The Light Side of Darkness
Many people label Edgar Allan Poe a horror writer, plain and simple. For them, "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a tale about a victim of the Spanish Inquisition, its terror and atrocities. The readers of the 1843 edition of The Gift periodical, published in Philadelphia, were intrigued by the frightening drama and tension found in the literal telling of this tale. A more rewarding approach, one that is truer to its author's intention, is to perceive The Pit as a poem of consciousness. After pondering The Pit's meaning, I believe that the story's strength and uniqueness lies in the strong connection between our physical perceptions and our spiritual progress during times of tension or stress. Poe's literary intention was transformative; he hoped to guide readers into other states of consciousness. The latchkey in understanding whether Poe achieved his objective is to observe our own subjective responses to his story.
Descending into the story of "The Pit and the Pendulum", we are faced with emotions of claustrophobia, victimization, restriction, paranoia and an overall sense of hopelessness ending in surprising liberation. Finding analogies to these states is not difficult. Small elevators, or dreams of the like, bring about physiological responses and mental states parallel to those of Poe's protagonist. Any situation of restrictive enclosure, from adolescent "grounding" to modern circumstances of psychological brainwashing or political torture, can evoke similar emotions. It is unlikely that elevators or limitations on our weekend will permanently change our consciousness or offer us an opportunity to envision our lives differently. A stint in a Bolivian or Lebanese prison might, but fortunately, for most of us, this is unlikely.
When do we feel the Pit's amalgam of emotions? What is our thinking like when we do? How does our horrified mental state effect our perception of reality? Is the condition that Poe is dissecting the inheritance of all humanity or merely a special case? Thinking, imagining and feeling my way through the extraordinary story of "The Pit and the Pendulum", I have concluded that Poe has touched upon a universal experience. Whether this state will transform our consciousness depends on whether we recognize the significance of it in our ordinary lives.
A victim swoons under a declaration of judgment. Vertigo sets in, accompanied by the impairment of senses. The condemned hears voices and sounds but can not distinguish them; they bleed into a dull humming sound that goes round and round. Every faculty in his possession moves spatially downward. Hearing is the first effected. There may be a subtle hint that his swoon is of a revelatory nature; did not Ezekiel hear the turning of a wheel within a wheel preceding his great visions? Throughout the tale the victim's physiological responses prepare him for visionary experience.
The story's strength and uniqueness lies in the connection between the physical perceptions and spiritual progress during times of stress.
The courtroom is presided over by vampiric "white-faced" judges eager to condemn to torture and death. Not wanting to hear the judgment pronounced, the man watches as the lips of his executioners silently mouth the syllables of his name. Distracted by the drapery, his eyes catch the flickering flames of the candles illuminating the courtroom. He looks to those candles with hope, finding within them seven angels, celestial counterparts to the hooded judges. As hope courses its way through the man's consciousness, the vision quickly dissipates, replaced by physical nausea, a galvanic or chemical sensation in his body. The angels, his hope of salvation, become mute, immobile objects whose sole function enlightens the hideous proceedings against him.
Hearing precedes the mental drop into darkness and silence. A "musical note," a crescendo of judgment, plummets him downward. Stepping outside the story, above and beyond it, the protagonist becomes the narrator, explaining the stages of consciousness. He determines the theoretical prism through which the story is to be told. Insisting on one constant - the immortality of consciousness - he is an infernal guide to the regions of swoon, dream and death.
Upon return from this Otherworld, he tells us that intuitions and memories precede the realization of our physical sensations. The core of his message is that the spiritual reality precedes the physical in priority . Yet paradoxically it is through these later physical senses that memories of the spirit world come unbidden. Remembrance is crucial but difficult when the consciousness rejoins sensation. The "shadows of memory" are nebulous but sometimes partially recollected.
