La Maschera della Morte Rossa
Tratto da un racconto di E.A. Poe
by Sandro D. Fossemò
(Translation of Rossella Cirigliano)
"There are things you know about,
and things you don’t, the known and the unknown,
and in between are the doors—that’s us."
For a long time psychoanalysis has found out that in a conflicting but creative way there can be a psychological link between a “gifted perception” and a “mental dissociation” in the artist who in his neurosis suffers from perception problems. On the contrary, the mechanistic conception of positivistic psychiatry has labelled “abnormality” as “mental illness”, thus denying the creative aspects so deeply connected to the perception field. Exactly like it occurs to the oyster that, thanks to a slight flaw in its shell, let a grain of sand inside to produce a pearl, for those who have a perception problem their pearl is their art.
Jungian psychoanalysis in particular applies to a study that connects the unconscious to the neurotic and genial expression of the dreamer, where perception is directly influenced by the archetype.
Even though I do not intend to analyse the complex and genial mind of the well-known poet, I can try to imagine a psychological path, only intuitive and poetical, of his remarkable artistic creativity and state undoubtedly that the most brilliant minds are often the most sensible and, in a sense, the most ‘wrecked’ because of a peculiar perception of reality aiming at going beyond the common one, in order to examine the ‘hidden’ one.
Poe, in Marginalia, writes about perception:
-That intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge, when reason herself falters and abandons the effort, appears to resemble the sudden glancing at a star, by which we see it more clearly than by a direct glaze; or the half-closing the eyes in looking at a plot of grass, the more fully to appreciate the intensity of its green.-
Besides, I also consider the most part of Freud psychoanalysis unreliable, so I do not agree at all with Maria Bonaparte (1882-1962)’s absurd interpretations. I also believe it is wrong and deterministic to go back to the author’s psyche merely starting from a critical analysis of his works, or analysing the dream expression just as an unconscious revelation of the ‘repressed’. We can never be sure of the psychoanalytical solutions for the complicated human psyche, in particular if it is gifted. Before analysing the visionary experiences, we have to stress that Poe was on drugs, such as the laudanum, which certainly changed his predisposition to mental dissociation 1 to an enhanced perception of reality, able to release those very symbolic contents of the unconscious in Poe’s fiction. It is obvious that those drugs only helped his creativity but did not cause it.
If the artist, like psychoanalysis asserts, through imagination can simulate the dream and become an interpreter of the unconscious, he can observe and amplify the dream hemisphere of reality through its perception. The dream intertwined with reality becomes a means to examine and reveal the riddles of reality.
If we live inside a dream but we are not aware of it for our limited perception, then we can go beyond our perceptive limit through a surreal art. In Poe’s art the dream changes into a symbolic language, aiming at showing the soul metaphysical delirium in a ‘meta-symbolic’ synthesis coming from the archetype of the collective unconscious. Thus, Poe’s art becomes a meta-symbolic one that creates the mythopoeic imagination that unconsciously reveals itself in reality. If myths reveal our real hidden identity, it is obvious that the archetypical imagination living and reigning inside us is not only a means to get to know ourselves, but also it is above all a perceptive key to understand the world.
Dream and art are linked to the myth universe and much less to that of the repressed, but if psychoanalysis considers art as an action of balance between the needs of the unconscious and conscious world, then we can consider mythopoeic expression as a human desire to go back to the primitive as a reaction to a morally and rationally repressive reality. So myths are a kind of primordial forces which unconsciously take part in the artistic expression, just like it used to happen with gods in ancient Greece.
An example is the story The Devil in the Belfry where a mysterious character, through a clock deception, puzzles a functional and mechanistic society.
That obscure and demonic destroyer that acts against a ‘perfect system’ can be seen as god Pan grappling with an inhuman technicist world. Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman (1926-2011) explains imagination and world above all on the mythological point of view, where archetypes organize our imaginary and dream activity. It is limited and also inappropriate to consider art as the expression of a dimension between an oppressive reality and a consequent imagination that satisfy and compensate our deep desires.
Art can also be a metaphysical projection of myths into reality, through a meta-symbolic expression, where reality is transcended to leave room for a dream imagination of the ‘ancient’ or ‘ancestral’, represented by the very archetype.
Dream is Death
Death is depicted by Poe as a psychological nightmare, where reality melts into dream in the mental dissociation of the main character who, immersed in a timeless labyrinth, acts with lucid insanity, according to a diabolic plan of death. Soul and death are madly and rationally intertwined in the nightmare. The deeper we are in the soul abyss, the clearer we catch sight of death, as Hillman states: Dream is Soul and Soul is Death.2 The link between dream and death dates back to the primitives, for whom the dream world was the death world. Such concept is also in Hillman’s psychoanalysis, which definitely rejects the Freudian or Jungian idea of unconscious as an expression of day repressions, and in dreams only sees Ades, the realm of the dead, the ‘underworld’, ruled by gods and myths of Ancient Greece. In my opinion, Poe’s art suits that mythological imagination suggested by Hillman with his “Old Age Psychology”, in which dreams emerge from that realm of the dead where soul dwells. In the short story Ligeia, for example, at night the main character sees a shadow behind the glare of an incense burner almost to show the soul wandering in the realm of the dead. In fact in Poe’s dream universe the ancestral myth often lingers as a symbolic call of death where the “dread of soul” develops.
For Poe he who daydreams develops a lot of creativity and can understand the complexity of reality at the price of a visionary dissociation state, aiming at expressing a “supreme form of intelligence”. Mental alteration states are a means to develop creativity, for they allow the unconscious to emerge frenetically in the perceptive field.
The secret of genial perception consists in the interpenetration between dream and reality, determined by altered mental states caused by psychological traumas, where dissociation from reality occurs.
C.G. Jung (1875-1961) brilliantly analyses the event when a person loses any awareness of reality to leave space for the unconscious.
-The forces erupted from collective psyche bring confusion and mental blindness. A consequence of the dissolution of persona is that imagination gets loose, that is what collective psyche does. This break-in of fantastic elements violently spread in the conscience materials and impulses whose existence nobody had any doubts. All the treasures of thought and mythological feeling are found out. It is not always easy to resist such overwhelming sensations. This phase is listed among those representing a real danger during analysis, danger not to be underestimated. It is easy to understand that this condition is so unbearable that man wants to end it as soon as possible, as its resemblance with mental alienation is that strong. The most common form of madness, early dementia or schizophrenia, basically consists in the fact that the unconscious expels and replaces the functions of the conscious mind. The unconscious seizes the functions of reality and substitutes them with a reality of its own. Unconscious thoughts are audible as voices, or are perceived as illusions or body hallucinations. They show themselves as senseless yet unmovable decisions, made in opposition to reality.
