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Old 16th February 2007, 08:15 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Fall Of The House Of Usher

I had this conversation with an old friend who is head monk at a Buddhist temple near my home and I was wondering if anyone else thought the same.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher is one of my favourite Edgar Poe tales and I've read it several times over the years. I was wondering if anyone else got the impression that Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline Usher were rather more than brother and sister to each other. If that might perhaps explain his guilt and terror and maybe even his reluctance to go down and set her free.

Perhaps in his Victorian mind it was some kind of just punishment from the powers that be and perhaps that is why the whole house finally cracks and sinks beneath the waters of the tarn. The house cracks in two with the crack zigzagging down the wall tearing asunder what was once together.
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Old 16th February 2007, 08:43 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

Oh, almost without question: Roderick Usher had an incestuous relationship with his sister. Later, his sins were compounded and amplified by a necrophilious level of obsession.

I should probably add that Poe was certainly a byproduct of his times. The cult of death and remembrance of the deceased was exceptionally powerful - and morbidly unhealthy - in early 19th century America. Funeral and burial arrangements grew in elaboration and cost to such a degree that the living went heavily into debt. Accordingly, municipal governments began to pass laws prohibiting such levels of extravagance. Some of the relics of that era carry of truly ghastly flavour: "death books", albums containing daguerreotype, tintypes and carte de vistes of the deceased (including babies and children), locks of hair and even silver coffin spoons engraved with the names and dates of the deceased. Such was the milieu of Poe's day.

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Old 16th February 2007, 08:53 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

Query, Curt: Do you think this was one of the things that Matheson was addressing (unspoken) in his screenplay for the Corman film? I'll confess, I hadn't put any thought into this one until Nesa raised it, but it made perfectly good sense once she did... and it seemed to me that Matheson wove that into some of the script.... As for the necrophilia, I'd suggest that it would be in thought rather than deed, given the events of the tale as presented, and not even self-acknowledged at that; but it would seem fitting with the "graveyard/romantic poets" aspect Poe was addressing... and his own fascination with "the death of a beautiful woman", which has often been noted as one of his major themes (Virginia Clemm's long decline certainly played a significant role there, of course....)
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Old 16th February 2007, 09:11 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

Yes, I believe so. The necrophilia element was without question very attenuated in Poe's tale, but almost certainly present in a deeply repressed Freudian unconscious level in Matheson's screenplay.

A sin in either thought or deed under the eyes of a watchful, stern, wrathful Protestant God was the grim legacy of Cotton Mather and our Pilgrim forebears and all that was necessary to bring damnation crashing down upon one's head. Thus the fate of poor Roderick.
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Old 16th February 2007, 09:32 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

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Yes, I believe so. The necrophilia element was without question very attenuated in Poe's tale, but almost certainly present in a deeply repressed Freudian unconscious level in Matheson's screenplay.

A sin in either thought or deed under the eyes of a watchful, stern, wrathful Protestant God was the grim legacy of Cotton Mather and our Pilgrim forebears and all that was necessary to bring damnation crashing down upon one's head. Thus the fate of poor Roderick.
Well, if you think Cotton was bad, try reading Increase! (Actually, from what I know of Cotton Mather, despite his thunderous sermons (and his support of the witchcraft trials), he was actually quite a gentle man overall. According to the records I've seen, and his own Wonders of the Invisible World, he was more inclined to convert than execute supposed witches -- which, for his time, was a rather enlightened view. I'm more inclined to blame John Calvin than the Mathers, I'll admit... though, as HPL remarked, when someone questioned whether things were quite that bad: "You just don't know those Massachusetts high-hats!"

Yes... the funereal aspect of things was very powerful in Poe's day, and even more so earlier on, from the mid-17th century until well into latter part of the 19th. But they saw something in death we don't, as well... something which gave a dignity to the individual and a meaning to their death that we, as a culture, seem to have lost (for better or worse history alone will be able to decide). I've seen (and handled) some of those albums you mention, Curt... they are creepy things from our perspective; yet their outlook was different... it was an attempt to remember them in the poses of life and (it being a difficult process at the time) photography was seldom used with the common people day-to-day, only under unusual circumstances, such as death (and therefore the permanent loss of that person) would entail photographs being taken to remember them by, in many cases. Not to mention the common epidemics of things like cholera, yellow fever, etc., which also caused such a fascination/dread with death; and the fact that premature burial was a very real fear for many. It's a complex background that lies behind Poe's motifs, personal and cultural both....
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:04 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

They all seemed to live under the shadow of doom and not just of a God that was vengeful and capricious. Death and all it's trappings had so much more of an impact on life than the process of living. Life was just some corridor filled with toment and anguish to be traversed on the way to death.