The protagonist recalls that after his swoon, he is escorted to the underworld by tall figures dressed in black, carrying him downward toward limitless silence and stillness - a domain whose memory threatens ordinary consciousness with madness. At this crucial point, the faculty of hearing jolts him to his senses. The pounding of the heart, the rushing of blood in his body, distract him from his reverie; he returns with a tingling sensation to his bodily existence. His mind, overwhelmed with sensation and feeling, now thinks about the trial, the judges and the sick swoon that overcame him.
The narrative continues punctuated by lapses of unconsciousness. The victim's greatest fear is not that he will see hideous forms or the henchmen of the Inquisition but that there will be nothing to see at all. His fears are confirmed. He sits in darkness. In that darkness, reason comes to birth, at first as a distraction from the utter emptiness, later as a means of survival, and eventually, as a prevention against insanity. Thought is not confined to remembering where he is and how he has arrived there. It takes a pernicious turn down the byways of paranoia. Stories of torture, fables and phantoms blend to create a tabloid upon which the prisoner paints his future fate. The phantasmorgia exhausts itself when he turns to the senses, his tether to the here and now.
Adjusting to the dark and seeing dimly, his first task is to estimate the dimensions of his imprisonment. Stumbling about in the gloom, the prisoner exaggerates the size and the shape of the prison. He surmises it to be at least 50 yards around its sides and full of angles. His calculations are interrupted by a sleep that disorients him enough to backtrack, which inevitably inflates his estimate. The prisoner knows the futility of his efforts but the mere exercise of cognition in such desperate circumstances has a soothing effect. His mind needs to create order from chaos to tether himself to reality.
He is shocked out of his mathematical calculations by a sudden fall. Terror overcomes reason as he grasps that it is by pure random chance that he has avoided falling head long into a pit constructed as a means of his demise. Head hanging above the abyss, his sense of smell guides his imagination to the possible contents of the foul waters below. The curious victim searches for a rock in order to estimate the depths that he has just avoided. As the masonry hits the waterfall below, a light bursts into his vault and a door swiftly shuts. The door slamming is his first awareness that he is being monitored constantly; his torturers are adjusting his torments to his abilities at avoiding disaster.
The prisoner exhausts himself in worry and eventually sleeps. He awakens momentarily from his natural repose and discovers that he has been provided with food and drink. After eating the provision, he realizes he has been drugged and has fallen into a deeper sleep which he calls a "sleep like that of death". The prisoner revives and notices a sulfurous light that allows him to distinguish that he has miscalculated the size of his prison. He is disturbed at his incompetence in auguring the physical puzzle yet admits that it is a "wild interest in trifles" that compels him. The light allows him to clarify his understanding of the shape of his cell. The walls are not labyrinthian, as he imagined, but are carved with designs of fiends and hideous depictions of the punishments of hell. There are not many pits but only one in the middle of the room.
Becoming able to move physically again, the wretch wakens to the grim truth that he is strapped onto a board and bound by a "surcingle". The word he uses is significant; it can apply to the binding of saddle on a horse or to the binding of a priest's cassock. He perceives himself as bound like an animal by the belt of a priest, symbolically bound to the perverted will of his prison-masters. Driven by his senses, the prisoner realizes that the salty fare he fed on has increased his thirst. But the only available liquid is drugged and keeps him in a constant stupor.
A visual image distracts him. Far above his bound body, on the ceiling of the chamber, is the figure of Time holding what first appears to be his traditional scythe. Upon closer contemplation, the prisoner perceives that the painting is no mere symbol - it is an animated instrument of torture, a razor sharp pendulum. At first, he doesn't comprehend his peril, thinking that the motion is meant only to mesmerize or distract him. He looks around seeking other objects to focus his attention on.
Far above his bound body, on the ceiling of the chamber, is the figure of Time holding an animated instrument of torture, a razure sharp pendulum.
