoming was that it “failed […] to recognize that Poe’s most extravagant literary
maneuvers were usually based in the specific cultural and political climate of antebellum
America” (Rosenheim and Rachman xi). As Rosenheim and Rachman explain in The
American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, a recent collection of essays dedicated to the question of
Poe’s “Americanness,” in spite of Poe scholarship’s indebtedness to Derrida, Lacan, and
others, their “theoretical appropriations” left Poe’s writing oddly homeless, without a “local
habitation” (Rosenheim and Rachman x). As a result of this reappraisal of Poe that The
American Face epitomizes, many have re-evaluated Poe’s commitment to the Gothic genre in
terms of the demands of the marketplace. Some, like Michael L. Burduck in Grim Phantasms:
Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction, see Poe’s use of the Gothic as almost perfunctory; Poe’s
exploitation of a popular genre conveys his desire to appeal to the taste of the masses and gain
economic success.5 According to Benjamin Franklin Fisher, “when he turned from the writing
of poetry as his literary mainstay to the writing of fiction, he naturally wanted to produce what
would sell. What had been selling well, despite any grumblings from reviewers, was Gothic
fiction” (Fisher, “Poe and the Gothic Tradition” 79). Teresa A. Goddu’s conclusions in her
analysis of Poe’s relation to slavery in terms of his use of “the conventions deployed by pro-
and anti-slavery proponents alike to sell his own tales” is far more radical; she contends that
Poe was “enslaved” by the marketplace (Goddu, “Poe, sensationalism, and slavery” 93). Poe’s
tales suggest that he “may be able to demonstrate his mastery of the marketplace, but never his
freedom from it; he may expose its workings but he relies on its effect […]; liberation from the
marketplace is only an imaginative projection—his mastery just another market effect” (Goddu
109). However, this economic justification for Poe’s espousal of the Gothic genre is not

5
Although Burduck’s methodology leaves something to be desired (for example, he cites Burke
and Lovecraft to substantiate his argument without adequately explaining Poe’s relation to their
works), I make reference to his text to demonstrate the kind of change in perspective that a
reading of Poe in light of his professional environment engenders.
57

without its detractors; in “Poe and the Blackwood’s Tale of Sensation,” Bruce I. Weiner is not
so quick to disparage Poe’s exploitation of the Gothic in spite of its injurious implications for
his reputation as a writer, nor is he willing to attribute Poe’s adoption of a genre outdated
during his time to purely economic aims (Weiner 59). “Poe’s Gothic sensationalism is [not]
merely an accoutrement to his themes, a shocking wrapper in which he markets a serious
product”; instead, he argues that Poe’s reliance on the conventions of the tale of sensation
afford a propitious ground—“a vantage point at the juncture between mind and matter”—
“where he could test the claims of Common Sense and Romantic Imagination and work out his
own ambivalence about the relationship between mind and reality” (Weiner 59). In other
words, the Gothic was a genre well-suited to Poe’s aesthetic and philosophical proclivities.
* * *
Concomitant with the historical division of Poe’s character into two distinct modes of being,
the hapless idealist and the calculating fraud (a partition that, as I hope to have made clear, is
overly simplistic and merely serves to caricature Poe), we find the two opposite yet equally
powerful impulses that govern his stories and to which his aesthetics are bound: the yearning
for supernal beauty or transcendence, and the “imp of the perverse” or drive to self-
annihilation. The tension evident between these two seemingly contradictory forces has
received much critical attention. There are those who embrace Poe as a kind of
transcendentalist writer of the American Renaissance who espouses an affirmative aesthetics.
In his seminal essay “Poe’s vision of Man,” Eric W. Carlson, one of the pre-eminent
proponents of the transcendental Poe, identifies what he terms “psychal transcendentalism” in
Poe’s fiction. He perceives that “the central theme in Poe’s work is not so much death and
annihilation, as the spiritual rebirth or rediscovery of the lost psychal power essential to every
man and artist seeking his fullest self-realization”; moreover, he contends that “to see this main
thread running through the whole fabric of the writings from 1827 to 1849 is not to see Poe as
a jack-of-all-trades, which is some ways he was, but as a high romantic, more transcendental
even than Emerson” (Carlson, “Poe’s Vision of Man” 20). According to David Halliburton in
“Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View,” this thread of self-realization is viewed in
terms of an infinite existing “humanly, in man-who-is-God” (Halliburton 412). Both Allen Tate
in “The Angelic Imagination: Poe and the Power of Words,” and Richard Wilbur in “The
House of Poe” provide Platonic readings of Poe: according to Tate, sense perception “is
resolved into a subjectivism which denies the sensible world” (Tate, “The Angelic
Imagination” 245); whereas in his reading of “Usher” Wilbur holds that in Poe, “it is possible
to shake off this temporal, rational, physical world and escape, if only for a moment, into a
58

realm of unfettered vision” (Wilbur 267). Similarly, in a brief but no less decisive reading of
Poe’s “The Power of Words,” Gerald Bruns aligns Poe’s poet with the myth of Orpheus; in his
view, Agathos, representative of all of Poe’s angel figures, is a poet-magus, whose power of
enunciation brings a world into being (Bruns, “Poetry as Reality: The Orpheus Myth and its
Modern Counterparts”). Bruns contends that his work appeals to the Idealist notion of the artist
and his transcendence of the immanent by means of the powers of his faculty of imagination.
Manifestly influenced by Baudelaire’s appropriation of Poe, Hoffman affirms that Poe believed
in
the symbolist religion of art! The image of the artist as the autochthynous [sic] creator
of his own universe—the perfect escape from the tyranny of time, from the baseness of
the material life. The perfect substitute for that devotion to the spirit and its life which
it once was the business of the Christian Church to provide the Western World.
(Hoffman 180)

Joseph J. Moldenhauer’s influential investigation of the “unitary theory of metaphysics, nature,


art, and the human mind” in Poe’s work, developed in “Murder as Fine Art: Connections
Among Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision” (1968), in one sense sides with the
“imp of the perverse” as the dominant leitmotif in Poe, and casts Poe as a kind of Romantic
diabolist (Moldenhauer 284). However, like the idealist critics, Moldenhauer converts the drive
to destruction into the means of the poet’s salvation and transcendence from the sensible: “Life
in its customary categories—time, space, matter, the body, sex, birth, motion, variety,
change—life is, in Poe’s vision, the thing to be defeated, to be transcended, or to be evaded in
acts of an aesthetic character. These acts are simultaneously the destruction of the self and the
creation of the perfect poem” (Moldenhauer 297).
In spite of their interpretative particularities, all of the aforementioned positions have in
common the idea that in Poe the material is a means to an end; the imagination reigns supreme
and constitutes the faculty by which the artist transcends the finitude of the human condition
and ascends to a world of his own making. The limitation of their approach rests in the
restricted scope of their readings: focusing largely on Poe’s so-called serious tales, they
assume, either explicitly or implicitly (by omission), that his parodies are lesser works, not to
be taken seriously. Hence, these are cast out as non-essential to his canon. This in turn raises
two issues of classification with regard to Poe’s tales: how can anyone establish a clear and
definite demarcation between Poe’s serious and ironic stories? Furthermore, how can anyone
presume that one type of text is more relevant to an analysis of Poe than another? My answer to
this quandary undoubtedly will fail to satisfy those scholars who require discrete categories and
the possibility of neatly classifying Poe as a certain kind of writer. The choice of what
59

constitutes a serious or ironic tale as well as the texts privileged as central to Poe’s canon
depends wholly on the particular focus of the study in question and its methodological
underpinnings. The overzealous scholar ought to be proceed with caution, however: as Gregory
Jay remarks in his deconstructive reading of Poe, his texts are ultimately unreadable: “The
stories within stories and interpretations within interpretations build to an intensity of
overdetermination that exceeds the capacity of any single deciphering consciousness or reading
strategy” (Jay, “Poe: Writing and the Unconscious” 107).
Another branch of Poe scholarship seeks to minimize the relevance of aesthetics in his
work. In some form or other, critics espousing such a view generally champion the spirit of
perverseness as central to Poe, but in a way contrary to Moldenhauer, who perceives it as a
positive drive equivalent to the transcendent. For instance, in an article published in 1974
Robert Carringer maintains that Poe’s renouncement of the “idea of the Beautiful” in his tales
signals the maturation of his writing, and that his “supreme achievement” as a short story
writer is the result of his new interest in depicting “first-person narrators discovering their
capacity for violent, irrational behaviour” (Carringer, “Poe’s Tales: The Circumspection of
Space” 19). In a similar vein, in 1985 Ken Frieden holds that the innovation in Poe’s narratives
derives from “a rhetorical application of the spirit of perverseness” rather than from “the poetic
principle of psychological exaltation” (Frieden, “Poe’s Narrative Monologues” 144). Likewise,
in Fables of the Mind, published two years later, Joan Danyan claims that Poe is concerned
only superficially with aesthetics; in her view, any attempt at transcendence in his texts is
established merely to be deflated, reinforcing his often comic denunciation of the American
Transcendentalists’ project. Instead, she reads the idea of “convertibility” as the principle
underlying his work, whereby Poe’s preoccupation with language’s inadequacies is revealed.
“Eureka” constitutes the pivotal text through which Danyan interprets Poe: in her view, he
“seeks a new kind of language in the guise of cosmic truths” (Danyan, Fables 58).
Approaches similar to Danyan’s but more radical in their outlook have gained
ascendancy since Clark Griffith published his analysis of “Ligeia” as a parody of the Gothic
genre in 1954. Contrary to the perspective espoused by the idealist critics, these scholars view
Poe as a consummate satirist, as the essays collected in The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s
Satiric Hoaxing demonstrate: all of his texts, even those that possess a sober tone, are either
hoaxes or carefully crafted parodies intent on poking fun at a gullible audience. For example,
in “Edgar Allan Poe: Style as Pose,” James M. Cox contextualizes his investigation of the
contrivances in Poe’s art by reading his life as a series of skilful poses and dramatic gestures:
60

Poe’s life cast him in the role of victim—victim of orphanage, of an insensitive foster
father, of alcohol, of grinding poverty, of a hostile and materialistic society, and finally
of a villainous literary executor, one Rufus Griswold, whose present claim to
immortality is his energetic effort to defame Poe. Small wonder that his admirers
identify with his victimization, that scholars defend his sullied honor, and that
psychoanalytic critics seek the primal psychic wound which bled into his art. Yet
accompanying this figure of Poe is a disturbing set of contrivances which seem almost
designed to provoke precisely such a response. There is in almost everything he wrote
or did a certain shameless dramatization, a tawdry theatricality, which should remind
posterity—if it needs reminding—that he was indeed the son of traveling actors. In
other words, Poe’s life constantly presents itself as if it were as much act as action, and
it is difficult to escape the conclusion that at the end of his life Poe, like the diabolical
narrator in “The Cask of Amontillado,” deliberately trapped his hated enemy Griswold
by naming him his literary executor. If so, the unsuspecting Griswold fatuously rose to
the bait, producing the intensely hostile obituary which has never ceased to bring a
host of scholars to Poe’s defense to pronounce Griswold’s distortions the act of an
unprincipled scoundrel. (Cox, “Edgar Allan Poe: Style as Pose” 41)

Whether or not Poe lived his life in as calculated a manner as Cox supposes is difficult to
ascertain, but his perspective underscores a tendency to understand Poe’s relation to his work
from a performative rather than psychological context, as discussed earlier. Another evocative
essay is Terence Martin’s “The Imagination at Play: Edgar Allan Poe”; he sets out to examine
the implications of Poe’s commitment to the faculty of imagination—Poe’s inversion of reality
“so that playing and dreaming become the business of life”—and concludes that Poe releases
the imagination “into a realm of its own where, with nothing to play with, it must play at our
destruction” (Martin 40). Consequently, Poe’s subversion of narrative, social, and aesthetic
conventions is the inescapable consequence of the free-play of the artist’s imagination. One of
the most important contributions to Poe scholarship made by the kind of criticism characteristic
of the aforementioned essays is their emphasis on Poe’s parodies and satires, many of which
remained unstudied until recently. In spite of their interpretative divergences, however, the
ironist and the transcendentalist approach Poe’s texts in a similar manner: both hermeneutic
reading strategies suppose that there is a code to decipher and that only the initiate or those “in
on the joke” are able to comprehend Poe’s oblique intended message. Poe offers us, according
to Robert Regan, “membership in a smaller circle, a circle of superiority; but it is not, even for
the few who win their places in it, a circle of equality: the circle is dominated by the artist,
whose godlike imagination has created the duplicitous design which we congratulate ourselves
on merely deciphering” (Regan, “Hawthorne’s ‘Plagiary’: Poe’s Duplicity” 86). The problem
with such a view, as David Halliburton points out, is that “the hunt for concealed ironic
messages has a way of leading the critic indefatigably on—much like the hunt for concealed
sex. Raise the suspicion that the author is pulling your leg, and it becomes difficult to take him
seriously at any time” (Halliburton 229).
61

Most of the articles recently published in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe
(2002) further exemplify this shift in focus away from aesthetics. Many of the essays examine
the comic aspects of Poe’s work, engaging texts that were often overlooked by earlier studies
concerned with aesthetics, or whose literary merits were altogether discredited in the past.
Daniel Royot, for instance, concludes from his analysis of Poe’s humorous tales that the Janus
figures therein “induce a cheerful nihilism” (Royot, “Poe’s Humor” 70), whereas in his
investigation of Poe’s appropriation of the Gothic genre, Benjamin Franklin Fisher emphasizes
the parodic context of the stories intended by Poe to be published as “The Tales of the Folio
Club” (Fisher, “Poe and the Gothic Tradition”). Even the one essay dealing primarily with
aesthetics, Rachel Polonsky’s “Poe’s Aesthetic Theory,” minimizes its significance in Poe’s
work; in spite of the fact that “Poe was as beholden to and caught up in Romantic aesthetic
discourse as he was resistant to it,” she holds that Poe’s critical writings betray practical
concerns opposed to the Romantic influences pervading the first half of the nineteenth century,
demonstrated in the satiric story “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob Esq.” (Polonsky 47). The
problem with reading Poe as a consummate satirist is obvious: inevitably, we are led to
interpret everything he wrote as a parody, and to presume that he was in some sense a
deconstructionist avant la lettre who held no affirmative beliefs. Furthermore, given the
certainty that Poe was influenced by and actively engaged in the aesthetic currents of his age,
an understanding of Romanticism, German Idealism, and the Gothic and sentimental genres of
fiction published in periodicals such as Blackwood’s were not only of interest to him, but a
professional necessity in light of the competitive nature of the market in which he earned his
living. To sidestep or deny the significance of aesthetics to Poe’s work amounts to repeating a
prejudice similar to the one of which those belonging to the transcendental camp have been
accused: it is to see only one side of Poe.
One controversial outlook championed in the early seventies by G. R. Thompson that
influenced some of the essays in The Naiad Voice and fuelled heated responses from the
transcendentalists6 attempts to unite the idealist and ironist readings of Poe; rather than
choosing one face of Poe over the other, Thompson holds that Poe, “at once a Romantic
idealist devoted to ‘transcendental” vision and yet also a satirist,” “is the pre-eminent American
follower of the European ‘Romantic Ironists’” (Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in
the Gothic Tales xi):

6
For Eric W. Carlson, Thompson’s interpretation serves as an example of misguided Poe
criticism—that is, criticism that denies the transcendental aspect of Poe’s work—and Carlson has
made his point on several occasions. For a comprehensive example see his commentary in “The
Transcendentalist Mr. Poe: A Brief History of Criticism.”
62

Thematically, Poe’s Gothic and philosophical works suggest that the deceptive
perversity of the universe and the mind can only be transcended by the godlike
imagination of the ironic artist, who yokes together contrarieties and sees beyond hope
and despair, beyond good and evil, by deceptively intruding the comic into the tragic,
the satiric into the demonic. Through such simultaneous ironic detachment and
involvement, the German ironists thought, the Romantic artist achieves a liberating
transcendental perception of the dark paradox of human existence. (Thompson,
Romantic Irony 195)

This “liberating perception of the dark paradox of human existence” which constitutes the
transcendental vision of Romantic irony to which Thompson claims Poe subscribes is nothing
short of “the possibility that beyond the elaborate art game there is nothing” (Thompson,
Romantic Irony 191). (It is worthwhile to mention that Thompson has since changed his
perspective to accommodate a more affirmative view of Poe.) This position has merits:
although Thompson is concerned primarily with Poe’s Gothic stories, he nevertheless perceives
an aesthetic continuity between these and the satiric tales, and offers a plausible context for
Poe’s idiosyncrasies in terms of the ironic detachment that characterizes his worldview. As
seductive as Thompson’s interpretation may at first appear, however, it nevertheless presents
certain lacunae which suggest that Poe’s work resists such facile appropriation by (any)
totalizing discourse. First, Thompson’s exegetic strategy, while commendable in that he
surveys almost the entire Poe canon to explicate his thesis, often glosses over texts and
ultimately presents readings that are too superficial to defend a thesis adequately. Hence his
analysis of Poe’s landscape stories offers no conclusive evidence of Romantic irony. Similarly,
Thompson sometimes disingenuously misquotes Poe to advance a point or to demonstrate an
ironic tone where none is immediately apparent.7 Third and most significantly, his reading
attributes too heavy an influence from German literature and philosophy at the expense of
Poe’s American context.
The improbability of ascribing to Poe a staunch and unfailing adherence to German
Romanticism has been established by Hansen and Pollin’s recent study of Poe’s relation to
German language and literature. First, along with many of the foreign languages in which Poe
pretended to be fluent or possess a reading knowledge such as Italian, Spanish, and ancient
Greek, he had only a very rudimentary acquaintance with German. His knowledge of German
philosophy and literature is necessarily restricted to what was available in English translation
during his time (something that, to his credit, Thompson acknowledges). A perpetual outsider
to a language whose “sounds and structures remain exotic and bizarre,” Poe viewed the
German language as

7
See David Ketterer’s notes 8 and 15 in “Protective Irony and the Full Design of ‘Eureka’.”
63

essentially either impressive, which accounts for gestures like the long Novalis
epigraph for “Marie Rogêt,” or humorous, which explains the abundance of fairly
primitive German puns and broadly caricatured Germans in his texts. Fragments of
German serve him both to proclaim an illusion of polyglot learning and as a vehicle for
parody. (Hansen and Pollin 57)

They conclude that, “when echoing German writers or imitating Gothic details of the German
fantastic, Poe’s works were always only indirectly derivative of German models” (Hansen and
Pollin 106). Moreover, Poe’s romance with German Idealism was short-lived, and echoed the
intellectual trends that shaped America in the first half of the nineteenth century; his attitude in
the press and in his fiction grows increasingly hostile to anything German beginning in the
mid-1830s. Nevertheless, Hansen and Pollin caution scholars that Poe’s open, apparently
conclusive, break with Germanism can be misleading: just as Poe’s praise often masks a
reproach, his recriminations at times conceal his admiration and an indirect acknowledgement
of influence. Evidently, Poe’s relation to German philosophy and literature as well as with the
American Transcendentalists was far from straightforward, and any interpretation of his tales
that engages his aesthetics must be aware of the complexities surrounding these issues.
* * *
In my view, the historical division of Poe’s character into two antithetical personalities and the
two diametrically opposed drives connected with this schism, impulses which are discernable
in his fiction and central to his aesthetics—the “imp of the perverse” and the yearning for
supernal beauty—are symptomatic of Poe’s exploration of the dialectical relation between the
sublime and the abject. First, what is the sublime in Poe? Or, put another way, to what ends
does Poe make use of the aesthetic category of the sublime? Kent Ljungquist, who has written
extensively on the sublime in Poe, holds that it serves as a means to express what cannot be
represented, and he identifies it with the transcendent impulse in Poe. Ljungquist observes that
in Pym, “A MS. Found in a Bottle,” and “A Descent into the Maelström,” “the sublime
connects tangentially with natural infinitude; it more closely suggests an ideal, supersensible
realm” (Ljungquist, The Grand and the Fair: Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial
Techniques 75). Elsewhere he comments that
the sublime could be used to portray subjects that defied the restrictions of ordinary
language, as well as the normal limits of the human imagination. For aesthetician and
author alike, a preparatory step on the path to transcendent emotional states was
placing the mind under stress, allowing a character to work himself through a painful
experience by forcing him to grasp a subject beyond the common understanding.
(Ljungquist, “Burke’s Enquiry and the Aesthetics of the ‘Pit and the Pendulum’” 26)

Ljungquist maintains, however, that Poe gradually abandons an aesthetic of the sublime in his
landscape tales in exchange for the picturesque, and holds that “A Descent into the Maelström”
64

“marks [Poe’s] triumph in the sublime mode but also the liquidation of its aesthetic
possibilities” (Ljungquist, The Grand and the Fair 48). It is significant that Poe frequently
presents impediments to the sublime effect: Ljungquist observes in The Grand and the Fair that
the circumscribed space of the landscape tales runs counter to the notion of natural expanse
requisite to the sublime in nature. Furthermore, in his analysis of the Burkean sublime in
“Usher,” Craig Howes observes that this tale “reveals historically and sexually determined
sources of terror that refuse to fit any object-subject, stimulus-reaction pattern, and that thus
prevent any aesthetic distancing or escape” (Howes, “Burke, Poe, and ‘Usher’: The Sublime
and Rising Woman” 173). In agreement with Howes, Jack G. Voller holds that “Usher”
“challenges the utility” of Burke’s and Kant’s “optimistic” theories of the sublime by
presenting an account of “those terrors that know no redemption”—that “threate[n] the life of
the observer” and exceed “the structure of sublime experience” (Voller, “The Power of Terror:
Burke and Kant in the House of Usher” 27-28.). Bruce I. Weiner contends that it is “the
ambivalence of the sensationalist that checks Poe’s transcendence, the brakes of Common
Sense applied to the dizzying descent (this is how the sensationalist conceives of
transcendence) into skepticism, nightmare, and madness”; in other words, Poe “is drawn to the
visionary transcendence of Romantic Imagination but he cannot escape the tyranny of
sensations and a penchant for rational understanding and tangible truths” (Weiner 59).
More often than not, Poe’s fiction draws attention to the abject body: aside from
thematic concerns with material decay, Poe’s texts reveal themselves as verbal constructs
through his hoaxing, his unreliable, self-obsessed narrators, his misquoted or fabricated
intertextual references, and his stylistic excesses: rather than providing a transparent medium
of communication that facilitates the reader’s immersion into the text’s fictional world, they
draw attention to the materiality of the sign. Allen Tate’s observations concerning the
impediment Poe’s serious style poses to the reader are suggestive:
I confess that Poe’s serious style at its typical worst makes the reading of more than
one story at a sitting an almost insuperable task. The Gothic glooms, the Venetian
interiors, the ancient wine cellars (from which nobody ever enjoys a vintage but
always drinks “deep”)—all this, done up in a glutinous prose, so fatigues one’s
attention that with the best will in the world one gives up, unless one gets a clue to the
power underlying the flummery. (Tate, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe” 48-49)

Moreover, in her stylistic analysis of Poe’s use of the dash in “Eureka,” Danyan observes that
“as the prime mover in crossing prose and poem,” “the dash turns our attention away from
words to the space in-between” (Danyan, Fables 55). Although the dash communicates “an
intensity on the part of the author” wherein, according to Halliburton, Poe “is not merely
arguing; he is arguing with great feeling […] befitting a treatise on the sublime” (Halliburton
65

406), Danyan explains that “passages of greatest difficulty, the most inconceivable or shadowy,
use the dash excessively, evoking awe but also proving by their method that the more
‘spiritual’ the conception, paradoxically, the more machinery needed. The greater the desire to
conceive, the greater the chance for blockage; the very tendency towards unity fragments”
(Danyan, Fables 61). Even a text such as “A Descent into the Maelström,” which undeniably
subscribes, according to Ljungquist, to the conventions of the Kantian sublime,8 can, from a
certain point of view, be seen to “inver[t] traditional Western belief” (Thompson, Romantic
Irony 171), as Thompson demonstrates:
The narrator’s mystical experience of the magnificence of God is one of horror rather
than beatitude. The design of the terrifying violence of the natural world […] becomes
an object of contemplation […] and involves a contrapuntal mental regression and
progression from the rational to the hysterical and the absurd back to the rational
without cause. His new rational state, however, is forever […] hovering on the edge of
madness. (Thompson, Romantic Irony 171)

As Harry Levin emphatically observes, “Poe’s cult of blackness is not horripilation for
horripilation’s sake; it is a bold attempt to face the true darkness in its most tangible
manifestations. If life is a dream, then death is an awakening” (Levin, The Power of Blackness
163).
Poe’s humour—marked by the sadistic cruelty of “Hop-Frog” or the “hysterical laugh
which will forever ring within [the] ears” of the narrator of “The Oblong Box” (CW V.289)—
transgresses the boundaries of decorum and genre. In “Poe’s Humor: A Psychological
Analysis,” Paul Lewis contends that “humor fails to triumph over fear” in Poe’s fiction: on the
one hand, “in the parodic tales, we laugh almost to the end, only to find that we were too quick
to be amused, that [the] jack-in-the-box is really [a] corpse in a coffin, that even ‘bugaboo
tales’ can reflect our most legitimate fears”; on the other hand, “humor and fear do not simply
coexist in Poe’s tales of terror; repeatedly in these tales, we are brought up against the limits of
humor” (Lewis, “Poe’s Humor: A Psychological Analysis” 535). Lewis cites examples from
numerous stories; interestingly, he reads Pym in terms of a quest for knowledge wherein
“creatures, people, and things that had seemed familiar or amusing change or reveal themselves
to be savage, monstrous, and dangerous” (Lewis 539). Consequently, Lewis takes issue with
Thompson’s “overly subtle view of Poe as a Gothic ironist,” calling it “a criticism so
eviscerated as to miss the collapse of humour in the face of fear, the plunge into a madness that
leaves us able to ‘laugh but smile no more’”; he urges us, moreover, “to see the desperation in

8
Ljungquist also cites Friedrich Schiller’s understanding of the sublime outlined in his essays “On
the Sublime” (1801) and “The Pathetic” (1793) published in Aesthetical Letters and Essays as a
probable source for “Maelström” (Ljungquist, The Grand 86).
66

Poe’s humor, the wide-eyed horror of a little boy whose abandonment and alienation are a
perfect, if finally unamusing, metaphor for the human condition” (Lewis 546). Both his and
Thompson’s readings necessarily require that they assume contrasting perspectives about Poe’s
character: Lewis’ view challenges the self-mastery and detachment that Thompson presumes
Poe adopted towards his fiction. What is most significant to my analysis, however, is the fact
that Lewis’ perception of Poe’s humour can be read in terms of the abject: laughter becomes a
symptom of the displacement that an experience of the abject compels from the subject. Self-
mastery and self-knowledge are continuously subverted in the subjective crisis Poe’s texts
dramatize.
The sublime signals a crisis in subjectivity that nevertheless affirms our humanity by
raising our minds to a moral calling: for Longinus, our identification with the speaker or writer
of a sublime passage, one who is necessarily endowed with nobility of soul, elevates our
humanity; for Burke, the fear of death a sublime spectacle inspires causes us, in the end, to
have respect for God, the creator of all things and whose infinite power is unmatched; for Kant,
in spite of our inability to represent the infinite (in terms of the mathematical and dynamical
sublimes), our ability to reason it makes us aware of a vocation we possess whose reach
extends beyond the sensible, to the realm of Ideas. Conversely, the abject presents the subject
with the material limits of being, with a signifier that cannot be signified. Like the Longinian
sublime, it dislocates and overwhelms our subjective integrity. Contrary to Longinus’ notion of
sublimity, however, the abject—when experienced outside of a signifying system that would
situate it within the symbolic and hence inscribe it into a narrative—presents us a horror
without redemption. In focusing primarily on those texts that make an appeal to the sublime,
my aim is to demonstrate that Poe’s mises en scène of his characters’ experience of the sublime
are always informed by a preoccupation with the abject. My approach is not without
antecedents: in Sublime Enjoyment: On the Perverse Motive in American Literature (1997)
Dennis A. Foster investigates “the ways that abject, perverse longings are appropriated to serve
socially useful ends” in American culture (Foster, Sublime Enjoyment 5). He devotes a chapter
to a selection of Poe’s fiction (focusing particular attention on “Berenice,” “The Fall of the
House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Gold-Bug,” The Purloined
Letter,” and “Eureka”), and demonstrates how Poe’s writing against the grain of nineteenth-
century America’s idealistic, nation-building grand narrative “never forgets the human body of
suffering and pleasure that denies the reduction to a unified whole”; instead of offering us “the
dream of an origin and the promise of a return,” Poe gives us “the perverse pleasure of what
ultimately will not submit to the control of perfect ownership, of mastery, of death” (Foster
67

66). Although we proceed from a shared methodological premise—Foster makes reference to


Kristeva’s semiotics and abjection as well as to Kant’s formulation of the sublime—my
approach is considerably different from his. Foster proceeds from a postmodern, deconstructive
bias that engages Freudian conceptions of subjectivity from the perspectives of Gilles Deleuze
and Félix Guatarri, and Slavoj Žižek, and the Kantian-based sublimes of Jean-François Lyotard
and Jean-Luc Nancy. While he reads Poe as an example of perversity within the larger context
of American culture (so much that he does not even mention Poe in his conclusion), my
reading of the dialectical relation between the abject and the sublime in Poe is preceded by a
contextualization of the sublime within its historical context and a discussion of the abject that
explains the common ground shared by the two experiences. In addition, my study places a
strong emphasis on explicating the source of this dialectic through an examination of Poe’s
aesthetics, something which Foster discusses only in passing. Another precursor to my study is
Marita Nadal’s essay published in the summer of 2000, in which she investigates “the
relationship between horror and terror—or the abject and the sublime” in Pym (Nadal,
“Beyond the Gothic Sublime: Poe’s ‘Pym’ or the Journey of Equivocal (E)motions” 373).
Drawing from Jean-François Lyotard’s assertion that the (Kantian) sublime is the grounding
impulse behind modern art, she begins with the premise that the aesthetics of the sublime
constitutes the “organising principle of ‘Pym’” (Nadal 374). Nadal’s essay presents suggestive
ideas for future study, and my approach is complementary to hers yet with a necessarily wider
scope: I situate the sublime as the foundation of Poe’s notion of the beautiful and investigate
the sublime’s ramifications in the tales that bring it into question by presenting us with
characters whose experiences undermine the dynamics of the sublime.9 Two interrelated
criteria govern my choice to examine “Mesmeric Revelation,” “The Facts in the Case of Mr.
Valdemar,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Domain of Arnheim.” First,
I hold that these texts best represent the dynamic existing between the abject and the sublime in
Poe’s fiction since the tension between the two is salient, constituting a central leitmotif in
each. Second, I perceive that these stories stand at the centre of scholarly debate concerning
Poe’s aesthetics, and I wish to engage particular aspects of their recent critical reception to
demonstrate how an understanding of the crisis in subjectivity that Poe presents in these tales
can be read in terms of the dialectical relation of sublimity and abjection. For example, in
response to Ljungquist, I intend to explain that the sublime is integral to the notion of art

9
Contrary to Howes and Jacobs, who maintain that Poe keeps the categories of the beautiful and
the sublime distinct, I will explore the idea that Poe conflates them by grounding his notion of
supernal beauty in the sublime.
68

underlying Poe’s “The Domain of Arnheim.” Moreover, part of my purpose in investigating


Poe’s use of the sublime is to provide new insight into its connection with what Voller
identifies as the terror that “proves its undoing, its deconstructive key” (Voller, “The Power of
Terror” 28) 10—or, in my view, the horror of the abject.

Part 2 — The Abyss of Unity: The Sublime and Poe’s Pragmatic


Critical Theory
As Margaret Alterton endeavours to explain in The Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, Poe’s
direct sources of influence in the development of his theory of art and literary criticism were
diverse, yet they arise mainly from his prodigious reading of American and European magazine
literature. According to Alterton, from foreign (mostly British) periodicals such as
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine Poe gleaned the sensational themes that would dominate his
fiction, whereas his notion of unity as well as his critical acumen were developed over time as
a result of his interest in legal, scientific, and philosophical discussions he found primarily in
the literary journals of his day. Perhaps as a consequence of the variety of discourses from
which Poe drew his notion of art, it can be observed that, although his poetics chiefly
subscribes to a pragmatic theory of criticism, his writings also feature elements common to
expressive and objective theories, to borrow the nomenclature M. H. Abrams adopts in The
Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition.11 The distinction among the
three can be summed up briefly. According to Abrams, pragmatic theories are oriented towards
the audience; the work of art is perceived as a means to an end, and its value is determined in
light of its ability to achieve a desired effect upon the audience. Second, as an outgrowth of the

10
In his book The Supernatural Sublime: The Metaphysics of Terror in Anglo-American
Romanticism, in which he posits the supernatural sublime as a distinct aesthetic, Voller draws a
contrast between the supernatural sublime common to Gothic literature and what he terms
“conventional” sublimity, an adjective he uses to describe primarily eighteenth-century British
ideas on the sublime: “The conventional sublime demands irony in order to transmute physical
emptiness and boundlessness into metaphysical plenitude”; in contrast, “Gothic sublimity often
insists on a direct correlation, and thus physical emptiness (or, perhaps more accurately, the vast
unknowable complexity of the universe) signifies or at least suggests a corresponding
metaphysical absence or disorder. Gothic supernaturalism is often unable to discover that sense of
‘rhapsodic oneness with a divine ordering power’ […] upon which the positive implications of
the conventional sublime depend” (Voller, The Supernatural Sublime 14). My point is to show
that, in those tales where Poe makes implicit or explicit reference to the sublime, the
“deconstructive key” Poe presents us is the horror of abjection. Hence Voller’s notion of the
supernatural sublime and Kristeva’s abject follow a parallel trajectory in some respects: both
reveal the shaky scaffold upon which identity rests.
11
Abrams makes passing reference to Poe in two instances; my point is to elaborate on his
suggestions to show that Poe’s critical theory escapes facile categorization.
69

classical notion of mimesis, expressive theories basically posit that art is intended to reflect not
the world without, but the world within. A work ought to express the moods and emotions of
the artist, or the world as interpreted by his consciousness. From such a standpoint, all
representations constitute portraits of the creative subject.12 Third, objective theories,
commonly referred to as art for art’s sake, lay claim to the art object as existing for no purpose
other than “to be.” Hence art has no moral, expressive, or pragmatic function: it is a self-
sufficient entity, and to study it requires that we “judge it solely by criteria intrinsic to its own
mode of being” (Abrams 26).
Poe’s theory of unity, referred to interchangeably in his work as unity of effect or
totality of impression, is the point upon which these potentially conflicting views on art
converge. Unity of effect, first and foremost a pragmatic critical category, encompasses all
aspects of Poe’s work: it is allied to his practical concern with the requisite brevity of a work
and his insistence on the “close circumscription of space,” which he holds to be “absolutely
necessary to the effect of the isolated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has
an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be
confounded with mere unity of place” (CW XIV.04). As Ljungquist observes, unity is “the
conscious choice of an emotional atmosphere that takes primacy over incident, character, and
versification”; hence Poe’s most melancholy theme, the death of a beautiful woman, serves as a
vehicle to convey “the emotional effect of the literary text on the reader” (Ljungquist “The Poet
as Critic” 15, 19). Unity of effect can be conceived as a performative category: according to
William Drake, “Poe’s focus is always on the short, self-contained individual work as a
dramatic act. Unity is an aspect of method” (Drake, “The Logic of Survival: ‘Eureka’ in
Relation to Poe’s Other Works” 16). Thus, it “is not a matter of intellectual coherence or plan
of ideas,” as Drake sees it, “but an experience or response that results from the careful
manipulation of the medium by the artist, almost as a playgoer responds to a performance”
(Drake 16). However, what kind of effect does Poe seek to evoke in his audience? In outlining
the scope of Poe’s critical theory and its anchoring in the aesthetic preoccupations of his age,13
I aim to illustrate how Poe’s understanding of effect in his critical writings conflates the

12
An important nuance needs to be elaborated here: early German Romanticism holds that what the
artist expresses is not his individuality, but what Kant terms the Ideas of pure reason: the
individuality of the creator serves as a mediating principle, albeit a limited and finite one, for
nature or the transcendent.
13
I do not claim to present either a detailed or a thorough analysis of the relation between Poe’s
critical theory and the sources from which he draws to develop his ideas. Scholars more
knowledgeable than I have undertaken this task with considerable clarity and success: see Robert
D. Jacobs’ Poe: Journalist and Critic.
70

Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian sublimes and unites them under the aegis of a crisis in
representation that privileges elevation, self-displacement, violence, and negativity.

The Genealogy of the Sublime in Poe


Before undertaking an analysis of Poe’s critical theory, it is worthwhile to determine the
plausibility of an interpretation that seeks to find resonances of the Longinian, Burkean, and
Kantian sublimes in Poe’s work and to determine the extent to which he may have been
influenced by each of these thinkers. Poe makes only one passing reference to Longinus—in
the Pinakidia14— which seems to suggest that Longinus is of little interest to him. However, his
awareness of the Longinian sublime can be traced through his statements on the effect poetry
ought to produce in the audience, a notion synonymous with his Platonic idea of supernal
beauty. Longinus’ treatise was highly influential in the development of Romantic thought; “at
the hands of certain critics of the early nineteenth century,” Abrams observes, the Longinian
sublime, particularly its “emphasis on the great conceptions and vehement passion of the
author,” “was converted into one of the most familiar modern criteria of aesthetic value”
(Abrams 132). For instance, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, whose Lectures on Dramatic Art
and Literature exerted a strong influence on Poe’s aesthetic theory,15 outlines the task of the
writer in terms whose correspondences with the Longinian sublime are unmistakeable: “The
dramatic poet, as well as the orator, must from the very commencement, by strong impressions,
transport his hearers out of themselves, and, as it were, take bodily possession of their
attention” (Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature 38). It is plausible to suppose
that, even without first-hand knowledge of On Sublimity, Poe may have absorbed Longinian
ideas indirectly from Schlegel.
That Poe read Burke’s influential Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on
the Sublime and Beautiful has been established beyond question.16 From Burke’s treatise Poe
gleaned an exhaustive repository of objective properties capable of eliciting the delight
attendant on an experience of the Burkean sublime. Conversely, Poe’s knowledge of the
Kantian sublime is more difficult to ascertain. In “The Poetic Principle” he draws a distinction

14
“Longinus calls pompous and inflated thoughts ‘reveries of Jupiter’—insomnia Jovis” (CW
XIV.60). According to Frederick S. Frank and Anthony Magistrale, authors of The Poe
Encyclopedia, this is the only direct reference to Longinus in Poe’s entire corpus (Frank and
Magistrale 216).
15
Hansen and Pollin observe that “a comparison of texts shows that Poe’s borrowings from
Schlegel actually border on plagiarism” (Hansen and Pollin 92).
16
See Alterton and chapter two of Ljungquist’s The Grand and the Fair; as well as S. L. Varnado,
“The Case of the Sublime Purloin; or Burke’s Enquiry as the Source of an Anecdote in ‘The
Purloined Letter’.”
71

between the faculties of “Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense,” a division apparently
derived from Kant; Glen Omans is one who holds this view in an article he published in 1980,
and he bases his analysis on Poe’s supposed fluency in German. The subject of Poe’s first-hand
knowledge of Kant remains speculative at best; Poe was unable to read German, as Hansen and
Pollin have determined. Furthermore, as many scholars have observed, whenever Kant’s name
appears in Poe’s work (a total of ten times) or his ideas are alluded to, it is always in the
context of a parody, and Poe frequently denigrates his American contemporaries who espouse
the doctrines of German Idealism. His famous jibe at the American Transcendentalists, in
which he calls them “divers for crotchets” (“Eureka” CW XVI.188), sums up his view. Joan
Danyan observes that “as a critic,” Poe “sets forth a “program of literary purification” in
which, and here she cites Poe, his intent is to cleanse criticism from its “Orphicism, or Dialism,
or Emersonianism, or any other pregnant compound indicative of confusion worse
confounded” (CW XI.6-7); in other words, “he mocks the orphic talkers who blur the bounds
of sense and thus render language imprecise […] Reacting against his contemporaries’ abuse of
words” (Danyan “Poe, Locke and Kant” 31). Hence, as Hansen and Pollin note, “Poe
consistently referred to the writings of Immanuel Kant […] in a tone of humorous deprecation,
seldom missing an opportunity to label the philosopher and his admirers vague and obscure”
(Hansen and Pollin 88). This is an opinion, moreover, that is consistent with the anti-German
sentiment espoused by many literary periodicals during the 1830s. 17 Nonetheless, Poe’s
numerous attacks on Kant do not preclude the possibility of influence, since he may have found
some of Kant’s ideas suggestive or adaptable to his purposes.
It is plausible to speculate that Poe was at least familiar with the Kantian ideas presented
in the Third Critique, since “Kant was the subject of discussion both in the journals that he read
and the books he reviewed” (Hansen and Pollin 89). In light of the extensive influence August
Wilhelm Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature exerted on Poe, it is likely,
according to Alterton, that Schlegel’s “very warm praise” of Kant motivated Poe to seek out
writings on the latter’s work (Alterton 117). Contrary to Hansen and Pollin’s statement,
moreover, that an English translation did not become available until 1892, in his review of their
book, titled “Poe’s German and Germanism,” Richard P. Benton remarks that Poe may have
had access to Jacob S. Beck’s English translation titled Principles of Critical Philosophy
(1797). From the perspective Leon Chai and Glen Omans present in their respective studies

17
For example, Hansen and Pollin make reference to an essay Poe may have read that appeared in
Blackwood’s in 1830 titled “Kant in his Miscellaneous Essays,” which censures the opacity of
Kant’s style (Hansen and Pollin 88).
72

(here I refer to Chai’s twenty-first chapter in The Romantic Foundations of the American
Renaissance titled “Poe, Cousin, and Kant: Transformation of a Neoclassical Aesthetic” and
Omans’ essay “Victor Cousin: Still Another Source of Poe’s Aesthetic Theory?”), Poe’s
exposure to Kantian ideas also can be traced to the French philosopher Victor Cousin. Since
three translations of his major works were available in the United States by the 1830s, Hansen
and Pollin deduce that Cousin is a far more plausible source for Poe’s tripartite understanding
of the faculties of the mind. It is reasonable to surmise that Poe gleaned, either from an
English translation or secondary sources, a basic familiarity of Kant’s Third Critique and his
aesthetics of the sublime.

Poe’s Pragmatic Theory of Poetry and the Sublime

Unity of Effect

In light of the intensely subjective scope of Poe’s work, aesthetic patterns assume an
importance greater than the demands of verisimilitude or psychological motivation; as Charles
E. May contends, “the question of why certain events are included rather than others becomes a
question of ‘motivation of the motifs,’ as the Russian formalists discuss that process, rather
than motivation of ‘as if’ real human action” (May, Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short
Fiction 70). Pasquale Jannaconne, one of Poe’s early European critics, termed Poe’s use of “the
idea as it might in turn serve as a generator of other poetic impressions” an “aesthetic
teleology” (Jannaconne, “The Aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe” 5). Rather than serve a moral
function, the ostensibly contradictory drives we find in Poe’s work, the “imp of the perverse”
and the aspiration towards supernal beauty, primarily communicate an effect. In “The Poetic
Principle” Poe focuses his discussion on “the essentiality of what we call Poetry”; he defines
poetry on the basis of the effect it produces, which he describes in terms analogous to the
Longinian sublime: “A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the
soul” (CW XIV.266). Although Poe’s objective is to elucidate the merits of poetry rather than
to provide a definition of the sublime, his understanding of poetry’s evocative powers
nonetheless conveys a general awareness of the Longinian notion of sublimity. This is apparent
in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, wherein Poe appears to echo
Longinus’ understanding of sublimity and the communion it occasions between the writer of a
sublime passage and its reader:
[The reader] is filled with an intrinsic and extrinsic delight. He feels and intensely
enjoys the seeming novelty of the thought, enjoys it as really novel, as absolutely
original with the writer—and himself. They two, he fancies, have, alone of all men,
73

thought thus. They two have, together, created this thing. Henceforward there is a bond
of sympathy between them. (Poe, “Tale Writing”)18

In addition, in his defence of the requisite brevity of verse, Poe speaks directly of the
sublime effect, conceding, in his censure of the epic genre, that “a mountain, to be sure, by the
mere sentiment of physical magnitude which it conveys, does impress us with a sense of the
sublime—but no man is impressed after this fashion by the material grandeur of even ‘The
Columbiad’” (CW XIV.268). The reference to the feeling of awe the magnitude of a natural
object such as a mountain inspires in us alludes to an aesthetic understanding of the sublime
found in Burke and Kant; in addition, in a way similar to Longinus, who, throughout his
treatise, generally speaks of passages rather than entire works that can be qualified as sublime,
Poe maintains that the sustainability of the elevating effect is transient. It is significant that he
bases the brevity of the effect on time, literally the amount of time required to read a poem. Poe
holds that “that degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot
be sustained throughout a composition of any great length,” since “all intense excitements are,
through a psychal necessity, transient”; “after the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it
flags—fails—a revulsion ensues—and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such”
(CW XIV.266). Thus, it follows that “a long poem does not exist”; it is “simply a contradiction
in terms” (CW XIV.266). Poe holds, moreover, that “if any literary work is too long to be read
at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable
from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and
everything like totality is at once destroyed” (CW XIV.196). This concern with the duration of
a work on the one hand betrays, as Rachel Polonsky claims, practical concerns on Poe’s part:
The aesthetic principles codified in Poe’s essay can also be seen as arising, at least in
part, from his working circumstances; poetic form responds to the exigencies of time
and space in the world of work […] How long does the writer have to perfect his craft?
How much time does the reader have for contemplation of the poem before “the affairs
of the world” distract? By rhetorical deftness, Poe constructs the semblance of a
logical syllogism or mathematical solution for what are, in fact, pragmatic businesslike
judgments. (Polonsky, “Poe’s Aesthetic Theory” 49-50)

18
This passage does not appear in the Harrison edition of Poe’s Complete Works: Harrison’s base
text is the first edition of this essay published in Graham Magazine (May 1842). This citation is
drawn from a revised version of the essay on Hawthorne called “Tale Writing,” found in Godey’s
Lady’s Book (November 1847), accessible online at the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore:
http://www.eapoe.org/. In the excerpt cited Poe adopts the positive attitude that characterizes
Longinus’ view of the phenomenon of the speaker’s self-loss when confronted with the sublime
in language; however, Poe’s notion of sublimity does not adhere strictly to this perspective, since
he is equally concerned with the destructive implications of the reader’s loss of self-mastery.
74

On the other hand, Poe’s privileging of literary forms that subscribe to the constraints of
brevity echoes the gradual change in perspective that occurred during the Enlightenment,
characterized by a shifting away from neoclassical values, which nineteenth-century criticism
subsequently inherited. In neoclassical criticism, the epic and tragedy rank highest among the
poetic forms; as Abrams explains, the transition towards an expressive theory of art which
began in the first half of the eighteenth century contributed to the valorization of lyric poetry,
particularly the ode, for its ability to convey the emotions of the poet. To illustrate, Abrams
cites from J. G. Sulzer’s Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste, a four-volume encyclopedia
of aesthetics first issued in 1771-4 (a work which he esteems for its foreshadowing of many
particulars of Romantic expressive theories) and makes a passing reference to Poe: “And, like
Poe later on, Sulzer maintains that the intensity of this quintessential poetic form sets a limit to
its magnitude, ‘for this state of mind, by its very nature, cannot long endure’”19 (Abrams 90).
While it is evident that the nature of Poe’s pragmatic concern with the length of a work differs
from Sulzer’s earlier expressive view (the former fixes his attention on the audience and its
ability to focus solely on the text whereas Sulzer is interested primarily in the text’s
representation of the writer’s feelings), both nevertheless use a similar standard to judge a
literary work—the constraints of a subject’s state of mind—and reach the same conclusion:
poetry must be brief. To cite a more contemporary source, ten years prior to Poe’s publication
of “The Poetic Principle” (1838), John Stuart Mill echoes the perception (originating in the
first half of the century preceding his) “that all genuine poems must be ‘short poems’,”
claiming that it is “impossible that a feeling so intense […] should sustain itself at its highest
elevation for long together […] a long poem will always be felt […] to be something unnatural
and hollow’” (Abrams 136).20 Poe’s own censure of the epic genre echoes the ideas of his age:
he contends that epics are “based on an imperfect sense of Art” (CW XIV.267). According to
Alterton, “evidence points strongly to the fact that from British periodicals Poe derived the idea
that an epic may be considered a succession of brief poems” (Alterton 41, 42). Hence, Poe’s
concern with effect, in which the idea of brevity plays a central role, is bound closely to his
notion of unity or totality of impression; although in part formulated in response to the
exigencies of his professional milieu, it is nonetheless historically conditioned and inscribed in
a tradition of criticism influenced by the ideas of the sublime Longinus establishes in On

19
Abrams cites from the “Lyrisch” entry, volume III page 57, of J. G. Sulzer’s Allgemeine Theorie
der schönen Künste, Leipzig: Neue vermehrte zweite Auflage, 1792.
20
Abrams emphasizes a connection between Mill and Poe, stating that “Poe’s line of reasoning” is
“based on intensity as the defining quality of poetry” which is “by now familiar to us” (Abrams
136).
75

Sublimity and shared by the Burkean and Kantian notions of the sublime: the subjective
experience that gives rise to Burke’s delight and Kant’s sublime cannot be sustained for long.
Thus Poe’s claim to an objective theory of art, his praise of “this poem per se—this
poem which is a poem and nothing more—this poem written solely for the poem’s sake” (CW
XIV.272), which seemingly contradicts the pragmatic theory he subscribes to through his
notion of unity of effect, actually serves as a fortification. The “elevating excitement of the
soul”—the effect poetry ought to convey—is, according to Poe, “quite independent of that
passion which is the intoxication of the Heart—or of that truth which is the satisfaction of
Reason” (CW XIV.290).21 Truth is secondary; it is merely an accessory to unity. Although
“through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent
before,” the effect is “referable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth
which merely served to render the harmony manifest” (CW XIV 290). Concordant with the
idea of harmony is Poe’s praise of the lyric poem’s combination of poetry and music in “the
rhythmical creation of beauty” to which his idea of supernal beauty is bound (CW XIV.75).
The harmony is referable, according to Poe in “The Rationale of Verse,” to the neoclassical
standards of formal symmetry and proportion: “Verse originates in the human enjoyment of
equality, fitness […] Its idea embraces those of similarity, proportion, identity, repetition, and
adaptation or fitness” (CW XIV.218). A work consequently must be judged, not by values
external to it, but by its intrinsic unity (whose chief purpose is to communicate an effect). In
“Eureka,” truth comes to signify perfect symmetry:
And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended upon
with almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe—of the
Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems.
Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms:—thus Poetry and Truth are one.
(CW XVI.302)

“Truth then,” remarks George Kelly in his analysis of Poe’s notion of beauty, “is defined by no
appeal to authority nor by any dialectic of ends, nor by any transcendental realm of reason, but
simply to its aesthetic appearance” (Kelly, “Poe’s Theory of Beauty” 536). Hence, Poe’s claim
to art for art’s sake does not constitute a radical departure from his pragmatic theory; rather, it
serves further to qualify the kind of effect he seeks to convey.

21
Although Poe cites perceived psychological differences required for the writing of a moral work
to illustrate its incompatibility with poetry, in reality he is merely making reference to
divergences in rhetorical conventions existing between two genres: “In enforcing a truth we need
severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple, precise, terse [. . .] we must be
in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical” (CW XIV.272).
76

Beauty

Poe’s notion of supernal beauty is a fundamental aspect of his pragmatic theory of art. If,
according to Poe, a poem’s task is to elevate the soul, the topic most appropriate to this end is a
contemplation of the beautiful, since the poetic principle “itself is, strictly and simply, the
Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty” (CW XIV.290). Cousin and Schlegel have both been
cited as the most likely sources Poe drew upon to develop his Platonic sense of beauty.22 The
melancholy mood Poe determines poetry ought to convey, for instance, is intrinsic to the
Platonism of his notion of beauty: the “desire of the moth for the star” or the “wild effort to
reach the Beauty above” (CW XIV.274) evokes melancholy because it “is beyond man’s
knowledge yet tantalizingly immanent as a result of his dual nature” (Kelly 533).
What is significant is that Poe defines the beautiful, that “immortal instinct, deep within
the spirit of man,” as an effect: “That intense and pure elevation of soul” (CW XIV.197-198).
Moreover, beauty explicitly subsumes the sublime:23 “Beauty, therefore—using the word as
inclusive of the sublime […]” (CW XIV.273, 275). “Poe defines Beauty not as an external
quality but as an elevating effect of the soul, an experience of the sublime,” Alan C. Golding
notes; hence “poetry is the struggle to grasp the sublime in the awareness that it cannot be
grasped” (Golding, “Reductive and Expansive Language: Semantic Strategies in ‘Eureka’” 3).
Beauty, effect, and elevation are convertible terms in Poe’s critical theory. As Abrams
observes, Poe’s “use of ‘beauty,’ even more plainly than that of Keats, is in the lineage of
Longinus’ ‘sublime,’ in its literal meaning of ‘elevation’” (Abrams 137). Nevertheless, “what
Poe may well have done” in his appropriation of Schlegel, “was to remove this concept of the
supernal realm” upon which beauty is predicated “from its ethical and theological context”
(Kelly 522). Hence we have an idea—beauty—that is grounded primarily on the Longinian
sublime; however, Poe’s Platonic notion of supernal beauty lacks the moral framework
characteristic of all three formulations of sublimity under consideration.

