Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fear and Hope:


"Our first slide into the abyss itself, from the belt of foam above, had carried us to a great distance down the slope; but our farther descent was by no means proportionate. Round and round we swept --not with any uniform movement --but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet --sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible. "Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity, which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious --for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. 'This fir tree,' I found myself at one time saying, 'will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,' --and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all --this fact --the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more. "It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of a more exciting hope. This hope arose partly from memory, and partly from present observation. I called to mind the great variety of buoyant matter that strewed the coast of Lofoden, having been absorbed and then thrown forth by the Moskoe-strom. By far the greater number of the articles were shattered in the most extraordinary way --so chafed and roughened as to have the appearance of being stuck full of splinters --but then I distinctly recollected that there were some of them which were not disfigured at all. Now I could not account for this difference except by supposing that the roughened fragments were the only ones which had been completely absorbed --that the others had entered the whirl at so late a period of the tide, or, from some reason, had descended so slowly after entering, that they did not reach the bottom before the turn of the flood came, or of the ebb, as the case might be. I conceived it possible, in either instance that they might thus be whirled up again to the level of the ocean, without undergoing the fate of those that had been drawn in more early or absorbed more rapidly. I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent; --the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere; --the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.

From: A DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM by Edgar Allan Poe


At the climax of the story, a triad of human conditions are played out one against the other: fear, hope and curiosity. Fear is all consuming, very palpable, with the certainty of death. Up to a point, the hope that they will survive the vortex lingers. Once the narrator lets go of his hope for life and gives himself over to the knowledge of his approaching end, he is no longer afraid. Instead, in what he must have known were the final moments of his life, he is filled with great curiosity and a joy, that probably now he will discover the secret at the bottom of the whirlpool. He becomes acutely aware of the way things behave in this seeming anarchy of nature. He then realizes that there is a pattern to be perceived, which, applied correctly, might help him survive after all. Hope returns and with it, the great fear.

The movement described by Poe begins with fear of the unknown and death. Hope is part of the fear. Rational observation dictates giving up hope. With hope gone, so is fear. Rational thinking and discernment take over, eventually leading to a reintroduction of hope and fear. The narrator's brother, overcome with fear and unable to relinquish hope, goes insane, makes a fatal decision that propels him into sure death.The narrator's abandoning of hope leads to a temporary suspension of fear, enough to keep his clarity of mind that will end up saving his life.Hope and fear constrain him, working against his life interest. Once he accepts he has nothing more to lose, his spirit is set free and a path opens up, leading back to life.

I am again reminded of Rabbi Nachman's poem about the narrow bridge and fear. Fear impedes life. Fear gets us closer to the chasm and darkness. Letting go of fear means having a chance at life.The beauty of the vortex, the horror of death it spells, the promise of knowledge beckoning from its very bottom. The inextirpable drive to life that can dictate the exact moment in which we are to relinquish hope.

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