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“The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” by Edgar Allan Poe

HansPfaall

This is a cool short story by Poe that I would place in the science fiction genre. It’s the story of a man who decides to travel to the moon by means of hot air balloon. The bulk of the story is written as an epistle, a letter from Pfaall that was delivered to the city leaders in Rotterdam. But the genius of this story is that Poe also incorporates a satirical critique of the intellectual bourgeoisie as well as some great symbolism regarding the subconscious mind.

The first and most obvious clue that Poe is poking fun at the bourgeoisie is the names of the characters; for example, burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk and Professor Rubadub. And then, at the beginning of his letter, Pfaall compares his trade of mending bellows (which are used to blow hot air in a forge) with the “hot air” emitted by the self-important politicians and business-persons of that time.

It is well known to most of my fellow-citizens, that for a period of forty years I continued to occupy the little square brick building, at the head of an alley called Sauerkraut, in which I resided until my disappearance. My ancestors have also resided therein time out of mind—they, as well as myself, steadily following the lucrative profession of mending of bellows;

There are many passages where Poe incorporates writing that comes across as very scientific. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the information, but it is presented in a very methodical and technical manner which aids the reader in suspending belief.

The gas to be formed from these latter materials is a gas never yet generated by any other person than myself—or at least never applied to this purpose. I can only venture to say here, that it is a constituent of azote, so long considered irreducible, and that its density is about 37.4 times less than that of hydrogen. It is tasteless, but not odorless; burns, when pure, with a greenish flame; and is instantaneously fatal to animal life.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this story is the symbolism depicting a shift in consciousness. The moon is a symbol of dreams, the imagination, lunacy, and so forth. So after Pfaall initially takes off, he experiences an abrupt shift in his consciousness.

I gasped convulsively for breath—a shudder resembling a fit of the ague agitated every nerve and muscle in my frame—I felt my eyes starting from their sockets—a horrible nausea overwhelmed me—and at length I lost all consciousness in a swoon.

As he continues his ascent, he passes through a cloud, which represents his entering into the realm of the subconscious, where lightning symbolizes flashes of imagination and insight while he gazes deep into the hidden and mystical regions of the psyche.

At twenty minutes before seven, the balloon entered a long series of dense cloud, which put me to great trouble, by damaging my condensing apparatus, and wetting me to the skin. This was, to be sure, a singular rencontre, for I had not believed it possible that a cloud of this nature could be sustained at so great an elevation. I thought it best, however, to throw out two five-pound pieces of ballast, reserving still a weight of one hundred and sixty-five pounds. Upon so doing, I soon rose above the difficulty, and perceived immediately, that I had obtained a great increase in my rate of ascent. In a few seconds after my leaving the cloud, a flash of vivid lightning shot from one end of it to the other, and caused it to kindle up, throughout its vast extent, like a mass of ignited charcoal. This, it must be remembered, was in the broad light of day. No fancy may picture the sublimity which might have been exhibited by a similar phenomenon taking place amid the darkness of the night. Hell itself might then have found a fitting image. Even as it was, my hair stood on end, while I gazed afar down within the yawning abysses, letting imagination descend, and stalk about in the strange vaulted halls, and ruddy gulfs, and red ghastly chasms of the hideous and unfathomable fire.

While this may not be Poe’s best work, and at times it plods along rather slowly, it is certainly worth reading. There are some interesting passages and moments of brilliance which makes it worthwhile.

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“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

CloudAtlas

This book has been on my shelf for a little while. My friend Brian gave it to me, which was great because I wanted to read it anyway. I had seen the film, which was very good, so the book was already on my list of books to read. Anyway, I started reading it while on my trip to Israel and just finished it last week. My computer was in the shop, so hence, I am just now getting around to writing about it.

