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Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1998 v26 i2 p171(1)


Abstract: Edgar Allen Poe's depiction of death is a literary response to cultural attempts at a new ideology of death. During Poe's time, death had been commercialized into an industry obsessed with the aesthetics of mourning. Poe's writings dismantle the fetishism of the exquisite corpse.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 Northeastern University

Although Poe's debt to the Gothic genre is documented in his tales with numerous references to Gothic texts and occult literature, Poe's "architecture of death"(1) is not merely a case of belated romanticism.(2) The resurgence of the Gothic architectures of death in Poe should instead be read as a literary response to cultural attempts to raze those very structures and replace them with a new ideology of death. By Poe's time, death was being sublimated by a whole new industry and aesthetic of mourning, which in effect commercialized and domesticated death. Although numerous cultural historians have surveyed the shift in the iconography of death from the eighteenth century through to the Victorian period in America, they have failed to theorize fully how the nineteenth-century cult of mourning reveals a profound cultural ambivalence toward the unsublimated dead body, especially the female dead body.(3) Poe's writings not only expose this ambivalence but reinvest the dead body with the corporeality that the cult of mourning attempts to eradicate. Poe figures the female living dead as an embodiment of the Lacanian real, which dismantles the nineteenth century's emergent fetishism of the exquisite corpse.

At the heart of the nineteenth-century romantic cult of the dead lay a profound ambivalence towards the dead body. On one hand the dead body achieved a certain stature with its own elaborate memorials--death bed scenes, wakes, monumental tombstones--and even, with the garden cemetery movement, its own private property, a fenced-in private plot.(4) On the other hand, the dead body was at the height of its exclusion from public view. One of the period's most popular funerary sculptures, the urn, privileged a pile of ashes--the disembodied body--as the figure of death. The more the dead body was memorialized, the more it was forgotten. Phillipe Aries cites numerous examples of how memorial representations, such as mourning pictures, replaced the natural body; mourning pictures, he argues, "played the role of the tomb, of the memorial, a sort of portable tomb adapted to American mobility."(5) The body was everywhere immortalized but nowhere to be found.

The profound ambivalence toward the dead body inherent in the cult of mourning gave rise to new technicians of death and sublimation. While garden cemeteries and funerary sculptors had successfully rid themselves of any reminders of the dead body, other aestheticians of death were reclaiming the dead body. With the 1839 invention of the daguerreotype, photographers created a new technological means of disavowing death, through postmortem photography. While the deceased are most often portrayed as sleeping, some postmortem photographs display the dead in more lifelike poses, sitting up in a chair or gazing out at the viewer? Later in the century, with improvements in embalming techniques, morticians began vying amongst themselves for the best looking corpse. There was even a competition announced by the National Funeral Director's Association for the best looking corpse after sixty days, with a prize worth $1,000.(6) Morticians became another genre of body snatchers whose task was to replace the natural body with a sublime one that could survive death, at least up to sixty days. This effort to deny death and the decomposition of the dead body nurtured what I am calling the fetish of the exquisite corpse. However, all these elaborate techniques to sublimate the dead body and transform it into a "sleeping beauty" or an exquisite corpse led to a shocking conclusion: the nineteenth-century tombstone no longer marks the site of the dead body nor of the bereaved living, but of the living dead. By the time the body is ready for burial, it has been revived by the photographer's and mortician's arts; in a sense, it is buried alive.

All these nineteenth-century technicians were trying to give the dead body a decent burial. Decent burials, however, are all too often premature burials, replacing the naturalistic dead body with the sublime body of the exquisite corpse that hovers somewhere between life and death. It can neither be too alive, for then it would provoke the dread of the living dead, nor too dead, for then it would provoke the dread of what Aries has referred to as the transi (the perished one): the worm-ridden corpse.

While morticians were trying to perfect the art of the exquisite corpse, Edgar Allan Poe was writing stories of cryptic women that disclose the failure of the fetish of the exquisite corpse. In his stories we discover that in any constitution of the exquisite corpse as fetish there is an inherent failure, just as there is a failure implicit in the logic of the fetish. Any fetish object evokes great ambivalence, for while acting as a substitute and disguise for some horror or lack (in Freudian terms the castrated mother), it also acts as a signifier of that very lack and thus reinvokes that lack, which is why the fetish is so often abused. In the case of the fetish of the exquisite corpse, the sublimation of the dead body is never completely successful. It is impossible to get rid of all of its remains; there is always something leftover (le reste) that resists sublimation. This remainder, which disrupts the order of things through its failure to be assimilated or introjected, can also be seen in terms of the problematics of incorporation.

Psychoanalytic theorists Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, followed by Jacques Derrida, have drawn a distinction between introjection--the more familiar psychoanalytic term--and incorporation.(7) In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Freud explains how in the case of love, the introjection of the object results in a positive augmentation of ego. The "ego has enriched itself with the properties of the object, it has `introjected' the object into itself" (although in some extreme cases, he finds, the ego is impoverished rather than enriched by an object that usurps the ego's place).(8) Whereas introjection leads to a successful assimilation and integration of the object, incorporation is marked by a failure to assimilate such an object into the ego. Instead of being introjected, the object, as Derrida explains, remains immured or encrypted in the ego, as something exterior kept secretly in the interior:

   Incorporation keeps still, speaks only to silence or to ward off intruders
from its secret place. What the crypt commemorates, as the incorporated
object's `monument' or `tomb' is not the object itself, but its exclusion,
the exclusion of a specific desire from the introjection process: A door is
silently sealed off like a condemned passageway inside the self, becoming
the outcast safe.

