Thursday, April 30, 2009

Frost/Nixon vs. Frost/Nixon

What would a previous generation think of our obsession with the ghost of Richard Nixon, which now goes on in the artistic world? He was castigated in his lifetime as a plastic man, incapable of human emotion; a bloodless, small-minded crook who cheapened the nation's institutions, seemingly out of frustrated resentments going back to high school? Yet he appears in movie after movie, is a constant laughline, has even been animated in "Futurama," has remained in our consciousness in a way no one might have guessed back in 1974. Perhaps we miss him still.

The latest example is the Ron Howard movie "Frost/Nixon," starring Frank Langella as the latest screen incarnation of the thirty-seventh president of the United States. It's based on a Peter Morgan play, which also starred Langella and his opposite number, Michael Sheen, as the interviewer David Frost. Peter Morgan, who also produced the screenplay, is the screenwriter of "The Queen" and scripted "The Last King of Scotland."

A series of television interviews might not make for gripping theater, but the Nixon/Frost interviews (as they were previously known) were theater of their own, and they were gripping. What Morgan did was take the obvious story - of Nixon's first attempt at rehabilitation - and marry it to the story of Frost, as a frustrated entertainer angling for respectability, fame, and what our current age refers to as "gravitas." By putting Frost's name first, he shows us the entertainer, the one asking the question, is now more important than the one who is being questioned.

Langella does a serviceable Nixon, giving the gentle side of Nixon in ashes, though I think the definitive screen Nixon was provided by Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's movie. Langella's Nixon at times lapses into a bellicosity and plainspoken rhythm that seems false when compared to the real man. The real Nixon, strangely enough, presents a dilemma for the dramatist. Viewed in retrospect, the many aspects of Nixon's legend - the sweaty upper lip, the shifty eyes, the anger - were much more subtle in real life than a motion picture is capable of showing. Hopkins wisely chose to give us an outward picture of the internal soul wrestling we could distinguish in the real Nixon. Langella's Nixon is already broken, but he remains a proud man who isn't yet ready to bow to the demands of the historical record.

The Frost character undergoes the biggest transformation from play to movie. In the play, Frost was the other boxer in the ring, a Rocky who gets his unexpected date with the prize fighter and bests him. This survives, but Frost's "lightweight" credentials, his fecklessness, come forward more and somehow make him less of an adversary. He seems more of a spectator in the film. The boxing metaphor, which survives, feels inadequate, at least until the end, when we have the inevitable montage of the previously disengaged Frost suddenly cramming the night before the final Watergate interview like Sylvester Stallone on the heavy bag.

The play, I think, is superior to the movie because of its brevity. The movie also feels the need to quickly dismiss Nixon from the stage after a final meeting between the two, giving him a dismissive ending that doesn't quite match what comes before. The film has spent two hours convincing us of a certain amount of grandeur in this frustrating man, but he receives an unsatisfactory epitaph. Frost goes off to renewed celebrity, but he need only look at Nixon to understand how long it may last. The play was tight, while the film wants to be about more than it is.

The reason we're treated to Nixon yet again, of course, has more to do with the present than the past. As several extras on the DVD make clear, "Frost/Nixon" has direct bearing on our own late political age, the age of George W. Bush. As one of the participants in the real "Frost-Nixon" interviews observes, Nixon's defense that "when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal" is just as relevant in the shadow of waterboarding, Abu Gharib, and warrantless wiretapping. There's a fundamental problem this this logic.

In the play, Reston, one of Frost's researchers and one of Nixon's harshest critics, laments his time in a California hotel room, trapped with a television constantly replaying the same skin flicks. "Is there anything more depressing as a porno the second time around?" he asks. Watergate, in effect, was porn for all those who hated Nixon. It paraded his worst character flaws and transformed them to national legends, and it cemented the worst suspicions about Nixon's party in the national consciousness.

With Bush, the skin flick seemingly gets a second national viewing. But the audience at the end of "Frost/Nixon" probably feels some sympathy for the fallen president who gropes toward an apology at the end. Morgan wisely avoids the kind of demonization all too evident in the last eight years. By replaying Watergate and reexamining its chief actor, we are reminded that our national obsessions only reveal for us that the monster in the palace often looks a lot more like us than we want to admit, and the hatred they engender is because they remind us of the fallacy of faith in heroes. We question them, but the answers don't seem to ever satisfy. It's a point worth remembering as the hysteria fades and we embrace another leader with ever more urgent needs for a savior.

