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Individuality as Eternity: The Fall of the House of Usher

 

A story of individuation: “The Fall of the House of Usher” is undoubtedly Poe’s best- known tale, and has been analysed so often that it would be preposterous to come out of the shadow and try to interpret it in a new way. The most that can be done is to read the text from a certain perspective. My reading of the story is one of utter individuation, of the I. The whole text concentrates every one of its elements around the topic of the desire to be oneself.

Evidence of individuation: The drive towards the I can be seen in

From a negative point of view, we can interpret the narrator’s visit to Usher as an intrusion of the outside world on the I, and therefore a galvaniser of the terrible outcome of the story. The outcome proves that the I will on the one hand admit no interference, but on the other hand tries desperately to break out of its self-isolation (by inviting the narrator and by burying his sister). All these elements reinforce the focus on the self.

Here Riemann works better than St. Augustine: individuality as eternity: Up to here St. Augustine’s model seems to be just as valid as Riemann’s model for the analysis of the tale. And yet, there is something that St. Augustine does not offer on this occasion, and that the tale demands. For the feeling the reader has when reading the tale is not primarily or only one of uniqueness of the self as against the social whole.

The feeling is above all one of eternity, of the claustrophobic impossibility to escape from the eternal repetition of the self in every one of the elements of the story. The fact that the family is of old aristocratic stock reinforces this impression. This eternity does not lead us to St. Augustine, but to Riemann's antithetic pair which opposes the yearning for eternity to the yearning for change. This is especially disturbing, since the yearning for individuality tends to side with the yearning for change, rather than eternity. In an emotivist Modernity (and Postmodernity), such as the one MacIntyre describes in After Virtue, what rules are my feelings, and these tend to change over time, rather than remain the same.

Poe's text crucially rejects making extensive use of St Augustine's metaphysical-natural opposition. Incest could have provided powerful sensational material and introduced nature into the text via basic instinct and passion. Poe proves a master of technique when he hides the references to incest. In fact, the text emphasises degeneration and lack of energy, i.e. lack of nature, rather than the opposite. Again, modernity likes to see the I joined to nature. In Poe's story, nature as passion is crucially wrenched from the I.

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann