Tag Archives: psychology

Thoughts on “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a great story to read for Halloween. It’s dark, creepy, and the topic is one that gives the chills. For as Poe states early in the tale: “To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”

He goes on to describe the feeling of being buried alive, of awakening to find oneself trapped within a tomb. He even makes a nice allusion to his poem, “The Conqueror Worm.”

Fearful indeed the suspicion — but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs — the stifling fumes of the damp earth — the clinging to the death garments — the rigid embrace of the narrow house — the blackness of the absolute Night — the silence like a sea that overwhelms — the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm — these things, with thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed — that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead — these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth — we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell. And thus all narratives upon this topic have an interest profound; an interest, nevertheless, which, through the sacred awe of the topic itself, very properly and very peculiarly depends upon our conviction of the truth of the matter narrated. What I have now to tell, is of my own actual knowledge — of my own positive and personal experience.

As with so many of Poe’s tales, there are often parables or symbolism woven into the macabre stories, and this one is no different. The following passage describes the protagonist’s vision of the sheer number of people who were buried prematurely.

I looked; and the unseen figure, which still grasped me by the wrist, had caused to be thrown open the graves of all mankind; and from each issued the faint phosphoric radiance of decay; so that I could see into the innermost recesses, and there view the shrouded bodies in their sad and solemn slumbers with the worm. But, alas! the real sleepers were fewer, by many millions, than those who slumbered not at all; and there was a feeble struggling; and there was a general sad unrest; and from out the depths of the countless pits there came a melancholy rustling from the garments of the buried. And, of those who seemed tranquilly to repose, I saw that a vast number had changed, in a greater or less degree, the rigid and uneasy position in which they had originally been entombed.

I see this passage as an allegory for the general state of humanity. Many of us die having never fulfilled our life’s purpose, or never doing the things we long to do, or without expressing to another how we truly feel. In essence, we are buried prematurely, with unrealized life still within us. I see this as Poe’s way of telling us to live now, don’t put things off, because soon, you will be food for the Conqueror Worm.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed Samhain.

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Symbolism in “The Imp of the Perverse” by Edgar Allan Poe

I always like to read some Poe around Halloween. This is one that I had never read before, but on my first pass, I noticed some really interesting symbolism.

The protagonist of the story explains why he committed a murder, claiming to be “one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse.” He describes the perverse as the desire within all humans to do what they know is wrong. We all have those random thoughts come into our heads, envisioning some heinous act which we would never actually act out. But the protagonist claims that the longer you dwell upon these thoughts of the perverse, the stronger they become and the higher the likelihood that you will act upon them.

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness, and horror become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

So this passage also holds the key to the primary symbol in this story—the imp. The definition of an imp is “a small, mischievous devil or sprite.”  (Oxford) So where is the imp? If we look again at the passage, right near the beginning, we come across the word “impulse,” the first three letters being “imp.” So the imp is that subtle impulse that grows into an uncontrollable urge. But keep looking at the paragraph, and you will find the imp appearing throughout: impulse, imperceptible, impetuously, impatient. These are all aspects of one’s psyche that could lead one into the abyss, all manifestations of the mischievous imp.

And the imp continues to show itself throughout the rest of the story, popping up like that dark thought that you just can’t make disappear. When providing details of the murder, the protagonist states:

But I need not vex you with “imp”ertinent details.

As he describes how his small thoughts of guilt begin to grow into gnawing mental anguish, he says:

I could scarcely get rid of it for an instant. It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some un”imp”ressive snatches from an opera.

And finally:

For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-“imp”risoned secret burst forth from my soul.

(Note: the quotation marks in the above quotations were put in by me for emphasis.)

