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Foucault in the House of Usher: Some Historical Permutations in Poe's Gothic.

"[I]n the nineteenth century," writes Reginald Horsman, "the Americans were to share in the discovery that the secret of Saxon success lay not in the institutions but in the blood" (24). This "discovery" was of monumental and devastating importance, and by the middle of the century the sign of blood seemed to be everywhere. Americans and Europeans were entering a new era of blood--of blood spilled as never before in genocides around the globe, of blood seeping inexorably into the sacred and profane imagination of race and the nation, and of blood horrors turned into a staple of mass entertainment.

This era of blood was the era of the bourgeoisie's entrenchment. In Juice of Life Piero Camporesi tells us, "At least up until the eighteenth century, blood was still dubbed the 'father of all the humors.' Life and salvation were closely tied up with its quality and purity" (14). Camporesi implicitly suggests a diminished rather than an augmented concern with blood in the modern world. But, if anything, this concern was heightened by its modified signification in the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the traditional theory of humors with the rise of scientific medicine in the eighteenth century, blood lost some of its old associations, but it gained some important new ones. Blood came to represent not the character of the individual, but the purity of the race or nation. The idea of purity--or impurity--of blood became the vessel of many bourgeois fears about confrontation with indigenous and colonized peoples, national identity, historical destiny, and the dream of progress. The race or nation whose mission--and manifest destiny--was to lead humanity into a better world could hardly dilute the very essence of its identity by "mixing" its blood. The most cherished precept of this era could be summed up in the words that John C. Calhoun spoke on the U. S. Senate floor in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War: ". . . Ours is a government of the white man . . . . [I]n the whole history of man . . . there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored race, of any shade, being found equal. . ." (my emphasis; qtd. in Fredrickson 136).

Though the proud boast was meant to naturalize white colonialism and imperialism, which were already well into one of their most expansive phases in U. S. history, Calhoun's words belie a profound insecurity regarding the popular imagination of the white American destiny. The great fear was miscegenation, a mixing of bloodlines which, as historians and ethnologists of the era were becoming convinced, was the central factor in the decline of great civilizations. "Whenever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian," Josiah Nott appealed to fellow Americans, and to southern compatriots especially, "the latter have sunk into barbarism" (qtd. in Horsman 130). This fear was most routinely projected onto the Other who constituted the enemy internal to the body politic--the African. In 1839, the same year that "The Fall of the House of Usher" was published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, the revered New England theologian Horace Bushnell predicted that if the slaves were ever freed they would die off by the end of the century. As George Frederickson emphasizes in his valuable reading of the period in The Black Image in the White Mind, Bushnell's prediction represented an early transposition onto the slaves of the brutally callous view that had already made Native American genocide seem acceptable and natural to the whites: "'vices which taint the blood and cut down life' might well 'penetrate the whole stock, and begin to hurry them off, in a process of premature extinction; as we know to be the case with another barbarous people, [the Indians] now fast yielding to the infection of death'" (qtd. in Fredrickson 155). Bushnell imagined this extinction to be a "glorious" possibility for the white man; and indeed Frederickson refers to this vision of black annihilation as Bushnell's "happy theme" (155). But if this theme is a positive one, then Bushnell's happiness was inextricably bound up with an equally potent fear of his own race's extinction, precipitated by a dystopic future of miscegenation in the North--the inevitable result of emancipation.

The fear of miscegenation, or tainted blood, belied deeper fears of disease and death. Insisting that degeneracy sets in when a nation does not secure its "leading ethnical principal," ethnologist J. Aitken Meigs urged that Americans "provide intelligently for the amelioration of that disease . . . whose deadly influences threaten, sooner or later, like the Lianes of a tropical forest, to suffocate the national tree over which they are silently spreading" (qtd. in Fredrickson 133). In this associative strategy that links together the tropical--embodied in the African--with disease that threatens the life-blood of the nation, the fear of miscegenation is exposed as the dread of a historical destiny gone awry. But even more importantly, it is exposed as the dread of destiny itself--of the inevitable decline and fall of civilizations, and, more viscerally, of the individual death that awaits us all. Whites read in the visage of blacks a figuration of their own mortality. It was not only the fear of death, a white rhetoric of denial, which was likewise an implicit claim to immortality, that they projected onto the Other, however; it was also death itself: "It is a shame that you shall die, that your race shall be exterminated." In Horace Bushnell's curiously telling expression, blacks, like Native Americans, were infected with death. They were the carriers of death whose continued presence within the legitimate white population endangered the bodily integrity and the sacred life-force of the nation. In their own threatened blood, the whites perceived the liquid medium by which they too could become infected with death and cheated of the great destiny promised them in the providential rhetoric of U.S. nationhood.