As persona dissolves in collective psyche, the unconscious is similarly yet not identically driven into conscience. The only difference from the mental alienation state is that the unconscious is brought on the surface through conscious analysis; at least this is what happens to the principle of analysis, when strong cultural resistances are still to be overcome. Then, after overthrowing the barriers set up for years, the unconscious spontaneously intrudes upon conscience and sometimes burst into the mind like a torrent. In this phase resemblance with mental alienation is very strong. But it would be about real madness only if unconscious contents became a reality which replaced conscious reality; in other words, if the subject gave credence to them. - 3 (Italics is mine)
Only a mind as well prepared as Poe’s is ready to receive unconscious invasions without giving in completely to mental alienation, because the writer can brilliantly use perceptive dysfunction as a cognitive means of reality through the rational analysis of his own imagination. As a consequence, Poe is not a schizophrenic, who has completely lost the sense of reality but an intense visionary, talented and able to consciously control his own visions. Jungian analysis about dissociation from reality with peculiar visions is confirmed when the writer describes his mental state when he “day-dreams” in the essay Marginalia, making imprecise reference to some sudden “fancies”.4
-There is, however, a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word fancies at random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquillity-when the bodily and mental health are in perfection-and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these "fancies" only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time-yet it is crowded with these "shadows of shadows"; and for absolute thought there is demanded time's endurance.
I think that the very dissociative disturb allowed Poe to be a great commentator of the psyche. I mean that the writer, as also described in Marginalia, by consciously, yet involuntarily dissociating from reality (also for the use of certain drugs), that is without being victim of his psychic alteration, analyses and studies the soul to understand, in a paradoxically dissociative way, the dark side of the psyche described in the schizophrenic characters of his short stories. So it is completely false and absurd what Maria Bonaparte says:
-In order to prevent his strange, unstable and obsessed nature from being a real criminal or insane, Edgar Allan Poe had also an unusual “drug”- ink, with which he impressed on paper his beautiful and well-finished writing, macabre “images”, horrible but comforting, that relieved him of his grief.-7
Instead, the writer does not use his dissociation to save himself from insanity, but to examine other people's insanity. Writing wasn't a means to escape his own insanity but to sink into other people's insanity. He might have been a talented psychologist, who used his own neurosis to understand human schizophrenia. Poe is mentally the healthiest of all because he is good at getting to know himself and the others. Only a mentally sane person can understand when reason changes into “lucid madness”, because it becomes too instrumental or obsessive, for a serious perceptive problem doomed to result in schizophrenia. About mental illness Poe defines the “evil genius of deception” as a kind of “imp of the perverse” or of inner drive in the human soul, aiming at making us do cruelties for the very pleasure to do evil. We do horrible things without a valid reason,just for the fun of it.
The creative power of imagination allows the genius to exploit the messages of the unconscious: in fact the analytical imagination is the mental ability to organize those unexpected thoughts, made up of images or emotions that apparently seem insignificant and messy, and change them into complete art. 8 Poe developed what he defines “analytical imagination” to examine the obscure nightmares of human soul and immerse them in creative and striking surreal darkness. Nietzsche also believed in analytical rationality as a basis to creative inspiration.
- In reality the imagination of the good artist or thinker constantly produces good, mediocre, and bad, but hispower of judgment, most clear and practised, rejects and chooses and joins together, just as we now learn from Beethoven’s notebooks that he gradually composed the most beautiful melodies, and in a manner selected them, from many different attempts. He who makes less severe distinctions, and willingly abandons himself to imitative memories, may under certain circumstances become a great improvisator; but artistic improvisation ranks low in comparison with serious and laboriously chosen artistic thoughts. All great men were great workers, unwearied not only in invention but also in rejection, reviewing, transforming, and arranging.-9
The writer's analytical imagination is connected to Schelling's (1775-1854) aesthetical idealism where the genius can understand the vital energy of nature in an artistic sense through conscious psychic activity, which allows him to find out the art of nature in the unconscious. According to Schelling, nature is a sublime universal artistic expression, an unconscious poem able to inspire the genial artist's conscience. A similar conscience can also be found in the Kantian transcendental idealism of S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834), where the artist's imagination comes from a creative elaboration of unconscious elements. Schelling and Coleridge are ideal authors to understand Poe's aesthetical development.
The writer reveals the key of creative and perceptive intelligence in the introduction to the short story Eleonora, where the creative quality of “madness” is explained
-I AM come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence -- whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound -- does not spring from disease of thought -- from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil. They penetrate, however, rudderless or compassless into the vast ocean of the "light ineffable," and again, like the adventures of the Nubian geographer, "agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi." We will say, then, that I am mad. I grant, at least, that there are two distinct conditions of my mental existence -- the condition of a lucid reason, not to be disputed, and belonging to the memory of events forming the first epoch of my life -- and a condition of shadow and doubt, appertaining to the present, and to the recollection of what constitutes the second great era of my being.-10
Poe also expresses that in his short story, Berenice: -The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, not the material of my every-day existence, but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself.-11
Therefore, “genius and intemperance” interpenetrate when dissociation from reality paradoxically creates that associative intelligence, which allows dream to emerge as a creative “visionary ecstasy” in reality.
1) For those who want to analyse the effects hallucinogenic drugs have on perception of reality, even though Poe was on opium and not on mescaline or LSD, I suggest the popular book by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception, and the research of the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof .
2) J. Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, Est,1996, p. 9
3) Carl Gustav Jung, Inconscio, Occultismo e Magia, Newton Compton Publisher, Roma, 1985, pages 167-168
4) We have to pay attention to the correct translation of the word “fancies”, which we also can translate with “imaginations”. The English text can be found on the following website 'Marginalia by Edgar Allan Poe' (Graham's Magazine, March, 1846) at this link: http://www.4literature.net/Edgar_Allan_Poe/Marginalia/3.html
However, in the text Poe clarifies the term “fancies” with “Psychal Impressions”.
5) Marginalia, in Filosofia della composizione e altri saggi, Napoli, Guida,1986, pag. 89
6) Augusto Romano, Poe e la psicologia analitica junghiana: nostalgia delle origine e immagini del femminile in E.A. Poe dal gotico alla fantascienza, Mursia, pag. 267.