22
Alterton claims that Poe was possibly influenced by the idea of love found in Plato’s Phædrus. F.
C. Prescott was, according to Kelly, the first to suggest Poe’s dependence on Schlegel for his
theory of beauty (see Selections from the Critical Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. F. C. Prescott,
New York: 1909). In his comparative analysis of Poe’s aesthetics and Cousin’s Cours de
philosophie (1836), Leon Chai makes a strong claim that not only was Poe familiar with Cousin,
but he derived his Platonic understanding of beauty from him: “Through the Neo-Platonism of
Cousin […] Poe was able to understand [the idea of beauty as the supreme poetic objective] in a
new light. For him, beauty comes to represent something undisclosable in itself, but which we can
nevertheless approach through poetic evocation” (Chai 373-4).
23
In The Grand and the Fair, Ljungquist clarifies that in Poe’s early criticism he maintained a firm
distinction between the beautiful and the sublime; gradually, this differentiation became obscured
(Ljungquist 49).
77

Genius

As with a number of eighteenth-century commentaries on the sublime, Poe obfuscates the art
that gives rise to a feeling of supernal beauty by both deriding criticism that has a too thorough
descriptive aim and naturalizing the writer’s ability. He maintains, for instance, that to illustrate
how a poem succeeds in communicating the elevating effect historically associated with
sublimity is to deny it that capacity: “It is not excellence if it requires to be demonstrated as
such” (CW XIV.282). The following excerpt from the Marginalia elucidates Poe’s line of
reasoning:
To see distinctly the machinery—the wheels and pinions—of any work of Art is,
unquestionably, of itself, a pleasure, but one which we are able to enjoy only just in
proportion as we do not enjoy the legitimate effect designed by the artist: —and, in
fact, it too often happens that to reflect analytically upon Art, is to reflect after the
fashion of the mirrors in the temple of Smyrna, which present the fairest images as
deformed. (CW XVI.170)

Furthermore, in his discussion of Longfellow’s “Waif,” Poe naturalizes the poet’s manipulation
of language to achieve a desired result. He affirms of the “‘ease’ or naturalness” conveyed by
Longfellow’s literary style that although “it has long been the fashion to regard [this] as ease in
appearance alone—as a point of really difficult attainment,” “a natural manner is difficult only
to him who should never meddle with it—to the unnatural”; furthermore, “it is but the result of
writing with the understanding, or with the instinct, that the tone, in composition, should
always be that which the mass of mankind would adopt—and must perpetually vary, of course,
with the occasion” (CW XVI.277-8 [first emphasis added]). Poe’s position, while consistent
with classical rhetorical theory, evades a direct elucidation of the issue of consensus, one of the
more elusive notions of the sublime in all three formulations under consideration (Longinian,
Burkean, and Kantian), by positing “naturalness” as an innate gift of the writer and consensus
as contingent on the communicability of a shared human experience as expressed by the poet.
What aim, then, does Poe assign to criticism, if not the judgment of works of art based
on the particular techniques artists employ to enable them to inspire “the human aspiration for
supernal beauty” in their audience? Following the prescriptions of an expressive critical theory,
he holds that critics must, as arbiters of taste, identify works that possess genius:
Men of genius are far more abundant than is supposed. In fact, to appreciate
thoroughly the work of what we call genius, is to possess all the genius by which the
work was produced. But the person appreciating may be utterly incompetent to
reproduce the work, or anything similar, and this solely through lack of what may be
termed the constructive ability—a matter quite independent of what we agree to
understand in the term “genius” itself. (CW XVI.67 [emphasis added])
78

Poe’s notion of genius, the one aspect of his poetics that adopts an element central to
expressive theories of art, answers the issue of consensus in a circular way, by combining the
ideas of taste and genius. Specifically, Poe redefines genius to comprise two types of
operations: the viewer’s receptivity to works of art (what Burke and Kant define as taste) and
the artist’s innate creative ability, which the viewer lacks. Hence we are left with the following
distinction: viewers recognize certain attributes in a work of art, whereas artists express these
same qualities through art. The artist differs from the viewer, or “one who has some artistic
ability,” in that although the latter “may know how to do a thing, and even show how to do it,
and yet fail in doing it after all,” the artist succeeds in transforming “his most shadowy
precepts into successful application” (CW XVI.69). More importantly, since both possess
genius, agreement as to what constitutes such a work is self-evident and requires little
explication. Ultimately, in keeping with his introductory disclaimer in “The Poetic Principle”
that “in speaking of the Poetic Principle, [he has] no design to be either thorough or profound”
(CW XIV.266), Poe circumvents any demonstration of how or explanation of why a poem
elevates the soul—or, put another way, he fails to elucidate what constitutes a work of genius.
Poe’s uniting of the art critic and the artist in one persona, moreover, results in the
confluence of art theory and art practice: he affirms, in his critique of James Russell Lowell’s
Conversations, that “the error” in Lowell’s understanding of poetry “is exactly that common
one of separating practice from the theory which includes it. In all cases, if the practice fail[s],
it is because the theory is imperfect [...] To say that a critic could not have written the work
which he criticises, it to put forth a contradiction in terms” (CW XVI.69). As Barton Levi St.
Armand remarks, “the critic, not the poet, became Poe’s ‘central man,’ and in effect Poe
revived the old eighteenth-century ideal of the ‘Man of Parts’ in opposition to a common
Romantic emphasis on single-minded Genius” (St. Armand, “Eureka” 15). This conflation of
the poet and critic perhaps also covertly serves to validate the professional roles Poe occupied
with little economic success in the literary magazine industry—that of purveyor for a host of
publications and editor, for a time, of the Southern Literary Messenger.
Although the importance Poe attributes to the imagination (upon which I will elaborate
shortly) and to genius in the artist’s ability to create and the critic’s capacity to identify works
of art underscores the influence of Romanticism in his writings, his understanding of genius is
far removed from that adopted by the German Romantics as a consequence of their reading of
Kant, in which the inspired artist is only a medium through which nature works:
“The artist belongs to his work, not the work to the artist—Novalis.” In nine cases out
of ten it is a pure waste of time to attempt extorting sense from a German apothegm;—
or, rather, any sense and every sense may be extorted from all of them. If in the
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sentence above quoted, the intention is to assert that the artist is the slave to his theme,
and must conform to it his thoughts, I have no faith in the idea, which appears to me
that of an essentially prosaic intellect. In the hands of the true artist the theme, or
“work,” is but a mass of clay, of which anything (within the compass of the mass and
quality of clay) may be fashioned at will or according to the skill of the workman. The
clay is, in fact, the slave of the artist. It belongs to him. His genius, to be sure, is
manifested very distinctly in the choice of the clay. It should be neither fine nor coarse,
abstractly—but just so fine or so coarse—just so plastic or so rigid—as may best serve
the purposes of the thing to be wrought—of the idea to be made out, or, more exactly,
of the impression to be conveyed. There are artists, however, who fancy only the finest
material, and who, consequently, produce only the finest ware. It is generally very
transparent and excessively brittle. (CW XVI.99)

Such a definition of genius explains the basis of Poe’s aim in “The Philosophy of
Composition” and highlights one aspect of Poe’s epistemology: “It is my design to render it
manifest that no one point in [The Raven’s] composition is referrible either to accident or
intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with that precision and rigid
consequence of a mathematical problem” (CW XIV.195). Although many scholars doubt the
sincerity of this essay,24 the privileging of ratiocination over inspiration in the creation of
poetry underscores Poe’s mechanistic view of art: it is “the faculty of analysis” that enables
“the artist to get full view of the machinery of his proposed effect, and thus work it and
regulate it at will” (CW XVI.67). When Poe asserts, in the Marginalia, that “not only do I think
it paradoxical to speak of a man of genius as personally ignoble, but I confidently maintain that
the highest genius is but the loftiest moral nobility,” he refers to what he terms, elsewhere in
the Marginalia, “properties strictly moral”: “patience,” “the power of holding the attention
steadily to one purpose,” “self-dependence,” “contempt for all opinion which is opinion and no
more,” and “energy and industry” (CW XVI. 163, 167).
Interestingly, Poe fails to elucidate what governs the artist’s “choice of the clay,”
through which his “genius, to be sure, is manifested very distinctly” (CW XVI.99). We wonder

24
T. S. Eliot comments on the improbability that “The Philosophy of Composition” actually
outlines Poe’s method of composition, pointing out that “if Poe plotted out [‘The Raven’] with
such calculation, he might have taken a little more pains over it: the result hardly does credit to
his method” (Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry” 211). He observes, moreover, that we are likely “to
draw the conclusion that Poe in analyzing his poem was practicing either a hoax, or a piece of
self-deception in setting down the way in which he wanted to think that he had written it” (Eliot
211). Baudelaire can also be counted among those who are sceptical of Poe’s method as outlined
in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “Après tout, un peu de charlatanerie est toujours permis au
génie, et même ne lui messied pas” (OC II.344). Those who question the sincerity of “The
Philosophy of Composition” generally tend to read Poe as a consummate ironist. For example,
Geoffrey Harpham holds the view that “all of his art was a parody,” and contends that the essay
“mask[s] an inner compulsion as aesthetic law and biographical event” (On the Grotesque:
Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature 121, 120). Although Harpham’s perspective is
suggestive, I will not elaborate upon it here since my purpose is to trace the outline of Poe’s
critical theory to understand how the sublime contributed to its development.
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if it could be his intuition, the same shadowy, transcendent sixth sense that Poe alludes to in his
philosophical dialogues, which permits the poet to intuit the universal truths revealed in
“Eureka”: “The conviction arising from those inductions or deductions of which the processes
are so shadowy as to escape our consciousness, elude our reason, or defy our capacity of
expression” (CW XVI.206). If so, Poe’s understanding of the creative process aligns itself
closely with Wordsworth’s Romantic view of creativity (which, in turn, is reminiscent of
Longinus’ harmonious combination of natural qualities and art in the sublime). Wordsworth’s
expressive theory, as Abrams comments, “brings into its purview elements of the older
conception that poetry is a deliberate art”; although he did hold to the notion of poetry as an
overflow of feeling, he nevertheless “did not conceive of the great artist as a thoughtless and
instinctive child of nature. Just as he required the poet to keep his eye on the subject, and
reminded him that he writes not for himself, but for men, so he affirmed that good poems are
produced only by a man who has ‘thought long and deeply’” (Abrams 113).

Imagination and the Grotesque

Poe’s elucidation of the imagination as a combinant faculty follows a standard tenet of


empiricist epistemology: he claims originality rests, not in the imagination’s ability to create
something out of nothing, but in its capacity, by means of the artist’s conscious and deliberate
act of combining pre-existing forms, to synthesize these into something completely new and
unprecedented. The narrator of “The Domain of Arnheim,” for instance, affirms the following
of Arnheim, the location Ellison chooses for his masterpiece—the “clay,” so to speak, that
permits his “genius” to be “manifested very distinctly”: “Here, indeed, was the fairest field for
the display of imagination in the endless combining of forms of novel beauty; the elements to
enter into combination being, by a vast superiority, the most glorious the earth could afford”
(CW VI.182). Furthermore, in “Magazine Writing—Peter Snook,” Poe tells us that “there is no
greater mistake than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse and
inspiration”; “to originate, is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine” (CW
XIV.73). In tracing the progressive development of Poe’s particular understanding of the
imagination, Barton Levi St. Armand observes that in spite of his indebtedness to Coleridge,25
Poe resists and eventually rejects the latter’s hierarchical partition of the imaginative faculty
(“‘Seemingly Intuitive Leaps’: Belief and Unbelief in ‘Eureka’”). Contrary to Coleridge’s
distinction among the primary imagination (a creative faculty equal to God’s), the secondary

25
For a detailed study of Poe’s link to Coleridge, see Floyd Stoval’s “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge,”
Texas University Studies in English, 10 (1930): 70-127.
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imagination (a re-creative faculty), and fancy (a passive and mechanical faculty), Poe
combined aspects of Coleridge’s secondary re-creative imagination and fancy to formulate his
own version that privileged fancy “to the position of being the one and only imaginative
faculty” (St. Armand “Intuitive Leaps” 5). St. Armand cites the division of the arts into
respective categories concomitant with Coleridge’s Romantic perspective as one of the main
impediments to Poe’s adoption of his system, since it stands necessarily at odds with Poe’s
“natural taste for omnicompetence, for originality in all fields”: “Poe slowly realized that the
Coleridgean definition of the Imagination had the tendency to demean fiction and criticism to
the enhancement of Poetry” (St. Armand, “Intuitive Leaps” 5-6). Consequently, Poe also
inevitably rejects Coleridge’s attribution to the artist of creative powers equal to those of God.
In St. Armand’s view, Poe’s “dethroning” of the “mystical basis” of Coleridge’s definition of
the primary imagination has positive ramifications: “Poe uses the finite aspect of reality […]
not to confine but rather to liberate the poetic imagination” (St. Armand, “Intuitive Leaps” 7,
6).
According to Poe’s critical theory, fancy, a term interchangeable with intuition and
imagination, (not to be mistaken for Coleridge’s notion of imagination) replaces the Romantic
notion of inspiration, yet it assumes the role the Romantics commonly associate with the
creative imagination in terms of its capacity to enable the poet to approach the realm of the
suprasensible: “It brings [the imaginative man’s] soul often to a glimpse of things supernal and
eternal—to the very verge of the great secrets” (CW XIV.187). “There is but one imaginative
exercise left” to Poe’s artist, St. Armand remarks: “that of intuition” (St. Armand “Intuitive
Leaps” 7). Significantly, both terms are predicated on Poe’s notion of effect: “The
Imagination, the Fancy, and the Poetic Sentiment were to Poe all names of an active principle
to be looked for in the effect of the art-product itself, not in the nice abstractions and
argumentations of the schools” (St. Armand, “Intuitive Leaps” 8 [emphases added]).26 As Kelly
remarks, intuition is a remnant of Schlegel’s “metaphysical machinery” that Poe adopts in his
understanding of beauty, “which allows the true poet to strive towards a mystical vision of the
supernal beauty” (Kelly 522). Effect, which is grounded, as we have seen, on an understanding
of the sublime, therefore sustains Poe’s definition of the artist’s imaginative faculty.
In the Marginalia Poe defines the imagination as drawing in equal parts “from either
Beauty or Deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined” (CW XVI.155-
156), and maintains, in an excerpt from “Fifty Suggestions,” that an artist is “an artist only by

26
For example, Poe characterizes the poet’s intuition in terms of “the struggle to apprehend the
supernal Loveliness” (CW XVI.274).
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dint of his exquisite sense of Beauty” as well as “an equally exquisite sense of Deformity or
disproportion” (CW XIV.175). On the one hand these passages suggest that the grotesque
underlies Poe’s conception of art; on the other hand, they formalize his predilection for the
themes of death and decay he found in Blackwood’s, or what Alterton aptly identifies as the
life-in-death theme in reference to the original title of the story subsequently known as “The
Oval Portrait.” “The coupling of beauty with disease,” particularly “the viewing of the
horrors,” “the repulsive forms of diseased conditions, as they work to the final destruction of
some beautiful woman,” was a commonplace in Blackwood’s to which Poe professed
particular affinity (Alterton 23). Poe’s famous assertion, in “The Philosophy of Composition,”
that “the death [...] of a beautiful woman, is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the
world” comes readily to mind (CW XIV.201). The uniting of death, decay, and beauty, a
combination exploited by the Decadents during the late nineteenth century, is by no means an
idea original to Poe. Alterton points to the likelihood of Poe’s indebtedness to a series called
“Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician,” appearing in Blackwood’s intermittently from
1830 to1839, for his development of this leitmotif. As well, he may have drawn inferences
from Burke’s statement, in his treatise on the sublime and the beautiful, on the “affecting
beauty” a woman in distress conveys, not to mention Archibald Alison’s affirmation, in Essays
on the Nature and Principles of Taste (Edinburgh 1790), that the “imagination is exalted by the
moral sentiment of beauty heightened in dissolution” (Alterton 24 [citing Alison I.16]).
All of Poe’s themes, even those which are not overtly linked with death and
decomposition (those explored in the landscape tales come to mind), possess one element in
common: the transgression of an established limit or order. In his analysis of the “verbal-visual
strategies” Poe adopts in his prose, Frederick L. Burwick explains that although Poe’s notion of
the beautiful includes the picturesque, the sublime, the arabesque, and the grotesque, these do
not “always contribute to the beautiful”:
All four are highly unstable and may wreak violent discord, destructive to the aesthetic
harmony of the beautiful. Their instability as aesthetic categories derives from the
peculiar charge they bear to conjure specific modes of visual evocation in language,
modes which challenge, even defy rational order. Since their capacity to perplex or
overwhelm the reason is part of their defining characteristics, their definitions, to that
degree, admit irrationality. They evoke visual experience, a visual experience which is
necessarily within the mind of the reader; moreover, it is within the mind of Poe’s
fictive narrator, a mind that is often deranged. (Burwick, “Edgar Allan Poe: The
Sublime and the Grotesque” 113, 70)

According to Geoffrey Galt Harpham, moreover, the grotesque, upon which Poe’s faculty of
imagination is predicated, is “a species of confusion”; “it is defined as and recognized in
common usage by a certain set of obstacles to structured thought” (Harpham, On the Grotesque
83

xxi) “The word itself,” he explains, “is a storage-place for the outcasts of language, entities for
which there is no appropriate noun; and this accords with the sense of formal disorder we
perceive in grotesqueries, in which ontological, generic, or logical categories are illegitimately
jumbled together” (Harpham xxi). By standing, as Harpham remarks, “at the margin of
consciousness between the known and the unknown, the perceived and the unperceived, calling
into question the adequacy of our ways of organizing the world, of dividing the continuum of
experience into knowable particles” (Harpham 3), the grotesque, in my view, can be interpreted
as a figuration of the abject. In the concluding thoughts to his Derridean-inspired reading of
Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Harpham indirectly underscores the relation between
abjection and the grotesque in Poe’s art. “Poe’s imagination and art flourished only at [the]
margin” that the grotesque implies, “for only there,” Harpham maintains,
could he interpose a fiction between himself and a fate impossible to confront directly.
In his work this fate generally goes by the name death, which helps explain why his
fictions are so obsessed with premature burial, dismemberment, torture, plotted and
investigated murders, and the experimentation with liminal states such as hypnotism
and mesmeric revelation. In these acts or conditions, life and death flow into each
other. This is Poe’s art: between silent health and silent death comes disease or
infection, which equals narrative. (Harpham 118-9 [emphases added])

Thus, the “impossible fate” in Poe’s work is not death per se, but the idea of an irreversible
transformation. Death merely signifies the limit of our ontological condition.
As I hope to have shown, Poe’s critical theory is pragmatic: his terminology and
categories fall under the aegis of his notion of unity of effect. Moreover, this effect, “the
human aspiration for supernal beauty,” is defined primarily in terms of the Longinian
sublime;27 however, Poe does not insist on the moral dimension attendant to it. In the words of
Robert Jacobs, “to those who require a work of art to do something other than move us, Poe’s
reductionism is alarming, for fiction loses all ethical and social value under the doctrine of the
single effect” (Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic 324). If, according to Harpham, narrative in
Poe is an infection28 yet its aim is to convey an effect akin to the sublime, it would seem that
we are faced with a paradox whose full import will become evident in my analyses of
“Mesmeric Revelation,” “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the
House of Usher,” and “The Domain of Arnheim.” In contrast to Poe’s poetics, wherein the

27
My analysis of a selection of his tales will demonstrate that Poe’s understanding of the sublime
was not limited to Longinus’ formulation and addresses the commonalities shared by Longinus,
Burke, and Kant.
28
Joan Danyan expresses an analogous view: “Poe’s tales should be read as varying attempts to
enter the mind, to break into the room or repository filled with the dregs of remembrance (or
recycled textual conventions) and there to commemorate this palimpsest defiled” (Danyan, “Poe,
Locke and Kant” 42 [emphasis added]).
84

notion of effect is predicated principally on the Longinian sublime, the effect his tales
dramatize is the horror of abjection. The contrast between Poe’s idealizing poetics and its
perverse manifestation in his fiction suggests that, in the words of John Irwin, the “sublime
[…] is an abyss” in Poe (Irwin, American Hieroglyphs 51).

Part 3 — Figuring the Abyss: An Analysis of Selected Short Stories

Mesmerism and the Limits of Experience: “Mesmeric Revelation” and “The


Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”
A year following the transcendent “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844), wherein Vankirk, speaking
for some time “from out the regions of the shadows” on the ontological ground of being, “with
a bright smile irradiating all his features,” “fell back upon his pillow and expired” (CW V.254),
Poe presents us with “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” (1845), a tale in which the
decomposition of the title character’s viscera into a “liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable
putridity” constitutes the central leitmotif (CW VI.166). According to Thompson, “Valdemar”
is illustrative of what Poe meant by the “ludicrous heightened into the grotesque” (Thompson,
Romantic Irony 158). In each text, under the influence of mesmerism the entranced subject
apparently crosses the threshold of death; as Ruth Mayer explains, Poe exploits and
sensationalizes the limits of medical knowledge about the condition of death in the nineteenth
century. “If today Poe’s approaches to the extraordinary situation of dying seem purely
‘fictional’,” explains Mayer, “their fictionality was considerably less certain in the nineteenth
century; indeed, he consciously and deliberately echoes scientific rhetoric in order to blur the
boundary between scientific documentation and aesthetic experimentation” (Mayer, “Neither
Life Nor Death: Poe’s Aesthetic Transfiguration of Popular Notions of Death” 1).
As a liminal state whose effect is to simulate the self’s confrontation with the limits of
experience, mesmerism can be interpreted as a figuration of a crisis in subjectivity. Juxtaposed
to the transcendent awareness preceding the exalted death of Vankirk, Valdemar’s subjectivity
is reduced to his “swollen and blackened tongue,” from which the “ejaculations of ‘dead!
dead!’” were “absolutely bursting” (CW VI.166, 162). Poe appears to revel in the abject
descriptions of Valdemar’s transformation. Contrary to the poetic depiction of Vankirk’s death,
where the corpse assumes “all the stern rigidity of stone” that, “ordinarily, should […] have
appeared, only after a long pressure from Azrael’s hand” (CW V.254), the narrator describes
Valdermar’s act of speech, at a point when his body is already in an advanced state of
putrefaction, in terms of a perverse synaesthesia at the boundaries of the sensible. When
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Valdemar speaks, “the sound was harsh, broken and hollow”; his voice impresses the narrator
“as gelatinous or glutinous matters impress the sense of touch” (CW VI.163). The effect of
“the hideous whole is indescribable, for the simple reason that no similar sounds have ever
jarred upon the ear of humanity” (CW VI.163 [emphasis added]). The “shadows” from which
Valdemar speaks, moreover, are described as an abyss: it was from “a vast distance” or “some
deep cavern within the earth” that “the voice seemed to reach our ears” (CW VI.163).
As Roland Barthes points out in his semiotic analysis of Baudelaire’s translation of
Poe’s “Valdemar,” the name Valdemar indicates the valley of the sea (“la vallée de la mer”)
and points to the title character’s otherness: “L’abîme océanique, la profondeur marine est un
thème cher à Poe: le gouffre réfère à ce qui est deux fois hors de la nature, sous les eaux et sous
la terre” (Barthes, “Analyse textuelle d'un conte d’Edgar Poe” 335-6). In Barthes’ view, the
body, or more appropriately, the tongue, which speaks its own death (here the pun on the word
“langue” in French, meaning both language and the organ we use to speak, is significant to his
reading), constitutes a scandal of language: “L’action du mort est une pure action de langage,
et, ce qui est un comble, ce langage ne sert à rien […] il ne dit rien sinon lui-même, il se
désigne tautologiquement” (Barthes 352). Valdemar’s utterance “I am dead” is shocking
because, as Barthes explains, “[ce] n’est nullement l’énoncé incroyable, mais bien plus
radicalement l’énonciation impossible” (Barthes 354). Kennedy sums up the implications of
Barthes’ observations and of the conclusion of “Valdemar”: “The tale violates language, logic,
and cultural taboo, allowing the unspeakable to speak, the unbearable sight to be seen. It
compels us to confront death in all of its visceral repulsiveness, unsoftened by the effusion of
sentiment or the prospect of a spiritual afterlife” (Kennedy, “Phantasms of Death in Poe’s
Fiction” 133). Put another way, “Valdemar’s hideous body forecloses communication. As it
insists on holding onto language, however, it eventually brings forth the long-repressed, and
terrifying, aspects of the intermediate state” (Mayer 6). In “Valdemar,” both the story and the
title character are abject.
Read in opposition to each other, “Valdemar” and “Revelation” present certain structural
differences that anticipate their radical disparity in perspective. In “Revelation,” the narrator,
whose task it is to ask well-directed questions, appears to be merely a prop in the staging of
Vankirk’s discoveries. Vankirk, in whom “the acute susceptibility and exaltation of the
mesmeric perception had supervened,” is nonetheless under the complete control of the
narrator by means of his mesmeric influence (CW V.242). The narrator’s will supervenes,
suggesting, even to the most credulous reader, the idea that Vankirk’s performance verifies
nothing except its conformity to the expectations apparent in the narrator’s queries, all of
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which are guided by the narrator’s desire to satisfy his curiosity “concerning certain psychal
impressions which, of late, have occasioned [him] much anxiety and surprise” on “the topic of
the soul’s immortality” (CW V.242). (In Poe, the power of the mesmeric influence can be
devastating: without much effort, Dr. Templeton dominates completely the will of Augustus
Bedloe for his own ends in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”). Poe makes his position on
mesmerism’s transcendent virtues evident in several instances: although he does not dispute
“the prodigious importance of the mesmeric influence in surgical cases,” in his criticism of a
treatise in defence of human magnetism, published in The Broadway Journal in 1845, he
refrains from embracing all of the stipulated “curative effects of magnetism” (CW XII.123).
“Valdemar” and “Revelation,” texts in which Poe recounts the experience, under trance, of
characters suffering from the later stages of consumption, can be read in terms of an extreme
refutation of the alleged restorative effects of mesmerism: there is no cure for death.
In an excerpt from the Marginalia, moreover, he describes “Revelation” as a hoax
intended to poke fun at Swedenborg and his acolytes by calling the story “a pure fiction from
beginning to end” (CW XVI.71). “Vankirk’s revelations sound, on the surface, rapturously
profound, but if we look at what he says very closely, and note some of the exchanges between
him and P., Vankirk’s unexplained assumptions, circular logic, metaphysical jargon, and
mystic-poetic epigrams, paradoxes, and oxymorons begin to look suspiciously like a parody of
occult metaphysics” (Thompson, Romantic Irony 153). Poe’s scepticism is echoed in the satiric
“Some Words with a Mummy,” a text parodying the pseudo-scientific and cultural
developments of the nineteenth century and published in the same year as “Revelation” (1844).
Upon being revivified by a galvanic battery, the Egyptian mummy Allamistakeo provides the
following reply, summarized by the narrator, to the scientists’ defence of “the assumptions of
phrenology and the marvels of animal magnetism”:
Prototypes of Gall and Spurzheim had flourished and faded in Egypt so long ago as to
be nearly forgotten, [...] the manoeuvres of Mesmer were really very contemptible
tricks when put in collation with the positive miracles of the Theban savans, [sic] who
created lice and a great many other similar things. (CW VI.133)

If “Revelation” constitutes a parody of the revelatory virtues of mesmerism, Poe


intended “Valdemar” to be no more authentic. In a letter dated December 30, 1846, Poe writes
of its apparent verisimilitude: “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case”
(Ostrom ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe II.337). Speaking of certain incongruous details in
the characterization of Valdemar and the particulars of his medical condition, Thompson
observes that in “combining the comic with effective and apparently realistic grisly details—
details, which, if examined, are absurd,” “Poe is indulging in the hoaxer’s jest” (Thompson,
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Romantic Irony 159). It is significant that, contrary to “Revelation,” “Valdemar” stages the
conflict between the will of the title character and that of the narrator; whereas the latter may
have little control over his patient’s will, since it “was at no period positively, or thoroughly,
under [the narrator’s] control, and in regard to clairvoyance, [he] could accomplish with him
nothing to be relied upon” (CW V.155), the narrator nonetheless dominates the text. The
narrator’s voice and his morbid purpose of determining “to what extent, or for how long a
period, the encroachments of Death might be arrested by the process” of mesmerism frame his
meetings with Valdemar and all of the latter’s reactions (CW VI.155). It is therefore not
shocking for the reader to discover that instead of being transformed into a disembodied
intellect, Valdemar decomposes; his “insufficient volition” (CW VI.164) precipitates his
collapse into abjection.
Although “Revelation” is a hoax, it nonetheless expounds on ideas central to Poe’s
understanding of the imagination that “Eureka” elaborates; the notion of mesmerism,
particularly as a result of the altered state of consciousness it induces, is propitious to the
workings of Poe’s poetic intuition. In a letter written to a popular mesmerist dated January of
1845, Poe explains how significant the ideas he develops in “Revelation” through the
mouthpiece of Vankirk were to him (recall that the narrator’s name is Mr. P). Although Poe’s
chief concern is with the verisimilitude of Vankirk’s experience, this passage emphasizes his
yearning to have the “absolute originality” of his ideas confirmed:
I have ventured to send you the article because there are many points in it which bear
upon the subject-matter of your last admirable work on the Future Condition of Man
and therefore I am induced to hope that you will do me the honor to look over what I
have said. You will, of course, understand that the article is purely fiction; —but I
have embodied in it some thoughts which are original with myself & am exceedingly
anxious to learn if they have claim to absolute originality, and also how far they will
strike you as well based. (Ostrom ed., Letters I.273)

“Revelation” defines the mesmeric trance as a condition in which “man, by mere exercise of
the will, can so impress his fellow, as to cast him into an abnormal condition, of which the
phenomena resemble very closely those of death,” wherein, on the one hand, the subject’s
“intellectual faculties are wonderfully exalted and invigorated,” and, on the other hand, he
“perceives, with keenly refined perception, and through channels supposedly unknown, matters
beyond the scope of the physical organs” (CW V.241). Mesmerism, therefore, is a
manifestation of reverie, “of which latter the mesmeric condition is the extreme” (CW
XIV.187):
The intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge,
when reason herself falters and abandons the effort, [resembles] the sudden glancing at
a star, by which we see it more clearly than by a direct gaze; or the half-closing of the
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eyes in looking at a plot of grass the more fully to appreciate the intensity of its green.
(CW XIV.189-190)

Whereas reverie enables subjects to engage in an aesthetic contemplation of the objects


surrounding them, the mesmeric trance, during which “the glassy roll of the eye [is] changed
for that expression of uneasy inward examination which is never seen except in cases of sleep-
walking” (CW VI.159), masquerades as a state of being that permits subjects to reflect on the
foundation of their access to the phenomenal world: their noumenal selves. As a metaphor for
artistic perception, the mesmeric trance serves as an articulation both of the limits of sensible
experience and of representation. However, Vankirk and Valdemar discover nothing except
the beliefs and biases implied in the questions of their respective narrators; in such a light,
Poe’s understanding of mesmerism amounts to a perverse sublimity, where, through a violation
of personal identity, the will of the other overtakes the subject’s, and we experience as our own
the perspective conveyed through the power of his words.
There are many possible ways to interpret the conclusion of “Valdemar”: perhaps the
title character is not susceptible to Poe’s poetic sentiment; lacking the poetic feeling, that
vocation Poe ascribes to men of genius, he is unable to rise above “mortal affairs just so far as
to get a comprehensive and general view”; his “soul,” therefore, cannot separate “itself from its
own idiosyncrasy” (CW XIV.186). Ironically, therefore, it is Valdemar’s “sense of self which
debases, and which keeps [him] debased” (CW XIV.186). Conversely, perhaps the scepticism
evident is the narrator’s tone precludes any chance Valdemar may have had of attaining the
beatific understanding Vankirk reaches prior to his death. Instead of facilitating an experience
of the sublime, as in “Revelation,” the mesmeric trance in “Valdemar” forces the subject’s gaze
inward, to “some deep cavern within” the self (CW V.163): Valdemar becomes abject.
“Mesmeric Revelation” and “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” are therefore a lot
alike: both dramatize impossible experiences and the fragmentation of identity. The
paradoxical grounding of extremes in the thematization of mesmerism is both symptomatic of
the duplicity intrinsic to Poe’s aesthetics and a testament to the complementary nature of the
notions of abjection and sublimity: the same experience can inspire a sense of either in Poe.
Mesmerism, moreover, is only one of the many forms this complementarity between abjection
and sublimity assumes in Poe’s fiction; his philosophical dialogues, in particular “The
Colloquy of Monos and Una,” present transcendent beings forever caught in an abjected state.
Monos speaks to Una of the blissful dwelling place for “the now immortal, but still for the
material, man,” yet a large portion of his narrative is spent detailing his sensations, if they can
be so called, after the death of his body (CW IV.205). Thompson observes the “perverse
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synaesthesia” evident in Monos’ description of “the horror of living death,” and affirms that
“the mystic unity with the great design of the universe is undercut by increasingly horrible
details” (Thompson, Romantic Irony 184-187). Una’s silence at the end of the text, moreover,
is arguably more horrible than any description of decay Monos can recount; it marks the
alienation of true lovers, who, as Thompson notes, “need not have feared the grim finality and
isolation of death” (Thompson, Romantic Irony 187). Kennedy provides an eloquent overview
of the paradox of what he terms the “false transcendence” of Poe’s dialogues; it is worth citing
at length:
Despite the conception of an unearthly, astral form, an odd materialism informs Poe’s
notion of the spirit world; “Aidenn” is simply a place where things, substances, are
less densely constituted. God is “unparticled matter,” souls have bodies, and words
have physical power. It is as if, for all his mystical inclinations, Poe cannot escape an
empirical vision of a bounded world. His depiction of an afterlife seems to express a
yearning for a realm “out of space, out of time,” beyond the contingencies of mortal
existence. Yet in fact his spirit figures carry with them a good deal of earthly
baggage—memories, affections, beliefs, political opinions—and spend much of their
time (if one can thus speak of the eternal) reflecting upon personal experiences or
explaining celestial phenomena according to mundane scientific principles. In short,
Poe’s visionary texts (and here I include the monumentally confused “Eureka”) project
a false transcendence, a phantasmic existence after death, conceptually embedded in a
cosmos of matter and energy, a system that culminates in irreversible dissolution:
entropy. (Kennedy, “Phantasms of Death in Poe’s Fiction” 130)

As Mayer succinctly affirms, “the aesthetic excitement of the soul and the sensuous excitement
of the body as experienced in the state between life and death tend to merge almost
imperceptibly”; the “sensuous body,” “for Poe, had come to displace (or incorporate) ‘spirit’
and ‘soul’ as the traditional safeguards of self” (Mayer 4). Following Monos’ metamorphosis it
appears that our experience of Poe’s notion of effect reaches its pinnacle when we are caught in
the transition between life and the putrefaction that incontrovertibly signifies death. Hence, if
Poe frames the abject materiality of Valdemar’s act of speech in the conventions of the
Burkean sublime—the effect of its sound exceeds the narrator’s descriptive abilities and it
appears to originate from an incalculable distance—it is because the abject and the sublime are
reciprocally exchangeable in Poe: both inspire a vertiginous self-awareness on the edge of an
abyss that irresistibly beckons us to “more impetuously approach it” (“The Imp of Perverse,”
CW VI.149).

“Ligeia” and “Usher”: The Horror of Abjection


In Poe’s family romances, particularly “Ligeia” (1838) and “The Fall of the House of Usher”
(1839), the imposed restrictions of setting, action, and characterization focus the narratives on
the female protagonists’ ritual transformations from material to ostensibly ideal objects capable
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of arousing a sense of Poe’s supernal beauty in the male characters who objectify them. The
“immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man” (CW XIV.273) is manifested in what Poe
considers to be the most poetical melancholy topic: the death of a beautiful woman. In spite of
the idealism conveyed in his notion of supernal beauty, Poe’s presentation of the death of a
beautiful woman generally focuses on her decaying corpse. As Howes remarks of Poe’s family
romances, “each tale documents a male observer’s horrified response as he witnesses a
perverse, Titanic power possess a beautiful, dying woman” (Howes, “Burke, Poe, and ‘Usher’:
The Sublime and Rising Woman” 185). Danyan’s explication of “Poe’s dream-dimmed ladies,
Berenice, Morella, and Ligeia” sums up the prevailing critical position:
Yet although Poe theorizes about an absolute ideal of beauty and purity in “The Poetic
Principle,” in practice his tales never remain ethereal. As searing examinations of
mind, they are never freed from a highly sensuous though disturbing material
contamination and decay. Poe’s lady is finally no vessel for essence, her dualities
harmonized; nor is she merely a compound muse and fury. (Danyan Fables 491)

In “Poe’s Gothic Mother and the Incubation of Language,” Monika Elbert explains the nature
of Poe’s motif of the beautiful dying woman and its symbolic association with what Kristeva
calls the language of the mother: “The unknowable, the unsayable […] which cannot be
separated from the marginalized discourse of death/illness, insanity, sexuality, and ultimately
from silence, or non-language” (Elbert 22). She contends that in Poe’s “evanescent language of
sickroom [sic],” “the meaning is not in the words but in the ‘horror’ that defies words; the
meaning resides in feeling” (Elbert 22). Poe is not so much interested in representing a sexual
relationship with the mother figure, the nature of which Freud would later characterize as
Oedipal; instead, “it is an irretrievable non-linguistic connection to the mother which fascinates
Poe,” in which he yearns for a language through which he can “capture her essence or make
sense of her absence” (Elbert 23, 25). I agree with Elbert insofar as the meaning of mother
signifies not simply the woman who gives birth to a child but the idea of a lost origin which
can never be regained: language, the means of our access to culture or the symbolic, suppresses
what Kristeva refers to as the language of the mother. In showing the limits of symbolic
language—a realm of which the experience of the sublime is representative—“Ligeia” and
“Usher” dramatize the horror of abjection.
It is a commonplace in criticism on “Ligeia” to contend that, as a fiction of the narrator’s
imagination, the ethereal Ligeia, unlike the mortal “fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena,”
(CW II.259) embodies Poe’s ideal of supernal beauty: her characterization is vague (she has no
surname and speaks only on her deathbed) and she is present to the reader solely through the
narrator’s act of obsessive reminiscence. Moreover, it is evident that Ligeia inspires a sense of
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the sublime in the narrator; in her character the metaphysical and intellectual aspects of Poe’s
aesthetics combine. For instance, the analogy the narrator feels to exist “in the contemplation
of a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, a stream of running water,” and the expression in Ligeia’s
“large and luminous orbs” (CW II.251) are suggestive of humanity’s “Death-purged”29
(“Colloquy,” CW IV.205) and blissful metamorphosis dramatized in “The Power of Words,”
“The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” and “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”: the
characters, speaking from “Aidenn,” or “Poe’s world of supernal beauty and reborn spirits,”30
have transcended the death of their material self, and, by dint of their poetic intellect, have
become cognizant of the metaphysical truths Poe promulgates in “Eureka” (Bennett, “‘The
Madness of Art’”: Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ as Metafiction” 3). Thus, Ligeia is not merely an ideal of
beauty; she represents humanity in its perfected state. This is further suggested by her infinite
erudition, which encompasses “all the wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical
science” (CW II.254). Evidently, she exceeds her husband in both knowledge and intelligence.
The narrator’s dependence on Ligeia’s guidance and his recognition of her superior intellect—
he “was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign [him]self, with a childlike
confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation” (CW
II.254)—suggest that she also represents the ultimate love object: the mother. As Joseph
Andriano explains, the narrator “never loves her as a wife but as a mother who takes care of
him, provides for him both materially and intellectually” (Andriano, Our Ladies of Darkness
87). The narrator’s idealization of Ligeia consequently signifies a longing for a state where self
and other are united in a symbiotic relationship: Ligeia, “whose more than passionate
devotion” for the narrator “amounted to idolatry” (CW II.255), offers the all-encompassing
embrace of the ideal mother.31
There is a certain Burkean stupefaction perceptible in the narrator’s monologue during
the “hideous drama” (CW II.267) of Rowena’s revivification, wherein he imagines that Ligeia

29
For example, like the moth or butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Oinos in “The Power of
Words” betrays “the weakness of a spirit new-fledged with immortality” (CW VI.139); similarly,
Una in “The Colloquy” is “born again” (CW IV.200). Moreover, in “The Conversation,” Eiros
speaks of hearing “the voice of many waters” during his transformation (CW IV.2).
30
Bennett also refers to “Words,” “Colloquy,” and “Conversation” to explain the significance of the
Glanvill epigraph in “Ligeia”: “it exists as a kind of metaphor for that triumph over death which,
for Poe, is an escape into the ideal world of poetry” (Bennett 3).
31
Citing W. H. Auden’s notion that “the tendency of the Romantic hero was to want to be a God,”
Brian Barbour argues that the narrator in “Ligeia” feels himself worshipped by Ligeia and asks:
“if Ligeia, being all that she is, worships him, what must he be?” (Barbour, “Poe and Tradition”
79). However, Barbour presents a false analogy in that the narrator’s enjoyment of the mother
figure’s unbounded and endlessly comforting devotion is indeed childlike, yet it has nothing to do
with the Prometheus-complex that characterizes many Romantic heroes in their aspiration to a
quasi-godlike status.
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usurps her cadaver. It would seem that the narrator is astonished: he experiences “that state of
soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror […] The mind is so
entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, or by consequence reason on
that object which employs it” (Burke II.IV.57).
I trembled not—I stirred not—for a crowd of unutterable fancies connected with the
air, the stature, the demeanor of the figure, rushing hurriedly through my brain, had
paralyzed—had chilled me into stone. I stirred not—but gazed upon the apparition.
There was a mad disorder in my thoughts—a tumult unappeasable. (CW II.267-268)

The narrator, who is under no genuine threat from the apparition, suffers his imagination to be
overwhelmed by it. As E. J. Clery points out in his discussion of ghosts in the Gothic genre,
from the reader’s perspective the relationship between the narrator and Ligeia in the text’s
closing lines can be summed up in the following terms: the reader experiences “the effect” of
the revivification of Rowena’s corpse as “pleasurable in so far as [it] is known to be fictional
and enjoyed as part of the dramatic artifice, but terrible in that, simultaneously, disbelief is
suspended far enough for the passions to operate as if [it] were a reality” (Clery, “Laying the
Ground for the Gothic: The Passage of the Supernatural from Truth to Spectacle” 73-74).
Scholars have argued that Rowena must die for Ligeia to rise again in the narrator’s
imagination: that is unquestionably so. As Kennedy points out, “in Poe’s fictional and poetic
world, the suffering and death of the beloved figure repeatedly pales into insignificance beside
the self-absorption of her survivor”; the women’s “dying selves serve the poetic purpose of
enhancing the male experience of melancholy beauty” (Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of
Writing 160). Likewise, Karen Weekes explains that “the value of what is viewed lies solely in
the response induced in the observer, and the subject takes complete precedence over its
object”; hence, “the woman must die in order to enlarge the experience of the narrator, her
viewer” (Weekes, “Poe’s Feminine Ideal” 148). The text’s aesthetic pattern, governed by Poe’s
notion of effect and determined by the characterization of Ligeia as an embodiment of both the
ideal love object and the death-refined suprasensible sublime, could not be fulfilled without
Rowena’s destruction. As Moldenhauer observes, “murder constitutes a radical but
fundamentally aesthetic solution to the problem of disunity and separateness in a fragmented
universe” (Moldenhauer 292). The narrator can therefore be said to represent Poe’s man of
genius,32 both artist and high priest at the altar of beauty, who casts Rowena as a blood-
sacrifice to the memory of her whose beauty “passed into [his] spirit, there dwelling as in a

32
Moldenhauer defends this position in the following terms: “Consider the lugubrious husband of
Ligeia, whose ‘philosophy of furniture’ is equally exquisite, and whose artistry (though he is
seemingly ignorant of its intention and effect) serves to transform his second wife, Rowena, into
her beloved predecessor, by debilitating and finally destroying her” (Moldenhauer 291).
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shrine,” and whose narrative assumes the function of a ritual incantation aiming to “restore
[Ligeia] to the pathways she had abandoned” (CW II.252, 261). However, in his struggle to
“apprehend the supernal Loveliness,” the narrator of “Ligeia” is instead left to contemplate his
“lost love” (CW II.268).
The morbid spectacle the narrator imagines, and which prompts the appearance of Ligeia
in his fancy, suggests that the effect of supernal beauty can be experienced only in the abject.
There is marked contrast between the state of Rowena’s corpse, its imagined animation, and
the speaker’s reaction to the scene:
The greater part of the fearful night had worn away, and she who had been dead once
again stirred—and now more vigorously than hitherto, although arousing from a
dissolution more appalling in its utter hopelessness than any. I had long ceased to
struggle or to move, and remained sitting rigidly upon the ottoman, a helpless prey to a
whirl of violent emotions, of which extreme awe was perhaps the least terrible, the
least consuming. (CW II.268)

It seems that the more intensely Rowena’s corpse bears the incontrovertible marks of death, the
more actively does the narrator’s imagination suggest to him that the body revives, and the
more enthralled he becomes with the spectacle he creates in his mind of Ligeia’s return.
According to Thompson’s examination of the genesis of “Ligeia” in terms of the impact of its
reception over the several years in which it was modified and published as well as Poe’s
references to it in his correspondence, it appears that Poe deliberately revised the story to deny
it the possibility that Ligeia’s incarnation in the corpse of Rowena be interpreted as sublime
(Thompson, Romantic Irony 78-80). Likewise, Jerry A. Herndon reads “Ligeia” in terms of a
direct attack on Emerson’s Nature, “demonstrating his skeptical assessment of Emersonian
Transcendentalism” (Herndon, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’: Debts to Irving and Emerson” 127). Hence, if,
as Danyan contends, the tales about women “are about men who narrate the unspeakable
remembrance” (Danyan, “Amorous Bondage: Poe, Ladies, and Slaves” 244), as a figure of the
mother Ligeia represents an obsession with an origin that can never be recovered. Contrary to
the Longinian, Burkean, or Kantian subject’s experiences of the sublime, however, who feels
his humanity to be elevated as a result of his transport, and who, in the case of Kant, recognizes
a correspondence between his mental faculties and the world as though the latter were made to
harmonize with the former, what the narrator of “Ligeia”—a self-engrossed murderer and
monomaniac—discovers about himself he would have been better off not knowing: as Poe
remarks in the Marginalia, “in our efforts to soar above our nature, we invariably fall below it”
(CW XVI.161).
The question of the sublime in “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been commented
upon by a number of scholars, who generally contend that the tale openly subverts the sublime
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in some form or other.33 The narrator’s opening remarks set the tone for scholarly
investigations of Poe’s critique of the sublime in “Usher”; his aesthetic expectations are
continuously deflated as the text progresses34 and the imminent danger he experiences at the
story’s conclusion, where the mansion practically collapses on top of him, confirms his
apprehensions when he first confronted the house of Usher. Whether he represents Darrel
Abel’s rational “Everyman,” as Patrick F. Quinn maintains, or provides, according to
Thompson, a “limited” and “purely subjective” vision,35 or is a man whose malady, as
Benjamin Franklin Fisher would have it, “stems from overindulgence in the ‘pseudo-horrors of
Germanism’” (Fisher IV, “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: The
Storyteller’s Art” 362), his perceptions upon encountering the Usher house deny the possibility
of an experience of the sublime:
I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of
insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was
unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the
mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible [...]
There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of
thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.
(CW III.273)

In reference to this passage, Ljungquist maintains that “Poe rarely mentions the sublime
explicitly when describing his circumscribed, claustrophobic settings,” and observes that in
“Usher,” “the scenery generates depression rather than Burkean sublimity” (Ljungquist, The
Grand and the Fair 52, 184). Likewise, Voller argues that in “Usher” “Poe has altered […] not
the form or structure of sublime experience but its character”:
The narrator experiences “motions of the soul,” to use Burke’s language, but the
movement is downward and in, not upward and out: the narrator speaks of lapse,
dropping, sinking. What should have been an experience of liberation and exaltation

33
Matthew C. Brennan’s argument in “Turnerian Topography: The Paintings of Roderick Usher”
strengthens the case made by any reading which claims that “Usher” makes reference to an
aesthetics of the sublime: “Though it is difficult to visualize Roderick’s obscure paintings, Poe
provides interpretive hints through both his qualified comparisons to Fuseli and the vocabulary of
sublime images he uses to describe Usher’s pictures. Clearly, unlike Fuseli’s style of sharply
outlined forms, Usher’s style depends so heavily on light that nothing is distinctly expressed and
everything is vague. In other words, Usher develops an expressionistic Romantic style that
parallels the light-dominated landscapes Turner produced throughout the 1830s and 1840s, the
period when Poe wrote ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” (Brennan 607).
34
Howes explains that Poe purposely confuses Burke’s sources of sublimity to highlight the
shortcomings of the Burkean sublime. For example, the narrator’s “puzzlement” when faced with
the Usher mansion and his friend Roderick’s condition stems “from a naïve aesthetic mingling of
the ‘natural’ sublime and the ‘psychological’ or ’sympathetic sublime’” (Howes 117), two
categories Burke is careful to distinguish.
35
Quinn’s and Thompson’s dialogue and respective explications of their differing views appear in
three chapters of Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in
Honor of Darrel Abel.
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proves instead a denial of transcendence, a “bitter” and “hideous” repudiation of


sublimity’s power of apotheosis. (Voller, “The Power of Terror” 28)

In his analysis of what he discerns as the two forces that oppress Roderick Usher—the incest
taboo and the historically-conditioned drive to propagate the species—Howes argues that
“what Poe reveals are historically and sexually determined sources of terror that refuse to fit
any object-subject, stimulus-reaction pattern, and that thus prevent any aesthetic distancing or
escape” (Howes 173). Ljungquist’s, Voller’s, and Howes’ readings all converge on one idea:
“Usher” transgresses the limits of the sublime experience. However, this begs the question:
What kind of effect did Poe aim to convey in this tale? Put another way, what sort of feeling
does the death of a beautiful woman inspire in her male observers in “Usher”? According to
Foster, “fear is itself an object of desire” in “Usher”; “the most important consequence of any
of the possible events that might befall Usher is his experience of horror, fear, and terror”
(Foster 53). In my view, “Usher” dramatizes the horror of abjection.
In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the twins Roderick and Madeline echo Ligeia’s
characterization: they are the scions of a “very ancient family” known for “a peculiar
sensibility of temperament” as well as unusual artistic aptitude, “displaying itself, through long
ages, in many works of exalted art” (CW III.275). The relationship between Roderick and
Madeline is especially significant, since it parallels the ontological opposition between mind
and body represented by Ligeia and Rowena. First, Roderick’s exceptional artistic endeavours
recall Ligeia’s unsurpassed learning, and second, both possess eccentricities that further
distinguish them: Ligeia displays emotional excess in her idolatrous adoration of the narrator,
whereas Roderick is plagued by a “morbid acuteness of the senses” (CW III 280). In particular,
“the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the
odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there
were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with
horror” (CW III 280). As a result of the hypersensitivity imposed by his illness, Roderick is a
parody of what Ligeia represents: although he attempts to transcend the confines of the body
and lead a purely mental existence, he is nonetheless overwhelmed by the apparent sentience of
his material surroundings. Eventually, Roderick loses the ability to reason: the narrator
observes, prior to Madeline’s burial, “a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering
of his lofty reason upon her throne” (CW III 284). Ultimately, Roderick’s narcissistic genius
and artistic endeavours precipitate his own destruction—a grim portrait of the artist even for
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Poe:36 the sudden outburst of Roderick’s artistic activity occasioned by Madeline’s death is
reminiscent of “The Oval Portrait,” wherein Poe dramatizes his perverse understanding of art
as a vampiric enterprise. The artist, not realizing that “the tints which he spread upon the
canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him” (CW IV.248), painted the life
from his young bride.
Madeline, on the other hand, is passive to the point of being effaced from the text: like
Rowena, only her body remains. Moreover, illness becomes the focal point of her
characterization. She is introduced and always referred to in the text precisely in terms of her
sickness, a travesty of nature that gives her body the outward appearance of life in death. Her
symptoms are reminiscent of Rowena’s apparent revivification: “The disease which had thus
entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left [...] the mockery of a faint blush upon the
bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in
death” (CW III.289). Madeline embodies the voiceless, passive female, possessing only a
presence of diseased matter, not of mind. Ultimately, she recovers her strength and avenges her
untimely burial:
For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, then,
with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her
violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the
terrors he had anticipated. (CW III.296)

Now resuscitated, Madeline, the living-dead, uses her materiality to destroy her brother. As
Andriano insightfully observes of Madeline’s subversion of her passive role: “[She] is the
embodiment of energy out of control, superhuman enough to break open her own tomb,
aggressive enough to kill” (Andriano 6). As a representation of the monstrous muse in Poe,
Madeline fulfils her brother’s—the artist’s—worst fears in one final and decisive act. The
return of the body—Madeline’s act of bearing Roderick to his death—as well as the
characterization of Roderick as a parody of the male incorporeal mind, constitute a subversion
of the traditional dichotomy that reduces the feminine to the realm of the material and elevates
the masculine to the status of disembodied intellect. Moreover, the fact that Madeline’s death
fuels Roderick’s creativity posits once again an aesthetics of transcendence that is mediated by
abjection. However, the body comes back to undermine this dynamic and reclaims its space.
Her resuscitation necessarily collapses the distance between self and spectacle, rendering the
danger of the latter tangible.

36
Claude Richard interprets Roderick’s attempts to bury his twin sister prematurely in the following
terms: “Chez Poe, l’esthétique du double, c’est ce dire qui s’efforce de nier la féminité comme
différence, ce dire qui inscrit la gémellité sous le signe du frère-roi” (Richard, “Poe et l’esthétique
du double” 285).
97

Interestingly, Howes observes that, as the epitomic representation of Poe’s motif of the
beautiful and dying woman, Madeline embodies the Burkean beautiful; however, in her rise
from the grave, she becomes “an unconscious receptacle for terrifying forces antithetical to her
own weak nature” (Howes 184). In her character Howes perceives another of Poe’s
subversions of Burkean aesthetic categories since her resuscitation conflates the sublime and
the beautiful. For Howes Madeline personifies what Frances Ferguson (problematically)
identifies as the underlying issue with Burke’s aesthetics of beauty: in disarming the male
viewer, beauty poses a greater threat than the sublime.37 “The beautiful creates no heroes but a
thousand enervated victims” (Howes 185). (As suggestive as Ferguson’s interpretation may
appear in light of Burke’s concern with beauty’s disarming abilities, beauty remains a
considerably edulcorated concept in his treatise, representing little more than prettiness).
However, Howes identifies a problem pervasive in Poe’s texts that leads him to claim that
“Usher” is ultimately a failed story. He reads the male viewers’ reactions to the terrifying
spectacle of beauty—they either run away or “shake with the laughter of madness” (Howes
185)—as a microcosmic representation of Poe’s and Burke’s “fleeing” from the power that
emerges from beauty, characterized by the perversity they ostensibly attribute to its seductive
influence. He concludes that by falling back upon “Burke’s sharp aesthetic distinctions,” Poe
“never fully extricates himself from the tradition of sublime aesthetics ‘Usher’ radically
undermines” (Howes 185). Although I agree with Howes’ analysis insofar as he claims that
Poe undermines Burke’s aesthetic categories by conflating characteristics of the sublime and
the beautiful in Madeline, I take issue with the conclusion he draws from this observation. Our
diverging opinions arise from what each of us holds to be the effect Poe aimed at conveying in
“Usher”; contrary to Howes, whose critique stems from the premise that Poe intended to
develop a “wider understanding of the sublime” (Howes 173), I hold that in subverting the
sublime upon which his notion of effect is predicated Poe aimed to convey a horror whose
emotive structure is analogous yet antithetical to the sublime experience. As Diane Long
Hoeveler succinctly asserts in her deconstructive reading of “Usher,” “Madeline functions
throughout the text as the abjected woman, the waste product of Roderick’s diseased mind, as
well as the embodiment of the act of rejection itself” (Hoeveler, “The Hidden God and the
Abjected Woman in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” 391). If the narrator of “Ligeia”
distances himself from the ideal he idolizes by referring to Ligeia as his “lost love” and
“Usher”’s narrator flees the horror he witnesses at the Usher house, the male viewer’s flight,

37
See Frances Ferguson, “The Sublime of Edmund Burke, or the Bathos of Experience,” Glyph 8
(1981): 62-78.
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hysterical laughter, or distancing when confronted with the abject spectacle in Poe—his
displacement or diffusion of the shock such a confrontation compels—functions as an attempt
to save his subjective integrity in the face of what, as in the case of Roderick, can only bring
about the destruction of his identity as an autonomous, self-determining, and cognizant being.