It is within the matrix of this collective racial/biological nightmare scenario that I will discuss "The Fall of the House of Usher," justly the most famous of all Poe's Gothic horrors. For it is only within the context of this nightmare that one can explain adequately why "Usher" occupies such a seminal place in the nineteenth-century development of the Gothic genre. "If there is one work that announces the true arrival of the Gothic tale, its convincing emergence from cruder beginnings," writes Chris Baldick, "it is. . . 'The Fall of the House of Usher'" (xviii). With painstaking attention to economy of expression and unity of effect, Baldick suggests, Poe managed to create a story that would become an ur-type for the Gothic up to the present day"--a remarkably crystalized pattern ... for the future evolution of Gothic fiction" (xviii). Indeed, the pattern has been revisited and reworked by countless Gothic stylists since Poe. Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Washington Cable, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Angela Carter, Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, and others would all write fictions that effectively pay homage to Poe's "Usher."

Ultimately, however, as Baldick explains, the importance of "Usher" in the history of Gothic has as much to do with its new, or newly amplified, theme as with its technical innovations:

[Poe's] new formula involved not only the stripping down of a cumbersome conventional machinery to its essential elements but an accompanying clarification and highlighting of a theme long familiar to Gothic writing and to the surrounding culture of Romantic sensationalism, although hitherto left hovering in the shadows: that of the decline and extinction of the old family line. Perfectly harmonizing the terminal involution of the Usher family with the final crumbling of its mansion--of "house" as dynasty with house as habitation--Poe ensured that whereas before him the keynote of Gothic fiction had been cruelty, after him it would be decadence. (xviii)

Baldick's proposal of a gothic trajectory that moves from cruelty to decadence may be schematic--certainly Gothic literature exhibited a mixture of cruelty and decadence from its inception--but it is also provocative. What I am interested in is its resonance with Foucault's model for the transformation of the way in which sovereign power has been wielded since the classical age. With this resonance in mind we may follow Baldick's cue and map the Gothic's generic development onto a broader historical tableau in the following manner. The Gothic of cruelty, the Gothic of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century tales, with titles such as "The Vindictive Monk," "The Maniac's Fate," "The Poisoner of Montremos," and "The Parricide Punished," belong to a residually feudal European world where, as Foucault writes, "[t]he sovereign exercised his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing" (History 36). This was a Gothic that reflected a mode of power "exercised mainly as a means of deduction . . . a subtraction mechanism, a right to appropriate a portion of the wealth . . . goods and services, labor and blood, levied on the subjects. Power in this instance was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself" (136). The Gothic of cruelty is obsessed with filiation and patrimonial inheritance, and it is inhabited by powerful, easily enraged, lascivious aristocrats whose perverted desires bring them into mortal conflict with men and women of lesser class origins. In its representation of perverts in power and fair maidens in distress, the Gothic of cruelty is motivated by a potent and revolutionary image of the end of aristocracy and the termination of a whole class structure (brought down by an excess of sexual desire). Of course, this class structure was already in its death throes, or in a state of rigor mortis, even as these texts were being written.