7) M. Bonaparte , Edgar Allan Poe. Studio analitico, Newton Compton, Roma 1976,vol. I, pp. 96-97 in Daniela Fargione, Giardini e labirinti: l'America di Edgar Allan Poe, Celid, 2005, pag.82
8) See introduction by Carlo Izzo in Tutti i racconti e le poesie, Casa Editrice Le Lettere, Firenze, 1990, pag. XXIV
9) F. Nietzsche, Belief in Inspiration, in Human, All too Human
10) Eleonora in Poe, Racconti del terrore, Oscar classici Mondadori, Arnoldo Mondadori
Editore, Milano, VII rist. 1999, pag. 196)
11) Berenice in Poe, Racconti del terrore, idem, pag. 74
The fear of unknown from the abyss of the soul to cosmic chaos
by Sandro D. Fossemò
Traduzione di Rossella Cirigliano
“Life and dreams are leaves of the same book:
reading them in order is living,
skimming through them is dreaming”.
When the master of the ghost story M.R. James reads Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, he does not make out the deep meaning of the term “cosmic” and naively ends up by ridiculing it to a friend of his. James makes a sensational mistake, for he does not realize that adjective is the access key to the core of the fantastic literature where man is often to face, with his own might only, an awfully chaotic world and, for this, unlikely to be understood by human rationality. As Roger Caillois justly writes in his essay “De la féerie à la science-fiction”, the fantastic «reveals a scandal, a laceration, an unusual, almost unbearable, invasion in the real world. […] With the fantastic a new bewilderment, an unknown panic appears.» In such a dramatic and psychologically decentralized condition, reality is unknown and untamable, for supernatural forces rule it to the prejudice of the cosmic or earthly system we believe structured and rational. Therefore, because of a foreign and adverse environment, a psychic “laceration” arises which, according to Edgar Allan Poe, comes out of an ill soul and, according to Lovecraft, of a crazy universe but, for both, such an inner gash is a passage to the horror, bound to come to death or psychological delirium. In such a context, it is easy to guess the deep nature of terror within the fantastic as a direct manifestation of a blind and cruel Nature that is called “cosmic terror”. It describes the terrible fear the unknown causes, where human condition is literally subject to indecipherable events. The link between fear and incomprehensible occurs when the characters are not the human beings but those supernatural events which devour the anthropocentric element in favor of colossal and anonymous occult agitations, coming from beyond. Lovecraft himself thinks it is important to give room to what we have left behind, if we want to express the nature of the fantastic. «The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background. Pleasure to me is wonder – the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability.» Thus it is a question of freeing and interpreting an inner and fantastic-inherent expression, which is firstly amplified to the detriment of the anthropocentric element and then changed into a horror sense under the influence of the unknown, which may have a metaphysical or materialistic direction, depending on the author’s cosmic philosophy.
Poe and Lovecraft, in their common passion for the noble science of astronomy, have both developed a cosmogony influenced by opposed philosophical currents: in fact Poe’s cosmic terror is metaphysical, while Lovecraft’s is merely materialistic. Yet, it is necessary to consider that Lovecraft’s scientific materialism recalls the figure of a “horror poet”, as it is so secret and impenetrable in its unreal dimension that barely touches and goes beyond metaphysics in an almost mimetic and assimilated way, through a mechanistic analysis.
Before shortly analyzing the differences, we must make the point that great writers such as Poe and Lovecraft never show, in their fiction, a well defined and easily identifiable trend within a given “philosophical system”, just because no reductive schematism falls within the natural and variegated existential expression of literature.
The two well-known American writers are great masters of “nightmare” with completely different, if not even opposed, cultural backgrounds; but sometimes, in spite of their obvious differences, they both have in common the same horror expression. They both share the idea of “life as a dream”, but they do not provide the same oneiric interpretation of the world, since Poe’s thought, unlike Lovecraft’s, partly inherits the philosophical development of the German romantic idealism, dating back to early 19th century, which tends to believe in the existence of a harmonious relationship between finite and infinite, that is an indissoluble link between Man and God. The idealist Schleiermacher (1768-1822)’s statement the world is not without God, God is not without the world is totally in tune with the theocentric cosmogony in “Eureka”, where Poe asserts that everything has been created by “God’s Will”. Obviously, asserting that everything is created by God does not absolutely mean that “everything is God”, but on the contrary it might mean that “everything is controlled by God”. Short stories such as “The colloquium of Monos and Una” and “Mesmeric Revelation” clearly show Poe’s spiritual aspect.
In romantic idealism the concept of the universe is totally transcendent, as nothing escapes God’s omniscience and nothing goes beyond God’s almightiness. In the world the most microscopic organism is structurally chained to the macroscopic material dimensions, with an infinite net of links which do not escape, even in the least part, God’s Will.
The new metaphysical myth of German romantic aesthetics is a unitary art that overtakes the dualism between finite and infinite. Poe’s fantastic assumes a basic metaphysical structure, as it is also connected to such principles. Metaphysics is that unknown sphere where horror often spreads out. Fear gains ground in a hallucinative dimension, in which the material and physic universe magically melts into the immaterial and metaphysical universe of the dream. «If matter is the last step of a spirit descending from high above in order to ascend again to its original place, then in a perspective like ours we can certainly talk about “metaphysical horror”, due to the exact influence of the spiritual world into matter, a sort of transfiguration of reality, that is the indissoluble pivot of any metaphysical concept.» Thanks to the concept of spiritual metaphysics as all the same with natural physics, the writer is able to create a harmony of fantastic effects, deeply connected to metaphysical horror.
To better understand the mystery relating Poe’s art to horror, in my opinion it is necessary to take partly into consideration Schelling (1775-1854), who considers God as an “irrational will” dictated by a negative, blind and obscure principle, in everlasting contrast with a positive and rational one.
Lovecraft’s cosmogony is a completely different thing: drawing inspiration partly from Schopenhauer (1788-1860), he considers the world as a dream devoid of a divine guidance, but rather at the mercy of blind and irrational forces, ready to unchain a crazy and imperturbable universe, which is not by nature against, but unaware, of man. Lovecraft goes deeper into cosmic philosophy, starting from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (1844-1900) and then outstripping them because of a concrete scientific materialism, concerning an inscrutable cosmos that appears mysterious, inflexible, oneiric, multiform, multicolored and, at the same time, indifferent and chaotic. This recalls, more or less, the Epicurean mechanistic materialism, where the universe is interpreted on the basis of an automatic and mixed combination of atoms according to a mechanistic system, which is not fortuitous but deterministic and causal and totally excludes any divine interference. «There is nothing to take real exception to in the statement that a given group of human tendencies springs from the natural collocation of material particles operating automatically without the intervention of an external consciousness. Such a statement does not imply in any way the action of chance (for a cosmos of mutually interacting parts is all law & no chance...) […] The whole cosmos is, always has been, and always will be a limitless field of force composed of alternately combining and dispersing electrons. They work in fixed ways, none of which need explanation by any hypothetical “spiritual” world apart from that whose laws they obey. […] Everything that exists or happens, exists or happens because the balance of forces in the cosmic pattern makes it inevitable.»