The pungent salty meat attracts a horde of rats. This diversion allows him the partial success of scaring them away with his one mobile arm. After hours of dissuading the rats in such a manner, he casts his eyes upward and recognizes that the pendulum has descended, almost imperceptibly, but enough to convince him that it will be lowered incrementally towards his immovable body. Fear and stress cause him to pass out. Upon wakening, he becomes aware that the pendulum has not shifted position while he was asleep but resumes its careening motion only as he becomes conscious of it. Undoubtedly, the pendulum is in strict control by those who control him.
As he reaches out for food left over by the rats, the victim has an ironic intuition of hope in the midst of this forlorn situation. Through the act of eating, a decision toward sustaining life takes place in the mind of the prisoner. This decision revives his vague sense of primordial hope. The full intellectual expression of this hope is not accessible to the victim. It is there only as a half-formed pattern; his mind quickly retreats back into fantasy and paranoia.
He plays the childish game of trying to still the steel through the power of his will. Perhaps if he concentrates enough on the blade, he can arrest its descent. Anticipation of the climax, where the edge of the steel slashes the cloth of his garments, scares and yet thrills him. One moment he disassociates himself from the descending blade, imagining it to be a shiny bauble viewed from the crib of an innocent; the next moment he arches his body, lurching upward, yearning to conclude the excruciating torment.
Sensing his end coming closer, the victim suddenly is thrust back to reasoning, to thinking on that half-formed hope that was interrupted. Was it the hope of escape or the hope of death? He calls it the "hope that triumphs on the rack." Will the knife slice the surcingle and free him? He concludes that he will not be saved by death nor by steel and stealth but by concentrating on that moment when he reaches his hand out for the food at his side. The immediate source of his deliverance is a variant of Aesop's fable of the mouse and the elephant where the smallest beast liberates the greatest in the act of gnawing away his shackles. Subjecting himself to the horror of having rats crawl over his person and biting deeply into his fingers as they nibble the food, the victim smears himself with the rancid meat and makes an escape from his second ordeal. He is free of the pendulum. Free only to be tortured further.
The eyes of his tormentors and the eyes of the figures drawn on the wall can hardly be distinguished. They have the same effect. Smell is the vehicle of revelation this time. He smells the heated iron of the vast plates that form the walls of his prison. The room gets hotter as he is forced to shield himself. Not only that, but the room's dimensions shift to an ever-restricting lozenge shape that forces him to the center; he is summoned once again to the pit. Tottering on the precipice the prisoner screams relinquishment and closes his eyes. In silence, he is disturbed by sound, the sound of human voices and the victorious forces of General LaSalle's army of liberation.
Instead of moralizing on the respective goodness and badness of life and death, Poe's story portrays them as the ambiguous twins that they are. His eyes focus upward on the origin of the sulfurous light.
Long before his protagonist stared at white-faced "red-lipped" judges of the Inquisition, Poe wiped the blood from the anemic brow of his young wife Virginia (Clemm) Poe. Intuitions of hope, partial victories followed by crushing defeats, stupors of intoxication, and paranoia were first biographic realities before they made their way to the fictive page. The word of judgment mouthed by the doctor on January of 1842 was "tuberculosis," a Red Death that plagued many women in Poe's life. Virginia was in the middle of a playful song when she coughed the first specks of blood. She and Edgar were bound to the sick bed for several years after that, witnessing brief relapses that only brought about a new torment.
They had moved to Philadelphia. Poe was at his peak of creativity when they realized their doom. In the middle of judgment came angels of light. Poe's works were becoming well accepted. His work as the editor of Graham's journal thrived and many magazines requested copies of his work. Poe was honoured with an exclusive interview with the bright light of London's literary scene, Charles Dickens. Surely he saw in reflection of this once poor and destitute man become world-renowned author hope for his own struggles. By year's end, "The Pit and the Pendulum" along with a collection of stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, were published. Virginia would show signs of improvement and periodically entered life with hope. Little wonder that The Pit contains the surprising outcome of deliverance, a novelty in the stories of Poe.