While the incorporated object is supposedly kept hidden, secreted away in the crypt, "the fantasy of incorporation can and must `signify,' in its own way, the introjection it is incapable of: its impossibility, its simulacrum, its displacement."(9) Thus incorporation always gives itself away through some sign, marking the failure of introjection.

This distinction between introjection and incorporation is highly suggestive for the understanding of Poe's stories, especially those concerning with the encryptment of the dead body. Poe's stories have too often been read as case histories of transference and introjection without taking into consideration the more complex dimension of incorporation. In Harold Bloom's reading, for instance, Poe's characters "live out nearly every fantasy of introjection and identification, seeking to assuage their melancholia by psychically devouring the lost objects of their affections."(10) But although Poe's characters may indeed try psychically to devour their lost objects, these objects are never successfully introjected; they instead mark a refusal of introjection. To complete Bloom's metaphor, the object gets stuck in their throats, impossible to digest or assimilate. Efforts to expel the object (to kill off the other) are not only fruitless but often deadly. In Poe's stories these lost objects take on a life of their own post mortem and come to represent the incorporation of the living dead. While many of Poe's stories touch upon this problem of incorporation, "The Oval Portrait" is perhaps one of the most subtle treatments of this subject.

At first glance this tale appears to be a simple inversion of the myth of Galatea: instead of a statue metamorphosing into a woman, the woman is transposed into an art object. In his discussion of "The Oval Portrait," J. Gerald Kennedy makes a very interesting argument for reading this metamorphosis as an act of translation:

   The painter translates his wife in a double sense--into a visual icon and
into a lifeless model. Like all translations, this process entails
duplication and effacement, a retracing which both mirrors the original and
abolishes it in the sense that every translation sacrifices the letter of
the original text to reconstitute its spirit in another language.(11)

Poe's story problematizes this process of translation in a number of radical ways. Kennedy indicates that every translation involves not only duplication but an effacement of the original text. This is not the case, however, with "The Oval Portrait," for one of the central problems in this story is that it is impossible to abolish or to introject the original in its entirety. Moreover, it is not "the letter of the original" that resists translation but the impossible remainder of what Lacan calls the real. The untranslatable remainder in this tale has less to do with the insistence of the letter than with the insistence of the real.

We see the first evidence of this untranslatable remainder and the insistence of the real during the scene of the portrait's completion. After the painter achieves "Life itself" and realizes "that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him," his eyes fall upon that part of the original that refuses sublimation.(12) Behind him sits her corpse, that unsublimated remainder that escapes his translation (introjection). This story is not just an inversion of the myth of Galatea, for in the original myth of Pygmalion and Galatea the statue comes so completely to life that nothing remains of the original statue. In the Greek myth the process of sublimation is complete, whereas in Poe's story the sublimation of the natural body cannot be achieved. While a beautiful portrait of "Life itself" stands before him, the grotesque dead body remains behind. It is the repression of the unsublimated dead body that generates the uncanny quality of the portrait.

Through the narrator, we learn of the full repercussions of this problematic sublimation and repression of the dead body. The narrator recounts how during a night's stay at a chateau he discovered in his bed chamber an enchanting portrait of a young woman. He did not understand why such a seemingly conventional portrait could have such a profound effect upon him until he noticed a very uncanny aspect about the painting's allure: "I had found the spell of the picture in absolute life-likeness of expression, which at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me" (569). Freud remarks that the uncertainty of whether something inanimate might in fact be alive is one of the most powerful instances of the uncanny.(13) It is this very uncertainty that provokes Poe's narrator to seek out an explanation of the painting in the volume by his bedside, which only creates a greater sense of the uncanny. Through this account of the painting's origin we discover that encrypted in the portrait is a haunting remainder of the unsublimated dead body, which returns in the form of a living dead.

Although the painter tries to introject life itself into the painting and to immure her alive in it, the portrait instead becomes an encryptment in which death rather than life is buried alive. Such an encryptment, as Derrida notes, involves a complex dynamic of exclusion and incorporation of the dead body: "The inhabitant of a crypt is always a living dead, a dead entity we are perfectly willing to keep alive, but as dead, one we are willing to keep, as long as we keep it, within us, intact in anyway save as living."(14) The portrait in Poe's story exemplifies this very paradox of the living dead and at the same time exposes the limits or breakdown of the incorporation of the living dead. A successful encryptment, in Derrida's description, seals death away and incorporates it in a separate domain, insuring that life is not tainted by death.