Although Lovecraft believes in materialism, his idea about the universe is not only limited to the ephemeral material contact of human senses with external objects, but in the cosmos is something much deeper and more obscure that common human knowledge cannot make out. For example, in the short story “The Silver Key” the possibility is described of the predisposed scatter-brained dreamer, Randolph Carter, to enter, in a less limited way, the sphere of dreams, thanks to a particular key; here it is possible to overpass “Maya’s veil” and access, without any metaphysical abstractions, physically to the true reality of a blind and unknown universe made up of huge space-time labyrinths, immersed in an infinitely repeatable interlacement. It is important to consider that Carter’s is not a personal supernatural experience but, on the contrary, the space-time world is depicted as a scientific fact of the universe: it is a materialist-mechanistic answer to the metaphysics of chaos. For Lovecraft the world of dreams is not the “magical” or “mystic” universe of some romantic fanatic, but it is exactly a possible cosmos’ revelation that allows man to live ultra mundane experiences.
«From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and incorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know, and of which only the slightest and most indistinct memories linger after waking.»
Based on the dream revelation of a peculiarly unusual universe, these examples show that man is subject to an imperceptible dimension, able to overwhelm him whenever it wants to.
In the difficult exegesis of Lovecraft’s imagination there is no need to scientifically explain all that happens, because it would undermine the natural imaginative inclination of fantastic literature. Yet, we can try to play on human impossibility, although scientific knowledge and means are available, to dominate such a mechanistic and chaotic Nature, which becomes so dangerously unforeseeable to produce cosmic horror. «In reply, I would suggest that none of my narratives aims at scientific accuracy and inclusiveness, each being rather a mere transcript of an isolated mood or idea with its imaginative ramifications.» Lovecraft always tries to make fantastic credible; that is to pervade the scientific aspect with the ultra mundane one in order to make the narration more involving and impressive. In fact, human fear is fuelled by the fact that the monstrous event might happen if certain scientifically possible combinations are satisfied, whose results are unknown to us.
If for Schopenhauer man is at least a “metaphysical animal” continuously wondering about the meaning of existence, for Lovecraft instead man is a poor “entrapped animal”, lonely in the lost jungle of the universe, with no Providence to help him, since life is inexorably attacked by unknown cosmic overwhelming events, haunted by horrible dark creatures, without the victim hoping to be saved in an ultra mundane life. The only chance to be saved depends on the ability and resources of the victim.
In such a blind and chaotic universe where existence is engulfed in a cruelly uncontrolled and repetitive game, which does not distinguish life from death or justice from injustice, Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return” slightly complies with Lovecraft’s indifferentism. «Nothing but a cycle is in any case conceivable—a cycle or an infinite rearrangement, if that be a tenable thought. Nietzsche saw this when he spoke of the ewigen wiederkunft . In absolute eternity there is neither starting-point nor destination.» When the German philosopher writes in the Gay Science: «what if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to thee: "This life, as thou livest it at present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain must come to thee again, and all in the same series and sequence and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and thou with it, thou speck of dust!"» he seems to clearly recall a paragraph of a short story of Lovecraft’s about the existential tragedy of man, overwhelmed by the infinite coil of chaotic and repetitive cosmic terror, prey in the eternal return of horrible and devilish  beasts totally far from the least concept of mercy and repentance. Like the grotesque “The Rats in the Wall”, where the character is constantly and psychologically tortured by the eternal recurrence of an obsessive and «insidious scurrying» of rats hiding in the walls and scampering along black pits full «of sawed, picked bones and opened skulls!» An obvious example of eternal return is told in the horrifying short story “The Winged Death”, where the horrible blue-winged fly returns continuously to the doctor’s room to take revenge for a diabolic murder.
Mankind is exclusively a blind coil where ancient and new civilizations continuously sink and rise, without any possible external power being able to perpetually rule with its systems and values. In his famous story “The Call of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft gives an example and writes: «What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise.»  Nothing can escape the disgraceful and unexpected evolution of cosmic matter, where the only ruler is chaos eternal return, fully master of the abysses with neither beginning nor end. In order to understand Lovecraft’s abyssal nightmare, we have to imagine a crazy world, which wanders aimlessly from nothingness to existence and from existence to nothingness, totally far and unaware of our desires and needs. Chaos eternal return imposes a cosmic horror hegemony on the planetary life, causing its consequent nihilism.
The eternal return is a universal and natural manifestation of “Nothing”. For Nietzsche man can get over such nihilistic condition if he actively accepts the eternal return as the consequent liberation of power will, immersed in the creative energy and in the joy of a Dionysian spirit. Lovecraft, on the contrary, considers the eternal return with horror, ending up with evolving human condition into an unplanned oneiric materialistic dimension; in the refuge of dreams and visions he can see human possibility to give birth to the «greatest creations of man» and to attain «something of the glory and contentment for which we yearn», without getting to “useless puppets” overwhelmed and destroyed by the furious waves of cosmic ocean. We can say that Nietzsche and Lovecraft are radically opposed, as far as the psychological relationship between man and eternal return is concerned: for the philosopher it is vital enjoyment, for the writer it is excruciating torment.
Nietzsche’s typical concepts, such as “Amor fati” or “Superman”, are considered “useless effort” by the materialistic-cosmocentric writer, according to whom such myths are totally far from the tragic actions of Lovecraft’s dreamer and lonely hero, who is busy not to be driven crazy and to understand the true nature of reality, trying to defend his own existence against those awful human creatures that sometimes belong to the same genetic legacy as the heroic main character’s. For example, I can mention the character in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” who finds out, to his surprise, he is not a different creature from those horrible monsters that have besieged him, almost to prove that there is no difference between men and beasts.
Beyond good and evil
With the German philosopher Lovecraft shares not only a pagan Anti-Christianity, but also the pointless inclination man has towards human existence, devoid of any “truth”, since it is forced to ceaselessly and inevitably fight for surviving beyond any moral limits of good and evil, as we cannot «sink or rise to any other “reality”, but just that of our own impulses». Christianity dogma is reduced to a naïve point of view due to the unawareness of men or to a religious imposture. «It is a general objection to Christianity that it stifled artistic freedom, trampled on healthy instincts, and set up false and unjust standards. On this assumption a friend of mine, Samuel Loveman, Esq., has written a magnificent ode “To Satan”. […] The idea of deity is a logical and inevitable result of ignorance, since the savage can conceive of no action save by a volition and personality like his own.» Shortly, for the writer no “Right Road” exists and has ever existed, but we are and we shall always be victims of a deep and intangible cosmic conflict, universally fair for everyone. «We can neither predict nor determine, for we are but the creatures of blind destiny.» Therefore it is obvious that such a system cannot absolutely exist among “human beings” but more naturally among “beasts”, whose wild and foolish nature is in perfect harmony and symbiosis. But is Lovecraft maybe talking of men? Does his gruesome art hide a dramatic report of the infernal human condition that is made harder by the harsh and tough fight for surviving against its own kind?