Sacred Art and “The Domain of Arnheim”


“The Domain of Arnheim” (1846) is another text that problematizes the subjective experience
of the sublime. Written as an elaboration of the “The Landscape Garden” published five years
earlier in 1842, “Arnheim” features a narrator who describes the superlative qualities of his
friend Ellison and his ideas on landscape gardening. Whereas the earlier tale culminates in the
narrator’s assertion that Ellison accomplished his one desire of creating the ideal landscape
garden, “Arnheim” proceeds to describe the narrator’s experience as he approaches, passes
through, and ultimately reaches the centre of Ellison’s masterpiece. The critical reception of
this tale generally conceives of “Arnheim” as indicative of Poe’s pessimistic view of artistic
success. Jeffrey A. Hess, who claims that the landscape tales “refute” Poe’s “belief in artistic
perfectibility” by showing the limits of human creation (Hess, “Sources and Aesthetics of
Poe’s Landscape Fiction” 178.), concurs with Jacobs’ assertion that, for Poe, the artist never
can convey the supernal beauty of his vision; hence, his art is necessarily “provisional” and
“relative” (Hess 178 [citing Jacobs]). Likewise, in reference to “The Island of the Fay” and
“Arnheim,” Thompson maintains that “each has a structure of dramatic irony that insinuates
that man’s feeble efforts to see harmonious permanence or to produce Godlike beauty in
‘natural’ art are doomed to failure” (Thompson, Romantic Irony 131). He perceives Ellison’s
attempt to design an Edenic garden in terms of an ironic “paralleling [of] God’s creation”
whereby he strives to “to become like God himself”; his death, in Thompson’s view, is
symptomatic of his failure (Thompson, Romantic Irony 132). Although Ljungquist makes no
direct reference to Thompson’s seminal book on Romantic irony in Poe, his views on Poe’s
landscape tales are strikingly similar to Thompson’s: he maintains that, in “Arnheim,” “Poe’s
stance” is one of “arch, ironic distance,” and concludes his analysis of the tales by claiming
that “landscape thus serves as an aesthetic device by which the legitimacy of imaginative
projection comes into question” (Ljungquist, The Grand and the Fair 138).
As an example of Poe’s refutation of the idea of artistic (and human) perfectibility,
“Arnheim” is decidedly ironic. Nevertheless, I take issue with Ljungquist’s assertion that, since
in “Arnheim” the “vast expanse is rejected,” “the change marks a movement away from the
aesthetic of the sublime to a preference for circumscribed space even in external landscape”
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(Ljungquist, The Grand and the Fair 79). As Blake Nevius underscores in his review of
Ljungquist’s book, his
account of the picturesque strikes one as incomplete. For example, by accepting the
picturesque as a discrete category located midway between the sublime and the
beautiful, [Ljungquist] fails to allow for the observation, made by [Uvedale] Price, that
it may ally itself with the sublime on the one hand or the beautiful on the other.
(Nevius, “Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics” 26)

Poe subsumes the sublime in his definition of supernal beauty; could not his understanding of
the picturesque equally be comprised of more than one aesthetic category? If, according to
Liliane Weissberg, Ellison’s garden proves to be, like his landscape theory, unoriginal, her
observation that Ellison “is less concerned with the originality of the theoretical concept than
with its actual realization and representation” merits further attention (Weissberg, “In Search of
Truth and Beauty” 71). Rather than the tale’s aiming at a positive representation of beauty or,
put another way, rather than “show[ing] the demands that language should tell of truth and
beauty, demands which it cannot fulfill” (Weissberg 73), I contend that “Arnheim” necessarily
thematizes the impossibility of any positive presentation of Poe’s supernal beauty by grounding
the type of landscape garden he seeks to emulate in an aesthetics of the sublime. However, both
the condition of the artist and of the exalted perspective Ellison aims to convey in Arnheim
contradict the form of the sublime experience. Poe appeals to “two classes of consciousness”—
reason and intuition—and two analogous yet antithetical subjective experiences—the sublime
and the abject—to illustrate this double negation of the possibility of presenting the ontological
ground of being. Anticipating the “reconciliation of semiotic and symbolic meaning” Elbert
identifies in “Eureka”(Elbert 30), where the truth of Poe’s cosmology is intuited by all without
the mediation of a subjective state that, once totalized, “speaks nothing but itself” (Mayer 6),
“Arnheim” hallows the abject by inscribing it in a discourse of artistic revelation. If it fails to
signify the material possibility of paradise regained, it nonetheless asserts the validity of the
quest itself.
First, if the garden itself negates the possibility of positively representing Poe’s supernal
beauty, this impossibility has its genesis in Ellison’s characterization, the prototype of Poe’s
artist figure: “In the widest and noblest sense [Ellison] was a poet. He comprehended,
moreover, the true character, the august aims, the supreme majesty and dignity of the poetic
sentiment” (CW VI.180). In his person, all of man’s mortal wants—as Poe sees it—are
satisfied to perfection: “In personal grace and beauty he excelled all men”; “his intellect was of
that order to which the acquisition of knowledge is less a labor than an intuition and a
necessity”; “his family was one of the most illustrious of the empire” and “his possessions had
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always been ample”; finally, “his bride was the loveliest and most devoted of women” (CW
VI.178). In a word, unlike all of Poe’s previous narrators and artist figures, he is happy: the
narrator observes that “from his cradle to his grave a gale of prosperity bore my friend Ellison
along. Nor do I use the word prosperity in its mere worldly sense. I mean it as synonymous
with happiness” (CW VI.176). The narrator cautions, however, that Ellison’s condition is not
merely the result of a happy accident:
It is, indeed, evident that with less of the instinctive philosophy which, now and then,
stands so well in the stead of experience, Mr. Ellison would have found himself
precipitated, by the very extraordinary success of his life, into the common vortex of
unhappiness which yawns for those of pre-eminent endowments. (CW VI.177)

By means of his innate gift of metaphysical clear-sightedness Ellison escapes ennui. Sharing
nothing in common with the Decadent artist save his inordinate intellectual prowess and his
lack of moderation, Ellison represents Poe’s prototypical true genius, as the four principles that
govern his life demonstrate: physical exertion, the love of woman, the contempt of ambition,
and the pursuit of an unattainable object, “the extent of attainable happiness [being] in
proportion to the spirituality of this object” (CW VI.177).
Both “The Landscape Garden” and “Arnheim” relate the fulfillment of Ellison’s second
criterion, the love of woman; although in the former text, she is mentioned as Ellison’s wife, he
is nonetheless spared from treating Poe’s most poetical topic, the death of a beautiful maiden,
having found, in the latter text, his “thirst for beauty” sated by the “sympathy of a woman [...]
whose loveliness and love” (CW VI.188) guaranteed his happiness. The woman’s absence
from “Arnheim” can be interpreted simply in terms a metonymic displacement of the object
through which Poe’s supernal beauty can be apprehended: as a symbol of the feminine, the
garden renders her presence superfluous. However, the epigraph from Giles Fletcher’s Christs
Victorie on Earth with which Poe begins the text casts a shadow on the nature of Ellison’s
relationship. As Ljungquist remarks, “the suggested presence of femininity in the guise of a
garden cut like a lady fair is rendered equivocal by her absence” (Ljungquist, The Grand and
the Fair 132). More specifically, Hess explains how, in its original context, the stanza Poe cites
“describes not Paradise, but rather a ‘false Eden’ or ‘fooles paradise’ created by the cunning
sorceress ‘Vaine-Glorie’” who “attempts to entice Christ with the delights of her realm” (Hess
189). “Poe […] associates Arnheim with a beauty that is neither real nor enduring” (Hess 189).
Even if Arnheim is not an “arabesque dream,” as Thompson claims, the deceitfulness of a siren
is nonetheless implicit in the epigraph—an early indication of the garden’s troubled status.
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The significance of the third principle, contempt for ambition, cannot be underestimated;
according to Poe, it is the manifestation of the highest order of genius. As he explains in the
Marginalia,
Is it not, indeed, possible that, while a higher order of genius is necessarily ambitious,
the highest is above that which is termed ambition? [...] I believe that the world has
never seen—and that, unless through some series of accidents goading the noblest
order of mind into distasteful exertion, the world will never see—that full extent of
triumphant execution, in the richer domains of art, of which the human nature is
absolutely capable. (CW VI.181)

Ironically, the idea of “distasteful exertion” suggests that the genius “above ambition” is
merely a self-indulgent aesthete too slothful to rouse himself to work, and who prefers to be
goaded by external causes, “some series of accidents,” rather than assume responsibility for his
creative will. However, the most significant “condition of bliss” is the fourth, shared by all of
Poe’s men of genius, and to which the three other conditions are related: the unceasing pursuit
of a spiritual object is nothing short of sublime, since, as he states in “The Power of Words,”
“not in knowledge is happiness, but in the acquisition of knowledge! In forever knowing, we
are forever blessed; but to know all were the curse of a fiend” (CW VI.139). Interestingly, once
Ellison creates Arnheim, Poe’s exemplary man of genius dies—he has attained his object and
the pursuit ceases. Significantly, the accord between matter and the faculties of the intellect
intimated by all four of Ellison’s principles is essential to enable the subject’s access to the
conditions propitious to the workings of the poetic imagination, since the fancies reverie
induces arise “in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of intense tranquility—when the
bodily and mental health are in perfection—and at those mere points of time when the confines
of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams” (Marginalia, CW XVI.88).
“Arnheim” seems to convey that “Poe’s theory of composition demanded mens sana in corpore
sano” (Jacobs 433). Moreover, it appears that Ellison embodies Kant’s disinterested observer, a
moral man whose motives, in apprehending the beauty of natural forms, are unmarred by
worldly cares, and in whom the spectacle of the beautiful in nature produces the pleasure
associated with the furtherance of life.
Ellison’s existence, therefore, refutes the narrator’s belief in the “imp of the perverse,”
the idea “that in man’s very nature lies some hidden principle, the antagonist of bliss,” and
leads him to contend that “even now, in the present darkness and madness of all thought on the
great question of the social condition, it is not impossible that man, the individual, under
certain unusual and highly fortuitous conditions, may be happy” (CW VI.176-177). This
hypothesis entertained by the narrator, albeit radically limited in scope to one individual in a
highly implausible situation, signals a paramount shift in perspective away from the self-
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destructive impulse fostered by characters of previous tales. We must keep in mind, however,
that Ellison’s characterization does not function as a platform from which Poe defends the idea
of human perfectibility. As Richard Fusco explains, in the larger context of Poe’s work, his
passing reference in “Arnheim” to five eighteenth-century social philosophers (Turgot, Price,
Priestley, Condorcet, and De Staël) can be read in terms of his scepticism towards the
improvement of society: “Within the dark confines of Poe’s vision, civilization always relapsed
into some previous wretched point in the cycle of history” (Fusco, “Poe and the Perfectibility
of Man” 5). Although Ellison stands out as an example of the possibility of individual
happiness in contrast to the perfectionists’ claim for societal improvement, his “brief lifespan
suggests that even if happiness is achieved—it would be ephemeral” (Fusco 3). In casting
Ellison as the protagonist, a moral man noted not only for his superior intellect, balanced
mental faculties, physical prowess, but also his wealth, social distinction, and marital bliss—in
short, a character who has overcome the existential struggle common to the human condition—
“The Domain of Arnheim” cannot be about him: unlike Poe’s other protagonists, he has no
conceivable obstacles to overcome. It is therefore not surprising to find that Ellison dies shortly
after the completion of his landscape garden. As a portrait of the artist, Ellison is expedient;
having fulfilled his pursuit of the spiritual object that the garden represents, he dies: the process
of creation was its own end. To Jacobs, Ellison’s characterization is a symptom of Poe’s
pessimism with regard to the ideal conditions for the artist’s mastery of art: “How much these
requirements reflected his own situation of having to do journalistic hackwork under conditions
of psychic and physical misery is open to conjecture” (Jacobs 432). The occasion for the
execution of Ellison’s poetic aspirations, “one of those extraordinary freaks of fate” conjured
up by Poe to underscore the impossibility of Ellison’s artistic achievement, emphasizes the
ludicrousness of Ellison’s characterization. A long deceased relative bequeaths him a fortune
of absurd proportions:
It was seen that, even at three percent, the annual income of the inheritance amounted
to no less than thirteen million and five thousand dollars; which was one million and
one hundred and twenty-five thousand per month; or thirty-six thousand nine hundred
and eighty-six per day; or one thousand five hundred and forty-one per hour; or six and
twenty dollars for every minute that flew. (CW VI.178)

The preposterous and incredible aspect of Ellison’s good fortune is further stressed in a
footnote. In “a virtual parody of the mathematical sublime” (Ljungquist, The Grand and the
Fair 130), the narrator mentions an anecdotal account of a similar occurrence “very long ago in
England” wherein a certain Thelluson inherited “ninety millions of pounds”; he remarks that
one account of the matter “justly observes that ‘in the contemplation of so vast a sum, and of
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the services to which it might applied, there is something even of the sublime’” (CW VI.179).
Ellison has no flaws because the story is not about him; instead, it is an allegory about art.
However, the implicit parody of the Kantian Idealist subject in Ellison’s characterization
suggests that the reader should look askance at any other references to the aesthetics of the
sublime in “Arnheim,” particularly those pertaining to the garden itself: since Ellison is the
efficient cause of the landscape garden of Arnheim, his characterization in terms of a
subjectivity that is superhuman signals that Arnheim itself is a material impossibility.
Ellison’s preternatural personal qualities, combined with his infinite resources remove
all possible impediments to the creation of the ultimate—and impossible—work of art. “All
[Ellison’s] ethical speculations [...] led him to believe that the most advantageous at least, if not
the sole legitimate field for the poetic exercise, lies in the creation of novel moods of purely
physical loveliness” (CW VI.180-181). Although this motivation does not necessarily exclude
music, poetry, painting, and sculpture from his range of choices, the narrator explains why
Ellison privileges landscape gardening above all other arts. His argument echoes an excerpt
from Poe’s Marginalia that defines the imagination as a combinative faculty in keeping with
eighteenth-century epistemology: “Here, indeed, was the fairest field for the display of
imagination in the endless combining of forms of novel beauty; the elements to enter into
combination being, by a vast superiority, the most glorious the earth could afford” (CW
VI.182). Ellison’s artistic vision is decidedly influenced by eighteenth-century aesthetic theory:
he concerns himself not with nature in its original state, where even “in the most enchanting of
natural landscapes there will always be found a defect or an excess,” but with nature such as
“the painter of genius may produce,” whose emendations to its composition will be admitted as
necessary “by every artist in the world” (CW VI.182-183). In an attempt to elucidate his lofty
aims, Ellison explicates, in a conversation recounted by the narrator, the principal argument of
a treatise on landscape gardening: “There are properly but two styles of landscape-gardening,
the natural and the artificial” (CW VI.185). The natural, Ellison comments, “seeks to recall the
original beauty of the country by adapting its means to the surrounding scenery [...] The result
of the natural style of gardening is seen rather in the absence of all defects and incongruities—
in the prevalence of a healthy harmony and order” ” (CW VI.185). On the other hand, the
artificial “has as many varieties as there are different tastes to gratify” (CW VI.185).
Nonetheless, the artificial style’s defining traits are “a certain general relation to the various
styles of building,” and a moral dimension in “the mixture of pure art in a garden scene,”
because it never fails to communicate “evidence of care and human interest” (CW VI.185-6).
Ultimately, Ellison contends that “the original beauty is never so great as that which may be
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introduced” (CW VI.186). According to Ellison’s interpretation of the treatise in question, the
primary basis of the distinction between natural and artificial styles recalls Longinus’
privileging the grandeur of a work of genius accompanied by a few faults over a mediocre
work executed to perfection, especially in light of Ellison’s own stance towards the natural:
You will understand that I reject the idea, here expressed, of recalling the original
beauty of the country. [...] That the true result of the natural style of gardening is seen
rather in the absence of defects and incongruities than in the creation of any special
wonders or miracles, is a proposition better suited to the grovelling [sic] apprehension
of the herd than to the fervid dreams of the man of genius. (CW VI.186)

By raising our minds to the height of the “fervid dreams of the man of genius,” the effect
Ellison aims to convey in his garden is akin to an experience of the sublime.
According to Hess, Ellison’s explanations for privileging artificial over natural
landscape are meant to challenge the views held by Andrew Jackson Downing in his influential
and bestselling Treatise on Landscape Gardening published in 1841. However, in agreement
with Jacobs, Hess concedes that “the ideas on landscape gardening which Ellison attributes to
his ‘authority’ are so general and traditional in nature that Poe could have culled them from the
works of several different writers” (Hess 179). As Weissberg observes, “his theory is a
collection of quotations: from philosophy and garden books, and finally, as regards the name
Arnheim itself, from other novels”38 (Weissberg 71). In my view, Ellison’s distinctions closely
resemble Roger De Piles’ understanding of the pastoral and heroic landscapes. I am not
claiming that Ellison actually refers to De Piles’ treatise, even though this may be possible, in
light of Poe’s reference to Claude Gellé and the influential nature of De Piles’ work. My
purpose is simply to clarify Ellison’s categories and to explain the basis for my supposition that
Ellison creates his garden with the purpose of arousing a feeling of the sublime in its visitors.
In his analysis of De Piles’ Cours de peinture par principes (1708) and its relation to
seventeenth-century landscape painting, Michael Kitson highlights the defining characteristics
of the pastoral style: “The rural style is a representation of countries (campagnes) rather
abandoned to the caprice of nature than cultivated. We there see nature simple, without
ornament and without artifice; but with all those graces with which she adorns herself more
when left to herself than when constrained by art” (Kitson, “The Seventeenth Century: Claude
to Francisque Millet” 15 [citing De Piles]).The heroic style, in contrast,

38
The name “Arnheim” has its origin in “Mrs. Austin’s translation of Prince Pückler-Muskau’s The
Tour of a Prince (1833),” which “provided [Poe] not only with several snippets of German but
also with the reference to the ‘extensive garden which lies between Arnheim and Rotterdam’ that
inspired ‘A Landscape Garden’” (Hansen and Pollin 53).
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is a composition of objects which, in their kinds, draw from both art and nature
everything that is great and extraordinary in either. The situations (sites) are perfectly
agreeable and surprising. The only buildings are temples, pyramids, ancient places of
burial, altars consecrated to the divinities, pleasure-houses of regular architecture. And
if nature appear not there as we everyday casually see her, she is at least represented as
we think she ought to be. This style is an agreeable illusion and a sort of enchantment,
when handled by a man of fine genius and good understanding. (Kitson 15 [citing De
Piles; emphasis added])

Although De Piles stresses the fluidity of his categories—Kitson observes that not only are
they “not mutually exclusive,” but “they could be either fused together to produce a synthesis,
or elements could be taken from each and combined. Even when employed alone, each
benefited by containing a touch of the other”—and “the pastoral, like the heroic, is a poetic
genre, capable of engendering associations, feeling, and thoughts,” a crucial difference
distinguishes one from the other in a way that is also essential to Ellison’s aesthetics: “The
characteristic of the pastoral was to be natural” and “the characteristic of the heroic [was] to be
sublime” (Kitson 16). Furthermore, the heroic style best befits the intellectual proclivity of
Poe’s man of genius:
In a heroic landscape, classical buildings dominate a timeless, locationless
construction of nature, in which all the signs of change—growth, decay, the seasons,
the weather—have not been eliminated, but intellectualized. The beauty of nature is
merged with the beauty of rational thought. The mood is sublime. (Kitson 16)

Ellison privileges the heroic style over the pastoral for its ability to inspire a sense of the
sublime in the experiencing subject. Nowhere is this more evident than through the particular
perspective he adopts in the creation of his landscape garden. The narrator recounts Ellison’s
argument in favour of the idea that nature can be improved upon. Ellison maintains, insofar as
the human point of view is concerned, that “no such paradises are to be found in reality as have
glowed upon the canvas of Claude,” whose works De Piles categorizes as prevalently pastoral
(“Arnheim” CW VI.182; “Garden” CW IV. 265). Nonetheless, Ellison allows for the
possibility that other—superhuman—perspectives exist in which the seeming improvements
humans contribute to nature through art might be perceived as detrimental to the beauty of the
original scene: “Each alteration of the natural scenery may possibly effect a blemish in the
picture, if we can suppose this picture viewed at large—in mass—from some point distant from
the earth’s surface” (CW VI.184).39 The notion of effect central to Poe’s aesthetics assumes a
sublime dimension, since “it is easily understood that what might improve a closely scrutinized
detail” relevant to the sublunary scope of the human perspective “may at the same time injure a

39
This citation reads as follows in “The Landscape Garden”: “Each alteration or disturbance of the
primitive scenery might possibly effect a blemish in the picture, if we can suppose this picture
viewed at large from some point in the heavens” (CW IV.267).
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general or more distantly observed effect” such as that witnessed by “earth-angels,” “to whom,
from afar, our disorder may seem order” (CW VI.184). His explanation of this exalted
viewpoint signals an important difference between “The Landscape Garden” and “The Domain
of Arnheim”: in “Arnheim,” the narrator recounts in the following terms the contrast between
his and Ellison’s explanations regarding the purpose of nature’s deficiencies:
My own thoughts on the subject had rested in the idea that the primitive intention of
nature would have so arranged the earth’s surface as to have fulfilled at all points
man’s sense of perfection in the beautiful, the sublime, or the picturesque; but that this
primitive intention had been frustrated by the known geological disturbances—
disturbances of form and color-grouping, in the correction or allaying of which lies the
soul of art. The force of this idea was much weakened, however, by the necessity
which it involved of considering the disturbances abnormal and unadapted to any
purpose. It was Ellison who suggested that they were prognostic of death. He thus
explained:—Admit the earthly immortality of man to have been the first intention. We
have then the primitive arrangement of the earth’s surface adapted to his blissful state,
as not existent but designed. The disturbances were the preparation for his
subsequently conceived deathful condition. (CW VI.184)

Ellison’s consideration of nature’s idiosyncrasies shares certain affinities with the Kantian
sublime, wherein the apparent lack of purpose in certain natural phenomena evokes a feeling
contrary to that of the furtherance of life inspired by the beautiful. Moreover, in being adapted
to the sempiternal perspective of “a class of beings, human once, but now invisible to
humanity,” “for whose scrutiny more especially than our own, for whose death-refined
appreciation of the beautiful, may have been set in array by God the wide landscape-gardens of
the hemispheres,”40 Ellison’s purpose in creating the ultimate landscape garden is to give the
effect of transcending the limitations of a purely human perspective to which all art is bound.
The narrator explains this in terms evoking “the sentiment of a spiritual interference,” “the idea
of care, or culture, or superintendence, on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity”
(CW VI.187-8). However, if we recall Poe’s philosophical dialogues, in particular “The
Colloquy of Monos and Una,” these earth-angels are bound to an abjected state of being,
suggesting that the effect of Ellison’s idea of beauty can be experienced only by means of a
crisis in subjectivity that denies the affirmative context of the sublime: “The cruel and
disgusting fact of putrefaction” functions as “both sign and referent of death,” and “the
extremely refined ‘atmospheric’ body” Monos assumes at the text’s close “in its turn manifests
itself exclusively as a negation of personal existence” (Mayer 4-5).

40
Notice that in “The Landscape Garden,” the passage fails to mention death: “There might be a
class of beings, human once, but now to humanity invisible, for whose scrutiny and for whose
refined appreciation of the beautiful, more especially than for our own, had been set in order by
God the great landscape-garden of the whole earth” (CW IV.267).
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Although the approach to the “Paradise of Arnheim” (CW VI.196) parallels a holy
pilgrimage in building the reader’s expectations of a dramatic revelation, the experience itself
falls short of evoking the respect for the Deity that the sublime occasions. Arriving at the site is
no easy task, requiring a day’s journey by river through an open countryside. As one enters
Ellison’s picturesque garden, the light of day gives way, as dusk approaches, to “an air of
funereal gloom” as the narrator continues along the winding path of the river (CW VI.191). At
a certain point “the voyager [has] long lost all idea of direction,” and encounters a “weird
symmetry, a thrilling uniformity, a wizard propriety” in the works of nature (CW VI.191). He
soon quits his dinghy and boards an unusual canoe made of ivory, “stained with Arabesque
devices in vivid scarlet” (CW VI.193). This “fairy bark” takes him through winds and turns
until he reaches the golden gates of Arnheim through which the “amphitheatre” that stages
Ellison’s masterpiece lies (CW VI.193, 195). Three key aspects frame the approach to
Ellison’s landscape garden. First, the increasing gloom evident as the narrator progresses along
his journey anticipates the idea of revelation since it evokes other transitional states such as
death and mesmerism that function as symbolic thresholds in Poe; however, it is significant
that we progress into the sunset—towards darkness—and not into light: as with mesmerism
and death, “Arnheim” will clarify nothing about the “truth” of the universe or the condition of
man. Second, the utter loss of direction the narrator experiences aboard the vessel carrying him
to Arnheim parallels what Poe’s protagonists in Pym, “A Descent into the Maelström, and
“MS. Found in a Bottle” experience at sea; thus, the topos of the landscape garden is
unquestionably tied to the theme of ultimate discovery. Third, nature, as fashioned by Ellison,
displays the parallelism Poe attributes to the universe in “Eureka”; it therefore ought to evoke
the sublimity of the Creator. Nevertheless, the garden itself draws attention to its material
presence. As the narrator penetrates the heart of the garden, Poe uses synaesthesia to describe
the effects on the narrator’s senses of the joint disposition of nature and certain architectural
features Ellison has incorporated into the scene. The narrator’s senses are oppressed and
confused, not exalted: “There is a gush of entrancing melody; there is an oppressive sense of
strange sweet odor;—there is a dream-like intermingling to the eye” (CW VI.196). Based on
the narrator’s account, the edifices, “seeming the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the
Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes” (CW VI.196), adhere to the purpose
De Piles attributes to architecture in his definition of the heroic style of landscape. In her
discussion of the theoretical discourses and established rules that informed eighteenth-century
artists’ sensibilities, Marianne Roland Michel makes extensive reference to De Piles’ treatise
and cites the following to elaborate on his ideas pertaining to “Verdure, Rocks, Grounds, and
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Terraces”: “[Buildings] in general are a great ornament in landscape, even when they are
‘Gothick’ or appear partly inhabited, and partly ruinous: they raise the imagination by the use
they are thought to be designed for” (Michel, “Landscape Painting in the Eighteenth-Century:
Theory, Training, and its Place in Academic Doctrine” 101). Nonetheless, the essential feature
at the centre of Ellison’s work of art, “upspringing confusedly from amid all, a mass of semi-
Gothic, semi-Saracenic architecture, sustaining itself by miracle in mid-air” (CW VI.196
[emphases added]), is the fact that it comprises a grotesque amalgamation of opposites. It is a
sublimity that does not hide the art that made it possible in the first place or, as Danyan sees it,
“Poe wants us to hear the clanking of the gears as the scene shifts between representation and
enchantment” (Danyan, Fables 114).
It is no surprise that “Arnheim” reveals nothing save its own confusing material
presence. On the one hand, “Arnheim” negates the subjective consciousness that brought the
garden into being in the first place: Ellison’s characterization is a hoax, and as the prototypical
figure of the artist his portrait is as exaggerated in its perfection as are those of the narrator of
“Ligeia” and Roderick Usher in Poe’s depiction of their respective flaws. On the other hand, as
Mayer observes, the effect Ellison aspires to arouse depends upon “the mediation of some
‘death-refined’ creature” whose existential condition turns out to be one of “pure negativity,”
whereby the “reconciliation of godlike aesthetic pleasure and human selfhood comes to be
realized only momentarily, and it presents itself as deeply entrenched in corporeality” (Mayer
5). As Hess remarks, “in using the image of the Edenic Garden as the symbol of artistic
perfection,” “Poe makes the possibility of achieving such perfection extremely ambiguous: for
when the creator is man, it is nearly impossible to separate the symbol of Paradise from that of
Paradise lost” (Hess 178). Although “Arnheim” appears to differ substantially from “Ligeia”
and “Usher” in terms of the effect it seeks to convey, they are actually quite similar: in all three
texts the moment of revelation constitutes a moment of fragmentation.

Part 4 — Poe in Perspective


In Poe’s centripetal critical theory we see the conflation of the art critic and the poet; the
notions of fancy, imagination, and intuition; and, as I hope to have demonstrated, the beautiful,
the sublime, and the abject. In arguing that an experience of the abject is intrinsic to Poe’s
notion of supernal beauty, my stance necessarily aligns itself, at least to a certain extent, with
Thompson’s reading of Romantic irony. I agree with Thompson that “Poe did entertain the
general Romantic yearnings of his times” (Thompson, Romantic Irony 143). Nevertheless,
when he asserts that Poe’s “attitudes are always presented as ambivalent, sceptical, detached,” I
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find it difficult to attribute to Poe the degree of objective detachment concomitant with the
stance of a Romantic ironist. Abjection denies the possibility of objective distance. Poe’s
notion of effect is akin to a moment of revelation that appears to function like the sublime;
however, it is a false alchemy in which the spectator confronts the material remainder rather
than the philosopher’s stone he sought: the illogical language of Vankirk or the abject
corporeality of Valdemar, Rowena, Madeline, and the garden of Arnheim. If the experiencing
subject is alienated from the ideal, it is not as a consequence of a perpetual deferment of its
actualization: the promise of its attainment is always grounded on false premises. In my view,
Poe’s fiction explores the irrational sources of human horror—a formative horror that the act of
writing displaces and the symptoms of which appear in his stylistic excesses, predilection for
leitmotifs of decay, liminal ontological states, and humour that collapses into fear.
Nevertheless, the abject is affirmative in an underhanded way: it compels human beings to
have recourse to language, culture, and definition, even if such attempts never fully contain or
exorcise it. It reminds us that we are not absolute egos, but incarnate beings firmly anchored in
time and space. The “new terror that thus afflict[s]” Poe’s characters is equally “the dawn of a
more exciting hope” (CW II.244), since it compels them to tell their stories. In this light Poe’s
“imp of the perverse” is not an entirely negative impulse: “Like the imagination, it triumphs
over reason and conscience. Sadomasochism and the death-wish (technical synonyms for Poe’s
‘imp of the perverse’) are a saving grace in the eschatology and psychology to which Poe is
committed” (Moldenhauer 295). Moreover, it does not always lead to self-destruction: “We
might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the arch-fiend, were it not
occasionally known to operate in the furtherance of good” (CW VI.150). The abject, or the
experience of fragmentation and self-displacement upon which Poe’s notion of effect is
grounded, is also a drive to perpetual self-expression and artistic production.
Chapter 3: Charles Baudelaire

J’ai vu, avec épouvante et ravissement, non seulement des sujets rêvés
par moi, mais des PHRASES pensées par moi, et écrites par lui vingt
ans auparavant.

Charles Baudelaire, Correspondance II.386


(Describing his identification with Poe)

Il est aux confins des ordres sociaux, indifférent à leurs normes,


indifférent aux places, aux classes. Il côtoie les marges et les rebuts du
monde. Il témoigne de l’écriture dans son corps, de la quête de l’infini
dans sa vie.

Patrick Cingolani, “Le Professeur et le Dandy: Auguste Comte et


Charles Baudelaire devant la Modernité” 69

Part 1 — Situating the Sublime in Baudelaire


In Baudelaire the figure of the artist is divided by two compelling impulses: he strives towards
an impossible idealism and is seduced by an equally powerful “imp of the perverse,” to borrow
Poe’s phrase. If, as Francis S. Heck observes, “concomitant with the experience of suffering, a
goût de l’infini emerges as the poet’s most sublime aspiration,” this is “offset by the presence
of the gouffre, which fills his life with horror” (Heck, “The Evolution in Baudelaire’s Later
Poetry” 7). As the preceding chapter explains, Poe cannot be separated from the aesthetic
tradition of German Romanticism to which the American Transcendentalists owe their
allegiance, yet his aesthetics subverts the affirmative character of the three notions of sublimity
his work engages, Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian, through its insistence on the abject. My
view of Baudelaire is similar in that in spite of certain instances wherein he seems to appeal to
a myth of unity that has affinities with that underlying Poe’s critical theory, irony nevertheless
dominates Baudelaire’s poetic voice. As Max Milner remarks in Baudelaire: enfer ou ciel,
qu’importe!, the Baudelairean symbol is the sign of an absence rather than a presence, and
almost all appeals to an infinite expansion contain a negative element (Milner 175, 178). In
light of the irreconcilable tension existing between the sublime and the abject in Baudelaire’s
poetic work that functions as a check to the poetic persona’s boundless extension, the
affirmative aesthetics manifest in Baudelaire’s references to art as a totalizing experience and

110
111

the unmediated correspondence between the experiencing subject and nature implied therein
cannot be embraced uncritically.1
For Baudelaire, a truly modern art—hence the art he aims to create—is constituted of
both the eternal and the transient. On the side of the eternal we have Baudelaire’s petrified
ideal of beauty as defined in “La Beauté,” a poem that elaborates on the shortcomings of
classicism and its rule-bound aesthetics: “[…] Belle, ô, mortels, comme un rêve de pierre” (“La
Beauté” OC I.21.1). As Anne Jamison contends, “this version of beauty at once seduces and
repels, inspires poets and silences them, is the origin and the death of poetry” (Jamison, “Any
Where Out of this Verse” 267). As well, Baudelaire offers us the infinite expanses of the
natural and chimerical sublimes as symbols of the eternal. The sea, whose appeal to the poet
originates in the sublime spectacle it presents, is a recurring topos in Baudelaire’s poetry. In
“L’Homme et la mer,” the poet associates the sea’s sublime expanse with freedom (as it is
commonplace in Baudelaire, this sense of freedom cannot be extricated from the abyss):
Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer!
La mer est ton miroir; tu contemples ton âme
Dans le déroulement infini de sa lame,
Et ton esprit n’est pas un gouffre moins amer. (OC I.19.1-4)

In the prose poem “Déjà,” moreover, the poet, a passenger aboard a vessel at sea, laments the
ship’s approach to shore:
Moi seul j’étais triste, inconcevablement triste. Semblable à un prêtre à qui on
arracherait sa divinité, je ne pouvais, sans une navrante amertume, me détacher de
cette mer infiniment variée dans son effrayante simplicité, et qui semble contenir en
elle et représenter par ses jeux, ses allures, ses colères et ses sourires, les humeurs, les
agonies et les extases de toutes les âmes qui ont vécu, qui vivent et qui vivront! (OC
I.337)

1
I am thinking primarily of the first poems in Les Fleurs du Mal, wherein the poetic persona seems
to appeal to the notion of universal analogies in which all of nature is a symbol whose hidden
meaning the poet must decipher. Milner observes that in the sonnet “Correspondances” the
images of nature depicted problematically objectify the poet instead of offering themselves as
objects of contemplation that he could possess (Milner 174-5). (He cites two lines in particular to
defend his point: “l’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles / Qui l’observent avec des
regards familiers” (OC I.11.3-4).) Leo Bersani’s observations on the subject generally sum up my
own view: “In the early poems of Les Fleurs du Mal, the artist’s alienation is expressed either as a
total removal from human history or as a transcendent, nonhistorical relation to humanity”
(Bersani 24). Although my investigation of the abject shares certain affinities with Bersani’s
argument in Baudelaire and Freud as a consequence of a common methodological premise (we
both proceed from similar notions of subjectivity as a fluid, heterogeneous, and fragmented
category on which psychoanalysis is grounded), my aim is fundamentally different from his. I am
not attempting to perform a rigorous comparison between Kristeva’s notion of abjection (and its
psychoanalytic framework) and Baudelaire’s writing, as Bersani does with Freud and Baudelaire.
Instead, I want to demonstrate how the notion of abjection, as an existential category (defined
outside of a strictly psychoanalytic context) is a fruitful concept for understanding the subversion
and indeterminacy that characterize Baudelaire’s aesthetics.
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Both these excerpts demonstrate that as an example of the sublime in nature, the sea is
interpreted by the poet as a reflection of his subjectivity.
Baudelaire’s artificial and surreal landscapes of precious gems and metals are examples
of the chimerical sublime in that they are not only imaginary, but impossible to achieve; these
ideal landscapes are sublime because they constitute symbolic representations of the magnitude
of the poet’s creative will. In “Rêve parisien” the poet constructs an imaginary landscape “Qui
brill[ait] d’un feu personnel,” as a result of which he is “fier de [son] génie” (OC I.101.48, 9).
In a dream he transforms the city of Paris into a petrified landscape: he banishes “le végétal
irrégulier” and replaces it with “l’enivrante monotonie / Du métal, du marbre et de l’eau” (OC
I.101.8, 11-12). Aside from creating an architectural marvel, “Babel d’escaliers et d’arcades, /
C’était un palais infini,” (OC I.101.13-14) he tames the sea, that indomitable natural force:
Architecte de mes féeries,
Je faisais, à ma volonté,
Sous un tunnel de pierreries
Passer un océan dompté[.] (OC I.101. 37-40)

In “Any where out of the world—N’importe où hors du monde,” the poet speaks of a city (he
describes Lisbon) “[…] au bord de l’eau; on dit qu’elle est bâtie en marbre, et que le peuple y a
une telle haine du végétal, qu’il arrache tous les arbres. Voilà un paysage selon mon goût; un
paysage fait avec la lumière et le minéral, et le liquide pour les réfléchir!” (OC I.356). Praised
for its artificiality, refinement, and sterility, Lisbon parallels the poet’s fantastic transformation
of Paris into a petrified marvel. Both cities underscore the nature of the poet’s creative force
and project his desire for dominion over the natural world.
Conversely, Baudelaire presents us either with objects and topoi whose dominant
characteristic, from the perscpetice of the poetic persona, is their susceptibility to the ravages
of time—objects that necessarily decay or change state—and that are consequently susceptible
to the mark of abjection or, at the extreme, a corruption characterized by vice and sin. The role
of art, it seems, is to sublimate the abject. In the words of Edward K. Kaplan, “poetry is the
foundation of [Baudelaire’s] faith” since “writing reconciles the poet with existence” (Kaplan,
“Baudelaire and the Battle with Finitude” 228, 229). Although it is akin to other intoxicants
such as wine, hashish, or opium,2 art nevertheless appears to be supreme in its power since it

2
In Les Paradis artificiels, Baudelaire calls the kind of intoxication one gains from wine “hyper-
sublime” (OC I.383). The suffix “hyper” serves to contrast the elation one experiences when
drunk from the sublime in which “il faut être raisonnable”; reason is “le comble du sublime” (OC
I.383). (Baudelaire appears to make reference to the Kantian sublime in his appeal to reason.)
Elsewhere in Les Paradis artificiels, he speaks of “les tortures d’une ivresse ultra-poétique, gênée
par le décorum et contrariée par un devoir!” in an instance where he must appear reasonable and
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alone permits the poet to remain immersed in the timelessness of the ideal realm without
sacrificing his moral hygiene. However, when the spell of the ideal evaporates, the object that
once inspired a sense of the sublime is often perceived as abject by Baudelaire’s poetic
persona. In the penultimate stanza of “Rêve parisien,” the poet wakes up from his reverie to the
harsh reality of his existence. The room that once inspired transcendent daydreams transforms
into a hovel before his eyes:
En rouvrant mes yeux pleins de flamme
J’ai vu l’horreur de mon taudis,
Et senti, rentrant dans mon âme,
La pointe des soucis maudits[.] (OC I.101.53-56)

At the crux of this aesthetic chiasmus we find Baudelaire’s vulnerable subject, who is
simultaneously elated and diminished by his experience of the human condition, and who
attempts to shield himself from harm and gain some control over his creative destiny by
adopting different masks such as that of the Dandy and the Flâneur. In particular, all of
Baudelaire’s aesthetic preoccupations find their source in Dandyism as a problematic and
ultimately abortive existential position: impassive, sublime, and self-constituting, the Dandy
preys on the figure of the artist. Art’s sublimation of the abject is therefore devoid of
transcendence, in terms of an ascent to a state of being outside of time and beyond the moral
exigencies of human life. As Kristeva explains, the subject experiencing the abject, one for
whom the question of identity (Who am I?) is continually displaced by the question of locality
(Where am I?), fails to come to terms with his ontological status: “Constructeur de territoires,
de langues, d’œuvres, le jeté n’arrête pas de délimiter son univers dont les confins fluides—
parce que constitués par un non-objet, l’abject—remettent constamment en cause sa solidité et
le poussent à recommencer” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur 16). The Baudelairean self “is
‘lost’ only to be relocated everywhere,” observes Leo Bersani in his Freudian reading of
Baudelaire (Bersani 11). Likewise, in her analysis of the prose poems’ subversion of the idea
of poetry embodied in Les Fleurs du Mal, Barbara Johnson cites “Les Foules” as an example of
the unstable opposition between self and other evident in Le Spleen de Paris: “Le poète ne jouit
pas d’une ubiquité privilégiée; il souffre du vertige. Si ‘pour lui seul, tout est vacant,’ rien n’est
plus vacant que sa propre identité” (Johnson, Défigurations 68).
Baudelaire’s is a perverse Catholicism, moreover, in that it repudiates the salvation
offered by Christ’s sacrifice: “C’est un christianisme qui a changé de sens, et qui a cessé

constrain his enthusiasm (OC I.415). The kind of elevation one experiences from wine and drugs
is a false transcendence in Baudelaire’s view.
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d’apporter la bonne nouvelle d’un salut et d’un accord avec l’être” (Milner 154). In his
examination of Kristeva’s elaboration of the psychological benefit of the Christian subject’s
identification with Christ, “whose resurrection and ascension into heaven depend upon the
crucifixion and death of his body,” Ferretter observes that “he or she has a model according to
which archaic bodily separations necessary for mental health can be maintained in adult life”
(Ferretter 149). Christ assumes the role of the father figure in the Oedipal triangle; however, he
embodies a softer side of paternal law. His affinity with his human brethren, understood in
terms of his “experience of meaninglessness and lack of paternal relationship” (Ferretter 149),
makes him a sympathetic figure; moreover, “the consequent restoration of [his] relationship
[with God] at the resurrection” anchors the faithful subject’s identity because “the narcissistic
need” expressed during the person’s pre-history (pre-symbolic phase) “is satisfied by a God
who loves first and without requiring merit” (Ferretter 149). In negating the redemption
symbolized by Christ’s sacrifice, Baudelaire’s poetic persona denies himself the possibility of
salvation: as a Christian, he has internalized the abject in his own psyche through his belief in
sin3 without allowing himself any possibility of purification. Consequently, the Baudelairean
poet is one who is always in the throes of abjection. Under the aegis of his perverse
Catholicism, the tension evident in Baudelaire’s understanding of modernity can be expressed
through the two conflicting facets of the sacred that the sublime and the abject represent. In
terms of this dichotomy, the dominant trope that characterizes Baudelaire’s work at the macro-
structural level is irony, manifesting itself through its associated figures such as paradox,
oxymoron, and antithesis. The sublime and the abject are therefore not mutually exclusive in
Baudelaire; instead, they contaminate each other without one ever fully absorbing the other.
* * *

From a meta-textual perspective, all aspects of Poe’s and Baudelaire’s works can be read as
converging into a commentary on the centrality of art in their respective epistemologies, and on
the poet’s privileged position as creator. “Poetry,” Peter Broome observes in his stylistic
analysis of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, “is total commitment” for Baudelaire; “it is a complete
and uncompromising investment in the self—its intensities, its dilemmas, its perplexities and
frustrations, its irreconcilables, its ‘unacceptables’—in the living act of language” (Broome,
Baudelaire’s Poetic Patterns 10). The extent of Poe’s influence on Baudelaire is difficult to
gage, and scholarly disagreement on the matter does little to clarify Baudelaire’s complex

3
See Kristeva’s elaboration of sin in Pouvoirs de l’horreur.
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relationship with his American alter-ego.4 Baudelaire had already written Les Fleurs du Mal by
the time he discovered Poe, so the American writer’s influence on this collection likely is
restricted to Baudelaire’s later additions and revisions. As Jonathan Culler observes, “in
addition to echoing phrases from Poe’s verse and short stories from time to time, Baudelaire
makes heavy use of alliteration—more prominent in Poe than it had been in prior French
poetry—and his use of internal rhyme and refrain may be linked with Poe’s poetic practice”
(Culler, “Baudelaire and Poe” 65). However, it is in the Petits Poèmes en prose that the full
force of Baudelaire’s appropriation of Poe can be discerned, insofar as the poetics of the prose
poem is concerned and its propitiousness as a genre to the exploration of what Baudelaire
terms “les exceptions dans l’ordre moral,” which he perceives as one of the strengths of Poe’s
fiction (OC II.316). Nevertheless, aside from Baudelaire’s decidedly Catholic outlook, the
main difference between Poe and Baudelaire is to be found in Baudelaire’s conscious self-
positioning as a modern poet and his disavowal of Platonic Idealism.5 As Walter Benjamin
observes in “Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” “his work cannot merely be categorized as historical,
like anyone else’s, but it intended to be so and understood itself as such” (Benjamin, Charles
Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism 117).
My investigation of the relation Baudelaire establishes between modern art and the
figure of the artist is based on a dialogical view of Baudelaire’s aesthetics in which I approach
its conflicting facets in terms of their mutual “interdependency, and interaction of polarities,” a
strategy akin to Paul Allen Miller’s in his reading of the three sonnets “La Beauté,” “L’Idéal,”
and “La Géante” (Miller, “Beauty, Tragedy and the Grotesque” 320). I aim to prove two
hypotheses: first, Baudelaire’s expressive critical theory is predicated upon the affirmative
aesthetics of the Kantian sublime. In light of the influence exerted on Baudelaire’s critical
theory by Victor Cousin, one of the chief popularizers of German philosophy of the first half of
the nineteenth century, the link between Baudelaire and Kant, albeit indirect and filtered

4
For a summary overview of the critical debate concerning Poe’s influence on Baudelaire see
Jonathan Culler’s “Baudelaire and Poe.”
5
For a critical appraisal of Baudelaire’s break with the Platonist Ideas that characterized French
Romanticism during the first half of the nineteenth century, see Michel Brix’s essay “Modern
Beauty versus Platonic Beauty” as well as Le Romantisme français: esthétique platonicienne et
modernité littéraire in which Baudelaire receives ample treatment. Brix insightfully outlines the
limitations of Poe’s influence on Baudelaire’s aesthetics: “Que Baudelaire ait traduit, expliqué et
commenté Poe en France n’implique pas, ipso facto, que le poète des Fleurs du Mal est devenu le
disciple de Poe. Intérêt n’équivaut pas nécessairement à mimétisme” (Brix, Le Romantisme
français 123). He suggests that it would have been unwise for Baudelaire to criticize Poe openly
in light of his vested interest in the success of his translations of the American writer’s work, and
cites Baudelaire’s parodic comments on “The Philosophy of Composition” as indicative of his
distance towards Poe’s alleged creative practice.
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through the bias of Cousin (among others), can be asserted with certainty. According to
Dominique Combe in “L’Esthétique kantienne et la genèse de l’ ‘Art pur’: Baudelaire et le
Romantisme,” “l’esthétique romantique dont procède la pensée de Baudelaire ne saurait
toutefois être comprise si elle n’est rapportée à sa source—la Critique de la faculté de juger, et
au kantianisme dans son ensemble, que la critique baudelairienne ne cite pourtant guère”
(Combe 48). Second, the sublime’s purpose is not to function as an ideal to which the poetic
persona aspires; instead, the sublime serves to underscore the abjection of self underlying
Baudelaire’s aesthetics, or “la forme culminante de cette expérience du sujet auquel est dévoilé
que tous ses objets ne reposent que sur la perte inaugurale fondant son être propre” (Kristeva,
Pouvoirs 12).
In The Impersonal Sublime: Hugo, Baudelaire, Lautréamont (1990), Suzanne Guerlac
focuses her attention primarily on Baudelaire’s prose poems, providing a critical assessment of
Baudelaire’s aesthetics and its relation to the Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian sublimes. Her
chief objective is to explore whether “the configuration of issues at stake in the texts on the
sublime” could “be at work in the emergence of modernism” (Guerlac viii). She takes issue
with the American phenomenological and psychoanalytic understandings of the sublime,
particularly the view defended by Thomas Weiskel in his seminal work The Romantic Sublime
(1986), as a consequence of their tendency to define the sublime through the prism of English
Romanticism and what she perceives as their inevitable reduction of the sublime to notions of
beauty. While our approaches share a similar methodology in terms of recovering the sublime
as an historical category, my reading of Baudelaire posits the sublime as the foundation of his
understanding of modern beauty.6 We part ways, moreover, insofar as I see “the issues at stake
in the texts on the sublime” in terms of Kristeva’s notion of abjection. My approach necessarily
engages Sartre’s existential reading of Baudelaire and the often polemical criticism it
provoked. For example, Milner, whose critical analysis of Baudelaire and his work partly seeks
to redress two faults he perceives in Sartre’s study (the finality Sartre attributes to certain
biographical events in Baudelaire’s life and the lack of importance he attributes to Baudelaire’s
existential condition as an artist), identifies a convergence between the appeal exerted by the
abysses of infinity and of nothingness (le néant) in Baudelaire’s work. He holds the view that
the artist in Baudelaire must undergo a degradation of his constitutive unity “pour faire naître, à
travers la multiplicité par laquelle il se laisse envahir, une nostalgie d’un infini dans lequel

6
I agree, however, with Guerlac’s observation that Les Fleurs du Mal subverts “an easy distinction
between beauty and the sublime—at least as these terms are elaborated by Burke in his
Philosophical Enquiry” (Guerlac 94).
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s’évanouiraient tout cloisonnement et toute limite” (Milner 192). Although my analysis is


analogous to Milner’s in its valorization of the dualities in Baudelaire’s poetry, the abjection of
self that I identify as central to Baudelaire’s aesthetics is contingent on a view of the
Baudelairean subject as one who remains divided. In addition, the abject is symptomatic of
both Susan Blood’s Sartrean reading of the aesthetics of “bad faith” as constitutive of
Baudelaire’s modernity (Baudelaire and the Aesthetics of Bad Faith) and the aesthetics of
transgression Anne Jamison identifies in “Any Where Out of this Verse” as the source of the
self-contradiction evident at all levels of Baudelaire’s critical and poetic writing.

Part 2 — The Sublime and Baudelaire’s Expressive Theory of


Criticism

Modern Art

Art and the Marketplace

In Le Salon de 1846, Baudelaire opens with an address to the bourgeoisie that highlights his
awareness of the changing status of art. Since art works are no longer commissioned
exclusively by the aristocracy or the Church, artists are at the mercy of the bourgeois interests
that govern the emerging marketplace. As Walter Benjamin observes, the latter determines the
longevity of an artist’s career and the viability of the artistic enterprise:7 “Baudelaire knew
what the true situation of the man of letters was: he goes to the marketplace as a Flâneur,
supposedly to take a look at it, but in reality to find a buyer” (Benjamin 34). Given this volatile
environment, it is not surprising to find that Baudelaire’s aesthetic theory seeks, among other
things, to anchor successfully modern art and the figure of the artist beyond the reach of
marketplace speculation. Its despotic bent is perhaps an attempt to secure a solid ground for
himself as an artist, and partly elucidates the motives behind his problematic adoption of the
Dandy persona. For example, to illustrate that nothing is left to chance in art, Baudelaire often
likens paintings to machines, in which all aspects of their mechanism are accounted for by the
artist: “Un tableau est une machine dont tous les systèmes sont intelligibles pour un œil exercé;
où tout a sa raison d’être, si le tableau est bon; où un ton est toujours destiné à en faire valoir
un autre; où une faute occasionnelle de dessin est quelquefois nécessaire pour ne pas sacrifier
quelque chose de plus important” (OC II.432). Claude Pichois and Claude Launay explain that

7
See also the third chapter of Jonathan Monroe’s A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the
Politics of Genre.
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Baudelaire conceives of “l’activité critique” “comme une défense du génie poétique où qu’il se
manifeste et donc également comme une chasse aux faux-semblants et aux mensonges de
‘singes artistiques’ qui sont les vrais responsables de la dépravation du goût” (Pichois and
Launay, “La Modernité de Baudelaire” 200). Baudelaire finds the bourgeois artist particularly
offensive as a consequence of his catering to the banal and superficial taste of the masses:
“L’ennemi de l’art c’est moins le bourgeois que l’artiste-bourgeois qui flatte ses contemporains
et entretient leur paresse d’imagination par une imagerie qui édulcore ou dissimule le fond
tragique de l’existence au profit d’apparences divertissantes et insignifiantes” (Pichois and
Launay 200). By means of his understanding of Romanticism to define modern art, the
categories of “tempérament” and “profonde naïveté” that determine the artist’s talent as a
priori, and his classification of art criticism as necessarily partisan, Baudelaire constructs a
triad in which the art work, the artist, and the critic conspire not only to secure each other’s
existence in spite of the pressure exerted by the taste of the marketplace, but to raise the artistic
enterprise beyond the sublunary scope of commercial exchange.

