You may have read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. Chances are you’ve read a little whether you’re a fan or not. Poe’s influence, as James Wood wrote of Flaubert, is “almost too familiar to be visible,” while Poe’s work is standard in school curricula across the U.S. and beyond. I still remember how, when I was living in Australia a few years ago and happened to be seated at a coworker’s kitchen table, her eight-year-old son burst in, gushing about “The Raven,” impressed that a poem, of all things, could be so scary.
Still, Poe’s work has its less-visited corners. Take “A Chapter of Suggestions,” an 1844 essay in which Poe set aside literary criticism to advance a different and, to my eye, more personal set of ideas. There is some profound shit in there. The first paragraph goes like this, no preamble:
In the life of every man there occurs at least one epoch, when the spirit seems to abandon, for a brief period, the body, and, elevating itself above mortal affairs just so far as to get a comprehensive and general view, makes thus an estimate of its humanity, as accurate as is possible, under any circumstances, to that particular spirit. The soul here separates itself from its own idiosyncrasy, or individuality… All the important good resolutions which we keep—all startling, marked regenerations of character—are brought about at these crises of life.
A quick and dirty translation? Once or twice in our lifetimes, you and I will experience dissociative moments that allow us to glimpse our humanity beyond the idiosyncratic snags of our personalities. Understanding the self in fact requires transcending the self, however briefly. And such crises may lead to breakthroughs, epiphanies, moments of much-longed-for change. It’s like what people say now about eating shrooms.
Poe, we can be pretty sure, wasn’t writing under any psychedelic influence, but he did have his own experiences of anxiety, depression, and/or periodic breaks with reality. He wrote “A Chapter of Suggestions” for money, netting 50 cents a page when it was published in an 1845 gift book, which may have helped alleviate some of his anxiety, if only for a moment. The reason you and I might find it a funny, poignant reading experience today is because Poe’s “Suggestions” sound a lot like contemporary self-help. He veers through a series of disconnected paragraphs, rattling on about probability, the imagination, why disappointed artists may drink too much in midlife, and more. Here are his bugbears, weaknesses, obsessions, hopes—plus a little how-to, dusted with 19th-century pop science and transparent wish-thinking—in one place and under 2,000 words.
In paragraph four, he remarks how often our first grasp of an idea, our initial intuitive impression, turns out to be the most accurate. We know this from our childhood reading, Poe says. We encounter a poem as a kid and we love it. Later, we grow up only to scoff at the same poem. Then we reach yet another stage in which we return to our initial impression, the right one.
What’s startling now, even eerie, is how accurate Poe’s description of this process is for those of us who—like my coworker’s bowled-over son—loved “The Raven” as children, thrilling to its dark rhythms and atmosphere of glamorous doom. Later, as undergrads or grad students, we put that enthusiasm behind us, knowing without having to ask that, past a certain age, it’s not cool to like Poe. And then, once we’ve graduated, lost whatever grasp we ever gained of theory, and reentered civilian life, we recognize all over again how good “The Raven” really is, how effective and successful. Yes, it is a carefully calculated shot at reaching fame by satisfying popular taste, and that is precisely why it works.
Or take paragraph seven, in which Poe tells us that being a genius means attracting haters, “a set of homunculi, eager to grow notorious by the pertinacity of their yelpings,” but also that, crucially, not everyone who attracts haters is a genius:
All men of genius have their detractors; but it is merely a non distributio medii to argue, thence, that all men who have their detractors are men of genius. Yet, undoubtedly, of all despicable things, your habitual sneerer at real greatness, is the most despicable…Their littleness is measured by the greatness of those whom they have reviled.
Clock the pettiness of detractors by the outsize nature of what they attack: Now that’s insightful.
Skipping to paragraph nine, Poe informs us that geniuses like getting drunk. It grows out of habits picked up in youth, he says, but later becomes more about somehow coping with the unfairness of existence: “The earnest longing for artificial excitement, which, unhappily, has characterized too many eminent men, may thus be regarded as a psychal want, or necessity. . . a struggle of the soul to assume the position which, under other circumstances, would have been its due.”
Readers familiar with Poe’s blog-like Marginalia series and his galaxy-brained prose-poem Eureka will spot familiar strains of thinking in this paragraph and the larger “Chapter.” There is Poe’s tendency to make grand pronouncements about the character of geniuses—something he got on a tear about with some frequency—and all of which, it should come as no surprise, might be applied directly to himself. Call it self-justification, but there might be more to it than that. It’s these moments when we get the keenest insight into Poe’s own turbulent and amazingly successful life—from the person who lived it. How to make sense of its devastating ups and downs, victories and reversals?
Well, he tells us. Such self-knowledge as he ever gained came from moments of profound crisis, as well as sidelong looks and returning to first impressions—or so we might conclude from reading the “Chapter.” And maybe we might now recognize that the same process gives us our best chance of attaining wisdom and self-knowledge in our own lives, too.
Elsewhere, Poe liked to present himself as a towering, one-take auteur. Think of “The Philosophy of Composition,” the essay in which he dubiously, maybe-kinda satirically claimed that he wrote “The Raven” according to some ultra-precise formula. Whereas in “A Chapter of Suggestions” he shows himself to be no stranger to the sorts of questions you and I ask our cracked ceilings at 4 a.m. He wondered about his own lurching, intermittent progress, about the faults and failings of his character—what the scholar Jerome McGann once listed as “his lies, his follies, his plagiarisms, his hypocrisies”—and whether these might sink him.
Maybe the most surprising thing about “A Chapter of Suggestions” is how, in the 177 years since its publication, and in contrast to the rest of Poe’s work, it’s received so little critical attention. If there’s a single paper dedicated to it in all of JSTOR, I haven’t found it. Burton R. Pollin, who wrote an introduction identifying its origins and genre, concluded that the essay might fall under “general philosophy,” alongside other species of vaguely high-minded magazine filler common in Poe’s era.
We might go a step further. Poe, it seems to me, was pondering the subject of personal growth. Where he landed was somewhere between Coleridge at his most aphoristic, metaphysical and self-justifying, and Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, who’s now in a psychedelic phase and who’s never really gotten credit, either, for the range of his thought.
Besides: lies, follies, hypocrisies? That’s most of us, if we’re honest. No wonder then that the ways we come to insight are so strange, glancing, sidelong. Or that we tend to second-guess our initial impressions, only later coming to realize, to know—and, of course, to rationalize. It’s weird to be human, even as we’re unable to compare it with, say, being a macaque or an orchid. We lurch from crisis to crisis, and what knowledge we ever arrive at is likely to surprise us. You can almost see Poe enacting this process in his essay. It makes me think that our childhood assessments of him were right all along: in his darkness, odd rhythms and peculiar wisdom, Poe really was cool. And still is.
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Image Credit: Flickr/Alvaro Tapia.