The Unique Posthuman Racial Politics of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Loss of Breath”

by Jeremy R. Strong

Edgar Allan Poe’s writing was predictive of many concerns and questions about what it means to be a person in the world that we still grapple with today. More precisely, much of Poe’s short fiction shows a particular obsession with defining and defying the edges of human consciousness and human biology and how interrogating both in his fiction leads to considerations of identity and personhood. In this sense, Poe was not only instrumental in the founding of science fiction as a genre, but also in establishing a literary tradition of—and precedent for—posthuman inquiry. Poe’s early fictional experiments in posthumanism are not limited to the tales I examine in this essay. However, by focusing in on “Loss of Breath”, I will show that there is a unique interrelationship between Poe’s posthuman and racial themes. Examining the two in tandem reveals that Poe acknowledges in “Loss of Breath” that the general treatment in the 19thcentury of African Americans was inhumane and this troubles oversimplified claims of Poe as racist. I will also demonstrate that Poe’s more nuanced understanding of racial struggle was foundational to his status as a pioneer of posthumanist science fiction for its capacity to convey how human identity could more broadly be troubled by definitions of personhood. In order to support my reading “Loss of Breath” from this perspective, I will then briefly compare the tale to “The Man That Was Used Up” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”, to demonstrate that Poe anticipates the tenets of posthumanist discourse widely in his fiction. He does this by exploring the ability of humans to transcend the constraints of human biology in “The Man That Was Used Up”; and the implications such abilities might have to conceptions of mortality in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”. When examined together, the concerns of these three tales carve out a space welcoming to further critical posthumanist investigation of Poe’s work, and the essay adds to a growing body of work challenging assumptions about Poe and his relationship to racial discourse.

In his book Universes Without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature, Matthew A. Taylor includes Poe’s work as part of an important tradition of writing that incorporates individuals into “non-human processes” and that invites “a redistribution of agency and significance to the world” (11). His approach to exploring notions of posthumanism and their early manifestations in literature is guided by defining posthumanism against the tenets of traditional humanism:

The humanist self is formed by a constitutive exclusion of the world, whereas the posthumanist self is born of an ostensible inclusion of it, but the distinction is largely semantic: in both, the nonhuman world serves our all-too-human agendas, either by being our slave or by becoming ourselves. Put another way, posthumanism can uncannily echo the means-end logic of the anthropocentric metaphysics it supposedly corrects, ending the dialectic with otherness only to achieve a final synthesis of the self. (7)

My reading of Poe’s fiction highlights the fact that understanding the posthumanist philosophical tendencies apparent in his work is integral to bringing into the foreground of the text some important racial implications that could otherwise go unnoticed in stories that are primarily read as science fiction. In other words, when a story becomes the vehicle for the scientific innovation being presented, like “The Man That Was Used Up”, racial considerations could become marginalized. A Posthumanist reading however, necessarily ponders both the science and the human components of the tale, including how the human form is defined or destabilized against the advancement of science. Race and racial difference both figure prominently as ways in which the definition of the human is accomplished in Poe’s tales, and not always when they are clearly demarcated in the fiction, as in “The Man That Was Used Up” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”. Turning again to Taylor’s Posthuman Cosmologies, the importance of discussing race to elucidate more clearly the aims of posthumanism and of allowing a posthumanist reading to reveal the uncomfortable truth about pernicious racist understandings of the world is made clear in this excerpt from a discussion about slavery:

As Paul Outka has recently argued, such attempts, though less obviously violent in their effects, commonly perpetuated slavery’s “core mystification” of “view[ing] African Americans as an extension of the natural world.” Consequently, African Americans were not only excluded from transcendental experiences with wilderness (because they could not unite with what they already were), they also were conscripted within an instrumental, anthropocentric worldview that made them merely another spiritual resource for, in Muir’s words, a “tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people.”” (120)

Poe’s work is also about defining personhood through its constant and uncomfortable confrontation with racial difference, its interrogation of the boundaries between human being and animal and its complex early investigations into psychological states. John F. Jebb warns in his chapter “Race, Pirates and Intellect” in Edgar Allan Poe: Beyond Gothicism, that the “easily accepted notion that Poe had racist tendencies has infected Poe scholarship for years and perhaps has discouraged others from sifting the evidence, both biographic and literary” (18). Therefore, my reading of “Loss of Breath” seeks to carefully consider Poe’s ambiguous treatment of race as a potentially necessary component of early posthumanist writing.

