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MURDER AS A FINE ART: BASIC CONNECTIONS BETWEEN POE'S AESTHETICS, PSYCHOLOGY, AND MORAL VISION BY JOSEPHJ. MOLDENHAUER
ONLY in Eureka, his late cosmological treatise, but throughout his literary career, Edgar Allan Poe pursued a unitary theory of metaphysics, nature, art, and the human mind. He conducted his search with astounding vitality and persistence, and surely, by the time he had written Eureka, he believed he had arrived at the goal. Yet his writings, both imaginative and discursive, exhibit extreme contradictions of thought and feeling. Between and sometimes even within individual works Poe appears as a Shelleyan romantic and as an eighteenth-century rationalist, as a neurotic escapist and as a broadly social figure, as a neo-Platonic visionary and as a severe logician or a commonsense realist, as a selfless devotee to artistic ideals and as a calculating exploiter of literary fads. It has therefore been the challenge of his critics, particularly in recent years, in turn to seek the essential Poe, the central principle of his art and thought, amid the welter of attitudes his writings display. I His sensibility seems to me divided between two distinct phases. The first might be labelled the "active," "self-assured," or "manic" phase, and is most clearly represented by the tales of ratiocination and the literary criticism. The protagonist-persona of these works, whether detective or landscape architect or litterateur, masters every enigma and places every discordant fragment of his experience into a coherent design, no less satisfying to the taste than to the reason. The governing impulse here is what Allen Tate describes, in an essay appropriately subtitled "Poe as God," as hypertrophy of intellect, "the intellect moving in isolation from both love and the moral will, whereby it declares itself independent of the human situation in the quest of essential knowledge."' The mind of the hero or persona in this mode displays a genius for creating formal order, a controlling and shaping power, which strikes us as "archangelic" or "divine." As reviewer of the works of other artists he is always imperious and often cruel; as the "ideal author" in the more theoretical essays he looms as a mesmerist or medicine man, a supreme magician and inquisitor, who manipulates at his pleasure the undefended emotions of his audience, pressing the "stamp" onto the
reader's passive "wax,"2or consciously...