“Romantisme”

According to Baudelaire, what distinguishes modern art from its antecedents is not simply a
matter of its specific relation to the past8 (of coming after what came before); it must convey a
decidedly new understanding and means of perceiving the world. In response to Joseph Fay’s
drawings, for instance, Baudelaire explains modernity as an original way of thinking about art:
Nous voudrions voir déployer ce même talent au profit d’idées plus modernes,—
disons mieux, au profit d’une nouvelle manière de voir et d’entendre les arts—nous ne
voulons pas parler ici du choix des sujets; en ceci les artistes ne sont pas toujours
libres,—mais de la manière de les comprendre et de les dessiner. (OC II.373
[emphases added])

Furthermore, this new perspective must communicate the immediacy of the present, or what
Baudelaire calls “romantisme”:
Le romantisme n’est précisément ni dans le choix des sujets ni dans la vérité exacte,
mais dans la manière de sentir [...] le romantisme est l’expression la plus récente, la
plus actuelle du beau. Il y a autant de beautés qu’il y a de manières habituelles de
chercher le bonheur. La philosophie du progrès explique ceci clairement; ainsi, comme
il y a eu autant d’idéals qu’il y a eu pour les peuples de façons de comprendre la
morale, l’amour, la religion, etc., le romantisme ne consistera pas dans une exécution
parfaite, mais dans une conception analogue à la morale du siècle [...] Qui dit
romantisme dit art moderne,—c’est-à-dire, intimité, spiritualité, couleur, aspiration

8
For Baudelaire, the past against and through which he defines modern art has specific cultural and
historical significance. Brown elaborates on the classical paradigm evident in Baudelaire’s work
as well as his poetics’ relation to Renaissance, and particularly Petrarchan, conventions (see
Brown’s “Modernity, Beauty and the Past”).
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vers l’infini, exprimées par tous les moyens que contiennent les arts. (OC II.420
[emphases added])9

Modern art therefore entails an infinite process of becoming, in terms of an endless striving on
the part of the artist to represent the ideal in the transient. André Hirt’s observations on Hegel’s
understanding of Romanticism’s fractured subject, one who is always coming into being, are
pertinent to the philosophical context of Baudelaire’s notion of “romantisme”: “Très
concrètement, nous serions ‘romantiques’ tant que la philosophie ne parviendrait pas à une
construction systématique de l’absolu. Ou ce qui est la même chose, tant que nous serions dans
l’inachèvement de toute œuvre, de toute réalité et de tout sujet” (Hirt, “De Baudelaire à Hegel”
53). Such an understanding of modern art is evident in Baudelaire’s lyric poetry, as Morten
Nøjgaard articulates in his structural and semiotic analysis of Les Fleurs du Mal. In opposition
to critics who he maintains oversimplify Baudelaire’s poetic work by categorizing it as
dualistic, synthetic, or mystical, he explains that “la vérité de son art ne réside pas dans la
synthèse réussie, mais dans la recherche de l’unité intégrale” (Nøjgaard, Élévation et expansion
16). Michel Brix cautions us, however, that Baudelaire’s understanding of “romantisme”
should not be confused with the Platonism that “defines the philosophical horizon of the
romantics of Jena” (Brix, “Modern Beauty versus Platonic Beauty” 1). This striving for a
synthesis that Nøjgaard identifies should not be taken to suggest that Baudelaire perceives the
phenomena of nature as symbols of the divine. Baudelaire’s understanding of beauty is
subjective; he defends an expressive critical theory. According to Brix, Baudelaire “does not
tie the Beautiful to the qualities of the proportion, harmony, or symmetry of things, but with
the inner self of the observer” (Brix, “Modern Beauty” 12). Furthermore, to consider
Baudelaire as a champion of the ideology of art for art’s sake that the Parnassians espoused is
equally problematic; Baudelaire was, in Pierre Martino’s view, “un ami souvent ironique” and
“un disciple douteux” of Parnassian aesthetics (Martino, Parnasse et Symbolisme 92). By
means of an analysis of Poe’s aesthetics in which he seeks to dispel the French myth that
characterizes Poe as “un disciple de l’art pour l’art, comme un pur esthète, comme un
aristocrate dédaigneux de la démocratie,” Marcel Françon explains how Baudelaire’s Romantic
theory of criticism aligns itself instead with the symbolist tradition which succeeded him
(Françon, “Poe et Baudelaire” 853).
If, in the disavowal of beauty’s equivalence with the good (especially in terms of a
didactic function), Baudelaire seems to champion an objective theory of criticism, it is because

9
In Racine et Shakespeare Stendhal presents a very similar view to the one Baudelaire elaborates
here.
120

he, like many of his contemporaries, is indebted to Kant’s critical philosophy, which exerted so
strong an influence on the development of Romantic thought. In a way similar to Poe,
Baudelaire was aware of Kantian ideas only indirectly, primarily by means of Victor Cousin’s
dissemination of Kant’s work (Combe 37). According to Dominique Combe, whose study
approaches the historical distinctions commonly drawn between the dominant aesthetic
movements in France during Baudelaire’s time from a philosophical standpoint rather than
from the perspective afforded by the “classifications réductrices” prevalent in institutional
criteria, traces of Kant’s influence can be discerned in Baudelaire’s critical vocabulary, the
privileged place given to the faculty of imagination in his aesthetics, as well in his adoption of
certain criteria established by Kant in his understanding of our receptivity to the aesthetic
category of the beautiful (Combe 27). In particular, she explains that Baudelaire adopts the
Kantian precept of disinterestedness as necessary to aesthetic judgments. In positing our
contemplation of beauty as necessarily disinterested Kant creates a distinction between the
beautiful and the functional: contrary to objects that serve a specific aim, the object that
inspires a sense of the beautiful lacks any discernable purpose (from a human standpoint, of
course). Hence, beauty becomes an end in itself. We must remember that Kant speaks
primarily of the beauty found in nature; as a human product, art can be considered aesthetically
beautiful only if it is a work of genius—a work in which nature gives the rule to art since
genius, an innate gift, manifests itself independently of individual will. While the idea of
beauty as an end in itself—especially in terms of situating it outside the demands of the
bourgeois marketplace—comes to assume a key role in Baudelaire’s aesthetics, he does not
share Kant’s views on “[le] Beau naturel” as “le garant de l’art” (Combe 38). As “L’Éloge du
maquillage” makes clear, Baudelaire instead privileges artifice. Combe explains that
“l’influence de Kant en France, durant la première moitié du siècle, passe essentiellement par
l’idéalisme schellingien, à telle enseigne qu’il est alors difficile de faire la part entre le
kantianisme proprement dit et son héritage romantique” (Combe 44). In a passage that
synthesizes the combined influences of Poe, Kant, and the Romanticism of Jena on
Baudelaire’s critical theory, Combe explains the context of the apparent contradiction between
Baudelaire’s harangue against l’art philosophique in favour of l’art pur:
La philosophie est donc essentiellement poétique, comme la poésie est
inconsciemment philosophique. Voilà qui peut sembler parfaitement contraire au
partage baudelairien initial entre “poésie pure” et “poésie philosophique”; mais il ne
faut pas oublier la formule de l’essai de jeunesse consacré à Louis Ménard en 1846:
“La poésie est essentiellement philosophique; mais comme elle est avant tout fatale,
elle doit être involontairement philosophique.” Poe lui-même n’est-il pas “poète,
romancier et philosophe”? C’est par son caractère “involontaire”—notion
schellingienne, qui renvoie à une activité “insciente,” “inconsciente”—, que la Poésie
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s’avère philosophique, et non par son sujet, sa tonalité, son discours […] À ce niveau
supérieur, plus de contradiction entre poésie et philosophie, qui constituent les deux
faces d’une même activité créatrice de l’imagination transcendantale, à l’œuvre dans
les “symboles,” mais au contraire une unité organique. Par cette idée à peine esquissée,
Baudelaire puise, par-delà Cousin et Schelling, au plus profond du romantisme
d’Iéna. (Combe 48)

What appears as a contradiction in Baudelaire’s aesthetics—his apparent opposition to l’art


philosophique—is resolved once it is understood in its proper context.
In “The Fate of Beauty in Romantic Criticism” Timothy Raser presents another
significant argument against the assimilation of Baudelaire to pure formalism. The pitfalls of
Baudelaire’s apparent defense of formalism—insofar as, in L’Œuvre et la vie d’Eugène
Delacroix, he privileges form over content in his description of Delacroix’s merits as a
painter—are analogous to the reservations Kantian aesthetics elicits from its critics: aesthetic
judgments provide no knowledge of the world or of the experiencing subject except for an
awareness of “his immediate pleasure”; moreover, although it “shar[es] aspects of subjective
and cognitive judgments, the aesthetic judgment is in fact neither, and disappoints anyone who
expects it to be one or the other” (Raser, “The Fate of Beauty” 252). According to Raser,
“Baudelaire’s proposal is entirely assimilable to Kant’s: he removes the ‘subject’—dramatic or
iconographic—from consideration, in favor of an appreciation of the work’s color” (Raser,
“The Fate of Beauty” 254). While the parallel Raser draws between Baudelairean and Kantian
formalisms is not entirely accurate, since Kant considers colour to be a secondary attribute of
objects whereas Baudelaire privileges colour over line, the basis of his observations is sound.
As with Kant, Baudelaire’s understanding of beauty ostensibly displaces our cognitive
receptivity to the work’s content in favour of the pleasure we derive from its formal attributes.
Raser points out, however, that the distinction between knowledge and beauty posited in
Baudelaire’s aesthetics of the beautiful (and Kant’s as well, although I will not elaborate on
this) is unstable. In reference to a passage in which Baudelaire discusses the merits of
Delacroix’s formal skill as an artist,10 Raser observes:
The subjects Baudelaire has chosen are typical of Delacroix’s painting, but they are
also suggestive of precisely those drives whose repression, Freud writes, results in
artistic creation: sex and death. When Baudelaire qualifies the forms which envelop
those subjects, we find that these subjects have actually influenced Baudelaire’s
reading of form. The verb describing form, découper, describes the death of a saint; the

10
This is the passage Raser cites: “Une figure bien dessinée vous pénètre déjà d’un plaisir tout à fait
étranger au sujet. Voluptueuse ou terrible, cette figure ne doit son charme qu’à l’arabesque
qu’elle découpe dans l’espace. Les membres d’un martyr qu’on écorche, le corps d’une nymphe
pâmée, s’ils sont savamment dessinés, comportent un genre de plaisir dans les éléments duquel le
sujet n’entre pour rien; si pour vous il en est autrement, je serai forcé de croire que vous êtes un
bourreau ou un libertin” (OC II.753).
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sexually-suggestive pénétrer is elicited by the prostrate nymph. At the very moment


Baudelaire argues most insistently that subject is an unnecessary reference in aesthetic
appreciation, the forgotten subject appears as the origin of the purely formal analysis.
Not simply does content come prior to formal analysis, it is necessary for formal
analysis. (Raser, “The Fate of Beauty” 254)

Baudelairean beauty is not a gratuitous, Dandiacal act, nor does it engage the viewer in a free
play of his faculties of the imagination and the understanding. The artist who struggles to
create, “s’escrimant avec son crayon, sa plume, son pinceau” (OC II.693), and the viewer who
is oppressed by the despotic, penetrating, and evocative power of a work are both wholly
committed and immersed in their respective experiences: modern art is an ontological crisis for
Baudelaire. Hence a crucial distinction arises between Baudelaire’s aesthetics and Kant’s that
problematizes the former’s appeal to Kantian disinterestedness: rather than privileging sight, in
which the experiencing subject remains at a safe distance from the phenomenon that gives rise
to a sense of the beautiful (or the sublime), Baudelaire implicitly advocates a kind of sensual
contact with the world wherein the boundaries between self and other become fluid and
indistinct. The types of metaphors Baudelaire employs to describe the effect modern art
produces in its viewers are often sexual and sadomasochistic, as Raser notes above. In her
astute commentary on L’Exposition Universelle de 1855,11 Jamison observes that “the critical
process appears as an invasion”; Baudelaire’s “sexually suggestive” language “draws on taboos
of both incest and homosexuality to enhance the overall atmosphere of transgression” in his
essay (Jamison 264). “Gender roles and categories” are “highly unstable”: “The eye is both
phallus and orifice here,” “both penetrator and penetrated” (Jamison 264). In speaking about
the grotesque, moreover, Rollins comments on the consequences of Baudelaire’s idea of
“beauté bizarre” and his insistence on the artist’s openness to all kinds of beauty:
Un tel désir de tout embrasser, de tout comprendre, de tout éprouver, mène sans peine
à une esthétique où la laideur, l’horreur, le grotesque côtoient le sublime sans pour cela
déroger au service de l’art le plus pur. Et cela est possible grâce à une conception de la
beauté basée sur la relativité du beau et du sublime. (Rollins, “Baudelaire et le
grotesque” 274)

As with Poe, Baudelaire’s understanding of beauty absorbs the aesthetic category of the
sublime; furthermore, it also attributes equal prominence to the abject as a source of beauty.
In spite of their respective merits, an important aspect Combe’s and Raser’s analyses
leave out is the relation between Baudelaire’s expressive theory of criticism and the Kantian
sublime. As I hope to demonstrate, in Baudelaire the beauty particular to modern art can be

11
Jamison makes reference to the passage beginning on p. 576 and ending in the middle of p. 577
(vol. II): “Ces femmes et ces hommes, dont les muscles ne vibrent pas suivant l’allure classique
de son pays […] toute cette vitalité inconnue sera ajoutée à sa vitalité propre” (OC II.576-7).
123

understood in terms of Kant’s aesthetics of the sublime: a negative presentation of the self that
ought to inspire humanity (or at least the artist) to conform to a moral vocation. However, the
self that modern art symbolically presents is conditioned by the abject, illustrated by the loss of
fixity the self experiences in Baudelaire’s privileging of the sensible and sensual in aesthetic
judgments. The poetic act can hence be understood to reveal Kant’s moral vocation as the rule
the subversive poetic persona must transgress in order to define himself.

Heroism and Modernity

The process of modern art entails the uncovering of the heroic aspects of modern life, since,
according to Baudelaire, “notre époque n’est pas moins féconde que les anciennes en motifs
sublimes, on peut affirmer que puisque tous les siècles et tous les peuples ont leur beauté, nous
avons inévitablement la nôtre” (OC II.493). Nevertheless, what are the “heroic aspects of
modern life,” exactly? Baudelaire’s elucidation of modernity poses many interpretative
problems, not the least of which converge on his understanding of modernity’s heroism. How
can an artist represent the eternal in the ephemeral? Patricia A. Ward’s affirmation that
“‘modernity’ became a vehicle for expressing Baudelaire’s unique sense of the painter’s or
poet’s capacity via the imagination and a moral sensibility to capture the singular qualities of
an age, but to formalize them aesthetically in ways that transcend those temporal boundaries”
offers one possible solution (Ward, “Preface” Poetics of Modernity ix). However, in
emphasizing the objects of representation, the “singular qualities of an age,” Ward’s
explanation undermines the importance Baudelaire attributes to the artist’s inner nature as that
which should be represented—a point whose significance I will discuss at length. Kevin
Newmark offers a pertinent summary of the problem with Ward’s definition: it can easily be
understood to suggest that modernity according to Baudelaire is “a thinly disguised form of
historical positivism, a model in which the artwork would simply mirror, or represent,
whatever conventions, ideals, and beliefs are operative […] at any given moment” (Newmark,
“Off the Charts: Walter Benjamin’s Depiction of Baudelaire” 75).
The question of Baudelaire’s idea of heroism requires that we investigate his definition
of modernity more closely. In “Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” Baudelaire explains at length his
understanding of what constitutes the modern:
Il cherche ce quelque chose qu’on nous permettra d’appeler la modernité […] Il s’agit,
pour lui, de dégager de la mode ce qu’elle peut contenir de poétique dans l’historique,
de tirer l’éternel du transitoire [...] La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le
contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable. Il y a eu
modernité pour chaque peintre ancien; la plupart des beaux portraits qui nous restent
des temps antérieurs sont revêtus des costumes de leur époque. Ils sont parfaitement
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harmonieux, parce que le costume, la coiffure et même le geste, le regard et le sourire


(chaque époque a son port, son regard et son sourire) forment un tout d’une complète
vitalité. Cet élément transitoire, fugitif, dont les métamorphoses sont si fréquentes,
vous n’avez pas le droit de le mépriser ou de vous en passer. En le supprimant, vous
tombez forcément dans le vide d’une beauté abstraite et indéfinissable, comme celle de
l’unique femme avant le péché […] En un mot, pour que toute modernité soit digne de
devenir antiquité, il faut que la beauté mystérieuse que la vie humaine y met
involontairement en ait été extraite. (OC II.694-5)

In his deconstructive reading of this contentious essay, 12 Antoine Compagnon observes that
Baudelaire offers at least three possible readings of modernity. First, modernity appears to be
what the artist extracts from the transitory (the poetic element within the historic, as Ward’s
elucidation suggests); thus, Baudelaire seems to identify it with substance, or with the “eternal
essence” of the contingent. Second, modernity seems to be defined as both that which extracts
and that which is extracted: “La pierre et la gangue, la perle et l’huître” (Compagnon,
“Baudelaire devant l’éternel” 72); as such, it is defined in opposition to the eternal. The third
possibility is linked to the second, except that it places an emphasis on the “gangue”: “Si le
minerai est extrait, c’est toute la gangue qui devient elle-même précieuse” (Compagnon 72);
consequently, the third proposition defines modernity as the process of extraction itself. To
complicate matters, Compagnon observes that Baudelaire’s explications of modernity are
syntactically structured in such a way as to favour an elucidation of the contingent, whereas the
eternal remains a vague and abstract metaphysical term.
In light of these interpretative ambiguities, Compagnon critiques previous explications
of Baudelaire’s notion of modernity by claiming that all fall short, not because they are in some
way deficient or poorly articulated; on the contrary, it is their very completeness that unjustly
confines Baudelaire’s definition to the limited scope of their respective critical perspectives.
He argues that Baudelaire’s text presents an aporia through his use of the word “éternel”—a
contradiction that necessarily leaves readers unable to determine a precise meaning of
modernity—and asks: “Ne faudrait-il pas conclure qu’il n’y a rien de certain, aucune doctrine
cohérente à tirer de la formulation baudelairienne, et que c’est d’ailleurs ce qui fait sa force?”
(Compagnon 72).
What is pertinent in Compagnon’s analysis to my reading of Baudelaire’s notion of
beauty is his observation that the bizarre which characterizes beauty is perhaps the only aspect
of Baudelaire’s definition that can be asserted with any conviction on the part of critics: “Le
beau est toujours bizarre” (OC II.578). According to Le Robert: Dictionnaire étymologique du

12
For an overview of the dominant critical positions on “Le Peintre de la vie moderne” since the
late 1960s, see Timothy Raser’s “The Subject of ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’.”
125

français, the adjective “bizarre” is of Italian origin and was adopted in French usage during the
sixteenth century. Originally derived from “bizza,” meaning “colère,” Le Grand Larousse de la
langue française indicates that it currently signifies “ce qui est inhabituel, qui s’explique mal,”
“curieux, insolite, saugrenu”; “(personnes): d’un caractère difficile à comprendre, fantasque”
and “excentrique, original.” The “beauté bizarre” that Baudelaire promulgates is antithetical to
the kind of formal, Kantian beauty through which the faculties of the understanding and the
imagination engage in free play: there is something about modern beauty that captures and
fixes our attention, something about it that fascinates us.

The Sublime and “le Malheur” of Baudelaire’s Modern Beauty

As Claude Pichois indicates in the note to “le beau est toujours bizarre” (OC II.578),
Baudelaire makes reference to the following passage from “Ligeia”: “‘There is no exquisite
beauty,’ says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms of and genera of beauty,
‘without some strangeness in the proportion’” (CW II.250). The context surrounding this
excerpt is telling. In his attempt to identify what aspect of Ligeia’s countenance conveys this
“strangeness in the proportion,” Poe’s narrator scrutinizes her face, and then “peer[s] into the
eyes of Ligeia”; he observes: “For her eyes we have no model in the remotely antique. It might
have been, too, that in these eyes of my beloved lay the secret to which Lord Verulam alludes”
(CW II.251). From the perspective of “Ligeia”’s narrator, her eyes reflect not only what
Baudelaire would qualify as his beloved’s “tempérament”: “The ‘strangeness,’ however, which
I found in the eyes was of a nature distinct from the formation, or the color, or the brilliancy of
the features, and must, after all, be referred to expression” (CW II.251). “Those divine orbs”
constitute a symbol of infinity, or the expression of “something more profound than the well of
Democritus,” whose meaning he can grasp only by analogies to phenomena in nature that
suggest the infinite (CW II.251). The moth, butterfly, and chrysalis of which the narrator
speaks, for example, are representative of infinity on two levels: as symbols of nature’s endless
cycles of regeneration on the one hand, and, on the other hand, of metempsychosis, a theme
prevalent in Poe’s fiction. In the finitude of Ligeia’s eyes the narrator perceives the abyss of
eternity, a paradoxical motif that was not lost on Baudelaire. In the comparatively flippant
prose poem “L’Horloge,” Baudelaire’s speaker has an analogous experience as he gazes into
the “délicieux cadran” of his lover’s eyes:
Que ce soit la nuit, que ce soit le jour, dans la pleine lumière ou dans l’ombre opaque,
au fond de ses yeux adorables, je vois toujours l’heure distinctement, toujours la
même, une heure vaste, solennelle, grande comme l’espace, sans divisions de minutes
ni de secondes, —une heure immobile qui n’est pas marquée sur les horloges, et
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cependant légère comme un soupir, rapide comme un coup d’œil […] “Oui, je vois
l’heure; il est l’Éternité!” (OC I.299)

The allusion to Poe in Baudelaire’s elucidation of modern beauty not only serves to refute the
aesthetics of classicism that privileges proportion and balance—Ligeia’s “features were not of
that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labours of the
heathen” (CW II.250)—but it also calls attention to Baudelaire’s predilection for melancholy,
given Ligeia’s fate and the fact that the narrator pines for her throughout the story, affirming
early on that her “beauty passed into [his] spirit, there dwelling as if in a shrine” (CW II.252).
In a passage that echoes the sentiment expressed by “Ligeia”’s narrator, Baudelaire explains:
“Je ne prétends pas que la Joie ne puisse pas s’associer avec la Beauté, mais je dis que la Joie
en est un des ornements les plus vulgaires;—tandis que la Mélancolie en est pour ainsi dire
l’illustre compagne, à ce point que je ne conçois guère […] un type de Beauté où il n’y ait du
Malheur” (OC I.657). The following excerpt from Fusées conveys this sentiment:
J’ai trouvé ma définition du Beau,—de mon Beau. C’est quelque chose d’ardent et de
triste, quelque chose d’un peu vague, laissant carrière à la conjecture. Je vais, si l’on
veut, appliquer mes idées à un objet sensible, à l’objet, par exemple, le plus intéressant
dans la société, à un visage de femme. Une tête séduisante et belle, une tête de femme,
veux-je dire, c’est une tête qui fait rêver à la fois,—mais d’une manière confuse,—de
volupté et de tristesse; qui comporte une idée de mélancolie, de lassitude, même de
satiété,—soit une idée contraire, c’est-à-dire une ardeur, un désir de vivre, associé avec
une amertume refluante, comme venant de privation ou de désespérance. Le mystère,
le regret sont aussi des caractères du Beau. (OC I.657 [emphases added])

The character of the beauty described above echoes the impressions Ligeia’s beauty imparts to
her husband: her face possessed “the radiance of an opium-dream—an airy spirit-lifting vision
more wildly divine than the fantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the
daughters of Delos” (CW II.249); moreover, he observes in her “an intensity in thought, action,
or speech [that] was possibly, in her, a result, or at least an index, of [her] gigantic volition”
(CW II.253). Baudelaire’s and Poe’s notions of beauty run parallel: according to Poe in “The
Philosophy of Composition,” “melancholy is the most legitimate of poetical tones” (CW
XIV.198).
As a spectral mother figure, Ligeia symbolizes the origin to which the narrator has lost
access; as a result, the reference to “Ligeia” in Baudelaire grounds the beauty of the modern in
the artist’s inner nature, his “tempérament,” rather than in any objective property. Furthermore,
if Baudelaire’s definition of modern beauty is predicated upon an abyss of signification, an
empty sign—for that is how Compagnon interprets Baudelaire’s use of “l’éternel”—it suggests
that Baudelaire’s understanding of the beautiful has no positive presentation and eludes
description, just as the ontological ground of subjectivity cannot be presented positively. In
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Baudelaire the beauty of modern art, defined in terms of an experience of the limits of
signification that reflects the artist’s inner nature, is analogous to the sublime. The kind of
response Baudelaire’s notion of modern beauty elicits from its viewers reinforces this
correspondence. Instead of requiring the disinterested gaze necessary to the contemplation of
Kant’s aesthetic category of the beautiful, Baudelaire’s notion of modern beauty must
overwhelm the viewer and compel an emotional response particular to the sublime: “Le Beau
est toujours étonnant” (OC II.616).
In pointing out the significance of Baudelaire’s association of beauty with “le Malheur,”
Compagnon reiterates previous commentators’ recognition of modern beauty as symptomatic
of original sin: “S’affirmer moderne, c’est […] reconnaître le Malheur comme condition de la
beauté […] Extraire la beauté de la modernité, c’est exhiber le Malheur, le Malheur éternel,
c’est-à-dire le péché originel” (Compagnon 102, 104). For example, Max Milner cites section
XX from Mon cœur mis à nu to illustrate how, for Baudelaire, the divine act of creation itself is
understood in terms of a fall or degradation which necessarily submits human existence to the
exigencies of time and matter (Milner 170): “Qu’est ce que la chute? Si c’est l’unité devenue
dualité, c’est Dieu qui a chuté. En d’autres termes, la création ne serait-elle pas la chute de
Dieu?” (OC I.688). Thus, the heroism modern beauty should represent is necessarily bound up
with the decadence inherent in a view of humanity (and all creation) as irremediably fallen. In
its perpetual citation of a breached limit—an original transgression from which there is no
salvation, according to Baudelaire13—abjection is essential to an understanding of Baudelaire’s
notion of modern beauty. Brix explains this dynamic in analogous terms: “Si devaient
disparaître le Mal ou la conscience de la chute originelle, s’évanouiraient en même temps toute
volonté de dépassement, de rédemption, et donc toute poésie” (Brix, Le Romantisme français
114). The connection between Baudelaire’s assertion that “le beau est toujours bizarre” and his
idea of “le Malheur” as a prerequisite to beauty is further established through his allusion to
Ligeia to define modern beauty—an avatar of Poe’s supernal beauty as well as an abject,
material projection of the narrator’s ontological limits. “Ligeia” can be read in terms of a
parable describing the existential condition of the Baudelairean artist: he would have us believe
that he too, in a way similar to the narrator of “Ligeia,” strives to regain his lost love—his lost
origin—but instead of bringing him closer, the attempt leads him further astray from the ideal
as it compels him to fall more deeply into sin.

13
Compagnon cites the following excerpt from Baudelaire’s letters: “En somme, je crois que ma vie
a été damnée dès le commencement, et qu’elle l’est pour toujours” (Compagnon 104).
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If we consider Baudelaire’s prose poem “Le Mauvais Vitrier,” however, it appears that
the heroism particular to modern life is nothing short of a perverse impulse that overcomes
cowards, compelling them to practice random acts of cruelty against hapless bystanders. At
least that is the position in which the speaker places us as readers: we are constrained,
initially—upon first reading—to judge the narrative from a moral standpoint. While perversity
in Baudelaire is originally moral and theological in its scope, in this text it assumes the
connotations Poe elaborates in “The Imp of the Perverse.” According to Keiko Ido, it can be
described as “une impulsion irrésistible qui frappe tout d’un coup les gens timides” (Ido,
“Expression de la perversité chez Baudelaire” 59). The speaker, one who feels “poussé à faire
quelque chose de grand,” destroys all the wares of a vitrier by dropping his “engin de
guerre”—a flower pot—from his apartment window on the sixth floor (OC I.287). The
speaker’s aesthetic concerns motivate his act of destruction; he is angered by the fact that the
merchant does not sell “vitres qui fassent voir la vie en beau” (OC I.287). The cacophony
produced by the breaking glass inspires a transient, yet no less powerful, sense of beauty in the
speaker: “Le bruit éclatant d’un palais de cristal crevé par la foudre” (OC I.287). In an
underhanded way, the speaker transforms the vitrier’s wares into “des vitres magiques, des
vitres de paradis” (OC I.287). In appropriating the role of God, He who commands “la foudre,”
Baudelaire’s artist can create only by means of an immoral act of destruction or, as Culler
observes, by means of the “literalization of a phrase or a figure” (Culler 71): the “action
d’éclat” becomes “le bruit éclatant” of the breaking glass; the desire for “vitres qui fassent voir
la vie en beau” originates in the figure “voir la vie en beau”; and the flower pot is one of the
“Fleurs qui font du mal” rather than the “Fleurs du Mal” (Culler 70). In short, “Le Mauvais
Vitrier” “peut se lire comme un rébus”; “le ‘sobre’ lecteur n’ira jamais imaginer qu’une atteinte
à la propriété puisse susciter le Beau” (Susini, “Pour une lecture excentrique du Spleen de Paris
de Baudelaire” 63). As Jamison explains, Baudelaire’s idea of beauty is transgressive insofar as
he “locat[es] beauty’s very existence in the crossing of a limit or the breaking of a rule”
(Jamison 260). The model of the prose poem, she contends, “suggests the possibility of reading
Baudelaire’s entire œuvre as an integrated performance of his transgressive concept of beauty”
(Jamison 279). The abjection which characterizes Baudelaire’s notion of beauty masquerades
as a failed attempt to recover the ideal; as “Le Mauvais Vitrier” suggests, on the one hand the
heroism Baudelaire praises in modern life turns out to be a misanthropic literalization of the
violence of the word. Granted, the poetic persona achieves, by means of Baudelaire’s
“sorcellerie évocatoire,” a moment of “partial transcendence of his being,” as Francis S. Heck
maintains (Heck, “‘Le Mauvais Vitrier’: A Literary Transfiguration” 263), and the prose poem
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does contain, as a result of this, a positive movement. Nevertheless, the Baudelairean artist
creates only within the constraints of a pre-established order against which he defines himself:
the realm of aesthetic pleasure he generates is indissociable from the moral framework he
attempts to subvert to serve his own ends. As Claire Nicolay explains, the prose poems in Le
Spleen de Paris can be “read as a description and critique of the reciprocal relations among
various levels of society,” in which Baudelaire’s narrators “search for and contemplate their
places” in their social milieus (Nicolay, “The ‘Fatal Attractions’ of ‘Serious Things’” 343). As
a parasite who needs to inflict pain on another person to experience poetic exaltation, the
narrator of “Le Mauvais Vitrier” is similar to the speaker of “Les Yeux des pauvres,” who
appreciates the spectacle performed by the poor family because it draws attention to “his own
sensibility” (Nicolay 341). The sublime upon which Baudelaire’s notion of modern beauty is
predicated consequently highlights the poetic persona’s abject condition.

The Sublime Nature within the Artist


Baudelaire’s bipartite understanding of nature further elucidates the importance of the
aesthetics of the Kantian sublime to his idea of modern art. In Le Salon de 1855, he
distinguishes between two kinds of nature: that positive, concrete nature without, from which
we nonetheless spring, and that innate, self-reflexive nature within us from which the artist’s
genius originates, and which distinguishes human beings from the rest of creation.
Si tel assemblage d’arbres, de montagnes, d’eaux et de maisons, que nous appelons un
paysage, est beau, ce n’est pas par lui-même, mais par moi, par ma grâce propre, par
l’idée ou le sentiment que j’y attache. C’est dire suffisamment, je pense, que tout
paysagiste qui ne sait pas traduire un sentiment par un assemblage de matière végétale
ou minérale n’est pas un artiste. Je sais bien que l’imagination humaine peut, par un
effort singulier, concevoir un instant la nature sans l’homme, sans un contemplateur
pour en extraire la comparaison, la métaphore et l’allégorie. Il est certain que tout cet
ordre et toute cette harmonie n’en gardent pas moins la qualité inspiratrice qui y est
providentiellement déposée; mais, dans ce cas, faute d’une intelligence qu’elle pût
inspirer, cette qualité serait comme si elle n’était pas. (OC II.660)14

The purpose of modern art is to represent that nature within us, the ontological grounds of
subjectivity; evidently, since genius has no positive form, it can be presented only negatively,
that is, alluded to symbolically. The synthesis Baudelaire’s work aspires to convey is not one
between an immutable ideal of beauty and its ephemeral appearances in the world of
phenomena, but one between the artist’s inner nature and his mode of expression:
“L’esthétique consiste dans le rapport de l’impression et de l’expression, de la vision et de ses

14
This echoes Diderot’s affirmation in “Encyclopédie” that “si l’on bannit l’homme ou l’être
pensant et contemplateur de dessus la surface de la terre, ce spectacle pathétique et sublime de la
nature n’est plus qu’une scène triste et muette” (Diderot, Œuvres Complètes VII.212).
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moyens propres, et non dans la pérennité d’une image particulière et définitive du monde”
(Bercot, “Miroirs baudelairiens” 115-16). Baudelaire’s vehement opposition to realism as a
genre (in literature and painting primarily) relates precisely to its attempt to represent external
nature in all of its minute details—a task he considers to be myopic and misguided.
Conversely, he praises the artifice of theatre as a counter-example for its symbolic capacity:
Je préfère contempler quelques décors de théâtre, où je trouve artistement exprimés et
tragiquement concentrés mes rêves les plus chers. Ces choses, parce qu’elles sont
fausses, sont infiniment plus près du vrai; tandis que la plupart de nos paysagistes sont
des menteurs, justement parce qu’ils ont négligé de mentir. (OC II.668)

In speaking of portrait drawing, Baudelaire explains that the artist’s task is not to imitate
nature without, but to interpret it, “dans une langue plus simple et lumineuse” (OC II.457). In
light of Baudelaire’s disregard for the faithful rendition of the empirical attributes of objects,
an attitude which informs his reactionary harangue against the daguerreotype—he finds it
“inutile et fastidieux de représenter ce qui est, parce que rien de ce qui est ne me satisfait. La
nature est laide, et je préfère les monstres de ma fantaisie à la trivialité positive” (OC II.620)—
it is evident that interpretation refers to a subjective criterion or, as Brix explains: “The major
value of a work of art resides in the original impression the author is struggling to reconstitute
[…] In other words, a picture representing a landscape is beautiful in so far as it succeeds in
awakening in the viewer the very feeling which made the painter find it beautiful” (Brix,
“Modern Beauty”12). To this effect, Baudelaire emphasizes the importance of technique,15 but
decries the artist’s adherence to a particular school or method since it would only stifle his
genius.16 “We must recall that Baudelaire considers himself an anti-systematic, anti-academic
thinker,” notes Scott M. Sprenger in his analysis of Baudelaire’s metaphoric use of
“barbarism” to characterisze modern art, “and that the application of any pre-existing ‘system’
of perceptual or representational schemata, however ‘different’ or ‘great’ they might be, would
produce a result that,” and here he cites Baudelaire, “is ‘plus barbare que les barbares’”
(Sprenger, “Baudelaire and the Aesthetics of Barbarism” 89). Works of genius possess what

15
Baudelaire describes Delacroix’s procedure in the following terms: “Il faut être très soigneux des
moyens matériels d’exécution. Il professe une estime fanatique pour la propreté des outils et la
préparation des éléments de l’œuvre. —En effet, la peinture étant un art d’un raisonnement
profond et qui demande la concurrence immédiate d’une foule de qualités, il est important que la
main rencontre, quand elle se met à sa besogne, le moins d’obstacles possible, et accomplisse
avec une rapidité servile les ordres divins du cerveau: autrement l’idéal s’envole” (OC II.433).
16
For example, in his critique of William Haussoullier’s paintings in Le Salon de 1845, Baudelaire
cautions him against drawing too heavily on the past as a guide to his inspiration: “M.
Haussoullier serait-il de ces hommes qui en savent trop long sur leur art? C’est là un fléau bien
dangereux, et qui comprime dans leur naïveté bien d’excellents mouvements. Qu’il se défie de
son érudition, qu’il se défie même de son goût [...]” (OC II.360).
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Baudelaire calls primitive or barbaric qualities, as Sprenger points out, suggesting a lack of
critical interference on the part of the artist’s intellect during the process of creation; such
works are marked by a “volupté surnaturelle,” in which “l’analyse du sujet, quand vous vous
approchez, n’enlèvera rien et n’ajoutera rien à ce plaisir primitif, dont la source est ailleurs et
loin de toute pensée concrète” (OC II.753). The viewer, moreover, engages the modern work
of genius in a similar manner: through feeling and the unconscious rather than by means of his
intellectual faculties. As Sprenger explains, “the ideal artwork serves as a sort of immediate
line of communication between the artist’s memory and the viewer’s, thereby bypassing
conscious, rational reflection” (Sprenger 92).
Since the nature modern art seeks to represent exists only within each individual, there
cannot exist one all-encompassing notion of the ideal: “Ainsi l’idéal n’est pas cette chose
vague, ce rêve ennuyeux et impalpable qui nage au plafond des académies” (OC II.456).
Moreover, “les poètes, les artistes et toute la race humaine seraient bien malheureux, si l’idéal,
cette absurdité, cette impossibilité, était trouvé” (OC II.455). “Baudelaire made it clear,”
explains Doug Brown, “that he considered the hypothesis of absolute beauty to be a mirage
emanating from ahistorical and irrational theories which fail to take into account circumstantial
and cultural determinations of beauty and aesthetic experience” (Brown, “Modernity, Beauty
and the Past” 148). Nor does Baudelaire maintain that each individual instance of the particular
has its own ideal, since “un moule donne plusieurs épreuves” (OC II.456). Instead, he grounds
the ideal in the artist: “Il y a dans l’âme du peintre autant d’idéals que d’individus, parce qu’un
portrait est un modèle compliqué d’un artiste” (OC II.456). The centrality Baudelaire assigns to
memory in place of the object is directly related to the question of representation: in his
critique of French caricaturists, he praises Daumier in the following terms: “Il a une mémoire
merveilleuse et quasi divine qui lui tient lieu de modèle” (OC II.556). Elsewhere, in speaking
of Constantin Guys, he maintains: “Quand un véritable artiste en est venu à l’exécution
définitive de son œuvre, le modèle lui serait plutôt un embarras qu’un secours” (OC II.698).
The significance of the artist’s reliance on his memory—“L’image écrite dans le cerveau, et
non pas d’après la nature” (OC II.698)—as a means to extract the phantasmagoria from nature
is twofold (OC II.694). As with the categories of “profonde naïveté” and “tempérament” that I
will discuss in my analysis of the artist figure, the artist’s reliance on his memory further
defines him as an independent agent who exerts complete control over himself and his work;
moreover, it posits the transcendental imagination as the grounds of knowledge.
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The Imagination

In the section of Le Salon de 1859 titled “La Reine des facultés,” Baudelaire explains at length
the undisputed primacy he attributes to the imagination in his conception of modern art. In
distinguishing it from mere fancy, he concerns himself with imagination as an inherent creative
potency that, although infinitely less powerful in scope, is nonetheless analogous to “cette
puissance sublime avec laquelle le créateur conçoit, crée et entretient son univers” (OC II.624).
Through its dual role of analysis and synthesis, the imagination operates as a supplement to
other faculties of the mind; without it we could not conceive of anything beyond what already
exists. In spite of the fact that Baudelaire does not endorse the Platonism that influenced Poe’s
idea of supernal beauty, in Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe he elaborates on the intuitive nature
of the imagination and praises Poe precisely because he perceives the importance the
imagination plays in his aesthetics: “Une faculté quasi divine qui perçoit tout d’abord, en
dehors des méthodes philosophiques, les rapports intimes et secrets des choses, les
correspondances et les analogies” (OC II.329). Specifically, Baudelaire maintains that it is
through our imagination that the world is brought into being: “La nature extérieure [...] n’est
qu’un amas incohérent de matériaux que l’artiste est invité à associer et à mettre en ordre [...] il
n’y a dans la nature ni ligne ni couleur. C’est l’homme qui crée la ligne et la couleur. Ce sont
deux abstractions qui tirent leur égale noblesse d’une même origine” (OC II.752). Furthermore:
C’est l’imagination qui a enseigné à l’homme le sens moral de la couleur, du contour,
du son et du parfum. Elle a créé, au commencement du monde, l’analogie et la
métaphore. Elle décompose toute la création, et, avec les matériaux amassés et
disposés suivant les règles dont on ne peut trouver l’origine que dans le plus profond
de l’âme, elle crée un monde nouveau, elle produit la sensation du neuf. [...]
L’imagination est la reine du vrai, et le possible est une des provinces du vrai. Elle est
positivement apparentée avec l’infini. (OC II.621)

Underlying Baudelaire’s adoption of a Romantic understanding of the faculty of


imagination are the following Kantian assertions: first, that we cannot know things in
themselves,17 since our intuitions of the world are mediated by the a priori structures of our
minds; second, that there nevertheless exists a correspondence and reciprocity between our

17
In response to those who praise mimesis (in the sense of the imitation of nature) as the highest
artistic achievement, Baudelaire retorts: “Cependant il eût été plus philosophique de demander
aux doctrinaires en question, d’abord s’ils sont bien certains de l’existence de la nature extérieure,
ou, si cette question eût paru trop bien faite pour réjouir leur causticité, s’ils sont bien sûrs de
connaître toute la nature, tout ce qui est connu dans la nature” (OC II.620). In his examination of
Baudelaire’s existential condition, Sartre emphasizes the distance between Baudelaire’s inner
landscape and external reality: “Prétextes, reflets, écrans, les objets ne valent jamais pour eux-
mêmes et n'ont d’autre mission que de lui donner l’occasion de se contempler pendant qu’il les
voit” (Sartre 24).
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minds and nature as phenomenon. Moreover, Baudelaire’s notion of “surnaturalisme” is


decidedly Kantian, in that it pertains to a suprasensible or moral dimension: “The word
surnaturel is not to be approximated to céleste or mystique and does not have even any
religious connotation. The inspiration of things, the supernatural dimension which the writer
attaches to them, are the moral ideas they harbour [for him] and which the medium of art
reveals. The world of moral impressions constitutes also a ‘sur-nature’” (Brix, “Modern Beauty
versus Platonic Beauty” 10). It follows that the artist’s objective is not to produce a facsimile
of nature without, but to be true to the nature within him, a nature that he can neither know nor
positively represent: “L’artiste, le vrai artiste, [...] doit être réellement fidèle à sa propre nature”
(OC II.620). Baudelaire’s artist, an original creator, is also Kant’s transcendental subject: a
self-reflexive, knowing being who has no access to the ontological foundation of his
knowledge. In addition, his privileging of poetic language as the medium of choice in his
aesthetics—for example, Baudelaire terms Delacroix a “peintre-poète” (OC II.631) and claims
that one must be “un peu poète” to appreciate modern painting18 fully (OC II.634)—is tied
directly to the pre-eminence he assigns to the imagination in his aesthetics. Negative, opaque,
and self-referential, poetic language is decidedly “unnatural”; hence it is a medium propitious
to the workings of the Romantic imagination.
Although Baudelaire changes his opinion of sculpture by the time he writes the Le Salon
de 1859, his initial objection to this medium is suggestive of how his understanding of modern
art coincides with the aesthetics of the sublime. For instance, in the Le Salon de 1846,
Baudelaire reduces sculpture to mere fetishism and denounces it for its too close proximity to
positive nature; in contrast, through its privileged media—and here Baudelaire refers to
painting in particular—modern art possesses “un mystère singulier qui ne se touche pas avec
les doigts” (OC II.487). The discrediting of touch in favour of sight is essential: sight entails a
certain distancing between the self and the object necessary to the sublime, whereas to touch an
object requires a direct contact that not only collapses that distance, but emphasizes the
object’s materiality. At this point in his career, sculpture is the abject medium that disturbs
Baudelaire’s despotic aesthetic system, wherein painting reigns supreme. The following
passage, from the aptly titled section of Le Salon de 1846 “Pourquoi la sculpture est
ennuyeuse,” in which Baudelaire disapproves of sculpture on the grounds that it exceeds the
artist’s ability to control his work, illustrates this:

18
For instance, in reference to Delacroix’s Mise au tombeau Baudelaire affirms: “Il est impossible
qu’un amateur un peu poète ne sente pas son imagination frappée, non pas d’une impression
historique, mais d’une impression poétique, religieuse, universelle, en contemplant ces quelques
hommes qui descendent soigneusement le cadavre de leur Dieu” (OC II.634).
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La sculpture a plusieurs inconvénients qui sont la conséquence nécessaire de ses


moyens. Brutale et positive comme la nature, elle est en même temps vague et
insaisissable, parce qu’elle montre trop de faces à la fois. C’est en vain que le sculpteur
s’efforce de se mettre à un point de vue unique; le spectateur, qui tourne autour de la
figure, peut choisir cent points de vue différents, excepté le bon, et il arrive souvent, ce
qui est humiliant pour l’artiste, qu’un hasard de lumière, un effet de lampe, découvrent
une beauté qui n’est pas celle à laquelle il avait songé. (OC II.487)

Painting, on the other hand, commands a singular perspective: that intended by the artist. It is
therefore exclusive and despotic, compelling the viewer’s gaze: “Il n’y a pas moyen de le
regarder autrement que dans son jour” (OC II.487).
This opposition he maintains between painting and sculpture pertains directly to how
Baudelaire understands nature. When he speaks of it in terms of the world of phenomena and
matter, that is, as positive and concrete, it represents the abject; however, when he speaks of
nature in terms of the “surnaturel,” it is analogous to Kant’s notion of the suprasensible. He has
in mind those innate qualities human beings possess, the ability to reason and the artist’s
“tempérament,” that exist in us a priori. Thus, “surnaturalisme” implies a non-mimetic
representation of nature guided by artist’s inner sense of the ideal: “C’est créer une magie
suggestive contenant à la fois l’objet et le sujet, le monde extérieur à l’artiste et l’artiste lui-
même” (OC II.599). In light of Baudelaire’s Catholic outlook, his paradoxical views of nature
can be explained in terms of how Christianity conceives of nature prior to and following the
fall of humanity: as an ideal, it is divine, yet as a concrete manifestation, it is corrupted and
damned (although not exclusive to him, this duality of nature is especially evident in
Baudelaire’s ambivalent attitude towards women). The underlying implication of his
condemnation of sculpture is that, as a medium, it is ill suited to convey the artist’s ideality,
since its materiality defeats any attempt on the artist’s part to impose his “tempérament” onto
the object. As my analysis of the Dandy figure in Baudelaire will make clear, the morphology
of sculpture and that of the Dandy are diametrically opposed: one is fixed, positive, and
natural; the other is ephemeral, negative, and contrived.
Baudelaire’s change of opinion towards sculpture in Le Salon de 1859 is noteworthy. In
reference to classical sculpture, Baudelaire assigns to this medium the divine role of raising our
minds to the contemplation of the sublime: “Le fantôme de pierre s’empare de vous et vous
commande, au nom du passé, de penser aux choses qui ne sont pas de la terre. Tel est le rôle
divin de la sculpture” (OC II.670). The crux of sculpture’s redemption as a medium rests in
Baudelaire’s acknowledgement of the genius required to elevate it beyond a merely mimetic—
and hence positive—presentation of nature without: “Qui peut douter qu’une puissante
imagination ne soit nécessaire pour remplir un si magnifique programme?” (OC II.670).
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Hence, he is able to reclaim it and assign it a place in his aesthetics, as long as it attains the
ideal specific to its medium:
Devant un objet tiré de la nature et représenté par la sculpture, c’est-à-dire rond,
fuyant, autour duquel on peut tourner librement, et, comme l’objet naturel lui-même,
environné d’atmosphère, le paysan, le sauvage, l’homme primitif, n’éprouvent aucune
indécision; tandis qu’une peinture, par ses prétentions immenses, par sa nature
paradoxale et abstractive, les inquiète et les trouble […] Le singe, quelquefois surpris
par une magique peinture de la nature, tourne derrière l’image pour en trouver
l’envers. Il résulte des conditions barbares dans lesquelles la sculpture est enfermée,
qu’elle réclame, en même temps qu’une exécution très parfaite, une spiritualité très
élevée. Autrement elle ne produira que l’objet dont peuvent s’ébahir le singe et le
sauvage […] De même que la poésie lyrique ennoblit tout, même la passion, la
sculpture, la vraie, solennise tout, même le mouvement; elle donne à tout ce qui est
humain quelque chose d’éternel et qui participe de la dureté de la matière employée.
(OC II.671 [emphasis added])

An altogether different yet significant facet of Baudelaire’s aesthetics that the above
excerpt from Le Salon de 1859 underscores is the appeal to a community of like-minded men.
Just as the artist must cultivate his genius,19 in order fully to appreciate modern art, whose
objective is to focus the viewer’s gaze and elevate his mind to a contemplation of the
suprasensible that exists within each of us, our inner nature must be acculturated. It must be
guided by “une culture régulière” (OC II.645). “Baudelaire offers no guarantee,” observes
Sprenger, “that viewers will experience or see what the artist desires them to see, since there is
no possibility for external verification”; although “Baudelaire claims that the artwork functions
as a ‘despotic mnemonic,’ this only means that the artwork forces the viewer to recollect
something; it does not make clear what this something is” (Sprenger 94). Baudelaire’s
categorization of Delacroix as “le plus suggestif de tous les peintres” is enlightening in this
respect (OC II.745). Delacroix is “celui dont les œuvres, choisies même parmi les secondaires
et les inférieures, font le plus penser,” since they call to memory “le plus de sentiments et de
pensées poétiques déjà connus, mais qu’on croyait enfouis pour toujours dans la nuit du passé”
(OC II.745 [emphasis added]). Without acculturation, modern art’s sublimity will not be
recognized, just as the sublime spectacle in nature fails to be identified as such outside of its
prerequisite cultural context, according to Kant. This requirement is ironic in light of
Baudelaire’s anti-academic stance: in a way similar to the established order he repudiates, he
too creates rules and a set of guidelines in his elaboration of modern art. More importantly,

19
The artist’s own self-fashioning is symptomatic of Baudelaire’s definition of modern art through
the aesthetic of the sublime or as an art that challenges the limits of the subject. He affirms the
following of Delacroix: “Mais qu’il perfectionne sans cesse ses dons naturels, qu’ils les aiguise
avec soin, qu’il en tire des effets nouveaux, qu’il pousse lui-même sa nature à outrance, cela est
inévitable, fatal et louable” (OC II.751).
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modern art is decisively unnatural: it can be discerned only by those belonging to a cultural
aristocracy, of which the Dandy is the quintessential representative.

The Poetics of the Abject: “Une Charogne”

If Baudelaire predicates his notion of modern art on the aesthetics of the Kantian sublime, the
role of the abject is to provide the fertile grounds from which the artist can draw the beauty
particular to the modern: “L’esprit du vrai critique, comme l’esprit du vrai poète, doit être
ouvert à toutes les beautés” (OC II.630). In his critique of Théodore de Banville’s work,
Baudelaire is quite explicit in outlining this:
Mais enfin, direz-vous, si lyrique que soit le poète, peut-il donc ne jamais descendre
des régions éthéréennes, ne jamais sentir le courant de la vie ambiante, ne jamais voir
le spectacle de la vie, la grotesquerie perpétuelle de la bête humaine, la nauséabonde
niaiserie de la femme, etc.?... Mais si vraiment! le poète sait descendre dans la vie;
mais croyez que s’il y consent, ce n’est pas sans but, et qu’il saura tirer profit de son
voyage. De la laideur et de la sottise il fera naître un nouveau genre d’enchantements.
Mais ici encore sa bouffonnerie conservera quelque chose d’hyperbolique; l’excès en
détruira l’amertume, et la satire, par un miracle résultant de la nature même du poète,
se déchargera de toute sa haine dans une explosion de gaieté, innocente à force d’être
carnavalesque. Même dans la poésie idéale, la muse peut, sans déroger, frayer avec les
vivants. Elle saura ramasser partout une nouvelle parure. Un oripeau moderne peut
ajouter une grâce exquise, un mordant nouveau […] à sa beauté de déesse. (OC II.
166-7 [emphasis added])

Modern art consequently appears to function as a form of moral hygiene in Baudelaire’s


aesthetics: “Je défie qu’on me trouve un seul ouvrage d’imagination qui réunisse toutes les
conditions du beau et qui soit un ouvrage pernicieux” (OC II.41). Art’s ability to transform the
abject into a timeless object of aesthetic contemplation stems from its innate origin: the genius
working through the artist. If art is a ritual cleansing—“l’art purificateur comme le feu” (OC
II.547)—it serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it redeems the abject by drawing out “la
beauté du Mal” (OC I.181). Thus, Baudelaire’s task as a writer is akin to that of the alchemist,
who, from “des gangues,” seeks to “extraire l’or” (‘“L’Horloge,” OC I.81). On the other hand,
in advocating aspects common to an objective critical theory he appears to suggest that art
liberates the artist from the tyranny of the human condition by enabling him to inhabit, solely
through the force of his creative will, a realm beyond good and evil. In the following excerpt
from the Critique littéraire that first appears in Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe, Baudelaire
discusses art’s relation to morality (the ideas on art expressed herein are almost identical to
those found in Poe’s “The Poetic Principle”):
Une foule de gens se figurent que le but de la poésie est un enseignement quelconque,
qu’elle doit tantôt fortifier la conscience, tantôt perfectionner les mœurs, tantôt enfin
démontrer quoi que ce soit d’utile…La Poésie [...] n’a d’autre but qu’Elle-même [...]
Je ne veux pas dire que la poésie n’ennoblisse pas les mœurs,—qu’on me comprenne
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bien,—que son résultat final ne soit pas d’élever l’homme au-dessus du niveau des
intérêts vulgaires; ce serait évidemment une absurdité. Je dis que si le poète a
poursuivi un but moral, il a diminué sa force poétique; et il n’est pas imprudent de
parier que son œuvre sera mauvaise. La poésie ne peut pas, sous peine de mort ou de
déchéance, s’assimiler à la science ou à la morale; elle n’a pas la Vérité pour objet, elle
n’a qu’Elle-même. (OC II.112-113 [the capitals for “Poésie” and “Elle-même” appear
only in the “Critique littéraire” excerpt])

Elsewhere he states the following, with regard to Auguste Barbier:


Ce qui est beau n’est pas plus honnête que déshonnête. Il arrive le plus souvent, je le
sais, que la poésie vraiment belle emporte les âmes vers un monde céleste; la beauté
est une qualité si forte qu’elle ne peut qu’ennoblir les âmes; mais cette beauté est une
chose tout à fait inconditionnelle, et il y a beaucoup à parier qui si vous voulez, vous
poète, vous imposer à l’avance un but moral, vous diminuerez considérablement votre
puissance poétique. (OC II.142-143)

His adoption of the Dandy as an ideal figure looming over his poetic persona further attests to
his attempt to distance art from a moral end: according to Michel Lemaire in Le Dandysme de
Baudelaire à Mallarmé, “si le dandy dépasse les notions de bien et de mal, c’est pour atteindre
un critère supérieur et unique: le beau” (Lemaire 63). Hence the purpose of art’s purification of
the abject—of which positive nature is emblematic in Baudelaire—is not to fulfil a moral end,
but to make it palatable to the refined taste of the artist as Dandy.
“Une Charogne,” a poem that emblematizes Baudelaire’s revulsion towards nature and
the poet’s desire to dominate it, is perhaps the text that most explicitly illustrates the
transformation the abject must undergo to satisfy the artist. The contrast between brute nature
and the poetic intellect demonstrate Baudelaire’s assertion that “Ce qui est créé par l’esprit est
plus vivant que la matière” (OC II.649). Significantly, it also highlights the complexity of
Baudelairean irony. Posing as a mere representation of how, by means of art, the poetic
intellect can extract “la forme et l’essence divine” (OC I.31.47) from the transient in nature, the
poem underhandedly elevates the artist as creator by parodying nature and underscoring the
abject. For instance, the choice of an ephemeral object and the length at which the poet
describes it hinge on an obsession with the abject: of the poem’s twelve stanzas, the speaker
employs no fewer than nine to describe to his lover in minute detail the gruesome aspects of a
rotting carcass they encountered on a summer morning while walking by a field. In particular,
the speaker’s perverse description of the abject spectacle ironically approximates it to an object
of art, whose
[…] formes s’effaçaient et n’étaient plus qu’un rêve,
Une ébauche lente à venir,
Sur la toile oubliée, et que l’artiste achève
Seulement par le souvenir. (OC I.31.29-32)
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As an aesthetic object, the carcass appeals not only to his and his lover’s sense of sight, but
also to their senses of smell, hearing, touch, and taste: “La puanteur était si forte”; “Et ce
monde rendait une étrange musique”; “De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide”; “Le
soleil rayonnait sur cette pourriture, / Comme afin de la cuire à point” (OC I.31.15, 25, 19, 9-
10 [emphases added]). Nonetheless, the disparity existing between art and the carcass is
emphasized anew in the ninth stanza, in which,
Derrière les rochers une chienne inquiète
Nous regardait d’un œil fâché,
Épiant le moment de reprendre au squelette
Le morceau qu’elle avait lâché. (OC I.31.33-36)

By underscoring the carrion’s repugnant material properties, the speaker elevates it to the status
of art, only to accentuate the impossibility of such an approximation. The contrast implicit in
Baudelaire’s use of a rotting carcass as a vehicle to describe the artistic process of creation is
one between the abject nature of the subject matter he chooses and the ostensibly transcendent
virtues of art.
The subversion of the divine status commonly attributed to nature in Romanticism
becomes apparent through the speaker’s description. On the one hand, he explicitly identifies
the body and its advanced state of putrefaction as symbols of nature:
Le soleil rayonnait sur cette pourriture,
Comme afin de la cuire à point,
Et de rendre au centuple à la grande Nature
Tout ce qu’ensemble elle avait joint[.] (OC I.31.9-12)

On the other hand, two clues suggest that the poet is keen on creating an association between
the carcass and the feminine: the following simile that compares its posture to that of a whore:
“Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique” (OC I.31.5); and the direct link the speaker
establishes between his lover and the carcass:
Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure,
A cette horrible infection,
Étoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature,
Vous, mon ange et ma passion! (OC I.31.37-40)

Thus, according to the speaker, nature, woman, and the abject are interchangeable. The irony
evident in the speaker’s tone, moreover, is discernable primarily through the poem’s controlled
form that belies its dominant image: the description of the animal remains in the process of
decomposition. Each of the poem’s twelve quatrains, composed of alexandrine and
octosyllabic lines, contains an interlocking end-rhyme scheme alternating regularly between
feminine and masculine rhymes. The poem triumphantly maintains its formal structure until the
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end, contrary to the rotting body that becomes increasingly corrupted under the influence of the
sun.
Des mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride,
D’où sortaient de noirs bataillons
De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide
Le long de ces vivants haillons. (OC I.31. 9-12, 17-20)

The contrast between the durability of art and the impermanence of nature attributes new
meaning to Baudelaire’s observation in the Critique littéraire: “La grande poésie est
essentiellement bête, elle croît, et c’est ce qui fait sa gloire et sa force” (OC II.11).
Furthermore, the speaker’s use of the passé simple in the first and sixteenth lines and the
pronoun “vous” to address his lover constitute two other important markers of irony: both the
tense and the overly formal address betray the excessively polite and pointed wit of the Dandy.
As the title “Une Charogne” suggests, the abject, and not art’s idealizing function, is the focus
of poem; the ideal operates merely as a pretence from which the poet can immerse himself in
and contemplate the inner limits of subjectivity.
The primacy attributed to the artistic enterprise in “Une Charogne” underscores the
poet’s divine role as creator and the omnipotence of his transcendent imagination. He
appropriates decomposing nature and uses it to “compose” a new unity in the form of a poem:
“[…] J’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine / De mes amours décomposés” (OC I.31.47-48).
Put another way, Peter Broome observes, in his reading of “Une Charogne,” that “indeed the
poem itself is ultimately the only act of possession, enabling the poet to preside over his own
ironies” (Broome 88). The poem highlights the fact that all literature is a deferred activity,
produced on the basis of memory and imagination. Contrary to art’s lowly status in Platonism
as the poor copy of nature, for Baudelaire, his interpretation, really an expression of his self
and not of nature, is superior to nature itself. The object that motivates the writing of “Une
Charogne” is not an actual rotting carcass the poet observes, but the fantastic imprint such an
object left upon his imagination, recalled, by the “sainte fureur de l’imagination” (OC II.680),
for the purposes of fashioning this poem. The carcass operates as a signifier and not a referent;
it leaves an indefinite impression on the poet’s “mémoire résurrectionniste” (OC II.699) that he
uses as a vehicle to demonstrate his creative potency through the medium of language:
[…] s’escrimant avec son crayon, sa plume, son pinceau, faisant jaillir l’eau du verre
au plafond, essuyant sa plume sur sa chemise, pressé, violent, actif, comme s’il
craignait que les images ne lui échappent, querelleur quoique seul, et se bousculant lui-
même. Et les choses renaissent sur le papier, naturelles et plus que naturelles, belles et
plus que belles, singulières et douées d’une vie enthousiaste comme l’âme de l’auteur.
(OC II.693)
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As the indefinite article “une” in the title suggests, the poem ultimately is not about a specific
rotting body: it is not about “la charogne,” a singular phenomenon in nature. Instead, it
thematizes the supremacy of the Baudelairean artist, who chooses, to demonstrate his power,
the most extreme “natural” (and hence abject) object to represent in language. The poem “Une
Charogne,” detailing the poet’s description of “cette horrible infection” and his impression that
“On eût dit que le corps, enflé d’un souffle vague, / Vivait en se multipliant” (OC I.31.38, 23-
24), therefore illustrates the abject’s centrality in Baudelairean aesthetics as a means to
objectify the boundaries of selfhood—“I am not (yet) that”—and to consecrate the poetic
intellect through the act of memory, whereby nature is appropriated and idealized by the
artist’s imagination. Given the emphasis placed on abjection in Baudelaire’s poetic work, it is
important to observe that, in spite of his proclamations of a subject position outside of the
constraints of morality and rational reflection intrinsic to his defence of pure art—an art that
denies its own temporality in favour of “the primacy of the moment” and “immediate or
spontaneous sensual responses to external stimuli,” as Jeffrey Michaels sees it (“Narrating
Despair: Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en prose and Kierkegaard’s Will to Ethics” 302)—,
Baudelaire’s understanding of art nonetheless operates within an ethical framework. Just as
Satan—a figure whom Baudelaire glorifies—and his sin possess symbolic significance only
within a specific context in which his role is determined in opposition to the sublime majesty of
God, the sublime and the abject become meaningless without defined limits: there is nothing to
exceed or to guarantee their difference.
It appears that the sublime that defines Baudelaire’s notion of modern art provides a
context through which the abject is valorized. The previously quoted passage from the Critique
littéraire, in which Baudelaire explains the abject’s particular relation to the sublime beauty of
art—“Un oripeau moderne peut [lui] ajouter une grâce exquise” (OC II.167)—, could have
been written as a description of any of the prose poems in Le Spleen de Paris. A form better
suited to the avatars of Dandyism, the prose poem’s transgressive nature attests to the primacy
of abjection in Baudelaire:
The prose poem rejects literature’s (especially poetry’s) dream of itself as a pure other
set apart in sublime isolation, like the idealist/lyrical self, from the more prosaic
struggles of everyday life which all too often “go without saying” […] The prose poem
is […] a genre that does not want to be itself. Although on the one hand the name
“prose poem” suggests a synthetic utopian third term, it also implies the continued
irresolution of the two opposing terms that constitute it. (Monroe, A Poverty of
Objects 20)

The subjective limit the abject breaches does not affirm an ideal; if anything, the abject
parodies the ideal.
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In “Perte d’auréole,” in which the figures of the artist and the Dandy are united
unequivocally in the speaker’s persona, the artist profits from the loss of his halo, the
metaphorical marker of his innate superiority in the hierarchy of occupations,20 because it
enables him to blend into the masses like the inconspicuous Flâneur. After having accidentally
dislodged it while gallivanting on the boulevard, he engages in a conversation with an
unidentified observer. The poet’s response to the latter’s concern over the loss of such an
apparently precious ornament—elsewhere called the poet’s “couronne mystique” and described
as a “beau diadème éblouissant et clair,” “[…] dont les yeux mortels, dans leur splendeur
entière, / Ne sont que des miroirs obscurcis et plaintifs! (“Bénédiction” OC I.7.67, 72, 75-
76)—highlights the centrality of the abject in Baudelaire’s notion of art, since the poet is keen
to be rid of the burden of the sublime and of the moral calling it occasions. For instance, the
poet replies in a flippant and playful tone that not only is he glad to be relieved of his halo
since “la dignité m’ennuie,” but he also feels joy at the prospect that a bad poet may pick it up
and arrogantly adorn himself with it: “Faire un heureux, quelle jouissance! et surtout un
heureux qui me fera rire! Pensez à X, ou à Z! comme ce sera drôle!” (OC I.352). This prose
poem is a mise en scène of Baudelaire’s pervasive Dandiacal irony. Sima Godfrey explains:
The dandy may be […] regarded as the signifying master of intertextual polyphony,
the man who consciously manipulates two levels of discourse at once: the common
language of everyday cliché and the more esoterically defined marginal language of
his own private context that inverts the first and echoes it at a distance. (Godfrey, “The
Dandy as Ironic Figure” 31)

The gestures and enunciations of the Dandy cannot be understood outside of their specific
cultural context, since “the dandy, like the ironic figure,” “is oppositional; he defines himself
against other values rather than in terms of any specific order of values” (Godfrey 26). In
“Perte d’auréole,” Baudelaire echoes and subverts several cultural narratives, so to speak,
through the speaker’s happy loss of his halo: the bourgeois commodity culture, characterized
by its fixation with external markers of status and its taste for moral art, the Romantic elevation

20
“Il n’existe que trois êtres respectables: le prêtre, le guerrier, le poète. Savoir, tuer et créer. Les
autres hommes sont taillables et corvéables, faits pour l’écurie, c’est-à-dire ce qu’on appelle des
professions” (OC I.684). In Baudelaire the poet assumes the role of a sanctified judge, in light of
Dandyism’s centrality to his constitution of the figure of the artist. On the one hand, he invests the
poet with a dignified marker of rank bestowed only upon saints and angels (the halo). Since each
of these vocations is identifiable through its insignia, the idea of “being” and of “appearing to be”
are united in the priest, warrior, and poet, likening them to the Dandy. On the other hand,
Baudelaire discreetly places the poet above the warrior and priest as a result of his close
association with Dandyism: his halo sanctifies him, rendering him more holy than a priest; as a
Dandy he is the ultimate arbiter of taste, more powerful than any judge; and, unlike the warrior,
who fights only when called, the Dandy poet is unceasingly at war with convention.
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of the figure of the poet as hero21 (a position evident in his early poetry), as well as the
dogmatic identity and aesthetic rules imposed by the Academy on the artist. The artist is a man
of the crowd, an urbanite, not a patrician of the Academy or a bourgeois moralist.
As readers, we are meant to identify with the anonymous person to whom the poet
speaks; thus, when, in choosing not to recuperate his halo, the poet seeks to caricature another
artist, we are complicit in his prank. The poet elevates us to his dignified status and appears to
consider us his equal. Nevertheless, this privilege is illusory; what seems to be an inside joke
between the artist and the anonymous observer is really only a joke at our expense—the Dandy
artist does not share his mirth. Specifically, the poet belittles his readers while granting us the
privilege of his recognition: “Je puis maintenant me promener incognito, faire des actions
basses, et me livrer à la crapule comme les simples mortels. Et me voici, tout semblable à vous,
comme vous voyez!”22 (OC I.352 [emphasis added]). As Michels explains in his reading of
Baudelaire’s prose poems, “the inadequate aesthetic responses of [Baudelaire’s] narrators
create a tension between aesthetics and ethics which compels the readers to fill in, as it were,
the ethical responses ignored by the narrators” (Michels 315). The ethical irony Michels
identifies and to which we, as readers, respond places us in the position of the bourgeois
spectator. We are compelled to react morally to the poet-Dandy’s hope that a bad poet will pick
up his halo and make a fool of himself, whereas from the viewpoint of the artist such a wish is
motivated by the desire to produce, through another’s arrogance, a particular effect (mirth).
Hence the aesthetic motivation behind the poet’s actions is presented as a transgression of
society’s conventional moral codes. In spite of the harmonious relationship between the artist
and the Dandy that “Perte d’auréole” seemingly promotes, the nature of their affiliation in
Baudelaire is far more complex and turbulent, as the ensuing discussion will reveal.