            “Loss of Breath” is one of the more distinctly understudied of Poe’s tales and I argue that it provides an excellent place to begin this exploration of how early posthumanist ideas intersect with race. After the narrator has violently seized his wife by the throat and is about to “convince her of her insignificance”, he is surprised to discover that he has literally lost his own breath (151). Right from the beginning, this tale is clearly about power: interpersonal and hierarchical as well as elocutionary and physiological. The tale first seems to be about gender imbalance and the narrator’s loss of sexual power in marriage, as he retires to his “private boudoir” in a “paroxysm” of sorrow before later commencing a “vigorous search” for his breath (152-153). The use of the terms boudoir and paroxysm were both more closely aligned with the feminine in the 19th century and his search for his breath, which must be conducted in private, has a distinctly physical quality to it, as though the narrator were searching for his own genitalia. Considering Jacques Derrida’s notion of Phallogocentrism, the powers of speech should directly correlate to the narrator’s masculinity in this case. 

The tale however, quickly proves to be about a different sort of power imbalance, with the narrator’s relationship to his wife acting only as the signpost for the oppressed and marginalized body. Racial difference is the primary subject of this story and readers are given a major clue to that effect in Poe’s calling attention to Anaxagoras, who “it will be remembered, maintained that snow is black” (153). The narrator then proceeds to lay out the tale of how he has “since found [this] to be the case” (153). In a strange connection to the detached body parts in “The Man That Was Used Up”, the narrator is rewarded for all his searching about the house with “a set of false teeth, two pair of hips, an eye and a bundle of billets-doux” (153). The love letters are interesting in that they are from one Mr. Windenough, the lover’s name being another indication that language is connotative of sexual prowess and set against the narrator’s name, now revealed to be “Lackobreath” (153). The narrator then decides that his best course of action is to leave the country and integrate himself into a “foreign climate” where he will be able to “conceal [his] unhappy calamity” (154). The narrator’s notion that a foreign climate will be the best place to shield himself from notice could imply that he will travel to a place where the population is already oppressed, positioning that place as the feminine to his masculine home country. He mentions committing to memory the dialogue and events of  “Metamora”, a tragic 1829 play about the last of the Wampanoag Native American tribe in order to fool his wife that his reliance on “deep guttural” sounds is merely his theatrical ambition for this play (154). Though this portion of the tale seems at first to be an attempt at humour, calling attention to this play is a distinct reminder of colonial America’s genocide of aboriginal populations and could imply that the narrator’s plans to travel to a “foreign” climate may include going south to the Caribbean or even as far as to Africa. 

Another detail within the tale that the narrator’s loss of breath aligns him with marginalized black bodies is more forceful; the narrator is thrown out from the coach in which he travels “at the sign of the “Crow,” (by which tavern the coach happened to be passing) without meeting with any farther accident than the breaking of both my arms under the left hind wheel of the vehicle” (155). The marking out in brackets by Poe of the arbitrary nature of that particular tavern actually functions to draw attention to the name and should guide the reader to understand the term “Crow” for all the racial connotations that term would carry in the early “Jim Crow” America of blackface performance. The narrator’s death-like appearance leads to his being thrown from the coach as though he were not human, and the fact of the coach wheels running over both of his arms demonstrates purposeful disrespect of his body. With the narrator now in a state of living death, with a twisted head, broken arms, all other limbs dislocated and finally a crushed skull, the story becomes a posthuman tale.

