R. Curtis Bristol, M.D.
Psychoanalyst and Psychiatrist

Recent Writings


The Life and Work of Edgar A. Poe—presented at the Lichtenberg Creativity Study Group March 2010 and published in The American Psychoanalyst
, September 2010. 

Edgar A. Poe once described his literature as:  “The ludicrous heightened into the grotesque; the fearful colored into the horrible; the witty exaggerated into the burlesque; the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.”  His life was burdened by loss, death, and desperation so that his tales of terror, mystery and the bizarre appear as if a repetition of his own experience.  Edgar was born in 1809 to transient thespian parents who were dead before he was three.  He was provided a good home and education by his childless guardians, John and Frances Allan.  But after his first year at the University of Virginia he aroused the wrath of John Allan because of a “slothful, drunken and indebted student life.”  He was seventeen when John Allan stopped supporting him.  Edgar wandered performing various jobs, joined the Army, attended West Point and at twenty-seven married his thirteen year old first cousin. In contrast to his chaotic life, he was a productive and focused writer and became increasingly well known as a brilliant short story writer and essayist but he was unable to keep editing jobs or launch his own magazine.  He was often drunk and always poor.  He achieved international acclaim for the Raven published when he was thirty-five and was the darling of the American literati.  He died destitute and alone in Baltimore at age thirty-nine.

I believe a unifying theme common in many of Poe’s works is evident when exploring his literature using the common denominator, “mystery,” that to Poe was what the “unconscious” was to Sigmund Freud (1854-1939): a tool to examine the mind.

William Wilson marks the transition of Poe’s literature to inner mindedness.  The story protagonist, William Wilson, has a sullied past traced to his unscrupulous choices as a school boy.  There he encountered another of his own likeness by name, birth date and physical characteristics. Although there is affection between them his behavior sets him apart from the other William Wilson. At school and afterward he is deceitful and malevolent.  His “double” appears at critical moments in his life as a “whisper” in his ear to monitor him.  Enraged when his double places his “hand on his shoulder” during a masked ball at Carnival in Rome where he plans the seduction of an older nobleman’s younger wife, the first William Wilson draws his sword intending to murder the second William Wilson, only to recognize in the mirrored room of their fatal duel that the other person is himself.  This is a brilliant demonstration of conscience by projection of the opposite of a pair—good and bad. 

In another story, The Man of the Crowd, Poe begins with thoughts about human secrets:

which do not permit themselves to be told.  Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors and looking them piteously in their eyes--die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed.  Now and then alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave.  And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged. 

The narrator, a convalescent, sits in a London Coffee-House “peering through the smoky panes into the street” with an “inquisitive interest in everything.”  He observes the details of likeness and differences of “innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gate, visage and expression of countenance.”  He categorizes the class, genus and species of various men of business, dandies, military men, gamblers, exhausted laborers, clergyman and women of the town of “varying beauty and inebriation.” 

A “decrepit old man” catches his attention and causes him to stir from his voyeuristic comfort to join the crowd and follow him as he conjectures the old man’s purpose.  He follows him to a Gin House—the “fiend gin” is his purpose!  But no, the old man joins the flow of the morning crowd and the narrator follows him observing the same aimlessness.  Poe concludes, “(He) is the type and the genius of deep crime.  He refuses to be alone.  He is the man of the crowd.” 

Poe’s concludes that “crime,” is more abstract than his ratiocination tales about clues of criminal wrong doing.  In fact there are no direct clues!  The “wrong doing” is to be alone, unconnected and without meaning to another. The “crime” is the isolation and aloneness that one will bear in pain until the grave, a double of what Poe projects as the enlivened, cunning intelligence of the voyeuristic stalker recovering from illness.  The stalker and stalked are doubles.

My hypothesis for understanding Edgar A. Poe is the power of his language to construct a short tale that the reader identifies with through the narrator as observer on the scene, however terrifying and repugnant, forcing the reader to think about his own life. Poe intends to arouse terror and pity similar to Aristotle’s explanation of Greek tragedy, in order to teach moral themes. 