Now that you have been made aware of the imp, it will be “imp”ossible for you to remain “imp”ervious to its antics. Hope you enjoyed the post, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was searching the tables in a book store a while back, as I am wont to do, and came across this book. I had read The Buried Giant by Ishiguro and loved it, so I decided to give this one a read, especially since it was one of the books that influenced the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

The story follows a group of friends from a special school, whose students face a grim future. While the main plot of the story is thought-provoking, it is the subtle explorations of humanity that makes this an incredible work of art. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it, but I will say this deserves a spot on everyone’s “must read” list.

OK, let’s take a look at a few passages that stood out for me.

“But that wasn’t all,” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.”

(p. 175)

I have always believed this. Art provides a way for an individual to express aspects of their being that cannot be conveyed through standard conversation. And yes, stories and poems are comprised of words, just like common speech, but it is what is unsaid, the cadence of the language, the metaphors and symbolism, which all combine to allow the artist to share something so deep that only a poem or well-crafted story could possibly come close to imparting that hidden part of the self to another human being.

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have denied it, though Tommy wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth…

(p. 195)

In this passage, Kathy is remembering how she participated in the psychological bullying of her friend Tommy by staying silent and not speaking up. It is a painful lesson that too many of us learn the hard way. I learned it when I was quite young. I had a friend named Mason, and one day, a kid who usually bullied me directed his anger and hatred toward my friend instead, and I did nothing, grateful for the respite from my own torment. But the real torment came afterwards, when Mason confronted me for not standing by him. I made some lame excuse, but he was wise enough to see right through it. It’s a memory that haunted me for a long time. But I learned a valuable lesson, that silence is not acceptable when facing injustice. Not taking action makes you just as guilty in the end.

“… You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.”

(p. 268)

This is the ultimate existential dilemma. We all know what’s in store for us. So what’s the point? Why struggle like Sisyphus? For me, it is precisely my lessons, my art, my writing, and my relationships with the people I love that give this life meaning. And in fact, knowing that death is inevitable makes me cherish my limited time here. It inspires me to do things that have lasting meaning and value. It’s not the end that matters. All ends are the same. It’s what you do while on the road that gives life meaning.

To sum up, this book is powerful, disturbing, inspiring, and elegantly written. If you have not read it, I highly recommend doing so. His Nobel Prize is certainly justified.

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Symbolism in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is a very short tale, but rich in symbolism. In the opening paragraph, which is a little long, Hawthorne manages to lay the foundation for all the symbols that manifest in the story.

In those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen’s reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life, two persons met together at an appointed hour and place. One was a lady, graceful in form and fair of feature, though pale and troubled, and smitten with an untimely blight in what should have been the fullest bloom of her years; the other was an ancient and meanly-dressed woman, of ill-favored aspect, and so withered, shrunken, and decrepit, that even the space since she began to decay must have exceeded the ordinary term of human existence. In the spot where they encountered, no mortal could observe them. Three little hills stood near each other, and down in the midst of them sunk a hollow basin, almost mathematically circular, two or three hundred feet in breadth, and of such depth that a stately cedar might but just be visible above the sides. Dwarf pines were numerous upon the hills, and partly fringed the outer verge of the intermediate hollow, within which there was nothing but the brown grass of October, and here and there a tree trunk that had fallen long ago, and lay mouldering with no green successor from its roots. One of these masses of decaying wood, formerly a majestic oak, rested close beside a pool of green and sluggish water at the bottom of the basin. Such scenes as this (so gray tradition tells) were once the resort of the Power of Evil and his plighted subjects; and here, at midnight or on the dim verge of evening, they were said to stand round the mantling pool, disturbing its putrid waters in the performance of an impious baptismal rite. The chill beauty of an autumnal sunset was now gilding the three hill-tops, whence a paler tint stole down their sides into the hollow.

So let’s go through the paragraph and look at the various symbols that will come into play during this story.

First are the two women, one young and one old. They represent the maid and crone aspects of the triple goddess. But also, they represent the past and present for the older woman. The younger woman symbolizes the memories of the older. The choices that were made when the woman was young led her to her place now. So when the crone conjures dark memories of the young woman’s past, she is essentially reliving her own memories, which will lead to her liberation from the bonds of guilt and shame.