Like Nietzsche, in his fiction Lovecraft does not make the “metaphysical mistake” of showing the absence or presence of God in the world: God simply does not exist and there is no need to meet him or to avoid him. Lovecraft’s universe is only an eternal cosmic fury, where an emotionless theater of awful creatures rages. «All life is struggle and combat—itself a disproof of divinity—and in this fray an organism fights both its fellows and its surroundings.» For such beasts neither divine plan nor ontological void exists, but only an instinctive activity and necessary will that becomes a violent war far from the least moral concept of good or evil, since it occurs for the preservation and victory of the stronger species on the weaker one. In the short novel “At the Mountains of Madness” the “Old Ones” are defeated by the ruthless “Shoggoths”. In the world it is not important whether an action is “good” or “evil”, but it is important to protect the existence and the sovereignty of the winning species. Fight and death are, for Lovecraft, completely obvious and natural conditions.
All the earthly and cosmic elements, such as things, plants, men or awful beasts are only objects, even if the world is inexplicably a terrible oneiric illusion. That is why Lovecraft does not always analyze the psychology of his characters; he would contradict and distort his cosmos-centric vision where men do not matter more than ants.The writer is not much interested in human psychological investigations, for cosmic terror is not human but supernatural.
Poe and Lovecraft
Even though Poe’s terror comes from the soul whereas Lovecraft’s terror originates within the cosmos, for both fear is caused by the same elements originating cosmic horror: chaos and abyss. Yet, Poe sinks in the soul to knock down external reality, Lovecraft on the contrary sinks in the cosmos to demolish inner reality. Another great difference is that Poe’s mythology is both Christian and pagan, Lovecraft’s is entirely pagan.
In “The Tell-tale Heart” we can find a dark atmosphere, like Lovecraft’s mad universe, in an abyssal and dizzy room described, by the tormentor, which is the main character, as so hidden and dark to almost seem the gloomy hidden-place of a devilish-eyed “monstrous creature”. Besides, in “The man of the Crowd” the same disturbing and omnipresent atmosphere is evoked as in Lovecraft’s delirious cosmos: the chaotic movement of an unknown and lost crowd, where Poe manages brilliantly to predict incommunicability, almost depicts the fuzzy wandering of the horrible Lovecraft’s beasts. In the story is also a strategic fusion of cosmic horror and incommunicability.
A sublime moment of cosmic terror, at such a limit between real and supernatural to almost express a degenerative hallucination of human mind, is described at the end of “The Fall of the House of Usher” with the chromatic energy of such an impulsive and impetuous universe to recall Lovecraft’s impressive style.
«The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened - there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind - the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight - my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder - there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters - and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.»
The same can be said for the final part of “Metzengerstein”.
«The fury of the tempest immediately died away, and a dead calm sullenly succeeded. A white flame still enveloped the building like a shroud and, streaming far away into the quiet atmosphere, shot forth a glare of preternatural light; while a cloud of smoke settled heavily over the battlements in the distinct colossal figure of a horse.»
Taking inspiration and broadening the concept of Poe’s soul terror, Lovecraft becomes “the cosmic Poe”, as Jacques Bergier states. Following this point of view Lovecraft’s cosmic terror can be partly considered as a materialistic and mythological evolution of Poe’s terror to the creation of a fascinating and potential horror science fiction.
In spite of their radically different cultural background, a short story where Poe’s cosmic terror is incredibly similar as Lovecraft’s is “A Descent into Maelstrom”: here metaphysics of events is chaotically linked to the fear of sudden and unknown events, for a ship is suspended in a terrible jam after being overwhelmed by supernatural events nobody knows the causes of. The ship sinking represents universe instability and its wrecks show the abyss chaos has left behind. In this short story, Poe’s cosmic terror is close to Lovecraft’s because it is related to that sphere of unknown and unpredictable that does not cross the border of supernatural universe, but stays within the “cosmos” and its inexplicable mysteries. How cannot this work contradict Poe’s idealism? The answer is provided by the author himself, who reports a sentence written by Joseph Glanvill in the epigraph of the story: «The ways of God in Nature (as in Providence) are not as ours are: nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness and profundity of his works; which have a depth in them greater than the Well of Democritus.» Therefore, in my opinion, on the basis of the theocentric cosmogony in “Eureka” we can consider that, in spite of the frequent references to psychological abyss without a clear opening to the ultra mundane, Poe’s metaphoric world sometimes tends to the theological field. You only need think of the sudden appearance of a “wild light” in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or of the “preternatural light” in “Metzengerstein” to presume it is about a symbolic revelation of God’s interference in human events. In the Christianity God is the “eternal light”, which enlightens man’s way to salvation from a world dominated by the darkness of chaos.
Romantic Poe’s very harmonious and sad expressive sentimentalism, which sometimes seems to demand Providence interference on man’s wickedness is literally abandoned by Lovecraft to make room for eternal darkness in a cold universe, impulsive and without a soul, where is no theological comfort for a withering rose, for a dying animal, for a man lying dead on the ground in the shade of a black-winged monstrous creature, suddenly appeared from the unknown.
«The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.» With this short and popular quotation Lovecraft suggests the deep link between the unintelligible abysses of reality and fear arising from the inability to react directly and dominate such distorted situations. The consequent terror causes a psychological fear connected to earthly or metaphysical elements mankind cannot control. In this “menacing chaos” man is like a child lost in the wood, whose survival is constantly threatened by an unknown and adverse Nature. In this frightful situation the sudden howl of a wild wind causes, in the child’s mind, the fear to be attacked by ghosts, if he does not find a shelter soon. As a consequence, in the child’s imagination those “mythical creatures” rise as an instinctive reaction to fear, which substitute the real causes. Lovecraft, in his essay, gives an enlightening example of the real nature of cosmic fear and writes: «Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse. With this foundation, no one needs wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear.» But terror takes the upper hand in the victim’s mind when he cannot understand anymore the phenomena he sees and hears, coming from an external origin he cannot get to. This vision is obviously supported by the fact that the uncertain and the dangerous are always arm-in-arm; as a consequence an unknown universe easily becomes a world full of dangers and evil events.