If the Gothic of decadence represents a departure, or a mutation, as Baldick suggests, it is because it belongs to a modern, democratic world where the mechanisms of power are no longer exercised upon the social body from the outside, but are instead internal to it. This is a Gothic that reflects and reproduces the fears of a newly hegemonic bourgeoisie--fears that are no longer about dying at the hands of omnipotent perverts, but about the conditions of life and living, and how these things may become perverted and degenerated through the improper valorization of the body and through the botched management of the body's forces and pleasures. The Gothic that Baldick claims Poe more or less inaugurates is, in other words, a Gothic that focuses on what Foucault calls "the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes . . ." (139). What Poe can help us to establish is that which is simultaneously gestured towards and occluded in the crucial final chapters of Foucault's History of Sexuality: the component part of this species body is the individual bourgeois body as it is in the process of becoming "whitened" in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It is a great deal to lay at his doorstep, but there is something compelling about interpreting Poe as the first "New World" gothicist--that is, the first writer to give the Gothic a uniquely American, as opposed to Old World, European spin, even as he put the terms of this Americanness in brackets so as to question its legitimacy. But I also mean something both more sweeping and less generic than what this claim usually implies. For Poe might well be the first full-fledged gothicist of the modern political world: the world of democratic nation-states in the ascendant, of nationalist ideological systems in the process of consolidation, and of national peoples becoming population groups. Such an interpretation further situates Poe as the seminal gothicist of this new life-form of which the nation-state is merely the comprehensive political expression: the population group or species body whose organic well-being is regulated by discursive strategies that separate out what properly belongs to the social body and what pathologically threatens its purity, order, and smooth functioning.


As I will argue, "Usher" is a horror story about the racialized conditions of production of the new species body. Yet what one notices foremost about "Usher" is the emphasis on class and aristocracy. At the beginning of the tale, class affiliation is the primary means of marking division and establishing identity, and the story's focus is on filiation and estate patrimony--the conservation of power and wealth. The narrator's introductory observations invoke a class-bound notion of both family and "race":

I had learned . . . the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other--it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the 'House of Usher'. . . . (399)

Here, the isolate "Usher race" is merely another name for the ancient and inbred family lineage, defined and delimited by the estate with which it has become so intimately identified. What is transmitted undeviatingly is the patrimony. In this context, the Ushers' "deficiency" is linked to a shortage of new wealth; and their lack of "collateral issue" suggests their failure to enhance the family's fortunes by securing alliances with other aristocratic families.

But as the tale progresses, it becomes clear that the Ushers are deficient in other ways, too. Roderick's sister, Madeline Usher, suffers from a disease that "had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis" (404). Roderick Usher, too, suffers from a debilitating illness that manifests itself most clearly in a hyper-responsiveness to external stimuli: ". . . the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could only wear garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror" (403). It is telling that Usher refers to his disease--a neurasthenia widely construed in the Victorian era as the sign of an advanced biological and intellectual development[1]--as the "family evil." For it suggests that the patrimony at issue in "Usher" is really disease itself, and that the deficiency in question is above all a matter of the "bloodline."

Later in the story, Usher will frame an incipient theory of hereditary influence based on his nightmarish obsession with the family evil:

The belief, however, was connected . . . with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. Its evidence . . . [was] in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him--what he was. (408)

The revelation of Usher's superstition signals an intensified emphasis on the eerie vitality of the house and on its status as an objective correlative for the family history. But this revelation also signals an historical shift in what the family history is a record of. It goes from being a record of transmitted patrimony--the house as estate passed on from sire to son--to being a record of transmitted genetic information. In the passage above, in other words, the house emerges as the very embodiment of Roderick Usher's biological destiny. Extrapolating from "Usher" to the cultural history of the nineteenth century, we can read in this shift the translation of an essentially aristocratic concern with genealogy and inheritance into the bourgeois obsession with biological integrity and the dangers of heredity. Whereas the old nobility prided itself on its "blue blood," the bourgeoisie did something similar but in diametrically opposite terms. Foucault provocatively suggests that bourgeois families "wore and concealed a sort of reversed and somber escutcheon whose defamatory quarters were the diseases or defects of the group of relatives . . ."(History 124-25). In other words, the bourgeoisie terrorized itself with the spectres of its psycho-sexual perversions, nervous afflictions, shameful cretinism and senile dementia, as well as with imaginings of racial degeneration and the contamination of its blood.