The book is amazing! It’s a thoroughly engrossing allegory of the cycles of stories, mythology, and resurrection, all woven together to symbolize the interconnectedness between lives and events. The books is comprised of six stories, which are all connected; but the structure of the book is circular, representing the cycles of rebirth. Here is the overall structure:

  1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 1)
  2. Letters from Zedelghem (part 1)
  3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (part 1)
  4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 1)
  5. An Orison of Sonmi-451 (part 1)
  6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
  7. An Orison of Sonmi-451 (part 2)
  8. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 2)
  9. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (part 2)
  10. Letters from Zedelghem (part 2)
  11. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 2)

In addition to the structure of the books representing eternal cycles, the story itself is rich with symbolism supporting this idea. One of the central symbols is the comet-shaped birthmark that appears on the central characters. On one hand, this represents that they are essentially reincarnated beings, all of whom share the same soul. But the comet is also a symbol of cycles, since comets travel a circular route through the heavens and reappear at regular intervals. Finally, a comet is fleeting and temporary, just like our lives. But our lives, like our myths and stories, come around and reappear again, just as the comet does.

In addition to the comet, Mitchell uses clouds as symbols for the soul, stressing that although they are constantly changing form, they are in essence eternal, just as the soul is.

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

(p. 308)

Mitchell also includes references to theology regarding cycles of rebirth, such as the following reference to Buddhist ideology.

Keep looking, he said, and from the mountainside emerged the carved features of a cross-legged giant. One slender hand was raised in a gesture of grace. Weaponry and elements had strafed, ravaged, and cracked his features, but his outline was discernible if you knew where to look. I said the giant reminded me of Timothy Cavendish, making Hae-Joo Im smile for the first time in a long while. He said the giant was a deity that offered salvation from a meaningless cycle of birth and rebirth, and perhaps the cracked stonework still possessed a lingering divinity. Only the inanimate can be so alive. I suppose QuarryCorp will destroy him when they get around to processing those mountains.

(pp. 328 – 329)

As much as I hate spoilers, I must include a minor one here, so feel free to skip this last section of the post if needed. One of the characters, Robert Frobisher, is about to commit suicide. In his note, he explains how he will be reborn, how his soul is eternal, and how everything that existed and passed away will eventually come around again. It’s an amazing passage and one that I feel is fitting to end this post.

Luger here. Thirteen minutes to go. Feel trepidation, naturally, but my love for this coda is stronger. An electrical thrill that, like Adrian, I know I am to die. Pride, that I shall see it through. Certainties. Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools, and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again, Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again. Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.

Time cannot permeate this sabbatical. We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger lets me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gersham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding the same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet. Such eloquent certainties comfort me at this quiet hour.

(pp. 470 – 471)

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“The Voice of the Ancient Bard” by William Blake

AncientBard

Youth of delight come hither.
And see the opening morn,
Image of truth new born.
Doubt is fled & clouds of reason
Dark disputes & artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze,
Tangled roots perplex her ways.
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead
And feel they know not what but care;
And wish to lead others when they should be led

This poem is the last in The Songs of Innocence and Experience and for me connects the two collections, creating concentric circles. On one hand, it seems to circle back to the beginning of the Songs of Experience, where the Introduction opens with “Hear the voice of the Bard!” But it also appears to circle back to the Songs of Innocence, promising a return to the joys of youth, a rebirth where one is once again freed from the doubt, despair, and torment that dominates the state of experience in the cycle of spiritual development.

The image of the maze and the tangled roots symbolize the twisted pathways which the soul must follow as it traverses the various stages of development. As Blake points out: “How many have fallen there!” It is a difficult journey that the soul must take, and many do not make it to the point where they are returned to the Edenic state of innocence and connection with the divine source.

The last thing I would like to expound upon is the image of the “clouds of reason” as one of the pitfalls on the journey. While we are prone to consider reason to be one of the gifts of human consciousness, it is also something that sometimes obscures our ability to live life creatively and spiritually. We are familiar with the myth that consuming the fruit form the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the cause of humanity’s fall from grace. We should always be vigilant to not allow reason to cloud our ability to see and experience life’s beauty, or allow reason to cloud our understanding of the divine source from which we all have come.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts and I hope your day is filled with blessings and inspiration!

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