Taphephobia in Edgar Allan Poe's collection of gothic tales: a new historicist study of 19th century america's most prevalent fear
par Salma LAYOUNI
Université de Sousse - Master 2013
In 1849, Poe passed away in a mysterious way that resembles, by the irony of fate, to the mystifying death of his characters. Poe's short life, poverty, depression and addiction did not prevent him to be one of the most remarkable authors of the gothic literature. Poe's literary uniqueness lies in his classical beginnings that respect the traditions of the gothic fiction to deal with psychological issues that overwhelmed the American society during his era. Poe's Gothic tales share some exclusive features that make his works and style distinguished from the other gothic writers. The elements of death, madness, and haunted houses present the omnipresent motifs that underline Poe's gothic style. These elements are generally related , by critics, to Poe's "gothic" life and especially to the mysterious illness and death of his young bride and his addiction to opium and alcohol. Poe's vivid description of the psychological agony of his characters and the complex depiction of the fine line between life and death, reason and madness drives the critics to consider Poe's tales as a semi autobiographical works in which he reflects his own sadness after his wife's death and the mid way state between reason and madness, summarized in his state of addiction. Poe's tales and poems (notably "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven") share the gloomy description of the death of a beautiful woman and the horror that leads to madness. The impact of Poe's biography is also highlighted through his attempts to reflect his society and era in his writings, showing the hidden side of the United States. In this context, the study of taphephobia stands as a study of a historical and social phenomenon that prevailed the American psyche during the 19th C.
The term taphephobia is coined by Enrico Morselli, an Italian psychiatrist, in the mid-19th C to refer to the obsessive fear of premature burial. He devoted his essay "Dysmorphophobia and Taphephobia: Two Hitherto Undescribed Forms of Insanity with Fixed Ideas" to analyze the obsessive behaviour of the taphephobic and the gradual development of the natural, innate fear of death into an obsessive compulsive fear of being
prematurely buried (107). As the title of his essay suggests, Morselli focuses in his analysis on the idea that taphephobia is an obsession that blocks the rationality of the human mind and fixes it upon one idea of the possible danger of being entombed alive. This fixation turns one's life to an earthly hell, trying to reshape his lifestyle according to his phobia. The Italian psychiatrist examines also the different ways adapted by the taphephobic to assure himself, considering wills as one of the common solutions used in 19th C (109). He highlights the fact that taphephobia, as a form of "psychopathology", causes an unbearable psychological pain that leads to melancholy, caused by the illusion of being under a constant threat of premature burial, leading the victims to act maniacally to reassure themselves (108-109). Despite the fact that the term taphephobia is coined in the 19th C, the psychological phenomenon is not a result of that era solely, it is rather deeply rooted in the history. It dates back to ancient civilizations like the Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Ancient China and the Pre-Islamic Arabia where the premature burial was a frequent practice for different reasons which intensify taphephobia.
Morselli's scientific analysis of taphephobia reflects Poe's presentation of the same concept in the tales under study, which are "Berenice" (1835), "Morella" (1835), "Ligeia" (1838), "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) and "The Premature Burial" (1850). The choice of these tales is not arbitrary, but rather a result of a close examination that these particular group of tales study the same motif, in different ways, forming different pieces of one picture. Besides, these tales were written approximately in the same period, which can be related to the author's biography. This period presents a period of psychological crisis for Poe, since his beloved bride Virginia Clemm suffered from tuberculosis and died by 1847. This devastating event turns to be a source of inspiration since he transforms his woe, melancholy and shock to masterpieces that dealt with one of the controversial issues in 19th C United States. Poe chooses taphephobia as one example of the
ultimate horror that the human mind can face . He vividly depicts the mixed feeling of horror and obsession, frustration and fear lived by the taphephobic. However, the singularity of Poe's style lies in his multifaceted presentation of the motif. Poe does not restrict himself to the psychological analysis of the motif but he rather transcends it to reach a deeper level. Within the process of the psychological presentation, Poe presents other social dimensions of the motif, in an attempt to show the different ramification of taphephobia.
This dissertation presents an attempt to study the recurrent motif of taphephobia from a New Historicist perspective. New Historicism presents a 20th Century theory based upon the study of text and context simultaneously, considering the literary work as a result of cultural interactions and interchangeability. Unlike most critics who used the Freudian theory to analyze characters and their morbid phobia, relating it the tripartite human psyche , this work sets forth to treat taphephobia as a historical, social event rather than a purely psychological phenomenon. The present dissertation is composed of three chapters. The first chapter is entitled "New Historicism and Literature", in which there is a developed definition of the theory used in the analysis and its main influences. The second section of the chapter is devoted to present the major New Historicist concepts, developed mainly by Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Montrose, that will be used in the following chapters.
The second chapter, under the title " Historicity of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales", studies the different examples of intertextuality, one strategy used by the author to study the motif of taphephobia. This chapter reveals the literary, historical and religious roots of the phenomenon, showing the parallelism between Poe's tales and other historical and literary documents. The chapter unveils the different layers of the meaning of taphephobia, showing how Poe intermingles between the different lexical fields of the concept. Besides, this chapter sets forth the relationship between the characters' representation (notably female characters) and the author's biography.
The final chapter, entitled " Taphephobia in Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic Tales : A Reflection of 19th Century United States' Worst Nightmares", studies how taphephobia is presented not only as a private, psychological status but rather as a national event that reshaped the American lifestyle and interferes in the different fields. The chapter deals with the power of taphephobia to unveil the different social and religious illnesses of the American society in 19th C.
Chapter 1: New Historicism and Literature
Until the 1970s, literary criticism was marked by a text-based approach, a general assumption characterized by a close reading of a text in total isolation from its cultural and socio-political contexts. However, in the 1980s a revolutionary theory emerged as a reaction against the centrality of the literary text that characterized many theories like Russian Formalism and New Criticism. The American literary critic and scholar Stephen Greenblatt coined the term "new historicism", transcending the aestheticism of literary criticism by studying literature in a dialogic relationship with history.
New historicism starts mainly with a revision of the canonical Renaissance texts (notably William Shakespeare's history plays), relocating them in relation to non-literary sources of the same era. This re-situation comes out of new historicist consideration that literature should be studied within its cultural system, since, as Pierre Bourdieu expresses in his book The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (1993), "to understand the practices of writers and artists and not least their products, entails understanding that they are the result of the meeting of two histories: the history of the positions they occupy and the history of their disposition" (61). New historicists consider that literary texts are a result of cultural negotiations and that culture is a product of literature. In this context, Louis Montrose states, in his essay "Professing the Renaissance" (1989), that history is reconstructed through literary texts and that "our analyses and our understandings necessarily proceed from our own historically, socially and institutionally shaped vantage points; that the histories we reconstruct are the textual constructs of critics who are, ourselves, historical subjects" (23). New historicism or, as Greenblatt names it later "cultural poetics", is generally defined through its counterpart old historicism, which is characterized by a factual
description of history as a set of chronological events that happened in one era, setting rigid boundaries between the literary and the historical fields. Despite the fact that this theory arose as a reaction against the text-based theorists, the reader can find the influence of many philosophers and of other theorists namely Michel Foucault, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and Marxists like Louis Althusser and Frederic Jameson.