A very good example of psychological disorientation is in “The Crawling Chaos”, where fear becomes absolute, since the main character cannot identify anymore the natural or ultra mundane cause coming from an unrecognizable adverse environment. His mind, engulfed in a condition of confusion and upset due to the use of drugs, is prey of brutal and fearful fantasies that identify the hidden being or thing as a ghastly monster inclined to act in an unreal and uncontrollable way.
«Slowly but inexorably crawling upon my consciousness and rising above every other impression came a dizzying fear of the unknown: a fear all the greater because I could not analyze it, and seeming to concern a stealthily approaching menace; not death, but some nameless, unheard-of thing inexpressibly more ghastly and abhorrent. […] The waves were dark and purplish, almost black and clutched at the yielding red mud of the bank as if with uncouth, greedy hands. I could not but feel that some noxious marine mind had declared a war of extermination upon all the solid ground, perhaps abetted by the angry sky.»
The Cthulhu myths
It is exactly that perverse psychological link, made up of narrative delirium and association of the myth with a naïve theophany, to lead Lovecraft to the brilliant and original creation of “The Cthulhu Myths”, which are like the lord of chaos, Seth, in Egyptian mythology. Pagan mythology predisposition to comply with cosmological theories leads Lovecraft to the creation of a pantheon inspired by his cosmogony. In fact, such divinities symbolize the chaotic structure of world reality.
In the horrible dimension of chaos, with great imagination the writer pictorially describes the nightmare coming from unknown realities, where the “light” deceives our world perception, because it is in the “darkness” of the unknown that the true aspect of mankind lies. In this context Lovecraft becomes a sort of “black priest” of an immanent cosmic pantheon, where an unmasked vision of reality causes a dreadful psychological delirium. In the well-known story “Dagon” such a mythological and dark show is analyzed in memorable lines.
«[…] I think my horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night […] gazing into the Stygian deeps where no light had yet penetrated. […] the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.»
When we experience such feelings of panic we unwarily create some mythologies, which represent human events. So, taking psychoanalysis into consideration, through these myths we put on ourselves the “mask” of the myth, which subconsciously express our real way of being.
The unbearable feeling of weakness and bewilderment towards the unknown and the unrecognizable, becoming terribly uncatchable to cause a terrible psychic delirium, calls to mind “The Haunter of the Dark” in which the idiot and blind god Azathoth, who lives in the centre of the universe in a mindless and sluggish way, appears before Robert Blake.
«Before his eyes a kaleidoscopic range of phantasmal images played, all of them dissolving at intervals into the picture of a vast, unplumbed abyss of night wherein whirled suns and worlds of an even profounder blackness. He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demoniac flute held in nameless paws.»
Before Robert Blake’s involvement by Azathoth, it is important to remember that a sort of assimilation occurs: the delirious aspect of the idiot god quickly penetrates the protagonist’s feelings to show how it is easy for the frail human condition to be psychologically absorbed by the unknown.
The myths of Cthulhu hurl us before the nameless, make us sink in the dark abyss, pervade us of an ancestral fear leading to cosmic terror through an eternal and unsolvable recurrence of the dreadful event. They put us before the impenetrability of unknown with no easily identifiable semantic contents, in order to disclose us that chaos is the only ruling power nobody can make out. In this diabolic system the myths show us the true aspect of cosmic reality at the cost of an agonizing psychological state close to madness.
Fear also arises from the existential uselessness of man who, even though he is endowed with reason and noteworthy techno-scientific resources, is often alone before the immensity of an unknown and adverse chaotic universe, enraged by a blind and irreparable force, where flocks of “night-gaunts” linger. They are wicked and unknown creatures without a face, black, quiet, bat-like winged and provided with pointed tails.
Unlike what many people think, the progress of scientific knowledge has not eliminated the fear of unknown; yet it has caused new fears, due to the discovery of recent cosmic riddles with a possible and technical reaction against mankind where chaos, no more technologically controlled, ends up with merging with that same technological weapon created by man to defend himself. About this, the fascinating story “From Beyond” is to be considered. Here an elated scientist through an electronic device manages, at his own expense, to force his way to another space-time dimension infested by appalling and aggressive alien beings. As well as his horror Lovecraft describes the psychological trouble caused by contemporary man’s belief in a rational and comfortable world gained thanks to the rule of scientific progress over Nature, which unfortunately is not able to avoid the bewilderment of man towards adverse and unknown natural events, which become unforeseeably violent. We have a clear example of this in “Cool Air” with the horrible failure of a doctor, who has vainly tried to achieve immortality by means of an inadequate freezing device that eventually breaks down. Another terrifying example is given by “Herbert West, reanimator” where is described doctor West’s perverse ambition since he was at university to make dead live again. Thanks to the discovery of a particular serum, West manages to reactivate, after various and failed attempts, life from dead bodies, but with the tragic consequence that these creatures revolt and kill him. The horror caused by madly wandering zombies recalls impressive atmospheres of cosmic terror.
«[…] lumps of graveyard clay had been galvanized into morbid, unnatural, and brainless motion by various modifications of the vital solution.
One thing had uttered a nerve-shattering scream; another had risen violently, beaten us both to unconsciousness, and run amuck in a shocking way before it could be placed behind asylum bars; still another, a loathsome African monstrosity, had clawed out of its shallow grave and done a deed -- West had had to shoot that object.
[…]It was disturbing to think that one, perhaps two, of our monsters still lived -- that thought haunted us shadowingly, till finally West disappeared under frightful circumstances.»
What’s more astonishing in this story is the fact that, although the doctor repeatedly fails, he is not going to stop his experiments nor to think about what he is doing, for what is really important to him is to achieve his goal, with no merciful mediation. Doctor West even kills in cold blood to obtain suitable human guinea-pigs for his ferocious objectives.
With his clear declaration against the blind and fallible techno-scientific determinism we can undoubtedly reckon that the writer can be considered a scientific rationalist, who refuses positivistic scientism. The horrible corpses that deliriously revive can be seen as a metaphor representing the dreadful consequence of a science that is not humanistic but merely functional.
The colour out of space
In the science fiction story “The Color out of Space” chaos suddenly occurs due to the unexpected fall of a meteorite on a peaceful farm in Arkham and the consequent pollution, which entirely destroys environment balance and stability. It is just that chaotic and devastating nature, caused by the meteorite radiations, to crumble the power of human rationality before the inconsistency of an obscene reality, which is not peaceful and arranged anymore. Chemical contaminations of animals and plants and inexplicable events unexpectedly occur out of thin air with incredible and gruesome massacres, which sadistically look like a perverse ritual caused by a mad Nature, possessed by an iridescent alien force.
«So the men paused indecisively as the light from the well grew stronger and the hitched horses pawed and whinnied in increasing frenzy. It was truly an awful moment; with terror in that ancient and accursed house itself, four monstrous sets of fragments-two from the house and two from the well-in the woodshed behind, and that shaft of unknown and unholy iridescence from the slimy depths in front.»
