“Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants. The way it stops and starts.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe
Why do we read stories? Myriad are the roads we travel in life, but no less are the excuses we make for straying from them in occasional flights of fictional fancy. They range from the cerebral to the sublime, the practical to the frivolous, the casual to the most intense. Perhaps, though, the most provocative of them all stems from our inborn urge to identify, to see ourselves reflected as sharers in the human condition. Thus, we look to the pages of a book, in all their tacit receptivity, to provide us with cheap and charitable feedback in our quest for self-knowledge. And it is the storyteller who understands this instinctively, who is best disposed to tap the true potential of his art.
Such a rhetorician is typically part magician. Gifted with sleight of pen, he possesses a rare facility for turning the painfully private into the palatably public. His act of conjuration always begins with a plunge deep into his own subconscious, there to wrestle his demons into fleeting submission, and finishes when he emerges to expose them to the light of day in a flourish of soul-stirring clarity. It calls for a sort of divine omniscience. It is the stuff of which genius – or madness – is made.
Is it any wonder, then, that more than a few of history’s most memorable storytellers seem to have lived their lives as a kind of hell on earth? Victorian poet and novelist Edgar Allan Poe is a classic example of one who appears to have paid dearly, in his personal life, for his almost mystical brand of creativity. Best known for his compelling first-person tales of mystery and the macabre in the Gothic tradition, the author’s brief forty years were fraught with conflict, controversy, depression, and addiction. His timeless short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, is an especially grim depiction that seems to amplify all the intensity and turbulence he knew in his own lifetime. Its highly unreliable narrator compels the reader from the onset with plaintive rhetoric that cries out in stark relief against his incredible insistence on his own sanity, as he systematically details his irrational murder of an elderly neighbour with a “vulture eye”. As the gory procedure unfolds, it seems only to represent the speaker’s gruesome attempt to undermine the authority of his own conscience, an effort that is doomed to failure from the start, as testified by the ultimate inviolability of the ‘tell-tale heart’. To this day, it is a story that reads as one written from, to, and about the heart, so authentic as to leave the reader wondering where narrator ends and author begins.
Poe’s portrait of madness is, indeed, all too easy to mistake for an account based on personal experience. With brash accuracy, the author confronts us, via his protagonist’s first-person response to the dire threat he perceives, with three classic symptoms of an unstable mind. These, laid down, layer upon layer, in agonizing succession, conspire inexorably to form the substance of the narrator’s conflict. The first of them is denial. From the opening line, the heart shrieks what the head vehemently disclaims: “True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Thus, in a kind of clashing of steel and grating of bones, we are hurled headlong onto the scene of this appalling collision of internal forces. Then, with a monologue that wheedles, coaxes, qualifies, and rants and raves by turns, we are captivated, and left turning the account over and over in our minds as to the worst it might portend.
Yet, even as we reel, Poe lurches onward, hellbent on divulging the tawdry particulars of his protagonist’s obsession. In an uncompromising expose of the terrifying tumult that too often lurks within us all, he lays bare this lunatic’s private chaos to unapologetic daylight. Reluctantly, we find ourselves trailing after him, night upon night, up stairs, down corridors, in mindless pursuit of a single strand of light leading to the door of a hapless bystander, all the while, listening, flabbergasted, to his boasts of strategic prowess: “It took me a whole hour to place my whole head within the opening so that I could see him as he lay upon his bed.” As repulsed as we are by the implications of such unbridled absurdity, we are nonetheless drawn, like so many heat-stricken house flies, deeper and deeper into the web of his appalling perception.
Still, this breathless, barking crescendo is nothing more than a prelude to the sordid act of violence we, thus far, have been so deftly tutored to anticipate. As such, the culprit’s feigned disinterest, in the face of the threat of detection, strikes us as nothing short of farcical. And when, at last, the full depth of his paranoia is confirmed, and he breaks down – and starts up – crying, “Villains! … dissemble no more!”, we are, somehow, much less stupefied than gratified at having been given the chance to prove ourselves able to distinguish the demented from the sane. Of course, here, too, is where author and narrator go their separate ways. Although Poe himself seems certainly to have teetered at the precipice of all-consuming emotion, never could he have given us a profile of full-blown insanity so poignant and precise, had he not been in ultimate possession of his senses.
For fans of his work, it’s a comforting notion that highlights his integrity and leaves his authority intact. But for the author himself, who will have suffered nightmares so intense that he could wake to express them in terms of gut-wrenching lucidity, it must have woven the fabric of his daily dysfunction. So, for those of us for whom the proceeds of his diligence ring unnervingly true, we owe a singular debt of gratitude. For what Poe has offered us is no less than a piece of his heart.