Poe's story, the original title of which was "Life in Death," presents us with the breakdown of this encryptment, for the attempt to exclude or to repress the life of death is precisely what comes back to haunt. As Derrida suggests, in any encryptment the fantasy of incorporation signifies "the introjection it is incapable of: its impossibility, its simulacrum, its displacement."(15) The uncanny and lifelike gaze of the portrait, which haunts the narrator, signifies this displacement and impossible introjection of the dead body. The dead body, though displaced, returns encrypted in the lifelike gaze. The narrator, at first fixated and intrigued by the portrait's gaze, is eventually appalled by it, for it provokes the dread of "life in death." The repressed dead body returns as the living dead to seek revenge for its premature burial.

The painter's desire to animate the inanimate and to create his own fetish of the exquisite corpse through art has gone awry in "The Oval Portrait." One of major problems inherent in the production of the exquisite corpse is that if it is too lifelike it can no longer function as a fetish; its uncanny reappearance as the undead marks the breakdown of the fetish. Although the fetish is always treated as an ambivalent object, it still functions in the symbolic order, whereas the undead marks an eruption of the real into the symbolic order. This distinction, though, is always very tenuous, for the exquisite corpse always has the potential to return as the undead. The reappearance of the undead is associated with too precipitous a burial. The undead are buried prematurely, before receiving proper obsequies--before they have, according to Lacan, gained access to their proper place in the symbolic order. They return demanding this proper burial and will not rest until it has been accomplished.

Lacan's analysis of Hamlet illustrates this demand for a proper burial, figured as "an inexpiable debt": "The Other [King Hamlet] reveals himself from the beginning as the barred Other. He is barred not only from the world of the living but also from his just retribution. He has entered the kingdom of hell with this crime, this debt that he has not been able to pay, an inexpiable debt, he says."(16) Barred from the world of the living and yet also barred from their proper resting site, the undead occupy "the place between two deaths'; between biological death and symbolic death, where symbolic accounts are settled. The return of the living dead materializes a certain symbolic debt that persists beyond expiry."(17) In the case of Hamlet, the father's demand for the retribution of his untimely murder is clearly known from the very start of the play when he speaks to Hamlet: "So art thou to revenge, when thou shall hear" (I.v.7).

Although the ghost's demand is quite explicit, the demand of the undead women in Poe's tales is not so evident. And while it could be argued that the young woman in "The Oval Portrait" comes back to haunt due to her untimely demise or murder, Poe's stories offer a more complex inquiry into more problematic representations of the demand of the undead.

In Poe's stories the demand of the undead or of characters buried alive, who figure as versions of the living dead, bears a striking burden of sexual politics. In Poe's tales of the return from the dead of male protagonists their demand, unlike that of their female counterparts, is fully articulated. Moreover, its very articulation often becomes one of the key narrative components in the story. Even in a story such as "Loss of Breath," in which the protagonist Mr. Lackobreath has been buried alive after having lost his breath and speech, he is not at a loss for words. He narrates the entire story of his loss of articulation and recovery. "Yes! breathless. I am serious in asserting that my breath was entirely gone" (344). In this story live burial becomes an absurd comedy of errors. Moreover, Mr. Lackobreath undergoes numerous humanly impossible ordeals reminiscent of Sade's Justine. First he is thrown off a train after he is presumed dead, which results in broken limbs and a fractured skull; then he undergoes a partial dissection and electric shock; finally he is interred in a public vault. In the crypt he dallies away his time guessing what kind of lives the other corpses around him might have led. Eventually he stumbles upon the corpse of a former acquaintance, Mr. Windenough, from whom he demands the return of his proper breath:

      There were no terms with which he was unwilling to comply, and there
were none of which I failed to take the fullest advantage.

Preliminaries being at length arranged, my acquaintance delivered me the
respiration, for which (having fully examined it) I gave him afterward a
receipt. (349)

While Mr. Lackobreath's demand figures here as a desire to regain his breath, he has lost his breath to his wife's former paramour. Thus the comic ordeal of this sublime body turns into a more serious matter: by regaining his breath from his rival, he not only gains his speech back but also regains his proper place in the marriage and in the symbolic economy of the phallic law.(18)

"Some Words with a Mummy," a humorous vignette about the reanimation of a museum mummy through electric shock, presents another clear articulation of the demand of the (male) living dead and its relation to the paternal law. The mummy explains that he was in fact embalmed alive. While he protests the vile and abject manner of his "revivification," he goes on in great detail about his return from the dead for the purposes of "rescription and personal rectification" and explains that he has returned to life to prevent his and his forefathers' history from "degenerating into absolute fable" (458). He too is endowed with a sublime body to insure that his proper place in history will be secured.