Why would the bourgeoisie choose to terrorize itself in this manner? Given the psychical cost, the expected ends had to be either extremely important or entirely unconscious. As Jacques Donzelot has argued, the proliferation of these anxieties helped to constitute no less than the bourgeois family unit itself by affecting "a tactical constriction of its members" over and against an imagined external threat (45). The racialization of culture in the nineteenth century empowered the bourgeoisie by providing its members with a racial Other against which to constitute their own social identity. At the same time, however, it led to what Daniel Pick incisively describes as a "profound [sense of] political confusion and historical disorientation" (237). In Faces of Degeneration, Pick explores the development of degeneracy theory and its intertwining with historical narratives of the nineteenth century. Objecting to the rigidity and the reductiveness built into many contemporary social histories of degeneracy theory, Pick argues that "[t]he discourse of degeneration . . . was never simply 'instrumental'; it articulated fears beyond the merely strategic, fears of inundation, the subject overwhelmed at every level of mind and body by internal disorder and external attack" (44). The medical-scientific discourse inaugurated by Benedict Morel gave the world the degenerate, "a given individual whose physiognomic contours could be traced out and distinguished from the healthy" (Pick, 9). But the real danger of degeneracy had more to do with that which could not be seen, because its symptoms were yet illegible. As Pick observes, "degeneration also connoted invisibility and ubiquity--thus suggesting the inadequacy of traditional phrenology and physiognomy; it was a process which could usurp all boundaries of discernible identity, threatening the very overthrow of civilisation and progress" (9).

Poe registers this sense of historical disorientation and the fear of inundation in the apocalyptic finale of "Usher." He also registers it by subverting the purity of being associated with whiteness in what we might call the affirmative racist imagination. As it is for Melville in Moby Dick, whiteness in "Usher" is an ambivalent marker. It connotes civilization as well as its threatened destruction. Usher's finely sculpted features indicate his superior white European ancestry. But his whiteness is tainted with illness and with death. His pigmentation is described as "[a] cadaverousness of complexion" and as having a "ghastly pallor" (401). His purity of race, in other words, belies a condition of decrepitude, leaving the narrator "at once struck with an incoherence--an inconsistency" in the whole manner and bearing of his boyhood friend (402). The physical features of Usher's ancestral House bear the mark of an analogous inconsistency:

Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. (400)

What is at stake in this peculiar attention to the discrepancy between integral and disintegrative forces bears on the discrepancy at the heart of degeneracy theory between appearance and "inner constitution," between what appears to be healthy and vigorous and what is in fact, or is feared to be, blighted with disease and ultimately doomed.

In his Essay on the Inequality of the Races (1853-55), the "father" of modern racism, the Frenchman Count Arthur de Gobineau, writes, "The word degenerate, when applied to a people, means . . . that this people has no longer the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it has no longer the same blood in its veins, continual adulterations having gradually affected the quality of the blood" (qtd. in Biddis 114). Although Gobineau was the greatest nineteenth-century popularizer of racial degeneracy theory, he was not its first proponent; nor was he the first to situate it in the context of an elaborate vision of human history. For as we have already seen, many antebellum Americans were convinced--before Gobineau--that the true health of a people and the causes of national success and/or failure were to be found not in their system of government, but in a collective "inner constitution" that had become implicitly racialized. In a sense, then, "Usher" stands as a textbook example of the terrifying ambivalence about progress, evolution, and history that supremacist ideologies inevitably generate. Roderick Usher appears to be racially pure; he is cultured, a fabulous musician, and a painter, "the accomplished heir of all the ages," as Harry Levin suggests (161). But he is also "hopeless" and "frail" (404), and as the narrator ironically puts it, "a bounden slave" to a terror lurking in his heart for which neither he nor Usher can find a definite object.


The indefinite object of Usher's terror has been most commonly interpreted as a culturally constant death anxiety--the fear of the universal "inexorability of extinction," as Gillian Brown writes (332). But if we turn our attention towards the interpolated poem, "The Haunted Palace," we find evidence of a more culturally and historically specific source for Usher's terror. In this wild and mournful interlude to the tale, whose "under or mystic current" (406) of meaning so powerfully impresses the narrator, Usher dreams nostalgically about an ancient ruler who sits at a glorious throne. This mythical lord lives only to seek his pleasure, while a "A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty/Was but to sing . . . /The wit and wisdom of their king" (407) reassure him of his innate superiority and of the legitimacy of his dominion. As numerous critics have suggested,[2] the poem is a microcosmic account of Usher's one great story, the decline and fall of his ancient family lineage.