It was a time that belonged to the word melancholy and people seemed to embrace that and somehow live it in their huge cold stone houses with mausoleums holding generations of the dead. In the house of Usher there were more of those who were dead than living. And Madeline's illness and death is so very lovingly described along with her brother's torment.
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:15 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

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Well, if you think Cotton was bad, try reading Increase! (Actually, from what I know of Cotton Mather, despite his thunderous sermons (and his support of the witchcraft trials), he was actually quite a gentle man overall. According to the records I've seen, and his own Wonders of the Invisible World, he was more inclined to convert than execute supposed witches -- which, for his time, was a rather enlightened view. I'm more inclined to blame John Calvin than the Mathers, I'll admit... though, as HPL remarked, when someone questioned whether things were quite that bad: "You just don't know those Massachusetts high-hats!"

Yes... the funereal aspect of things was very powerful in Poe's day, and even more so earlier on, from the mid-17th century until well into latter part of the 19th. But they saw something in death we don't, as well... something which gave a dignity to the individual and a meaning to their death that we, as a culture, seem to have lost (for better or worse history alone will be able to decide). I've seen (and handled) some of those albums you mention, Curt... they are creepy things from our perspective; yet their outlook was different... it was an attempt to remember them in the poses of life and (it being a difficult process at the time) photography was seldom used with the common people day-to-day, only under unusual circumstances, such as death (and therefore the permanent loss of that person) would entail photographs being taken to remember them by, in many cases. Not to mention the common epidemics of things like cholera, yellow fever, etc., which also caused such a fascination/dread with death; and the fact that premature burial was a very real fear for many. It's a complex background that lies behind Poe's motifs, personal and cultural both....
Well, you know how it goes: each successive generation removed from a hard-line conservative pater familias always turns increasingly liberal until they end up running a head shop in Haight-Asbury!

And you're correct about judging such a cultural phenomena within its proper context. Certainly there were enough folks like myself during that time who would recoil from that kind of morbid fixation, but yet for many others it was a means to keep the memory of their loved ones alive - especially in an era of such high infant mortality rates.

And then, there's the other end of the spectrum . . . . guys like Poe's bitter enemy and rival, Rufus Wilmot Griswold who regularly spent "quality time" in the sepulchre with his deceased wife and was known to kiss the "dew of the grave" off the corpse's forehead! UGH!
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:20 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

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And then, there's the other end of the spectrum . . . . guys like Poe's bitter enemy and rival, Rufus Wilmot Griswold who regularly spent "quality time" in the sepulchre with his deceased wife and was known to kiss the "dew of the grave" off the corpse's forehead! UGH!
Ah, yes... Griswold, to whom we owe most of the myths about Poe.... Now, there's a name that will live (if it lives at all) in infamy..... Would that the wasp of Twickenham had gotten ahold of that one, rather than poor Lewis Theobald!
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:32 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

Admittedly there is something morbidly fascinating about the great Victorian mausoleums and the vast cemetaries with their weeping willows. They sometimes seem to have put greater thought and energy into building their sepulchres than their homes. I personally love old cemetaries and they are my favourite places for walking in.

All those sombre stone angels and deep vaults. The great tombs and elaborate ceremonies surrounding a death. The many years of mourning that followed. Living just above the dead in many cases. Maybe in a time where life was uncertain given the many epidemics and high infant mortality rate and God was harsh and vengeful; Death was the only sure thing. It could be absolutely relied upon and any time, thought or expense spent on it would be absolutely not wasted. Death in those times would have been a lot more romantic and alluring than living sometimes was.
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:44 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

Your mention of "living just above the dead" reminds me, Nesa... I can't recall whether it was Hawthorne or his wife (I think it was Hawthorne himself) lived in a house next to a graveyard, where the graves literally came right up to the house. Such was not uncommon well into the nineteenth century; and with reminders like that so close (especially ones with graves dating back two centuries or so) it's really not surprising that mortality was so much on their minds.

And, like you, I love old graveyards, cemeteries, churchyards... they're wonderful places to wander in, to sit and think, or read, or just watch the birds and animals... Oddly, they do feel like a part of the cycle of life... they're living places, places where the people buried are no less there; while modern cemeteries, with their geometrical precision "so knife-edged orderly" as Ian Anderson puts it... those are dead places. I can't imagine a ghost walking there at all; but in the older cemeteries, yes... for what is a ghost but the shade (memory or otherwise) of the person? While the modern version is too clinical to represent anything as messy as life, the older ones are very much a part of that circle, and have always felt very inviting to me... a bit of continuity with the past, perhaps....
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:51 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

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They all seemed to live under the shadow of doom and not just of a God that was vengeful and capricious. Death and all it's trappings had so much more of an impact on life than the process of living. Life was just some corridor filled with toment and anguish to be traversed on the way to death.