The mummy might suggest what Aries has called the tradition of "the beautiful dead" with its elaborate preservation of the body as an exquisite corpse. In fact real Egyptian mummies were rather horrific figures, by contrast with the products and aims of modern embalming; "unlike modern embalmers, who preserve the body in its usual appearance, the Egyptian mummies were complete only when dressed and masked. If this adornment is removed what one sees are skeletons covered with black, dried skin, rather horrible in appearance."(19) By contrast, in Poe's story the mummy's body, before its dissection at the hands of the modern Egyptologists, is completely intact. Unlike his historical predecessors, Poe's mummy was an exquisite corpse before his revivification. Eventually the doctors repair all the damage they have inflicted while reanimating him and then dress him up in modern attire--"a black dress coat, made in Jennings' best manner, a pair of sky-blue plaid pantaloons with straps, a pink ginghamchemise, a flapped vest of brocade, a white sack overcoat, a walking cane with a hook, a hat with no brim, patent-leather boots, straw colored kid gloves, an eyeglass, a pair of whiskers, and a waterfall cravat" (456). Unlike the monster in Frankenstein, who is terrifying after his reanimation, this mummy looks like a buffoonish dandy in his garish costume. While his appearance is quite comical, he is a most articulate gentleman who spends the remainder of the story chronicling his civilization's advancements and reinscribing them for posterity. Live burial for Poe's male protagonists is a humorous adventure in which the order of things is only momentarily interrupted. Instead of provoking the dread of the undead, these stories through a comic vein restore the paternal law.

The undead or live burials of Poe's female protagonists, however, present their demand as exceeding the limits of the paternal law and the symbolic order. Poe's heroines do not escape from their encryptment quite so unscathed as do the heroes of "Loss of Breath" and "Some Words with a Mummy." Although their debts are paid in full, his heroines persist beyond the grave with an unconditional and impossible demand, which is none other than pure drive. In "Berenice" this pure drive of the female undead tears asunder the very order of things.

Paternal law is very clearly established from the beginning of "Berenice," represented by the narrator's detailed descriptions of genealogies and ancestral mansions--what Gregory Jay calls "the machinery of inheritance."(20) This inheritance is outlined early on in the story by the narrator: "My baptismal name is Egaeus; that of my family I will not mention. Yet there are no towers in the land more time-honored than my gloomy, gray, hereditary halls" (171). The most distinguished of these halls is his library, which claims his earliest memories. Genealogy and "hereditary halls," as Jay points out, appear for Egaeus to be grounded in textuality. As with Usher and Dupin, Egaeus's house is the library. "He is a place where other writings meet, less a soul than an intertextual confluence. His identity, and that of Poe's work, appears to be that of a shadow cast by others. Egaeus's `anxiety of influence' (Harold Bloom's term) so holds him that the "noon of manhood" finds him still in the mansion of his forefathers, an edifice of historicism as well as textuality (Jay, 88). Intertexuality is not the only "anxiety of influence" for Egaeus. "The recollections of my earliest years are connected with that chamber, and with its volumes--of which I will say no more. Here died my mother. Herein I was born" (171). The library houses more than just books, for the maternal body invades the text and comes back to haunt. In his analysis of Egaeus' genealogy Jay excludes any reference to the maternal, although he quotes this very passage about the mother's death. "Genealogy," Jay argues, "becomes the aptest structural metaphor because of its theoretical and historical strengths as a system for dominating and regulating the passage of identity, authority, and property through the mutability of time" (Jay, 88). Yet this genealogy is also based on the repression of the maternal body and the unsublimated female corpse.

When Egaeus first introduces Berenice he again refers to his patrilineal heritage: "Berenice and I were cousins, and we grew up in my paternal halls" (172). These halls are not, however, secure against the return of the maternal body in the form of his ailing Berenice. The female corpse haunts these hereditary halls with a vengeance. At first, though, Berenice's illness serves Egaeus as a means of identifying with his beloved. Through her illness the two become kindred souls (as Freud claims in Group Psychology, identification with another's ailment is one of the most acute symptoms of romantic love and hysteria). In Poe's story, Egaeus and Berenice's ailments bond them together as much as or even more so than their paternal bloodline. This dynamic of identification again raises the question of the role of introjection in romantic love as described by Freud. Gregory Jay argues that Poe's descriptions of heroines like Berenice or Madeleine Usher "mingle [the male protagonist's] own features with hers, as in mourning he introjectively identifies with her to immortalize her" (Jay, 95). The issue in "Berenice," though, has less to do with introjection than its impossibility.

The story at first appears to offer a model of romantic love based on a Svengalian bond/bondage of identification and introjection. The trance-like quality of Berenice's illness, according to the narrator, is "a species of epilepsy not unfrequently terminating in trance itself--trance very nearly resembling positive dissolution, and from which her manner of recovery was, in most instances, startlingly abrupt" (172). Berenice's illness renders her the perfect subject of hypnosis, with her sudden trances and "positive dissolution," even as Egaeus' illness seems to transform him into another monomaniacal Svengali:

   In the mean time my own disease--for I have been told that I should call it
by no other appellation--my own disease, then, grew rapidly upon me,
assumed finally a monomaniac character of a novel and extraordinary
form--hourly and momently gaining vigormand at length obtaining over me the
most incomprehensible ascendancy. (172)

Although his disease seems to have empowered him, it eventually hinders any such Svengalian mastery. For while the mesmerist in a sense introjects the other through hypnosis, Egaeus' acute sensibility renders such introjection impossible. Instead he becomes the one fixated and mesmerized by the other, whose impossible introjection gives way to the fantasy of incorporation and encryptment.

