Friday, October 30, 2009


During this happy Halloween season, let’s not forget Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and its doomed, hypersensitive protagonist, Roderick Usher. As many have observed, Poe’s writings have been eerily prescient of the changes that have overtaken American society, particularly his tortured characters’ sense of misery, alienation, and inner turmoil that eventually drive them to death and murder. For among his other hyperesthetic maladies, Roderick Usher suffers from hyperacusis, an extreme sensitivity to loud sound. Poe thus anticipated that peculiar malady of the rock star, and the consequences of live concert performance. (Remember Emerson’s insight: Nothing is got for nothing.) For Roderick Usher is troubled, like many rock stars, by having the volume in his head always turned too loud. He is not losing his hearing—au contraire: it has become more and more acute, so acute, in fact, he claims to be able to hear his twin sister’s fingernails clawing at the lid of her coffin, even though the coffin lay in a vault deep within the catacombs beneath the House of Usher. Roderick Usher’s hyperesthetic, disordered mind reasserts the philosophical problem of perception: What mechanism in the brain determines what we hear, that is, which sound(s) we attend to, and which we ignore? Do we inflate the meaning and significance of things that go bump in the night, or ignore them?

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