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Last week's news of the death of J.G. Ballard focused inevitably on his most famous work, "Empire of the Sun," made popular by the movie version directed by Steven Spielberg. That work dealt through fiction with Ballard's experience in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, a nightmare vision he carried with him into the rest of his works. But obituaries also dealt with easily his most infamous work, the 1973 novel "Crash," which was also made into a movie by David Cronenberg.

Putting it mildly, Ballard was pessimistic about the ability of technology to improve the human species, as well as any hopes he might have harbored about the moral improvement of man. This view becomes abundantly clear with "Crash," a book in which Ballard said he "wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror." I'd say he accomplished that task. The anger of that statement shines through on every page. Ballard supposedly submitted a much longer manuscript which one publisher rejected, saying the author was beyond any psychological help.

It's easy to see why. "Crash" is a hard book to read, even now, more than 30 years after its publication. The story is told by a man in an open marriage who falls under the influence of a man sexually obsessed with car accidents. One may draw his own conclusions when one learns the narrator's name is James Ballard. The collision of cars serves as a metaphor for the unexpected consequences when individuals unite sexually. In its short 200 plus pages are crammed drug use, adultery, homosexuality, and a host of unhealthy fetishistic behaviors. A cast of numb characters rehearse a number of liasons in junked cars, with Ballard's prose flitting back and forth between their limbs and glands and the instrument panels of the automobiles they occupy, without any detectable difference between the living and the inanimate. Characters do not seem to be living and breathing as much as so many orifices and body parts to satisfy urges they cannot understand or articulate. They are objects, supposedly for satisfaction, though no one seems satisfied by anything.

Every accident is unique, with its own trajectories, vectors, circumstances, outcomes. The fictional Ballard's mentor Vaughn plans in intricate detail his hoped-for fatal crash - that of Elizabeth Taylor. He drives a Lincoln Continental, the same car President Kennedy rode in when he was assassinated. When Ballard is involved in a car accident, he is shaken to discover there is a victim, a man who dies sprawled on the hood of Ballard's car. Ballard then takes up with the dead man's wife. You get the picture. Ballard, the real one, may have wanted to make a statement about human depravity and how technology facilitates it, but he seems to be enjoying himself too much in the seemingly endless cataloguing of bodily secretions, wounds and deviancies, as when the fictional Ballard reveals, after his own crash, thinking of other disaster victims, "the injuries of still-to-be-admitted patients beckoned to me, an immense encyclopedia or accessible dreams."

What struck me the most about this book was its artificiality, which I suppose is the point. Ballard, Vaughn, and the other characters are survivors of car accidents, yet their lingering on the accident scene isn't so much a longing for the accident as the idea of it. Much like society's current obsession with the virtual world the information age may create, these characters live in a fantasy world divorced from the reality of what their obsessions really are or mean. We are a society that talks a great deal about love, but the love we seek is often not love at all but a biological urge that becomes warped by our own inarticulate, misunderstood urges. When our fantasies are placed side by side with reality, or perhaps compared with the ideal of what we seek, we quickly understand the great distances the human imagination can quickly travel and how inadquate its sense of direction is. This became abundantly clear to me yesterday when I witnessed an actual car accident.

I was driving north on the Interstate when I noticed a dust cloud in the median. I looked in my rearview window and saw a rising cloud on the opposite shoulder of the southbound lane and dozens of cars slowing down. I got off at the next exit and quickly crossed over to the other lane to see if help was needed. At the foot of a steep hill, an SUV laid on its side, smashed and smoky after tumbling several times. Hand tools, CDs, clothes, and other articles lay strewn in the tall grass. Standing amidst onlookers was the driver, a thin trickle of blood coming from his forehead. He was shaken, but alive and intact. And grateful. When I asked him what had happened, he gave a vague explanation, what shock would allow of an instance that lasted perhaps 10 seconds at most.