The next symbol we encounter is the three hills. The three hills represent the three memories which the crone conjures for the young woman. Each of the hills is a painful memory and represents separation, symbolic death (think grave mound). The young woman severed connections with parents, then with husband, and finally with child. In Hawthorne’s time, the only way a woman could be free was to shake off all bonds to family.

Next, we see that the setting of the story is in October. This represents the time of reaping. We all must reap what we sow, and the young woman must face up to the decisions that she made.

Finally, we have the symbol of the fallen tree. This represents the woman’s lineage, or family tree. When Hawthorne writes that there is “no green successor from its roots,” it is a metaphor for the fact that the woman no longer has any family or children to carry on her bloodline. Like the tree, she will just get old and decay.

While this is not a horror story, per se, it is certainly dark and eerie, and a great short read for an October evening.

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“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft: An Exploration of Art and Horror

Art has the ability to express that which standard forms of communication are unable to convey. This is particularly true when it come to the expression of the deeper regions of the subconscious. Often, these recesses contain our darkest thoughts, the fodder from which our nightmares take shape. It is this realm that the artist in this tale by Lovecraft delves into for inspiration.

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.

Artists who explore these darker regions of the psyche are skirting the fringes of insanity. But often, an artist must temporarily let go of sanity in order to glimpse the internal landscapes which provide inspiration for truly powerful creations.

He shewed me all the paintings and drawings he had about; including some pen-and-ink sketches that would, I verily believe, have got him kicked out of the club if many of the members had seen them. Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum.

Lovecraft uses tunnels and wells as symbols for the entry and exploration of the buried realms of the subconscious. When the characters enter the cellar and uncover the well, leading down into the tunnels below Boston, they are symbolically letting go of their fragile sanity and opening themselves to the darker mysteries of the psyche.

My host was now leading the way down cellar to his actual studio, and I braced myself for some hellish effects among the unfinished canvases. As we reached the bottom of the damp stairs he turned his flashlight to a corner of the large open space at hand, revealing the circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor. We walked nearer, and I saw that it must be five feet across, with walls a good foot thick and some six inches above the ground level—solid work of the seventeenth century, or I was much mistaken. That, Pickman said, was the kind of thing he had been talking about—an aperture of the network of tunnels that used to undermine the hill. I noticed idly that it did not seem to be bricked up, and that a heavy disc of wood formed the apparent cover. Thinking of the things this well must have been connected with if Pickman’s wild hints had not been mere rhetoric, I shivered slightly; then turned to follow him up a step and through a narrow door into a room of fair size, provided with a wooden floor and furnished as a studio. An acetylene gas outfit gave the light necessary for work.

The danger that artists face when exploring the subconscious is that they may ultimately plummet into insanity, losing all touch with the world of light and getting lost forever in the realm of shadows.

Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known—and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot—old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt.

Creative people should never shy away from looking into the depths of the soul for inspiration. But they should do so with care. It’s important to stay grounded when unlocking the forbidden gates of the mind.

Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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“The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells: Belief in the Unseen

I figured I would start out the October spooky reading with the classic sci-fi tale from H.G. Wells. Not surprising, Wells weaves some thought-provoking social commentary into his story. While I discovered a lot of philosophical ideas within the text, the one that really stood out for me was the question of whether things unseen (such as God and the spirit) can exist.

My sense is that during the time Wells was writing, the dominant scientific belief was that if something truly existed in the universe, then it could be scientifically observed and studied. There was skepticism that unseen phenomena, such as God, could exist.

After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head—rather nervous scepticism, not at all assured of its back, but scepticism nevertheless. It was so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into thin air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

(H. G. Wells: Seven Novels; p. 197)

I addition to a skepticism of the existence of things unseen, there is also social stigma attached to those individuals who do perceive beings that are invisible (angels, demons, spirits, gods, etc.). These people are often considered delusional or mentally ill, and that the unseen entities with which they are conversing are just creations of a diseased mind.

