“It was this unfathomable longing of my soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute”—narrator, Edgar Allen Poe’s THE BLACK CAT.
“Poe’s great contribution [to the spread of the murder-mystery and its sadistic nature] had been the enheroing [sic] of the avenger instead of the criminal… The reading public went on a century-long debauch of printed sadism to replace the sex notoriously absent in Victorian literature. (For weaker stomachs, with a religious turn, the ghost story simultaneously served up masochist terrors.)”—Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH, p. 11.
Though I specified in NARRATIVEDEATH-DRIVE PT 2 that narrative conflict did not require literal violence, narrative violence does have a potential, beyond that of any other literary device, for escalating the immediacy of the conflict. Even the kinetic appeal of sex—so earnestly defended by Legman above—cannot match violence in terms of fomenting the narrative principle of escalation.
To be sure, narrative violence only has this potential when it is repeated within the narrative. A single violent act, such the sort of unsolved killing that initiates most murder-mysteries—including two of Poe’s three efforts in that genre—merely serves to incite the average reader’s curiosity. What incites that reader’s deeper identification is the repetition of violence. Through repetition of violence, the reader’s potential fears for the story’s characters are escalated. Which character may die next? Can the hero save the next victim from the villain’s machinations?
This response in no way validates the sort of syndromic sadism that Legman and his fellow travelers imputed to it. I’ve called it “casual sadism,” in order to signify that the reader’s appreciation of a villain’s violence and/or sadism goes no deeper than a casual acquaintance. The average reader wishes only to identify with the villain in order to witness that the villain’s acts fulfill his expectations—in other words, to fulfill the demand of the story that there be a violent and/or sadistic villain. Masochism, which Legman touches on ever-so-briefly, follows essentially the same pattern, though this psychological pattern is less frequently evoked than its counterpart, as it doesn’t lend itself as well to escalation of suspense—not even in the genre of the ghost-story which, contra Legman, does not universally deal with “masochist terrors.”
But all of the above deals with readers, as to what extent sadism, or its counterpart masochism, informs their responses. I said at the end of the previous essay that I would demonstrate examples of fictional characters who evinced sadistic or masochistic characteristics, in illustration of what I’ve called abstract goal-affects.
One approach might be to cite characters from the writers whose names Kraft-Ebing used to denote the paraphilias about which each one wrote. But both Sade and Sacher-Masoch were syndromic writers, exorcising their personal demons into prose. Neither was writing for the audience of “casual sadomasochists” that devours such genre-fiction as murder-mysteries and ghost-stories. So those writers’ characters don’t suffice for my purposes.
If one were to credence Legman’s rant, Poe—writer of both murder-mysteries and ghost-stories-- ought to supply examples of both sadistic and masochistic goal-affects. In Poe’s works, one ought to find characters either perpetrating violence or suffering it for no concrete goal, but purely to fulfill the abstract goal of “doing wrong for the wrong’s sake only.”
However, anyone familiar with Poe’s three Auguste Dupin stories will recognize the silliness of Legman’s claim. “The Purloined Letter” contains no “printed sadism” in any form, unless one counts Dupin’s desire to confound the conniving schemes of the villain because the villain did Dupin some unspecified injury in the past. Both “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”—to which Legman makes direct reference in the paragraph preceding the quoted passage—do concern mysterious murders. However, though the fates of the murder-victims are discussed in great detail, so that the detective (and his readers) can form a forensic picture of the crimes, there is in the end no sadistic character in “Rue Morgue”—only an angry, befuddled animal—and the never-seen murderer in “Roget” seems to have committed the crime for reasons relating to his personal safety.
Poe’s horror stories seem to provide a little more grist for Legman’s mill; at least there are stories of torture-devices (“Pit and the Pendulum”) and of detailed murder-schemes (“Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”). But rarely do Poe’s characters kill for pleasure’s sake. Montressor in “Amontillado” kills in the spirit of vengeance, and the narrator of “Heart” murders a man who was always kind to him simply out of some mysterious compulsion. Given the conclusion of “Heart,” in which the narrator’s guilt forces him to reveal his evil deed, he, like the narrator of “The Black Cat,” would seem to be motivated by an abstract masochism; to commit evil that will “vex” his own soul in the end.
“Pit and the Pendulum” probably comes closest to the model of a “casual sadism” entertainment. Here the unnamed narrator has no wish, conscious or subconscious, to be victimized, for he welcomes his providential escape at the climax. The faceless Inquisition-priests seem to be Poe’s most thoroughgoing sadists, for they have condemned the narrator to death and have nothing to gain from his prolonged sufferings but the knowledge that he suffers at their hands. Further, it’s the only Poe tale that uses its sadistic terrors to escalate suspense, albeit just for one character, as opposed to the multiple victims one finds in novel-length stories.
In terms of the escalation of masochistic terrors, Poe’s “Black Cat” is the standout example. Though the unnamed narrator might be mistaken for a sadist due to the violence he metes out upon his pets and his wife, he takes no pleasure in his violence, and seems, like the “Heart” narrator, to be soliciting punishment by his repeated acts. However, because the majority of Poe’s tales are short, his oeuvre does not make the ideal illustrations of the principle of escalation. If I do a Part 2 to this essay, I will undoubtedly choose another author or perhaps authors. I may or may not stay within a particular genre, but the best illustration of how the principle of escalation works will certainly be in formats—be they novels or films—that can take advantage of plots that develop over a considerable amount of time and with a sufficient number of characters.
In conclusion, Poe’s use of sadistic and masochistic character-motivations validates my concept that such abstract goal-affects need not appear only in syndromic narratives directly concerned with sadism or masochism as such. And despite the horror Legman shows regarding Poe’s inimical influence upon readers, it’s obvious that Poe has remained one of the most-read American authors without causing those readers to become syndromic sadists or masochists. I reiterate that this is possible because the “death-drive” that implicates much though not all narrative is not about literal death, but is a formalized anticipation of the real thing, a pure gesture made in the face of the infinite.