Part 3 — The Figure of the Artist


Baudelaire’s artist, whose objective is none other than to leave an eternal trace on the collective
memory of humanity (OC II.744), is necessarily a man of genius, not unlike Poe’s artist figure:
his “tempérament,” or that creative quality that distinguishes him from his peers, is innate,
bestowed upon him by nature. For instance, the following passage in which Baudelaire justifies

21
For an analysis of Carlyle’s influence on Baudelaire’s thought see Howells’ “Héroïsme,
dandysme, et la ‘Philosophie du Costume’: Note sur Baudelaire et Carlyle.”
22
This apostrophe echoes the last line of“Au Lecteur” in Les Fleurs du Mal: “Hypocrite lecteur,—
mon semblable,—mon frère!” (OC I.5).
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his preference for colourists highlights his understanding of “tempérament” as an innate quality
and distinguishes colourists from “dessinateurs”:
Les purs dessinateurs sont des naturalistes doués d’un sens excellent; mais ils
dessinent par raison, tandis que les coloristes, les grands coloristes, dessinent par
tempérament, presque à leur insu. Leur méthode est analogue à la nature: ils dessinent
parce qu’ils colorent, et les purs dessinateurs, s’ils voulaient être logiques et fidèles à
leur profession de foi, se contenteraient du crayon noir. (OC II.458 [emphasis added])

Furthermore, it is by means of his “profonde naïveté” that the artist fully expresses his
“tempérament,” a procedure by which he exerts full control over his work; it is marked by a
freedom from convention and a strong sense of inner purpose guiding the artist’s hand that
Baudelaire likens to religious faith.23 The difference, therefore, between “tempérament” and
“profonde naïveté” is this: although both are intrinsic qualities, the first marks each artist’s
singularity and hence distinguishes him from the rest of humanity; whereas the second is the
product of the artist’s will, enabling him to fashion his work (and himself, as we will see later)
in accordance with his “tempérament.” In short, Baudelaire’s artist is Kant’s man of genius:
nature works through him. Although the work he produces may be born from his individual

23
In spite of the problematic context surrounding Baudelaire’s commentary on Arondel’s painting
Gibier in Le Salon de 1845, he nevertheless clarifies his definition of “naïveté” when he asserts
that “[le tableau] est peint avec une grande naïveté—sans aucune prétention d’école ni aucun
pédantisme d’atelier” (OC II.397). Similarly, in his critique of Chazal’s Yucca Gloriosa, he
contrasts its “naïveté” with work whose art is too obvious: “Ce tableau est très bien, non parce
que tout y est et que l’on peut compter les feuilles, mais parce qu’il rend en même temps le
caractère général de la nature—[...] bref, parce qu’il est fait avec une profonde naïveté—tandis
que vous autres, vous êtes trop…artistes” (OC II.397). This contrast Baudelaire establishes
between “naïveté” and excessive display of artistry recalls Longinus’ distinction between the art
and nature that bring the sublime into being, in which the art of the sublime must be concealed.
Nevertheless, there is no ballast of conscious development in Baudelaire’s notion of innate talent:
it is instinctive. For example, in section XVII of Le Salon de 1846, Baudelaire speaks of
“naïveté” in terms of religious faith. He draws a distinction between a non-intellectualized
reliance on one’s innate gifts (“tempérament”) and a rationalistic reliance on technique. Thus, to
have faith is to be guided by one’s “naïveté” to rely on one’s “tempérament,” whereas to doubt is
to depend solely on reason and technique: “Le doute, ou l’absence de foi et de naïveté, est un vice
particulier à ce siècle, car personne n’obéit; et la naïveté, qui est la domination du tempérament
dans la manière, est un privilège divin dont presque tous sont privés” (OC II.491). Although the
science of art has its place, in Baudelaire’s view the “grande naïveté” of genius must be given
priority in the creation of art: “Il faut entendre par la naïveté du génie la science du métier
combinée avec le gnôti séauton [Socrates’ motto ‘know thyself’], mais [comprenons] la science
modeste laissant le beau rôle au tempérament” (OC II.431). Aside from forming an oxymoron,
Baudelaire’s qualification of his notion of “naïveté” as “profonde” or “grande” serves to
distinguish it from the notion of “art naïf”: the former refers to an innate, subjective quality,
whereas the latter pertains to objective, quantifiable properties of art (“l’art de compter les
feuilles”). Consequently, when I speak of “naïveté” I refer to Baudelaire’s definition unless
otherwise specified.
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and therefore historically specific perspective,24 the nature that brings his art into being in the
first place nevertheless transcends these finite bounds, rendering it both universal and timeless:
it is this combination of the eternal and the transient that categorizes his art as modern. Thus,
Baudelaire’s artist possesses the genius that gives the rule to art a posteriori; in speaking of
Delacroix’s creative process, he affirms that “un tableau doit avant tout reproduire la pensée
intime de l’artiste, qui domine le modèle, comme le créateur la création” (OC II.433).
Furthermore, Baudelaire’s understanding of the relation between technique and the artist’s
innate gift echoes Longinus’ stipulations that the writer must first and foremost master the
medium of his art, and second, he must conceal the art that brings nature into being, otherwise
the sublime effect is marred: “Plus on possède d’imagination, mieux il faut posséder le métier
pour accompagner celle-ci dans ses aventures et surmonter les difficultés qu’elle recherche
avidement. Et mieux on possède son métier, moins il faut s’en prévaloir et le montrer, pour
laisser l’imagination briller de tout son éclat” (OC II.612).
Baudelaire furthermore subsumes the task of the art critic under the aegis of the figure of
the artist. In the particular agenda Baudelaire ascribes to art criticism, his determination of the
critic’s undertaking parallels Poe’s elucidation of this role. In acknowledging the double-bind
in which the latter situates itself—“L’artiste reproche tout d’abord à la critique de ne pouvoir
rien enseigner au bourgeois, qui ne veut ni peindre ni rimer,—ni à l’art, puisque c’est de ses
entrailles que la critique est sortie” (OC II.417)—he determines that criticism’s task is twofold.
On the one hand, it must charge the artist to be true to his “tempérament” by compelling him to
act through his “profonde naïveté”;25 on the other hand, it must identify works of genius—
works that display Baudelaire’s so-called “naïveté” and “tempérament.” He further stipulates
that for criticism to do so, it must be partial, passionate, and political; although it is drawn from
an exclusive point of view, it ought to engage many aesthetic prospects (OC II.418). Two
central points need to be considered here. First, Baudelaire defines the interconnected
relationship between the critic and the artist in a manner analogous to Poe: the critic and the
artist are both gifted with an a priori, natural quality; the only perceivable difference is that Poe
values the artist’s creative ability over the critic’s perception, whereas Baudelaire maintains

24
“Un artiste [...] doit posséder quelque chose d’essentiellement sui generis, par la grâce de quoi il
est lui et non un autre. À ce point de vue, les artistes peuvent être comparés à des saveurs variées,
et le répertoire des métaphores humaines n'est peut-être pas assez vaste pour fournir la définition
approximative de tous les artistes connus et de tous les artistes possibles” (OC II.806).
25
“Ainsi un point de vue plus large sera l’individualisme bien entendu: commander à l’artiste la
‘naïveté’ et l’expression sincère de son tempérament, aidé par tous les moyens que lui fournit son
métier” (OC II.419).
145

specifically that to be a critic one must first be an artist. In defence of Wagner’s critical
writings, Baudelaire affirms:
Ce serait un événement tout nouveau dans l’histoire des arts qu’un critique se faisant
poète, un renversement de toutes les lois psychiques, une monstruosité; au contraire,
tous les grands poètes deviennent naturellement, fatalement, critiques. Je plains les
poètes que guide le seul instinct; je les crois incomplets. Dans la vie spirituelle des
premiers, une crise se fait infailliblement, où ils veulent raisonner leur art, découvrir
les lois obscures en vertu desquelles ils ont produit, et tirer de cette étude une série de
préceptes dont le but divin est l’infaillibilité dans la production poétique. Il serait
prodigieux qu’un critique devînt poète, et il est impossible qu’un poète ne contienne
pas un critique. Le lecteur ne sera donc pas étonné que je considère le poète comme le
meilleur de tous les critiques. (OC II.793)

Since poetry came first—“La poésie a existé, s’est affirmée la première, et elle a engendré
l’étude des règles” (OC II.793)—it follows that critics must be poets also. Moreover, this
convergence between the artist and the critic creates a mystical community of the elect: a true
appreciation of art resides outside the reach of the bourgeoisie. Baudelaire’s critic is not an
aloof, objective observer like the “flâneur désintéressé,” (OC II.442) who, driven by his
curiosity, casually promenades through the halls of picture galleries and the streets of Paris,
and who “observes without being observed” (Golsan, “The Beholder as flâneur” 169). Instead,
he is driven by a passion that elevates reason to the contemplation of the ideal: “Désormais
muni d’un critérium certain, critérium tiré de la nature, le critique doit accomplir son devoir
avec passion; car pour être critique on n’en est pas moins homme, et la passion rapproche les
tempéraments analogues et soulève la raison à des hauteurs nouvelles” (OC II.419). Contrary
to the disinterested judgment of taste attributed to an aesthetic contemplation of the beautiful,
the kind of evaluation modern art requires of the critic is the emotional outburst attendant to an
experience of the sublime. The Flâneur, “who goes botanizing on the asphalt” (Benjamin 37),
and who, by means of his incognito, escapes the scrutiny of others while carefully observing
them, is merely a shield enabling the artist to avoid compromising himself. The emotional
investment that the sublime demands exposes the artist-critic’s emotional vulnerability. If the
artist-critic provisionally adopts the Flâneur’s persona to protect himself against the public’s
gaze, the figure of the Dandy central to Baudelaire’s work fulfils the role of the critic
exceptionally: as the absolute arbiter of taste, he is also the ultimate critic. Nevertheless, the
Dandy makes exorbitant demands upon the artist’s integrity, as we shall see.

The Dandy
In addition to possessing an innate singularity, the artist figure in Baudelaire is a self-
constituting subject: “L’artiste ne relève que de lui-même. Il ne promet aux siècles à venir que
146

ses propres œuvres. Il ne cautionne que lui-même. Il meurt sans enfants. Il a été son roi, son
prêtre et son Dieu” (OC II.581). The artist has no history and no genealogy to tie him to the
past, which is significant in light of Baudelaire’s conception of modern art as truncated from
the intellectual and methodological schools of thought that preceded it. More importantly, the
Baudelairean artist’s self-fashioning places him under the aegis of the Dandy, a figure whose
ontology is based on “une espèce de culte de soi-même, qui peut survivre à la recherche du
bonheur à trouver dans autrui, […] qui peut survivre même à tout ce qu’on appelle les
illusions” (OC I.710). For Baudelaire, Dandyism is a singular subject position motivated by “le
besoin ardent de se faire une originalité,” (OC I.710) and its manifestation is trans-historical:
“Le dandysme est une institution vague, aussi bizarre que le duel; très ancienne, puisque César,
Catilina, Alcibiade nous en fournissent des types éclatants; très générale, puisque
Chateaubriand l’a trouvée dans les forêts et au bord des lacs du Nouveau-Monde” (OC I.709).
Moreover, the Dandy is the last heroic figure in a decadent age: “On dirait un feu latent qui se
fait deviner, qui pourrait mais qui ne veut pas rayonner” (OC I.712). Just as “les tribus que
nous nommons sauvages” make up “les débris de grandes civilisations disparues,” modern
Dandyism—the particular kind of Dandyism that flourished in the nineteenth century and
whose ontological position is grounded on Romantic subjectivity—appears “surtout aux
époques transitoires où la démocratie n’est pas encore toute-puissante, où l’aristocratie n’est
que partiellement chancelante et avilie” (OC I.711-712). The unstable political climate of
Baudelaire’s time was favourable to a worldview that cannot be understood other than “face à
un monde sans unité possible, tant sur le plan intellectuel que politique” (Howells, “Baudelaire
et Giuseppe Ferrari” 128). According to Howells, Baudelaire’s Dandyism addresses not only a
social crisis but the great crisis of modern civilization, where “les certitudes se désagrègent”
(Howells, “Histoire et dandysme” 128).
The figure of the modern Dandy is often defined through the person of George (also
known as Beau) Brummell, the son of a commoner, who, in spite of his modest social standing,
managed to become the dictator of fashion in London’s aristocratic circles for twenty years
during the beginning of the Romantic movement. Through a chain of fortuitous acquaintances
during his exile in Caen, Brummell also rose to the status of a Parisian urban icon (Nicolay
323). Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s exclusive focus on the figure of Brummell to define
the Dandy in Du Dandysme et de George Brummell is emblematic of his fascination with
Regency Dandyism, and attests to the impact Brummell had in France even after his exile
caused him to be forgotten in the fashionable circles of London. Given that Barbey and
Baudelaire were contemporaries, and that Baudelaire “would certainly have constructed a
147

different type of dandyism” had he not been aware of Barbey’s notion of Dandyism (Nicolay
323), a comparative analysis of their definitions of Dandyism proves fruitful—in spite of their
occasional differences of opinion—since Barbey’s analysis elaborates on the Dandy’s
ontological foundation. Basing his definition of Dandyism on Brummell, Barbey affirms:
Mais ôtez le dandy, que reste-il de George Brummell? Il n’était propre à être rien de
plus, mais aussi rien de moins que le plus grand dandy de son temps et de tous les
temps. Il le fut exactement, purement; on dirait presque, naïvement, si l’on osait [...]
Yarmouth, Byron, Sheridan, et tant d’autres de cette époque, fameux dans tous les
genres de la gloire, qui furent dandys, mais quelque chose de plus. Brummell n’eut
point ce quelque chose qui était, chez les uns, de la passion ou du génie, chez les autres
une haute naissance, une immense fortune. Il gagna à cette indigence, car, réduit à la
seule force de ce qui le distingua, il s’éleva au rang d’une chose: il fut le dandysme
même. (Barbey 43 [emphasis added])

Hence Brummell is not only a self-constituting subject, but Dandyism, as incarnated in him, is
a singular phenomenon without precedent or succession, akin to Baudelaire’s figuration of the
artist (Barbey’s use of the adverb “naïvement” to describe Brummell’s self-fashioning is
significant).26 Moreover, as the arbiter of taste, the Dandy possesses an innate grace analogous
to the Kantian notion of genius. He27 exists only within a certain “exquisite originality”28 that
determines his subjective condition:
Comme les philosophes qui dressaient devant la loi une obligation supérieure, les
dandys, de leur autorité privée, posent une règle au-dessus de celle qui régit les cercles
les plus aristocratiques, les plus attachés à la tradition, et par la plaisanterie qui est un
acide, et par la grâce qui est un fondant, ils parviennent à faire admettre cette règle
mobile qui n’est, en fin de compte, que l’audace de leur propre personnalité. (Barbey
57)

26
Barbey reasons that although the Dandy is the product of the social and historical forces that
surround him—“Le dandysme n'étant pas l’invention d’un homme, mais la conséquence d’un
certain état de société qui existait avant Brummell” (Barbey 53)—he is perpetually at odds with
his particular historical moment. In “L’Héautontimorouménos,” Baudelaire addresses the
Dandy’s dislocation: “Ne suis-je pas un faux accord / Dans la divine symphonie?” (OC I.78.13-
14). The Dandy’s relation to his historical moment can further be explained in terms of his refusal
to assume the role of representing his community, a function prescribed by the philosophy of
history adopted by the nineteenth century. Of Baudelaire’s “self-purification and anti-humanity
[sic: appears in English in Baudelaire]” (OC I.659) Howells remarks that “le monde n’a pas de
télos. L’histoire ne comporte donc aucune dimension héroïque positive. Au contraire, l’héroïsme,
morale exclusivement personnelle, est le fait d’individus qui défient inutilement la marche des
événements […] Non seulement [Baudelaire] rejette au nom de l’héroïsme individuel toute
théorie du progrès inhérent à l’histoire, il cherche aussi à dépouiller l’idéal héroïque de toute
attache extérieure. Le rapport du grand homme à la collectivité n’est pas un rapport de continuité
ou de ‘représentation’ mais un rapport d’antagonisme” (Howells, “Héroïsme, dandysme, et la
‘Philosophie du costume’” 137, 138).
27
I use the masculine pronoun “he” because the figure of the Dandy is anchored in a history of male
subjectivity that precludes the feminine as subject.
28
Barbey borrows this term from Lord Byron (Barbey 69).
148

Thus, a set of rules determining his actions does not (nor could) exist: “Ainsi, une des
conséquences du dandysme, un de ses principaux caractères—pour mieux parler, son caractère
le plus général—est-il de produire toujours l’imprévu, ce à quoi l’esprit accoutumé au joug des
règles ne peut pas s’attendre en bonne logique” (Barbey 47). More than mere eccentricity,
which Barbey defines as the individual’s revolt against an established order, the Dandy
subverts rules while staying within their bounds: “[Il] se joue de la règle et pourtant la respecte
encore. Il en souffre et s’en venge tout en la subissant; il s’en réclame quand il s’en échappe; il
la domine et en est dominé tour à tour: double et muable caractère!” (Barbey 48). Hence the
nature of the Dandy’s game is not to be confused with that of the anarchist, who “overthrows
rules of behavior and discourse; rather, he exploits their logic in order to produce the
unexpected (an unexpected that conforms, however, to the rules of unexpectedness within that
system) and challenges their system from within” (Godfrey 28). To elaborate on a point I
brought up earlier in my analysis of “Perte d’auréole,” the irony of the Dandy can be
understood in terms of the opposition between “use” and “mention” in the philosophy of logic.
In their reinterpretation of the classical understanding of irony, Dan Sperber and Deirdre
Wilson explain that when we use an expression we designate what that expression designates;
in contrast, when we mention an expression, we designate the expression itself. The mention
draws attention to a given statement as language. All cases of irony, they contend, are forms of
mentions that assume the character of echoes (Sperber and Wilson, “Les Ironies comme
mention” 408). To clarify, Sima Godfrey elaborates on the particular significance of the echo
to Dandiacal irony: “Irony then functions as the echo of an utterance that may be pertinent in
one context, but no longer is in its given context. It is this basic impertinence of the ironic
figure in a given context that links it most significantly to the dandy” (Godfrey 29). Thus,
Dandiacal irony does not have the same impact outside its given socio-historical context. When
Brummell laments his temporary inability to use his “favorite leg” after injuring one of his feet
in an accident, his impertinence is directed against the “practical, everyday utilitarian concerns
of [his] society” (Godfrey 30). His statement echoes and subverts the idea of regretting a
“better or best leg,” “because the notion of one leg being better than another inscribes itself
within a system of value oriented towards function” (Godfrey 30). The Dandy’s irony
constitutes a form of protest, however ineffectual, against bourgeois morals and utilitarianism.
As the following excerpt from Baudelaire’s Journaux intimes underscores, it is the act of play,
instead of the rule or its subversion, that is central to Dandyism:29 “La vie n’a qu’un charme

29
The Dandy’s relation to the rule and the significance of play provide an alternate perspective to
149

vrai; c’est le charme du Jeu. Mais s’il nous est indifférent de gagner ou de perdre?” (OC I.654).
The Dandy stands for nothing and defends no particular position. His “class-based responses to
the conflict between the desire for upward mobility and the fact of increasing democratization”
(Nicolay 323) are displaced through his refusal to make or serve history: “Il ne ‘représente’
rien d’autre que lui-même” (Howells, “Héroïsme, dandysme” 139).
An essential difference between the artist and the Dandy that underlies the problematic
of the abject and the sublime in Baudelaire is each one’s respective relation to his body.
According to Barbey, Dandyism, as incarnated in Beau Brummell, is a mask of impassibility
that never comes off or, better yet, a mask behind which there is no self: Brummell exists only
through his sempiternal performance. He is therefore not merely a fashionable and disarmingly
witty man who, once the public spectacle of his performance is over, removes his Dandiacal
costume and seeks refuge in his private self; put another way, the figure of the Dandy is not
constituted through his clothes, utterances, and gestures—these are merely the symptoms of
Dandyism.30 For the Dandy the public and the private spheres merge and are indistinguishable.
“Is he not,” asks Thorsten Botz-Bernstein, “only an idea produced through an artistic act of
stylization or even a philosophical act of abstraction which never has the right to claim real
presence or being?” (Botz-Bernstein, “Rule-Following in Dandyism” 286).
It follows, moreover, that the Dandy is necessarily androgynous, “d’un sexe intellectuel
indécis” (Barbey 115). For example, in his comparative reading of nineteenth-century French
Dandyism, Michel Lemaire affirms the following in regards to the Dandy’s androgyny and
repudiation of the female sex:
Le dandysme représente une tentative pour fusionner en un être unique, supérieur, les
principes qui divisent l’homme et le monde: actif et passif, yang et yin, mâle et

Baudelaire’s sadomasochism—“Il serait peut-être doux d’être alternativement victime et


bourreau” (OC I.676)—as an aesthetic rather than a moral position.
30
Barbey observes that “le dandysme est toute une manière d’être, et l’on n’est pas que par le côté
matériellement visible”; paradoxically, “pour être bien mis, il ne faut pas être remarqué” (Barbey
45, 71). Since Dandyism is an ontological position, drawing attention solely to one’s fashionable
clothes and accessories does not make a Dandy. This is the source of Sartre’s critique of
Baudelaire’s often shocking shenanigans (dying his hair green, for instance). They reveal a
desperate need for attention completely at odds with the Dandy’s impassibility: “Mais alors que
signifient ces cheveux teints, ces ongles de femme, ces gants roses, ces longues boucles—tout ce
que le vrai dandy, qu’il soit Brummell ou Orsay, taxera de mauvais goût? Il y a chez Baudelaire
un passage insensible de la virilité du dandysme à une sorte de coquetterie féminine, à un goût
féminin de la parure” (Sartre 136-137). Such tasteless extravagance, moreover, contradicts
Baudelaire’s own definition of Dandyism in section IX of Le Peintre de la vie moderne: “Le
dandysme n’est même pas, comme beaucoup de personnes peu réfléchies paraissent le croire, un
goût immodéré de la toilette et de l’élégance matérielle. Ces choses ne sont pour le parfait dandy
qu’un symbole de la supériorité aristocratique de son esprit. Aussi, à ses yeux, épris avant tout de
distinction, la perfection de la toilette consiste-t-elle dans la simplicité absolue, qui est, effet, la
meilleure manière de se distinguer” (OC II.710).
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femelle, animus et anima, sadisme et masochisme [...] Cet androgyne ne fait-il pas
référence à un âge d’or, d’avant la chute dans la dualité et le péché, à un autre monde
où la multiplicité des choses participerait au bonheur de l’unité? (Lemaire 60)

In spite of his androgyny, the Dandy is always, at least for Baudelaire, a person of the male
sex. Although there are many parallels between Baudelaire’s understanding of Dandyism and
the female sex, the two are incommensurate: “Even as he adopts feminine ways and cultivates
a delicate appearance, the dandy remains very much a man” (Houk, “Self Construction and
Sexual Identity” 60). Basing her analysis on the Dandy’s relation to the Lacanian economy of
the phallus, denoting both the penis and the signifier of desire (men are said to have the phallus
and women, insofar as they represent themselves as objects of male desire, become the
phallus), Houk explains that
because dandyism arose primarily in response to particularly male feelings of
vulnerability, it is not surprising that although a woman can masquerade as a dandy,
she nevertheless remains disadvantaged by her position of lack in relation to the
predominant signifier of desire, embodied in the phallus. She is condemned from the
start, precisely because she must nevertheless work with symbolization derived from a
male imaginary. (Houk 60)

The male imaginary Houk cites is one that projects the otherness of his corporeality onto the
feminine other. Although Baudelaire praises woman when she is at her most unnatural—
covered in makeup and adorned with a stage costume as in “La Fanfarlo”—hers is the abject
body that no amount of makeup or theatrical props can permanently conceal: “La femme est
naturelle, c’est-à-dire abominable” (OC I.677). From a critical perspective analogous to
Houk’s, Philip G. Hadlock interprets Baudelaire’s observation in “Mon cœur mis à nu” that
“Le Dandy doit aspirer à être sublime sans interruption; il doit vivre et dormir devant un
miroir” (OC I.678) in terms of a negation rather than an affirmation of the male body: “The
dandy remains in front of the mirror not to assure himself of his own corporeality, but to ensure
that his body, the male body, remains unseen” (Hadlock, “The Other Other: Baudelaire,
Melancholia, and the Dandy” 60). The “normal function of the mirror,” observes Hadlock,
which is to “reflect the physical body placed in front of it,” “is vitiated here to support the
creation of a phallic body, one which is ‘sublime’ rather than physical; its bodily referent is
always deferred, like the nexus of desire itself, to some indeterminate domain” (Hadlock 60).
Just as the materiality of the world disappears in what Fredric Jameson identifies as
Baudelaire’s “production of the referent” in his lyric poetry, insofar as “the sense of some new
unnameable ungeneralizable private bodily sensation—something that must necessarily resist
all language but which language lives by designating,” “is the same as the ‘bracketing’ of that
referent, its positioning as the ‘outside’ of the text or the ‘other’ of language” (Jameson,
151

“Baudelaire as Modernist and Postmodernist” 255), similarly the male body and its carnal
desires are displaced in the Dandy’s process of self-fashioning. Thus, the Dandy’s experience
of historical disenfranchisement can be articulated in terms of melancholia or his mourning for
“the return of the masculine self” (Hadlock 59).
Adopting masks drawn from both sexes yet desiring none, the Dandy is a self-sufficient
figure. Consequently, he cannot desire: whereas men are governed by passion, he is driven
solely by that all-encompassing self-love whose name is vanity: “La vanité, elle, tient compte
de tout” (Barbey 38). A desire for the other would deny him the status of an autonomous being
since it implies the need to seek fulfilment outsides of one’s self, rendering him dependent
upon the other: “Aimer, même dans le sens le moins élevé de ce mot, désirer, c’est toujours
dépendre, c’est être esclave de son désir” (Barbey 65). Baudelaire expresses an analogous idea
in more vulgar terms: “Foutre, c’est aspirer à entrer dans un autre, et l’artiste ne sort jamais de
lui-même” (OC I.702). “Masculine desire,” observes Hadlock, “figures among those traits most
incompatible with dandyism” (Hadlock 60). More importantly, unlike the artist who is
compelled to “prostitute” himself in the name of art—“Qu’est-ce que l’art? Prostitution” (OC
I.649)—the Dandy escapes compromise since his creative drive is turned inward.31 Hence, the
Dandy does not seek to please, but to astonish; he rises above and is unmoved by the crowd
around him. Likewise, the only emotion this impassible figure expresses is ennui, since
Dandyism is predicated on “cet état de lutte entre la convenance et l’ennui” (Barbey 47): “Le
calme du dandysme est la pose d’esprit qui doit avoir fait le tour de beaucoup d’idées et qui est
trop dégoûté pour s’animer” (Barbey 57). The Dandy, whom Baudelaire praises for his self-
mastery—“The hero is he who is immovably centred”32 (OC I.674)—is an ontologically empty
centre. As Barbey explains:
[Brummell] était un grand artiste à sa manière; seulement son art n’était pas spécial, ne
s’exerçait pas dans un temps donné. C’était sa vie même, le scintillement éternel des

31
The Dandy’s self-obsession and repudiation of the other is intimately linked with Baudelaire’s
sadism; according to Georges Blin: “Comme limite de ‘l’auto-idôlatrie,’ le sadisme dénonce en
particulier le caractère mutuel des rapports sexuels […] il tend à un usage strictement
instrumental de l’individu (c’est-à-dire du corps) désiré” (Blin, Le Sadisme de Baudelaire 58). In
light of the perversion of sexual desire evident in the Dandy and the sadist, the crucial difference
between the two is that the Dandy objectifies himself and sublimates his sexual desire, whereas
the sadist expresses his desire in violently objectifying and appropriating the other.
32
This citation appears in English in the original text, and it is a reference Baudelaire borrows from
Emerson according to Pichois’ note. It is suggestive that the Dandy’s imposing form likens him
to a sculpture. For example, in reference to the Dandy’s elegant costume, Lemaire observes the
following: “L’élégance est signe d’oisiveté. L’exiguïté des habits élégants, l’échafaudage des
cravates [...] la vulnérabilité des gants couleurs pâles, interdisent tout travail, et presque même le
mouvement” (Lemaire 83). Whereas the Dandy must struggle to sublimate the abject upon which
his material existence is predicated, sculpture has the added advantage of permanence.
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facultés qui ne se reposent pas dans l’homme, créé pour vivre avec ses semblables. Il
plaisait avec sa personne, comme d’autres plaisent avec leurs œuvres. C’était sur place
qu’était sa valeur. (Barbey 76)

As the above citation indicates, whereas the artist must transform himself into a disembodied
intellect to produce a body of work,33 the Dandy produces nothing but himself in an act of
stylization.34 By means of his innate grace, he sublimates his appetites and emotions—both
originating in man’s material existence—and transforms his body into a signified. He thus
becomes an impermeable surface that, like his charming familiarity, “touche à tout et ne
profane rien” (Barbey 48); or, as Jean Starobinski observes:
Le dandy (que Baudelaire oppose à la femme naturelle) est précisément l’homme qui
s’efforce à transcender le donné contingent de l’existence corporelle. Par la magie de
l’artifice et la toilette, le dandy cherche à s’absenter de son corps; et, comme l’a bien
montré Jean-Paul Sartre, il ne prend tellement bien soin de sa personne qu’afin de ne
pas coïncider avec sa présence corporelle. Il règne au-delà, dans un royaume d’esprit,
où nul ne peut l’atteindre. Le voici, glacé, invulnérable, masqué, habitant provisoire de
son apparence, et presque réduit—par sa volonté—à l’état du spectre. (Starobinski,
Portrait de l’artiste en saltimbanque 64)

The Dandy personifies a paradox. He is a self-effacing, absolute ego, and Baudelaire


understood this well: “De la vaporisation et de la centralisation du Moi. Tout est là” (OC
I.676). The essential difference, therefore, between Baudelaire’s artist and the Dandy can be
articulated as follows: whereas the figure of the Romantic artist is a medium through which
creation passes, the Dandy mediates his own artistic figuration.
As Sartre observes in his critical examination of Baudelaire’s existential condition,
modern (post-Kantian) subjectivity poses a particular problem for Baudelaire that he tries to
solve by appropriating Dandyism as a subjective position: although it allows for the distance
between self and object necessary for him both to perceive himself as separate from creation
and to catch a glimpse of himself reflected by every object, it nonetheless denies him the
possibility of complete self-knowledge and self-mastery. According to Sartre, Baudelaire
sought to possess himself, that is, to see himself as an object; he wanted to be simultaneously
self and other for himself: “Il a choisi d’exister pour lui-même comme il était pour les autres, il
a voulu que sa liberté lui apparût comme une ‘nature’ et que la ‘nature’ que les autres

33
What I mean to say is this: the Baudelairean artist creates a work of art that is both an aesthetic
object and a symbol of his singularity or his “tempérament.” As the focus of the viewer’s gaze,
his material body is displaced in the creative act by the body of the art work. The viewer
apprehends the artist’s essence by being “penetrated” by his work, to use Baudelaire’s term. The
Dandy, on the other hand, produces himself as a work of art: his material body coincides with the
body of the work of art. This coincidence of the material and aesthetic bodies negates his
contingency as a human subject.
34
See Botz-Bernstein’s “Rule-Following in Dandyism: ‘Style’ as an Overcoming of ‘Rule’ and
‘Structure’.”
153

découvraient en lui leur semblât l’émanation même de sa liberté” (Sartre 177). From an
aesthetic perspective, through the appropriation of Dandyism the figure of the Baudelairean
artist aims to create not only works of art through which his “tempérament” is evident (works
in which he can see his “tempérament” objectified), but also to generate himself as an object of
art in which he can apprehend his singularity. Baudelaire’s vindication of sculpture, wherein
the statue figures as an ideal form of subjective representation, is linked to this notion of self-
objectification. In the section of Le Peintre de la vie moderne called “Éloge du maquillage,”
Baudelaire claims that makeup’s ability to create an abstract unity in the form and colour of the
skin immediately analogizes a human being to a statue, “un être divin et supérieur” (OC
II.717). The Dandy’s dress, moreover, and its confining of the body limit his movements to
such a degree that he becomes petrified. Dandyism therefore fulfils all of the Baudelairean
artist’s requirements: the Dandy’s autonomy and self-proclaimed status as the head of the
cultural aristocracy of his milieu appeals to Baudelaire’s need to elevate the artist above
marketplace interests and public opinion;35 in addition, the Dandy’s incisive, ironic, and
astonishing wit, coupled with his impassivity—enabling him to enjoy “le plaisir d’étonner et la
satisfaction orgueilleuse de ne jamais être étonné” (OC II.710)—answer Baudelaire’s
misanthropy or, put another way, his aspiration to “self-purification and anti-humanity [sic:
appears in English in Baudelaire]” (OC I.659).
Dandyism becomes a form of moral hygiene for Baudelaire. It constitutes a religion
where the cult of the self reigns supreme and in which the rules of dress are a symptom of the
Dandy’s martyrdom:
En vérité, je n’avais pas tout à fait tort de considérer le dandysme comme une espèce
de religion. La règle monastique la plus rigoureuse, l’ordre irrésistible du Vieux de la
Montagne, qui commandait le suicide à ses disciples enivrés, n’étaient pas plus
despotiques ni plus obéis que cette doctrine de l’élégance et de l’originalité, qui
impose, elle aussi, à ses ambitieux et humbles sectaires, hommes souvent pleins de
fougue, de passion, de courage, d’énergie contenue, la terrible formule: Perinde ac
cadaver!36 (OC II.711)

35
“Dans le trouble de ces époques quelques hommes déclassés, dégoûtés, désœuvrés, mais tous
riches de force native, peuvent concevoir le projet de fonder une espèce nouvelle d’aristocratie,
d’autant plus difficile à rompre qu’elle sera basée sur les facultés les plus précieuses, les plus
indestructibles, et sur les dons célestes que le travail et l’argent ne peuvent conférer” (OC II.711).
“Le vrai héros s’amuse tout seul [...] Éternelle supériorité du Dandy” (OC I.682).
36
“Vieux de la Montagne” refers to a monastic order Marco Polo encounters during his travels in
the Orient, which Baudelaire discusses in Les Paradis artificiels. “Perinde ac cadaver” translates
as “Just as a cadaver!” and is no doubt a reference to the Dandy’s impassibility.
154

According to Patrick Laude, the Dandy shares close affinities with the religious mystic: each
follows the rules respective to his milieu—aristocratic cultural codes and mainstream religious
practices, respectively—so zealously that he subverts them from within. Moreover:
Du fait de leur dépassement intérieur des normes formelles du contexte dans lequel ils
évoluent, le dandy et le mystique visent—en fonction d’une compréhension
transcendante du social ou du religieux—à la représentation d’une “vertu” soustraite
au domaine de la représentation sociale, une vertu purement autonome, pour ainsi dire
[…] De même que le dandy ne cherche à “paraître” que par rapport à lui-même[,] […]
ce serait une erreur de croire que son jeu sur les représentations prend en quelque
manière la société des hommes comme une réalité. La réalité sociale n’existe que
comme reflet, ou plus exactement c’est le miroir dans lequel le dandy fixe par lui-
même et pour lui-même son visage héroïque d’identité vraie. (Laude, “Dandysme et
mysticisme” 361)

In its demand for complete mastery over one’s emotions and drives, Dandyism amounts to a
denial of the subject’s humanity: unlike the mystic who aspires to attain a state of grace, the
Dandy does not seek anything. According to Botz-Bernstein, Dandyism cannot be conceived of
as a metaphysical position, as Sartre claims; in his description of the Dandy’s metaphysical
mind, Sartre’s analysis “provides the exact description of a snob, who creates himself by again
and again affirming himself” (Botz-Bernstein 295). Conversely, the Dandy has no interiority
and no self-presence: he “comes into being through an act of negation” (Botz-Bornstein 295).
Furthermore, “the dandy is a fatalist as long as fatalism is perceived as the direct opposite of a
metaphysical attitude of mind”; “this particular fatalism,” explains Botz-Bornstein, “which is
nourished by a stylistic desire more than by a revolutionary or anti-revolutionary enthusiasm,
constitutes the ground of the dandy’s self-definition” (Botz-Bornstein 293).
Dandyism overshadows all aspects of Baudelaire’s work. Just as Baudelaire appropriates
Griswold’s Poe and fashions him to suit his own needs, transforming him into the damned
American genius at odds with his own culture and history, he uses the figure of the Dandy to
fulfil a specific purpose: as Sartre points out, Dandyism becomes an ideal that Baudelaire, as
an artist and a man, aspires to attain. Art requires that Baudelaire’s artist turn his gaze outward
and acknowledge the world around him: “D’une certaine façon, l’activité de l’artiste ne lui
paraît pas assez gratuite. Il y a chez le peintre, chez l’écrivain, une passion de voir et de décrire
qui lui paraît encore plébéienne” (Sartre 134). In contrast, Dandyism permits him to focus
exclusively on himself:
L’exercice encore trop utilitaire du métier artistique devient le pur cérémonial de la
toilette, le culte du beau qui produit des œuvres stables et durables se change en amour
de l’élégance, parce que l’élégance est éphémère, stérile et périssable; l’acte créateur
du peintre ou du poète, vidé de sa substance, prend forme d’acte strictement gratuit, au
sens gidien, et même absurde, l’invention esthétique se transforme en mystification; la
passion de créer se fige en insensibilité. (Sartre 135)
155

Nevertheless, the artist and the Dandy do not co-exist comfortably in Baudelaire’s poetic
persona. First, as the passage just quoted illustrates, whereas the artist seeks to create objects of
art, the Dandy creates himself. However, this “self” he creates is empty. Through his play, his
performance does not reveal a subject or the ground of epistemology, but a caricature of
subjectivity—being becomes a performance. The Dandy parodies artistic production by
producing nothing. He merely mimics a process in which, for Baudelaire’s artist, nothing is left
to chance: “Il y a dans le mot, dans le verbe, quelque chose de sacré qui nous défend d’en faire
un jeu de hasard. Manier savamment une langue, c’est pratiquer une espèce de sorcellerie
évocatoire” (OC II.118). Second, the Dandy, whose public and private selves are one, and
whose performance is necessarily seamless, obfuscates the labour necessary to the creation of
art. Baudelaire’s artist may be blessed with genius, but he must toil arduously prior to
submitting his art to public scrutiny: “Le génie (si toutefois on peut appeler ainsi le germe
indéfinissable du grand homme) doit, comme le saltimbanque apprenti, risquer de se rompre
mille fois les os en secret avant de danser devant le public; que l’inspiration, en un mot, n’est
que la récompense de l’exercice quotidien” (OC II.183). Third, ennui, a symptom of the
Dandy’s triumph—“Il tirait de sa torpeur—chose difficile—une société horriblement blasée
[...] sans sortir de la sienne” (Barbey 76)—is the bane of the artist, and spells his downfall.
“L’Ennui,” defined through the oxymoron “ce monstre délicat,” paralyses him and renders him
impotent:
Quoiqu’il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde[.] (“Au Lecteur,” OC I.5-6.34-36)

Finally, the Dandy sublimates, in the Freudian sense, the abject or the fertile ground from
which Baudelaire’s artist draws his material. He transforms his self into an impermeable
surface: “Plus l’homme cultive les arts, moins il bande. Il se fait un divorce de plus en plus
sensible entre l’esprit et la brute [...] Foutre, c’est aspirer à entrer dans un autre, et l’artiste ne
sort jamais de lui-même” (OC I.702). If we think of the abject in terms of that which reason
cannot totalize and the imagination cannot represent—that which violates the limits of our
identities—the Dandy, whose self-appointed task is to inspire, while always maintaining his
composure, a feeling of terror akin to the awe we feel when confronted with the sacred, cannot
be “discomposed” by the abject:
Comme tous les dandys, [Brummell] aimait encore mieux étonner que plaire:
préférence très humaine, mais qui mène loin les hommes; car le plus beau des
étonnements, c’est l’épouvante. Sur cette pente, où s’arrêter? Brummell le savait seul.
Il versait à doses parfaitement égales la terreur et la sympathie, et il en composait le
philtre magique de son influence. (Barbey 78 [emphasis added])
156

The expression “Perinde ac cadaver” suggests that as a cadaver on display37 divested of the
putrefaction that constitutes an incontrovertible symptom of abjection—“cette maigre carcasse,
à qui la chair sert d’habit [...] claire et purifiée des souillures de l’humus, parmi les grâces
innombrables que l’Art avait déjà extraites de l’ignorante Nature”—the impassible Dandy is
“plein de vide” like the skeleton, and conveys “l’idée vaste et flottante du néant” (OC II.678).
Given, on the one hand, that the Dandy is simultaneously a parasite who preys on the figure of
the artist38 and the ideal figure in Baudelairean aesthetics, and, on the other hand, that the
artist—noted for his passion, rancour, and vulnerability—is the one who strives but fails to live
up to this ideal, it follows that, in striving to become a Dandy, the Baudelairean artist risks
losing everything.

Laughter: The Cry of the Abject


What recourse is left to the artist who necessarily fails to live up to the impossible ideal
Dandyism represents in Baudelaire’s aesthetics? Basing himself primarily on an analysis of
two prose poems, “Une Mort héroïque” and “Le Vieux Saltimbanque,” Starobinski identifies
the figure of the (tragic) clown as closest to the reality of the artist’s condition in Baudelaire’s
work, a figure one of whose purposes, since the Renaissance, is to parody the Dandy: “Le rire
naît à voir un candidat au dandysme rester pris au piège de son corps. Car rien ne ramène au
corps comme l’échec rencontré dans la tentative d’échapper au corps. Qui veut faire l’ange fait
la bête” (Starobinski 64). In contrast to the Dandy’s impeccable façade and absolute self-
mastery, the clown or “saltimbanque” constitutes a grotesque portrait of the artist, predicated
upon the irony of self-ridicule:

37
Elsewhere Baudelaire praises the beauty of the human skeleton: “Aucuns t’appelleront une
caricature, / Qui ne comprennent pas, amants ivres de chair, / L’élégance sans nom de l’humaine
armature. / Tu réponds, grand squelette, à mon goût le plus cher!” (OC I.96-8.17-20).
38
This is a commonplace observation in existential studies that compare the figures of the artist and
the Dandy; for instance, see Sartre’s Baudelaire and Camus’ L’Homme révolté. Conversely, in
his study of what he calls “l’écrivain-dandy,” Michel Lemaire argues against this position. His
analysis poses methodological problems for exactly this reason: he conflates the identities of the
writer and of the Dandy instead of separating them. Although he maintains that each of the
writers he studies formulates an ideal of Dandyism to which he aspires, Lemaire does not define
what grounds this ideal and proceeds under the assumption that the writer and Dandy are
complementary identities. This leads him to assert that the Dandy creates something positive just
as does the writer, in spite of the fact that, unlike the writer, the Dandy has no interiority or affect
(there is no self behind the mask). Thus, Lemaire fails to resolve adequately the conflict existing
between, on the one hand, the notion central to the aesthetics of Dandyism—that the Dandy is a
gratuitous, self-justifying subject position—and, on the other hand, the artist’s act of writing as a
justification for his Dandyism. If the Dandy writes, it is a consequence of his dilettantism: a true
Dandy need not justify his existence through writing or any other medium.
157

L’on s’aperçoit en effet que le choix de l’image du clown n’est pas seulement
l’élection d’un motif pictural ou poétique, mais une façon détournée et parodique de
poser la question de l’art. Depuis le romantisme [...] le bouffon, le saltimbanque et le
clown ont été les images hyperboliques et volontairement déformantes que les artistes
se sont plu à donner d’eux-mêmes et de la condition de l’art. Il s’agit là d’un
autoportrait travesti, dont la portée ne se limite pas à la caricature sarcastique ou
douloureuse. (Starobinski 7)

Starobinski makes a revealing point in his analysis of the figures of Fancioulle (whose name is
derived from the Italian “fanciullo,” meaning child) and the “vieux saltimbanque,” two
performers depicted at the close of their careers and who are murdered (literally in the case of
Fancioulle and metaphorically in the case of the “vieux saltimbanque”) by the disapprobation
of their respective audiences. In light of the pronounced sympathy evident in the gaze of the
poetic persona in each text, Starobinski observes that the tragic outcome of both figures
underscores Baudelaire’s realization, predominant in the Le Spleen de Paris, that art fails to
grant the salvation which he so ardently seeks. Art cannot make the artist escape the human
condition: “L’art, on le voit, n’est pas une efficace opération de salut, mais une pantomime
sublime au bord de la tombe, voilant, pour un instant seulement, les terreurs du gouffre”
(Starobinski 86). In Baudelaire, the clown’s play does not exorcise our fears, as even the most
diabolical comedic impersonations can: “L’effroi se convertit en rire; les terreurs primitives se
perdent dans la farce profane: les grimaces obscènes et grotesques opèrent un exorcisme qui
transforme les forces de mort en puissance et fécondité” (Starobinski 125). The art
Baudelaire’s clown produces does not affirm our supremacy over nature; if anything, it reveals
our inalienable inferiority to its most powerful agent: time. Laughter in Baudelaire is not
redemptive; it marks the artist’s awareness of his inevitable fall into the material. Under such
circumstances, the ideal can be likened to a trap fit to ensnare the artist, as illustrated in the
prose poem “Laquelle est la vraie? ”: “Comme un loup pris au piège, je reste attaché, pour
toujours peut-être, à la fosse de l’idéal” (OC I.342).
Baudelaire discusses the nature of laughter at length in “De l’essence du rire et
généralement du comique dans les arts plastiques,” an essay in which he seeks primarily to
defend the genre of caricature drawing as an art form. Basing himself upon the premise that
“rien de ce qui sort de l’homme n’est frivole aux yeux du philosophe” (OC II.526), he divides
the genre into two categories: caricature sketches that are important as cultural or historical
documents and those that stand on their own as works of art. The crux of the distinction is a
formal one, between what he identifies as the “comique significatif” and the “comique absolu.”
The first is easier to understand and hence accessible to the masses since its dominant aspect is
imitation; it produces laughter as a result of the duplicity in the way its art purports to illustrate
158

a moral idea. Conversely, Baudelaire identifies the second as grotesque; although it also entails
the imitation of elements that pre-exist in nature, our creative faculty is nonetheless essential to
it since it combines these disparate elements and presents them as a unity. Furthermore, he
holds that whereas we may react to the “comique significatif” after the fact, we grasp
intuitively the unity communicated by the “comique absolu.” It therefore satisfies the
constraints of Romantic art by combining the eternal and the ephemeral into a whole:
Mais les autres [...] contiennent un élément mystérieux, durable, éternel, qui les
recommande à l’attention des artistes. Chose curieuse et vraiment digne d’attention
que l’introduction de cet élément insaisissable du beau jusque dans les œuvres
destinées à représenter à l’homme sa propre laideur morale et physique! Et, chose non
moins mystérieuse, ce spectacle lamentable excite en lui une hilarité immortelle et
incorrigible. (OC II.526)

This appearance of unity that the grotesque engenders encourages metaphysical contemplation;
in Yvonne B. Rollins’ view, Baudelaire understands the grotesque to be above all else an
artistic expression of a philosophical vision of the human condition (Rollins, “Baudelaire et le
grotesque” 273).
L’étrange, le fantastique, l’inusité inhérents au grotesque provoquent un “rire violent”
à cause de l’effet de surprise qui déroute l’homme et le fait se réfugier dans le rire de
supériorité devant ce qu’il ne comprend pas. Mais ce fantastique ne provoquerait pas
un tel rire si l’homme ne pouvait pas y retrouver des éléments de la nature à laquelle il
se croit supérieur. Le grotesque forme donc un lien évident entre le réel et le
fantastique; en cela il joue le rôle du symbole et peut engendrer une méditation
métaphysique car il se présente “sous une espèce une, qui veut être saisie par
l’intuition.” (Rollins 272)

The ephemeral element in caricature is made up of its hyperbolic and satiric representations of
daily life or recent events. Nevertheless, unlike other art mediums and genres, whose purpose,
in Baudelaire’s perspective, is to elevate the viewer’s mind in a contemplation of the inner
nature of the artist as translated in the work, the response caricature elicits is a specific kind of
laughter. In spite of the fact that “le comique ne peut être absolu que relativement à l’humanité
déchue,” Baudelaire affirms that the kind of laughter which the grotesque inspires is closest to
the primitive joy experienced by the innocent (OC II.536). However, an insurmountable gulf
separates such laughter from joy. Unlike joy, one of whose multiform manifestations is
laughter, the mirth evoked by the grotesque form of the “comique absolu” is the agonized
laughter of a divided subject, caught between yearnings towards two equally appealing limits:
the ideal and the demonic. It is the cry of the abject.
The dominant aspect of laughter39 for Baudelaire is that it breaches limits: as a mark of
humanity’s fall from grace, it is both unnatural and diabolical, disfiguring the unity of the

39
Henceforward I employ the word “laughter” as excluding that produced by joy.
159

human face into a grimace that is symptomatic of our divided nature (OC II.528). It is telling
that he chooses the title character of Charles Robert Maturin’s hybrid novel Melmoth the
Wanderer (translated into French in 1821) as the representative archetype of his fallen man; in
his vainglorious desire to attain knowledge beyond that allotted to mere mortals, Melmoth
makes a Faustian pact with the devil and is cursed to roam the earth for 150 years, during
which time he must convince another human being to bear his burden in order to be relieved of
it. Unable to break the will of even the most desperate persons, he fails in his quest and is
damned for all eternity. Melmoth embodies the individualism central to Baudelaire’s figure of
the Dandy: “L’homme de génie [qui] veut être un, donc solitaire” (OC I.700). As a result of his
self-inflicted damnation, analogous to the Dandy’s self-fashioning, this figure’s laughter marks
both his superiority to and scorn for the human condition, in a novel where all laugher, being
both derisive and cruel, lacerates its audience.40 Just as Satan fascinates Baudelaire for being
the only one among the angels to possess a personal memory (Sartre 171), in the fallen figure
of Melmoth the triumph and curse of individualism are evident, and it is in this contrast that the
source of his appeal to Baudelaire can be found.
Quoi de plus grand, qui de plus puissant relativement à la pauvre humanité que ce pâle
et ennuyé Melmoth? Et pourtant, il y a en lui un côté faible, abject, antidivin, et
antilumineux. Aussi comme il rit [...] se comparant sans cesse aux chenilles humaines,
lui si fort, si intelligent, lui pour qui une partie des lois conditionnelles de l’humanité,
physiques et intellectuelles, n’existent plus! Et ce rire est l’explosion de sa colère et de
sa souffrance. Il est, qu’on me comprenne bien, la résultante nécessaire de sa double
nature contradictoire, qui est infiniment grande relativement à l’homme, infiniment
vile et basse relativement au Vrai et au Juste absolus. Melmoth est une contradiction
vivante. Il est sorti des conditions fondamentales de la vie; ses organes ne supportent
plus sa pensée. C’est pourquoi ce rire glace et tord les entrailles. C’est un rire qui ne
dort jamais, comme une maladie qui va toujours son chemin et exécute un ordre
providentiel. Et ainsi le rire de Melmoth, qui est l’expression la plus haute de l’orgueil,
accomplit perpétuellement sa fonction, en déchirant et en brûlant les lèvres du rieur
irrémissible. (OC II.531)

The failure of Melmoth, whose spirit “mingled ridicule with horror, and seemed like a
Harlequin in the infernal regions, flirting with the furies” (Maturin 573), combined with the
“bitter and self-satirising” nature of his laughter (Maturin 385), presages ill for the Dandy, and
further condemns Baudelaire’s artist. Brummell’s own pitiable end, for instance, illustrates the
double-edged sword of Dandiacal irony. The man who embodied Dandyism died a pauper in
Caen, after a self-imposed exile to escape his English creditors. Prior to his death in a hospital
for the mentally ill, he loses his sanity, but, as Barbey reminds us, “comme le dandysme, plus
fort que sa raison, avait pénétré l’homme entier, sa folie se timbra de dandysme” (Barbey 108).