            The narrator is subjected to progressive violations that recall many of the same horrors enacted upon slave populations in the south, practices Poe would likely be familiar with, if not directly through his family plantation, then likely through his adopted father’s network of slave owners and traders. The narrator has his ears cut off, several of his “viscera” removed and is tied up like an animal and left alone in a garret where two cats battle it out to eat his nose (156-57). Finally, in strange resonance with the body swapping in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”, the narrator becomes through incredible accident the physical substitute for a criminal, a “mail-robber” (language thief) that he bears uncanny resemblance to. When he is led to the gallows, his execution should be understood as a lynching, because the narrator has no recourse to a fair trial and is in effect being judged based solely on his appearance. 

The practice of lynching would have been all too common during Poe’s lifetime in 19th century America. The fact of its use in this story implies that the narrator’s entire posthuman journey has been as a black man. This story could serve to slightly recuperate interpretations of Poe’s understanding of racial injustice during his lifetime, as the reaction of the crowd to the lynching takes on a sarcastic or ironic tone. After he has been lynched, the crowd reacts to his death convulsions with disquieting enthusiasm: “The populace encored. Several gentlemen swooned and a multitude of ladies were carried home in hysterics. Pinxit availed himself of the opportunity to retouch, from a sketch taken upon the spot, his admirable painting of the “Marsyas flayed alive”” (158). It is well known that historically marginalized and persecuted peoples end up buried in mass or unmarked graves, and therefore interesting that the narrator states: “no one made a claim to my corpse, it was ordered that I should be interred in a public vault” (158). The narrator then moves about the crypt, describing himself in terms that are connotative of place and his potential race but certainly explicitly outline his non-human status:

“This has been, no doubt, in every sense of the word, an unhappy—an unfortunate man. It has been his terrible lot not to walk, but to waddle—to pass through life not like a human being, but like an elephant—not like a man, but like a rhinoceros.”

“His attempts at getting on have been mere abortions, and his circumgyratory proceedings a palpable failure. Taking a step forward, it has been his misfortune to take two toward the right, and three toward the left.” (159)

The use of the elephant and rhinoceros are connotative of Africa and the objectification of bodies, as both animals are frequently hunted for their tusks. Poe could be drawing attention to the treatment of African slaves as animals, and the lines that follow, drawing attention to the difficulties faced by oppressed peoples in progressing towards equality when he mentions taking a “step forward”. The narrator’s claim that he has passed through life “not like a human being”, when read against his ability to live without breathing, invite a posthumanist reading of the text, in coordination rather than opposition to the racial reading provided above.

            Whether a reading of “Loss of Breath” considers the fantastical elements of the narrator’s journey beyond the boundary of death as analogy or not, the fact remains that Poe was writing on a theme that is prevalent in his work, the idea that it is possible to transcend the seeming limits of body and of mind. In his book on apocalypse and science fiction in American literature, New Worlds for Old, David Ketterer claims that common perceptions of Poe being simply a “horrific” writer are far too simplistic and undermine the fact that Poe should more justifiably be “understood as a visionary, a species of transcendentalist” (56). By briefly comparing Poe’s treatment of the human form in “Loss of Breath” to that depicted in “The Man That Was Used Up” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”, it becomes clear that Poe’s contribution as an early posthumanist writer is substantial.

