Book Notes Commentary Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary

The language in "A Descent into the Maelstrom" mirrors that of Poe's "MS Found in a Bottle," first published on October 19, 1833 in its mystical description of an enormous whirlpool, although there are subtle differences. The setting for "Descent" is near the North Pole, while that of "MS" was focused upon the South Pole; in "Descent" the endangered figure manages to escape after feeling that same wonder and excitement of the narrator in "MS," who even wrote the word "Discovery" upon the ship's sail in which he was traveling. Rather than embracing the unknown, the old man here chooses instead to save his own life, quite the opposite of the narrator in "MS," who does not make any attempt to escape from the whirlpool at all and instead embraces whatever fate lies awaiting him within the whirlpool. These close similarities in theme may suggest that, although "A Descent into the Maelstrom" was not published until much later than "MS Found in a Bottle," in the April 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine, it was perhaps written much closer to the 1833 date of "MS," and was simply not immediately published. However, the distinct differences in theme underpinning this more recent work suggest that an evolution has occurred in how the old man deals with the whirlpool. That Poe did not in fact compose "Descent" until closer to 1841 is not quite so impossible after recalling these varying details. The two situations are similar, but the respective events that transpire remain very different. Note also that a version of this tale, renamed "In a Maelstrom" was released that same year in England's Carpenter's Penny Journal.

This purported "Maelstrom" at the center of this tale is in fact a natural phenomenon as daunting as the "Old Faithful" geyser that many recognize in America's Yellowstone National Park. As Poe describes, it is located along Norway's coast offshore from The Lofoden Point at an approximate latitude of sixty-eight degrees; two islands are visible from this point, with Moskoe (Mosken) nearby, shadowed by Vurrgh in the background. A whirlpool phenomenon continues to occur there periodically to this very day, and the waters around it are rich a rich fishing ground for inhabitants of the neighboring terrain. The Mount "Helseggen," however, does not appear to exist currently according to reasearch, or perhaps it has been renamed since Poe's time. More likely, Poe added this detail to give more liveliness to his tale; in the Norwegian, Finnish, or Swedish tongue there does not seem to be any translation of "Helseggen" that means "Cloudy" as well. Jonas Ramus was a late sixteenth century Norwegian and theologian, whose description of this Maelstrom was rewritten in Pontopiddan's Natural History of Norway, first published in 1751; these words were later reproduced in the very same Encyclopedia Britannica that Poe cites in this tale, referring probably to the 6th edition first released in 1823. True to form, Poe uses historial and geographical reality as the backdrop for his fiction.

This tremendous whirlpool phenomenon occurring at regular intervals appears elsewhere in literature as well, including the later novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by French author Jules Verne and even the more ancient reference to "Charybdis" in Homer's Odyssey. In contrast to these works which purportedly were intended to be accepted at face value, to be taken as fiction or not without declaring either one specifically, Poe goes to great lengths in "A Descent into the Maelstrom" to affirm that this tale is the truth. The ending lines by the poor old man evoke empathy in the reader upon hearing that nobody believes his story, and the old man's statement that he does not expect the narrator to believe his story either, functions somewhat as a guilt-trip for the reader as well. If you do not believe these events, then you are "just like the rest of them," thus prompting the reader to believe these events to be the truth in fact, out of pity for the old man. Poe employs a similar technique in "MS Found in a Bottle," as the narrator there goes to great lengths to swear that his words are the truth and even explains his entire life to reinforce this fact. Writing convincingly was always Edgar's strength, embodied later by his infamous "Balloon-Hoax" in 1844 and even "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" of 1845, which many thought to be the credible report of an actual doctor. Thus, by mentioning the lack of attention this old man's story receives from his peers undoubtedly increased Poe's eager readership.

Here, perhaps it is the level and depth and detail that is where Poe's story holds some degree of weakness. This story is riddled with abstract academic concepts such as cylinders and spheres, which Poe tries to explain away by saying a "schoolteacher" later told the old man about how cylinders have more resistance to being pulled down by suction. Is it probable that a swarthy Norwegian seaman would be so understanding of mathematical concepts? The narrator, who appears to be fairly well-educated, and who expresses a great interest in this Maelstrom, can procure no other source of factual data for his explanation, than a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica? The names of other theorists such as Athanasius Kircher are mentioned as well; such scientific explanations are consistent in the "Balloon-Hoax" with Thomas Monck Mason as storyteller, and in "Valdemar" with a doctor as narrator, but here such abstract concepts seem oddly out of place. The story is well-constructed, but here it is very obvious that Poe is regurgitating his own sources of accessible information, such as Britannica, in order that the reader will be able to go to those same sources and double-check his information for credibility. Even the scientific explanation of cylinders' resistance to suction and the accompanying reference to Archimedes (recalling the reference to the "Archimedean screw" in "The Balloon Hoax") appear to be far from the setting and context of this story, told from the view of a tired seaman. Poe efficiently explains every detail in the story, but it is this thoroughness that makes it less believable.