Once, long ago, as Usher nostalgically recounts in his guitar-accompanied dirge, the Haunted Palace was "a fair and stately palace":
   Wanderers in that happy valley
   Through two luminous windows saw
   Spirits moving musically
   To a lute's well-tuned law,
   Round about a throne, where sitting
   In state his glory well befitting,
   The ruler of the realm was seen.

But then the ballad takes a frightful turn:
   . . . evil things, in robes of sorrow,
   Assailed the monarch's high estate;
   (Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow,
   Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
   And, round about his home, the glory
   That blushed and bloomed
   Is but a dim-remembered story
   Of the old time entombed. (407)

Harry Levin's claim that "Usher" ought to be situated in a regional context offers us a useful point of departure for interpreting these lines. According to Levin, Poe's tale is a nightmarish prophecy of the cultural and political defeat of American slave society, as well as a prefiguration of its literary aftermath: "Much that seems forced in William Faulkner's work becomes second nature when we think of him as Poe's inheritor," Levin writes, thinking of "Caddy and Quentin, those two doomed siblings of the house of Compson, or of Emily Grierson, that old maid who clings to the corpse of her lover" (161). The narrator's reference to Usher as "the master" (400) gives a certain legitimacy to Levin's claim. So, too, does Usher's fantastic account of the family fall in "The Haunted Palace." For if we interpret "Usher" (pace Levin) as a white colonial nightmare about the impending destruction of the southern slavocracy, then what transpires in "The Haunted Palace" begins to sound like a slave uprising. Certainly the experience of violent slave rebellion was fresh in the minds of Virginians like Poe, and southerners more broadly, throughout the 1830s.[3]

More significant, however, is the way in which "The Haunted Palace" transforms its nightmare articulation of endangerment. So far, in its over-wrought imagery of lordship and rebellion, the poem seems to evoke mainly political insurrection; and in its invocation of class antagonism we may justly trace the contours of a distinctively southern paranoia in Usher's. Initially, then, the poem specifically figures the southern slave-owner's fear of an external assault upon property by an oppressed class--those dressed in "robes of sorrow" who finally rise up in rebellion against their lord and master. It is, after all, the monarch's estate that is assailed in "The Haunted Palace," and thus his sense of lordliness in ownership that is debased.

The social and political threat is profoundly transformed in the poem's final stanza, however, when the racist and more broadly nationalist content of Usher's paranoia makes a startling reappearance:
   And travellers now within that valley,
   Through the red-litten windows, see
   Vast forms that move fantastically
   To a discordant melody;
   While, like a rapid ghastly river,
   Through the pale door,
   A hideous throng rush out forever,
   And laugh--but smile no more. (407)

What is striking about these lines is their resonance with contemporary accounts, especially among northern travellers in the South, of the grotesquery of Negro song and dance. One might compare them to the description of Topsy's performance in Uncle Tom's Cabin:

The black, glassy eyes glittered with a kind of wicked drollery, and the thing struck up, in a clear and shrill voice, an odd Negro melody, to which she kept time with her hands and feet, spinning round, clapping her hands, knocking her knees together, in a wild, fantastic sort of time, and producing the native music of her race . . . as odd and unearthly as that of a steamwhistle. (237)

In Stowe's novel the menace of the racial Other is safely contained (and to a certain degree, dissolved) within the context of a liberal political project and a pluralistic social ethos. But there are no such humanizing forces at work in Poe's writing; and so the menace of blackness is intensified. In "The Haunted Palace" it ultimately assumes the formlessness of a fluid infection that circulates within the house of the monarch. Although the imagery recalls Stowe's, it also anticipates a story Poe would write three years after "Usher"--"The Masque of the Red Death." The "red-litten windows" look forward to the grotesquely illuminated rooms of Prince Prospero's imperial suite and to the "scarlet stains" that disfigure the doomed victims in that story (670). Likewise, the "Vast forms that move fantastically/ To a discordant melody" evoke the victims of the Red Death, the dancing knights and ladies who, along with Prince Prospero, vainly "bid defiance to contagion" (671). In its anticipation of Poe's more elaborate treatment of the fear of blood contagion in "The Masque of the Red Death," this stanza effects a biologization of the perceived endangerment; it marks a qualitative shift in the terms of its representation from a matter of class struggle for property, prestige, and power to a matter of bodily integrity, and conversely, the onslaught of infection and disease.