While I have hitherto advanced the argument that in “Loss of Breath” the narrator embodies the identity of a black American to reveal the severity of racial discrimination, the story is also simultaneously a science fiction tale about transcending physical death. In this fashion, the tale echoes very closely the structure of “The Man That Was Used Up”, which is on the one hand a distinctly science-fictional narrative about a cyborg, and on the other a tale about colonial confrontation and the dehumanization of General ABC Smith’s servant Pompey. Of ABC Smith’s abuse of his manservant, John F. Jebb writes that it “gains assertiveness as [Smith] becomes whole” (30). Jebb points out that this story is often read as a satire about war heroes or as a science fiction tale, but that the most important thing about the tale may be what it reveals about Poe’s complex relationship to race and racism (31). Despite the comedic element that is, like in “Loss of Breath”, present in much of the tale, Jebb asserts that Pompey is not “simply a comic servant: he is the recipient of ironic abuse despite his necessary status with his abuser” and he “has complete control over the General” (31). In an interesting parallel with the “Loss of Breath” narrator’s lack of voice leading him to experience what it means to be black in America, when ABC Smith is disassembled and has a squeaky mouse voice, it is as though he isn’t even in the room. The narrator is only then able to notice the “old negro valet”, who in essence very temporarily stands in for General Smith. But as Smith regains his powers of speech, he most notably calls attention to Pompey’s holding back from giving him his voice: ““Pompey, you black rascal,” squeaked the General, “I really do believe you would let me go out without my palate”” (316). 

As Peter Goodwin points out in his chapter “The Man in the Text: Desire, Masculinity, and the Development of Poe’s Detective Fiction” in Edgar Allan Poe: Beyond Gothicism, when Pompey inserts the palate, “the General regains the power to articulate and perform his white manhood” (57). In this sense, the General is like any other machine of the white, patriarchal order that will not function properly until all of the component parts are assembled; Pompey is the indentured worker—that loathe as he may his position—knows his own survival depends on his diligent assemblage of the machine. In his book Mesmerists, Monsters and Machines, in the chapter “The Human Experiments of Edgar Allan Poe”, Martin Willis writes of the story: “In conflating mechanics with class status, Poe very carefully places the machine within existing cultural structures” (109). Willis draws attention to the fact that generally, Poe’s writing about “mesmerists and machines” was very much at the forefront of nineteenth century scientific inquiry (94). He notes that the fields of mechanical science and animal magnetism were both in the process of revolution in the United States and that their impact “altered the landscape of science in nineteenth-century North America irreversibly and profoundly” (94). Consequently, the largest major parallel between the three tales discussed in this essay is transcendent posthuman figures, represented in the mechanical form by General Smith and in the metaphysical form by the narrators of “Loss of Breath” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”.

With a servant to ensure that he is put together, General Smith becomes virtually immortal, with no indication that any integral body part is impossible to render synthetically. As Ketterer notes, “Poe should be distinguished from virtually all visionary writers including the transcendentalists and Blake because of the markedly “scientific” or science-fictional nature of his visionary reality” (56). In reading Poe’s mesmeric tales, it is important to acknowledge as Willis does that mesmerism in the time during which Poe lived, was a recognizable pursuit of the serious scientist: “Like the science of mechanics, mesmerism was widely seen as a developing area of science that pushed the boundaries of human capability” (95). Willis also points out that a place where “mesmerism had made some headway was in the medical sphere” (95). Though Loss of Breath isn’t as distinctly as mesmeric a tale as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, “Mesmeric Revelation” or “Ligeia”, the tale does focus distinctly on losing the breath as a meticulously documented physical experience and involves the intervention of several third parties to determine the narrator’s state of being. Therefore, “Loss of Breath” mimics the structure of the other mesmeric tales and all of them are reminiscent of Willis’s definition of the art of its practice as a science: “Mesmerism as it was being conducted in the large teaching hospitals and infirmaries coalesced around a triangular relationship between patient, trance state, and doctor” (96). This naturally gave rise to questions about borders between patient and doctor.