Accidents remind us of the random nature of life, and the reality that technology can only do so much to save us from ourselves. A wrong turn at too great a speed can be deadly, or exhilirating if survived. As we've observed here before, it is the danger inherent in sin that makes it attractive, regardless of how vivid the consequences may be in our minds. Just as the characters of "Crash" know what the outcome of a car collision might be, we continue to take the curbs of our lives too fast, our foot a little too far from the brake, our eyes straying from the path ahead.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Together Through Life by Bob Dylan

On a beautiful late summer day eight years ago, Bob Dylan released one of his greatest albums on the same day 19 men with boxcutters changed the New York skyline and the world. It was one of those strange incidences of synchronicity, much as this week, when Dylan again released an album at the same time Air Force One inadvertently made New Yorkers run for cover again. In the same spirit, "Together Through Life" shows all the earmarks of Dylan's late career renaissance, but only serves to remind the listener of the uncanny greatness of this latest, unexpected phase.

At the end of the sixties, when Dylan had produced six records in a row redefining both folk and rock music, he produced "Nashville Skyline," a short, spare record with carefully crafted, seemingly benign and banal love songs. While it wasn't "Blonde On Blonde," it was one of his most delightful and unexpected works. "Together Through Life" plays in much the same way, the music flitting between Tex Mex and Zydeco, not quite reaching the level of "Modern Times" or "Love and Theft" but still staying with the listener long after listening.

The album opens in a similar vein as Dylan's last three, with the haunting "Beyond Here Lies Nothing." The tone of the song is the same as most of Dylan's late work - hard-edged, bluesy, brimming with mocking pessimism. But the words reveal a desperate love song, frustrated by a seemingly finite future. From there, Dylan progresses into "Life Is Hard," and the character of the record begins to reveal itself. It is an old-fashioned crooner's ode, much like "By and By" or "Spirit On the Water," with the melody hovering high just on the cusp of Dylan's haggard husky whispering croak. Maybe he does, as he later sings, have "the blood of the land in his voice." His narrator simply wants "strength to fight the world outside."

From there, the record becomes an exercise in fun, revealed most starkly as Dylan laughs (!) toward the end of "My Wife's Home Town." Many of these songs resemble, in structure, rhythm and lyrics, those of the past 10 years in Dylan's catalogue. Lyrics seem lifted from the obscure tunes he spins on "Theme Time Radio Hour." Impressionistic thoughts fill the air. He explores familiar themes of haunted, frustrated love in "Jolene." His songs seem divorced from time, as the hero of "If You Ever Go to Houston" reveals he was nearly killed in the Mexican War. The melody of "Forgetful Heart" reminds one of the meandering menace of "Ain't Talkin'" only at a softer, lighter pitch.

The man who once sang "The Times They Are A'Changin'" now gives the world "I Feel A Change Comin' On," not a Obamaian anthem but a personal song about individual happiness. Dylan doesn't do utopian dreams anymore, if he ever did. "We've got so much in common/We strive for the same ends/And I just can't wait for us to become friends." Billy Joe Shaver and James Joyce get called out, and William Shakespeare quoted.

But Dylan wouldn't be Dylan without a tough, sarcastic jeremiad to the present age, which closes the record, "It's All Good." This song will remind listeners of similar tales of frustration, resignation, alienation, such as "Everything Is Broken" and "Things Have Changed." No one seems to care that no one seems to care anymore. But Dylan keeps smiling, it seems, as the lies and lives pile up.

If this record lacks one thing, it is the usual veiled spirituality of his earlier albums, the pseudo-Gospel that has dusted his music since his conversion in the late seventies. That is, unless you count the fact that he identifies Hell as his wife's hometown. Or perhaps the border longing of "This Dream Of You" isn't so much a love song to a woman as much as Someone else, as he speaks of his "earthly death." When Dylan speaks of crossing over, it usually isn't the Rio Grande he means, but either the River Styx, or the River Jordan. His mood is all important.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What Was She Thinking? (Notes On a Scandal) by Zoe Heller

About midway through the story of teacher Sheba Hart’s illicit romance with one of her teenage students, she confesses to the narrator of the story, her friend Barbara Covett, what motivated her:

“But the truth is, Barbara, doing that kind of thing is easy. You know how you sometimes have another drink even though you know you’re going to have a hangover tomorrow? Or, or, you take a bite of a doughnut, even though you know it’s going straight to your thighs? Well, it’s like that. You keep saying No, no, no until the moment when you say, Oh bugger it. Yes.”

