Logic – Poe & The Philosophy of Furniture

It is difficult to know what philosophy Poe knew, as he uses the term philosophy often but not the names of philosophers.  His Philosophy of Furniture, which he wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine the year before his Rue Morgue, a magazine which hopefully has its own mustache, opens with a fake quote from Hegel, so it isn’t really from Hegel, as Poe uses fake quotations in several stories:

“Philosophy,” says Hegel, “is utterly useless and fruitless, and for this very reason, is the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal” – a somewhat Coleridegy assertion, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of words.  It would be wasting time to disentangle the paradox – and the more so as no one would deny that Philosophy has its merits, and is applicable to an infinity of purposes. There is reason, it is said, in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture – a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.

It is unclear what Hegel Poe may or may not have read, but without checking every page of Hegel, and Poe offers us no source to help, this is likely a fake quote, because Hegel would not say philosophy is useless, but would say it is the sublimest and involves all purposes.  Perhaps Poe read some Hegel, and found a river of deep meaning in a meadow of words. Hegel is an impenetrable forest of language for many, with meaning that is far more difficult to extract than roasting eggs, or noticing common things, like American taste. Coleridge, a poet, is compared to a river running within Hegel’s philosophical wording.  Poe pays attention to details in decor much as his detective Dupin pays attention to details in clues and the words of witnesses, but also to the feelings he reads, feels and imagines in others. The motives we read and feel in others, behind the words and clues, are much like deep meaning hidden in a meadow of words, and the emotional point an author is making with a piece.

There are several things in this piece, which isn’t actually about furniture much at all, that find their way into Poe’s first detective story, including a hidden motive.  Poe values philosophy, science, logic and the mind, but he finds Hegel full of words even if he has meaning, as common things do, which are easier than reading or understanding Hegel.  The Daodejing of China says A kingdom should be ruled the way one fries a small fish, with patient attention to detail, which is very similar to roasting eggs philosophically, with consideration.  The first English translation of the Daodejing was published in 1868, almost twenty years after Poe’s death, but the first French translation was published in 1820, so Poe could have read the Dao in French, and there was enough interest in France at the time for a second translation in 1842, the year Poe published his second detective story, so French intellectuals were talking about the Dao which cannot be talked about a bit.

Poe continues bashing Americans, the Yankees, who alone are preposterous, but Italians know little beyond marble, the French have taste but little common sense, the Chinese and East are warm but inappropriate, whatever that means, the Scotch are poor all around, the Dutch have a vague idea that a curtain isn’t a cabbage, the Spanish are all curtains entirely, a nation of hangmen, recalling the Inquisition of The Pit and the Pendulum, the Russians simply don’t furnish, but the South African Khoikhoi tribe, whom Poe and the British referred to as Hottentots, and the Midwest American Kickapoo tribe are very well in their way.  The only two cultures Poe praises without criticism are the African and American tribes, which tells us what the Gothic author of horror, burial and decay thought of advancing civilization.

Poe claims Americans had no aristocrats, so they had to create “an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth,” not just money, but image, inauthentic display, which unfortunately causes continuous rivalry and turnover, with wealth changing hands faster than blood passes down, so Americans don’t develop sophisticated tastes, just the next out-acting the last.  Poe complains, “There could be scarcely anything more directly offensive to the eye of an artist than the interior of what is termed, in the United States, a well furnished apartment.”  Poe says there are too many straight lines, and when they are broken, too many right angles, and curves are too rare and too similar.  Poe claims, “A carpet is the soul of the apartment,” not the high ceiling, but the base, and that, “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.”  The carpet sets the mood of the room by its color, and it must be Arabesque, a pattern of lines that set each object of furniture in the room.

Poe says light should be mild and cool, with “warm shadows,” such that the warm, bright light is also dim, and the dark, cool shadows are also lit, a mixture of opposites, just like the straight and curved lines, dialectically, as Hegel would say.  The Daoists of China, the Pythagoreans and Platonists of Greece and many others identify the straight with male and curved with female for hopefully obvious reasons. Poe says most use gaudy lamps and chandeliers that are unequal and glaring, and “Female loveliness in especial is more than one half disenchanted beneath its evil eye,” but a cool oil lamp, with plain but ground glass, an even, unbroken mixture of transparent and opaque, hidden and revealed, is perfect.  Poe says too many mirrors is too uniform, and that a bumpkin with a brain, not an idiot but uneducated, would feel something was wrong in a room with too many mirrors.  Poe wants a mixture of curved and straight, dark and light, asymmetry and symmetry, obvious and hidden, reflected and obscure.

Poe oddly says he can imagine in his mind’s eye a room of good taste, whose owner lies asleep on the sofa, the time near midnight, and Poe will make a sketch of the room before he, his friend, awakes, a room with one door and two windows, dominated by crimson, tinged with gold and silver, with a small antique oil lamp, with highly perfumed oil, near the head of his sleeping friend, and it throws a “subdued but magical radiance over all.”

While his friend is called he, the fake Hegel, which suggests back and forth dialectic, the straight and curved lines complimenting each other, and the fact that Poe goes out of his way to say that it is female beauty that is half what it is without mixed light, the sleeping he could secretly be a she, and the specific she would likely read the piece and know it was her, and possibly recall the room, but of course, that would be scandalous if the female is merely a friend and Poe is watching over her sleeping in a crimson room after midnight, what both may want but improper conduct on the face of it, in tune with the spirit of humanity, but violates the letter of the law.  Perhaps Poe is recalling a certain evening a certain friend would recall as well, if it wasn’t spent simply asleep.

Poe’s detective stories all hide unspoken secrets surrounding women, and as a critic Poe praised female writers as among the best, feeling for them beneath their words.  His piece is supposed to be about furniture, but he talks about taste, and carpet, and lighting, and his friend, and even seems to paraphrase passages of the Daodejing after paraphrasing his version of Hegel, but doesn’t say anything about types of tables, or chairs, or any furniture other than the specific pieces he sees in what he says is an imaginary room.  The piece could be about the underlying crimson carpet, the emotion Poe is conveying beneath his words instead, and Poe is duping us, just as Dupin, his detective, dupes others in each of Poe’s detective stories.