What I am suggesting is that the collective fantasy of impending doom embodied in "The Haunted Palace," and by extension, in "Usher," is transposed from being strictly classist fantasy to being racist and nationalist fantasy. Consequently, it transcends the regional specificity that Levin attaches to it. In the new racist consciousness of the antebellum era, as we have seen, the enslaved African became an infectious agent threatening the sacred life-force of the nation; and blood served as the fluid medium for--and the bodily sign of--contamination. Interrogating fantasies of contamination in an early modern European context, Piero Camporesi writes, "It seems clear that the notion of fertility is intertwined with the sense of contamination . . . that the metaphors of generation and life belong to the impure fleshliness of copula, and to semen, the excrement of blood" (114). Camporesi suggests, in other words, that what is involved in the fantasy of blood contamination is a fear of ungoverned male desire and an unregulated apportionment of sperm. Such a fear ineluctably manifested itself in the nineteenth century as, on one side of the race equation, the fear of excessive, limitless reproduction of the "inferior races," and on the other side, that of the failed reproduction of the "superior race"--the extinction of a white family, the collapse of a white nation.

It is appropriate, then, that the specter of blood presides over the final scene of "Usher." Here the narrator describes his desperate escape from the ill-fated house:

. . . from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken. . . . While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened--there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind--the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight. . . . (417)

Blood, in Poe's tale, is as much an avatar of death as it is an avatar of life, the (failed) transmission of the pure racial stock from one generation of Ushers to the next. With this powerfully imagistic finale, "The Fall of the House of Usher" stands revealed as what Camporesi calls an "antique lunar and bloody mytholog[y]" (37). Poe mixes "moon, veins, [and] blood" in a narrative that is about fertility and contagion, and the endangered reproduction of the white race. In this light, Usher's nightmare vision in "The Haunted Palace" is intimately connected to his dark fascination with "the old African Satyrs and AEgipans" in the pages of Pomponius Mela, over which, as the narrator tells us, his companion "would sit dreaming for hours" (409). In the guise of the satyr, the African in "Usher" is explicitly associated with biological/sexual danger. He appears, in the instructively conspicuous phrase of Frantz Fanon, as "the biological-sexual-sensual-genital-nigger" who "represents the sexual instinct (in its raw state) . . . the incarnation of a genital potency beyond all morality and prohibitions" (Fanon 202, 177).[4] Thus the dangerously vital African satyr emerges on the border of the tale as the antinomy of the sick and exhausted Usher.


In the background of our reading of "Usher" lies the famous (or infamous) Foucauldian shift from the classical to the modern world. If the trajectory of the reading gives the impression of an unproblematical endorsement of the notion of the shift as a clean semantic break, via the changing force of racial discourse from lineage to typology, then at this point I want to muddy the waters. Poe, I have suggested, is a gothicist whose horror is steeped in certain modern political realities of the nineteenth century, foremost of which is the rise of a biologized, statist, or nationalist, racism. By way of example, we have charted the often subtle manifestations of biologized racism in "Usher." However, we cannot say that a story like "Usher" signals anything like the consolidation of a new order where race simply supplants class. For the obvious fact is that we have had to rescue the racial element in "Usher" out of the matrix of a fantasy whose manifest obsession is classist because Usher's incipient dreams of blood contamination are embedded in a story about fallen aristocracy. Yet this is precisely why "Usher" is so instructive: it contains within it the aristocratic etymology of modern racism. Poe's Gothic in "Usher" does not signal the consolidation of a new world; rather, it traverses in its unfolding narration one of the main discursive axes upon which the temporal shift from the classical to the modern world occurs--the class-race axis. What it reveals, then, is not so much a radical change in the meaning of race from that of the nobility's to that of the bourgeoisie's, but rather, as Ann Laura Stoler writes apropos of Foucault's preoccupations at one point in his thinking on race,[5] "the processes of recuperation [of racial discourse], of the distillation of earlier discursive imprints, remodeled in new forms" (68).