Egaeus' illness manifests itself as an instance of the drive in the psychoanalytic sense. Egaeus describes how his mind became excited and preoccupied by the most trivial and inconsequential of objects, such as the typography of a book or the play of a shadow. According to Freud and, later, Lacan, the object in the drive is invariably insignificant in itself: "This is what Freud tells us. Let us look at what he says--As far as the object in the drive is concerned, let it be clear that it is, strictly speaking, of no importance. It is a matter of total indifference."(21) Egaeus repeatedly says that all the objects that draw his attention are of no real significance: "In my case the primary object was invariably frivolous, although assuming, through the medium of my distempered vision, a refracted and unreal importance. Few deductions, if any, were made; and those few perniciously returning upon the original object as a center" (173). Eventually his malady takes as its primary object his beloved Berenice. He becomes riveted not by his love for her but by his fascination with the progressive deterioration of her body. At this point he can no longer see her in her entirety, as the "unparalleled beauty" that she once was (174). Instead she becomes a series of part objects for him, each of which offers its own special allure:

   The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once
jetty hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with
innumerable ringlets now of a vivid yellow, and jarring discorcordantly, in
their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance.
The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupil-less, and I
shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the
thin shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the
teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves to my view. (173)

It is Berenice's teeth that become the most alluring part of her body: "In the multiple objects of the external world I had no thoughts but for the teeth. For these I longed with a frenzied desire" (175). Yet these teeth function paradoxically in the story. On the one hand they represent a part of the sublime body that lives on even after the natural body has wasted away. While the rest of her body deteriorates, Berenice's teeth remain perfectly intact, "not a speck on their surface--not a shade on their enamel" (175). They represent the fantasy of the exquisite corpse with its sublime immutability. They appear to be the perfect fetish, that single marker of life used to dispel the fear of death and the unsublimated dead body.

Yet Poe explodes this tradition of the exquisite corpse and exposes the inherent ambivalence and violence at work in the construction of the fetish. Egaeus' violation of Berenice's body in order to gain possession of her teeth illustrates quite graphically the ambivalence one has towards one's fetish. Poe's story also offers a powerful critique of the pathology of romantic love and the workings of the fetish. Whereas the fetish is supposed to hide what Slavoj Zizek terms "the empty place of the Thing" and the domain of the real, Berenice's teeth eventually come to occupy that very spot. Her teeth resist not only decomposition and the natural order of things but fetishization and assimilation into the symbolic order.

Ultimately, Egaeus is haunted and repulsed by the "ghastly spectrum of the teeth" (175). The incorruptibility of Berenice's teeth no longer signifies a part of the exquisite corpse's sublime body but rather the ghastly specter of the living dead. While they embody a resistance to the very order of things as do all of the living dead, they also represent the insistence of the return of the repressed. Like the young woman's gaze in "The Oval Portrait," Berenice's teeth come to represent that impossible remainder, that little piece of the real, which takes on a life of it own and erupts in the symbolic order. The real has invaded Egaeus' paternal halls.

Although Egaeus tries to sublimate this horror by calling her teeth "des iddes," he adds that "here was the idiotic thought that destroyed me!" (175). By trying to transform her teeth into ideas, Egaeus is attempting to assimilate or to introject them into his own symbolic order; if he were able to take possession of them, rational order could be restored. For order to be restored, however, there must be a proper mourning of the loss of his beloved Berenice. The mere fact of his premature burial of Berenice proves that mourning is an impossibility for Egaeus. Abraham and Torok suggest that when mourning becomes impossible, the loss remains alive encrypted in the psyche, or in Egaeus' case in his paternal halls:

   Grief that cannot be expressed builds a secret vault within the subject. In
this crypt reposes alive, reconstituted from the memories of words, images,
and feelings--the objective counterpart of the loss, as a complete person
with his own topography, as well as the traumatic incidents--real or
imagined--that had made introjection, impossible.... [A] whole unconscious
world is created, where a separate and secret life is led.(22)

In Poe's story there are two obvious such secret vaults, in the form of Berenice's grave, where her body has been secreted away, and in the encryptment of Berenice's teeth in Egaeus' "little box," which it might be argued is no other than a figuration of his own psyche. Egaeus' secret life is described first as if it were a dream from which he had just awakened but had "no positive--at least no definite comprehension. Yet, its memory was replete with horror--horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity" (176). He secludes himself in his library struggling over this "fearful page" in his history, hoping "to decipher" it, when suddenly he hears "the shrill and piercing shriek of a female voice" (176). His secret remains inaccessible through language or consciousness. Yet, as Abraham and Torok argue, "`in the middle of the night,' the phantom of the crypt may come to haunt the keeper of the graveyard, making strange and incomprehensible signs to him, forcing him to perform unwonted acts, arousing unexpected feelings in him."(23) Berenice's cry is precisely the incomprehensible sign that Egaeus calls "unintelligible recollections." His unwonted act is suddenly revealed to him when he looks over at his clothes to find them "muddy and clotted with gore" and sees his hand "indented with the impress of human nails" (176). His "dream" suddenly becomes quite clear: he has buried his beloved alive and desecrated her grave to gain possession of her teeth.