The story symbolically describes several analyzed aspects complying with cosmic terror. The meteorite represents cosmic vitality falling heavily upon us from an oceanic and inexplicable universe. The peaceful farm that is suddenly upset represents chaos unpredictable interference. The physical annihilation of the farm owner, Nahum Gardner, reduced to a pile of putrescent shapeless flesh, symbolizes the total impassiveness of cosmic agents. The well exemplifies the unknown and the inexplicable and unnatural colorful glow, emerging from there, seems to be endowed with a “conscience and will” of its own, so that to the blasphemous theophany of the farmers it appears as a “mysterious creature”.
«No doubt it is still down the well - I know there was something wrong with the sunlight I saw above the miasmal brink. The rustics say the blight creeps an inch a year, so perhaps there is a kind of growth or nourishment even now. But whatever demon hatchling is there, it must be tethered to something or else it would quickly spread. Is it fastened to the roots of those trees that claw the air? One of the current Arkham tales is about fat oaks that shine and move as they ought not to do at night.»
The colorful light that at the end of the story goes back to the unlimited darkness of the universe, from where it has come, reminds us of eternal return.
Lovecraft’s work generally shows an alien and labyrinth-like situation within a cosmic and immanent chessboard fated, by a blind universal game, to sow dead people and repeated devastations sporadically, yet to cause mentally disturbed conditions continuously, making man sink into an inner chasm like an abyssal hole, which is due to an environment that is not peaceful anymore, but extremely unknown to us and eternally adverse rightly because of our limited comprehension.
Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth
The delirious animal spirit ferociously revolting against the Apollonian and Promethean spirit of the rational world recalls the awakening of instinctive and powerful Cthulhu, terrible messenger of a cruel law dominated by chaos and violence, which generates a mad and perverted world stricken with pleasant orgiastic rites and sacrificial crimes.
«That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy.»
In a certain sense it is as if Lovecraft wanted us to be totally undeceived by the pretention to live in a benevolent cosmos, only apparently healthy and rational, by using the “unknown” as a door towards the real world where «everything a-rottin' an' dyin', an' boarded-up monsters crawlin' an' bleatin' an' barkin' an' hoppin' araoun' black cellars an' attics every way ye turn.» Yet the door is kept by Yog-Sothoth, the terrible guardian of the intelligible, representing the psychological impossibility to contemplate reality without running the risk to die or be driven mad.
We can eventually end our analysis by considering that cosmic terror arises from the ability to express a certain atmosphere of arcane and inexplicable destructive flog in particular environments dominated by the eternally repetitive existence of anonymous and intangible diabolic ultra mundane or strange forces or presences. They surprise and deceive our natural defenses or scientific knowledge quickly or skillfully so as to drive our mind into the abyss of a chaos without a way out. As those last words of dying Nahum's clearly recall: «Can't git away - draws ye - ye know summ'at's comin' but tain't no use…»
Carlo Pagetti, Cittadini di un assurdo universo, editrice Nord, 1989, Milano.
Gianfranco de Turris & Sebastiano Fusco, L’ultimo demiurgo e altri saggi lovecraftiani, Solfanelli, Chieti, 1989, p. 153.
H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006.
H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural horror in literature, in H.P. Lovecraft’s book of horror, edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, 1994.
Leo Marchetti, Apocalissi, Métis editrice, Chieti, 1995.
Pietro Trevisan, Il paganesimo di H.P. Lovecraft, in the website: http://utenti.lycos.it/politeismo/lovecra.htm[Or. Title: Sources for The color Out of Space, in Crypt of Cthulhu, n. 28, 1984, Copyright © Robert M. Price]
Il Terrore Cosmico da Poe a Lovecraft – Copyright©2003 Sandro Fossemò –
Special thanks to Mr. Walter D’Ilario, manager of Roseto degli Abruzzi public library, for providing me with the books I needed for this short essay.
 Yet it is necessary to consider that Schopenhauer is, in turn, influenced by Schelling about that “irrational will” inside Poe’s art. As a consequence, we can say that Schelling’s thought is at the basis of that cosmic fear that in Poe and Lovecraft will find a common ground with radically different developments. It is also to be cleared that even though Poe sometimes planned a cosmic terror in a metaphysical sense, he influenced Lovecraft’s imagination only marginally.
 Orig. title: H.P. Lovecraft: the Mythos of Scientific Materialism, Copyright©1993 by Strange Magazine, transl. by Pietro Guarriello in H.P. Lovecraft sculptus in tenebris, edited by Michele Tetro, Nuova Metropolis Publ., Novara, 2001, pages 25-30. See the important article on scientific materialism.
 According to Schopenhauer, human condition cannot observe the world in its real complexity, because the organs of human perception are blurred and deceived by Maya’s veil. Man can only interpret reality through a purely human representation. Only beyond Maya’s veil it is possible to enter a reality that is no more a play, yet truth.
 Lovecraft’s creatures look vaguely like hell devils, yet Lovecraft refers only to pagan myths, even if Christian mythology has inherited an influence from pagan mythology. For example, we may consider the goat-like appearance of god Pan, destined to physically look like the devil.
H.P. Lovecraft, The night ocean, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/no.asp, written with the collaboration of Robert H. Barlow.
 Lovecraft cannot be considered as a totally cold and arid materialist, because he considers life as a dream. As a consequence and paradoxically, in Lovecraft’s materialism a “reflexive poetic mood” can be seen, which makes him ambiguous and hardly understandable in his being materialist and mechanist at the same time.
Sandro D. Fossemò
Translation by Rossella Cirigliano
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt 6.21)
The gothic short story entitled The Cask of Amontillado (1846) is a perfect example of Poe’s art, as there are all the elements connected to the artistic principle of grotesque and arabesque. In the grotesque element is the origin from grotto that fully fits to the setting of the story, a cold vault which bears also a meaning linked to the freezing darkness of abyss with its deformed and hideous depth, as it is also used as a damp catacomb. In the arabesque element is something odd, complicated or difficult to understand. So the short story expresses such an enigmatical, mysterious and ritual inspiration to make the reader analyze it carefully and in detail and fully understand the semantic importance within a difficult symbolic plot. As a matter of fact, in that grotesque and arabesque context the writer developed a mysterious style aimed at penetrating the environment to the plot. The content being set in a gloomy vault, the story also becomes cryptic by means of sentences and symbols with double meaning.
