Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.


Forest of the Subconscious

The mind is not the brain. This isn’t mystical mumbo-jumbo (although there’s nothing wrong with mystical mumbo-jumbo either). We’ve been bombarded with the message that we are meat machines for many years now. Those who have studied physics and plumbed its depths often tell us that if we had all the bits of information involved, we could figure out anything. Our minds are our brains and it is merely electro-chemical signals that form a kind of operating system for this biological computer. The idea that we have a separate mind, we are told, is an illusion. Interestingly, studies of the subconscious mind raise significant questions regarding this interpretation. The subconscious, it is generally acknowledged, was discovered by Sigmund Freud. Prior to Freud many people did things and didn’t know why. Now we know, despite debates about the details, that we have to consider the subconscious mind as well as the more familiar conscious one.

I’ve been on a Through the Wormhole kick lately. Since we don’t have television, I have to watch the episodes after they air, but at least I have the option of doing this when I have some time. I recently watched the subconscious episode. The truly amazing takeaway from this was that our minds often, daily, in fact, operate on a level that we know nothing about. There are ways of tapping into the subconscious mind—meditating, as I mentioned earlier this week, is one way. Others are more scientific. Stimulating areas of the brain with small amounts of electricity can enhance abilities that we never knew we had. In fact, we might even be able to enact a Matrix-like download of information. I think I may have swallowed the blue pill after all.

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Call it a gut-level reaction, but I have always had a strong resistance to the idea that we are mere automatons. Consciousness, which, increasingly we’re discovering, involves a dose of subconsciousness, doesn’t feel at all like a we’re programmed. Theologically, I always objected to the strange notion of predestination. It made no sense, theologically, or experientially. One very wise professor once told our class, “If you want to test this, tell your spouse that you’ve got her or him completely figured out. They will do something you don’t expect.” Our minds are perhaps the most miraculous parts of human beings. The concept that we are merely following the pre-determined laws of physics makes no sense unless we believe in a literal Hell that we’ve made of this world. Are we programmed to self-destruct? I believe not. Whether in my conscious mind or in the true mind that lies underneath it.