Saturday, January 29, 2011

Autism Spectrum in Poe

Karen Weekes, in her article for the Cambridge Companion to Poe entitled "Poe's Feminine Ideal," comments on the egoistic isolation of Poe's main characters.  She remarks on this with regard to the presentation of female characters in Poe's fiction.  Weekes reads this as simple egoism or narcissism on the part of the character and, by implication, Poe himself.

This all got me to thinking about the actual flavor of self-preoccupation in Poe's characters, particularly in such stories as Weekes deals with: Ligeia, Morella, Berenice, Eleonora and The Fall of the House of Usher.  These characters are very much self absorbed, insensitive to others and their isolation tends to culminate in some sort of radical break with reality.  But are they narcissists?

I don't think so.  The main ingredient in narcissism is grandiosity, and this grandiosity is usually with reference to the self and others.  The narcissist needs others to be better than; the overt narcissist uses others to satisfy their feelings of entitlement, while the covert narcissist avoids people and situations that don't play into the illusion of greatness that they wish to have for themselves.

Poe's characters do have a flavor of grandiosity, but the element of vanity is conspicuously missing.  These characters describe themselves as meek and they come across that way.  They are strikingly unconcerned with others, individuals or society at large.  These characters never talk about society or scandal, and they seem not to have the pervasive shame that seems to go so well with narcissistic concern with the opinions of others.  The Narcissist needs an audience, real or imagined; Poe's characters seem completely unaware that a crowd has gathered.  The only people that seem to exist are those with whom the character has some relationship of importance.  Even then, though, these other characters are vague and distant.  Oddly enough, this kind of cold unconcern for others shows that narcissism is not the key to these characters.  The narcissistic consideration of others is mainly about how the other relates to the self; but even this is some kind of relation.

The egoism of Poe's main characters seems to be more of an autistic than narcissistic flavor.  They do not justify, aggrandize or explain their isolation; it is just a fact of existence.  They dislike it.  They suffer for it, and they seem to more or less know this.  They don't refuse to connect; they are incapable.  They don't use others for pleasure; they seem to be unaware that others can be a source of pleasure as much as anxiety.  They don't seem to be properly egoistic or narcissistic, but solipsistic; they are completely trapped in themselves and they experience the reality of others and the world as always in question and never to be trusted.

How justifiable is it to view certain of Poe's characters as exhibiting some form of Autism spectrum condition, such as Aspberger's?  I have no idea.  It is an intriguing question.  All I know about the Autism spectrum is what can be gleaned from reading a few wikipedia entries, and I haven't been able to find any articles that relate Poe and autism in any way.  I would love comments and suggestions!

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