Poe appropriately sets this scene in the library--the domain of textuality, but also the locus of the mother's death. These paternal halls, founded on textuality, have been invaded by the return of the female body. Attempts to expel the maternal body, as well as Berenice's body, from these halls fail; Egaeus merely encrypts them there alive. Without a proper burial or proper mourning these figures are destined to return, and return they do with an unconditional demand that manifests itself as a terrifying instance of pure drive. The apparitions that emerge in what Lacan calls "between the two deaths" as a rule address us, common mortals, with some unconditional demand. And it is for this reason that they incarnate pure drive without desire.(24)

Whereas Egaeus' demand is governed by his "phrenzied desire" for the acquisition of Berenice's teeth, the demand of this female voice is unconditional. In "Loss of Breath" and "Some Words with a Mummy," by contrast, the demand of the female protagonists is explicitly stated and eventually fulfilled. Although in this story Egaeus' demand at first appears to be undirected, as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that his disease/drive desires a very specific object. The body of the narrative becomes an elaborate explanation for and fulfillment of this demand. Like Hamlet's ghost, Poe's male protagonists express their demand in a language that functions in the symbolic order and is governed by the phallic law. The demand of the female undead is even more terrifying in that it remains unknown, for it is never stated. It insists as pure drive but does not consist in any specific desire or articulated demand. Demand, here, is no longer a clearly defined issue of retribution or assimilation into the symbolic order, but concerns a "traumatic element" that is incorporated in that very order: "The symbolic order strives for a homeostatic balance, but there is in its kernel, in its very center, some strange, traumatic element which cannot be symbolized, integrated into the symbolic order: the Thing. Lacan coined a neologism for it: L'extimite--external intimacy."(25)

Berenice's teeth function within the narrative as the traumatic kernel which can never be assimilated into Egaeus' symbolic order but that nevertheless remains encrypted in that order as an extime element. While Berenice's teeth function as this traumatic kernel, the female cry heard at the end of the story functions more as the embodiment of feminine jouissance. In his seminar Feminine Sexuality, Lacan argues that "not all" of the woman falls under the phallic law or the signifier. There is "something more" that exceeds the phallic function, which he designates as a supplemental or feminine "jouissance beyond the phallus."(26) In Poe's short stories the unconditional demand of the feminine undead is beyond the phallus, which is why it can never be articulated. What the feminine undead demand is not their proper burial or mourning but their own proper jouissance, and it is terrifying.

In "Berenice" we see this jouissance figured as the female voice that erupts in the library but that cannot be deciphered, for it is that "not all" that is not entirely under the rule of the signifier. In "The Oval Portrait" it is expressed through the portrait's supplemental gaze that leaves its uncanny effect upon the narrator who vainly seeks for an explanation of it in the book by his bedside. In each case these undead women demand something that exceeds the bounds of language and the phallic law. Moreover, their demand is not expressed through language but through the body--the voice or the gaze. Feminine jouissance, Lacan writes, is "a jouissance of the body." But whose body is expressing this jouissance? In "Berenice" we cannot even be certain to whom this voice belongs. It may be Berenice's, or perhaps it is the return of the maternal voice/Thing embodied in her voice, or both. What becomes so terrifying about this voice for Egaeus, and for the reader, is that it embodies the pure drive of feminine jouissance, which, although it knows nothing of itself nor of paternal law, still insists. In Lacan's words, "There is a jouissance proper to her, to this `her' which does not exist and which signifies nothing. There is a jouissance proper to her and of which she herself may know nothing, except that she experiences it--that much her knows."(27)

Jouissance in Lacan's analysis is still tied to a notion of subjectivity, however, whereas in Poe's stories feminine jouissance manifests itself in a desubjectivized form. His female undead are neither speaking nor desiring subjects, which creates even greater terror for there is no room for negotiation. In "Terminate or Liquidate?: Poe, Sensationalism, and the Sentimental Tradition," Jonathan Elmer reads the horror in Poe as a provocation from a desiring subject who has "an unnatural, illicit desire for us":

   One aspect of the uncanniness of this moment is surely the odd
self-recognition it induces, odd because what we are confronted with is
something that looks like our own desire turned upside down, inverted--so
that rather than the tender and pained grimace that marks the solicitude of
the living for the dying, we see directed back at us the steely and
lascivious grin of the dead desiring the living.(28)

Elmer's analysis of the reversal of the gaze and desire from the bereaved to the "dearly departing" is insightful. However, we still need to distinguish between the dying in deathbed scenes and Poe's revenants. Moreover, whereas Poe's male revenants retain their identities as speaking and desiring subjects, the feminine undead go through a more a radical metamorphosis. They have become creatures of pure drive, who, though they do not speak, insist with their gaze or their shrieks. Even in a story like "The Fall of the House of Usher," where Roderick's sister Madeleine returns in the flesh, she appears more as an embodiment of a thing "reeling to and fro" with her "low moaning cry" than as a subject (191). Mistakenly we ask these creatures, "What do you want?" But their demand is unconditional and unnegotiable; they have evolved beyond desiring subjects, for Poe's undead heroines embody nothing other than the death drive--the real terror of the undead.