In emphasizing this point too forcefully, however, we can fall prey to the opposite danger: the conclusion that "The Fall of the House of Usher" is in essence merely an upper-class fantasy--an interpretation that would certainly be in keeping with the conventional notion of Poe as a writer wholly out of step with his democratic time and place. Benedict Anderson, for instance, argues that

The dreams of racism actually have their origin in ideologies of class, . . . above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to "blue" or "white" blood and "breeding" among aristocracies. No surprise then that the putative sire of modern racism should be, not some petty-bourgeois nationalist, but Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau. (149)

For Anderson, as for Foucault, modern racism has an aristocratic pedigree. But unlike Foucault, Anderson sees modern racism as continuous with the old race discourse of the nobility; it represents the legitimization of upper-class domination according to the new criteria of skin color. According to Anderson, the "official nationalism" for which racism was pressed into service in the nineteenth century was an upper-class political project. Stoler observes that, for Anderson, "[t]hese two racisms become one and the same, welded by a nineteenth-century 'conception of empire'. . . . By his account 'late colonial empires even served to shore up domestic aristocratic bastions, since they appeared to confirm on a global, modern stage antique conceptions of power and privilege'" (Stoler 30). The problem with such a theory, like the problem with reading "Usher" as purely classist fantasy, is that it reduces racism to a mere effect of an historically prior class discourse.

Foucault argues to the contrary that nationalism and racism were inextricably related bourgeois political projects. Since we have been taking our historical bearings from Foucault all along it is only natural to assume that this hypothesis is, in fact, valid. It is, after all, the coterminous rise of the bourgeoisie and nationalist ideology that we began this essay by tracking. If for Foucault it is the lingering traces of "earlier discursive imprints" upon nineteenth-century racism that really matter, it also true in his thinking that, as Stoler notes, the "racisms of the nobility and the bourgeoisie are distinct . . ." (30). There is, in other words, a process of historical rescription at work by which elements in an earlier discourse resurface and take on altered meaning as they are aligned with new elements, for the purpose of legitimizing new power structures.

What, finally, is the effect of Poe's exposure of this process of rescription in "Usher"? What is achieved is the Gothic threat of a destabalized reality, the first sign of which is the narrator's sense of strangeness as he enters the grand and dilapidated House:

A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master . . . . While the objects around me--while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestry of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy--while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this--I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up. (401)

The House is not quite as Usher's boyhood friend had remembered it. For the narrator, the strangeness is that of returning as an adult to old childhood haunts. In the context of my reading, however, this experience of the uncanny has broader resonances. It is especially telling that the "armorial trophies," the insignia of Usher's pedigree, have become "phantasmagoric." The trappings of nobility had become unmoored in the modern world from the signifying constellation in which they were formerly enmeshed, and their new strangeness in "Usher" is the consequence of their being in an acute state of flux. The old aristocratic world-system had dissolved--that is to say, the signs that constituted it remained behind--and the shape of the world that followed it would depend in part on how these signs were redeployed.

The shape of this new world greatly depended on how the meaning of race was reconstituted in the nineteenth century. If the House is indeed the embodiment of the dynasty, or the ancient "Usher race," what we witness in Poe's story is the eerie biologization of the House precisely insofar as the concept of race was biologized. The ancient edifice teems with fungi; it is overspread with "a pestilent and mystic vapor" (400); "ebon blackness" goes from being a decorative marker of wealth (as in the rich ebony flooring in the passage above) to a marker of biological danger. It is due to this process of biologization, moreover, that we may just as intimately identify the House with the last scion of the race--the morbidly diseased figure of Roderick Usher. Based on this identification, the "dark and intricate passages" of the House through which the narrator is silently conducted at the beginning of the tale assume something of the quality (especially after the "Haunted Palace" interlude) of what Foucault refers to in The Order of Things as the "profound, interior, and essential space" (231) of the human organism--and human identity--as it is bio-racially redefined in the modern era.

