Musings On Poe’s Descent Into The Maelstrom

Musings On Poe’s Descent Into The Maelstrom

We had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some
minutes the old man seemed too much exhausted to speak (Edgar Allan
Poe, A Descent Into The Maelstrom).

On a theme as slight as falling,
Edgar Allan Poe succeeds in providing, by means of a few objective
images, enough substance for the fundamental dream to make the fall last. To understand Poe’s imagination, it is necessary to live this assimilation of external images by the movement of inner falling,
and to remember that this fall is already akin to fainting, akin to
death. The reader can then feel such empathy that upon closing the book
he still keeps the impression of not having come back up (Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination And Reverie, page 15).

We humans, who have crossed the bridge to the twenty-first century, who
have scaled the lofty heights of scientific knowledge, who have even
ascended to Luna, believe that we are superior to our predecessors. We
are certain we have achieved a level of knowledge not known before. We
are convinced we have reached the “loftiest crag.” But little do we know
what lies under us, in the yawning chasm below. We are totally unaware
of the terrors and ecstasies which await us there.

As in Poe’s
story, an old man guides us, much as Virgil guided Dante. The old man is
not elder in years, but in experience. He has witnessed firsthand the
terror and profundity of the secret place. His hair has been transformed
from “a jetty black to white,” his nerves are so jangled he becomes
“giddy” from peering over the cliff. Here, giddiness is a common
occurrence. One cannot gaze long into the very ground of being without
becoming disoriented. Some will go insane, as did Nietzsche. The
maelstrom is not a safe place to visit; there is great danger there. On
the other hand, there is also great blessing.

The old man
mentions he is frightened by a shadow. Could it be he has gazed at the
“frenzied convulsion –heaving, boiling, hissing” of his own Self and
been horrified? Is he frightened by what he is? At the root of his
being, he is light and shadow, but, until now, he was unaware of the
darker aspects. It is a sobering experience to discover one’s true

In a few minutes more, there came over the scene
another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more
smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious
streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These
streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into
combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided
vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. –Edgar
Allan Poe, A Descent Into The Maelstrom

The image of the
maelstrom in Poe’s short story is based on an empirical phenomenon off
the coast of Norway called the Lofoten Maelstrom. It is situated at 67
deg. 48 min. N, 12 deg. 50 min. E between The Lofoten Point (Lofotodden)
and the island Værøy south west of the main chain of The Lofoten
Islands. It takes its name from the small island Mosken in the center of

The maelstrom is an excellent picture of Soul. A maelstrom
is a spiral, probably the oldest spiritual symbol in the history of
mankind. Not only is it a spiral, but it is a helix, which shows up in
many spiritual traditions around the world. The helix displays
characteristics of both time and eternity. The fact that it is a
three-dimensional cone places it within the realm of time; the endless
spiraling places it in eternity. It is a point of convergence between
time and eternity. It is the Metaxy, the middle-region between humans
and the gods.

The maelstrom is in constant cyclical flux, as is
all of Nature. At times, it seems to sleep peacefully. Then, in a moment
it awakens with intense ferocity, spinning and whirling, and
threatening to engulf anything in its grasp. It is both life and death;
serenity and tempestuousness. It is awe-inspiring, yet extremely

Our universe is a cosmic maelstrom:

of us has never looked up at a particularly clear night sky and wondered
about what is up there? For millenniums people speculated that the
universe was about as simple, and as serene, as it looked. But
discoveries made in this century reveal that what is up there is not so
simple. It is a place of immense distances, enormous violence, a cosmic
maelstrom in which countless stars are born and die and they and their
galaxies are constantly moving ”away” – the whole universe expanding
from its origins in the big bang billions of years ago (From Big Science
In The Sky, by Leon M. Lederamn. New York Times).

We are this universe and this universe is us.

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