My experience with “The Believers” sent me on to Heller’s second novel, which proved to be every bit as entertaining. Many may be more familiar with the Oscar-nominated movie starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, but no movie could do justice to this book. It’s one of those tightly-written mini-masterpieces that British authors are so annoying at producing like we churn out bad talk shows. When I wasn’t reminded of Ian McEwan by the flawless style, I was reminded of the great Russian authors in the book’s moral vision.

The story is familiar to anyone who reads the news. A good looking, married teacher, a mother to several children, suddenly attaches an unhealthy fascination on a young man in her classroom. Heller adds on a few details unique to the British setting, such as how Sheba’s upbringing and class consciousness might have played a part. But she adds to this tale the figure of Barbara, one of the most unreliable narrators in literary history. It is Sheba’s misfortune to play out her role in the gaze of a lonely, thoroughly obsessed colleague.

Actually, it’s unfair to describe Barbara as unreliable. Indeed, she meticulously records her life as an unmarried woman lurching toward oblivion in harrowing detail. The key, though, is the understated, desperate detachment that resounds as she gives selected peeks into her life, as it exists apart from Sheba. What upsets us beyond the way Barbara veritably stalks Sheba is how desperate she is for someone, anyone, to take an interest in her.

But as her confession above demonstrates, Sheba learns a little bit about the nature of sin in the course of her romance, after it blows up in the tabloid press and threatens to send her to prison. One of the pleasures of this novel is to watch Sheba, through Barbara’s eyes, delude herself as her interest in a young man crosses a series of uncertain lines, until she realizes the distance she has traveled from conscientious teacher to reckless lover. There is a part of us all that doesn’t care when we cross the line, and we are painfully aware of where that line is. The justifications we use last only long enough for the line to be breached. In the end, we are proud of what we do, even when we know it is morally reprehensible.

At first blush, when confronted with this kind of story in the news, we quickly pass judgment and we want swift punishment. But the novel reminds us that within this relationship are thousands of questions - who is in control, the older woman or the young man? At what point does a wife slightly bored with the conventional nature of her marriage suddenly become a vamp preying on the young? "A woman who interferes with a minor is not a symptom of an underlying tendency. She is an aberration. People don't see themselves, or their own furtive desires, in her." At what point, simply, does evil become “evil?”

When Barbara tells the reader, toward the end, that “the time we have spent here has been terribly sad, of course. But terribly intense too and even wonderful in its way,” she might as well be talking about the lives of these characters, and the character of our lives.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who is Mark Twain?

Today is the 99th anniversary of Mark Twain's death, and news of the late Mr. Clemens' departure is still being greatly exaggerated, as evidenced by a new collection of unpublished material released today by Harper Studio. Not that he would have cared. As he observes in these very pages, "I have long ago lost my belief in immortality - also my interest in it."

Perhaps no writer, save Ernest Hemingway, left behind the trove of unpublished and unfinished manuscripts that Mark Twain did when he rode out on the tail of Halley's Comet in 1910. Several biographers, including Justin Kaplan, have explained how, in the years after the deaths of his wife and daughters, Twain would turn out veritable bales of manuscript, asking questions on the nature of fate and faith that seemingly had no answers. In these pages, we can see by turns a man who seems bitter, boyish, cynical, hopeful, cantankerous, mysterious, probing, sentimental and funny, forever funny.

The pieces in this new collection span his literary career, and show most of Twain's gifts as both a writer and entertainer. One of the many, many endlessly fascinating aspects of Mark Twain, the literary creation of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is his ability to hold us spellbound with his own character as well as the characters that sprang from his imagination. He was a performer, a highly unlikely profession for a writer, as well as the most introspective of men. He draws both skeptics to his work, because of his knee-slapping rationalism, and believers, because of the moral tone of his work and the rhythms of his language, steeped as they are in 19th century American Protestantism. As the editor Robert Hirst observes, he is "always capable of surprising us into smiling at some shameful trait of the damned human race."

