I've always been an Edgar Allan Poe fan, so much so that I even watched the horrifying—not in a good way--2012 film The Raven. But when I spotted an essay on Poe by novelist Marilynne Robinson in the February 5 New York Review of Books, I hesitated to read it, thinking, What more can I know about Poe?
Robinson then hooked me with her first sentence, which calls Poe "a turbulence, an anomaly among the major American writers of his period, an anomaly to this day." She went on to reveal something I definitely didn't know about Poe. Just before he died in 1849, when he was only 40, he wrote a book-length work titled Eureka.
According to Robinson, Eureka has always been "an object of ridicule," too odd even for devotees of Poe, the emperor of odd. But Robinson contends that Eureka is actually "full of intuitive insight"--and anticipates ideas remarkably similar to those of modern physics and cosmology.
Eureka, she elaborates, "describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which 'radiated' the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe. This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and 'duration' are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series. All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-ﬁrst century."
Curious, I found Eureka posted on the website of The Gutenberg Project. Poe's book strikes me as both strange and strangely familiar. It's like a 19th-century version of the many manuscripts I have received over the decades from brilliant but deranged autodidacts who have solved the secrets of the universe. Imagine what you might get if you toss Aristotle's Metaphysics and Newton's Principia in a blender along with scoops of gothic rhetoric and romantic philosophy. Eureka does indeed evoke some modern scientific ideas, but in the same blurry way that Christian or Eastern theologies do.
Here's an excerpt, in which Poe presents his theory of creation:
"Let us now endeavor to conceive what Matter must be, when, or if, in its absolute extreme of Simplicity. Here the Reason flies at once to Imparticularity—to a particle—to one particle—a particle of one kind—of one character—of one nature—of one size—of one form—a particle, therefore, 'without form and void'—a particle positively a particle at all points—a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided, and not indivisible only because He who created it, by dint of his Will, can by an infinitely less energetic exercise of the same Will, as a matter of course, divide it. Oneness, then, is all that I predicate of the originally created Matter; but I propose to show that this Oneness is a principle abundantly sufficient to account for the constitution, the existing phenomena and the plainly inevitable annihilation of at least the material Universe. The willing into being the primordial particle, has completed the act, or more properly the conception, of Creation. We now proceed to the ultimate purpose for which we are to suppose the Particle created—that is to say, the ultimate purpose so far as our considerations yet enable us to see it—the constitution of the Universe from it, the Particle. This constitution has been effected by forcing the originally and therefore normally One into the abnormal condition of Many. An action of this character implies reaction. A diffusion from Unity, under the conditions, involves a tendency to return into Unity—a tendency ineradicable until satisfied. But on these points I will speak more fully hereafter. The assumption of absolute Unity in the primordial Particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive the Particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by diffusion into Space. From the one Particle, as a center, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically—in all directions—to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space—a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms."
I am grateful to Robinson for alerting me to Poe's peculiar work. But I winced at her claim that Poe's theorizing is "perfectly sound." She makes Eureka sound like a scientific treatise—but it is actually something far more ambitious and bizarre. Poe himself calls Eureka a "prose poem" and an "essay on the material and spiritual universe" [italics added].
His book closes with a riff that reminds me of the ravings—inspired by a drug trip that I have described on this blog--with which I conclude my book The End of Science. Unlike modern theories of everything, which are resolutely materialist and hence unsatisfying, Poe's is ultimately mystical:
"There was an epoch in the Night of Time, when a still-existent Being existed—one of an absolutely infinite number of similar Beings that people the absolutely infinite domains of the absolutely infinite space. It was not and is not in the power of this Being—any more than it is in your own—to extend, by actual increase, the joy of his Existence; but just as it is in your power to expand or to concentrate your pleasures (the absolute amount of happiness remaining always the same) so did and does a similar capability appertain to this Divine Being, who thus passes his Eternity in perpetual variation of Concentrated Self and almost Infinite Self-Diffusion. What you call The Universe is but his present expansive existence. He now feels his life through an infinity of imperfect pleasures—the partial and pain-intertangled pleasures of those inconceivably numerous things which you designate as his creatures, but which are really but infinite individualizations of Himself. All these creatures—all—those which you term animate, as well as those to whom you deny life for no better reason than that you do not behold it in operation—all these creatures have, in a greater or less degree, a capacity for pleasure and for pain:—but the general sum of their sensations is precisely that amount of Happiness which appertains by right to the Divine Being when concentrated within Himself. These creatures are all, too, more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious, secondly and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak—of an identity with God. Of the two classes of consciousness, fancy that the former will grow weaker, the latter stronger, during the long succession of ages which must elapse before these myriads of individual Intelligences become blended—when the bright stars become blended—into One. Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness—that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life—Life—Life within Life—the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine."
Now that is a theory of everything. But it isn't "sound," it's batshit crazy—in a good way.
Postscript: Gabriel Finkelstein, a friend and historian of science (author of a terrific biography of 19th-century polymath Emil du Bois-Reymond), notes below that Poe has been credited with solving Olber's Paradox in Eureka. Note the skepticism with which Poe presents his solution: "Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us an uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all. That this may be so, who shall venture to deny? I maintain, simply, that we have not even the shadow of a reason for believing that it is so."
Daguerreotype of Poe courtesy Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe#mediaviewer/File:Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_crop.png