40
“[…] I repeated with a laugh that must have lacerated the Superior’s ears […]” (Maturin 107).
160

The most tragic anecdote Barbey recounts illustrates how easily the sublime Dandy can
be transformed into his antithesis, the pathetic fool:
À certains jours, et au grand étonnement des gens de l’hôtel [où il demeurait], il
ordonnait qu’on lui préparât son appartement comme pour une fête. Lustres,
candélabres, bougies, fleurs en masse, rien n’y manquait, et lui, sous le feu de toutes
ces lumières, dans la grande tenue de sa jeunesse, avec l’habit bleu Whig à boutons
d’or, le gilet de piqué et le pantalon noir, collant comme les chausses du XVIe siècle,
se tenant au centre, il attendait…Il attendait l’Angleterre morte! Tout à coup, et
comme s’il se fût dédoublé, il annonçait, à pleine voix, le prince de Galles, puis lady
Connyngham, puis lord Yarmouth, et enfin tous ces hauts personnages d’Angleterre
dont il avait été la loi vivante, et croyant les voir apparaître à mesure qu’ils les
appelait, et changeant de voix, il allait les recevoir à la porte, ouverte à deux battants,
de ce salon vide, par laquelle ne devait, hélas! passer personne ce soir-là, ni les autres
soirs, et il les saluait, ces chimères de sa pensée [...] Cela durait longtemps…Enfin,
quand tout était plein de ces fantômes; quand tout ce monde de l’autre monde était
arrivé, voilà que la raison arrivait aussi et que le malheureux s’apercevait de son
illusion et de sa démence! Et c’est alors qu’il tombait accablé dans un de ces fauteuils
solitaires et qu’on l’y surprenait, fondant en pleurs! (Barbey 108-109 [emphasis
added])

Although “quand on meurt de faim, on sort des affectations d’une société quelconque, on rentre
dans la vie humaine: on cesse d’être dandy” (Barbey 108), Brummell, a shadow and travesty of
his former self, displays a quixotic stubbornness in playing his accustomed role. More
importantly, in his fallen state, the Dandy who once produced the effect of unity akin to the
Baudelairean beautiful—“Le beau est toujours, inévitablement, double, bien que l’impression
qu’il produit soit une” (OC II.685)—becomes disunited, hence no different in his existential
condition from those above whom he sought to rise. Decrepit, outcast, and insane, the man
whose only artistic product was the sublimation of his body necessarily becomes the site of the
abject. As Sartre justly remarks, Dandyism is equivalent to a form of suicide. Although
Baudelaire posits Dandyism as an ideal, he is nonetheless aware of the Dandy’s uneasy
proximity to the figure of the clown, who, “faisant de [sa] personne une glorieuse pâture
publique, soulèv[e] l’enthousiasme du cirque et du théâtre” (OC II.180).
For example, the prose poem “Un Plaisant” contains a caricature of the Dandy through
its uneasy conflation of Dandyism with snobbery, which reiterates the idea of Dandyism as a
problematic existential position in Baudelaire; if reduced to its outward manifestations of
sartorial splendour and witty provocations, Dandyism inspires naught but ridicule in the poet.
During New Year’s celebrations on a crowded city street, the poet observes a would-be Dandy
making an ass of himself in an attempt to please his friends. Aside from the speaker’s derisive
tone and the “incommensurable rage” (OC I.279) that overwhelms him as he observes “un
beau monsieur ganté, verni, cruellement cravaté et emprisonné dans des habits tout neufs”
ceremoniously attempt to address a donkey as it “trottait vivement, harcelé par un malotru
161

armé d’un fouet” (OC I.279), the contrast between the false Dandy and “l’humble bête” evident
in the speaker’s description expresses a complex reproach against Dandyism. The Dandy’s
dependence on the crowd is contrasted to the poet’s need for solitude: whereas the former is at
home in the chaotic atmosphere of the city during a holiday and partakes in the crowd’s merry-
making, the solitary poet is disturbed by the clamour and feels targeted personally by it:
“Délire officiel d’une grande ville fait pour troubler le cerveau du solitaire le plus fort” (OC
I.279 [emphasis added]). More importantly, it is the Dandy’s need for an audience’s
approbation that inspires the poet’s scorn and causes the latter to perceive the former as an
oxymoronic figure, “ce magnifique imbécile,” or a representative of what the poet considers to
be the petty bourgeois mentality of France: “[Il] se tourna vers je ne sais quels camarades avec
un air de fatuité, comme pour les prier d’ajouter leur approbation à son contentement” (OC
I.279). The joke this “plaisant” attempts to make at the donkey’s expense not only lacks
humour, but betrays his own social inadequacy. Specifically, when the false Dandy “s’inclina
cérémonieusement devant l’humble bête, et lui dit, en ôtant son chapeau: ‘je vous la souhaite
bonne et heureuse!’” (OC I.279), the dignified attention such an ostensibly refined man
bestows upon a mere donkey, the lowliest of equines, presents a contrast between the gratuity
of Dandyism and the utilitarianism of the donkey as a beast of burden. Nevertheless, as Jean-
Claude Susini observes in his analysis of stylistic features of Baudelaire’s Spleen de Paris, a
paronomasia in “Un Plaisant” exposes this would-be Dandy as no arbiter of taste: he is a
witless victim imprisoned by the dictates of fashionable life, who is as unaware of his own
servile condition as the donkey is of his presence: “L’âne ne vit pas ce beau plaisant, et
continua de courir avec zèle où l’appelait son devoir” (OC I.279). “L’homme qui se moque de
l’âne fouetté est ‘cruellement cravaté,’” observes Susini, who explains:
Une quête impatiente du sens ne verra là qu’une satire du gandin. Le sursis heuristique
donne sa chance à un lapsus révélateur, cruellement cravaché, qui évoque aussitôt
l’intertexte: le “plaisant” traverse la “fête servile,” dans la “multitude vile,” soumis lui
aussi au “fouet,” celui du “plaisir” (Recueillement). Une des clefs du poème est donc
la paronymie intertextuelle plaisant/plaisir. Elle permet d’accéder à la moralité de ce
qu’il sied à présent de considérer comme une fable: le plus fouetté des deux n’est pas
celui qu’on pouvait croire. (Susini, “Pour une lecture excentrique du Spleen de Paris”
68-69)

Given the poet’s uneasy relationship with his audience in Baudelaire’s work, “Un Plaisant”
conveys the poet’s fear of public ridicule, a fear that strikes at the heart of Dandyism as a
subjective position. As Georges Formentelli observes:
Baudelaire […] n’est pas dupe de son dandysme d’artiste “ganté, verni” contre
“l’abominable” nature des autres. Il n’ignore pas que la gloire “solitaire” qu’il
escompte, et qu’il réaffirme avec l’énergie du désespoir jusque dans ces dernières
pages, quand tout l’abandonne, est fonction directe du regard des autres qu’il affecte
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de mépriser, mais avec lequel il livre un perpétuel “duel.” (Formentelli, “Un Plaisant”
152)

Likewise, as the following excerpt from “L’Albatros” illustrates, Baudelaire is equally


attentive to the Dandy’s vulnerability once he finds himself outside of his prescribed space,
among those for whom his Dandiacal insignia are markers of ridicule rather than prestige
(these insignia, moreover, obstruct his participation in everyday life):
Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées


Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher. (OC I.9-10.13-16)

Irony, the Dandy’s weapon of choice, can serve to humiliate him. The offspring of a divided
subject—“[…] la vorace Ironie / Qui me secoue et qui me mord” (OC I.78.15-16)—irony can
be both sadistic and masochistic, as “L’Héautontimorouménos” demonstrates, condemning the
Dandy to become, like Melmoth,
Un de ces grands abandonnés
Au rire éternel condamnés,
Et qui ne peuvent plus sourire! (OC I.78-79.26-28)

The Abject Hero


Abjection is central to the Baudelairean figure of the artist: it is the fertile spring from which he
draws his inspiration and the principle governing his existence. The ideal exists as a function of
the abject: in establishing the boundaries and the rules that must be subverted for the artist to
create, the ideal serves to underscore the abject. However, in the process through which the
artist attempts to purify the abject, there always invariably remains a precipitate, something left
over that cannot be totalized or transformed. Unlike the ideal figure of the Dandy who merges
the artist with the art work into one seamless whole and successfully sublimates the abject,
Baudelaire’s artist is always left with something that exceeds the limit. That mysterious
“something” is nothing other than his self, a vulnerable and finite being, unable to transcend
the contingency of the human condition. Given that the transcendental imagination is the
grounds of knowledge in Baudelaire, it necessarily follows that all manifestations of the
other—what is alien to the subject’s notion of self—converge on the artist figure and his
delineation of his subjective boundaries. As Nøjgaard concludes in his semiotic and structural
analysis of Les Fleurs du Mal:
163

Le déroulement (la succession) même des cycles [des Fleurs du Mal] démentait cet
équilibre [entre l’extériorité du monde et l’intériorité de la conscience du poète]
puisqu’il se terminait généralement par la prépondérance exclusive de l’intériorisation
selon un processus aboutissant à replonger l’homme dans l’enfer de sa conscience,
malgré tous ses efforts pour extérioriser, c’est-à-dire pour affirmer la réalité objective
de ses idéaux. (Nøjgaard, Élévation et expansion: Les Deux dimensions de Baudelaire
159 [emphasis added])

The artist’s introspective gaze—“Il reste seul mais fidèle à lui-même” (OC II.89)—is
especially significant with respect to the paradoxical perception of women evident in
Baudelaire’s work. In reference to Delacroix, Baudelaire succinctly sums up his own position
with regard to women: “Il considérait la femme comme un objet d’art, délicieux et propre à
exciter l’esprit, mais un objet d’art désobéissant et troublant, si on lui livre le seuil du cœur, et
dévorant gloutonnement le temps et les forces” (OC II.766).
As a sexualized muse she represents both the ideal of beauty to which he is subjected
and under whose gaze he yearns to perish slowly in “Le Désir de peindre” (OC I.340) as well
as the abject he exploits to harvest his flowers of evil.41 However, if their ontological status
entails a perversion of what society perceives as their natural function—reproduction—,
women elicit Baudelaire’s admiration; given his reductive and essentialist definition of what
constitutes the feminine, such beings are no longer women. The poet readily identifies with and
appropriates society’s stigmatization of two kinds of women. On the one hand, the elderly,
particularly widows, inspire his sympathy because their condition parallels the artist’s in terms
of his creative ability; having exceeded their reproductive years, such women are viewed as
pathetic and monstrous by society and are consequently destined to eternal solitude, much like
the artist who, similar to the “le vieux saltimbanque,” can no longer produce work:
“Malheureuses vieilles femelles, l’âge est passé de plaire, même aux innocents; et nous faisons
horreur aux petits enfants que nous voulons aimer!” (“Le Désespoir de la vieille,” OC I.277).
Lesbians, on the other hand, appeal to the poet because their narcissistic desire excludes men
and reflects the poet’s longing for self-possession. The importance of Baudelaire’s
identification with the lesbian is suggestive: one of the titles he originally considered for Les

41
In “Modernity Revisited: Past and Present Female Figures in the Poetry of Banville and
Baudelaire,” Eliane F. Dalmolin elaborates on the figurations of women in terms of Baudelaire’s
idea of modern beauty. Of particular interest to my analysis is her explication of the kind of threat
modern women pose to the poetic persona in Les Fleurs du Mal: “In the familiar presence of the
modern woman, poetic consciousness is no longer menaced as before by the stony ideality of a
unified appearance; instead, it discovers a further danger in the fragmented multiplicity of her
fleshy [sic] body parts. Like shards of glass, the bodily parts, cut out from the totality of her
person, turn their sharp edges against the poetic consciousness that has invested them with its
desire” (Dalmolin 86).
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Fleurs du Mal was “Les Lesbiennes.”42 Although Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary is not a
lesbian proper, Baudelaire identifies with her because he considers her to be “si loin de
l’animal pur et si près de l’homme idéal” (OC II.83-84): “Comme la Pallas armée, sortie du
cerveau de Zeus, ce bizarre androgyne a gardé toutes les séductions d’une âme virile dans un
charmant corps féminin” (OC II.81). Analogous to the Dandy as a result of their sterile
androgyny, widows and lesbians ultimately are comparable to the figure of the artist; they are
perceived by the “poète hystérique”43 (OC II.83) as gratuitous beings who are repudiated by a
society that attributes value to people and things based on their utility. Nevertheless, the poetic
persona’s appropriation of these two kinds of androgynous women’s subject positions is not
equatable to the artist’s valorization of women as a sex, nor does it suggest that women, under
these specific circumstances, somehow are considered equal to the poet or the Dandy who
penetrates others with his wit yet is never penetrated. Instead, the poet’s appropriation of two
desexualized manifestations of the feminine (desexualized from a heterosexist perspective)
constitutes a defence against the feminization of the poet that the creation of art entails. With
reference to certain passages of Le Peintre de la vie moderne in which Baudelaire explains how
Constantin Guys’ art practice distances him from the ideal of Dandyism as a result of his too
avid curiosity for the spectacles of modern life—his “passion insatiable […] de voir et de
sentir” (OC II.691)— Bersani underscores that, although “the artist-prostitute’s ‘ineffable orgy’
of openness to the world corresponds […] to a narcissistic appropriation of the world,” the
“obscene openness to external reality” artistic creation requires of the artist also feminizes him
(Bersani 10, 14). The desexualized, androgynous woman is another mask behind which the
artist seeks to protect himself.
Landscapes, both natural and artificial, reflect the inner landscape of the poet’s mind and
the struggle that is a symptom of his divided nature with which he must always contend. As a
modern metropolis the city of Paris is the privileged site of interactions between the sublime
and the abject: it is the nucleus where a chiasmus occurs between high and low. As the poet
struggles to maintain his privileged vantage point both in and above the fray, the city assumes,

42
Prior to naming the collection Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire also considered the titles Les
Limbes and Les Lesbiennes. All three titles share one point in common: each bears the mark of
the abject by subverting the order to which it appeals. The first associates beauty with moral
decadence; the second designates liminal states of being and consciousness; and the third makes
reference to women who transgress heterosexual proscriptions.
43
The term “hystérique” derives from Greek “hyster” or womb. “Hysteria” was held to be a
specifically female state denoting a woman’s subjection to the influence of her body. The “poète
hystérique” is thus himself “womanlike” or able to sympathize with women. As I discuss in the
first chapter in the section on abjection, Kristeva’s interest in modern writers stems from their
identification with the feminine.
165

depending on his state of mind, either sublime or abject dimensions: it is either an “Horrible
ville!” (“À une heure du matin,” OC I.287) or a place whose “charme infernal [le] rajeunit sans
cesse” (“Épilogue,” OC I.191). Hence, when, in the prose poem “Any Where Out of the
World—N'importe où hors du monde,” the poet, in an apostrophe to his soul, reveals his desire
to move to the North Pole—a place whose barren landscape ceaselessly inspires the sublime:
“‘Là, nous pourrons prendre de longs bains de ténèbres, cependant que, pour nous divertir, les
aurores boréales nous enverront de temps en temps leurs gerbes roses, comme les reflets d’un
feu d’artifice de l’Enfer!’” (OC I.356)—what the soul’s response really amounts to is
“anywhere out of my self.”
As “La Chambre double” demonstrates, it is the poet’s subjective perspective that causes
the same object to inspire the abject or the sublime at any given moment, depending on
whether he perceives himself as whole, absolute, and hence timeless, or broken and finite. The
Baudelairean artist’s obsession with time is related directly to the duality of his self-perception.
The ideal and the abject constitute abysses in which, paradoxically, the poetic intellect loses
and seeks to possess itself; however, contrary to the timelessness of the ideal, the abject exists
in a temporal dimension that underscores the poet’s necessary link with the materiality of
nature whose weight he seeks to escape: “Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui
brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve” (“Enivrez-vous,”
OC I.337). In the same poem, when the poet affirms: “‘Il est l’heure de s’enivrer! Pour n’être
pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps, enivrez-vous sans cesse! De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à
votre guise’” (OC I.337), he could just as well be saying: so as not to be the enslaved martyrs
of contigency, “enivrez-vous sans cesse!’”
Perhaps “L’Horloge,” the last poem of the “Spleen et Idéal” section of Les Fleurs du
Mal, offers the most poignant example of the anguish time inspires in the artist. The speaker
describes time as an all-powerful entity characterized by the abject. It is a “dieu sinistre,
effrayant, impassible” whose sole purpose is to remind mortals of our inevitable destruction:
“Dont le doigt nous menace et nous dit: ‘Souviens-toi!’” (OC I.81.1-2). Moreover, time is a
vampiric insect that both sucks out our life—“j’ai pompé ta vie”—and contaminates us with its
“trompe immonde” (OC I.81.12). Even Dandiacal play assumes a sinister quality in
“L’Horloge”: it is anything but gratuitous. Like the Dandy, the poetic persona plays for his life
against an implacable enemy to whom he is sure to lose: “Souviens-toi que le Temps est un
joueur avide / Qui gagne sans tricher, à tout coup! c’est la loi” (OC I.81.17-18). Hence, the
speaker contends that the human condition is a form of martyrdom: “Les vibrantes Douleurs
dans ton cœur plein d’effroi / Se planteront bientôt comme dans une cible” (OC I.81.3-4).
166

These lines contain an allusion to the “Vierge aux sept couteaux,” in which seven daggers
pierce the heart; however, with characteristic violence, Baudelaire’s daggers do not only pierce
the Virgin’s heart—they also vibrate. The clepsydra mentioned in line 20 is a particularly
poignant symbol of Baudelaire’s notion of time as personified in this poem: a clepsydra is a
water-clock used in antiquity (originally from Egypt) that measures time by means of a gradual
flow of water from one container to another. According to Le Grand Larousse de la langue
française, the etymology of the word “clepsydre” is Latin, originally borrowed from the Greek
κλεψύδρα (made up of κλέπτω (steal) and ΰδωρ (water)) wherein the inferior container “steals”
water from the superior one. Metaphorically, the clepsydra represents time as an insatiable
abyss, “Le gouffre [qui] a toujours soif” (OC I.81.20). In light of Sartre’s elucidation of
Baudelaire’s attempt to control his subjectivity, Catherine Féret explains, in L’Angoisse du
devenir chez Baudelaire, that Baudelaire’s obsession with time is symptomatic of his anguish
of becoming, or what she calls “l’angoisse du devenir.”44 Contrary to the Heraclitean notion of
time, in which “du changement perpétuel naissent de multiples contradictions en ce monde,
mais elles se résolvent dans leur succession permanente, qui les neutralise en quelque sorte,”
the depiction of time as the artist’s enemy in Baudelaire’s lyric poetry suggests that “le devenir,
qui se réalise au cours du temps, qui est la signification du temps, engendre l’angoisse dans la
mesure où il apparaît négatif, où il s’exerce à rebours” (Féret 6). Paradoxically, modern art is
both an endless process of becoming and the source of the artist’s creative anxiety.
Modern art is a means for Baudelaire’s artist to see himself objectified: through it he
attempts to escape the problem of the split subject—a self-reflexive, knowing being who has
no access to the ontological foundation of his knowledge. Given that the artist grounds his
epistemology on the transcendental imagination, things in themselves are of no concern to him.
When Baudelaire affirms that “l’art moderne a une tendance essentiellement démoniaque” (OC
II.168), he is not describing an objective attribute of art. Rather, he makes reference to a
property of the artist as an “homo duplex” who, for particular reasons, chooses the abyss of
abjection over that of the sublime. The Baudelairean artist turns away from the sublime
because the emotion it inspires is both unsustainable and overwhelming, as the prose poem “Le
Confiteor de l’artiste” dramatizes:
Grand délice que celui de noyer son regard dans l’immensité du ciel et de la mer!
Solitude, silence, incomparable chasteté de l’azur! une petite voile frissonnante à
l’horizon, et qui, par sa petitesse et son isolement, imite mon irrémédiable existence,
mélodie monotone de la houle, toutes ces choses pensent par moi, ou je pense par elles

44
Féret does not allude to Sartre in her text; I am making the connection.
167

(car dans la grandeur de la rêverie, le moi se perd vite!); elles pensent, dis-je, mais
musicalement et pittoresquement, sans arguties, sans syllogismes, sans déductions.

Toutefois, ces pensées, qu’elles sortent de moi ou s’élancent des choses, deviennent
bientôt trop intenses. L’énergie dans la volupté crée un malaise et une souffrance
positive. Mes nerfs trop tendus ne donnent plus que des vibrations criardes et
douloureuses.

Et maintenant la profondeur du ciel me consterne; sa limpidité m’exaspère.


L’insensibilité de la mer, l’immuabilité du spectacle, me révoltent… Ah! faut-il
éternellement souffrir, ou fuir éternellement le beau? Nature, enchanteresse sans pitié,
rivale toujours victorieuse, laisse-moi! Cesse de tenter mes désirs et mon orgueil!
L’étude du beau est un duel où l’artiste crie de frayeur avant d’être vaincu. (OC I.278-
9)

According to Nøjgaard, infinity poses a problem for Baudelaire:


Comme chez Pascal, c’est l’expérience intime de l’infini qui fait sentir à l’homme
baudelairien son impuissance, l’infini qui lui donne l’impression d’être entraîné par
une fatalité horrible […] la peur tient au fait que le gouffre est sans fond […]: le salut
que le poète pourrait espérer atteindre au fond du gouffre est le néant, l’anéantissement
de tout son être, mais comme le gouffre est sans fond, le néant reste inaccessible.
(Nøjgaard 52)

Hence Baudelaire’s assertion, in Les Paradis artificiels, that “le parfum le plus répugnant, le
plus révoltant, deviendrait peut-être un plaisir, s’il était réduit à son minimum de quantité et
d’expansion” (OC I.410) is analogous to the following paradoxical statement from “Le
Confiteor de l’artiste”: “Il n’y a pas de pointe plus acérée que celle de l’infini” (OC I.278). As
with the sublime, the abject challenges the frontier between “self” and “not self” from within
and compels the artist to confront his own limits, but, to a self-obsessed subject, the abject has
the advantage of directing his gaze inward. Significantly, the artist’s sublimation of the abject
in “Une Charogne” by means of his creative will (the limit the cadaver breaches becomes a
symbol of the artist’s creative will, whose power can transcend the corruption of matter)
provides him with the temporary illusion of self-unity. In his reading of “Une Charogne,” Peter
Broome observes that, as in other Fleurs du Mal poems in which the poetic persona’s dualities
are temporarily reconciled in contemplation of the base spectacles of life,
the soul, further from the flesh, is summoned to join forces with the poet in an artistic
contemplation and complicity […] It is a recueillement in more than one sense. It is a
gathering of the resources of the self, a unification of one’s inner duality. (It is also a
reminder, in a text where the spectacle of death is so indelicately exposed, of the truth
of Valéry’s remark that “c’est la vie, et non point la mort, qui divise l’âme et le
corps.”) (Broome 70)

The transformation of such a spectacle into an object of art compels the concentration of the
poetic intellect; thus it exerts an appeal stronger than the sublime. For “I” to be able to say “I
am not that”—for “I” to be able to represent the abject—“I” cannot be fragmented: I must
168

perceive myself as whole. As Georges Blin observes, “[Baudelaire] n’a pas vu d’autre moyen
d’atteindre le fond humain que de chercher le bas-fond […] Il estime que notre destin ne
saurait être lisible, réellement ‘mis à nu,’ que dans la détresse et dans l’abjection” (Blin 185).

Part 4 —Baudelaire in Perspective


Baudelaire’s aesthetics inherits its foundation from Kantian Idealism: the importance
Baudelaire attributes to the transcendental imagination, his categories of “tempérament” and
“naïveté,” both innate qualities modern artists must possess, as well as his defining of the kind
of beauty particular to modern art in terms of the sublime all echo, by the intermediary of
Victor Cousin, Kant’s Third Critique. The figure of the Dandy, moreover, aligns itself with the
(Kantian) Idealism that grounds Baudelaire’s aesthetics: the effacement of the self requisite of
the Dandy negates the artist’s material existence and contingency, whereas his self-fashioning
affirms the primacy of aesthetic experience. In a manner analogous to that of the mystic, the
Dandy transcends the human condition by negating it. The impassible mask of Dandyism,
behind which there is no affect, acts as a shield that guarantees the artist’s superiority over the
dictates of bourgeois consumerism: in contrast to the artist, who merely produces objects that
inspire a sense of the sublime, the Dandy is sublime. The beauty of modern art therefore
coincides with the figure of the Dandy. Both astonish the viewer: each is despotic, to borrow
Baudelaire’s term, in compelling the viewer’s gaze. One cannot help but look at modern art in
the way intended by the artist, contends Baudelaire; in the case of the Dandy, his status as the
head of a self-proclaimed cultural aristocracy amounts to a tyranny of style. Baudelaire’s
idealism can be construed as a desperate effort to anchor art and the poet in the midst of social
upheaval and to come to terms with a new, emerging modern consciousness. The shifting of
social values posed a specific problem for Baudelaire: as with the aesthetic category of the
sublime, understanding modern art and the creative consciousness responsible for the work is a
matter of acculturation. Baudelaire was keenly aware of the perils that await the artist-Dandy
once taken out of his proper context: he is transformed into a pathetic clown who inspires
ridicule and pity.
Had Romantic Idealism been the only driving force behind Baudelaire’s œuvre, we
would be faced with an entirely different body of work and poetic persona. The poem
“Alchimie de la douleur,” with its ironic intertextual reference to the curse of King Midas,
dramatizes the plight of the Baudelairean artist by demonstrating how his existential
predicament disfigures everything he touches:
Hermès inconnu qui m’assistes
169

Et qui toujours m’intimidas,


Tu me rends l’égal de Midas,
Le plus triste des alchimistes;

Par toi je change l’or en fer


Et le paradis en enfer[.] (OC I.77.5-10)

The reference to Hermes— elsewhere called “Satan Trismégiste” (“Au Lecteur,” OC I.5.9)—as
the deity responsible for the poet’s condition, is an attempt to externalize the struggle within
the artist and at the same time signals its ominous outcome. “Cet Hermès inconnu, ” explains
Milner, “qui, à la différence de l’Hermès Trismégiste sur lequel s’appuyaient les alchimistes,
ne favorise les transmutations que dans le mauvais sens, est évidemment le même que le Satan
Trismégiste du prologue ‘Au Lecteur’” (Milner 169). The emphasis on touch rather than sight,
underscored by the reference to Midas, echoes Baudelaire’s sexual metaphor of penetration to
describe modern art’s effect on the viewer and the artist’s requisite openness to the world (the
artist is a prostitute, claims Baudelaire): both break down the objective distance between
spectator and spectacle. The subject’s distance from the object that inspires a sense of the
sublime is crucial to the Kantian notion of sublimity: it guarantees the subject’s integrity and
reduces the object in question to the status of a mere vehicle, a springboard, so to speak, for the
subject’s self-affirmation. Conversely, touching or penetrating in Baudelaire always suggests a
potentially disturbing proximity that throws into question the fixity of the boundaries that
delineate what is self and not self. As I hope to have demonstrated in my investigation of
Baudelaire’s aesthetics of subversion, the Baudelairean poetic persona is conditioned by the
abject: the prescriptions of Catholic morality and doctrines, the aesthetics of the sublime, and
Dandyism constitute the rules he is compelled to transgress. His subversion of these codes,
moreover, is merely an externalization of his inner conflict, and the many masks he adopts act
as means to displace his inner crisis, albeit temporarily. The Baudelairean poetic persona is one
who is continually faced with his own alterity. In my view, the melancholia many scholars
identify in Baudelaire’s poetic voice45 is a symptom of the inaugural loss that founds,
according to Kristeva, all being, sense, language, and desire (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 13). As with
Poe, the experience of fragmentation and self-displacement upon which Baudelaire’s poetic
persona is predicated also compels him to perpetual self-expression and artistic production.
The fictional persona continuously reenacts, through the endless transgression of a given rule

45
“Baudelaire vit et écrit l’expérience d’une perte, d’un manque et la mélancolie du poète, comme
l’expliquent les pères de l’Église, est le vertige qui saisit l’anachorète en égard à ce manque”
(Cingolani 70). See also Hadlock’s study titled “The Other Other: Baudelaire, Melancholia, and
Dandyism.”
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or prescription, the loss that pervades all strata of Baudelaire’s work, be it political, social,
moral, or aesthetic. His is an alterity that, like Poe’s, can be elucidated, from a primarily
aesthetic perspective, through an exploration of the dialectical tension manifest between the
sublime and the abject in Baudelaire’s poetic and critical works.
The question of whether or not Lovecraft’s fiction lends itself to a similar dialectical
approach remains to be answered. Contrary to Poe and Baudelaire, who, in spite of their
differing cultural and historical contexts, are both men of the nineteenth century and share a
common humanistic foundation, Lovecraft’s worldview differs significantly from that of his
predecessors. He is an early twentieth-century man, and his subjectivity is conditioned by the
changes brought about by radical scientific and social developments in the first half of the
twentieth century. His existential predicament appears to align itself more closely with his
modernist contemporaries, such as T. S. Eliot, for instance, whose work expresses a loss of
transcendental certitude and faith in the “grand narratives of legitimation” he has inherited, to
translate a phrase from Jean-François Lyotard (Lyotard, Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants
33). As the next chapter will elucidate, Lovecraft’s work is defined by a paradox: he posits
both a Romantic aesthetics on the one hand and the notion of what he calls “cosmic
indifferentism” on the other—two incommensurate worldviews that appear to negate each
other. In situating Lovecraft in line with Poe and Baudelaire from an aesthetic perspective, my
aim is twofold: to explore the trajectory of the dialectic relation between the sublime and the
abject in Lovecraft’s work and to determine whether or not we can really speak of the sublime
in Lovecraft.
Chapter 4: Howard Phillips Lovecraft

In short, we are madly erring, through self-esteem, in believing man, in


either his temporal or future destinies, to be of more moment in the
universe than that vast “clod of the valley” which he tills and contemns,
and to which he denies a soul for no more profound reason than that he
does not behold it in operation.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Island of the Fay” (CW IV.195)

Straight lines do not exist, nor does theoretical infinity. What seems
infinite extension is simply part of an inevitable returning curve, so that
the effect of proceeding directly away from any given point in space is
to return at length to that same point from the opposite direction. What
lies ultimately beyond the deepest gulf of infinity is the very spot on
which we stand.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Selected Letters III.388

No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which


flows from the loss of identity. Merging with nothingness is peaceful
oblivion; but to be aware of existence and yet know that one is no
longer a definite being distinguished from other beings—that one no
longer has a self—that is the nameless summit of agony and dread.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” At


the Mountains of Madness 438

Part 1 — Lovecraft and the Question of the Sublime


Lovecraft’s fiction presents us with the abject. Our senses are overwhelmed by putrid stenches,
disturbing sounds, and visually abhorrent forms; to come into contact with the source of these
disconcerting sensations changes us permanently. The characters through whom we experience
this crisis either die or undergo a transformation that destroys their subjective integrity. Their
language—a marker of their culture and a means of access to the symbolic—mutates and
becomes unintelligible: “Iä… ngai… ygg…” (“The Haunter of the Dark,” Dunwich 115). The
fictional text itself loses grounding in reality as a character’s memories, dreams, and
experiences become progressively entwined. Landscapes of the mind merge with empirical
landscapes in Lovecraft’s monstrous alien cities and mythic New England towns of Arkham,
Innsmouth, and Dunwich. As French critics Michel Houellebecq and Maurice Lévy observe in
H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie and Lovecraft ou du fantastique, respectively,
Lovecraft’s fiction dramatizes decadence and contamination, not merely at a material or

171
172

physical level, but at the very core of being. We discern in his descriptions “une touche de
dégénérescence baveuse” particular only to him (Houellebecq 66). In reading Lovecraft, it
becomes evident that a deep sense of nostalgia over the loss of origin and bitterness with regard
to the impossibility of its recovery reverberate throughout his fiction. This prevailing leitmotif
situates Lovecraft historically: it is one of the facets of his work that aligns him with his high
modernist contemporaries, in spite of his resistance to their formal experimentation. As
Norman R. Gayford explains in “The Artist as Antæus: Lovecraft and Modernism,” Lovecraft
developed into a moderate modernist who decried conventionality, yet asserted the importance
of grounding modern art in tradition. In a manner similar to many modernist writers and artists,
there exists a link between an aesthetics of transgression and radical politics in Lovecraft;
although some critics tends to minimize his racism in an effort to safeguard his reputation,1
others such as Paul Buhle in “Distopia as Utopia: Howard Phillips Lovecraft and the Unknown
Content of American Horror Literature,” Lévy in “Fascisme et Fantastique, ou le cas
Lovecraft,” and Houellebecq in his aforementioned work have probed with unflinching
perspicacity the depth of Lovecraft’s aversion to and perverse fascination with peoples of non-
Aryan descent in his early years. On the whole, their analyses converge on the idea that
representations of the other in the fiction of this self-declared Nazi sympathizer and proponent
of eugenics reveal Lovecraft’s overwhelming anxieties concerning racial purity. These stem, on
the one hand, from personal insecurities concerning his lineage and self-worth, and, on the
other hand, from his dramatic experience living in the ghettos of New York City.
Lovecraft’s narratives present the reader with a character’s subjective impressions, in
which the locale, persons, or series of events described are secondary to the feelings they

1
Both Donald R. Burleson and S. T. Joshi attempt to obfuscate the extent of Lovecraft’s racism
and the profound impact it had on his writing. Both problematically make an effort to excuse
Lovecraft’s racism by explaining that it was focused on abstract collectives rather than
individuals, and mention his marriage to a Jewish woman as evidence of his tolerant attitude.
Burleson comments that “Lovecraft in his letters often gave vent to seemingly horrendous ‘racist’
remarks against Jews, black people, and others, yet habitually treated individual people with
warmth and kindness, even marrying a Jewess ” (H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study 11 [emphasis
added]). In Lovecraft’s defence Joshi remarks that “many of his closest friends, including his
wife, were not of the pure Nordic stock that he so concerned himself with” (“H. P. Lovecraft: His
Life and Work” 14). Moreover, they also make reference to Lovecraft’s progressive change of
political views later in life (Lovecraft adopted a liberal outlook) as indicative of his openness. I
cannot see how Lovecraft’s vituperate descriptions in his letters of New York City’s non-white
inhabitants constitute only “seemingly” racist commentary. Joshi changes his view in A Dreamer
and a Visionary: Lovecraft in His Time; he acknowledges that, in light of Lovecraft’s avowal in a
letter of taking pride in being known as an anti-Semite in high school, those who, like himself in
the previously cited work, sought “to exculpate Lovecraft on the grounds that he never took any
direct actions against racial or ethnic groups he despised but merely confined his remarks to
paper” can no longer do so (Joshi, A Dreamer 55).
173

arouse in the experiencing subject. Moreover, his stories are largely self-reflexive; other texts
in the form of epistolary correspondence, newspaper reports, and invented sacred books such
as the Pnakotic and R’lyeh manuscripts, and the notorious Necronomicon often appear as the
impetus behind a character’s actions. From an aesthetic standpoint, Lovecraft’s dramatization
of an existential crisis betrays an obsession with the dissolution of what Julia Kristeva terms
“le corps propre,” denoting, as Leon S. Roudiez remarks in the note to his translation of
Pouvoirs de l’horreur, both a clean body and one’s ownership of his body (Roudiez viii).
Lovecraft presents us with two kinds of decaying bodies that parallel two sources of terror in
his fiction: that of the other, or the terror without, and that of the self, or the terror within. As
representations of the other, Lovecraft’s gods pose a challenge to humanocentrism, teleology,
and reason; however, the terror at the core of the disintegration of selfhood dramatized in terms
of genetic, moral, and intellectual degeneracy reveals the mutability of personal identity. In
some of his most successful texts in which both bodies intersect—texts in which the self
becomes other, such as “The Shadow Out of Time,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and “The
Case of Charles Dexter Ward”—he underscores the abjection of self as a cosmic, and not
personal, experience. Furthermore, the decomposition of Lovecraft’s predominantly male,
white, Anglo-Saxon characters’ identities, in terms of both their bodies and minds, mirrors the
progressive loss of textual integrity at play in Lovecraft’s fiction. This is perhaps most salient
in texts such as “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Haunter of the Dark” that present an explicit
mise en abîme between the speakers’ progressively dissolving selfhood and the incoherence of
their speech at the text’s close. Textuality and ontology are linked inextricably: in The
Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft, a book in which he reads Lovecraft as a postmodern writer,
Timo Airaksinen demonstrates that Lovecraft’s fiction underscores the notion that being is
constructed by and through language. Hence, the material body’s decay reflects the corrosion
of the symbolic, textual body.
In his seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft explains that the
emotion he aspires to convey through the ontological fragmentation his texts enact is a kind of
all-pervasive fear he calls “cosmic horror.” Such an extreme emotion is predicated on the
subversion of our humanistic mode of subjectivity, dramatized through a character’s
progressive coming into knowledge of his insignificance in the universe—outside the limited
scope of human affairs. The fantastic, the genre of speculative fiction to which many of
Lovecraft’s stories belong, proves to be a propitious medium to express this all-encompassing
horror for two reasons: at the crux of the fantastic text is a presentation of a character’s
experience of an event that challenges his understanding of the world and that cannot be
174

explained away by logical means; second, the impression of a transgression of reality (albeit
not with culpable intention) requisite to the fantastic necessitates that the narration be grounded
in reality. The fantastic presupposes that the objects and subjectivity constructed by a text
belonging to the genre are universal; otherwise the effect it aims to convey will be of limited
scope and consequently will have a negligible impact on the reader. Moreover, as Lévy
explains, the fantastic is closely associated with the abject: “Le fantastique, après tout, n’est
peut-être rien d’autre que la révélation déchirante du non-sens, visant à déloger le lecteur de ses
constructions de l’esprit et de ses certitudes familières” (Lévy, Lovecraft ou du fantastique 41
[emphasis added]). In Lovecraft’s fantastic, a transgression of epistemology is concomitant
with a subversion of ontology: his fictional texts undermine not only our understanding of the
world, but our very notion of self—the ground of any possible knowledge.
Lovecraft’s fiction evidently presents us with a crisis in subjectivity; contrary to what
Dale J. Nelson and Bradley A. Will maintain in their respective articles “Lovecraft and the
Burkean Sublime” and “H. P. Lovecraft and the Semiotic Kantian Sublime,” the conflict in
question is incommensurate with an aesthetic experience of the sublime, either Burkean or
Kantian. The nihilism of Lovecraft’s self-described mechanist materialist worldview denies the
affirmative aspect of the sublime and the idea of freedom upon which it is predicated.
Conversely, I contend that Kristeva’s notion of the abjection of self proves highly relevant to
Lovecraftian horror. I cite the following excerpt from Pouvoirs de l’horreur at length to
illustrate my point:
S’il est vrai que l’abject sollicite et pulvérise tout à la fois le sujet, on comprend qu’il
s’éprouve dans sa force maximale lorsque, las de ses vaines tentatives de se
reconnaître hors de soi, le sujet trouve l’impossible en lui-même: lorsqu’il trouve que
l’impossible, c’est son être même, découvrant qu’il n’est autre qu’abject. L’abjection
de soi serait la forme culminante de cette expérience du sujet auquel est dévoilé que
tous ses objets ne reposent que sur la perte inaugurale fondant son être propre. Rien de
tel que l’abjection de soi pour démontrer que toute abjection est en fait reconnaissance
du manque fondateur de tout être, sens, langage, désir. On glisse toujours trop vite sur
ce mot de manque […] Mais si l’on imagine (et il s’agit bien d’imaginer, car c’est le
travail de l’imagination qui est ici fondé) l’expérience du manque lui-même comme
logique préalable à l’être et à l’objet—à l’être de l’objet—, alors on comprend que son
seul signifié est l’abjection, et à plus forte raison l’abjection de soi. Son signifiant
étant…la littérature. (Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur 13)

I argue that the sense of “cosmic horror” Lovecraft purports to inspire in his readers through
his fiction is tantamount to an experience of the abjection of self in which the yearning for
origin reveals not only the futility of such desire, but the disastrous consequences that ensue at
the moment of (self-) revelation. Although he shares certain affinities with Poe and Baudelaire,
the extent of which I will outline in this chapter, Lovecraft is more radical than either; contrary
175

to Lovecraft, Poe and Baudelaire adhere to a humanistic view of subjectivity that makes an
experience of the sublime possible. For Lovecraft, there is no respite from the senselessness of
human existence: even art amounts simply to another illusion, albeit one necessary to avert
“the ennui, despair & confusion of a guideless & standardless struggle with unveiled chaos”
(Selected Letters II.125). If, as Airaksinen suggests, Lovecraft’s fiction assumes the place of
the sacred in a godless world,2 and if modern writing hallows the abject, as Kristeva contends,
its powers of redemption are forfeited: she reminds us that “il s’agit d’une sublimation sans
sacre. Déchue” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 34). Lovecraft presents humanity’s fall, not from divine
grace—as in Poe and Baudelaire—but from the height of our self-proclaimed humanistic
subjectivity.

Part 2 — Romantic Art and “Cosmic Indifferentism”: Lovecraft’s


Aesthetics

Situating Lovecraft: Poe and Baudelaire


Of Lovecraft’s many literary influences, Edgar Allan Poe has been identified as one of the
most significant by both commentators and Lovecraft himself, who read him in his youth.3 The
link between Poe and Lovecraft is beyond dispute; the full extent of his indebtedness to Poe,
however, has yet to be gauged. My primary concern in comparing the two authors is to outline
Poe’s influence in the shaping of Lovecraft’s aesthetics, which in turn will serve to
contextualize Lovecraft’s relationship to Baudelaire. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature”
Lovecraft hails Poe as an “opener of artistic vistas” (Dagon 395). His praise is not unqualified;

2
“Lovecraft’s text is sacred in three different senses. First, it creates a world of magic along with
its new identities. But if in a godless universe horror is the ultimate expression of being human,
the text must be holy and sacred in the second sense, because it is the shrine where we worship
the unknown in order to keep it at bay. However, this is only a human perspective and therefore
too narrow and limited. Perhaps to call it limited is misleading, if it is sacred, that is. Third, what
is sacred, in the third sense, is unconditional and thus infinite. We can easily see the solution:
what Lovecraft says (ideas) is limited, unlike how he says them (images). Only the images are
inviolable. When we explore the first meaning of the sacredness of the Lovecraftian text, its
horrors of immorality, blasphemy, and physical pain are insignificant. No values and no gods
exist, while pain is only a subjective feeling. Cosmic horror is different. When we meet the
unknown from the deep of the universe, our humanity will be changed and lost. At the same time,
this offers a chance to experience the universe as it really is, a mystical moment which transcends
the possibilities of science and even the limits of the magical imagination” (Airaksinen 214).
3
The extent of Lovecraft’s admiration for Poe is notable in that it influenced his reception of
modernist poetry; according to Gayford, part of Lovecraft’s inability to dismiss Eliot’s work as
ineffectual in spite of his disapproval of The Waste Land is a consequence of his perception that
“Eliot’s thought, though inaccurately claiming to be poetry, found at least part of its direction
through Poe” (Gayford, “The Artist as Antæus” 278).
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Lovecraft explicitly outlines Poe’s “defects and affectations” that need to be acknowledged and
forgiven to appreciate his genius adequately: “His pretence to profound and obscure
scholarship, his blundering ventures in stilted and laboured pseudo-humour, and his often
vitriolic outbursts of critical prejudice” (Dagon 396). It is clear that Lovecraft admires only a
particular facet of Poe’s work that excludes his grotesque parodies, tales of logic and
ratiocination, and stories that dramatize monomania. He focuses instead on tales that exemplify
“a master’s vision of the terror that stalks about us and within us” and that, “penetrating to
every festering horror in the gaily painted mockery called existence, and in the solemn
masquerade called human thought and feeling,” evoke “cosmic horror” (Dagon 396). He cites
texts such as Pym, “Metzengerstein,” “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” “Valdemar,” and “The Man of
the Crowd” as exemplary of Poe’s dark genius; he reserves his highest esteem for the “richly
poetic cast” of “The Masque of the Red Death,” “Silence: A Fable,” “Shadow: A Parable,” and
particularly “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia” as possessing “an almost absolute
perfection of artistic form” (Dagon 398).4 Lovecraft’s measured recognition of Poe’s genius
serves two functions. First, by identifying Poe, a writer to whom Lovecraft pledges his
allegiance, as the head of “the newer, more disillusioned, and technically finished of the weird
schools that rose out of [the] propitious milieu” of nineteenth-century America, Lovecraft
distances his own work from the “puerile extravagance” common to most of the stories written
by hacks for the pulp magazines of his day (Miscellaneous Writings 117). Second, Lovecraft’s
praise of Poe’s strengths provides him with the opportunity to engage the poetics of speculative
literature. In citing Poe as the originator of the modern horror story, Lovecraft underscores
Poe’s adherence to the notion of unity of effect, his rejection of a moral outlook, and his
elevation of the abject as an experience worthy of literary exposition as far-reaching in their
effects (Dagon 396). As we have seen, these same elements constitute leitmotifs prevalent in
Baudelaire’s poetry, and in Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe, he comments at length on their

4
Lovecraft’s adoption of themes and images central to Poe’s work has received scholarly attention
of late. For example, Robert M. Price’s “Lovecraft and ‘Ligeia’” provides a cursory overview of
the extent of Lovecraft’s borrowing from Poe’s “Ligeia,” and determines that stories such as “The
Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Hound” bear evident references to it in
terms of either characterization or setting. In light of Lovecraft’s uncertain status in academic
circles, some of these studies often betray the need to assert Lovecraft’s genius at Poe’s expense;
Carl Buchanan’s comparative analysis of Poe’s “Valdemar” and Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” in
“‘The Outsider’ as an Homage to Poe” purports to illustrate how Lovecraft “is the devoted
disciple who surpasses his master” (Buchanan 14). Similarly, in “Poe, Hawthorne, and Lovecraft:
Variations on a Theme of Panic” Dirk W. Mosig attempts to discern Lovecraft’s indebtedness to
Hawthorne’s “Journal of a Solitary Man” and Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” in writing
“The Outsider”. He contends that Lovecraft’s story is more successful than its precursors in
conveying horror as a result of Lovecraft’s “ability to get us to identify and empathize with the
narrator” (Mosig 45).
177

significance to Poe’s genius. More to the point, these three principles occupy a pivotal place in
Lovecraft’s fiction.
Conversely, the connection between Lovecraft and Baudelaire has received little critical
attention. In light of Lovecraft’s dismissal of Baudelaire’s humanistic worldview, their
relationship is evidently more difficult to establish:
In literature we can easily see the cosmic quality in Poe, Maturin, Dunsany, de la
Mare, & Blackwood. […] Racially, moreover, it is almost exclusively Nordic. Latins
simply cannot understand it—not even Baudelaire, who after all is purely in his point
of view […] an inverted saint. (Selected Letters III. 197)

His objection pertains to what he perceives to be the circumscribed scope of Baudelaire’s


poetry; he claims that it focuses solely on the human condition and its moral framework.
Nevertheless, an association between the two writers has a logical basis. Kenneth W. Faig and
S. T. Joshi explain that although Lovecraft despised the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
equally—the first on purely aesthetic grounds (he disliked its architecture and found Victorian
writing of little interest) and the second for what he perceived to be the avant-garde’s defiance
of tradition for defiance’s sake—he nevertheless “found many kind words for Poe, Baudelaire,
and the Decadents” (Faig and Joshi, “H. P. Lovecraft: His Life and Work” 16). Aside from his
early fiction’s evident correspondences with Lord Dunsany’s mytho-poetic prose style—which,
it has been noted, Lovecraft initially adopted of his own volition without prior knowledge of
Dunsany’s work5—these texts often emulate the themes and clichés of the Decadents.
Lovecraft was not only familiar with the writing of the Decadents, but held it in high esteem; it
is noteworthy that he was aware of the considerable influence Baudelaire exerted on their
aesthetics, and of their admiration of Poe through Baudelaire. In “Supernatural Horror in
Fiction” Lovecraft conveys a clear understanding of the far-reaching consequences of Poe’s
“elevation of disease, perversity and decay to the level of artistically expressible themes”: “For
avidly seized, sponsored, and intensified by his eminent French admirer Charles Pierre
Baudelaire, it became the nucleus of the principal aesthetic movements in France, thus making
Poe in a sense the father of the Decadents and the Symbolists” (Dagon 396). Without a doubt,
Lovecraft’s perception of Baudelaire is negative in terms of the limitations he perceives in the
French poet’s human-centered perspective; Lovecraft’s overzealous esteem for him as a poet—
he refers to Baudelaire as a “titan” and an “illustrious poet” in “Supernatural Horror in
Fiction”—does little to dispel this since this praise could easily be interpreted as ironic.

5
Lovecraft’s “Polaris” is a fitting example: it was written in 1918, one year before Lovecraft read
Dunsany’s A Dreamer’s Tales. T. E. D. Klein infers that such similarities are “proof, if you will,
that a writer is unlikely to fall under the spell of a new literary style unless there are already
germs of it in his own work” (Klein, Introduction, Dagon xx).
178

Nonetheless, Lovecraft mentions Baudelaire directly in two early tales from his Decadent
period, “The Tomb” and “The Hound,” and the context of the references is telling. In “The
Hound,” the narrator elaborates on his and his associate St. John’s aesthetic proclivities:
Only the sombre philosophy of the Decadents could hold us, and this we found potent
only by increasing gradually the depth and diabolism of our penetrations. Baudelaire
and Huysmans were soon exhausted of thrills, till finally there remained for us only the
more direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventures. (Dagon 171-2)

While Lovecraft may convey certain reservations towards the scope of Baudelaire’s
worldview, one can safely say that he was, at least for a time, appreciative of his aesthetics.
Certain aspects of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy and values, as well as his early
political ideology are strikingly similar to Baudelaire’s. His pessimism, for instance, echoes the
Dandy’s aristocratic abnegation of life. In an essay written in 1922, Lovecraft elaborates on his
perverse understanding of life and its inherent purposelessness in a vein that corresponds to
Baudelaire’s fascination with death: “Universal suicide is the most logical thing in the world—
we reject it only because of our primitive cowardice and childish fear of the dark. If we were
sensible we would seek death—the same blissful blank we enjoyed before we existed” (Misc.
Writings 175).6 Lovecraft’s following statement about the gratuity of life, moreover, reads like
a piece of Dandiacal irony: “It is good to be a cynic—it is better to be a contented cat—and it is
best not to exist at all” (Misc. Writings 175). Lovecraft espoused anti-bourgeois and anti-
democratic attitudes early in his career. His pose as an old, stoic, and prudish gentleman, which
he maintained until his death at the age of 39,7 is symptomatic of his self-positioning as a
member of a cultural aristocracy whose raison d’être lay in the preservation of what he deemed
to be civilized (that is, archaic and primarily Anglo-centric) values against the onslaught of the
dehumanizing machine age and its attendant commodity culture:
Nothing good can be said of that cancerous machine-culture itself. It is not a true
civilisation, and has nothing in it to satisfy a mature and fully-developed human mind.
It is attuned to the mentality and imagination of the galley-slave and the moron, and
crushes relentlessly, with disapproval, ridicule, and economic annihilation, any sign of
actually independent thought and civilised feeling which chances to rise above its
sodden level. It is a treadmill, squirrel-trap culture—drugged and frenzied with the
hasheesh of industrial servitude and material luxury. It is wholly a material body-
culture […] Real America had the start of a splendid civilization—the British stream,
enriched by a geographical setting well-calculated to develop a vital, adventurous, and
imaginatively fertile existence…… What destroyed it as the dominant culture of this
continent? Well—first came the poison of social democracy […] I venerate the
principle of aristocracy without being especially interested in aristocratic persons. I

6
Baudelaire does not share Lovecraft’s reservations about the dark: he seeks “le vide, le noir, et le
nu” (“Obsession,” OC 1.75.11), and “refraîchissantes ténèbres” (“La Fin de la journée,” OC
I.128.14).
7
See Joshi and Faig’s “H. P. Lovecraft: His Life and Work,” Joshi, Four Decades 1-19.
179

don’t care who has dominance, so long as that dominance remains a certain kind of
dominance, intellectually and aesthetically considered” (Selected Letters II.304, 308).

In his letters and political essays Lovecraft is clear in outlining his support for fascism as an
ideal form of government, and decries assimilationist Americanization theories on the grounds
that certain cultures are less adaptable to the Anglo-Saxon institutions prevailing in the U.S.A.
during the first half of the twentieth century (his argument is initially based on the premise of
certain races’ biological inferiority, but in his later essays he revises this view). That
Lovecraft’s fiction is predicated on a perverse repulsion and fascination with respect to the
other has received a good deal of critical scrutiny. 8 In particular, texts in which Lovecraft
elaborates his notion of an ideal society, such as “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The
Shadow Out of Time,” possess an explicit racist bias and are informed by the fascist ideologies
that circulated during his time: both stories present the corruption of the genetically, socially,
and intellectually superior “Great Race” by inferior species.
In his espousal of racist views, Lovecraft is not unlike Poe in his defence of slavery or
Baudelaire in his denigration of the Belgian people as a lesser species in “La pauvre Belgique”
and “Belgica Æmonitas.”9 His notion of an elite determined by culture rather than breeding or
economic status is analogous to Baudelaire’s Dandyism: it serves as a means for Lovecraft to
insulate himself from the vulgarity he perceived in the modern world of the early twentieth
century and from the pressures of the marketplace. Not surprisingly, Lovecraft adopted an
expressive theory of art whose basis is analogous to the Kantian notion of genius: “Art is not
what one resolves to say, but what insists on saying itself through one. It has nothing to do with
commerce, editorial demand, or popular approval. The only elements concerned are the artist
and the emotions working through him” (Lovecraft, Lord of a Visible World 269). According
to Joshi, it accounts for his reluctance both to submit his stories for publication and to press the
matter once his tales were rejected (Joshi, Introduction 30). In a manner comparable to
Baudelaire (at least according to Sartre in Baudelaire), the aesthete’s pose and its inherent

8
In “Fascisme et Fantastique, ou le cas Lovecraft” Maurice Lévy illustrates the connection
between Lovecraft’s obsession with origin—“Ce fantasme de retour au sein maternel de
l’Histoire, cette régression pulsionnelle à un stade antérieur de la Chronologie” —and his
reactionary politics (Lévy, “Fascisme” 68). See also: William Schnabel, “L’Hybride chez H. P.
Lovecraft”; Bennett Lovett-Graff, “Shadows Over Lovecraft: Reactionary Fantasy and Immigrant
Eugenics”; Jay McRoy, “There Goes the Neigborhood: Chaotic Apocalypse and Monstrous
Genesis in H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Street,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ and ‘He’”; and Sam
Gafford, “‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’: Lovecraft’s Melting Pot.”
9
Baudelaire also espoused anti-Semitic sentiments (which Claude Pichois sought to deny): “Belle
conspiration à organiser pour l’extermination de la Race Juive” (OC II.706).
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masochism10 nevertheless belie a much more profound, existential need for self-definition that
writing fulfils for Lovecraft: “Writing after all is the essence of whatever is left in my life, & if
the ability or opportunity for that goes, I have no further reason for—or mind to endure—the
joke of existence.”11 In spite of these superficial parallels, Baudelaire’s and Lovecraft’s mutual
esteem for Poe and knowledge of his works are the most salient aspect upon which a
comparative analysis of their aesthetics can be made. I would like to emphasize that I do not
intend to argue that Baudelaire exerted considerable (if any) influence on Lovecraft’s cosmic
perspective, nor do I wish to defend the notion that Lovecraft was a Decadent (beyond the brief
period during which he emulated their style in his writing), as Barton Lévi St. Armand
contends.12 Instead, I will draw a comparison among Lovecraft’s, Poe’s, and Baudelaire’s
aesthetics to provide a context for Lovecraft’s dramatization of abjection. The basis for such an
approach is to be found in Lovecraft’s and Baudelaire’s mutual interest in Poe.