One of these pieces is an unfinished dialogue, "Conversations with Satan," which casts the devil as an aristocrat clothed as an Anglican bishop. The narrator encounters him in Vienna, and identifies Satan as "one of my most ardent and grateful admirers." They then begin a rambling discussion of stoves and tobacco before Twain abandons the idea. In fact, Satan, after appearing, begins to disappear into a monologue of very Twainian character.

Satan is often mentioned in Mark Twain's work, from early in his lecture career to the posthumously published "The Mysterious Stranger" and "Letters From the Earth." One recalls his stage joke, of Satan saying to a newcomer in Hell: "You Chicago people act as though you own the place, whereas you are merely the most numerous." At times, he protrays Satan as deceptive, while at others, he is a wronged, slandered figure forever in the shadow of the Almighty, seemingly over some undisclosed family spat. Like Mikhail Bugakov, Twain's Satan (in this story) is a man of impeccable manners and civilization, courteous and solicitous, eager to please. He comes in the guise of a clergyman, and he is well-travelled. Yet he assures our narrator he hasn't been to America as he is "not needed there."

The dialogue on tobacco seems a ruse, since Twain begins a discussion of how ignorant some smokers are in telling the difference between good and bad cigars. When one travels the earth, one tends to adopt the native cigar as though it were the best in the world, no matter the quality, he says. But it becomes evident after awhile that, in this case at least, sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar:

"I am well satisfied that all notions, of whatever sort, concerning cigars, are superstitions - superstitions and stupidities, and nothing else. It distresses me to hear an otherwise sane man talk of 'good' cigars, and pretend to know what a good cigar is - as if by any chance his standard could be a standard for anybody else."

Is Twain talking about moral judgments, religions, personal tastes, or just tobacco? We might never know, since the few odd pages here represent only a beginning. The title implies a series of conversations, not a monologue. We presume that even Satan would be able to get a word in edgewise when combating with Twain's garrulous frontier voice.

But like Kipling, I stand in awe of the great, godlike Twain, since reading one piece in this book, the notes for an ungiven New York lecture, provided me with one of the hardest laughing fits I've had in years. That a man, almost a century in the grave could provide that, provides us a very vivid answer to the question of who Mark Twain was, and is.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Naming Infinity by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor

Kudos to whomever came up with the cover design for this book, which bills itself as "A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity." I might never have come across this had it not been for the subtitle and a gorgeous cover painting. A robed religious figure, holding a cane, walks alongside a scowling, pensive man who looks vaguely academic. They are in a wooded setting. The scene calls to mind perhaps Russia, perhaps some other place, but the picture immediately made me pick it up.

"Naming Infinity" is non-fiction, but it touches briefly on the world of literature, as I'll come to in a moment. The book chronicles the unlikely connections between Russian mathematicians specializing in set theory, and an enigmatic group of Russian mystics called "Name Worshippers." This sounds like the stuff of a Borges' story, with a seemingly unlikely connection between two disciplines that seem miles apart in the modern world.

About the book itself - I am no mathematician, and I have the feeling that a closer investigation of set theory would find me lost and quickly losing patience. It's a testament to both the story and the storyteller that I learned just enough to keep me interested without losing the basic narrative line. The writers wisely began with the religious side of the equation, since it is easily more accessible. (At least to this reader - to some mathematicians, it's possible the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church will seem just as indecipherable as theoretical numbers are to me.)
Name worshipping itself will be familiar to readers of J.D. Salinger's collection "Franny and Zooey," which dealt with "The Jesus Prayer" - "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The idea behind the prayer is to repeat the words relentlessly until the one saying the prayer attains a bodily harmony, matching heartbeat and breath with the prayer, and one finds oneself literally "praying without ceasing." There could have been a discussion in the narrative about the similarities between this practice and Eastern mantras, but that might have easily diverted a reader already struggling with two diverging disciplines. This practice was deemed heretical by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the pre-Revolutionary Russian government moved to stamp it out.

The naming concept, the authors tell us, later was taken up by those working in set theory - literally categories, or sets, of theoretical numbers. The idea that by naming something it is given form and substance is as old as recorded history. The Egyptians, for example, felt the dead lived on as long as their names were spoken. Moses famously asked for God's name when they met at the Burning Bush, leading to God's mysterious reply, which seems to indicate that a proper name for God only serves to illustrate the awesome potentials of His existence.