With its "vacant and eye-like windows" (398), the House of Usher offers a glimpse into the deep and impenetrable mystery of this newly conceived identity. But what Poe's tale underscores in its Gothicism is that the loathsome blackness Usher fears is just as much a "phantasmagoric conception" (405) as the radiant vision of whiteness he paints on canvas and which the narrator describes as being suffused with "a ghastly and inappropriate splendor" (406).

Ultimately, the paranoid delirium of modern, bourgeois identity is Poe's great subject. Of this delirium, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remark that it has something like two poles, racist and racial. . . . And between the two, ever so many subtle, uncertain shiftings where the unconscious itself oscillates between its reactionary charge and its revolutionary potential. Even Schreber finds himself to be the Great Mongol when he breaks through the Aryan segregation. Whence the ambiguity in the texts of great authors, when they develop the theme of races, as rich in ambiguity as destiny itself. (105)

If "Usher" is one such richly ambiguous text it is because it bodies forth in such a concentrated fashion the mutation of race thinking at a pivotal point in its history. Yet it also articulates incisively how white supremacist ideology could redound upon its manipulators. Just as the psychotic Doctor Schreber finds that he is the Great Mongol in his delirium, so, too, does Usher discover a secret affinity between himself and the old African Satyr he sits dreaming about. He finds himself at the precise ideological locus that the latter reputedly occupied: biologically exhausted, infected with death.


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Baldick, Chris. Introduction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Ed. Chris Baldick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. xi-xxiii.

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Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1971.

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[1] See Athena Vrettos's Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995)147-51.

[2] See, for example, Daniel Hoffman's Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), and Richard Wilbur's "The House of Poe" (Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967. 98-120).

[3] One of the most detailed accounts of the history of American slave insurrections in the nineteenth century, from the "Gabriel plot" of 1800 to Nat Turner's rebellion and beyond, is in Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812. (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968).

[4] The African in "Usher" possesses a paradoxical ontology. He is conjured as the slave dressed in robes of sorrow who rises up against his master, and as the Satyr, the black phallus over which Usher sits dreaming for hours; on the other hand, these figures fail to materialize as such. The African Satyr and the marauding slave enter the story's frame merely as traces, diseased projections of Usher's unconscious. Though the story obsessively circulates around them, we catch only fleeting, veiled glimpses of them.

The status of the African body is further complicated by its redundant and asymmetrical relation with Usher's consumptive and incestuous twin sister. Although Madeline figures sensationally in the story's closing moments as the vengeful undead, returning all bloodied from her premature entombment in the house's subterranean depths to clasp her brother in one final embrace, her place in the tale is shadowy, mysterious, and fleeting. She appears but once, as if spoken into presence by Usher at the very moment he first reveals her existence and her diseased condition to the narrator in a fit of despair, only to vanish once again:
   "Her decease," he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, "would
   leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of
   the Ushers." While he spoke, the lady Madeline . . . passed slowly through
   a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence,
   disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with
   dread--and yet found it impossible to account for such feelings. A
   sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps
   . . . I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus
   probably be the last I should obtain--that the lady, at least while living,
   would be seen by me no more. (404)

Like the African, Madeline, too, signifies both excessively, and not at all. Passively consumed by disease in life, confined and controlled by her "medical men" (409), speaking no words, seen in the tableau above but not seeing, her subjectivity is acknowledged and refused all in the same moment. Only in death does she return to Usher, figuring dread as loathsome, feminine excess.

[5] Stoler investigates Foucault's 1976 College de France lecture series in considerable detail in the third chapter of Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things.

STEPHEN DOUGHERTY, an assistant professor at Elizabethtown Community College in Elizabethtown, KY, received his Ph. D. from Indiana University in 1999. He has previously published on prophecy and racial paranoia in Arizona Quarterly.
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Date:Jan 1, 2001
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