Romantic Art and the Mechanist Materialist


It is telling that a naïve reader could easily be misled into uncritically categorizing Lovecraft’s
understanding of art as Romantic. In a letter written in 1929 Lovecraft maintains that “Art is
the gateway of life” and “the only reason that any highly developed man of sense has for
remaining alive” (Selected Letters II.300). Moreover:
Life without art (by this, of course, I mean not only formal art but the instinctive
beauty-perceptions of the sensitive though untutored person as well) is simply an
animal or mechanical process, even when dully diversified by sterile thought. We only
live as human beings in proportion to our receptiveness to impressions of beauty.
(Selected Letters II.300)

In Lovecraft’s view, art is the defining activity that affirms our humanity by guaranteeing our
difference from machines and beasts. As I will demonstrate shortly, he conceives of it as the

10
Houellebecq comments on the self-destructive aspects of Lovecraft’s self-fashioning as a country
gentleman, many of which are analogous in spirit to anecdotes recounted of Baudelaire (the
details of his behaviour at his trial over Les Fleurs du Mal come to mind) and Poe (one cannot
help but think of his misanthropic attitude during his lecture before a distinguished Boston
audience): “refus de dactylographier ses textes, envoi aux éditeurs de manuscrits sales et froissés,
mention systématique de refus précédents…Tout pour déplaire. Aucune concession. Là encore il
joue contre lui-même” (Houellebecq 96).
11
This remark is cited by Joshi in the introduction to Epicure (Joshi 29); the original source can be
found in the Lovecraft Collection of the John Hay Library at Brown University.
12
In an essay titled “H. P. Lovecraft: New England Decadent” that first appeared in 1975 in the
French journal Caliban and was subsequently published as a monograph in 1979, St. Armand
defends the idea that Puritanism and nineteenth-century Decadence were the chief influences on
Lovecraft’s aesthetics. In his review of the book version with the same title, Joshi astutely
outlines the problems inherent in St. Armand’s argument, the basis of which rests primarily in the
incompatibility evident between the Puritan/Decadent moral worldview and Lovecraft’s atheism
(Joshi, Rev. of H. P. Lovecraft: New England Decadent).
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symbol par excellence of our self-reflexive subjectivity. Nonetheless, Lovecraft is not a


Romantic. He holds that all of our cultural products are meaningless: they have no purpose
outside of the arbitrary value we attribute to them. As Leiber observes, from Lovecraft’s
viewpoint “the only meaning in the cosmos is that which man dreams into it” (Leiber, “A
Literary Copernicus” 53). In a cosmos characterized by chaos and indeterminacy, art is a balm
that masks the pain of our purposeless existences. Notwithstanding the inherent insignificance
of art from his cosmic viewpoint, the affirmation of the artist’s omnipotence as a creator
implicit in the expressive theory that Lovecraft adopts validates his works of fiction and his
creative process as vital in the wake of his lack of commercial success. Although in certain
texts Lovecraft appears to open the way for a new understanding through art of what it means
to be human by presenting the reader with an artist’s transcendence of the human condition,
such an escape results invariably in the artist’s loss of his subjective integrity instead of his
achievement of existential unity.
The fate of Randolph Carter, protagonist of “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919),
“The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath” (1926-27), “The Silver Key” (1926), and “Through
the Gates of the Silver Key” (1932-33; written in collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price)
illustrates the fallacies of art’s transcendent virtues. All four texts dramatize one of the
leitmotifs central to his fiction: the crisis one experiences when confronted with the limits of
selfhood. From the perspective of Carter’s genesis and development as a character, the stories
in which he figures can be read cumulatively, as a kind of Bildungsroman detailing the
progression of his coming into self-knowledge. In “The Statement” he is merely a sidekick to
his best friend Harley Warren, an occult researcher who perishes at the hands of an unseen
monster in the catacombs beneath an ancient tomb. In “Dream-Quest” we meet Carter as an
artist of ideal dreamscapes who seeks to inhabit the golden city of his childhood dreams but is
impeded by the Great Ones. “The Silver Key” casts him as a writer suffering from
disillusionment, but who manages to escape into the world of dreams. In “Gates,” Carter’s final
story, in which he completes his journey, his characterization takes a complex turn for the
worse. His subjectivity is divided irreconcilably between two abject identities: that of a swarthy
Swami and that of an interstellar alien.
“Dream-Quest” is the most ebullient of the four texts: Carter’s dream-quest leads him to
the discovery that the earth gods themselves prefer the perfect city in his mind’s eye to their
usual habitation in Kaddath. What is significant here is the Romantic perspective the story
conveys in terms of the artist’s importance in the cosmos and the scope of his creative ability.
Carter meets Nyarlathotep, whom Lovecraft describes by means of the epithet “crawling
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chaos”; he is the messenger of the all-powerful Azathoth whose coming, in the prose poem
bearing his name from Lovecraft’s Miscellaneous Writings, heralds the apocalypse. As an
indication of his status as an artist, not only is Carter well received by Nyarlathotep when he is
confronted by him, but he survives unscathed after he disobeys his orders. Nyarlathotep’s
speech to Carter reveals the full extent of the gods’ displacement in terms that situate Carter in
a position superior to theirs: “You have dreamed too well, O wise arch-dreamer, for you have
drawn dream’s gods away from the world of men’s visions to that which is wholly yours;
having builded out of your boyhood’s small fancies a city more lovely than all the phantoms
that have gone before” (Mountains 399-400). Moreover, Carter is immune to the powers of
“chaos and horror” Nyarlathotep commands since “it is by [Carter] alone that the gods may be
sent back to their world” (Mountains 400). Most importantly, Carter’s imaginary city, in which
the gods revel and lose their sense of self—“The gods love your marvellous city, and walk no
more the ways of the gods. They have forgotten the high places of earth, and the mountains
that knew their youth. The earth no longer has gods that are gods […]” (Mountains 399)—
constitutes a presentation of Carter’s noumenal self. After describing Lovecraft’s real and ideal
fictional settings such as Marblehead, Providence, and Arkham, Nyarlathotep affirms that
“These, Randolph Carter, are your city; for they are yourself” (Mountains 401). “Dream-
Quest” suggests that, by means of his capacity to ward off the meaninglessness of reality and
create a topos of incomparable sublimity, the artist commands more than does the divine will
of the earth’s gods.
In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” the last text featuring Randolph Carter,
Lovecraft parodies the optimism and naïve exuberance evident in “Dream-Quest.” Carter’s
search for knowledge of the noumenal upon which he embarks in “The Silver Key” culminates
in the endless division of his selfhood into irreconcilable fragments in “Gates,” the sequel to
this text. Here the leitmotif of the split modern consciousness prevalent in Lovecraft’s fiction
and represented through the Doppelgänger reaches a new height of horror. Contrary to either
“The Whisperer in the Darkness,” in which the alien other masquerades as the human self by
using parts of Henry Akeley’s body to conceal his alterity, or to “The Shadow Out of Time,” in
which an alien from the past trades bodies with Nathaniel Peasley, in “Gates” not only does the
self Carter inhabits have no fixity since it is but a fragment of Being—his ultimate self—but
the alien entity in whose body and mind he becomes trapped as a result of his impetuosity, an
entity he disgusts and by whom he is repulsed, is merely another facet of his self from another
time and place. Hence, unlike “Whisperer” and “Shadow Out of Time,” wherein the other and
the self are drawn precipitously close yet do not coincide, “Gates” explores fully the conflation
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of self and other intimated in other texts. The total abjection of self Carter experiences is not
confined to this text, however. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” presents a similar situation
wherein the hapless narrator slowly transforms into a fish-like alien as the narrative progresses,
and we discover in “Dream-Quest” that Richard Upton Pickman, the artist of “Pickman’s
Model,” metamorphoses into a ghoul—one of the loathsome creatures he represents in his art.
Contrary to the “Innsmouth” protagonist and Pickman, however, Carter does not accept his
divided nature; he cannot delight in the abjection he experiences. Carter’s attempt at
transcending the human condition fails.
Instead of embracing alterity and enjoying eternal life like the “Innsmouth” narrator,
Carter dies, an outcome foreshadowed by Lovecraft’s use of the Poesque motif of the
anthropomorphic clock. The “alien-rhythmed ticking of the coffin-shaped clock t[akes] on a
new and portentous meaning” (Mountains 446) as the narrative draws to its conclusion: the
alien self overcomes the human Carter and escapes through the gateway the clock symbolizes.
Ironically, Zkauba, Carter’s alien self, is not that different from the human Carter: as a
powerful wizard of the planet Yaddith who can travel through time and space, he shares the
same class status as Carter the “arch-dreamer.” Race, not class, constitutes the marker of
Zkauba’s otherness: in the assumed guise of Swami Chandraputra, his human mask, the body
Carter shares with this otherworldly wizard is perceived by his cousin Ernest B. Aspinwall as
that of a “damned nigger” rather than that of an esteemed shaman (Mountains 454). The
“mystical gate-opening” crafted in the form of a clock that the alien Carter enters represents the
limit an experience of abjection underscores. Zkauba’s crossing of the clock’s symbolic
threshold permanently destroys the human Carter’s ontological integrity (Mountains 457): to
the human Carter and men equally capable of feeling supernatural wonder, his present
embodiment is that of an other-worldly alien; to men of pedestrian imagination epitomized by
Aspinwall, he is a “nigger” who likely murdered the “real” Carter.
Aside from its racist bias, the conclusion of “Gates” presents an ironic meta-textual
commentary on the Romantic paradigm of symbolic correspondences: in spite of the fact that
“the PRESENCE warned him to be sure of his symbols if he ever wished to return from the
remote alien world he had chosen,” in his eagerness to apprehend the noumenon or the truth
behind appearances Carter assumes that his possession of the silver key will ensure his safe
passage through time and space, to and from other facets of his archetypal self (Mountains
445). Nevertheless, the incomprehensible manuscript Carter finds along with the key and
which he carelessly leaves behind in “The Silver Key” contains the spell necessary for his
return to his human self. As in many of Lovecraft’s stories, ontology is tied to textuality. From
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a metaphysical perspective, the Carter stories illustrate that Lovecraft’s artists, dreamers, and
visionaries ultimately intuit a false sense of transcendence: art, in Carter’s case the art of
dreaming, defined in terms of creating and living in one’s own imaginary, proves fatal. The
possibility of transcendence revealed to Carter through his dreams is nothing short of a
fantastic projection. The language of Romantic symbols that holds the promise of returning to
one’s origin is not simply lost forever to the modern consciousness; it never existed in the first
place. Consequently, Lovecraft’s espousal of a Romantic view of art is disingenuous; in light
of his “cosmic indifferentism,” a term whose meaning I will elaborate on shortly, it acts as a
shield against the meaninglessness and gratuity of all artistic activity. The two questions I
endeavour to answer, in light of the disparity between Lovecraft’s “indifferentism” and his
ostensibly Romantic definition of art, as well as the ongoing comparison to Poe’s and
Baudelaire’s aesthetics are: How does the abject figure in Lovecraft’s aesthetics? Secondarily,
why is the abject so important to his aesthetics? To answer these questions, the following three
related aspects of Lovecraft’s elucidation of art merit attention: art as a process of becoming,
art as a means to self-knowledge, and art as an act of freedom. Before proceeding with
Lovecraft’s understanding of art, however, it is necessary to understand the implications of his
position as a self-described “cosmic indifferentist.”

Mechanist Materialism and “Cosmic Indifferentism”: The Grounds of Lovecraft’s


Nihilism
As Joshi explains in A Dreamer and a Visionary, Lovecraft’s position as a “cosmic
indifferentist” can be discerned in all aspects of his writing, and it suggests the profound
impact of early twentieth-century scientific discoveries and developments on his outlook.13
Cosmicism is at once a metaphysical position (an awareness of the vastness of the
universe in both space and time), an ethical position (an awareness of the
insignificance of human beings within the realm of the universe), and an aesthetic
position (a literary expression of this insignificance, to be effected by the minimizing
of human character and the display of the titanic gulfs of space and time). (Joshi, A
Dreamer 182)

13
Lovecraft’s interest in science and the cosmos dated from his childhood; as Joshi notes, “by 1902
he had written several small chemical treatises,” followed by a nine-volume astronomy treatise
which Lovecraft tilted Science Library (Joshi speculates that this work was written in 1904)
(Joshi, A Subtler Magick 17). Einstein’ theory of relativity and Max Planck’s quantum theory
greatly altered Lovecraft’s perception of the universe and contributed to his idea of “cosmic
indifferentism.” For a detailed survey of the influence of these and other scientific discoveries see
Joshi’s chapter titled “Life and Thought” of A Subtler Magick: The Writings and Philosophy of
H. P. Lovecraft.
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Contrary to any human-centered perspective, “cosmic indifferentism” suggests on the one hand
that the cosmos is indifferent to us, and, on the other hand, that by adopting such a viewpoint,
we can come to an understanding of our marginality and inconsequence outside the scope of
human affairs. The mythology Lovecraft devises14 encapsulates his notion of “cosmic
indifferentism”: through it he develops the theme of humanity’s cosmic alienation by
introducing a host of extraterrestrial life forms far superior to human beings in might and
intellect whose violent occupation of the earth substantially predates human life.
Some early critics were dismayed by Lovecraft’s cosmic mythology; Edmund Wilson’s
scathing comparison of Cthulhu to “an invisible whistling octopus” that inspires ridicule
instead of horror comes to mind (Wilson, “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous” 48). In
Lovecraft ou du fantastique, Maurice Lévy reminds us that, as with any artistic creation, a
certain element of play is necessarily involved in Lovecraft’s elaboration of the Mythos, but
the fact that Lovecraft often wrote for his own pleasure and that of his epistolary colleagues
does not detract from the poignancy of his work. The Mythos’ success with fans and critics
alike stands as a testament to its evocative power. It generated and continues to fuel spin-offs;
moreover, it is a commonplace in Lovecraft criticism to underscore Lovecraft’s cosmic vision
as the crowning achievement of his fiction, as that which sets him apart from his
contemporaries and predecessors. Some scholars maintain that a distinction between his earlier
and later texts in terms of characterization justifies the exclusion of certain titles from the
Lovecraft myth cycle. Proponents of this perspective argue that, following Poe’s precedent,
early tales present the reader with the insular perspective of socially isolated, mentally unstable

14
August Derleth, Lovecraft’s friend and founder of Arkham House Publishers, the first press to
publish (posthumously) complete book-form editions of Lovecraft’s works, coined the title
“Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the pseudo-mythology Lovecraft invented and developed
throughout several of his stories. However, alternate titles have been suggested, since, on the one
hand, “Cthulhu Mythos” is not adequately representative of Lovecraft’s pantheon of monsters, of
which Cthulhu is by no means a central figure. For example, Timo Airaksinen demonstrates in his
analysis of “The Call of Cthulhu” that to consider the monster Cthulhu as the source of horror in
the tale that bears his name is misguided: “The monster steps out from his lair and swims after a
ship, like any other good beast should do, predictably, understandably, and harmlessly. Cthulhu is
less dangerous than Moby Dick, and also easier to find” (Airaksinen 112). On the other hand,
Derleth’s reputation has fallen into disrepute for what critics generally agree to be his gross
misreading of Lovecraft’s work and his biographical misrepresentation of him. As in the case of
Poe’s presentation by Griswold but perhaps to a lesser degree, Lovecraft’s posthumous reputation
has also been distorted at the hands of his literary executor (for an analysis of Derleth’s
misconceptions about Lovecraft’s myth cycle see Dirk W. Mosig, “H. P. Lovecraft: Myth-
Maker,” in Joshi, Four Decades 104-112). Mosig proposes the name “Yog-Sothoth Cycle of
Myth,” for instance; however, in agreement with S. T. Joshi’s chapter heading in the collection of
essays H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, I will henceforth refer to the myth cycle as the
“Lovecraft Mythos” since this title is the most comprehensive.
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characters who inspire little sympathy; according to David E. Schultz, they are typically
“jaded, self-absorbed, decadent thrillseekers” (Schultz, “From Microcosm to Macrocosm: The
Growth of Lovecraft’s Cosmic Vision” 209). Conversely, the narrators of his later tales are
generally well-adjusted, socially integrated men who “recognize that the predicaments in which
they find themselves have implications not for them alone but for the entire human race”
(Schultz, “From Microcosm to Macrocosm” 209). Nevertheless, in light of the thematic and
stylistic continuity observable in Lovecraft’s work, I am sympathetic to George T. Wetzel’s
view in “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Study” that individual texts make up fragments of a larger
narrative constellation whose power becomes evident through a cumulative reading—at the
extreme, he interprets the Lovecraft Mythos as a lengthy novel in which individual stories
make up its many chapters.
However we decide to classify Lovecraft’s texts, his work conveys a decidedly bleak
view of existence: the earth is but a small, insignificant planet among countless other habitable
worlds; more importantly, our human perspective not only is severely limited in scope as a
result of its anthropocentrism, it poses a genuine threat to our existence in an environment
dominated by beings infinitely greater who are indifferent, if not outright hostile, to humanity.
As Stefan Dziemianowicz observes of the narrator of “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” a text I
hold to be one of Lovecraft’s most successful in terms of unity of effect and its use of terminal
climax, “the very attributes that affirm Wilmarth’s humanity are what render him vulnerable
and alone in the domain of the fungi” (Dziemianowicz, “Outsiders and Aliens: The Use of
Isolation in Lovecraft’s Fiction” 181). Within the context of Lovecraft’s mechanist
materialism, the mythology he creates thus dramatizes a confrontation between a solipsistic
modern subjectivity and what he termed “cosmic indifferentism,” in which teleology is rejected
as illogical and groundless, and free-will is but a product of our self-delusions.
[The indifferentist] alone of all thinkers is willing to view the future of the planet
impartially—without assigning (as indeed there is absolutely no ground for assigning)
any preponderance of evidential value to such factors as appear to argue a course
pleasant to himself. Not that he is especially looking for anti-human outcomes, or that
he has any pleasure in contemplating such. It is merely that, in judging evidence, he
does not regard the quality of favourableness to man as any intrinsic mark of
probability. Neither does he regard it as any intrinsic mark of improbability—he
simply knows that this quality has nothing to do with the case; that the interplay of
forces which govern climate, behavior, biological growth and decay, and so on, is too
purely universal, cosmic, and eternal a phenomenon to have any relationship to the
immediate wishing-phenomena of one minute organic species on our transient and
insignificant planet. (Selected Letters III.40)

Not surprisingly, critics generally perceive the horror of the unknown in Lovecraft’s
fiction to be grounded in a coming to self-knowledge, in terms of the “discovery of one’s own
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position in the real fabric of the universe [as] psychically ruinous” (Burleson, “On Lovecraft’s
Themes: Touching the Glass” 137).15 Such alienation is not simply spatial but metaphysical:
“One’s sense of isolation is not merely a function of geographic space, but also of mental
space; it can occur just as easily amongst a crowd and in the ‘light’ as in solitary out-of-the-
way places if one is possessed of a knowledge that is sufficiently disorienting”
(Dziemianowicz 186). This destructive realization occurs, moreover, in a universe devoid of
godhead to guarantee the significance and continuity of human existence. In Lovecraft’s fiction
morality and the duality between good and evil it implies do not exist, given that they are
necessarily products of our human subjectivity; Fritz Leiber points out that “cosmic horror”
was a consequence of “the rise of scientific materialism and the decline of at least a naïve
belief in Christian theology,” a situation in which “man’s supernatural fear was left without a
definite object” (Leiber, “Copernicus” 50). Nevertheless, if some of Lovecraft’s texts make
reference to an ethical framework (for instance, texts that thematize witchcraft, alchemy,
sorcery and other black arts), it is a product of the limited human characters’ misguided
attempts to understand and contextualize the phenomena they confront. For instance, the
narrator of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” describes (albeit through Ward’s focalization)
Joseph Curwen, Ward’s maternal uncle and alleged witch according to the ignorant townsfolk,
as a man of science ahead of his time: “Not even Einstein, [Ward] declared, could more
profoundly revolutionize the current conception of things” (Mountains 161). The contrast
created between the juxtaposition of our moral perspective and the nihilism of a materialist
view of the universe also serves a formal purpose specific to the speculative genre: it heightens
the effect of terror by underscoring our psychological vulnerability to phenomena beyond our
comprehension.16
In the morally sterile world of Lovecraft’s fiction, tradition (like art and other beliefs or
practices that are a product of human culture) necessarily assumes a quasi-sanctified role; in

15
Burleson’s observation is a commonplace asserted by many critics who engage the worldview
manifest in Lovecraft’s fiction, and it echoes Fritz Leiber’s assessment made over forty years
earlier: “The chief reason that man fears the universe revealed by materialistic science is that it is
a purposeless, soulless place. To quote Lovecraft’s ‘The Silver Key,’ man can hardly bear the
realization that ‘the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from
something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the
minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness’” (Leiber, “A Literary Copernicus”
53).
16
Many critics point to this disparity as one of the most successful thematic features of Lovecraft’s
fiction. For example, Dziemianowicz approvingly affirms that “Lovecraft knew that the best way
to achieve the ends of cosmic terror was to populate his stories with human beings who cling to
such notions of ‘good and evil’ and ‘love and hate’. By dwelling on these characters’ all-too-
human reactions to phenomena that exceed their understanding, he would achieve” what
Dziemianowicz describes aptly as the “essence of externality” (Dziemianowicz 178).
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spite of its arbitrary and transient status, it provisionally offers meaning to our otherwise
purposeless lives. In a letter written in 1929, Lovecraft expounds on its significance:
“Good” is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology,
geography, nationality, & individual temperament. Amidst this variability there is only
one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of
“values” which we need in order to feel settled & contented—& that anchor is
tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of
our ancestors, individual or national [,] biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing
cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing
else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time & space.
Nowadays we can’t believe as our forefathers did, but we can share some of their
instinctive feelings toward the daily scenes around them, so that a sort of comfortable
placement in the invisible cosmic pattern will seem (falsely—but what of it?) to be
provided for us. (Selected Letters II.357)

Tradition constitutes a marker of culture, separating us from nature and our animal origins. As
the passage quoted suggests, Lovecraft’s characters enjoy a false sense of security as a result of
their faith in their ancestral (racial, cultural, and religious) heritage, whose foundations often
prove to subvert the very values they profess. In texts such as “The Late Arthur Jermyn” and
“The Rats in the Walls,” which ostensibly are marginal to the Mythos cycle, the protagonists’
respective confrontations with the horror of their miscegenation destroy both Arthur Jermyn
and Walter de la Poer. The first kills all his children and sets himself on fire upon discovering
that the wife of his great-great-great-grandfather, one of the first explorers of the Congo region,
was a white Congolese ape to whose community Sir Wade Jermyn played god. The second
loses his sanity upon ascertaining that his predecessors were vermin, both literally and
metaphorically; since the origin of his family line, his ancestors have been affiliated with the
most perverse cults known to man and ignoble rites beyond description, of which cannibalism
is only a token. Lovecraft’s anxieties about race miscegenation and the devolution of the
species find full expression in his Mythos: as “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Festival,” “The
Call of Cthulhu,” and “The Haunter of the Dark” make evident, religious rituals in Lovecraft—
usually affiliated with worship of the “Old Ones”—are depicted as the sadistic and barbaric
practices of amoral beings whose humanity has been eroded almost beyond recognition.
Perhaps the direst commentary on the futility of human traditions and the moral
worldview they entail in Lovecraft’s Mythos is evident in the human characters’ perception of
the omnipotent alien races as gods. In light of the aliens’ either complete disregard or
seemingly malevolent intention towards human beings, such a belief is ironic on two levels.
First, as illustrated in “At the Mountains of Madness,” the human race is the by-product of an
accidental biological experiment and is of little consequence to the “Old Ones”; chance, and
not divine grace, brought us into being. Ironically, just as Jermyn’s ancestor played god to
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white apes in the Congo, these formidable aliens are perceived as deities by the characters in
Lovecraft’s fiction, which says little for our apparently sophisticated culture and humanity. As
Bennett Lovett-Graff observes of “Arthur Jermyn”: “As inheritors of a simian past, we are the
subjects of a determined and determining Nature, members of the very animal world to which
we human beings have denied any vestige of free will” (Lovett-Graff, “Life is a Hideous
Thing” 375). Second, where aliens intervene in human affairs, their interest is motivated by the
kind of cold and calculating scientific self-interest we display in our interactions with earth’s
“lesser” life-forms (non-mammalian species such as reptiles, insects, and sea-creatures whose
forms resemble those of Lovecraft’s pantheon), as made evident in “The Whisperer in the
Darkness.” In the best of scenarios, observes Michel Houellebecq, we eat earth’s creatures of
“lesser intelligence”; often, however, we destroy them for the mere joy of killing (Houellebecq
15-16 [my translation]). Significantly, Houellebecq observes that if human life is devoid of
meaning in Lovecraft’s fiction, death also fails to offer any comfort. Lovecraft disposes of
characters as though he were “dismembering marionettes,” as he terms it, often leaving readers
with an inconclusive ending that brings no appeasement (Houellebecq 14 [my translation]). A
meaningless death: no doubt this is an end fitting for a “cosmic indifferentist.”
In Lovecraft, death as a limit cannot be symbolically represented since he provides no
belief system to give it sense; it remains a signifier, a material boundary between being and
non-being that manifests itself in the symptom—abject. Lovecraft’s protagonists are hence
faced with concrete, tangible evidence of their abject condition. In “Arthur Jermyn,” the rotting
carcass of the Congolese white ape is mailed to Jermyn. Only after recognizing himself in her
features or, put another way, only after experiencing the horror of self-recognition in the
abject—“the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and
the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the
shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than Arthur
Jermyn” (Dagon 82)—does he lose his mind and commit filicide and suicide. Jermyn’s
alienation is total, regardless of his intellectual learning and sensitive poetic temperament; this
text suggests that personal efforts and merits are meaningless in Lovecraft’s universe.
Although setting himself on fire may be construed as a symbolic attempt to purify himself and
therefore atone for his ancestor’s transgression, he is nonetheless relegated to non-being by his
peers: “Members of the Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a
well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed” (Dagon 82).
In texts both central and peripheral to the Mythos, characters who experience the abject
consequently face two choices in Lovecraft’s fiction: either to be destroyed like Jermyn, de la
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Poer, and Edward Derby from “The Thing on the Doorstep,” or to embrace their abjection, as
illustrated in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “Pickman’s Model,” and “The Outsider.” Either
way, the change brought on by the experience is permanent and irrevocable. In denying our
humanity, Lovecraft’s “cosmic indifferentism” is therefore necessarily at odds with his
adoption of a Romantic view of art since our humanity is the condition that makes an
expressive theory of art viable as a signifying system. The crisis of abjection Lovecraft
represents in his fiction is particular to the modern subject: when the limits of the intelligible
cannot be transformed into symbols, when we fail to absorb them into our culture, language,
and consciousness, they threaten the foundation of being. Moreover, the experience of the
abject can be presented only negatively, by means of the symptom: a revolting smell, an
“eldritch” architectural accent that has survived to the present day, or excessively fertile
vegetation. According to Gayford, a discontinuity between the historical past and the
immediate present characterizes Lovecraft’s modernism, as illustrated in this excerpt from
Lovecraft’s letters: “Our mechanical and industrial age is […] so far removed from […]
ancestral conditions as to make impossible its expression in artistic media” (Selected Letters
II.103-104). If no language exists to convey Lovecraft’s experience, what is left to articulate
but the shock of alienation?

“Authentic Art” and Lovecraft’s “Cosmic Horror”


Notwithstanding Lovecraft’s disavowal of the human-centered focus of Romantic aesthetics,
that aesthetics nevertheless exercises a profound influence on his epistemology. According to
Lovecraft, although art cannot be known, it can be experienced:
The basis of aesthetics is still so deeply wrapped in mystery that no final definition of
art’s primary function and appeal can be formulated. We have clues, but only clues—
and all these point toward a somewhat bewildering complexity. At least three separate
factors seem to be involved—physical-sensory pleasure, mental-emotional association,
and mathematical symmetry or rhythm; the last-named of these being most purely and
characteristically aesthetic and differentiated from general sensations and emotions.
(Selected Letters II.297)

The aim of art, moreover, is not to present the viewer or reader with a complete and therefore
accurate representation of an object, something Lovecraft holds to be impossible in light of our
inability to know things in themselves in their totality: “There is no Nature, as known to us; but
only an infinite number of fairly closely related Natures, each one peculiar to him who
experiences it” (Selected Letters II.298). Speculative fiction in particular he holds to be limited
in its ability to represent the real: in “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” he explains that “a
serious adult story must be true to something in life,” but “since marvel tales cannot be true to
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the events of life, they must shift their emphasis toward something to which they can be true;
namely, certain wistful or restless moods of the human spirit, wherein it seeks to weave
gossamer ladders of escape from the galling tyranny of time, space, and natural law” (Misc.
Writings 119). In terms analogous to Poe’s unity of effect, Lovecraft affirms that “atmosphere,
not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction”; “all that a marvel story can ever be, in a
serious way, is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood” (Misc. Writings 116, 118). In
his view, Poe’s genius rests in his ability to paint impressions rather than concrete details: “He
excels in incidents and broad narrative effects rather than character drawing” (Dagon 400).
Lovecraft’s definition of the artist, moreover, resounds with Romantic overtones and is
reminiscent of Baudelaire’s notion of the artist’s “naïveté profonde”: he is “a painter of moods
and mind-pictures—a capturer and amplifier of elusive dreams and fancies”; in short, “he is
one who not only sees objects, but follows up all the bizarre trails of associated ideas which
encompass and lead away from them” (Misc. Writings 148).
We must keep in mind that, contrary to Poe and Baudelaire, Lovecraft’s subjectivism has
an empirical basis. It is not determined by our inability to know the noumenal realm; rather, his
subjectivism is a consequence of biological and cultural differences between people and, more
importantly, of the limits of our cognitive and sensory capabilities:
Absolute reality is forever beyond us—we cannot even form the vaguest conception of
what such a thing would be like, for we have no terms to envisage entity apart from
those subjective aspects which reside wholly inside our physiology and psychology.
Solid, liquid, gas; size, dimensions, matter, energy, ether; time and space; eternity,
infinity, finiteness, relativity; all are, in the last analysis only shadows whose substance
and nature we can never hope even to approximate. We have only extremely
fragmentary and illusory specialised projections to go by, and can form no idea of any
principle of reference by which to define or envisage such a thing as absolute entity or
reality apart from its few sensory manifestations. All we can do is to judge the
relationships which those manifestations bear toward one another, and accept our
fractional vision as having some fixed proportion of relationship to whatever the
inconceivable whole may be. The mind of man can never—this is the one absolute
certainty in our knowledge—get any further than this, since the limits of the five
senses are a fixed and insurmountable barrier beyond which we have no possible
avenue of access. (Selected Letters II.301-302)

As his Mythos suggests, other incarnate beings, equipped with more sophisticated sensory and
cognitive organs, are capable of knowledge beyond that determined by our human scope. For
instance, in “The Shadow Out of Time,” an extra-terrestrial consciousness from the past and of
superior intelligence defies time and space by switching bodies with the narrator, Nathaniel
Wingate Peaslee. Written from a retrospective viewpoint, the text recounts Peaslee’s growing
awareness that, during the five years in which he apparently suffered from amnesia, his own
mind inhabited an other-worldly body, many of whose sensory organs exceeded his
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understanding. He begins to comprehend that “the beings had but two of the senses we
recognize—sight and hearing […] Of other incomprehensible senses—not, however, well
utilisable by alien captive minds inhabiting their bodies—they possessed many” (Dunwich
398). In spite of Peaslee’s initial revulsion towards his new form, he recalls his rapid
acclimatization to his novel milieu and his capacity to discern the alien civilization’s vast
superiority over human culture, social organization, and learning.
Fictional examples such as this, of other life forms whose knowledge and being vastly
exceed humanity, illustrate the implications of Lovecraft’s mechanistic world view and its
collapse of the division between the noumenal and phenomenal realms. In Lovecraft there are
no Ideas of pure reason: being is only phenomenon. The denial of a noumenal realm also
negates Kant’s notions of free will17 and innate genius: Lovecraft defines human beings as “a
material order involving all degrees of fineness in organisation” that, in the case of artists,
“ris[es] eventually to the peak of what we know as psychic, intellectual, and aesthetic
accomplishment” (Misc. Writings 170). My actions and what I perceive as my will and
individual consciousness are governed by the “process of formation and destruction [that] is
the fundamental attribute of all entity”; just as “there is no object of purpose in ultimate
creation, since it is all a ceaseless repetitive cycle of transitions from nothing back to nothing
again,” human life, a small and insignificant substratum of nature, is equally devoid of purpose
(Misc. Writings 178). The similarities in perspective to Poe’s “Eureka” are unmistakeable.
Nevertheless, Lovecraft defines “authentic art” (as opposed to commercial art) in terms
of the artist’s self-expression:
I’d say that good art means the ability of any one man to pin down in some permanent
and intelligible medium a sort of idea of what he sees in Nature that nobody else sees
[…] A man is a true artist according to his ability to make other people see the visible
or emotional or imaginative world as he sees it, without departing from the true basic
outlines of the world he is delineating. (Selected Letters II.298)

The choice of mood necessarily depends upon the artist’s temperament and particular
proclivities. To elaborate, he cites Oscar Wilde: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique

17
This assertion needs to be qualified: in “Lovecraft’s Ethical Philosophy,” Joshi explains that
Lovecraft’s determinism did not turn into fatalism, since he was too keenly aware of the fallacy
inherent in such a position. He cites from Lovecraft’s “Some Causes of Self-Immolation” in the
“Marginalia” to illustrate his point: “We have no specific destiny against which we can fight—for
the fighting would be as much a part of the destiny as the final end” (Joshi, “Lovecraft’s Ethical
Philosophy” 24). Joshi remarks that this line of reasoning can serve to defend a “sort of free will”:
“Since destiny is enmeshed in the fabric of existence, it is for that reason undetectable; and we
can continue engaging in any actions we please because those activities would be as much (or as
little) a part of destiny as the failure to act” (Joshi, “Lovecraft’s Ethical Philosophy” 24).
However, it is simply the illusion of free will that Lovecraft’s viewpoint concedes; just because
the larger pattern of destiny is not discernable to us does not preclude its existence.
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temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is […] Art is the most
intense mode of individualism the world has ever known” (Misc. Writings 168). The stages of
Lovecraft’s development as a writer underscore this view. As with Poe and Baudelaire, dreams
constitute an important means of individual expression in Lovecraft’s fiction. As Joshi
observes, Lovecraft’s frequent citing of Wilde indicates that he “found Wilde a highly
articulate spokesman for the sort of views he was nebulously coming to adopt” during his
Decadent phase (Joshi, “Lovecraft’s Aesthetic Development” 27). Combined with the
classicism of his earlier years,18 these ideas would in time inform the development of
Lovecraft’s distinctive voice, or what scholars deem to be his unique contribution to
speculative literature. Joshi calls the mature phase of Lovecraft’s writing “cosmic
regionalism.” Lévy shares a view similar to Joshi’s; although he does not coin a term to
classify his interpretation, his explanation merits citing:
Ce fut précisément le mérite de Lovecraft de retrouver, par delà les données
historiques de son propre pays, la structure des grands mythes dont s’est nourrie
l’humanité. En onirisant le passé de la Nouvelle Angleterre, patrie des sorcières, il
renouait avec une tradition archaïque, transcendant les particularismes locaux.
L’étrange, l’inquiétant, l’anormal proviennent de cet effleurement du primordial au
contemporain. L’Amérique peut elle aussi devenir terre fantastique, dès lors qu’à partir
de Salem Lovecraft recrée le Cosmos. (Lovecraft ou le fantastique 15)

Lovecraft’s adoption of a form of mimesis, however, or the idea that art must represent
“the true basic outlines of the world,” situates him as aesthetically conservative with respect to
his avant-garde contemporaries, and also in part explains his vituperative repudiation of
modern twentieth-century art. For example, in “The Vers Libre Epidemic” he denounces the
writers of free verse as “a motley horde of hysterical and half-witted rhapsodists whose basic
principle is the recording of their momentary moods and psychopathic phenomena in whatever
amorphous and meaningless phrases may come to their tongues or pens at the moment of
inspirational (or epileptic) seizure” (Misc. Writings 208-9). Without fully understanding that
his own artistic project shared many affinities with the modernists’ attempt to convey the
chaotic and fragmented world they experienced, he objected to their defiance of traditional
conventions of representation. As Steven J. Mariconda explains in “H. P. Lovecraft: Reluctant

18
According to S. T. Joshi, the development of Lovecraft’s aesthetic thought can be divided into
three categories, and he cites a passage from a letter written to August Derleth in 1929 to
illustrate the first two: Lovecraft affirms that he can look back “at two distinct periods of opinion
whose foundations [he has] successively come to distrust—a period before 1919 or so, when the
weight of classic authority unduly influenced [him], and another period from 1919 to about 1925,
when [he] placed too high a value on the elements of revolt, florid color, and emotional
extravagance or intensity” (Joshi, “Lovecraft’s Aesthetic Development” 24). Joshi calls these two
phases Classicism and Decadence.
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American Modernist,” although he was not influenced by his literary modernist contemporaries
since he generally did not read their work, Lovecraft was nevertheless “a product of the same
social and cultural forces that the American Moderns were, and these common influences
inform their respective artistic products” (Mariconda 21). In his aim to depict the
meaninglessness of life and the futility of our human perspective, many of Lovecraft’s later
stories demonstrate discernibly modern elements of form such as fragmented narrative
structures and temporal sequences, as well as modern motifs and themes such as the urban
landscape, a concern with the limits of science, and the divided subject. Perhaps one of the
most suggestive aspects of Mariconda’s essay is that it highlights Lovecraft’s ambivalent
relation to modernity, which is perhaps best exemplified through Lovecraft’s opposition to free
verse in spite of his endorsement of the prose poem—and his success in the genre (Mariconda
cites the prose poem “Nyarlathotep” as one of Lovecraft’s best works).
Another important aspect which in part accounts for Lovecraft’s insistence on
conventional forms of representation is his understanding of art’s epistemological function. He
contends that art extends our knowledge of the self and of the world. “The sight of the other
man’s vision, with its emphasis on the personally selective element” triggers the resurfacing of
unconscious memories in the viewer “never before realized” (Selected Letters II.299). Thus art
constitutes a process of self-discovery akin to Proust’s notion of involuntary memory: “This
means the discovery of something new and unexpected in oneself—always a highly
pleasurable phenomenon, and possessing a kind of dramatic vividness akin to that of some
glimpse from an hypothetical previous incarnation” (Selected Letters 299). This last statement
is distinctly Poesque, since for Poe metempsychosis constitutes an apt metaphor for the
extensive powers of art.
However, as with the ironic status of metempsychosis in Poe, Lovecraft’s elaboration of
the pleasures of self-identification through “authentic art” reveals that art recapitulates rather
than extends our understanding of the world and of ourselves: “The new-found memory was
always at the back of the mind, hence has the elusive charm of vague familiarity. Yet because
it was never before consciously registered, it has all the striking fascination with absolute
newness as well”19 (Selected Letters 299). Art mirrors the self. If it happens also to enlarge our
minds, it is by means of bringing to light what had escaped our awareness.
The work of art has enlarged our supply of conscious memory-wealth—shewn us to be
richer than we thought we were. It has, in all truth, enriched and developed us. This

19
Lovecraft’s elucidation echoes Baudelaire’s assertion that art calls to memory “le plus de
sentiments et de pensées poétiques déjà connus, mais qu’on croyait enfouis pour toujours dans la
nuit du passé” (OC II.745).
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enrichment is permanent, because the raising to consciousness of a new type of vision


enables the spectator to exercise this new type in his subsequent contacts with Nature.
(Selected Letters 299)

As a confirmation of our beliefs and impressions (in a sense this explains his obsession with
recapturing the dreams of youth, a recurring motif in his fiction), the novel type of vision of
which Lovecraft speaks is not new at all, but is the recalling to consciousness of hidden
memories that appear new to us by virtue of their unconscious status. Through art Lovecraft
seeks affirmation of his particular (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture and subjectivity, and
in order for this to take place, art needs to subscribe to conventional forms of representation
associated with his aesthetic heritage. It is therefore not surprising that he should reject the
modernists’ formal experimentation; in their works he fails to see himself as he would like to
be reflected. Conversely, perhaps he glimpses too much of himself—as he is—in the avant-
garde’s fragmented forms, and, like “The Outsider,” is shocked by what he sees; however, I
will leave this avenue of psychoanalytic investigation to a scholar better qualified to pursue it.
Instead, I will attempt to explain his idea of how art expands our knowledge of the world.
Lovecraft attributes this expansive function to “authentic art” in the following terms:
“We see and feel more in Nature from having assimilated works of authentic art” (Selected
Letters 299). This view of art is reflected in his poetics of speculative fiction, wherein he
wishes “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the
galling limitations of time, space, and natural law” (Misc. Writings 113), when in fact the
phenomena in question should be construed, if the product is to be a piece of “sound weird
literature,” as the “hypothetical extension” of natural law as we know it (Selected Letters
IV.51). In supplanting our limited impressions of the world with those of other beings, art
appears to bring us closer to a total understanding of absolute reality which only a deity could
possess—I emphasize the qualifier “appears.” Lovecraft acknowledges the illusory status of
such a claim, admitting that “absolute reality is forever beyond us”:
Paradoxically, the work of art shews us more of the scene we saw than would that
scene itself! … The constant discovery of different people’s subjective impressions of
things, as contained in genuine art, forms a slow, gradual approach, or faint
approximation of an approach, to the mystic substance of absolute reality itself—the
stark, cosmic reality which lurks behind our varying subjective perceptions. (Selected
Letters II.301)

Art fosters the possibility to acquire concrete knowledge of the world. What is significant here
is that Lovecraft supposes that each subjective impression corresponds to a fragmentary yet
true representation of objects in themselves. Thus a person’s cumulative assimilation of what
he deems to be “authentic art” will expand his knowledge of the world, albeit in a necessarily
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limited sense. This is the point K. Setiya argues in his analysis of “Pickman’s Model,” a story
that correlates Richard Upton Pickman’s genius as a painter with Goya’s in the final stages of
his career by virtue of his ability to represent monsters. Contrary to Goya’s chimeras, however,
Pickman’s canvases depict real creatures. According to Setiya, “the expression of a
subjectively perceived reality through art owes its real significance to its basis in reality.
Perhaps the ultimate presentation of art as the reflection of experience is in the fact that it can
only reach the heights of brilliance which it does at Pickman’s hands when it is drawn ‘from
life’” (Setiya, “Aesthetics and the Artist in ‘Pickman’s Model’” 16). Lovecraft’s aesthetics
therefore posits art as a positive presentation of Nature, and as a negative, and hence symbolic,
presentation of being. On the one hand, “the sense of expansion and adventure inherent in
viewing Nature through a larger proportion of the total eyes of mankind” and the
“magnification of the cosmos—of having approached the universe a trifle more closely, and
banished a little of our inevitable insignificance—” that we derive from this process extend the
scope of our individual perspectives and bring us closer to consciously experiencing the
“whole detail of a scene presented to the senses” (Selected Letters II.300, 298). Such a view of
art as a means of extending knowledge of the real is represented in Lovecraft’s fiction through
transposition of identity and psychic possession. Both serve a function analogous to Poe’s use
of hypnosis, not to mention Baudelaire’s drug-induced states of mind: in momentarily
expanding consciousness they provide the subject with a feeling of elation; nevertheless, the
moment is short-lived. The descent back into self-awareness reveals a painful and humiliating
reality.
On the other hand, Lovecraft holds that art is a process of coming into being that asserts
the artist’s individuality: it both “intensif[ies] and clarif[ies] our own personal and conscious
reaction toward Nature by setting our mind definitely into the pattern of creative selection”
and, “by watching someone else ‘be himself’ intensively and skilfully,” paradoxically impels
us to “‘be ourselves’ more poignantly than might otherwise be possible” (Selected Letters
II.300). Moreover, through art we actively engage in building a community among human
beings, even if such a notion of community is fictional: “Instead of being merely one person,
we have become two persons—and as we assimilate more and more art we become, in effect,
more and more people all in one; till at length we have the sensation of a sort of identification
with our whole civilization” (Selected Letters II.300). If, in this instance, Lovecraft’s sense of
the ennobling qualities of “authentic art” appears to echo in some measure the Longinian
sublime, it does so only faintly, since he is concerned primarily with extending one’s sense of
self through the accumulation of like-minded perspectives: the intense, disruptive, and
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fragmenting energy of the Longinian sublime is diffused. Through the communion with other
like-minded people that art facilitates, art is a process that affirms the individual subject and
humanity as a whole (as long as we remember that “humanity” for Lovecraft has a very
specific meaning that excludes people of certain races and ethnicities). In other words, it is
closely allied to Kant’s aesthetic category of the beautiful. Through the beautiful’s
“comforting” forms (they are symmetrical, balanced, uniform, etc.) our faculties of the
imagination and the understanding engage in a free-play that inspires a sense of the furtherance
of life. “Authentic art”—or, in Lovecraft’s case, the text, as Airaksinen points out in his
conclusion to The Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft titled “The Perfect Ending of the Sacred
Text”—therefore occupies the place of religion for Lovecraft, since it remains the only possible
vehicle of expression for our experience of the sacred in a world where religion has lost its
significance:
The search for ultimate reality is the most ineradicable urge in the human
personality—the basis of every real religion, and the foundation of all that nobly poetic
body of philosophy which has its fount in Plato. Anything which enhances our sense of
success in this quest, be it art or religion, is the source of a pricelessly rich emotional
experience—and the more we lose it in religion, the more we need to get it in
something else. (Selected Letters II.301)

As I have stressed throughout my reading of Lovecraft’s aesthetics, art’s ability to fulfil


our existential need for self-definition is illusory. To put it bluntly, Lovecraft’s world view can
be summed up as follows: life is pointless; if we had courage we would commit suicide,
because oblivion is better than life. However, most people are cowards. He contends that since
we are alive, we may as well make the most of it by engaging in activities from which we
derive pleasure. Why choose art above all other activities, in light of its incapacity to assert our
humanity and freedom in a deterministic universe? Of all the false affirmations of humanity,
art is the most fulfilling: as a process of coming into being for the self, it underscores
individual identity. Moreover, as a product, it extends our knowledge of the world;
consequently, it elevates the artist and his creative activity above all other occupations. Even if
art turns out to be a futile endeavour it is praised above science in Lovecraft’s fiction, since,
contrary to art’s expansive powers, science repeatedly shows us the limits of our cognitive and
sensible scopes. As Burleson explains, Lovecraft’s link with Romanticism can be expressed as
follows:
Lovecraft may be viewed as a Romantic in whom the Romantic quest is one led ever
on by ultimate futility, led on to a dark acquisition of vision that mocks the very notion
and spirit of an acquisition of vision. He would seem to be a Neoclassically bred
Romantic in whom the quest for Romanticism, the quest to find expression and human
meaning, leads to expressing the pointlessness of expression, and leads to a discovery
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of the impossibility of assigning any ultimate meaning to the quest itself. (Burleson,
“Lovecraft and Romanticism” 31)

Lovecraft’s fiction consequently narrates the shock produced by the collision of two
antagonistic modes of thought: the Romantic worldview embodied in his idea of “authentic art”
and the nihilism of his mechanist materialism. This is otherwise illustrated in the conflict he
relates in his letters between two modes of perception. On the one hand “I stand breathless at
the awe and loveliness and mystery of space with its ordered suns and worlds. In that mood I
endorse religion” (Selected Letters II.312). In such outbursts of emotion, Lovecraft appears to
experience a reaction akin to the sublime: as he contemplates aesthetically the planets and
constellations that adorn the night sky, he feels “that they watch [him], and that the beauty they
cast upon the thickening night and the candle-pierced, crepuscular town is a symbol of primal
glories older than man, older than earth, older than Nature, older even than the gods, and
designed for [his] mystic soul alone” (Selected Letters II.313). However, “when I start
thinking I throw off emotion as excess baggage”; “I feel a great cleavage betwixt emotion and
perceptive analysis, and never try to mix the two” (Selected Letters II.312). In the light of
reason, the truth he perceives is that of a mechanist materialist world view, an offspring of
science, “the great destroyer of beauty” (Selected Letters II.302), wherein what we apprehend
through emotion and intuition often proves to be contradictory and wrong: “Reason has never
yet failed. Intuition and emotion are constantly failing” (Misc. Writings 152). Hence the
affirmation he feels in contemplation of the night sky (or any other natural phenomena) is
merely a subjective illusion, something with which many of his protagonists must come to
terms. The narrator of “The Color out of Space,” for instance, a land surveyor with unusual
aesthetic sensibilities, “hurries back to [his] hotel, unwilling to have the stars come out above
[him] in the open” subsequent to his piecing together of the mystery surrounding the “blasted
heath” in the wild country west of Arkham (Dunwich 56); he no longer experiences the
objective distance requisite to an aesthetic appreciation of the night sky after discovering the
truth about the cosmos and humanity’s place in it.
The particular mood Lovecraft aspires to impart in his fiction—a product of his
temperament and hence enmeshed in the conflict between his mechanist materialism and his
aesthetics—is revealing. For example, it appears that he aims to express to the reader a sense of
that fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose
scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted
form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and
unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a
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hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that
most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or
defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our safeguard against the assaults of
chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (Dagon 368)

This mood of “cosmic horror” is furthermore an offspring of the type of universal fear that
Lovecraft posits as the foundation of all weird literature in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear
is fear of the unknown” (Dagon 365). This fear of the unknown necessarily has two objects,
which comprise the scope of Lovecraft’s fiction: the self and the world. Nevertheless, contrary
to the sublime, the poetics particular to “cosmic horror” relegate the experiencing subject to the
sidelines: significantly, Lovecraft holds that “the true ‘hero’ of a marvel tale is not any human
being, but simply a set of phenomena” (Misc. Writings 118), whose awe-inspiring
characteristics consist in their apparent transgression of space, time, or natural law according to
our limited viewpoint.
Moreover, to convey to the reader the subjective impression of “cosmic horror,”
verisimilitude, in terms of the representation of all events surrounding the manifestation of the
strange phenomena, is pivotal. In “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” he explains that “we
should work as if we were staging a hoax and trying to get our extravagant lie accepted as
literal truth” (Misc. Writings 118). Hence Lovecraft holds, like Poe, that all narrative aspects
that fall outside the scope of the prevailing mood are of secondary importance; they must either
conform to the creation of an atmosphere possessing “the intensity of a concentrated essence,”
to borrow a phrase from Poe, or be omitted outright. Characterization is one such secondary
attribute, and Lovecraft is interested in the development of individual identities only insofar as
they serve the purpose of lending credibility to the mood he aspires to communicate: “The
characters should react to it as real people would react to such a thing if it were suddenly to
confront them in daily life; displaying the most soul-shattering amazement which one would
naturally display instead of mild, tame, quickly-passed over emotions prescribed by cheap
popular convention” (Misc. Writings 118). As Houellebecq observes, Lovecraft’s characters do
not need individual personalities or a complex psychology; since their only function is to
perceive, “un équipement sensoriel en bon état de marche peut leur suffire” (Houellebecq 65).
Moreover, for their experience to have universal appeal—for it to convey cosmic and not
simply personal horror—their witnessing must be unencumbered by the filter of a unique
personality (Houellebecq 65).
Although Lovecraft’s fiction generally presents two kinds of subjects, the experience his
stories communicate remains the same: characters confront the abject. On the one hand we
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have the humanistic subject that critics associate with his later fiction and whose eminence
Lovecraft subverts. As readers, we are encouraged to identify with him. He is capable of
experiencing both the sublime and the abject: the former affirms his humanity, whereas the
latter compels him to negotiate and re-establish the boundaries of his being in order to live.
Moreover, his encounter with the limits of being compromise his sanity and permanently
change him. Examples of this type of characterization abound: perhaps the most salient are to
be found in “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Color out of Space,” and “The Whisperer in
the Darkness.” In all three texts, the reality at the basis of the experiencing subject’s shock is
denied by either himself or his community: Danforth declares the city in the uncharted
Antarctic mountains a mirage; what Ammi Pierce allegedly witnesses is taken to be the result
of a “freak of madness” by the townsfolk (Dunwich 81); and Albert Wilmarth opens his
narration by questioning his interpretation of the events leading up to his correspondent’s
disappearance, in light of his avowal that he “did not see any actual visual horror at the end”
and hence “cannot prove even now whether [he] was right or wrong in [his] hideous inference”
that Henry Akeley was kidnapped by aliens (Dunwich 208). On the other hand—and some
scholars believe this to be the case in his early fiction—Lovecraft presents us with protagonists
whose drives and needs are not our own: they tend to be occultist thrillseekers for whom the
macabre exerts a morbid fascination. In my view, this type of subject is radically different from
us: his very constitution is predicated upon abjection. Contrary to Kant’s transcendental ego,
the subject of abjection perpetually seeks to challenge the limits of selfhood, not in an effort to
create more stable boundaries, but to feel the jouissance to which the threat of self-dissolution
gives rise. For those who live in such a state of permanent ontological crisis, for whom the
“imp of the perverse” exerts an irresistible appeal, consciousness is an abyss, “car c’est de cet
égarement en terrain exclu qu’il tire sa jouissance. Cet abject dont il ne cesse pas de se séparer
est en somme, pour lui, une terre d’oubli constamment remémorée” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs de
l’horreur 16). The grave-digging narrator of “The Hound” and his associate St. John are fitting
examples. Other characters share similar obsessions with death and decay: Jervas Dudley,
narrator of “The Tomb”; Carter’s mentor in “The Statement of Randolph Carter”; and the
doctor Herbert West of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West—Reanimator.” Nevertheless, these two
divergent modes of characterization serve a single purpose in Lovecraft’s fiction: to represent a
subject’s experience of the limits of being that a confrontation with the abject compels.
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Part 3 — The Question of “Cosmic Horror” and its Relation to the


Sublime
Let us pause a moment and analyse the implications of Lovecraft’s poetics. According to Kant,
prior to the sublime turn, an aesthetic experience of the sublime—which Lovecraft’s notion of
“cosmic horror” resembles, at least superficially—does not provide us with knowledge of the
world, but with a negative presentation of being. Lovecraft’s understanding of speculative
fiction suggests that it is a genre favourable to the representation of subjective impressions and
aesthetic judgments. Even tales that appear to fall outside the scope of the Mythos suggest this:
“In the Vault” and “The Picture in the House” are two examples where bad taste constitutes a
source of plot motivation. In the first story, the narrator begins his tale by expounding on the
protagonist’s lack of taste as his defining weakness, his Achilles heel, so to speak: “He was
merely crass of fibre and function—thoughtless, careless, and liquorish, as his easily avoidable
accident proves, and without that modicum of imagination which holds the average citizen
within certain limits fixed by taste” (Dunwich 4 [emphasis added]). In the eyes of the narrator,
George Birch, a “mortuary artist,” transgresses aesthetic, not moral, limits in mutilating a
corpse to fit an ill-constructed coffin, and his punishment is commensurate with his crime; the
maiming of his Achilles tendons by the victim of his poor aesthetic judgment is perhaps a bad
joke on Lovecraft’s part.
In light of the Puritan religious context of “The Picture in the House,” it follows that the
horror of the old man’s contravention of the cannibalism taboo would usually be attributed to a
breach of ethics; instead, the narrator contextualizes it as an aesthetic transgression. For
instance, the speaker prefaces his encounter with the aged Puritan cannibal by a general
statement concerning the latter’s creed and the offences against good taste it induces in its
adherents: “Erring as all mortals must, [the Puritans] were forced by their rigid code to seek
concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed”
(Dunwich 117 [emphasis added]). As with many Lovecraft texts, a book stands at the centre of
the controversy and assumes the importance of a character. Upon entering the house, the
narrator encounters Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo20 prior to meeting his host: “Drawn wholly

20
Notwithstanding Lovecraft’s penchant for inventing rare books, Regnum Congo actually exists
and most of the bibliographical data Lovecraft provides are accurate; according to the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first edition was written in Italian and published in 1591
(http://www.britannica.com/). It was, moreover, based on the account provided by Oduardo
Lopez, a Portuguese traveler to Luanda in 1578. The Latin edition with De Bry illustrations to
which Lovecraft makes reference was published in Frankfurt in 1598. Whether or not it actually
had pictures of an Anzique butcher shop I have been unable to determine.
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from imagination and careless descriptions, and represent[ing] Negroes with white skins and
Caucasian features” (Dunwich 119), the lurid engravings Lovecraft attributes to this
Renaissance text seduce and ensnare the viewer. Of all the images, plate XII in particular
depicts a gruesome scene in unequivocal detail: a butcher shop of the Anzique cannibals. “The
especially bizarre thing,” according to the narrator, “was that the artist had made his Africans
look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls were ghastly, while the
butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous” (Dunwich 122). The text is abject on three
levels. First, plate XII vividly illustrates a moral taboo and the means to violate it. Its evocative
power mesmerizes the old man: “Thet feller bein’ chopped up gives me a tickle every time I
look at ’im—I hev ta keep lookin’ at ’im—see whar the butcher cut off his feet? Thar’s his
head on thet bench, with one arm side of it, an’t’other arm’s on the graound side o’the meat
block” (Dunwich 122). Second, the image portrays white instead of black men as the victims
and perpetrators of the crime; the act represented cannot be easily dismissed as other or alien to
Western culture. Like a sacred symbol, the image incites the old man to action. Overcome by a
desire he never experienced, the Puritan confesses his emotions to the anxious narrator: “Thet
picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy—here, set still, what’s
ailin’ ye?—I didn’t do nothin’, only I wondered haow ’twud be ef I did […]” (Dunwich 123).
Third, the text seems to be endowed with a perverse agency; it reacts to the old man’s touch
like a whore enticing a man to sexual abandon: “His fumbling hands, though seemingly
clumsier than before, were entirely adequate to their mission. The book fell open, almost of its
own accord and as if from frequent consultation at this place, to the repellent twelfth plate”
(Dunwich 122). The narrator inadvertently makes evident that Regnum Congo is a
pornographic text from the old man’s perspective, inciting him to sexual arousal: he turns its
pages “lovingly,” and his “speech grew a trifle thicker and his eyes assumed a brighter glow”
as he leafs through it to plate XII (Dunwich 121-22).
“The Picture in the House” presents the reader with a complex homoerotic seduction
scene; the fascination Regnum Congo exerts over the old man impels him in turn to coax his
visitor to participate in his perversion by asking him to decipher the Latin inscriptions the book
contains. The oblique references the old man makes in passing to his previous interpreters’
fates, as well as his “obnoxious proximity” when the credulous narrator translates a passage
from Latin to English bode ill for the speaker of “Picture.” The old man’s intent to kill and eat
him becomes manifest to the reader once we piece together the justification for his unusual old
age—something which the tale’s ending merely reinforces: “They say meat makes blood an’
flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ’wund’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef
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’twas more of the same—” (Dunwich 123). The old Yankee, whose “countenance and
physique” initially inspire in the narrator the “equal wonder and respect” associated with the
sublime, turns out to be a kind of vampire, preying on the flesh and blood of others to prolong
his sordid life, hence corroborating the speaker’s instinctive revulsion or “the instinctive fear”
he felt upon meeting him (Dunwich 120). In both “In the Vault” and “The Picture in the
House” aesthetic motivation drives the plot, a narrative strategy Lovecraft adopts from Poe.
Significantly, “Picture” touches on an important aspect of Lovecraft’s poetics. In the instances
where Lovecraft appears to make an implied reference to the sublime, it is always subverted;
an experience of the abject supersedes it.