It was a time that belonged to the word melancholy and people seemed to embrace that and somehow live it in their huge cold stone houses with mausoleums holding generations of the dead. In the house of Usher there were more of those who were dead than living. And Madeline's illness and death is so very lovingly described along with her brother's torment.
Some extremely poignant ideas run throughout your post, Nesa! Depending on which branch of Protestantism you adhered to, one 16th century concept that was quite pervasive was predestination as opposed to free will. Essentially mankind's nature was perceived as so utterly corrupt that it was impossible for an individual to act as a free agent to accept Christ into his heart and, thus, accept eternal salvation. God would therefore, arbitrarily decide who would granted eternal life. How grim and deterministic! Only folk who were used to hardship being their constant companion would embrace such a concept.

There was also an interesting progression in early America's view of death. During the Colonial Era through to the Federal Period, death was viewed through a glass darkly as a finality, a departure to either eternal salvation or utter perdition. Later on by the 1850's there was a definite shift in attitude towards man's final journey - it was perceived in a much more upbeat, positive light. God is seen as a more compassionate and forgiving figure. The concept of individual free will to allow God into one's heart is much more prevalent. Much of this attitude shift can be gleaned by listening to modern recordings of authentic early American church hymns and folk songs.

The roots of such an obsessive fixation on Death in Western culture reach back hundreds of years to the Middle Ages, particularly to the time of the Black Plague. The Totentanz (or its French incarnation, the Danse Macabre), the memento mori found on tombs, tapestries, church ornamental detail and manuscripts all celebrated the transcience of man and his works. Omnia vanitas.
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:58 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

I wish you could walk through some of the ones over here, jd - our central cemetery, the Old Town one, has headstones dating back to the 1600s, and in a rare example of good taste by our council, only the paths are trimmed back to allow passage.
Yet it's not in the least "spooky" - turn into the gates off the busy main road in and out of town, and it's like entering a different world - quiet, peaceful and almost friendly.
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Old 16th February 2007, 10:59 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

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The roots of such an obsessive fixation on Death in Western culture reach back hundreds of years to the Middle Ages, particularly to the time of the Black Plague. The Totentanz (or its French incarnation, the Danse Macabre), the memento mori found on tombs, tapestries, church ornamental detail and manuscripts all celebrated the transcience of man and his works. Omnia vanitas.
And let's not forget the handful of chapels that are actually built of the bones of the parishioners... walls, altars, pulpits, candelabra, etc. While they are indeed a bit eerie, they do have a certain beauty to them, and the memto mori has a lot of symbolic importance on many levels... it's a fascinating field of study, and one that shows well just how far we are in our views of life from our ancestors of not so very long ago...

Ah, yes, Pyan.... The few I've managed to get to over here that date back to the late 17th and early 18th centuries were absolutely delightful places to go... Even with the cracked slabs allowing you to see into the crypts, there wasn't anything truly "scary" about them... awful (in the sense of "awe-full"), yes, and profoundly moving... but nothing at all uncomfortable to me. Yes... I'd describe such places as friendly... as I said, they are full of life, really... and very peaceful, and calm. And (imaginatively or otherwise) when I'm in such a place I can feel the dead around me, but not as something to be afraid of; as I said, as a continuity with the past, that feeling of being part of a stream with eddies reaching backward and forward and with various paths going off into quirky and odd directions... very much like a tree of life. And I think that's just it... the dead in such places are not forgotten, they're not simply some number; there's something of them as human beings represented there. That's something we've lost in the modern cemeteries, and I think it takes away from the dignity (what there is of it, which -- despite my kvetching about the species, is actually considerable: any species that can turn out a Sir Thomas Brown, or a Mary Shelley, or a Galileo, or a Gandhi, is by no means all bad) of being human....
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Old 16th February 2007, 11:31 AM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: Fall Of The House Of Usher

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Even with the cracked slabs allowing you to see into the crypts...I'd describe such places as friendly... as I said, they are full of life, really... and very peaceful, and calm.
Nice discussion people...it does remind me of a certain episode from the delightful Three Men in a Boat - "Oh, come and see the skulls; come back and see the skulls!"

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Old 16th February 2007, 11:34 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Nice discussion people...it does remind me of a certain episode from the delightful Three Men in a Boat - "Oh, come and see the skulls; come back and see the skulls!"
Well, as Mrs. C would say: "Gotta larf, incha?"
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