Poe’s, The Black Cat, is his best mad-man-killer-in-denial.  “Yet, mad man am I not—and surely I do not dream,” says the narrator. Condemned to die the next day, he writes a “wild yet most homely narrative” not to confess guilt or seek redemption but to explain his “perversity.” 

The narrator-killer recounts a childhood history—actually an anamnesis connecting adult actions with early life experience--of “docility and humanity” and his fondness of, and parental indulgence for, his love of animals.  His wife replaces his parents and supports his many pets.  Pluto, a beautiful and sagacious black cat, is his best companion and very affectionate until the “Fiend Intemperance” intervenes.  He becomes moody, irritable and disregards the feelings of others.  Enraged with Pluto who avoids him one evening after excessive drinking, he cuts out an eye from its socket with his pen knife. 

The next morning he feels “half of horror, half of remorse for the crime…but it was at best a feeble and equivocal feeling and the soul remained untouched.”  The cat’s aversive terror initially causes him grief, soon replaced by irritation.  Poe offers an explicit character study more than description of debauching:

 Perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?  Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of

our best judgment to violate that which is Law, merely because we

vex ourself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the

wrong’s sake only.

With this insightful preamble, he hangs Pluto “in cold blood” from the yard tree limb with “with bitterest remorse at (his) heart.”

Hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God. 

A conflagration follows and destroys his home and wealth to which he resigns himself

“rejecting cause and effect as to atrocity and calamity,” only detailing a “chain of facts.”

Yet he wonders at the bas-relief of Pluto on the one surviving wall:

Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether my

conscience, for the starting (apparition)…it did not the less fail to make

a deep impression on my fancy.  For months I could not rid myself of the

phantom of the cat and during this period, there came back into my spirit of half-sentiment that seemed, but was not remorse.


A substitute for Pluto is found offering the opportunity for repair of the past or the compulsion to repeat it. The second Black Cat comes to resemble the first in appearance and fondness for the narrator.  “Disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred.”  He loathes the animal he hoped to love for the one that he had loved but grown to hate.  As a breath of pestilence, it became literally Pluto with an empty eye socket and white hair spot at the neck transformed into a noose.

As he descends into the cellar aiming the hatchet at the double of Pluto, he instead buries it into the brain of his wife. He hides the corpse and looks about in “triumph” and “supreme happiness.”  “The guilt of (his) dark deed disturbed (him) but little.” His heart beat calmly and as in innocence when conducting the police on their search that “left no nook or corner unexplored.”  Satisfied, they prepare to depart.  He inexplicably brags of the soundness of his house, that like The House of Usher, is about to collapse.  The missing cat behind the catacomb reveals the tomb upon the pounding of his walking stick.

a cry at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman—a howl, a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.

The stark terror presented in Poe’s tales obscures a more profound allegorical meaning.  Things are what they are and remain unexplained--a mystery--until challenged by another, as The Man of the Crowd, or challenged from within oneself, as William Wilson, or challenged by the reader as in the Black Cat.

Poe’s dark tales are illuminated by psychological construction and not the religious, super-natural or oracular common to his time.  This framework precedes psychoanalytic ideas, but explicitly includes free association, hubristic self-defeat, various defenses like displacement, undoing identification, denial, projection and idealization. 

There is no shortage of the Poe biography and commentary to document his life.  These biographies document his driving ambition to be accepted as person and writer against the odds of his unpredictability, his alcoholic excesses and posthumous diagnoses of bipolar psychosis, narcissistic or paranoid personality disorder.  These psychopathological views of Edgar A. Poe and his works are celebrated in the R. W. Griswald’s “memoir’ published with his collected works the year after his death and have clouded our understanding of Poe’s genius judged from his creative works. 

Poe defies the warning of Seneca, the Roman philosopher, “to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”  In addition to his initial Gothic tales, Poe is celebrated as the originator of horror-terror tales, the detective story and science fiction in addition to his excellent literary criticism, commentary and poetry. He turned the American reader away from manifest destiny to the inner self to examine what is weird, unwanted and unacknowledged. 




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