A Language that Fails to Describe


If, as Houellebecq observes, the beings that populate the Lovecraft Mythos remain vaguely
formulated and the sacred texts he invents, such as the notorious Necronomicon, appear to be
contradictory in their teachings—if the exact nature of the aliens exceeds any kind of human
conceptualization (Houellebecq 83)—I argue that it is because Lovecraft’s chief interest is not
to represent the thing in itself, but what it suggests to us: to communicate a subject’s brief
moments of self-revelation occasioned by a contemplation of phenomena which exceed his
cognitive faculties. Lovecraft’s style, generally characterized by his extravagant use of
adjectives, Byzantine descriptions, and archaic vocabulary, has been one of the focal points of
criticism since the publication of his works. Whether in praise or condemnation, early
commentaries of Lovecraft’s fiction often sought to compare his style to Poe’s and to discern
the extent of his appropriation of the latter. Edmund Wilson’s scathing remarks in “Tales of the
Marvellous and the Ridiculous” about Lovecraft’s writing suggest that he holds Poe to be an
author of superior abilities. Wilson’s incisive, polemical rhetoric captures the essential outlines
of some scholars’ disapproval of Lovecraft’s style:
The only real horror in most of [Lovecraft’s] fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad
art. Lovecraft was not good writer. The fact that his verbose and undistinguished style
has been compared to Poe’s is only one of the many sad signs that almost nobody any
more pays real attention to writing. I have never yet found in Lovecraft a single
sentence that Poe could have written, though there are some—not at all the same
thing—that have evidently been influenced by Poe. (Wilson 47)

Although it is a commonplace in Lovecraft scholarship to concede that his early work often
makes use of convoluted and antiquated expressions that detract from the mood of horror,21

21
Donald Burleson’s response to such criticism in “Lovecraft and Adjectivitis: A Deconstructionist
View” provides an instructive analysis of Lovecraft’s “creative misapplication” of adjectives and
their function in representing the narrator’s mental state of alienation.
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Wilson’s praise of Poe’s style in contrast to Lovecraft’s is nonetheless ironic in light of the
kinds of pejorative responses Poe’s prose elicited from his early critics. In “On the Literary
Influences Which Shaped Lovecraft’s Works,” J. Vernon Shea laments that Lovecraft was
influenced by poor writers; stylistically, he places Poe in such a category. In direct opposition
to Wilson’s perspective, T. O. Mabbott, editor of the current definitive edition of Poe’s fiction,
maintains that the correspondence between the two authors is superficial. In a brief article
published in the same year as Wilson’s, Mabbott praises Lovecraft’s style by affirming: “He is
one of the few authors of whom I can say that I have enjoyed every word of his stories”
(Mabbott, “H. P. Lovecraft: An Appreciation” 43).
In the 1990s, poststructuralist and deconstructionist approaches have reversed the
derogatory judgments presented by early studies of Lovecraft’s style and have underscored its
significance to his aesthetics. For instance, in “Lovecraft and Adjectivitis: A Deconstructionist
View,” Donald Burleson illustrates how Lovecraft’s baroque use of adjectives constitutes an
integral facet of his strategy of narrative impressionism, in which the narration of a character’s
perceptions of a scene or event are more important than an objective depiction. Houellebecq
presents a similar yet more radical view, claiming that many of Lovecraft’s major texts are
merely vehicles for his stylistic bombast:
On peut même dire que la construction, souvent subtile et élaborée, des “grands textes”
lovecraftiens, n’a d’autre raison d’être que de préparer les passages d’explosion
stylistique […] Ce qui oppose Lovecraft aux représentants du bon goût est plus qu’une
question de détail. HPL aurait probablement considéré une nouvelle comme ratée s’il
n’avait pas eu l’occasion, au moins une fois dans sa rédaction, de dépasser les bornes.
(Houellebecq 89-90)

This idea of exceeding boundaries to which Houellebecq makes reference is pertinent not only
to Lovecraft’s style, but to all aspects of his fiction, as I hope my reading will make clear:
setting, moral universe, epistemology, and metaphysics.
In “Naming the Nameless: Lovecraft’s Grammatology,” John P. Langan’s analysis of the
implications of Lovecraft’s use of “approximate language” to describe the horrors his
characters confront is particularly pertinent to my analysis of the abjection of self as the
experience Lovecraft’s fiction dramatizes. Langan argues that this “approximate language,”
wherein instead of describing the horror directly Lovecraft “relates the effect and not the thing
itself,” betrays the epistemological scepticism at the heart of Lovecraft’s work (Langan 29).
Characters often attempt to construct a new signifying system to represent their experiences,
but, according to Langan, they fail as a consequence of the “lack of adequate linguistic and
therefore representational resources” (Langan 29). In my view, according to Kristeva’s
understanding of abjection, the limit an experience of the abject forces the subject to confront
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exceeds any signifying system. Language breaks down, and since the subject cannot
represent—that is, assimilate—the experience, the only tangible, comprehensible element that
remains is the symptom. Hence, to broaden the scope of Langan’s observation that Lovecraft’s
characters “do not see the whole picture, they do not see the assembled, coherent totality; they
only ‘glimpse,’ if they are able, small pieces of it” (Langan 29), we may say that they cannot
see “the whole picture” because they have access only to the symptom and not the cause of
abjection.
Moreover, the experiencing subject continually performs the limit he cannot
comprehend: “Le sujet de l’abjection est éminemment productif de culture. Son symptôme est
le rejet et la reconstruction des langages” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur 57). Thus,
Lovecraft’s characters’ attempt to create new signifying systems, and the failure of these
symbols to provide meaning—what Langan calls Lovecraft’s “approximate language” and
deems to be “essential to what his fiction is about” (Langan 26)—is symptomatic of the
leitmotif central to Lovecraft’s work: the experience of the abject. As Lévy observes, “dans ses
récits qui ont pour objet la métamorphose d’un être auquel s’était d’abord identifié le lecteur en
créature hideuse et repoussante, l’auteur atteint—volontairement ou malgré lui—au meilleur de
lui-même” in terms of his abilities as a writer (Lévy, Lovecraft ou du fantastique 106).

A Refutation of the Sublime


In light of the outward similarities that exist between Lovecraft’s elucidation of “cosmic
horror” and the aesthetics of the sublime, the following question arises: how is Lovecraft’s idea
of “cosmic horror” related to the sublime? Two recent studies explore this connection: Dale J.
Nelson’s “Lovecraft and the Burkean Sublime” (1991) and Bradley A. Will’s “Lovecraft and
the Semiotic Kantian Sublime” (2002). Nelson’s study provides a point by point comparison of
Burke’s notion of the sublime and its manifold manifestations in Lovecraft’s fiction. Although
Nelson provides a superficial interpretation of the sublime in Lovecraft that, in focusing solely
on the properties of objects that inspire a sense of the sublime, fails to account adequately for
the experiencing subject, the merit of his reading lies in its convincing elaboration of the
Burkean sublime’s pertinence to Lovecraft’s cosmic viewpoint. Nelson’s difficulty in
explaining the equally significant role the abject plays in Lovecraft’s aesthetics merits
attention.
In the introduction to his essay Nelson attempts to dismiss all manifestations of abjection
as secondary and hence unimportant to the sublime in Lovecraft (and in Burke): “Burke and
Lovecraft are attracted to objects and situations which—‘at certain distances’—arouse terror,
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but not so much to the cannibalism, necrophilia, mutilation, bloody revenge, and so on with
which many horror-mongers from Seneca to Stephen King have larded their compositions”
(Nelson 2). Interestingly, the structure of this statement belies its intended message: he lists at
length vivid examples of the abject that can easily be found in Lovecraft and provides only two
non-descriptive nouns to illustrate the sublime. Nelson is equally reluctant to acknowledge
Burke’s valorization of objective properties that could potentially arouse a sense of the abject:
he affirms, in reference to Burke’s assertion that a feeling of the sublime can also be inspired
by objects we deem terrible, that Burke “tends to dismiss such ‘odious’ things, concentrating
rather on awe-inspiring objects” (Nelson 2). The most problematic comparison is the one he
draws between Burke’s and Lovecraft’s recognition of sublime terror as analogous to religious
fear, which leads him to assert that “both writers promote the dignity of an art which aspires to
produce upon the reader or viewer the aesthetic equivalent of the hush, the awe, the trembling
that are the appropriate responses to the sublime” (Nelson 2). The most obvious problem with
this affirmation is that Nelson conflates the identities of the reader and the viewer as
experiencing subjects of the sublime, without explicitly taking into account the question of
representation. His basis for differentiating between the two rests solely on the criterion of
objective distance as a prerequisite for an experience of the sublime. For example, at the
conclusion of his essay Nelson notes in passing that Burke finds insufferable odours to be
legitimate sources of the sublime, “provided that we are reading about them, not actually
experiencing them, in which case they are ‘simply painful, and accompanied by no sort of
delight’” (Nelson 5). The illustrations Nelson provides from Lovecraft’s fiction to support this
distinction are in fact representations of characters in the midst of an experience of the abject:
overcome by the impression made upon their sense of smell, their reactions are in no way
comparable to the awe and religious respect the sublime inspires; our reading of these
experiences, moreover, does not make them any more sublime in light of our objective
distance.
More importantly, however, although Nelson justly identifies the affirmative aspect of
the Burkean sublime—specifically, what the faculties of the mind apprehend negatively by
means of the privation or over-stimulation of the senses (primarily the sense of sight) is the
boundless and unimaginable power of the Deity—to affirm that the same is true of Lovecraft
requires qualification. Lovecraft’s assertion in “Supernatural Horror in Fiction” that “the
appeal of the spectrally macabre […] [is] coeval with the religious feeling and closely related
to many aspects of it” (Dagon 366) must be examined in its proper context. Lovecraft explicitly
rejects the humanistic foundation of subjectivity on which Burke’s notion of the sublime rests;
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in his cosmology the relationship between the gods and humankind is governed by chance. Just
as we were not created in their image, the covenant between God and humanity on which a
humanistic worldview is based is non-existent in his fiction. Thus, in denying the affirmative
aspect of the sublime, Lovecraft dissolves the most significant mark of difference that gives the
sublime its specificity and distinguishes it from the abject. Whereas in both the subject
confronts the limits of being, the sublime serves to re-affirm our privileged status in the
hierarchy of life (and by extension the cosmos). Conversely, the abject forces the subject to
come to terms with the finitude and relative insignificance of his existence without any ballast
to orient him: he must perpetually redefine his boundaries. Kristeva’s observations about the
corpse, the most compelling limit of being, are particularly pertinent to Lovecraft: “Le
cadavre—vu sans Dieu et hors de la science—est le comble de l’abjection. Il est la mort
infestant la vie. Abject. Il est un rejeté dont on ne se sépare pas, dont on ne se protège pas ainsi
que d’un objet. Étrangeté imaginaire et menace réelle, il nous appelle et finit par nous
engloutir” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 12). In light of Lovecraft’s anti-humanism, the question that
comes to mind is: could it be that all implied appeals to the sublime in Lovecraft are in fact
ironic commentaries on the fallacies inherent in our subjectivity, if viewed within the larger
context of his work?
Taking the experiencing subject into account, Will’s essay presents a more thorough
examination of the aesthetics of the sublime in question (Kantian) and its manifestation in
Lovecraft’s fiction. To demonstrate how Lovecraft’s presentation of the unknowable rather
than merely the unknown makes his fiction so powerful, Will draws on Thomas Weiskel’s
Kantian-based notion of the semiotic sublime and its three attendant stages: in the first stage,
the signifier and the signified form a harmonious pairing; second, there is an excess on the part
of the signifier—it cannot be grasped or understood, and becomes indeterminate; third, this
indeterminacy is resolved through a metaphor, which stands in for the absence of a signifier.
Will cites Weiskel’s explanation regarding the positive presence this metaphor assumes: “The
absence of a signifier itself assumes the status of a signifier, disposing us to feel that behind
this newly significant absence lurks a newly discovered presence, the latent referent, as it were,
mediated by a new sign. We recall Kant’s terms: ‘unattainability’ (Unerreichbarkeit) is
regarded as ‘presentation’ (Darstellung); indeterminacy signifies” (Will 14; Weiskel 28).
Will’s reading associates the experience of the sublime in Lovecraft with Weiskel’s
understanding of the role of metaphor in the semiotic crisis the sublime occasions, in that
“negative knowledge of the noumenal takes the form of a metaphor which allows for the
resolution of the indeterminacy between the signifier and signified” (Will 14). Specifically,
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Will illustrates how the abyss, symbol par excellence of the negativity of the unknowable
favoured by Poe and Baudelaire, as we have seen, is the metaphor of choice in Lovecraft’s
fiction. However, the abyss is equally an apt metaphor to represent the semiotic crisis of the
abject.
In convincingly situating the Kantian sublime as an integral element of Lovecraft’s
aesthetics, Will’s essay provides a foundation for future analyses of the sublime in Lovecraft,
including my own. Nevertheless, the question still remains: what does the sublime mean for an
atheist who denies not only the humanistic context of Kant’s Idealist position and the a priori
structure of cognition on which Kant bases his epistemology, but the notion of free will on
which our relation with the noumenal is contingent? Although he does not discuss the question
of freedom, Will attempts to address the implications of Lovecraft’s atheism by explaining the
divergences between Kant’s and Lovecraft’s understandings of the noumenal and phenomenal
realms. He concedes that in Lovecraft the “inside” and “outside” that the noumenal and
phenomenal spheres represent with respect to human understanding are not grounded in an
opposition between a metaphysical reality beyond our mind’s scope and the mechanistic
material world of phenomena (existing in time and space and regulated by principles such as
causality):
Lovecraft’s “outside” sphere is, like the phenomenal sphere, mechanistic and material.
However, this outside, cosmic sphere is of a different material and operates by
mechanisms different from the phenomenal sphere of human existence. Thus, the
cosmic exceeds human understanding because the patterns which humans take to be
natural laws do not apply. Lovecraft connects a recognition of this outside realm with
the sublime, describing it not only as an imaginative notion for his fiction but also as
an actual emotional and intellectual response experienced by real people in the real
world. (Will 16)

Will therefore claims that there are two distinct phenomenal spheres in Lovecraft: one whose
workings we grasp and another that escapes our cognitive faculties. However, unlike Kant’s
noumenal realm, Lovecraft’s cosmic sphere is subject to future understanding (by science, for
example). According to Will, “Lovecraft suggests that the natural laws whereby we know
reality may not be conclusive or all-encompassing. Reality may be expanded by the discovery
of a previously unknown phenomenon” (Will 17). Will’s interpretation is persuasive; however,
I believe that Lovecraft’s fiction underscores the dangers inherent in our yearnings to enlarge
our understanding of the cosmos. More importantly, Will’s essay does not venture to explore
the implications of Lovecraft’s rejection of the noumenal on the experiencing subject of the
Kantian sublime. His closing statement, moreover, is suggestive in its applicability to a reading
of the abject in Lovecraft; he asserts that “Lovecraft demands that we recognize our own
limitations and our relatively insignificant place in the cosmos” (Will 20).
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Nelson’s and Will’s essays ultimately demonstrate that Lovecraft’s cosmic fiction
presents readers with the outward manifestations of the sublime, without the subjectivity
concomitant with either the Burkean or Kantian notions of sublimity. This begs the question:
Can we speak of the sublime in Lovecraft? I contend that Lovecraft’s fiction dramatizes a crisis
in subjectivity in which characters experience an epiphany that is incommensurate with the
sublime: the “cosmic horror” that his stories convey is synonymous with an experience of the
horror of abjection. Lovecraft’s œuvre underscores the shortcomings of the humanistic mode of
subjectivity upon which the sublime is predicated. His fiction performs a collapse of
signification that amounts to an implicit subversion of the sublime.
To return to the text “Pickman’s Model,” some aspects of which I discussed earlier,
Setiya contends that “the expression of a subjectively perceived reality through art owes its real
significance to its basis in reality,” and goes on to say that “perhaps the ultimate presentation of
art as the reflection of experience is the fact that it can only reach the height of brilliance which
it does at Pickman’s hands when it is drawn ‘from life’” (“Aesthetics and the Artist in
‘Pickman’s Model’” 26). Setiya’s reading of this story is too literal to address satisfactorily the
implications of Pickman’s “realistic” work. I contend that Pickman’s art is drawn from his life:
Pickman re-presents himself—the ontological ground of his being. In “Dream Quest” we are
told that Pickman had metamorphosed into a ghoul—a consequence of his too close association
with the limit the ghouls represent; hence, his realistic illustration of a monster is, on a
superficial level, a positive presentation of a ghoul, and, on a symbolic level, a negative
presentation of his self. Lovecraft’s use of the Gothic motif of the monster offers a commentary
on human degeneracy; contrary to Poe’s “Oval Portrait,” however, it is the thing represented
that steals the life (or human consciousness) from the artist. As a mise en abîme of Lovecraft’s
work, Pickman’s art reveals the abject reality of the ontological grounds of selfhood.
Examples of Lovecraft’s implied subversion of the sublime abound. In “Dagon,” the
narrator’s experience of ontological limits is symbolically depicted by the sudden change in the
sea’s characteristics: “When at last I awaked, it was to discover myself half-sucked into a slimy
expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as
the eye could see” (Dagon 15). At first Lovecraft follows the conventions of literary realism by
providing the reader with a socio-historical context that lends credibility to the narrator’s story:
the ship upon which he sailed as a supercargo was captured by the Germans, and he became
their prisoner. Owing to the liberality of their treatment, the narrator, whose navigational skills
leave something to be desired, manages to escape with water and provisions in a small boat.
His waking from a “troubled and dream-infested” slumber, however, marks the transition from
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a realistic to a symbolic narrative (Dagon 15). According to Lovecraft in “A Defence of


Dagon,” the incredible scenery described by the speaker has a logical basis: he attributes it to a
great upheaval of the sea floor, something he considered scientifically possible. Nevertheless,
the worship of the fish-god Dagon by a reptilian humanoid that the narrator claims to have
witnessed exposes, in the narrator’s view, the futility of the self-interested endeavours of “war-
exhausted mankind,” even if we are not familiar with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”22
Furthermore, this scene serves as the focus of his experience of the abject. The narrator is
rescued in body only. As with many of Lovecraft’s characters, the vision damages his sanity
irreparably; unable to comprehend fully what he witnessed, he continuously relives the
experience in his mind. Significantly, although the mire shocks his senses and repulses him—
“The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and other less describable things
which [he] saw protruding from the nasty mud in the unending plain” (Dagon 15)—
intellectually, his reason is stimulated: he affirms surprise at not experiencing “wonder at so
prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery” (Dagon 15). Thus, the source of his
horror has its roots not only in the landscape’s offence to his senses, but, more importantly, in
certain properties of the landscape that Burke would consider sublime if viewed from a safe
distance:
Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that
can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing,
and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the
stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear.
(Dagon 15 [emphases added])

22
In his letters Lovecraft often affirms his love of war and his respect for the “noble values” it
inspires in its participants. “Dagon” evidently undermines these assertions; as Airaksinen
explains, Lovecraft’s fiction “unwrites” his letters. The values and persona constructed through
them are subverted and displaced by his fiction: Lovecraft “needed his letters to keep the vestige
of his identity visible […] The existence of the stories presents a threat because their favourable
reception cannot be guaranteed, unlike that of the letters. When the stories are rejected, they start
corroding the author’s self” (Airaksinen 32). Airaksinen’s comments should in no way be
interpreted to suggest that Lovecraft’s letters hold no value to an analysis of his literature. The
context of his argument must be taken into account: the sheer quantity of letters (Lovecraft wrote
correspondence almost every day of his life; it would take a scholar many years to read them all)
belies his relatively small literary output. Airaksinen attempts to shed light on the causes and
implications of such a contrast within the scope of Lovecraft’s aesthetics. I maintain that the
letters are useful and reliable as a guide to what Lovecraft is doing in his fiction for two reasons:
they offer insight into Lovecraft’s stories by revealing the types of coping strategies he employed
(both consciously and unconsciously) to come to terms with the shock of modern life and to avert
the meaninglessness of existence; moreover, they help us to understand the tension between the
abject and the sublime that undercores his aethetics.
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The horror the narrator experiences is not grounded in the objective property of the landscape,
since the latter could equally inspire the sublime if the description met with Burke’s criterion
of objective distance. Instead, the self is the source of horror.
In “The Rats in the Walls,” the connection is more explicit. On the one hand, the
objective properties of the cavern the investigative party discovers beneath the de la Poers’
family estate in Exham Priory inspire a sense of the sublime: its “boundless depth” and
immeasurable age are met with awe by the party (Dunwich 43). On the other hand, it is the site
of nameless horrors involving human degeneracy into rats, cannibalism, and unholy rites that
bring about the narrator’s own decadence (he half devours the face of his friend Norrys and his
speech progressively dissolves into incoherent grunts). Once again, Lovecraft implicitly
subverts the sublime. In the morally sterile world of Lovecraft’s tales, an experience of the
sublime is possible only to those naïve souls who believe, erroneously, that life and the cosmos
have a purpose and meaning: however, the knowledge that characters gain in his fiction unveils
the fallacy of their humanistic notions of subjectivity. As Kant explains, to a viewer whose
culture has not trained him to face the sublime within an affirmative context—or, in
Lovecraft’s case, to a viewer whose culture has disillusioned him about the possibility of any
affirmation of his humanity—the experience will inspire pain:
Without the development of moral ideas, that which we, prepared by culture, call
sublime will appear merely repellent to the unrefined person. He will see in the proofs
of the dominion of nature given by its destructiveness and in the enormous measure of
its power, against which his own vanishes away to nothing, only the distress, danger,
and need that would surround the person who was banished thereto. (Kant §29:5:265)

“Cosmic Horror” as Abjection of Self: “The Outsider”


“The Outsider” stands as an exemplary text in terms of its obvious stylistic and thematic
borrowing from Poe, and, more importantly, for the crisis in subjectivity it dramatizes.
Excellent commentaries have been written to elucidate both points. For example, in his seminal
essay “On Lovecraft’s Themes: Touching the Glass,” Donald Burleson makes reference to the
visual metaphor of the Outsider touching the glass as emblematic of the dominant leitmotif of
Lovecraft’s work, which he translates into “the nature of self-knowledge, the effects of learning
one’s own nature and one’s place in the scheme of things” (Burleson, “Glass” 135). His
interpretation of the story focuses on its presentation of the narrator’s confrontation with the
negativity that grounds the modern subject, and can be summed up as follows:
As Nietzsche has said, gaze into the abyss and it will gaze back at you—you may
discover, in fact, that you are the abyss, the one twitching nerve-end of the cosmos that
writhes against itself. The experience of Lovecraft’s fiction is an eternally frozen yet
living moment of gazing into one’s own face in a mirror of devastating self-revelation.
The Lovecraftian dichotomy [which, to paraphrase Burleson, can be described in terms
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of the hope of humankind to have dignity and worth on the one hand, and, on the
other, the dashing of those hopes in the contemplation of a cosmos blindly indifferent
to the presence of human beings] deconstructs itself into, and reinscribes itself as, a
perpetual aporia of mutual and self-reflection. (Burleson, “Glass” 147)

In spite of the fact that he makes no reference to Burleson’s analysis in his essay, Carl
Buchanan’s reading of the “The Outsider” as the parable of a psyche in “‘The Outsider’ as an
Homage to Poe” nonetheless develops analogous ideas: Buchanan maintains that by existing,
like Valdemar, in “a non-definable condition between life and death,” “the speaker is unsure of
his own relation to the things of this world. He remains trapped somewhat in the animistic
conception of things as living, and of living beings as things […] never maturing into a true
subject-object discrimination” (Buchanan 14). “The Outsider” relates the experience of the
narrator’s existential crisis. What Burleson’s and Buchanan’s readings suggest, therefore, is
that by positing a narrator caught between being and non-being—that is, by giving us a subject
who is positioned, not inside or outside, but at the limit of being—“The Outsider” presents the
reader with a subject conditioned by the abject.
The Outsider’s purpose in writing—one point not addressed by either Burleson or
Buchanan—further demonstrates this thesis: in recounting the terror of his first experience of
self-cognition, he also narrates his jouissance in the self-loss such an experience entails. For
instance, his tête-à-tête with “the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable
monstrosity” he beholds in a mirror leads to a cataclysmic moment of self-revelation: “In that
same second there crashed down upon my mind a single and fleeting avalanche of soul-
shattering memory. I knew in that second all that had been […] I recognised, most terrible of
all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from
its own” (Dunwich 51). This is followed by a description of what superficially can be
categorized as his exultant liberation:
Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day
amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by
the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of
Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid.
(Dunwich 52)

From what, exactly, is the Outsider ostensibly liberated? The narrator recounts that he
“forgets” himself immediately after identifying the figure in the mirror as his own: “But in the
cosmos there is a balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe. In the supreme horror
of that second I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of black memory vanished in a
chaos of echoing images” (Dunwich 52). Nevertheless, what he fails to remember is not the
image he sees reflected—as Buchanan observes, “he has just related it, so we know it is present
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in his memory” (Buchanan 13)—but that his being defies categorization. He loses awareness of
the fact that his existence is conditioned by the abject, or that his being represents an
ontological impossibility. Contrary to the humanistic subject of the sublime, the Outsider’s will
is not driven by the desire to reconstitute a stable identity or its semblance: not only does he
find the “stone trap-door” of his previous state of ignorance “immovable” (Dunwich 52), but
he also shuns the confines of his former self: “But I was not sorry, for I had hated the antique
castle and the trees” (Dunwich 52). Instead, he is impelled by the need to transgress ontological
limits (metaphorically represented by his crossing of geographical boundaries) and to inhabit
and revel in the unknowable: although the Nile and Great Pyramid exist, the “unknown valley
of Hadoth by the Nile” and “the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid” do not;
they represent landscapes of the imagination that cannot be visited by an empirical, incarnate
being (Dunwich 52 [emphases added]).
Nephren-Ka appears to be, as with the appellation Nitokris, a fictional name created by
Lovecraft; however, the denotations of the suffix “ka” aptly describe the Outsider’s particular
predicament. In light of Lovecraft’s propensity for arcane scholarship, it is possible that he was
aware of the meaning of “ka.” Egyptologist Jaromir Malek explains that ancient Egyptians
defined “ka” in terms analogous to our idea of an embodied essence:
The main element of each person (but also the gods and even some animals) was their
ka, often translated as “soul” or “spirit.” The body was the ka’s physical manifestation
and was essential for the person’s existence because it provided the ka with
individuality. This meant that the body had to be preserved if the person was to
continue to exist after death. This idea gave rise to mummification (attempts to
preserve the body by artificial means) and sculpture (providing the ka with a substitute
body). (Malek, Egyptian Art 425)

A person’s individuality resides not in the soul, but in the body; without the boundaries
determined by matter, a bodiless soul is a non-entity—it could just as well not exist. Thus, for
the ancient Egyptians “ka” unites the noumenal and phenomenal realms: for the noumenal to
exist for a subject, it must be embodied in matter; conversely, the impregnation of certain
phenomena with “ka” renders them sacred. This belief and the funeral practices associated with
it constitute the hallowing of abjection: within their religious system, the ancient Egyptians
hold the decaying body to be a vessel worthy of careful preservation. By giving us a narrative
recounted by an embodied essence whose experience of what would be seemingly a sacred
selfhood to ancient Egyptians as one predicated on repulsion—experienced by others and
himself—Lovecraft parodies the transcendent notion of “ka.” This is not surprising in light of
Lovecraft’s unrepentant materialism; he denies the body/soul dichotomy, arguing instead that
“we have no reason to think that the phenomena of consciousness and personality can arise
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from anything save complex organic evolution, or that they can exist apart from complex
organic matter” (Misc. Writings 153, 159). Nevertheless, Lovecraft repudiates all things related
to the body, illustrated by his denial of Freud’s identification of the libido as the dominant
human drive and his abhorrence of the bohemian lifestyle on the grounds that he is revolted by
“the notion that physical life is of any value or significance” (Selected Letters I.229).23 Hence
the meaning of “ka” suggests that “The Outsider” can be read as an illustration of an idea that
inspires a sense of the abject in Lovecraft: the body as a monstrous, permeable entity.
The text does not conclude with the Outsider’s self-acceptance, as Buchanan
problematically maintains, but with the curse of his perpetual self-negation and self-
displacement. He does not embrace his condition, but rejoices in it in bad faith: “Yet in my
new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage” (Dunwich 52
[emphasis added]). “The Outsider” represents Lovecraft’s view of the human condition; as
Burleson points out, “when the Outsider touches the glass, he is no mere individual figure of
carrion horror; by extended implication of the imagery, he is ourselves, discovering our
disillusioning reality” (“Glass” 139). All the same, Lovecraft provides us with a mode of being
radically at odds—and therefore monstrous in comparison—with the humanistic subjectivity
with which we are familiar, a mode in which the question of being, as Kristeva observes, is
displaced by a question of locality: like the Outsider, the subject of abjection moves about,
forever deferring the question of “Who am I?,” asking instead: “Where am I?” The text
consequently narrates the story of the impossibility of self-knowledge on two levels: neither
the moment of horror nor the self-awareness it brings can be sustained. As an aesthetic
experience, the sense of the abject inspired by any contemplation of the self as radically other
is always immediate and sensual; hence it is finite, and cannot be perpetuated indefinitely.

Laughter: Symptom and Displacement of Abjection


Of the link between Baudelaire’s aesthetics and Lovecraft’s, the most significant aspect is
laughter. Lovecraft’s understanding of humour has distinctly Baudelairean overtones; in “In
Defence of Dagon,” he affirms: “Humour is itself but a superficial view of that which is in
truth both tragic and terrible—the contrast between human pretence and cosmic mechanical
reality […] It is a hollow thing, sweet on the outside, but filled with the pathos of fruitless
aspiration” (Misc. Writings 156). A few sentences following this statement he indirectly

23
See S. T. Joshi’s “Lovecraft’s Aesthetic Development: From Classicism to Decadence.”
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praises the French poet’s dark, existential humour by drawing an analogy between their
respective views:
I cannot help seeing beyond the tinsel of humour, and recognising the pitiful basis of
jest—the world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind […] Humour is the whistle
of man to keep up his courage as he travels the dark road […] Lest my readers deem
me a creature wholly without counterpart, I will enclose a cutting about an infinitely
greater person—Charles Baudelaire—some of whose qualities may perhaps explain or
illuminate the character of one with a (very roughly) similar outlook. (Misc. Writings
157)

If humour operates as a defence mechanism, it nonetheless fails to displace the horror


Lovecraft’s characters experience since it is a symptom of the crisis they undergo. Contrary to
Baudelaire, however, Lovecraft’s sense of cosmic irony is not a product of his perception of
our fall into temptation; although both authors are pessimists who deny the notion of
humanity’s perfectibility, the contexts of their shared perspective differs widely. Baudelaire’s
world view is decidedly Catholic, in spite of his perversion of its moral prescriptions; therefore
he affirms the existence of an omnipotent Deity and the moral framework such a belief entails.
His aesthetics consequently is based upon a humanistic subjectivity in which the idea of
freedom—understood as our ability to choose between good and evil—is an essential part. In
the universe of Lovecraft’s fiction, once the subject has experienced his own limits, the only
choice he has is between madness and self-delusion. As a mechanist materialist, Lovecraft
denies the idea of God and the teleology implied therein. He considers “the idea of deity as a
logical and inevitable result of ignorance, since the savage can conceive of no action save by a
volition and personality like his own”; religion is therefore a fiction masking humanity’s baser
instincts (Misc. Writings 165). He affirms, in his essay “In Defence of Dagon,” that “all
religious demonstrativeness and ceremony is basically orgiastic,” a product of our inadequate
sublimation of primitive compulsions: “[The savage’s] mind is not nearly so powerful as the
primal vestigial urges and currents that rack him, and when these are not drained by combative
or other uses, they turn on the nervous system and produce the frenzies and wild hallucinations
known as ‘religious experience’” (Misc. Writings 166, 165). Thus, Lovecraft’s anti-humanism
denies notions such as freedom, human agency, and the ego. He holds instead that “all volition
is merely a neural molecular process—a blind material instinct or impulse”; organisms possess
“no conscious desire, no intelligent aspiration, no definite foreknowledge” since life is “a
process of stumbling in the dark—of recoiling from greater to lesser discomforts and dangers,
and of groping for an increased amount of pleasures faintly tasted” in which chance provides
us with the only potential for any kind of deviation from a determined course (Misc. Writings
160).
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Chance assumes greater significance in his later tales, wherein “Lovecraft permitted
mankind no defence, except luck, against the unknown” (Leiber 54). As with Baudelaire,
laughter is a symptom of abjection in Lovecraft; however, in him it is a reaction to the irony he
perceives in the contrast between humanity’s deluded sense of importance outside the limited
scope of worldly affairs and our place in the cosmos, or, put another way, between the fallacies
inherent in the myths we hold to be representative of absolute values and the true meaning of
existence. The mad narrator of “Dagon” “laughed oddly” upon his ascent of a cliff in his
attempt to escape from the aquatic monster he sees. In “The Temple,” a text carefully grounded
in the conventions of realism (Lovecraft even mimics a German native speaker’s accent and
grammatical constructions in English), “uncanny laughter” marks the sensitive Lieutenant
Kenze’s transition from sanity to madness; more shockingly, the macho and apparently rational
narrator, Lieutenant-Commander Karl Heirich, suffers a similar fate. He hears “demoniac
laughter” inside his head prior to making up his mind to exit the submarine in the ocean depths
and approach the shrine that so obsesses him—the brave soldier of the Teutonic race Lovecraft
praises in his letters goes mad before he commits suicide (Dagon 72). Lovecraft’s remark that
“the wise man is a laughing cynic; he takes nothing seriously, ridicules earnestness and zeal,
and wants nothing because he knows that the cosmos holds nothing worth wanting” (Misc.
Writings 175) operates as a projection of self-control and detachment possessed by none of his
characters who endure the crisis of self his fiction dramatizes. The three forms of laughter
Lovecraft discusses—that of a man who needs to keep up his courage, that of the madman, and
that of the wise man—are different only in terms of the perspective implicit in each. The first
laughs because he is still innocent of the horror that awaits him; the second laughs because he
knows too much and has lost his mind. Only the wise man—one who has faced the
meaninglessness of existence and has managed not to lose himself—can laugh with the cynical
detachment of a Dandy. This may be the kind of laughter to which Lovecraft aspired in life, but
his fiction tells another story.

Part 4 — At the Limits of the Lovecraftian Subject


The pre-eminence of the symptoms of abjection in Lovecraft’s fiction—his stylistic excesses,
his subversion of epistemology, metaphysics, and our moral vocation, as well as the
“description[s] of hideous stenches and onomatopoeic reproductions of a madman’s yowlings”
that Peter Penzoldt categorizes as disgraces to fiction—cannot be dismissed as merely the
result of Lovecraft’s “intellectual perversity” (Penzoldt, “From [sic] The Supernatural in
Fiction” 66). As S. T. Joshi observes, the horror in Lovecraft’s fiction “is often more symbolic
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and psychological than physical” (Joshi, “Lovecraft Criticism: A Study” 21). If, as Penzoldt
affirms with disapproval, “Lovecraft deliberately plays on the reader’s subconscious fears as
well as on his conscious repulsion from the scenes he is compelled to witness” (Penzoldt 66)—
if Lovecraft plays on our horror of the abject—it is for a specific purpose: to dramatize the
schism apparent in the contrast between our humanistic subjectivity and the metaphysical
uncertainty of a newly-emerging consciousness:
Amidst the jumbled impressions & radically changing experiences of a machine age
there is but little sense of fixity or satisfaction to be gained from an adjustment to
immediate reality. It will take generations for the machine age to build up enough
stable illusions to found a new fabric of satisfying tradition. Yet the change must
come—& we don’t yet know just how much comfortable illusion & perspective we
can carry over from the now dying age into the nascent age ahead. (Selected Letters
I.357)

At the crux of the conflict between two modes of subjectivity we find Lovecraft’s dreamers
and artists who intuit, by means of their heightened sensibility and faculty of imagination, the
forbidden and awe-inspiring knowledge that eludes the rational, conscious mind of the scientist
or scholar. As a token of his aesthetic inheritance, Lovecraft attributes a primacy to the artist
figure and to the workings of the imagination in a way similar to Baudelaire and Poe. The
significance of dreams and dream states to Lovecraft’s poetics and creative process, for
instance, has been extensively commented upon by Lévy, whose analysis reveals the inherent
decadence of oneirism in Lovecraft: “Il crée l’étrange, il suscite la peur, en retournant le
monde. Écrire, c’est pour lui faire paraître l’envers onirique des choses, substituer le nocturne
au diurne, remplacer les images rassurantes du monde de l’éveil par celles aliénantes des
grandes profondeurs” (Lévy, Lovecraft ou du fantastique 102).
In presenting us with a protagonist who encounters phenomena that exceed the scope of
his imagination and narratives that aim to inspire in the reader “a profound sense of dread” and
“a subtle attitude of awed listening” (Dagon 368-9), it would appear that Lovecraft draws on an
understanding of the sublime to develop his leitmotif of “cosmic horror.” Nevertheless,
Lovecraft explicitly denies the type of subjectivity requisite for the Burkean and Kantian
notions of sublimity. If he alludes to the sublime at all, and we can only infer that he does, his
subversion of this aesthetic category underscores the experience at the heart of his fiction: the
crisis of abjection. Thus, the horror of Lovecraft’s cosmic vision certainly is rooted in an
epistemological crisis, as critics maintain. However, in agreement with Timo Airaksinen, who
contends that “Lovecraft’s fiction is based on the experience of having already lost our identity
as a person […] All the monsters, and their projections, are based on the simple experience at
the root of Lovecraftian horror, namely, the disappearance of our identity” (Airaksinen 101), I
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hold that not only does Lovecraft examine humanity’s coming to terms with its relative
insignificance in the cosmos, but he questions what it means to be human. As Airaksinen
observes, in Lovecraft’s stories “the greatest horror is that of the unknown, which is,
accordingly, our own self” (Airaksinen 31). If, in the absence of any notion of transcendence,
our (Western) myth of origin—the basis of all the traditions, social conventions, and cultural
codes to which we subscribe—proves to be false; or, in other words, if, contrary to the divine
grace that the sublime appeals to as the ontological ground of selfhood, we turn out to be no
more noble than the nature from which our self-reflexive consciousness and symbolic language
ostensibly separate us, we are no better than beasts. In Lovecraft’s fiction we are perhaps less
fortunate than animals, who, in not recognizing themselves as such, live in blissful ignorance
of their condition. According to Burleson, it is ironic that the “knowing animal” “can know its
debasement, a debasement not even so elevated as true tragedy, since,” in Lovecraft’s fictional
universe, “humankind has no genuinely tragic dignity, no dignity of great beings brought low,
to fling back at the mocking stars” (Burleson, “Glass” 146). In my view, if, in representing “cet
univers abject, où la peur s’étage en cercles concentriques jusqu’à l’innommable révélation, cet
univers où notre seul destin imaginable est d’être broyés et dévorés,” “les écrits de HPL visent
à un seul but: amener le lecteur à un état de fascination” (Houellebecq 50, 16) as Houellebecq
maintains, the representation of a subject’s aesthetic experience of the abject is at the crux of
Lovecraft’s œuvre. Although Lovecraft draws on certain essential features of Poe’s and
Baudelaire’s understandings of art, he elaborates a more radical, limited, but no less powerful
aesthetics. In Lovecraft, the subject’s attempt at salvation through the creation of the ultimate
cultural product—art—as a provisional means to secure ontological authenticity proves false.
The promethean quest for a forbidden knowledge that would destroy the self is tantamount to a
confrontation with the limits of a subjectivity ill-equipped to come to terms with the stripping
of illusions that the modern experience entails.
Conclusion

The sublime may well be the single artistic sensibility to characterize


the Modern.

Lyotard, The Sublime and the Avant-Garde 38

Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft each engage aspects of the Longinian, Burkean, and Kantian
sublimes in their works. In the case of Poe, unity of effect is the axis of his pragmatic critical
theory, a poetics in which we see the conflation of the art critic and the poet as well as the
notions of fancy, imagination, and intuition. He defines this effect, moreover, in terms of
supernal beauty, a category whose parallels with the Longinian sublime are unmistakeable: it
occasions an elevation of the soul, self-displacement, and the reader’s communion with the
author, based on an almost complete identification with his words. In contrast to Poe,
Baudelaire posits an expressive critical theory: modern art symbolically depicts the artist’s
inner self or what he calls his “tempérament.” Baudelaire’s concern is not with the minute and
accurate depiction of an object, since the representation itself is secondary to the artist’s self-
expression. His aesthetics is based primarily on the Kantian sublime since modern art
astonishes and compels the viewer’s attention in a manner similar to a spectacle in nature that
evokes a sense of the sublime in us; it can be created only by one who possesses genius, an
innate quality; and, most significant of all, in representing a scene or object, modern art offers a
negative presentation of the artist’s “tempérament” or his noumenal self. As for Lovecraft, the
notion of “cosmic horror” upon which his poetics is predicated appears to make reference to
something that combines aspects of the Burkean and Kantian sublimes: he aims to express to
the reader a sense of that fear (Burke) and awe (Kant) we feel when confronted by phenomena
beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs.
All three authors, however, underscore the limits of an experience of the sublime in their
literary works, something which is also manifest in their respective poetics. Poe’s emphasis on
the grotesque in his elucidation of the imagination as a combinant faculty attributes equal
prominence to elements that exhibit neoclassical features of beauty, such as harmony and
symmetry, and to those of a more subversive, hybrid nature. His fiction reflects the dialectical
tension that arises from such an uneasy combination: in contrast to his critical theory, wherein
the notion of effect is predicated primarily on the Longinian sublime, his tales dramatize the
horror of abjection. Poe’s stories that make implicit reference to either the Burkean or Kantian
aesthetics of the sublime subvert its dynamics by drawing the reader’s attention to a body in

219
220

decay: figuratively, the body of language—the signifier; literally, a putrefying corpse. In my


view, in subverting the sublime upon which his notion of effect is predicated Poe aimed to
convey a horror whose emotive structure is analogous yet antithetical to the sublime
experience.
Baudelaire’s poetry underscores the indeterminacy of the Kantian sublime by offering us
a poetic persona who confronts objects that inspire both a sense of the sublime and of the
abject, depending on his state of mind. This indeterminacy is manifest in his critical theory:
Baudelaire’s uses of sexual metaphors in describing the effects of modern art belie the sense of
control he purports to convey through descriptions of art as a machine and claims to Kantian
disinterestedness. Moreover, in direct opposition to the Dandy persona he adopts, he advocates
that the art critic must be engaged and partisan, staking all in defence of his viewpoint. As I
hope to have shown, abjection is central to the Baudelairean figure of the artist: it qualifies the
beauty particular to modern art and it is the principle governing his existence. In establishing
the boundaries and the rules that must be subverted for the artist to create, the ideal exists as a
function of the abject: the prescriptions of Catholic morality and doctrines, the Kantian
aesthetics of the sublime, and Dandyism constitute the rules the poetic persona is compelled to
transgress. His subversion of these codes, moreover, is an externalization of his inner conflict,
and the many masks he adopts act as means to displace his inner crisis: the Baudelairean poetic
persona is one who is continually faced with his own alterity.
Contrary to Poe and Baudelaire, Lovecraft’s fiction dramatizes a character’s coming to
terms with the unpresentable that implicitly denies the possibility of any form of sublime
experience. “Cosmic horror,” the all-pervasive fear he aspires to convey through the
ontological fragmentation and the collapse of signification his texts enact, is founded on the
subversion of a humanistic mode of subjectivity, dramatized through a character’s progressive
coming into knowledge of his insignificance in the universe—outside the limited scope of
human affairs. Nevertheless, Lovecraft appears to espouse a view of art that echoes Romantic
aesthetics and celebrates human achievement: what he calls “authentic art,” works that assert
his Anglo-Saxon culture and traditions, affirm the artist’s humanity and his community of like-
minded people by extending their knowledge of the world. “Authentic art” not only subscribes
in part to the Kantian aesthetics of the beautiful by giving us a sense of the furtherance of life,
it also supplants science’s epistemological function. Lovecraft’s stance, however, cannot be
perceived as anything but reactionary: in light of his position as a self-proclaimed mechanist
materialist, “authentic art” operates as a shield whose function is to deflect the horrors of
modern life. In its subversion of his category of “authentic art,” Lovecraft’s fiction
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consequently narrates the shock produced by the collision of two antagonistic modes of
thought: the humanistic worldview embodied in his reactionary aesthetics and the nihilism of
his mechanist materialism. Put another way, his fiction dramatizes a crisis in subjectivity that
challenges the aesthetics of the Burkean and Kantian sublimes to which his fiction makes
implicit reference: the horror of abjection.
The dialectic of the sublime and the abject evident in the works of Poe, Baudelaire, and
Lovecraft underscore both the limits of the sublime experience, be it Longinian, Burkean, or
Kantian, as well as its indeterminacy. The latter is an aspect of sublimity that has been
commented upon by Jean-François Lyotard in his elaboration of the relation between the avant-
garde and the aesthetics of the Kantian sublime. In briefly outlining Lyotard’s argument, I
intend to use his observations most pertinent to my work as vehicles or spring-boards, so to
speak, to my own concluding remarks on the aesthetics of Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft
within the broader scope of modern art.
In Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime, Lyotard discusses modernist painting as a
necessary and inevitable development brought about by the technological revolution that gave
birth to photography. His point is not so much to differentiate painting from photography but to
elucidate, by means of this comparison, the dialectic at stake in avant-garde art, which forms
the basis of its distinction from “low art” or the kind that appeals to the taste of the masses.
According to Lyotard, photography displaced painting on several levels. First, the knowledge
and skill requisite to painting since the Renaissance are readily available to the masses by
means of the photographic machine: anyone can take a decent photo without knowing the
techniques of drawing, the laws of perspective or composition, colour theory, or the chemical
processes involved in mixing paints or varnishes (with digital cameras, even the darkroom
becomes obsolete). In other words, photography has contributed to the democratization of art,
and it figures as the culmination of the Renaissance’s program of political and social ordering,
wherein only privileged classes determined the politics of representation. (It is worthwhile to
note that up to this point Lyotard’s argument borrows substantially from Baudelaire’s essay
titled “Le Public moderne et la photographie” from Le Salon de 1859.)
Second, the nature of the consensus requisite to a judgment of taste undergoes a radical
change with the advent of photography. Lyotard explains that the aesthetics of beauty was
bequeathed to photography and not to modern painting, since the former calls upon a shared
standard of taste. However, the beautiful that photography makes possible is pre-determined
and regulated by capitalist industry: cameras are mass-produced, which means that in spite of
the infinite possibility of subject matter for representation, there is a uniformity to the
222

appearance of the images they generate. Photographic images have no “aura,” in Walter
Benjamin’s sense of the word; they possess no singularity and no authenticity because they can
be mass-produced (Ross, “Aura” 509). Lyotard emphasizes that photographs themselves
“immediately bear the stamp of the laws of knowledge. The indeterminate, since it does not
allow for precision, will have to be eliminated, and with it goes feeling” (Lyotard,
Unpresentable 65).
For painting to avoid being relegated to the status of the photograph’s poor cousin and
succeed as a viable medium of artistic expression, it had to become “a philosophical activity”:
“Those painters who persisted,” expounds Lyotard, “had to confront photography’s challenge,
and so they engaged in the dialectic of the avant-garde which had at stake the question ‘What is
Painting?’” (Lyotard, Unpresentable 65). All previous assumptions concerning the practice of
painting had to be re-evaluated. The medium had to be purified, so to speak. To answer such an
essential question painting and, more generally, the modern art work, “would no longer bend
itself to models, but would try to present the unpresentable” (Lyotard, The Sublime and the
Avant-Garde 41). In Lyotard’s view, modern art is bound to the aesthetics of the sublime.
What is the “unpresentable,” and how does one go about “re”-presenting it or making it
visible? The answer to the first question is Kantian Ideas of reason, “for which one cannot cite
(represent) any example, case point, or even symbol” “because to represent is to make relative,
to place in context within conditions of representation” (Lyotard, Unpresentable 68). Since we
cannot conceive of an image that adequately conveys an Idea nor can we compare it to
anything in order to see it in relative perspective, the answer to the second question is that the
unpresentable can be demonstrated only by means of what Kant termed the “abstract”: a
negative representation (Lyotard, Unpresentable 68). Contrary to the beautiful, no consensus of
taste exists to guide artists whose work is predicated on the aesthetics of the sublime; inherited
conventions—established symbols and forms—are discarded. The very question “What is
Painting?” or, more generally, “What is Art?” compels a break with tradition. Radical
experimentation is implicit in avant-garde art: “To the public its products seem ‘monstrous,’
‘formless,’ purely ‘negative’ nonentities”1 (Lyotard, Unpresentable 67). Once the shock wears
off and the public becomes accustomed to the new forms and symbols conjured up by the
avant-garde, however, the latter must strive to find new means, break other taboos, to convey a

1
Lyotard draws the reader’s attention to the fact that he employs “terms by which Kant
characterized those objects that give rise to a sense of the sublime” to describe the qualities
inherent in modern art (Lyotard, Unpresentable 67).
223

sense of the unpresentable.2 Ontological indetermination characterizes modern art, and the
necessarily heuristic process of creation assumes a role more prominent than that of the art
work itself.
Although Lyotard addresses this issue only in passing since it is not central to his thesis,
we may extend his idea by stating that in transgressing the limits of what is acceptable to the
common taste modern art is often perceived as abject. The work of art presents itself as a
representation; it affirms the unpresentable by underscoring the materiality of its medium. It
disturbs our relationship with the world, each other, and ourselves by forcing us to confront a
material presence that does not signify—at least not yet. As I hope to have shown, Poe and
Baudelaire found their respective poetics on the aesthetics of the Longinian and Kantian
sublimes, respectively: both ask, in their own way, “What is Art?” Poe’s elaboration, in the
Marginalia, on his quest for new and unprecedented combinations to arrive at what he deems to
be a truly original work, and both Baudelaire’s position as a Dandy as well as his undertaking,
in Mon cœur mis à nu, to realize Poe’s dictum of originality attest to their commitment to
innovation, their artistic and intellectual pioneering spirit. In so doing, each explores the
boundaries of the genres, themes, and forms common to short fiction and poetry during their
lifetime. Lovecraft, on the other hand, asked and found an answer to the question “What is
Art?”: to a nihilist like him, for whom free will is reduced to mere chance3 in a deterministic
universe, art is a balm, a lie we use to give value to our lives and to guard against the
meaninglessness of existence.
The work of all three strives to present the unpresentable: the ontological ground of
subjectivity that makes possible a sense of the sublime or of the abject. It is of paramount
significance, however, that the subjective position held by Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft is
one in which the crisis of abjection constitutes a founding experience. In the literature of all
three any confrontation with the limits of the self, ontological or epistemological, will
inevitably throw into relief the tension between the sublime which grounds their poetics and
the abjection manifest in their art. Perhaps the capital distinction among the three can be
summed up as follows: for Baudelaire and Poe the sublime remains possible since their notions
of subjectivity are inscribed within the humanistic tradition; conversely, since Lovecraft
disavows a human-centered worldview and denies the human being any existential significance

2
See Lyotard’s The Sublime and the Avant-Garde for an analysis of modern art’s relation to
temporality.
3
Chance and determinism are two notions necessarily at odds with each other; however, according
to Lovecraft, “chance” is the name those who cannot see all ends (human beings) give to events
that they did not predict or foresee.
224

in the cosmos, an experience of the sublime becomes impossible for his characters. In light of
Lyotard’s observations about modernism and the sublime, and, perhaps more significantly, the
centrality of abjection to the avant-garde project that can be gleaned from his argument, it
becomes manifest that the dialectic of the sublime and the abject common to the aesthetic
orientation of Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft is symptomatic of the rise of modernism and the
relativism concomitant with a newly-emerging modern sensibility.
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Conclusion
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