The narrative describes a planned revenge caused by insult and carried out with lucid and cold demoniac cruelty in the abyssal vaults of Montresor Palace, full of casks and piled human bones. The most brilliant aspect of the work is how Poe blended environment and psyche symbolically in a horrible story full of suspense and irony. The descent into the dark labyrinth underground is a descent to the hell of the soul where all the horror of psychic delirium and death emerges. The short story A Descent into the Maelstrom (1841) underlines the dramatic aspect of the fall into the abyss of the vortex as a form of psychological delirium, which devours man lost in the unknown and prey to the chasm. The more you physically descend to the abyss, the more the darkness of the soul emerges. Here you can see that perverse and unexplored area of the mind. The torch the characters hold in The Cask of Amontillado not only enlightens that dark place but it also expresses and reveals the dramatic events through its reddish light. We can also find a similar description in The Masque of the Red Death (1842) where a scarlet light, coming from the blood colored panes and caused by the fires of the tripods, radiates the room walls with such a glare to express an ill-omened message. Poe often uses some symbols as a means to go beyond the apparent limits of events, with the masterly intent to penetrate into the intangible sphere of psyche like a sharp blade. The red light of the torch acts as an adhesive, because it enlightens and unites in an unreal dimension the external space with the internal emotion of the soul in a meaningful chromatic expression. In Poe’s art the grotesque and sarcastic penetration of environmental elements with psychological elements is frequent. In fact Fortunato wears motley with a striped dress and a conical cap adorned with bells, as if he had to act as a fool, while the murderer wears a gruesome dress made up of a cloak and a mournful mask of black silk, which hides his face. From the very beginning the narrator, who is the faded nobleman Montresor, clears up the reason for his grudge against the Italian man, ironically called Fortunato, he wants to murder in an atrocious way through a diabolic trick, which punishes with impunity. According to the narrator, it does not make sense to make up for a wrong if the enemy is given the possibility to defend himself. As a consequence, a revenge must be absolutely infallible, total, perfectly rational and pitiless, that is without the least possibility for human or technical mistake. Crime, in the degenerate mind of the protagonist, has its justification in hate and cruelty, particularly when the wicked deed gives vent to the pleasure of revenge.
The short story Hop Frog is also characterized by such perfect elements of murder as revenge deeds for being wronged. Here, the main character manages to deceive and skillfully kill the tyrants who enslaved him.
One evening, during a Carnival party, Montresor shrewdly persuades the drunk Fortunato to go to the variegated vault of the Palace to check if he has really bought a rare Spanish wine, called Amontillado. Fortunato is skeptical about the genuineness of the wine and wants to check its quality also to show his expertise. The narrator knows his victim’s personality very well and takes advantage of it to carry out his diabolic plan of revenge. Obviously Montresor tries not to make Fortunato suspicious; in fact he pretends to smile, invites him repeatedly to put off the wine test, showing also a certain concern for his cough. But in the narrative the narrator’s “smile” is a sarcastic devilish smile aimed at filling the murderer’s black heart with joy, while thinking of the crime to be committed like an immolation. The Palace is completely deserted because the servants took advantage of Montresor’s temporary absence to go out and enjoy a day off. In order to hide any suspect, the murderer offers him his arm and they continued their route in those damp and dark walls of the vault. Along their way, Montresor uncorks some bottles of wine, which are laying in a row upon a mould; first, he offers his victim a drink of Medoc and then of a mocking De Grave in order to get him drunker and drunker.
The light and watery bones of the dead seem to melt with the white nitre of the damp walls, so that those rocky sides, whence you can see skeletons coming out, foreshadow Fortunato’s death. On the other hand, the wines aged among the bones of that mould seem to melt drunkenness with death, if we consider Fortunato’s inebriation. We can find a possible confirmation of such an association, for in «cultures where are shamanic rituals, human skeletons or those human figures with visible bone structure symbolize the experience of psychic breakdown people have during a trance.»
While they are looking for the cask of Amontillado in the extensive and labyrinthine vault, as if it were a hidden treasure, Fortunato pretends to forget what the arms of the noble and faded family is like and an emotionless Montresor describes its symbolically predictive image of a huge golden foot in a blue field; the foot crushes a rampant snake whose fangs are imbedded in the heel. The motto on the arms is the Latin phrase: “Nemo me impune lacessit”, meaning “Nobody offended me with impunity.” During the description we feel the sad prediction of what’s going to happen. It is as if the tormentor had coldly and in an enquiring way pronounced an irreversible death sentence for his hated enemy.
Along the gloomy and huge corridors, Fortunato reveals his own Masonic membership with a grotesque gesture. Also the narrator confesses to be a member of the secret society and shows a trowel, typical tool in Masonic iconography but, once more, Fortunato mocks the discovery and withdraws, as if he had seen a weapon. Arrived at the remote and hidden recesses of the catacomb, Montresor deceives Fortunato on the crypt where the famous cask of Amontillado is supposed to be, and quickly fetters him into a niche. In spite of Fortunato’s supplications and ravings, Montresor walls him up with sadism and scorn, making his rival die in an atrocious way.
From the beginning the narrator mentions immolation, a sort of sacrifice aimed at the physical elimination of the enemy. What is not clear is the reason why Montresor does not only murder Fortunato, but also decides to sacrifice him. We know the reason why he wants to kill the Italian man, but we do not know why he commits that kind of murder. By a careful analysis of the story
we find different symbolic elements, such as the trowel and the building of a wall, which recall a sort of Masonic ritual. E.g., the cave is the typical setting for rituals, and a catacomb is a suitable place as well. According to the Christian point of view the underground world of the cave is compared to hell where the snake, that is the devil, is its sticky keeper. The story permits of two interpretations as there is a fusion between Christian mythology and Masonic symbolism. In Masonic symbolism the «trowel, used to “wall up”, is needed as a seal on the silence towards strangers (“the uninitiated”) to defend the “arcane discipline” (that is “the secret hidden in an ark”) deriving from the closely lived experience of symbols and rituals.»
 According to such an interpretation, it would seem the narrator wanted to revenge a suffered insult by means of a Masonic ritual, which would immolate a bad member of masonry. A further proof is the fact that in the «Masonic symbolism the still shapeless “unrefined stone” represents the level of apprentice.»
 No wonder it is just on a rough granite stone that Fortunato is chained. From these associations we can deduce that the mysterious “treasure” coming from the French term Montresor, meaning “my treasure”, is probably the unknown knowledge of masonry. Fortunato, symbolically represented in the coat of arms as the huge golden foot,
 Evidence of the importance of the trowel can be found on the 18th of September 1793, when George Washington laid the first stone of the Capitol of the United States of America in the Masonic style.
Un'interessante lettura di un famoso racconto di E. A. Poe,con l'inclusione nel video di una mia composizione digitale dedicata al racconto.
a cura di