Finally, one must address the meaning of the opening epigraph from theologian Joseph Glanville and the context it creates for "The Descent into the Maelstrom." The words laud the powers of God shown in the natural world as being greater than anything mankind can possibly imagine, with a "depth in them greater than the well of Democritus." This final reference is of great significance; Democritus was a contemporary of both ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato, and Aristotle wrote extensively concerning Democritus' ideas. Democritus is known for laying the foundation for the modern atomic theory, declaring that matter cannot be destroyed but merely changes from one form to another; space is an infinite "Void," with an infinite number of atoms. Presumably, this is the "bottomless well" of Democritus, for it is a figurative well and not a literal one. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, with whom Poe was probably more familiar, published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, and an English translation was released in 1838, a few years before "A Descent into the Maelstrom," and in this he makes reference to the "well of Democritus," as an allegory for the attainment of ultimate knowledge. Although Glanville (1636-1680) predates Kant by over a century, his words here should be interpreted in a similar vein. Hence, Glanville expresses that the powers of God go DEEPER than even the furthest reaches of human knowledge and experience.

Now, this concept can be easily applied to "The Descent into the Maelstrom" by recalling the hesitant moment when the old man considers, like the narrator in "MS," that he can be a pioneer in understanding what secrets lie at the bottom of this great whirlpool, which some theorists, such as Athanasius Kircher, profess is a passage to the other side of the world. Unlike the narrator in "MS," the old man decides not to pursue this course of action, choosing instead to save his own life. He chooses basic survival over the attainment of knowledge. This decision has future repercussions, as he is not taken seriously by his fellow fisherman, and he is forced to lead a life of relative isolation and disgrace, since his body is so wracked with maladies now that he cannot even fish any more. Poe presents an engaging dichotomy, between the first man who embraces knowledge and disappears, never to be heard from again, and the second man who rejects this knowledge and returns to the living world of humanity. One is inclined to ask, who makes the better decision? Recalling that the narrator of "MS" was admittedly a skeptic and not easily led to believe in the supernatural or highly unusual, one may dub him to be a "man of science." The tale of "A Descent into the Maelstrom" opens with a quote heralding the powers of God as greater than any human knowledge, and throughout the old man even made references to God, admiring "so wonderful a manifestation of God's power" (237) as the boat entered the whirlpool.

The later appearance of a rainbow may also recall the biblical appearance of a rainbow after the Forty Days' Flood besieging Noah's Ark in the Bible's "Book of Genesis." This old man may be considered a "man of religion." A contrast of the two figures emerges, as the man of science disappears into the unknown, presumably to die, and the man of religion undergoes a miraculous experience only to be ignored by his fellow fisherman. The final conclusion is fairly evident. The man of science disappeared, with only a floating manuscript to relay his experiences, but the man of religion who attempts to inform others is mocked, capitalizing on the very fact that religion is a matter of faith. The old man has no evidence to show them, for his brothers were all drowned. These other fisherman lack faith, as is sometimes the reaction to religious miracles or even biblical stories, because they do not have faith. Yet the old man's misery is increased because of this lack of validation, and his healthy is deteriorating. In the spirit of Glanville, the old man decided that to descend into the abyss would accomplish little, if this would be an allegory for the very "well of Democritus," because God's power is so much greater; to descend would be an act of hubris, or arrogance, in the eyes of God. Instead, he chose to return to his family, as Kant recalls the words of Persius, "Quod sapio satis est mihi," or "What I know is enough for me." So thought the old man, and although badly traumatized, he is still alive.

The old man speaks wistfully to the narrator, expounding a sense of Christian morality in his tale as well, as the old man has two brothers, mirroring the significant number "three," also the number crucified including Jesus. The fish has long been a Christian symbol, noting that these men are all fisherman. As with the Bible, two men die, and the third essentially is resurrected from certain death as he escapes from the Maelstrom, perhaps comparable to Jesus' resurrection. The old man is betrayed by his wicked brother, who tears his grip away from where he stands to save himself, as Jesus was betrayed by Judas before death. However, it is the old man who returns to the world of the living, and it is the traitorous brother who dies, like Judas, even as the old man still forgave and tried to save him. Recall that at one point the narrator refers to the Maelstrom as a "Phlegethon" (231), which was the name of one of the five rivers in Hades, Greek land of the dead, suggesting even further that to descend into the Maelstrom is to die; the old man essentially died and was resurrected upon reaching the surface once again. The fact that the old man is not believed by anyone may be synonymous with the initial denial by people that Jesus had been resurrected due to the powers of God. Similarly here, the fishermen (which was also an analogy applied to Jesus' disciples) deny that the old man was able to enter the Maelstrom and escape from it. With all intents and purposes, "A Descent into the Maelstrom" is embedded with historical and geographical realities, perhaps intertwined with subtle biblical references. The biting irony is that, like "The Balloon-Hoax," this tale is also an elaborate fabrication, embodying yet another attack on Edgar Allan Poe's gullible readership of "quidnuncs." In doing so, Poe reveals his own skepticism of religion as fiction.

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