But the concept mathematicians wrestle with between the covers of this book is infinity, into which our numbers as well as our imaginations ultimately stretch out. How to give a name, or a value, to something that may only be a potentiality, not an actuality? The rationalist mathematicians, acting solely within the bounds of their experience, struggled with the concept. It was only in Russia, where the lines between math, science and religion were culturally blurred, that such a concept could be made understandable.

If the book has a limitation, it is that there are the bare bones of a much longer, more engrossing story here that are never fully given form and flesh. We learn the names of the players, are given some anecdotes about their lives, some indication of their faith or their lack of it, but only enough to frustrate our curiosity. And we must take it on faith, frankly, that a connection existed in their lives between the religious and the rational, and that connection led to their breakthroughs. The authors don't do nearly enough to forge that link with supporting evidence - say diary entries, letters, or anecdotes. This may be because they were dealing almost a century later with scrupulous men who held intense, private beliefs, and later were forced by the Tsarist and the Soviet governments to forsake those beliefs, or keep them silent.

Still, a host of interesting personalities take shape between the pages of this short, bewitching book. And a host of interesting ideas. Early in the story, the authors recount the medieval notion, put forward by Gregory of Rimini, that "something that was infinite could be equal to a subpart of the whole infinite." Could such an equation yield forth ...Jesus?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

After an unintended sabbatical, I'm coming back with a little non-fiction to get things starting again. The British biographer, essayist and historian Peter Ackroyd is currently turning out a series of quick, 200 page biographies, one of which focuses on every high school kid's favorite dark, spooky poet, Edgar Allan Poe.

I'm a sucker for short bios in this vein. My shelves are lined with the Penguin Lives series, as well as Times Books' American Presidents series, both of which can become quite addictive. While such books don't usually serve as more than an extended meditation on the life of the subject, the format allows the right writer to illuminate the major themes lying within any given biography and provide the right introduction to a reader who wants to dig a little deeper.

With his short, turbulent career and the mysteries surrounding his death, Poe is ideal for this. Ackroyd pays Poe a compliment that few American literary scholars seem capable of - he takes him seriously. Poe is problematic for several reasons - chiefly that while technically brilliant in his verse, his dark subject matter make some ready to dash him off to that same literary ghetto where H.P. Lovecraft dwells and Stephen King seems destined to occupy. That kind of blinkered thinking regarding the literature of the fantastic probably won't be extended to the natural realists.

Ackroyd pays plenty of attention to Poe the critic, the meticulous poet who believed in the musicality of verse, and the dogged craftsman - while giving us the haunted man who is convinced of his literary star. Ackroyd dispenses with a few myths I harbored - for example, that Poe was never adequately appreciated in his lifetime. On the contrary, his reputation was already assured by the time he died, though he never received the money he might have expected for his efforts in another age. But the picture of the desperate, pale, haunted author of "Annabel Lee" is still recognizable. It's interesting to consider in this year, the bicentennial of Poe's birth as well as Lincoln, that if Lincoln had been a short story writer, his subject matter might well have been as dark as Poe's.

Ackroyd also points beyond a particular story to the man it sprang from, such as his musings on "The Imp of the Perverse:"

"It was a narrative of rueful contemplation in which the narrator muses upon the human capacity to act in a contrary manner "for the reason that we should not." To do that which is forbidden - to do that which goes against all our instincts of self-love and self-preservation - therein lies the power of the imp. Never to stay long in any employment; to be drawn towards young women who were dying; to quarrel continually with friends; to drink excessively, even when told that the indulgence would kill him. Therein dwells the imp."

It might be fair to ask why we are drawn to tales of darkness. It's not enough for a literary heroine to fall in love with a dangerous man. Such things happen everyday. But make the dangerous man a vampire, and you have the Twilight series. Poe's life was a life of the mind, and the human mind is a very dark place - where sin and the self-contradictions of our moral awareness lie and cheat and steal against each other with our soul as the prize. If there is a mystery we cannot fathom in our lives, like Poe struggled with in his, it is the riddle of what we are to do with our lives should we rise above the passions that stalk our deepest dreams.

We can find two things in Poe's life as in his fiction - the fascination with a life that seemingly dwells beyond what might normally be anticipated, and the all-too-human outcomes that even the supernatural cannot undo.