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Literary Criticism

Edgar Allan Poe and Science: A Cosmic Poet

By: Juan Lartigue


The literary talent of Edgar Allan Poe is beyond dispute, but his activity in the scientific area (condensed in Eureka) has been sadly neglected or ignored. Only recently have some researchers undertaken the labour of re-evaluating it. This recent re-evaluation is long overdue, especially, those propositions related to Cosmology. This paper purposes extensions of those propositions, as well as additional commentary, relating, in particular, to Chemistry.


The "Black Legend"

The 150th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death last October did not earn Poe any special celebration in the scientific world either in the United States or abroad. Such neglect may be seen as a continuation of the "black legend" weaved, for various reasons, around one of the most innovative American writers of the 19th Century. In fact, his outstanding literary talent was widely recognized even by contemporaries such as Baudelaire, who named Poe his "twin soul" (Praz 492)**, but Poe’s capacity to perceive the physical nature of the cosmos was not understood in his time. What is difficult to understand is why Poe’s predictions, many of which have been confirmed by science, continue to be ignored.

The "black legend" was originated in part by his own character, at times, stormy and diffident; and also by his caustic literary criticism in the newspapers, which earned him the enmity of those vital to his own success. Unfortunately, many whom he had offended continued to smear his character after his death. As it has recently been written: "Later, that sad image was fed because the increase in the public's morbosity increased the sales...So, Poe became one of the typical personages of his terror stories" (Munnshe,1999 58). Afterwards, Munnshe writes: "...his intervaling mental breakdowns were not related to any shady metaphysical eagerness but to a very material factor: his constant economical scarcity and the premature death of his beloved ones" (59). Lastly, he points out the negligence of the authorities to investigate some evidences of his possible murder (62).


Eureka, An Ignored Work

Cortázar says in the Prologue to his translation of Poe’s prose poem into Spanish: "Eureka was written in 1847, but it is impossible to know how long it was meditated by Poe. ‘As a child,’ says Harvey Allen, ‘he had loved the stars.’" Cortázar adds: "Poe started Eureka’s writing in the sad period after the death of Virginia Clemm...The book seems to have been written quickly, as obeying an uncontrolled impulse" (Cortázar 7).

The failure of the book as a scientific work stems from several factors. First, the ambitious objective declared by Poe at the beginning: "I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical—of the Material and Spiritual Universe: - of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny" (Poe 1). A second problem likely originates from presenting philosophical, metaphysical and astronomical concepts without Poe's possession of an academic degree to support them, including a methodology not always rigorous, and sometimes intuitive. These factors contributed to the refusal of the scientific community, fully opposed to the concept of an evolutive Universe, during his time and later. Those disinclined to adopt such a universe included Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. Such a situation was foreseen by Poe, referring to Newton and Laplace: "They, as well as all the first class of mathematicians, were mathematicians solely: ---their intellect, at least, had a firmly-pronounced mathematico-physical tone. What lay not distinctly within the domain of Physics, or of Mathematics, seemed to them either Non-entity or Shadow" (Poe 23). Likewise, Poe critiques, in an ironic message from the future, the deductive and inductive methods of reasoning and concludes that "...a perfect consistency [of reasoning] can be nothing but an absolute truth" (Poe 7). To illustrate the importance of intuition, if it is supported by a consistent reasoning, he writes: "Yes!—these vital laws Kepler guessed—that is to say, he imagined them. Had he been asked to point out the deductive or inductive route by which he attained them, his reply may have been: ‘I know nothing about routes...I reached it through mere dint of intuition’." The relevance of intuition in Mathematics was recognized at the beginning of the 20th century by Poincaré, though it had been often employed well before by eminent mathematicians such as Fermat, Galois and Riemann and others, including scientists such as Pascal in cosmology, Langevin in physics, and Oswald in chemistry (Hadammard 16). The importance of intuition in the research and teaching of Modern Mathematics has also been pointed out by others (Rado 10, Korner 9). The final factor contributing to the Eureka’s neglect could have been the ignorance of the public of his time regarding Cosmology. In this way, Eureka was cast into oblivion.

Cappi asks: "Why has Eureka’s Cosmology so systematically been ignored or forgotten? For example, everywhere credit is given to Democritus for his atoms, to Aristarchus for his heliocentric system, to Kant and Wright for having considered nebulae as extragalactic systems, and so on, but nowhere is it given to the modern universe of Poe, except for his solution of the [sic] Olbers’ paradox recently pointed out by Harrison. It is possible to list different reasons. Harrison has pointed out the main problem: Metaphysics. As I have shown," Cappi continues, "a number of points in Eureka are well posed in rational terms, but Poe did not aim to a simple scientific Cosmology...the essential message of Eureka is that, to have a consistent Cosmology, we need an evolving Universe, with a beginning and an end...In Eureka, God is the cause of the origin of the Universe: ‘The Universe is a plot of God.’ God represents the original Unity, to which all our spirits will return, in a strict parallelism with the matter" (17). Such a return to Unity could be seen as an antecedent of the Omega Point theory glimpsed by Theilard de Chardin in 1916 (published only in 1956) and developed to a great extent by Tipler in 1994 (112).

It is astonishing the number of Poe’s propositions about the origin, structure and fate of the Universe which have been verified, based on the astronomical concepts of his and our own epochs. His discoveries are a testament to his mighty intuition. Before discussing some of his propositions, it would be convenient to remember the first one: "My general proposition, then, is this: -- In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation" (Poe 2). Next, this study will abstract of Poe's Big Bang and Big Crunch Cosmologies: In the beginning there was only God, Who, from Himself, created a primeval atom whom He ordered to disintegrate into an enormous but not infinite number of atoms which, in their turn, were irradiated in all directions filling up the (finite) Universe of Stars. This is different from Space that is infinite. Gravity then appears as a reaction to the force of diffusion, so provoking the agglomeration of atoms to assume the forms of the celestial bodies. At the same time appears the differentiation of atoms, with the necessary physical, chemical and vital consequences. Lastly, gravity represents a tendency to Unity in the long term. Such Unity requires the annihilation of the present Universe and the renascence of future Universes.

It would also be convenient to classify, in some way, the numerous propositions made by Poe (some of them original, others not at all). Next, let us examine several statements already discussed by other authors as well as some proposals apparently not analyzed to date.


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