But we also know his author to be sane. For with such precision to portray the methodicalness of a madman is the work not of a madman but of a man who truly understands what it is to be mad. Artistic control is the warrant of auctorial sanity. It is axiomatic in the psychiatric practice of our century that self-knowledge is a necessary condition for the therapeutic process.
The events are few, the action brief. Of course his knowledge of that purpose is limited, while his recital thereof endows the reader with a greater knowledge than his own. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heavens and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. At the same time, mad as he is, this narrator is the hero of sensibility. His heightened senses bring close both heaven and hell. His plot is motiveless. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. He may have a motive—one which he cannot admit, even to himself.
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I think it was his eye! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.
Odd that he would not say so. Quite natural that he should not say so. I was never kinder to the old 26 Daniel Hoffman man than during the whole week before I killed him.
What can this be all about? In this particular case there are other vibrations emanating from the vulture-like eye of the benign old man. Insofar as we have warrant—which I think we do—to take him as a father-figure, his Eye becomes the all-seeing surveillance of the child by the father, even by The Father.
For if the boy deviate ever so little from the strict paths of rectitude, it will find him out. Poe, in other tales, seems to be obsessed with the eye to the point of fetishism. By synecdoche the eyes become that which he worships. Come to think of it, it is always referred to in the singular, as though he had but one.
An old man with one all-seeing eye, an Evil Eye—from the plausible to the superstitious we pass in the text; perhaps further still to the mythical. One-eyed Odin, one-eyed because he sold his other for knowledge. That above all seems to the young child to be forbidden, and therefore what an all-seeing Eye would see. What is specified, though, is the resemblance of his one eye to that of a vulture. Vulture, vulture. Could he but rid himself of its all-seeing scrutiny, he would then be free of his subjection to time.
All the more so if the father-figure in this tale be, in one of his aspects, a Father-Figure. As, to an infant, his own natural father doubtless is. As, to the baby Eddie, his foster-father may have been. Perhaps he had even a subliminal memory of his natural father, who so early deserted him, eye and all, to the hard knocks experience held in store.
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So, the evil in that Evil Eye is likely a mingling of the stern reproaches of conscience with the reminder of his own subjection to time, age, and death. To murder the possessor of such an eye would be indeed to reverse their situations. In life, the old man seems to the narrator an absolute monarch, a Grotesques and Arabesques 27 personage whose power over him, however benignly exercised, is nonetheless immutable.
Such exactly is the degree to which a murderer dominates his victim. And so it is that the narrator does not merely do the old man in. No, he stealthily approaches the sleeping old man, in the dead of night, and ever so craftily draws nearer, then plays upon his sleeping face a single ray from his lantern. A ray like the beam of an eye. This he does each night for a week—that very week in which he was never before so kind to him during the waking hours, when the old man had his eye working.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. This miscreant is full of the praise of his own sagacity, a terrible parody of the true sagacity of a Dupin or a Legrand.
For what he takes to be ratiocination is in fact the irresistible operation of the principle of his own perversity, the urge to do secret deeds, have secret thoughts undetected by the otherwise ever-watchful eye of the old man. I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. Then he suffocates him under the mattress. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. These he deftly replaces so that no eye could detect a thing. He had made care to catch all the blood in a tub. Illness is invariably phthisis; what character draws untroubled breath?
Such sufferings seem inevitable to the imagination of a writer whose memory is blighted by the consumption which carried off the three women he most loved. As is true of dreamwork, the vengeance is meted out thrice: he extinguishes the eye, he suffocates the old man, he dismembers him.
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I think these three terrible acts are disguises of each other. In its aspect of getting rid of the Evil Eye, this murder is a more intense and violent form of blinding. And the symbolic content of blinding has been self-evident since Oedipus inflicted it upon himself as a partial remission for what the lex talionis, more strictly applied, would have required.
In striking the Evil Eye of the old man, the young madman strikes, symbolically, at his sexual power. Nor does this contradict the other significations I have suggested for the ocular member. But what has suffocation to do with this? Only that the inability to breathe is an equivalent of impotence, of sexual impotence. And cutting off the head, the arms, the legs? These amputations, too, are symbolic castrations.
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He leaves nothing to chance. Neighbors, hearing a scream, had called the police. He explains that the scream was his own, in a dream. Then—why does he do this?
I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
Grotesques and Arabesques 29 At first all is well, but as they sit, and chat, his head begins to ache, he hears a ringing in his ears. Would he have heard it, had not his Imp of the Perverse commanded that he lead the police to the very scene of the crime?