On The Edgar Allan

I stumbled upon this interesting paragraph by Poe. The American writer, of course. Not the Teletubby.

It’s from his short story, The Domain of Arnheim in which the protagonist inherits a fortune and suddenly has the space and time to assess what is important in life:

He admitted but four elementary principles, or, more strictly, conditions, of bliss. That which he considered chief was (strange to say!) the simple and purely physical one of free exercise in the open air. ‘The health,’ he said, ‘attainable by other means is scarcely worth the name.’ He instanced the ecstasies of the fox-hunter, and pointed to the tillers of the earth, the only people who, as a class, can be fairly considered happier than others. His second condition was [romantic love]. His third, and most difficult of realization, was the contempt of ambition. His fourth was an object of unceasing pursuit; and he held that, other things being equal, the extent of attainable happiness was in proportion to the spirituality of this object.

Health, love, contempt for ambition, and the lifelong pursuit of something wonderful. They’re remarkably similar to our own good life tenets, aren’t they? This should not be a surprise. In Escape Everything! and the forthcoming The Good Life for Wage Slaves, I make the point that these “conditions of bliss” as Poe calls them are actually rather obvious and are present in all kinds of perfectly mainstream religious and cultural and philosophical system. They’re even present in Hollywood movies. The mystery is that people overlook them all the time or reach them through such an archaic and indirect manner as to lose sight of them for years and years and years.

Especially interesting in Poe’s protagonist’s view are his contempt for ambition vs. lifelong pursuit. Might one not say that the lifelong pursuit requires ambition? Is this not a contradiction?

My read is that the former is a matter “career ambition” (to be escaped) while the latter is something quieter and more personal (to be honed and inched towards over a lifetime). I do wonder sometimes about my own ambition to publish books and which of those two categories it might fall into. Am I a career writer now? Or is the writing just the export wing of something more important? I think it falls into the latter category but it certainly bares scrutiny and I’d like to test it a little more.

I recently read a book called Conundrum by Jan Morris, a travel writer who transitioned from male to female in the 1970s. One of the preserves of masculinity she sought to escape was career and what she called “public life” (i.e. business and politics). I don’t agree that these are “male” things at all, but that’s how she saw it in the 1970s. The point is that she specifically excluded a quiet life of domesticity, independent travel, and book writing from the grasping, empire-building world of careerism. And she escaped.

Jan Morris’ point of view is only one citation in favour of what I’m probably trying to justify, admittedly.

Meanwhile, Poe’s other point about exercise as a byproduct of doing something else will ring hollow in the ears of friend Reggie who, last week, tore a ligament after using an exercise bike. We’re thinking of you, Reggie!

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at www.wringham.co.uk/about.

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