Edgar Huntly, the Senses, and Madness

This week’s readings take us in a slightly different direction from previous weeks–rather than focusing on processes and conceptualizations of minds, this week we look at the mind agitated, afflicted, and even overwhelmed. In order to cover these topics, I will refer to Charles Brockden Brown’s American Gothic tale Edgar Huntly (1799) in conjunction with Gabrielle Starr’s “Multisensory Imagery” in Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies (2010). While over two centuries separate these two works, there are several ways we can see Starr’s commentary on the senses in literature playing out in Edgar Huntly.

Starr’s “Multisensory Imagery” lays out what she calls the “structure of cognition” (276) and later the similar “architecture of the imagery of the senses” (291), all built on our “imaginary perceptions” (276). Her basic argument with these terms is that thought and perception take certain structures, and that these structures are directly related to the interplay of our senses, whether they be visual, auditory, olfactory, etc. This is especially true of art and fiction, where our senses are as often as not imagined–we do not actually see Spot run, but we imagine we do. It is the combination of different sensory images in fiction that build up our thoughts, experiences, and cognition of a story. What interests me here, however, is not how this process works, but how it falls apart. If the senses have an architecture, what happens when that architecture becomes overwhelmed and cannot bear its load? Do the senses break down? Do they freeze? Do they operate at diminished capacity? Edgar Huntly helps us to start thinking about these questions.

Edgar Huntly is at first the story of a man (Edgar Huntly) trying to solve the murder of his friend, all related as a lengthy letter to his fiancé Mary Waldegrave. Very early on in the story the reader encounters how Edgar’s “perturbations” have very physical manifestations: “Till now, to hold a steadfast pen was impossible; to disengage my senses from the scene that was passing or approaching; . . .” (5). Edgar’s mind and senses have been afflicted to such an extent that he has been both physically and mentally shaken, causing him to lose basic faculties like holding a pen. A similar affliction appears later in the novel in Clithero, the man Edgar initially suspects of murdering his friend. While relating his story, Clithero suddenly falls into a fit that prevents speech: “As this period of his narrative, Clithero stopped. His complexion varied from one degree of paleness to another. His brain appeared to suffer sever constriction.. . . In a short time he was relieved from this paroxysm, and resumed his tale with an accent tremulous at first, but acquiring stability and force as he went on” (46). In both of these instances the senses of the communicator (one in writing, one in speech) are overwhelmed and arrested, and their abilities to communicate are temporarily terminated. Additionally, in both cases it appears to be a recollection or reimagining of traumatic events that leads to the attack. Relating back to Starr’s work, in Edgar Huntly we encounter the possibility of multisensory imagery not just shaping cognition and experience, but also potentially overloading and paralyzing those very same processes. Recover is definitely possible, but it requires decompression or release from the brain “constriction”. Many other examples of this exist in the novel, including Clithero’s freezing at the point of his attempted murder and suicide.

All of this sensory overload bears a strange relationship to madness in the text, and the paroxysms and somnambulism demonstrated by both Edgar and Clithero seems to incriminate them or at least suggest heavy guilt. The strangest and best example of this is the aftermath of Clithero’s killing of Wiatte, and the consequential buildup to his attempted murder of his patroness. The logic that leads Clithero to conclude he must kill his patroness is extremely circular, and appears to form a mental feedback loop that can only lead to the one end it has already designed. First, Clithero realizes and repeatedly emphasizes that he has killed his patroness’ brother–this is the initial fixation. The next fixation is on the completeness of his guilt, and the dreadful effect he assumes it must have on his patroness–it can do nothing else but kill her: “The same blow that bereaved him of life, has likewise ratified her doom” (54). To simplify, the mental feedback loop here always comes back to death, going something like death->guilt->death->guilt. Clithero is unable to conceptualize any possible outcome other than death, and ends up concluding that it would be merciful to kill his patroness outright rather than with the knowledge of her brother’s death. We witnessed this same sort of fixation and feedback loop earlier in Othello–the worst must be true because it can be nothing other than true, so it becomes true. The feedback loop climaxes in the overload of the mind and the senses, paralyzing the person and rendering them unable to act rationally. Madness takes hold…

Which means it’s probably time for a tea party.


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