In a recent family movie, Casper: The Friendly Ghost (1995) Casper's young teenage friend Kat (Christina Ricci) asks, "What it is like to die?" Casper responds, "It is like being born in reverse." The joy of new life often cancels out the pain which brought that life forth. Birth is usually positively configured; death is seen as negative. Poe introduced his readership to a "new take" on life's bookends. Instead of moralizing on the respective goodness and badness of life and death, Poe's story portrays them as the ambiguous twins that they are. His method was to describe the mental processes of dying and living so carefully, that their often overlooked commonalities are brought to the forefront.
Thank Heaven! The crisis- The danger is past, And the lingering illness is over at last- And the fever called "Living" Is conquered at last.
As living beings we dream, swoon, experience reveries and intuitions that take us out of ordinary consciousness to another state. Poe thinks of that other state in a similar fashion to the ancient philosopher Plato. It is a place of eternity and permanence from which all things come forth and return to. Near the end of his life in 1847, Poe wrote a poem called Eureka and dedicated it to the connection between time and eternity. Both intersect in times of transition, at birth and at death, and in any traumatic experience that symbolically connects us to these grand events. The prisoner in "The Pit and The Pendulum", because he is close to death, is close to his birth and origins. Poe believed, along with William Wordsworth and the English Romantics, that being born was actually coming to the end of another existence. Altered states of consciousness are the "gossamer webs", the traces or leftovers of this other world. Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality:
Our birth is but a sleeping and a forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God who is our home.
The horrors of the Inquisition, of birth and death, place a stress upon the mind and senses to such an extent that memory of that forgotten realm and intimations of its existence are made available to the reader. Poe, by threatening death, brings us back to our birth and its pressures. Like the newborn, the first experience we encounter in a swoon or dream is the feeling of floating in the womb. Imagine if newborns had the language capable of describing their passage down the birth canal from the peacefulness of the amniotic universe of their mother's womb. That peacefulness would express paradisiacal safety and containment. When birth is about to take place we say that the baby is about to "drop". It is the language of descent. Constrained and taken by force, we are driven down the confining, restrictive tunnel that leads to the new world. If we could, as the Scripture mockingly invites us, "enter the womb and be born again," we would be scared out of our wits - driven, as Poe says, to madness. The shadowy tall figures of The Pit, "...are they midwives or pallbearers?"
The prisoner is taken from life, escorted by fiends to the court and condemned to death. What he was charged with we do not know; the prisoner doesn't even question his guilt or innocence. He is simply there. Something is about to happen to him. Like the soul, he is snatched from eternity and driven into existence for reasons that will only be apparent at the end of the journey.
Entry to the senses is experienced as being sucked into a whirlpool or vortex. The chamber is "womb-like" in form but "tomb-like" in its physical composition. At the shock of awakening, the prisoner experiences an onslaught of physical sensations that Poe compared to the punishments of hell. The surcingle is restrictive and the death struggle fluctuates from fearful to fascinating as the inner pendulum of the prisoner's thoughts flow from activity to passivity, from sorrow to joy.
Fearful, overwhelming and restrictive events, seen through "Poe-etic" eyes, are places of recreation and liberation. Circumstances that shock us out of our senses, destroy our mathematical calculations, and turn our finest reasoning into mere distraction, recreate us. Given such a view, is it not perplexing that Poe is viewed by most critics as a prophet of pessimism rather than a poet of consciousness? He follows in the long line of apocalyptic seers who were accused of doom and gloom as they saw in the ashes of an old realm the new being created. Poe is an apocalyptic writer whose story is a part of the literature of the dispossessed and who struggled to affirm hope in the midst of despair. He reminded his readers that the journey from birth through death to rebirth has been taken by each of us before. Any similar journey can be entered into again, if we choose to relinquish our comfort and move with faith toward the pit. As the ancients used to believe, the place where you die is where you become young again.
Painting by Bev Patterson
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