This stranger, to the perceptions of the proprietor of the cocoanut shy, appeared to be talking to himself, and Mr. Huxter remarked the same thing. He stopped at the foot of the Coach and Horses steps, and, according to Mr. Huxter, appeared to undergo a severe internal struggle before he could induce himself to enter the house.

(p. 198)

After Kemp, who symbolizes the scientific thinker, encounters the invisible man, he begins to ponder the existence of invisible entities. Essentially, he is contemplating whether the existence of God is a possibility.

“Invisible!” he said.

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions. All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in the air? No!

“It can’t be.

“But after all—why not?

(p. 223)

Another interesting point about this passage is that Kemp claims that the sea has more things invisible than visible. The sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Psychologically speaking, there is so much happening in the mind that is beyond the grasp of our ordinary consciousness. Science has not even scratched the surface of the deeper realms of consciousness. There is much there that is still invisible to us.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire text is when the invisible man reveals to Kemp his plans for establishing a “Reign of Terror.”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.”

(p. 251)

Here Wells is making a dual criticism. On one level, the passage expresses his views on the concept of a vengeful God, one that hands down orders “on scraps of paper” (symbolizing scriptures) and then doles out severe punishment to the people who fail to heed the word of God. Additionally, Wells is criticizing the concept of divine rule as embodied in an absolute monarchy. These rulers live in palaces, unseen by the common folk, and hand down laws (more scraps of paper) and decree punishment upon those villagers who fail to obey the laws.

What makes this book such a masterpiece is that it is a great story, and it also has deeper meaning if you look beneath the surface. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day, and keep reading cool stuff.

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“Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

So the problem that I have with the majority of self-help books is that they have a great idea that can be covered in a well-fleshed-out article, but they stretch it out with redundant examples to fill up the requisite number of pages needed to publish a book. Hardwiring Happiness definitely falls into this category. It is essentially a handbook on how to reprogram the neural pathways in the brain to create a more positive default response to stimuli. It’s a great idea and something I feel many people can benefit from, especially in our toxic fear-based society. I would have just preferred the Reader’s Digest version.

Hanson’s concept of hardwiring happiness is based upon the science behind neuroplasticity.

All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on the channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity—especially if it is conscious—will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.

(p. 10)

Hanson’s approach is based on a four-step principle which forms the acronym HEAL:

  1. Have a positive experience.

  2. Enrich it.

  3. Absorb it.

  4. Link positive and negative material.

(p. 60)

This approach reminded me a lot of EMDR, a type of therapy used to deal with issues of trauma (I can attest to the efficacy of this treatment). Positive experiences are embedded in the memory and strengthened. These positive mental states are then used to weaken the negative states associated with the trauma. HEAL is similar to EMDR, but used to promote general well-being and not intended to self-treat in situations where a trained therapist is needed.

As Hanson empathizes in this book, it’s important to address the brain’s negativity bias, where importance is placed on the negative instead of the positive (how our brains evolved in order to survive during harder times). But as is pointed out in the book, prolonged focus on the negative has lasting repercussions.

But when unpleasant experiences become negative material stored in your brain, that’s not good. Negative material has negative consequences. It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of falling short, of inadequacy. This material contains painful beliefs like “no one would want me.” The desires and inclinations in it take you to the bad places. It can numb and muzzle you. Or it can make you overreact to others, which can create vicious cycles of negativity between you and them. Negative material impacts your body, wears down long-term mental and physical health, and can potentially shorten your life span.

(p. 126)

In an age where news and social media provide a constant stream that feeds the brain’s negativity bias, Hanson’s book offers some practical ways to deal with this. While it could have been shorter, the book is still worth reading for the simple steps provided for improving your mental well-being.

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