Just as a person in the 19th century (and a person of today) might question the point at which the General in “The Man That Was Used Up” ceased to be human, one could question as Willis does, “How human did one remain if a mesmerizer was able to control one’s physical motions and mental capabilities? Did the results of mesmerism mean that we had to redefine the limits of humanity?” (96). Exploring the redefining of those human limits is one the goals of posthumanist writing, and “Loss of Breath” grapples with that monumental challenge just as strenuously, if not more so than “The Man That Was Used Up”. Both stories explore limitations to the social definitions of the human being through racial discourse and both also test the necessity of the physical human body to an understanding of personhood. “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” is similar in its approach of juxtaposing the ability of human beings to defeat the limits of biology against the cruel reminder of the way in which race traps one into perpetual punishment or servitude.

            In Daniel J. Philippon’s chapter “Poe in the Ragged Mountains: Environmental History and Romantic Aesthetics” in the book Edgar Allan Poe: Beyond Gothicism, Poe’s treatment of race is discussed in terms of his general feelings towards “the American Indians around the mid 1840-s” to whom “he was clearly growing sympathetic” (95). Philippon also discusses Poe’s Orientalizing of the state of Virginia as part of a strategy to “spoof on popular Romanticism in America” (99). In his insistence on arguing for landscape as the primary concern in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”, Philippon’s chapter reduces focus on the events and characters of the story and instead reads the treatment of the landscape as the more important aspect of the tale. Setting is of course important in any story, but Philippon’s argument that “mesmerism, metempsychosis, and animal magnetism…fail to address the full significance of [Bedloe’s] experience”, sidelines the fact that change in landscape is reflected by the changing of bodies in the tale (100). And this changing of bodies is the important area of overlap shared with the other two tales. 

In “Loss of Breath” a white body becomes a black one, indicated as I mentioned earlier by allusion to the famous quote about white snow really being black. In “The Man That Was Used Up” the body parts are exchanged slowly but certainly (over time and through various war campaigns) for mechanical replacements, until what is left of General ABC Smith’s actual physiology likely resembles the body of detective Alex Murphy as depicted in Jose Padilha’s 2014 remake of Robocop [see appendix A]. The main difference between the aforementioned works and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” is that a complete and total swap of bodies takes place in the latter, and the maintenance of consciousness that takes place after the swap defies both space and time.

In his description of  “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains”, Philippon mentions the flowery Orientalist descriptions of Bedloe’s dream state. What he doesn’t mention however is that for all the time spent describing the landscape in detail, there is a nearly as lengthy description of Bedloe’s physical appearance in the beginning of the tale. This description bears some measure of pondering and I will reproduce it in full:

In no regard was he more peculiar than in his personal appearance. He was singularly tall and thin. He stooped much. His limbs were exceedingly long and emaciated. His forehead was broad and low. His complexion was absolutely bloodless. His mouth was large and flexible, and his teeth were more wildly uneven, although sound, than I had ever before seen teeth in a human head. The expression of his smile, however, was by no means unpleasing, as might be supposed; but it had no variation whatever. It was one of profound melancholy—of a phaseless and unceasing gloom. His eyes were abnormally large, and round like those of a cat. The pupils, too, upon any accession or dimunition of light, underwent contraction or dilation, just as is observed in the feline tribe. In moments of excitement the orbs grew bright to a degree almost inconceivable, seeming to emit luminous rays, not of a reflected, but of an intrinsic lustre, as does a candle or the sun; yet their ordinary condition was so totally vapid, filmy and dull, as to convey the idea of the eyes of a long interred corpse. (655)

Not only does this passage deliver a veritable geography of Bedloe’s strange human face, but it also compares his likeness to that of a cat, interesting in light of the common cultural attribution to cats of extra lives. In that sense, the passage invites comparison to other moments of transmigration in Poe, such as the reappearance of the cat in “The Black Cat”, the reforming of “Ligeia” and the return of the Baron in “Metzengerstein”. Mr. Lackobreath and General ABC Smith push the limits of the human body beyond even our current understanding of clinical death, but Bedloe completely eradicates those limits through his capacity to transfer bodies completely. According to Willis, when working at “the fringes of mesmeric competence, Poe utilizes the limitrophic nature of this science to comment on the collisions, conflations, and contradictions that appear when human society and scientific culture meet” (128). This is in essence why it is so crucial to read Poe not only as a writer of science fiction, but also as an early posthumanist writer, perhaps even an early transhumanist.