The terror Poe evokes through the unconditional demand of his female undead characters dismantles the tranquility and moral edification of deathbed scenes found in postmortem photography and in the sentimental literary tradition. Nineteenth-century literature is replete with sentimentalized feminine or infantile deathbed scenes. In American literature, Stowe's ethereal account of little Eva's death epitomizes this sentimental tradition. Exploring Poe's sensationalizing of this tradition, Jonathan Elmer concludes that "Poe's tales ... activate certain dangers that sentimentalism mobilizes but attempts to sublimate: the danger of a kind of absorptive identification, a dubiousness about truth-claims (with concomitant suspension of moral certitude), and a heightened awareness on the part of the reader of the artificiality of discursive closure."(29) While the sentimental tradition tried to give the dead their proper obsequies, Poe's tales reveal a peculiar feminist twist, for his women retaliate against this literary tradition's practice of burying its women as exquisite corpses.

Poe may have refused to give the undead a proper burial so that they could live on in their full terror, but a new industry was on the rise in America that offered the undead new burial grounds. While morticians, landscape architects, postmortem photographers, and writers of consolation literature were giving the dead a decent burial, a new breed of photographers were in their darkrooms preparing a wake for the undead. In 1861 a Bostonian engraver by the name of William Mumler invented a means to capture the living dead in a photograph. Death masks and postmortem photographs recorded for posterity the dead body, but spirit photography provided the means not only to record the afterlife but to present the undead as "exquisite spirits." One would simply go to Mrs. H. F. Stuart's studio, where Mumler worked, and sit for a regular photograph, and, through the photographer's mediumship (or so he claimed), one's dearly departed would miraculously appear on the negative and final print, either standing right beside the subject or hovering somewhere in the background of the photo.

With the advent of nineteenth-century spiritualism, the living dead were no longer dreaded, but actively courted. By contrast with some versions of popular, women-sponsored mid-nineteenth-century spiritualism, spirit photography relied upon its scientific basis to prove that spirits beyond the grave existed. Numerous studies, offering substantial testimonies and documentation, would eventually be published in defense of this new science. In Photographing the Invisible (1911), James Coates offered a scientific defense of spirit photography on the basis of the "recently discovered N-Rays," a pseudo-scientific name for the "Human Magnetism" that had been popular since Franz Anton Mesmer's work in the eighteenth century. This name, however, lent greater authority to Coates' argument because of its close affinity to X-Rays, which offered, he said, solid proof that the invisible could be photographed. Beside his various "scientific proofs," Coates further supported his argument with the testimonies of various reputable individuals. Among them he cites the case of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, who while still in mourning visited Mumler in Boston and, using a pseudonym, requested a photograph of herself. When the picture was developed a figure "as that of the late President" appeared in the photograph beside her, a photograph Coates reproduced.(30)

Sir Conan Doyle also wrote his own treatise on the subject, The Case for Spirit Pholography, in an effort to validate with "conclusive proof" the existence of spirit photography. He even included his own personal experience, in which a medium by the name of Mr. Hope was able without the use of a camera to impress psychically upon a photo plate a picture resembling Doyle's dead sister:

   On putting the plate into the solution a disc the size of a shilling,
perfectly black, sprang up in the center of it. On development this
resolved itself into a luminous circle with the face of a female delicately
outlined within it. Under the chin is a disc of white, and two fingers
which are pointing to it. The disc is evidently a brooch, and the pointing
seemed to indicate it was meant to be evidential. The face bore a strong
resemblance to that of my elder sister, who died some thirty years ago.
Upon sending the print to my other sisters they not only confirmed this,
but reminded me that my sister had a very remarkable ivory brooch which
might best have been chosen as a test.(31)

Spirit photography's cultural contribution was not so much that it could bring back one's dearly departed, like Doyle's sister, but that it could bring back the dead in such a pacified form. Unlike Poe's threatening, uncommunicative undead heroines, these spirits use any means available to communicate with their loved ones, from a familiar brooch to the gesture of a hand. In one of the few extant spirit photographs by Mrs. H. F. Stuart, a female spirit hovers faintly in the background with her hands gently resting upon the gentleman's arm (Figure 1). Moreover, the spirits always appear in these photographs as somewhat transparent and vague figures that float in "a luminous circle." These undead are not the ravaged corpse of Madeleine Usher, who appears in a bloody shroud with "the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame" (190). With spirit photography the exquisite corpse has finally been disembodied and transformed into an unsubstantial and harmless spirit.

While this transformation contributes to the ideology of the repressed the dead body, its incorporeality was due in part to the photographic process itself. Spirit photographs were achieved through double exposures. In order to avoid effacing one of the images by the other and blackening it out, the photographer would have to run his hand or some other object under the camera during the process. This blurred the outline of the "spirit," which in turn created the spirit's luminosity or aura. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Walter Benjamin famously comments that with mechanical reproduction there is a "decay of the aura" of the work of art.(33) Through artifice and unsophisticated (by today's standards) darkroom techniques, spirit photography found new means to create a simulacrum of that aura.