 Investigating “Loss of Breath” for its posthuman and racial undercurrents proves vastly informative, particularly when the tale is compared to “The Man That Was Used Up” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”. If Poe did indeed envision the narrator of “Loss of Breath” as a marginalized and persecuted black man, as I hope to have shown, then assumptions about his personal philosophy about race need to be destabilized. David Ketterer describes Poe’s spiritual philosophy of reality existing as “not a spiritual realm but an alternative dimension” and in Poe’s denying “the existence of spirituality except as “unparticled matter, permeating and impelling all things”” (55-56). Perhaps Poe’s views on the lack of clear definition and subjectivity surrounding the human form imply a similar acknowledgement of his understanding of the lack of any reality to the perceived importance of physical, social or cultural differences between people.

Works Cited and Consulted

Berkley, James. “Post-Human Mimesis and the Debunked Machine: Reading Environmental Appropriation in Poe’s ‘Maelzel’s Chess-Player’ and ‘the Man that was used Up’.” Comparative Literature Studies 41.3 (2004): 356-76. ProQuest. Web. Accessed, December 6th.

Frank, Adam. “Valdemar’s Tongue, Poe’s Telegraphy.” ELH 72.3 (2005): 635-62. Print.

Fink, Bruce, and Barnard, Suzanne. Reading Seminar XX. In SUNY Series in Psychoanalysis and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2002. Ebook. Web, accessed December 6th, 2014. 

Goulet, Andrea. Optiques: The Science of the Eye and the Birth of Modern French Fiction. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2006. Critical Authors & Issues. Print.

Hutchisson, James M. Edgar Allan Poe: Beyond Gothicism. Newark: Lanham, Md.: U of Delaware; Rowman & Littlefield Pub. Group, 2011. Print.

Kennedy, J., Weissberg, Liliane. Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974. Print.

Moskowitz, Sam. Ed. Masterpieces of Science Fiction. Cleveland: World Pub., 1967. Print.

—. “Poe’s Influence on Science-Fiction.” Fantasy Commentator 9.1 (1996): 24-32. ProQuest. Web. Accessed November 28th.

Olney, Clarke. “Edgar Allan Poe: Science-Fiction Pioneer.” Georgia Review 12 (1958): 416-21. ProQuest. Web. Accessed November 28th.

Petersen, Pam. “Mesmerism, Popular Science, and Poe.” Ed. Michael T. Marsden. Bowling Green State Univ. Popular P, 1976. 251-262. ProQuest. Web. Accessed December 6th.

Poe, Edgar Allan, and Beaver, Harold Lowther. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976. Print. Penguin English Library.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales. Library of America Edition. Penguin Books Ltd., New York: 1984, 2006. Print.

Stone-Blackburn, Susan. “Consciousness Evolution and Early Telepathic Tales.” Science Fiction Studies 20.2 (1993): 241-50. ProQuest. Web. Accessed November 26th

Taylor, Matthew A. Universes without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature. Mineapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Print.

—. “Edgar Allan Poe’s (Meta)Physics: A Pre-History of the Post-Human.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 62.2 (2007): 193-221. ProQuest. Web. Accessed November 28th

—. “The Nature of Fear: Edgar Allan Poe and Posthuman Ecology.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 84.2 (2012): 353-79. ProQuest. Web. Accessed November 28th

Tresch, John. “Extra! Extra! Poe Invents Science Fiction!” Ed. Kevin J. Hayes.Cambridge UP, 2002. 113-132. Cambridge Companions to Literature~~CCtL ProQuest. Web. Accessed November 28th

Willis, Martin. Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2006. Print.

Figure 1: Robocop Disassembled     

Figure 2: Robocop Assembled

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