All cultures have invented ways of pacifying the dead to avoid their return. Michel Ragon suggests that the tombstone is perhaps our culture's technique of keeping the dead down under: "Placing heavy stones over a corpse is a way of marking the burial place, but it is also a way of preventing it from rising."(34) Modern technology, however, invented another means to insure that if dead returned they would be completely mortified. Spirit photography became the final burial ground for the living dead. It not only pacified the undead by disembodying them but killed them off once and for all through the photograph. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes that although in every photograph there is a return of the dead, the specter that returns has been anesthetized by the camera. "When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means they do not emerge, do not leave; they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies."(35) This relationship between photography and death, "thanatography," as Philippe Dubois has called it, has also been pointed out by Christian Metz, who argues that while film "gives back a semblance of life," photography "maintains the memory of the dead as being dead."(36)

Spirit photography became the nineteenth century's best vehicle for enacting the proper mourning of the revenant. While seances might provoke the dread of the fully animated undead, the spirit photograph allows for one's dearly departed to maintain an afterlife without the fear of animation, for these dead never reappeared in the flesh. Even the fetishism involved in the desire for such keepsakes could be better disguished, for these photographs were produced by the hands of science and technology. In the end, spirit photography not only offered American popular culture a new means of reappropriating and pacifying the revenant, but in the process created a more profitable and technological undead.


(1) I have taken this term from Richard A. Etlin's The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge: MIT Univ. Press, 1984).

(2) See Barton Levi St. Armand's "The `Mysteries' of Edgar Poe" in The Tales of Poe, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 25-54. St. Armand provides general background on the Gothic revival and catalogues the references to occult literature in "The Fall of the House of Usher." See also Maurice Levy's "Poe and the Gothic Tradition," trans. Richard Henry Harwell, ESQ 18, no. 1 (1972): 19-25.

(3) For major cultural studies of death in American and Western cultures during the romantic and Victorian periods, see Philippe Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Patricia M. Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974) and The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Knopf, 1981), as well as Ann Douglas, "The Domestication of Death," in The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon, 1977), 200-206.

(4) See Stanley French's "The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the `Rural Cemetery' Movement," in Death in America, ed. David E. Stannard (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 70, and Blanche Linden-Ward, "Strange but Genteel Pleasure Grounds: Tourist and Leisure Uses of Nineteenth-Century Rural Cemeteries," in Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 1992), 300.

(5) Aries, Western Attitudes, 79-80.

(6) For an account of nineteenth-century postmortem photography, see Stanley B. Bums, M.D., Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America (Altadena: Twelve-trees Press, 1990).

(7) Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, "Introjection--Incorporation, Mourning or Melancholia," in Psychoanalysis in France, ed. Serge Lebovic and Daniel Widlocher (New York: International Universities, Inc., 1980), 3-16; Jacques Derrida, "Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok," trans. Barbara Johnson, in Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok's The Wolfman's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1986), xi-xlviii.

(8) Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959), 45, 43-48.

(9) Derrida, xvii, xviii.

(10) Harold Bloom, Introduction, in Bloom, ed., The Tales of Poe, 7.

(11) J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987), 65.

(12) Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 570. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

(13) Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny," in On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 132.

(14) Derrida, xxi.

(15) Derrida, xviii.

(16) Jacques Lacan, "Desire and Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. Shoshana Felman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982), 44.

(17) Slavoj Zizek, "The Real and Its Vicissitudes," Newsletter of the Freudian Field 3 (1989): 82.

(18) Marie Bonaparte gives a standard Freudian reading of the narrator's loss of breath during his violent ejaculations against his wife as a case of impotency, which she relates to Poe's own life. See The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A PsychoAnalytic Interpretation, trans. John Rodker (London: Hogarth Press, 1971), 373-410.

(19) Michel Ragon, The Space of Death: A Study of Funerary Architecture, Decoration, and Urbanism, trans. Alan Sheridan (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1983), 6.

(20) Gregory S. Jay, "Poe and the Unconscious," in Modern Interpretations of Poe, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 88.

(21) Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 168.

(22) Abraham and Torek, 8.

(23) Abraham and Torek, 8.

(24) Zizek, "The Real and Its Vicissitudes," 81.

(25) Slavoj Zizek, "The Object as a Limit of Discourse: Approaches to the Lacanian Real," Prose Studies 11 (1988): 101.

(26) Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 145.

(27) Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, 145.

(28) Jonathan Elmer, "Terminate or Liquidate? Poe, Sensationalism, and the Sentimental Tradition," in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 92, 91. Elmer's discussion of the sentimental tradition and Poe's inversion of that tradition draws on the Lacanian registers of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, gesturing toward the Real only in the article's last sentence, which ventures that Poe's "sensational liquidation" transforms imaginary identification "into what one could call an instance of the Lacanian Real" (113).

(29) Elmer, 109-10.

(30) James Coates, Photographing the Invisible (1911; New York: Arno Press, 1973), 9.

(31) Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1923), 23-24.

(32) Early spirit photographs are very difficult to obtain, and I would like to thank Sally Pierce at the Boston Athenaeum for locating this carte-de-visite by Mrs. Stuart.

(33) Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (NY: Schocken Books, 1969), 223.

(34) Ragon, 16.

(35) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 57.

(36) Christian Metz, "Photography and Fetish," October 34 (1985): 84.